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Restaurant Review

The Boulevardiers


› paulr@sfbg.com

There are certain doors one steps through only every quarter-century or so, and for me one such door is located in the heart of the heart of the Castro, at 4063 18th St. I’ve been up and down that hyperkinetic block many times across the intervening years, but the last time I actually set foot in the door, it belonged to a restaurant called the Neon Chicken, which served some of the better food in the Castro. Here I am making what in some circles is called a "left-handed compliment."

At the Neon Chicken, lo these many years ago, I think I actually had chicken — coq au vin, maybe — and it was pretty good, probably. But I was young and in the company of august people and quite goggle-eyed at the whole experience. Someone else paid, and this too was quite nice. But … times change. Once-goggly eyes take on a more watchful cast. One picks up the check now and then. And restaurants come and go.

Before Eureka Restaurant and Lounge opened in the Neon Chicken’s old haunt toward the end of October, the most recent inhabitant at the address was the Red Grill (on the main floor), with the Whisky Lounge upstairs. I meant to go but never quite made it. Before that it was Castro Hibachi, and I never meant to go; before that, something else. Yes, we seem to be talking about one of those spaces, and the Neon Chicken’s long run looks, in retrospect, most impressive.

If Eureka comes up with a winning alchemy, it will involve the fusing of the Neon Chicken legacy with the 21st-century-savvy of the Chenery Park people — John Bedard and Joseph Kowal, along with chefs Richard Rosen and Gaines Dobbins — whose new baby Eureka is. And Chenery Park, we should recall, has Boulevard bloodlines; its chefs both cooked at that Nancy Oakes–run institution on the Embarcadero, as well as at her earlier L’Avenue, in the avenues.

The Boulevard style, of full-blooded American cooking, is very much on display at Eureka. The grilled T-bone pork chop ($24) alone tells us this. The piece of meat turned out to be as big as my hand and twice as thick, and it was plated with halves of baked apple, a small pool of jus, and a handful of potato galettes protruding from a pat of mashed potatoes like pins from a pin cushion. Although I find the pairing of pork with fruit to be in the neighborhood of cliché, pork and apples is a classic American combination of autumn, for autumn means apples and, historically, hog slaughtering — too costly to keep the animals fed through the winter.

Although the menu does not emphasize little plates and starters, there is no lack of them. They tend to be standards rather than exercises in innovation, but they are ably executed. French onion soup ($9) has the sweetness of slow-cooked onions and the heft of beef broth; it’s topped with a raft of country bread and melted cheese. Tomato crostini ($8) take a bit of a sharp twist from dabs of sheep’s milk ricotta. A salad of roasted red and gold beets ($10) is assembled around a crottin of goat cheese crusted with walnuts — an old friend from the ’80s. Among the best of the small choices is the plate of house-made boudin blanc ($12), lengths of white sausage fragrant with caraway seed (as in rye bread) and arranged atop slivers of roasted red bell and poblano peppers.

The prices might lead you to think that these small plates are on the large size, verging on small-main-course status. But that is not the case. They are ordinary in scale, not in cost. If you want a big plate of food, you will want one of the main courses, and you will pay accordingly — more than $20 for all of them. The one exception we found on our visits was a loose-leaf lasagna, stuffed with mascarpone and sauced with wild mushroom, for $16, or $9 for an appetizer portion.

I liked the pork chop — it was cooked medium rare and so remained juicy — and was awed at its Neanderthal-worthy proportions, but I did think it cost about $10 too much. I was more impressed with a petrale sole roulade ($26) in which the filets were wrapped, California roll–style, around a core of Dungeness crab meat and asparagus spears. The excellent fries on the side, presented with tarragon mayonnaise for dipping, were an added value, but even without them I would have thought the fish was pricey but probably worth it.

