Jennifer Martiné
Central Kitchen diverges from Flour + Water's Italian tack with such refined NorCal dishes as Dungeness crab with wintre citrus, cocoa nibs, and argon mayonnaise.
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Missionaries from the 'Hood

Carolyn Jung / April 2012

Fully invested in San Francisco’s Mission District, Thomas McNaughton and his Flour + Water partners expand to a culinary multiplex they hope serves as a beacon for the changing neighborhood.

It used to be a neighborhood ventured into with trepidation, where graffiti-splashed walls and jumpy gangbangers were as commonplace as its taquerías serving carne asada burritos. Despite being suffused with more sunshine than most parts of this fog-bound city, San Francisco’s Mission District did not always present the warmest of dispositions.

But times have changed. Named for the landmark circa-1776 Mission Dolores, the oldest intact building in the city, the Mission District has undergone a steady transformation. Working-class immigrants, tech workers, young families, skinny jeans–clad hipsters, artists of all kinds, and young-gun chefs flock here now, making it not only culturally vibrant and diverse, but arguably the most exciting food destination in the Bay Area.

Charles Phan’s Slanted Door paved the way in 1995, luring skittish diners to the neighborhood with updated renditions of shaking beef and other Vietnamese specialties. Nowadays, mom-and-pop taquerías still abound. But in the past five years, the landscape has shifted dramatically with the addition of nationally lauded establishments from the pop-up-turned-permanent Mission Chinese Food to the Michelin two-star Saison to Flour + Water, a 2010 James Beard Foundation finalist for Best New Restaurant award, where queues have formed from day one for squid ink spaghetti and pork belly pizza. Chef Thomas McNaughton, along with Ne Timeas Restaurant Group partners David White and David Steele, opened Flour + Water nearly three years ago to provide a stage for the handmade pastas he learned from Italian grandmothers in Bologna. Like so many of his contemporaries, he was lured to the neighborhood by its cheaper rents and resilient spirit. A nominee last year for Beard’s Rising Star Chef honor, he proudly calls the Mission his home and his livelihood. As he takes his next pivotal step, he has committed to it as his future, as well.

This year, the Ne Timeas (Latin for “fear not”) triumvirate is forging an ambitious project made up of a quartet of venues—a cocktail bar, an artisan bakery, a salumeria where most everything will be made in-house, and, most important, a dynamic restaurant serving polished Northern California cuisine—all housed under one roof one block from Flour + Water. Built in what was a long-abandoned sausage factory, it’s practically everything a neighborhood would want, all in one convenient spot. Central Kitchen, with its unusual enclosed dining conservatory that brings the outdoors in by way of a retractable roof, was the first out of the box in late March. The 49 seat, dinner-only restaurant, with a kitchen that takes up two-thirds of the building, is all about transferring the ballet of fine dining to a more laid-back setting. Salumeria, the first retailer to sell Flour + Water’s house-made pastas and sauces, as well as its hand-crafted salumi and conserves, will open shortly. Both are operated by Ne Timeas. Two other separate businesses—Trick Dog, a bar serving unique libations and late night noshes by the cocktail consulting threesome The Bon Vivants, comprised of Josh Harris, Scot Baird, and Alex Straus; and The Parlour, a bakery/cafe by madcap San Francisco ice cream–maker Humphry Slocombe—are slated to open later this year.

For McNaughton, it’s been a long road traveled from a scrappy start washing dishes as a teenager in Tabernacle, his New Jersey Pine Barrens dot of a hometown. A Culinary Institute of America graduate who staged at Michelin restaurants throughout Europe, McNaughton served as sous chef at San Francisco’s Quince and Gary Danko before setting out on his own. He opened Flour + Water in an old Victorian on a shoestring and a $500 stove. With this new project, he’s eager to extend himself across multiple platforms, most notably to an emerging vision of culinary refinement.

“The ultimate dream for me would be to have a 20 seat restaurant where every plate goes through my hands. You know, the tortured chef’s dream place,” says McNaughton with a chuckle. “This can be my experimental ground. Salumeria is the ultimate rustic place. It’s where I would want to eat lunch and where I would want to shop for dinner parties. Central Kitchen is more refined. Flour + Water is in between. I’m excited about the range of it all.” So is the city. In this still precarious economy, it says a lot that Salumeria and Central Kitchen were both financed by individual noninstitutional investors, all of whom live in the Bay Area, with 95 percent of them residing in San Francisco. Like Flour + Water, this project was designed to be “of the neighborhood, by the neighborhood, and for the neighborhood.” After all, McNaughton, 28; White, 40; and Steele, 44; live here, with McNaughton having the sweetest commute of all, as he lives just upstairs from Flour + Water. For McNaughton and his partners, it was vital to preserve the industrial character of the building so it fits in with a neighborhood that wears its rough edges like a shiny badge. That isn’t to say that the project, which took more than four months of construction, hasn’t spiffed up the area, what with the procurement of a $100,000 city grant that allowed for the pouring of new concrete sidewalks with openings for plenty of drought-resistant plants to flourish.

Even before Flour + Water opened, the idea for Salumeria was being kicked around. But the problem was that there was no ideal space for it until the restaurant’s landlord offered up this other building just up the block. The 600-square-foot Salumeria may be brand-new, but this sandwich shop, with its requisite red Berkel slicer, looks as if it’s been here forever, what with its exposed concrete walls, ceiling planks of 100 year old reclaimed wood from a Virginia high school gymnasium, and light fixtures fashioned from old metal olive picking baskets. Patrons will be able pick up a sliced-to-order coppa sandwich, a cheese plate, a package of nettle radiatore pasta, fresh-baked focaccia, or a jar of mostarda or crunchy pickles. Once U.S. Department of Agriculture approval is secured, Salumeria plans to sell its house-made salumi and pâtés online nationwide, as well. “Basically, we’ve brought over what we do at Flour + Water and made it available to people to take home, so they don’t have to wait in that long line at the restaurant,” says Matt Sigler, Salumeria’s chef de cuisine.

