Verbena on Polk Street opened its doors in mid Dec-ember, and it’s already difficult to obtain a reservation at this hot new spot unless you care to dine very early or late. But take heart; the restaurant deliberately keeps tables open for walk-ins, aiming to become a neighborhood favorite. So persevere, as this lively, beautifully designed restaurant — sister to Berkeley’s ultra-popular Gather — is worth it.
Executive chef and partner Sean Baker, known for his vibrant menu at Gather, heads up Verbena’s kitchen. The menu reflects the same emphasis on dishes meant for sharing with seasonal, fresh ingredients paired in unusual and mostly successful ways. Verbena also has a full bar with a creative and eclectic cocktail and wine selection. The restaurant seats 62 in the main dining room, 12 upstairs in the mezzanine, and 16 outdoors — weather permitting. The decor features high ceilings with high-tech pendant lighting; a black walnut bar and countertops; and a fun, funky illuminated “pickle wall,” displaying jars of house-pickled goods. Verbena has an intimate feel, and the acoustics and lighting are much better than in some of the new, recently opened pub-like spots.
The kitchen’s focus is on small plates, such as the restaurant’s moist, flavorful house-made sprouted seed bread served with chevre and beet sauerkraut, and the slightly larger choices such as turnips and sunchokes with black trumpet mushrooms, red hummus, and faro; and artichoke with pickled green tomatoes, garlic, and pine nuts. These portions, ranging from $7 to $14, are attractively presented and tend to combine something mild or sweet with an intensely savory or tart note, making each bite better than the last.
This is especially true of one of Verbena’s mid-sized plates, duck meatballs with black mole, collards, hominy, and whey ($15). Not only are the meatballs decadently tender and rich, but also the explosion of smoky mole and creamy hominy in your mouth is almost indescribable. Larger plates ($23–$28) include Koji quail with grains from Sonoma, hedgehog mushrooms, and pumpkin juice; and swordfish with a brilliant, savory cioppino verde, fennel, and potato. Desserts ($8–$9) include molasses ginger cake with carrot sorbet and IPA caramel; and chocolate and parsnip, ice cream, custard, and cranberry gelee.
The bar menu is just as eclectic, featuring cocktails such as Victory and Brightness, with gin, lime, grapefruit shrub, jalapeno, and orange bitters; and Beekeeper’s Folly made from Pisco, chamomile hop honey, sherry, absinthe, and an olive. The international wine list is bountiful, and the well-stocked bar also features four local draft beers.
Verbena is presently open only for dinner, but they’re giving us something to look forward to: they plan to start serving brunch this spring.
Verbena: 2323 Polk Street, 415-441-2323, www.verbenarestaurant.com; Sunday–Wednesday 5:30–10:30 p.m., Thursday–Saturday 6:30–11:30 p.m.