Pie’s the thing at Mission Beach Cafe

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Entertainment,Patricia Unterman

Pie is impossible. This iconic American dessert lets us down with soggy crusts, leaden crusts, too much crust, over-thickened filling, over- sweetened filling, not enough filling. But when pie achieves that elusive balance between flaky buttery crust and sweet-tart fresh fruit, nothing satisfiesmore. A nice big wedge of pie can be breakfast or lunch. And even if I’m full, I can’t resist pie after dinner — maybe because it’s a dish I have never been able to successfully make myself.

So when I heard about the pie at the Mission Beach Cafe, open just five months, I rushed over. Yes, the pie has it all, but what really surprised me about this casual, urbane little Mission/Dolores neighborhood spot was dinner. I came for the pie and left admiring the salad.

The pies, breakfast pastries and savory pastries all are made by pastry chef/owner Alan Carter, an alumnus of nearby Chow. His partner, Bill Clarke, a designer who opened a furniture shop in this very spot, did the interior, and manages. Mission Beach Cafe reflects the talents of both.

The corner storefront with set-back entrance captures light on both sides, taking advantage of the sunny microclimate. It’s miraculously balmy here — hence the name. The room is furnished with long, narrow tables of thick pine wood, suede chairs with tall, skinny backs and leather and suede banquettes. The elongated tables easily accommodate stylishly square Heathware share-plates and larger platters.

The concept of the cafe evolved from Carter’s baking. It opens early in the morning to serve Carter’s buttery sweet rolls and Blue Bottle Coffee, and serves pie throughout the day.

The dinner menu also draws on his skills. A savory crostata gently enfolded a luscious filling of braising greens, spring onions and morels in his signature crust ($6.50), with a warm pearl onion and pea shoot salad on the side. You could base a meal around this dish, paired with a house salad ($7): an airy pile of delicate baby lettuces tossed with tiny bits of gorgonzola, slivers of dried peach, fresh apple and chopped macadamia nuts in a tart, well-balanced dressing. Its menu description sounded confused, but the flavors worked together gloriously.

This emboldened me to trya Caesar salad ($5.50/$8.50) with blackberry dressing — you read that right — another night. Whole small leaves in a tart, slightly purple coating under a snowfall of freshly grated parmesan perfectly hit the mark.

You’ll want to share the substantial rabbit pot pie ($17.50) topped with Carter’s crust over a dense, meaty garlic-infused boneless stew. A juicy roasted poussin ($16), its lemony marinade contrasted by fresh and dried figs and fried onion strings, also lends itself to splitting. The substantial Beach Burger ($11.50) — grass-fed beef, gouda, caramelized onions, fries — is always available.

An all-Californian wine list with many glasses shows off the astounding range of single varietal wines being made right here — from tocai friulano to tempranillo.

You know what to order for dessert. My current favorite is strawberry-rhubarb ($5), with an ideal tart/sweet filling that lets you taste both fruits — great with a scoop of vanilla ice cream ($2). Second favorite: revelatory Bing cherry pie. You can choose from five to seven different ones each day — which means a different pie for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Mission Beach Cafe

Location: 198 Guerrero St. (at 14th Street), San Francisco

Contact: (415) 861-0198, www.missionbeachcafesf.com

Hours: Open at 7 a.m. Monday-Friday and 8 a.m. Saturday-Sunday for pastries and coffee; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily for lunch; 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday for dinner

Price range: $5.50-$10 for starters and small plates; $11.50 -$17.50 for entrees; $5 for pie

Recommended dishes: Pie, grass-fed Beach Burger, house salad, Caesar salad, poussin, rabbit pot pie

Creditcards: Visa, MasterCard

Reservations: Accepted

Patricia Unterman is author of the "San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide" and a newsletter, "Unterman on Food." Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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