Verbena Restaurant Russian Hill Sean Baker | Tasting Table San Fr

Is Verbena already destined to become the best new restaurant of 2014?

He's put meatballs and quail on his menu, but chef Sean Baker gets more excited when he talks about parsnips and beets.

"I really wanted to have a place where you could go and have a vegetable-focused meal of small plates," he says of Verbena, his sophomore project.

Picture the vegetable section of his omnivorous menu as an expanded version of the vegan charcuterie plate his first restaurant, Gather, is famous for. In fact, Verbena feels like a grown-up version of Gather, moody and wood-accented: abstractly rustic with a tinge of noir.  

The dining room at Verbena

Baker relishes the puzzles presented by his exclusive agreement with Lindencroft Farm–not just the specialty produce he gets but also the 100-pound loads of cabbage and the last-of-season green tomatoes.

The partial answer to the latter: vinegars, preserves and a towering display of pickles over the bar. Of course, everyone is fermenting these days. Few chefs layer flavors the way Baker does.

A salad of chicories and Asian pears has the depth and resonance of a main, thanks to tang of a cultured pumpkin-seed-milk dressing ($11) and the umami boost of toasted flax, sesame and pumpkin seeds.

He arranges glazed roast carrots ($12) around a celadon-green mousse made with smoked cashews, nettles and nutritional yeast, the "vegan Parmesan."

In our favorite dish, Baker arrays seared artichoke hearts dabbed with green-tomato relish across a smear of a pulsatingly rich (and egg-free) aioli made with black garlic and rice koji ($14), both cultured in house.

You're likely to end your meal as excited about vegetables as the chef.