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One of chef David Golovin’s most formative food memories is going to his grandmother’s house every Sunday and enjoying the brunch she cooked for the family, especially her German potato salad, smoked salmon and stuffed cabbage.
It’s what inspired his new San Francisco restaurant in the Mission District, Dear Inga, an homage both to his oma and to Eastern European food, with dishes based on the cuisines of Hungary, Poland and Russia.
He calls it “new Old World cooking.”
Oma Inge fled from her native city of Mannheim, Germany, making quite a traumatic exit and just in time before the war. She immigrated at first to New York, and then later California.
Golovin, 39, grew up Conservative in Atherton. A Cal graduate, he attended cooking school after college just for fun.
“I’m very obsessive, and especially obsessive about food,” he said. “My family and I always thought I’d go to grad school, but I got sucked in.”
How did that happen? Blame La Folie. Golovin went to work at this temple to French cuisine and fell in love with the restaurant business. (La Folie just announced its closing after 32 years.)
“I liked everything about it,” he said. “I loved being behind the scenes, the long, hard hours, the attention to detail and the dedication to food.”
He speaks as if he’s still sometimes surprised that he’s a chef.
“I never made a conscious decision to be one,” he explained. “I just really liked cooking.” As he progressed, he kept eyeing the next level, until around age 30 when he knew he wanted his own place some day.
“I didn’t understand how hard that is or what it takes to do that,” he said. “The whole arc is very interesting when you look at my path now. After 15 years, I still love it as much as I did then.”
Golovin was very close to Oma Inge. (He changed the spelling of her name for the restaurant so it would be easier to pronounce, he said.) He’s Russian Jewish on the other side and had dreamed about doing Eastern European food for years.
“I’m very much culturally Jewish but not as religious,” he said. “It’s definitely shaped my life. My cooking is more influenced by European food than by Jewish food specifically, but there’s a lot of food that could be considered Jewish food.”
For example, smoked fish and meats have special prominence on the menu, as do several kinds of house-made sausages and fermented foods.
One cautionary note: The menu is very pork-heavy. And while there are options for non-pork eaters, other items, such as the smoked fish plate — one of Golovin’s favorites — include treyf pickled mussels alongside the smoked sturgeon, cured salmon, farmers cheese, German potato salad and seeded rye.
“I wanted to delve deep into very traditional Eastern European food, but with my thumbprint all over it,” he explained.
A Ukrainian couple came in recently and were amused to find him serving borscht with his potato and sauerkraut pierogi. They told him that the two would never be served together. His response: “It would be in this restaurant.”
Golovin said at any one time he has about 200 pounds of sauerkraut fermenting, and uses the liquid in his borscht. He also has about 15 other ferments going, common ones like turnips, but also more uncommon vegetables, such as green garlic, eggplant and leeks. Rather than offering a pickle plate, these fermented items make up garnishes for specific dishes.
Before opening last September, Golovin went on a research trip to the Republic of Georgia, whose cuisine is becoming more well known. Some of its hallmarks made their way to his menu, including sour plum sauce and sorrel, a lemony-tasting green herb. He ate at numerous restaurants in the capital, Tbilisi, and also in the homes of winemakers.
Those intimate dinners in Georgia influenced what he wants people to experience at Dear Inga.
“We’re going for the hospitality and comfort of a home, and sharing this comforting meal with our guests,” he said. “Comfort food has become a restaurant buzzword and often means hamburgers and mac and cheese, which is not what we’re doing. But I do agree with how we want you to feel, and I think people are feeling that.”