You've gotta give them credit: Buffalo-style sweetbreads is a brave idea. The pairing of fluorescent hot sauce often served in sports bars with a fried thymus gland associated with haute cuisine is just the kind of low/high concept that gets New American cuisine enthusiasts all fired up. And I'd love to tell you that it works, that the crispy sweetbreads are an inspired substitute for chicken wings, that the whole dish shows us how much more there is to bar food. But it just wouldn't be true. Buffalo sweetbreads is a flop. In its quest to be inventive, The Corner Store occasionally reaches too far to execute, and while it doesn't have many flops as spectacular as the sweetbreads, the short bistro menu also doesn't have many soaring successes.
The name of The Corner Store says it all. It's the kind of neighborhood restaurant that's in short supply around its location, at the lonely intersection of Masonic and Geary. As such, it's the kind of place that has the power to transform the perception of a neighborhood (see: Nopa). Miles Palliser and Ezra Berman envisioned it as hearkening back to the days of community stores as hubs of neighborliness and conversation. Right inside the door are large jars of brightly colored pickles and candy, and the interior decor is a homey mix of gleaming white subway tiles and wooden butcher blocks. There's definitely a buzz in the room, with the murmur of people talking and also an occasional, exciting flare-up of flames from the open kitchen.
The room's central focal point is the bar, aka the "soda fountain," and the drinks menu makes the most of the 1950s theme with several spiked milkshakes and egg creams along with virgin ones. Spiked milkshakes are a new category in the New American food world, and it's hard to make them taste like anything more than booze mixed with ice cream — not terrible, but you feel a little silly ordering them when you could have a proper drink instead. The Manhattan is of this ilk; it didn't have any of the smoky complexity of a well-made cocktail. But the Grasshopper came together as a boozy milkshake should. Creme de menthe mixed with chocolate and vanilla ice cream sounds good alone, but here they threw in absinthe, a wildcard that cut through the saccharine mixture and added an earthy licorice undertone. It was brilliant.
The following meal hardly lived up to the promise of that one drink. The Corner Store burger came the closest, a meaty combo of Niman Ranch chuck, slow-cooked bacon jam, house pickles, and garlic aioli. It was nearly spoiled by its bun, a dry, shiny specimen that brought the sandwich down from the heights. That and the fact that we asked for the meat medium-rare and it came out uniformly gray.
Every meal had blips — drinks forgotten, bills waited-for too long — but nothing egregious or out of the ordinary for a new restaurant still settling into its rhythms, just slight irritants that added up over time.
Few of the other entrees lived up to the burger. If anything, I wished the dishes had been riskier, because even when the chances the kitchen took didn't work out, they showed potential and creativity that could bring in people from all over the city. For instance: Half a Mary's chicken was arranged on a plate with root vegetables and fingerlings in a mustard and white wine jus. It was fine, but you could get it anywhere. Same with pork chops, a pink-centered Sunday dinner staple served on a bed of potatoes and winter vegetables. The dish had a nice apple mostarda that played off the sweetness of the pork, but overall suffered the same problem as the chicken. They were both solid renditions of standard bistro dishes, but I wanted more of the playfulness of the small plates and drinks.
The Corner Store PB&J successfully blended low/high cuisine. A small, crispy grit cake served as the bread base, and instead of a top crust, the grits were piled with a small mountain of shredded pork, then ringed with puddles of huckleberry and almond sauce, neither of which had enough nut or berry flavor to glimmer through the pork. It resembled the lunchbox classic in name only, but it was a tasty little number. Same with the blueberry-ricotta pancakes at brunch — giant, plate-sized things that look like something you'd get at a greasy spoon, but these concealed sweet nuggets of ricotta and were topped with a generous helping of blueberries and honey butter. They achieved the perfect balance of surprise and familiarity.
Which brings us back to the sweetbreads, and the main problem with The Corner Store: It needs to play well with comfort food, but not go off the rails. Sweetbreads are an expensive and delicate ingredient, so dousing them with a spicy buffalo sauce that masks their flavor and renders their texture unappealingly mushy once it soaks in, then setting them in a slick of blue cheese sauce scattered with bits of celery, is madness. Still, the flavors showed potential: Frank's Red Hot-laced sauce was just spicy enough, and the blue cheese sauce was properly tangy, if too plentiful. Let's hope the kitchen finds a better place for them.