Prairie opened up in the old Hog & Rocks location a little over a month ago. The space was overhauled and has a more understated elegance to it, with a Virgin Mary statuette overseeing all at the front door. Chef Anthony Strong, formerly executive chef at Locanda, as well as a culinary director with the Delfina Restaurant Group, vows to do Italian — perhaps taking a cue from that famous Italian-American crooner Sinatra — “his way.” The “new Italian” fare, as it is being billed, features some traditional dishes, but many are served up with a twist. Starring in the kitchen are two high-powered grills on which Strong and his crew are firing up just about everything.

There appears to be quite a bit of buzz around Prairie. The first time I made a reservation, I knew we were going to be late so I called to cancel. We tried to walk in a little later anyway but they were full-up.

Strong has said he wants this to be a place of grazing and sharing. In that mode, we split their “deluxe” burrata with spring onion, lemon oil and grilled levain, to start.

Burrata with grilled bread.

SOLD.  Such a creamy, lemony delight! It did, however, need just a pinch of salt to make it perfect. There’s also Calabrian chili oil on the table, which gave it a nice bite. I’d come back here just for this dish alone, with a bottle of red.

Next, we split the grilled Gem lettuces, walnuts, pecorino, onions and vinaigrette.

Grilled Gem salad.

Loved the freshness of this, with the earthy bites of walnut, although the dressing could have been a tad more assertive. For me, a little more acid was called for.

For his main, the BF ordered the thin-cut short ribs (we’re talking Kalbi thin) with tea-leaf salsa verde and grilled radicchio.

Short ribs with salsa verde.

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I liked this, the BF did not. Ok, the ribs were maybe a little too thin, but they didn’t dry out and had great flavor, for me. I also had friends who recommended this dish, so there you go. The grilled radicchio was excellent, so nice and bitter.

I ordered the Pappardelle with beef cheek ragu.

Pappardelle with beef cheek ragu.

BF definitely should have gotten this dish; I don’t know what he was thinking. Fantastic, subtle, yet very rich and beefy. Loved the silky pasta. I had a few bites and then traded plates with the BF. We were both happy.

We each had a glass of a juicy Sangiovese with dinner, recommended by the server. I also had a limey cuke cocktail before dinner. It was tasty but it didn’t blow me away.

And we splurged: we got dessert, and I had a glass of vin santo with.

Chocolate/earl grey-infused baba, with noble-vinegar whipped cream. This did nothing for us, unfortunately. The baba was like sodden bread, though I did enjoy the tart/sweet whipped cream.

Chocolate earl gray tea baba with noble-vinegar whipped cream

While loving most of the culinary juxtapositions Strong was trying, there appeared to be somewhat of a timidity in flavor in this meal. I was hoping for a better showing on our next visit. Our server informed me that the menu would indeed be changing often, based on market availability and the seasons.

On our second visit, I started with a sparkling Negroni — perfectly festive — and we had glasses of a really delicious Southern Italian red — Aglianico — a grape I’d never had/heard of before — with dinner. Dry, dusty, lovely. Another great pick by our server.

Our first dish — new on the menu — was a swoony sformato.

Double-baked sformato.

Sformato is an Italian savory custard; somewhere between an elegant flan and a rustic soufflé in texture, I’d say, and usually cheesy. Prairie’s was divine, festooned with cardoons (in the artichoke family), aromatic fried sage, cracked black pepper and shaved parmigiano. A rich, creamy delight, the BF was as enchanted with this dish as I was.

We’d decided to order a lot and take some home (*cough-cough*) so that we could taste more of the menu items. Next up was the amatriciana.

Amatriciana.

Amatriciana is typically a pasta dish in a guanciale (cured pork cheek), tomato-based sauce with pecorino romano. Here, the pasta was strozzapreti, (literal translation: “priest strangler!”) — twisty, thick noodles with a satisfying bite — and thick-cut, chewy pancetta. Just fabulous. Simple and flavorful, great textures, perfectly smoky and creamy. A lovely primi.

Despite his previous experience with the short ribs, the BF decided to order the sparerib entree.

Spare ribs XO with fermented lettuce.

These ribs were tender and meaty; however, they were rubbed with an XO/Calabrian chili paste. Here is evidence of Chef Strong playing with his food. XO is a Chinese spicy seafood sauce, typically made with mashed-up dried scallops, fish, chilies, garlic and onions. I didn’t understand what the Italian was in this dish, other than the Calabrian chilies. I mean, I get and often love fusion, but it didn’t quite work in this dish, for us. We found the rub a bit too salty, and a little funky, which I don’t usually mind. BF didn’t like it at all. It was odd, I’ll give him that. Caveat: Again, friends that had tried this dish raved about it! So either there are consistency issues — perfectly natural for a restaurant still getting its sea legs under it — or we just don’t know shit from Shinola. You decide! We did love the side that came with it: fermented lettuce with bay leaf. Kimchi-like (fermented for a week), it was outstanding — cool, tangy, and bay leaf-forward. I would have hoovered a whole bowl of it.

For my main, I went for the marrow bones with horseradish.

Marrow with snails and herb salad.

I don’t normally think of marrow bones as an entrée, but more of an appetizer. I opted for the snails-in-garlic-butter add-on to beef it up. The horseradish wasn’t readily discernible and, unfortunately, the snails weren’t nearly garlicky enough for me. The accompanying herb salad (parsley, chervil, chives, red onions), was bright and fresh — a great foil for the richness of the marrow. Wonderful when spooned onto the gorgeous charred bread. I just really wanted this dish to be genius, and while it was very good, it lacked just a little oomph. Better after salting and adding chili oil. Also, I frankly found the entrée overpriced. Adding the snails brought the dish to $33, up from the original $24 — for marrow. If I’d asked for the “sherry luge” add-on — which sounded delicious — the total would have been $40. Just a leetle steep for me.

I went by the restaurant one morning to see if I could get a photo of the Madonna. The cooks were prepping for that evening’s service, but one of them let me come in to take the picture, and as I stood in front of the statuette, I heard someone behind me say “Hold up! Hold up!” I turned around. “I can make it look cooler for your pic!” It was Chef Strong, working on his laptop at the back of the restaurant, and he lept up to turn the light on for me.

What a guy! I asked him what the significance was of the statue for him. He told me that he’d lived in Naples for a while, and everywhere there were statues and images of the Madonna, each more elaborately lit and decorated than the next, to ward off evil. “So, she’s keeping your restaurant safe for you?” “Absolutely.”

I’m thankful to Chef Strong for bringing a little of his own version of Italia to us, and look forward to seeing what other creative temptations he’ll serve up in his sacred space.

Prairie
3431 19th St. (between Valencia & Mission)
415-483-1112