There's something gently bullying about Irving Street Kitchen, as if it doesn't quite trust you to be sufficiently engaging company. San Francisco restaurateurs Doug Washington and Steven and Mitchell Rosenthal have transformed the immense space formerly occupied by Bay 13 into a theater of multisensory pleasure, and though the combined force of the clamorous room and ranging menu can sometimes simply be too much, this new addition to the Pearl is a glad reminder that going out to eat means going out to be entertained.
The patio opens up for passable barbecue lunches on weekdays, but you have to wait for dinner to see the magnificent interior. It's a rumpus of embellishments, with candle-flecked sills and curtained booths, book-laden shelves delimiting dining nooks and chalkboard walls arguing with striated wood planks—a suitably busy complement to a fleet and spirited staff whose ranks might just outnumber the paying customers. The booths are the best seats in the house, shadowy coves that offer the illusion of voyeuristic power while enveloping you in a kind of Talmudic communion with the dense menus.
Unsheathe those reading glasses and bear down: The small-type spirits list is a bibliographically comprehensive achievement with a thing for Oregon gins and vodkas, while the similarly thorough and locally inclined wine menu features "barrel to bar" carafes and glasses poured directly from casks. You don't need to be a connoisseur to figure out why this is special—that's money and effort you're swirling and sniffing.
Tony gimmickry that wine trick may be, but—and you might momentarily forget this amid the bounce and bustle of the dining room—Irving Street Kitchen is, first and foremost, a showcase for chef Sarah Schafer's decadent Southern-twanged creations. As of this writing, Schafer has a bit of a fish problem—the charred monkfish ($24) and pan-roasted halibut ($26) are wan and timid disappointments—but the rest of her ambitious menu is an indulgent dream.
The highlights of the expansive menu of appetizers are the sausage, veal and beef meatballs ($11), expertly charred morsels served on a pillow of mashed Yukon gold potatoes. And do order a charcuterie platter (three for $9, six for $18): The man responsible for the headcheese, whom they call Mr. Lee and who sports a red bandanna, has pictures of the grisly pig-destroying process stored in his mobile device, and he will satisfy your curiosity with one hell of a slide show.
Birds are the way to go for your main dish. The fried chicken ($18) sports an ideally brittle skin protecting juicy meat infused with clarified butter, garlic and Tabasco, and the accompanying "smashed" potatoes are blanketed by a porky gravy perfect for dipping. Things only get more intense with the duck sausage and confit leg ($22), an insane pairing of smooth, livery sausage and perfectly cooked, falling-off-the-bone meat, all resting on a bed of basmati rice soaked through with red wine and cherry-compote drippings.
Desserts are monstrous, none more so than the butterscotch pudding topped with brown-ale caramel and crème fraîche ($8), a screamingly sweet confection that begs for a postprandial stroll—not to work off the calories but to sweat out the sugar. Overkill? Perhaps. But like everything else here, you get what you pay for: an exhilarating rush.
Order this: Draper Valley fried chicken, smashed potatoes, collard greens, country gravy.
Best deal: The meatballs ($11), although technically a starter, are a meal in their own right.
I'll pass: The halibut and monkfish are bland afterthoughts.
EAT: Irving Street Kitchen, 701 NW 13th Ave., 343-9440, irvingstreetkitchen.com. Dinner 4:30-midnight nightly. Lunch 11:30 am-2 pm Monday-Friday. $$-$$$. Moderate-Expensive.