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Food & Drink

This restaurant has the city’s most ambitious tasting menu—and just 8 seats

Two gourmet dishes: one with scallops on a dark sauce, and another in a bowl with a mossy backdrop.
Into the Woods, a mushroom-themed menu at Merchant Roots in San Francisco's Fillmore District, might be the most exciting such chef's tasting experience in the city. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

About halfway through “Into the Woods,” a mushroom-themed tasting menu at Merchant Roots, guests are presented with a bowl covered in what looks like stretched white felt. It’s actually a “spider web” of cotton candy, and diners are instructed to pour a hen-of-the-woods cream soup over it, melting it to reveal an unusual treat that they’ve sweetened themselves: potato ice cream. 

It’s a high point on what is probably the most ambitious and wonderfully creative chef’s tasting menu in San Francisco.

Regarded as the perfect vehicle for culinary wizards to show off their wide-ranging talents, tasting menus have managed to acquire something of a negative reputation. They can be long, joyless and glacially paced, leaving people too overwhelmed by a conveyor belt of fussy baubles to enjoy themselves. And they can be incredibly, guillotine-ably pricey.

A gourmet dish with lobster, sliced strawberries, greens, and drizzled sauce on a speckled plate.
One of the standout dishes involves that most prized of fungi: the black truffle. Here, it's served with lobster in its shell, celery root—and an apology, as truffles aren't technically mushrooms. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

That’s not the case at Merchant Roots, where the goal is to make the maximum of eight seated customers a night clap with delight—as they did for hedgehog mushrooms with a spiral of porchetta with apricot gastrique and roasted chestnuts—in a space so intimate it’s less an open kitchen and something closer to dinner-in-the round.

“We’re trying to create concepts that could never feel like a standalone restaurant,” Chef Ryan Shelton said. “We want things that are too narrow or too specific and make them work in a fun way.”

One of the delights of Into the Roots is this hen-of-the-wood dish, where diners pour soup over a "spider web" of spun sugar, sweetening the potato ice cream within. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

Nominally 15 courses ($148 per person, with optional $93 wine or $83 nonalcoholic pairings), Into the Forest proceeds at a brisk pace, with the five-member team providing explanation throughout. Diners sit down to a broth-like cup of mushroom tea and a savory, buttered crumpet before they’re escorted to the woods—which is to say, the actual dining room. There, the real parade begins, as if delivered by faeries who dwell under mossy toadstools. 

A few items—chiefly greens—have been foraged, while patrons have to do a bit of foraging themselves, probing around in the moss at their tables for a few bites like king trumpet chips-and-dip or venison tartare with charred cordyceps. (Yes, those cordyceps.) 

Gourmet dish with mushrooms, foam, herbs on a wooden board.
The winter salad consists of twigs (made from kalamata olive tapenade) and marinated and shaved button mushrooms. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

Along the way, there will be pickled button mushrooms with rosemary dill aioli, a quail egg with black trumpet puree and a smoked oyster mushroom dashi with pickled ginger curd and sesame crumble. There is edible moss and black “twigs” made from olive tapenade and a “fairy ring” of mushrooms shaped into gnudi, or ricotta dumplings, with sage pesto, shaved apples and duck sausage. To show a little love to an underappreciated mushroom, Into the Forest traipses around Japan for enoki tempura served over an abalone and smoked oyster dashi with seaweed aioli. 

While the savory courses of a tasting menu typically wrap up with wagyu beef or some elaborate alternative—roast squab at Quince, aged black cod at Atelier Crenn—at Into the Forest, it concludes with a winking apology.

A gourmet dish with onion slices, mushrooms, and leaves on a decorative plate.
Porchetta, with its crispy skin and just a fleck or two of gold leaf, is accompanied by hedgehog mushrooms with apricot gastrique and roasted chestnuts. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

“You guys signed up for a mushroom experience, and we went ahead and served truffles, which is technically a fungus, but not a mushroom,” said Chef de Cuisine Chris “Chip” King.

These truffles, over lobster bisque baked in its shell and a celery root au gratin truffle cream, are decadent even by the standards of truffles. It’s hard not to devour them like a greedy piggy, which, of course, is what nature intended when the aroma of truffles evolved to resemble wild pig pheromones, encouraging the animals to root them out and spread their spores.

a bald, bearded white man in a blue collared shirt smiling
Before opening Merchant Roots, Chef Ryan Shelton trained at the now-closed Baumé restaurant in Palo Alto, which had two Michelin stars. | Source: Joshua Foo for the Standard

‘It always has to be dinner’

Into the Woods isn’t a typical tasting menu, because Merchants Roots isn’t a typical restaurant. It opened in 2018 as a specialty retail store selling seasoned salts, jams and charcuterie prepared in-house, with a sit-down dining component that began almost as a side hustle to make use of the Fillmore Street space. 

Six years later, the restaurant has fully absorbed the shop. With two seatings four nights a week and every other Sunday, Merchant Roots will continue to invite people into the magical world of edible fungus until the end of April. Then the team will transition to a fresh concept, “Pasta & Stories,” which picks up on May 8. Previous menus include “Time Travel”—which used goofy lighting effects and a flux capacitor to take diners from the age of the dinosaurs to the distant future—as well as the “God of Wine” bacchanal and a “Mad Tea Party.” 

“What we ended up with is four fine-dining restaurants, from scratch, every year,” said Shelton, who trained at the now-closed, two-Michelin-starred Baumé in Palo Alto. 

a dimly lit, intimate restaurant interior with a large woven art piece on the far wall
The interior of Merchant Roots is intimate, with the former communal table now cut into four pieces to provide a "collective dining" experience to a maximum of eight people. | Source: Russie Sanders for The Standard

Internally, Merchants Roots’ motto is “It always has to be dinner.” By that, the team means that themes can never be too esoteric; they still have to satiate and provide enjoyment. 

“We can never be Medieval Times,” Shelton said. That means that a commitment to delicious food must always remain at the heart of any concept. And also, no costumes allowed. “If we do that, we’ve crossed the line.”

A close-up of moss, lichen, and pine cones on a wooden surface.
The tables at Merchant Roots are covered in moss, to create the atmosphere of a forest floor. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard