When it comes to going out for a special occasion, most people think “steakhouse.” You order a choice slab of meat and glass of house red. It’s an expensive, delicious luxury. And it’s good — great, even. But it’s not an adventure. Dérive is that missing shot of culture. Ethical, thoughtful, creative, classic, refreshing, indulgent. The organic, New American cuisine is not particularly derivative at all — perhaps just inspired by some standbys.
In February, high-end tapas joint Ración decided to ditch the name and the theme and try something new. “Same team, different concept,” explained our waiter. Thus, Dérive was born, and it didn’t live for a second in the shadow of its predecessor. The menu is adventurous without being off-putting and descriptive without giving away all the wonderful surprises in each dish. My mother and I stopped in on a lunch date to try a few menu items that piqued our interest, all of which are made to be shared (a great way to retain the social aspect of Ración tapas sampling) and can be paired with an impressive selection of wines (though not the famed sherry collection Ración once boasted).
First up: chicken liver mousse with fennel jam and candied walnuts. This is liver for hesitant eaters and fully converted liver-lovers alike. Flavorful and rich without a hint of gaminess, it would be hard not to want to envelop your palate in a generous schmear of this creamy goodness. The candied walnuts added a necessary crunch to the plate, but the fennel jam, which I was most excited for, ended up simply being a welcome presence of nondescript sweetness. While disappointed in its subtle contribution, I am glad the jam did not overshadow the mousse. A side of crusty yet supple sourdough (refreshed occasionally by our knowledgeable and attentive waiter) and complex, throaty olive oil was the cherry on top of this first decadent dish.
Just as we were winding down from mousse elation, our server swept in with our order of charred brassicas. For those fellow diners who have forgotten their plant taxonomy, brassica is a genus of the mustard family including such gems as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, turnip, Brussels sprouts and countless other cruciferous favorites. Some components of this earthy, salty, light and slightly bitter warm salad of sorts were easy to identify: shaved cauliflower, dark leafy greens and the like. Others were not so familiar: What appeared to be a cousin of alfalfa but tasted like spicy parsley and had the surprisingly pleasant texture of a succulent was fascinating and delicious. Each consecutive bite had a different flair without being any less scrumptious than the last. Sunflower seeds and horseradish wove in and out of a playground of textures, highlighting earthiness and spice within this humble genus of veggies. Oh, and fried capers are a revelation — the perfect way to bring salt and texture to a fresh dish like this. In all, the charred brassicas were, to say the least, a happy brightening of the palate after our gluttonous first course.
Though usually content with sampling only small bites and appetizers, Mom and I felt compelled to try an entre at the establishment that had already proven itself so strong in the former. A crispy shrimp sandwich with yuzu kosho aioli and cabbage sounded intriguing, and it was certainly the most perfectly prepared shrimp sandwich I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Anywhere else, this would have shone brightly, but my standards for Chef Shane Alvord were heightened by the first two dishes. You’d be hard-pressed to find something wrong with the toasty buns full of crispy shrimp reservedly dressed in aioli and the almost translucently thin, skin-on potato chips that came on the side. But while there was nothing wrong, nothing excited me. Nothing made me say, “How did they think of this? Why haven’t I seen this before?” like the charred brassicas. The sandwich left me wishing there was a bottle of Sriracha on each table, whereas I never would have dreamed to sully the perfect balance of the chicken liver mousse ensemble. Do I regret this sandwich? Not even a little. Would I order it again? Eh.
We had to end on a more exciting note (not counting the dregs of mousse we were still scraping from the plate with bread) and we knew dessert couldn’t let us down. A blackberry tart with house-made Meyer lemon ice cream and a huge flute of Toro Albalá sherry was just what we needed. To many, a tart is a bunch of jellied fruit dumped unceremoniously in a pastry shell. As you may have guessed, Dérive’s version is nothing of the sort. A buttery, flaky wall gave way to a deliciously eggy cake inside, just saturated with the flavor of fresh berry on top. Paired with the sweet tartness of the Meyer lemon ice cream, this was summertime in heaven in dessert form. From watching way too much Kids Baking Championship, I know that citrus ice creams are difficult to perfect as the acid can make the product curdled or icy if not added at just the right moment during churning. Whatever Chef Alvord and his team are doing, it’s working; lemony flavor was in full force without compromising texture.
So. Decor. Dérive traded in Ración’s high-backed plush chairs for the midcentury IKEA ones you’ve likely sat on in every other restaurant and coffee shop opened in the last three years, but the pink-accented skylights, rustic dishes and Hispanic-inspired art on adobe walls gives the place a more hacienda feel — a welcome eclecticism. But the attention to detail is selective. Yes, the decor is individual and each bite of food is created with immense thought, but the menus were shoddily printed and difficult to read, and our table was set with a water-stained knife. These are, however, my only complaints. They are small and forgivable, unlike my appetite for more Dérive, which is insatiable and borderline sinful.
As it turned out, the food I was most excited about underwhelmed me while dish components I had overlooked on the menu became the stars in hindsight. Let the lesson be to branch out at Dérive. Bring friends. Try everything. Sure, this place is a little pricey, but you’re paying for the quality of ingredients, for the originality that finally came from countless trials and errors in the kitchen, for the staff to make above minimum wage, for the atmosphere, for the conversations you’ll have about this food while eating it and again later when you miss it. This little spot on Green Street is worth it, at least for a special occasion. That said, my birthday is May 4. You know where to find me if anyone wants to go splitsies on the whole menu (double the charred brassicas, please).