The blue and white logo on the western side of Decca’s 136-year-old building in NuLu may be painted to look weathered and old, but this popular spot is actually one of the hottest new tickets in its rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
But it would be a mistake to think of Decca as merely another NuLu hipster hangout. Consider it instead an icon-in-the-making, book-ending the eastern end of the downtown strip as Proof on Main holds down the west.
Although Proof gains from its connection to the feisty, artsy 21c Museum Hotel while Decca stands alone in a three-story brick building that previously housed part of the now-departed Wayside Christian Mission, I see many more similarities than differences between these two destination eateries.
Like Proof, Decca’s attractive dining room offers a classy scene that echoes with a joyful noise but stops short of eardrum-shattering conversational thunder. Decca’s cool subterranean, stonewalled bar and comfy lounge may be even more inviting than Proof’s street-corner scene, though I’d gladly enjoy a cocktail in either.
Both restaurants feature creative and interesting menus of well-crafted cuisine at an upscale price point, and each brings a certain sensibility from a major city: Proof seeks to meld a taste of New York and a whiff of Tuscany with a Southern accent. Decca’s eclectic tastes of the Pacific Rim channel the soul of San Francisco with no pretense.
During a recent visit to Decca, we shared dining space with an array of customers, from millennials to 80-somethings and just about every bracket in between; and I’m reliably informed that they’re gracious and helpful even to families with well-behaved children in tow. With its alluring variety of dining rooms and bars within the multi-story facilities — plus an attractive patio and al fresco balcony reminiscent of the Vieux Carre — it’s Decca for the win.
Our party of four was hard-pressed to find a single flaw in food, mood or service during an indulgent evening.
Five starters range in price from $8 (for asparagus grilled over a hardwood fire and served with feather-light sabayon and Parmigiano-Reggiano) to $13 (for a shaved-veggie salad dotted with fior di latte). Three pastas and five mains add up to a varied main course bill of fare, priced from $16 (for a cavatelli pasta with mushrooms) to $24 (for wood-grilled skirt steak).
Wines are well-selected if a tad pricey, particularly a few triple-digit trophy bottles; but good bottles can be found in the $30 range, plus interesting wines by the glass from $8 to $14.
Warm squares of focaccia kept us busy while we looked over the menu; then we started in on a trio of shared appetizers and salads. A large bowl of mussels ($12) must have held 20 ebony bivalves, swimming in a delicately spicy “four-peppercorn” broth good enough to drink with a straw; it was garnished with crispy, spicy potato rounds and a pillow of silken aioli.
A salad of faintly smoky, slightly bitter grilled chicory leaves ($12) was topped with a soft-boiled egg cloaked in tangy-sweet ricotta salata cheese and garnished with crisp croutons. The shaved veggie salad ($13) was an artistic and gustatory triumph. Crisp, fresh root vegetables had been sliced with a mandoline into paper-thin, crisp coins — I spotted carrot, radish, fennel, yellow beet, onion and more, before I lost track — tossed with bitter greens and fragments of silken fior di latte in a creamy vinaigrette. I could eat two of these without help. Maybe three.
House-made short cavatelli pasta ($16) was dressed with umami-laden shiitake mushrooms and sage in a ’shroomy broth, dusted with toasted breadcrumbs for crunch. A fillet of poached dayboat sole ($21) was cut into flaky strips, with one stronger fatty bit; it was artfully plated on couscous studded with green olives, pistachios and dried apricots.
Grilled skirt steak ($24) was medium-rare as ordered, topped with a pool of thick, melted bone marrow butter and plated on chicory leaves and streaks of aged balsamic.
The beef cheek ($21) drew applause after we got through joking about whether it originated in the cow’s forward or aft cheeks. This rare bite is as deeply flavored and beefy as short rib or ox tail; long-braised to melting tenderness, it’s finished in a crispy light breading, sauced with horseradish crème fraîche and dressed with fresh watercress.
Shared sides (both $7) were remarkable: Soft polenta got a college education with bits of mild, molten goat cheese and celery leaves; giant Peruvian lima beans scented with marjoram had been cooked into creamy, gentle rounds.
We probably shouldn’t have gone on to dessert, but how could we not? Buttermilk panna cotta ($9), sweet milk custard, was garnished with diced mango and served with delicate vanilla cookies. Olive oil cake ($9) was rich and dense, plated with citrus segments and almonds and a creamy scoop of crème fraîche ice cream.
Dinner wasn’t cheap, but it was worth it: With coffee and an espresso, a couple glasses of wine, but excluding the pre-dinner cocktails, dinner for four was $250. We split the bill down the middle and added a $25 tip to our $125 share.
812 E. Market St.