Recently, our Instagram was filled with images of a multi-course delicious-looking feast at an unfamiliar restaurant, SF’s 1601 Bar & Kitchen. We assumed it was brand-spanking new, however the upscale Sri-Lankan prix-fix eatery has been around for two years. As people who are constantly checking out new restaurants, we couldn’t help but wonder what it was all about? Naturally, Haute Living decided to investigate. Located on the corner of 12th and Howard Streets, 1601 Bar & Kitchen is a contemporary eatery with wood walls, a long L-shaped bar that anchors the space, black and white artwork, and a massive chandelier made from upside-down wine glasses. The bar stools, which look like they were pulled from a nearby warehouse, add a touch of industrial chic to the setting. The atmosphere is warm and inviting and heavenly scents waft from the kitchen. Diners are greeted by chef-owner Brian Fernando’s Russian wife, who is in charge of the extensive and interesting wine list and manages the front of the house.
With over ten years of kitchen experience at places like Chez Panisse and the South Bay’s Le Papillon, chef Fernando runs the kitchen with expert precision. His food is unlike anything we’ve ever tasted. The dishes are light, but packed with exotic flavors. The changing menu features items that are perfectly edited — Fernando’s practice of restraint is something that many young chefs should emulate. Delicate, perfectly-cooked Portuguese octopus is served with a lime gelée and iced heirloom tomato chutney. The elements are familiar, but the texture and temperature are foreign. One bite and all of your senses are immediately heightened. The traditional egg hopper, a popular Sri Lankan street food snack, has a Jidori egg (Jidori is a type of wildly flavorful chicken) and spicy, but not too hot, housemade sambols. The goat stew is insanely scrumptious. It’s hearty, but not overly rich and its accoutrements illustrate Fernando’s playful side. The classic Californian combination of beets and goat cheese is turned on its head: the beets make up the curry that coats the goat meat and the goat cheese is mixed with yogurt before being turned into a mousse that is folded into the thick fragrant stew. We were so taken by the food at 1601 Bar & Kitchen that we called the chef to learn more about his culinary philosophy. Here is what he had to say.
What inspires your food?
My inspiration for the food and the restaurant comes from my Sir Lankan father. I grew up eating his food. When we were coming up with the concept of 1601, we didn’t want to do the same food everyone else in the city was doing. It’s all California cuisine or French-, Italian-, or Mediterranean-inspired food that uses seasonal and organic produce. No one was doing anything with Sir Lankan food, so I wanted to showcase a little of my culture and do something that is unique and different.
What should people know about Sir Lankan food?
Most people don’t know anything about the food! Sir Lanka has geographical proximity to India which makes it rooted in same spice profile, but the colonization history of Sir Lanka adds distinct flavors. The Portuguese and Dutch influenced the cuisine. People don’t know that Sir Lankan food is unintentionally healthy. It’s coconut milk-based and we use coconut oil derived fat, which is a natural saturated fat. Sir Lanka is a very healthy country. You can come in to the restaurant and have the tasting menu and leave without feeling too full. The fact that we’re not working with case after case of foie gras or five cases of butter makes our food so much more light and healthful. It takes us a month to go through three pounds of butter! The only thing we use it for is for desserts.
What is your favorite thing on the menu right now?
The goat stew (pictured below), which is essentially a goat curry. It’s one of our most traditional dishes. Rice and curry plays a huge role in Sir Lankan cuisine, but we aren’t a rice and curry restaurant. The rice is different – it’s a red basmati that is unique to the island. The goat stew is semi-spicy and that is one of the challenges I run into: Playing the spice game. If you were going to someone’s house in Sir Lanka, they would serve you really spicy food, but we want to have a fine dining sort of spicy. Since super spicy food doesn’t go with a lot of wine varietals, we had to figure out how to make things spicy without being overly hot. The goat stew is served in a clay pot and it’s a beetroot curry that is stewed in coconut milk.
Speaking of the wine, what can you say about your list?
My wife deals with the wine program and it’s 85 bottles of wine that we love. Everything we have personally tasted and selected because we think it will pair well with our food. We work with over 20 different vendors, so we want the quality and attention that we pay to the food to transfer over to our beverage program as well.
Photo Credit: Wes Rowe