Diners can take a load off in the unique, heated 900-square-foot courtyard. By day, it will offer seating for patrons of Salumeria. By night, it turns into the main dining room for Central Kitchen. Paxton Gate, a Mission District–based builder who fashioned Flour + Water, oversaw the design of Salumeria and Central Kitchen. That proved especially advantageous, since Paxton Gate also specializes in landscaping and so much of this project involved maximizing the use of the courtyard that had to accommodate diners comfortably no matter what the season or weather. Company founder Sean Quigley and lead designer Todd McCrea suffered many a restless night in trying to devise the courtyard covering. In the end, they decided to cover half of it with three retractable awnings that open and close in unison at the touch of a button. The other half of the courtyard has a fixed awning of corrugated Lexan sheets, which are commonly used in greenhouses to allow maximum light, while filtering 99 percent of ultraviolet rays. A wooden arbor underneath it with hanging plants, along with a courtyard wall covered in climbing vines, preserves the sense of the outdoors even more.

“Nothing is too precious or slick,” Quigley says. “We left concrete footings and steel brackets exposed. And the steel beams, salvaged from a local junkyard, that were added to the ceiling of Central Kitchen and continue into the courtyard, amplify that effect. Overall, the feeling is clean and simple, with a rough edge to it.”

Striking charcoal-hued wood panels frame the glass bays leading to the interior of Central Kitchen. They were made using an age-old Japanese process known as shou sugi ban, in which the wood planks are burned, then washed with water before being sealed, to create a durable, rot-resistant, fire-retardant siding. Inside, the main wall is dominated by a soaring image of a Northern California Valley oak burned into reclaimed wood.

Fire is front and center here; the open kitchen sports a large wood-fired J&R Manufacturing rotisserie oven to cook legs of lamb and whole rabbits or vegetables in the embers. Indeed, vegetables take the lead, not surprisingly since Central Kitchen chef de cuisine Michael Gaines was formerly sous chef at Manresa in Los Gatos, California, where he had the luxury of working with the organic, biodynamic bounty grown exclusively for the restaurant by Love Apple Farms. “I want to use vegetables every way you can,” he explains. “In much the same way that Flour + Water has the philosophy of using the whole animal, we’re taking that approach to vegetables.”

To that end: potatoes cooked in coals and served with salt cod and sorrel emulsion; a pickled oyster and poached scallop with bone marrow and fragrant kaffir lime; and veal sweetbreads with the unexpected addition of prunes and amaranth. It’s food inspired by the likes of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York State and Le Châteaubriand in Paris, Steele says. There’s a small à la carte menu and a nightly $65 omakase prix-fixe predicated toward patrons’ likes. “We tailor it to each guest,” McNaughton says. “I think customers want to be surprised these days. It’s intricate, beautiful food to enjoy without getting dressed up.”

To achieve that level of precision, a custom 16-foot-long chef’s counter was built, with handy ingredient wells, plate warmers, and sinks. Spanning the length of the open kitchen, it enables two or three cooks to work shoulder-to-shoulder to put the finishing touches on dishes that come out of the fryer, the built-in PolyScience thermal circulator, or the Jade plancha and French tops. Behind the open kitchen is an even larger production area for prep work and catering that includes a Blodgett convection oven and a Groen tilt skillet. The space at the rear is dedicated to the pastry department, which not only turns out desserts for Central Kitchen, but also will make cookies and confections for Salumeria. It also does R&D duty for Flour + Water’s confections. As such, it is outfitted with its own six-burner Jade range, Hobart mixers, prep sink, hand sink, and custom 10 by 5 foot table. The “dough room,” located upstairs from Flour + Water, still turns out the pastas served at that restaurant and to be sold at Salumeria for home use. But the whole-animal butchery that used to be done there has been transferred to the upstairs mezzanine at Central Kitchen that’s equipped with a large walk-in, as well as a high-production Hobart meat grinder and an Omcan hydraulic sausage stuffer. There’s also a nifty custom butcher counter that has an adjustable flow of water to make clean-up a breeze.

Hampered by the overall interior height of the building, the mezzanine ceiling measures only 7 feet 6 inches high, about a foot lower than ideal. But Alec Bauer, founder of Kitchen Restaurant + Bar Specialists, who designed the kitchens and bars at San Francisco’s Cotogna, Bar Agricole, and Locanda, worked with the engineering team to achieve the thinnest workable floor and ceiling to maximize height as much as possible. Existing windows also were saved to allow plenty of natural light to make the space feel more expansive.

Like Flour + Water, which raises bees and grows herbs on its rooftop, Central Kitchen eventually will boast a two-tier garden atop its building. The first tier will be planted with New Zealand spinach, rosemary, and edible flowers, while the second tier will feature a greenhouse for tomatoes. Once the garden is fully producing, McNaughton plans to offer a tisane program at Central Kitchen.

As in-the-moment hip as it all sounds, McNaughton and his partners didn’t set out to create the newest must-go, impossible-to-get-into spot in town. No, their greatest achievement, they say, will be to have built a place that the Mission truly embraces for a long, long time. “We just wanted to do something really special here that’s unique and cool,” says White.

“We hope it adds energy and respectability,” adds Steele, “and makes this even more of a neighborhood that people aspire to live in.”