For a fledgling restaurant, service has already been polished to a high gloss. The host radiates the warmth of someone giving a private party, and table staff are both efficient and unobtrusive about replenishing water and bread (slices of simple baguette, still warm) and replacing used flatware. You can watch them come and go in the wall mirrors that girdle the small dining room in the rear, and have I ever been in a restaurant in a gay neighborhood that didn’t have some mirror action? I have been in plenty of restaurants, in all sorts of neighborhoods, that don’t offer Voss ($7), the Norwegian sparkling water (with sublimely fine bubbles and presented in a spectacular, tall cylinder of clear glass) said to be favored by Madonna. I did not catch a glimpse of her in the mirrors nor in the lounge upstairs, but as Eureka’s vogue grows, she is bound to find it sooner or later. *


Dinner: Tues.–Thurs., 6–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 6–11 p.m.; Sun., 5–9 p.m.

4063 18th St., SF

(415) 431-6000


Full bar



First floor wheelchair accessible


The art of the cart


› paulr@sfbg.com

The romance of street-cart food might not be high romance, but it is romance and does cast its spell, particularly in big, rich cities — like ours — with elaborate infrastructures of fancy restaurants and a concomitant epidemic of some as-yet unnamed cultural autoimmune disorder that attaches inordinate worth to the prosaic.
Street-cart chic reflects, I would say, a recognition among the high rollers that immaculate table linens and Limoges china aren’t all there is to the gastronomic life, that occasionally a little mayonnaise running down the sleeve is in order, though maybe not mayonnaise from an actual street cart, because the cart-keeper probably hasn’t washed his hands and you might get salmonella. I tilt toward this view largely because several recent street-cart-food undertakings of note have connections to glossy, big-name places, and these connections do carry a certain brand-name reassurance. Two examples: the Ferry Building’s Mijita, which serves Mexican street food with regional accents, is related to swank Jardinière by way of a shared owner-chef, Traci des Jardins, while Charles Pham’s hugely upscale the Slanted Door has given birth to a pair of Out the Doors (the latest in the Westfield San Francisco Centre, the great mall of tomorrow), which bundle up take-out packages of Vietnamese street-cart food for those on the run or on deadline.
Yet not all street-food emporiums are modest little places with richer, grander siblings that can sluice their rich patrons downstream every now and then for some edible absolution of wealth-guilt. Bodega Bistro, for instance, has a kind of dual identity; it’s a quite elegant Tenderloin restaurant that gives a section of its menu over to the street-cart food of Hanoi. And now we have the seductive Regalito Rosticeria, which combines a gleaming Pizzeria Delfina look, of warm wood, glass, and stainless steel, with a menu (by chef and owner Thomas Peña) largely given over to versions of Mexico City’s street-cart food.
The extreme makeover of what was once a pupusería is stunning in practically every respect, but its most striking feature is the long bar, or counter, which runs most of the length of the restaurant, can seat at least a dozen, and is backed by the busy kitchen, with its gas-fired ovens, mortars and pestles, and busy chefs filling stainless-steel bowls with fresh salsas and guacamoles. It’s like the Mexican version of a sushi bar. The dark side of the moon, of course, is that table seating is a little sparse.
As the glistening treasures in the chefs’ stainless-steel bowls suggest, las salsas are not only excellent but makers of dishes. Guacamole ($6) can and does stand alone, of course; it’s creamy-chunky, made with perfectly ripe avocados sliced up by hand rather than processed or pounded, and it’s served with whole tortillas (of wheat) fried to a bronze crispness. You break off a piece, as if it’s pappadam, and dip. If you want the same thing with tomatoes instead of avocados, you will opt for the tostadas with salsa fresca ($3), the crispy disks presented this time with a classic salsa made with voluptuously ripe tomatoes, finely diced, whose sweetness balances the sourness of the lime and the bite of the garlic and chiles.
But to say that other sauces play supporting roles is not to diminish them. The torta ($7.50) — a Mexican sandwich featuring roasted pork or chicken on wondrously puffy bread swabbed with refrijoles and Mexican crema (a close relation of crème fraîche) — benefits from the presence of a sharp pico de gallo, while the quesadillas ($7.50), deep-fried half moons, like empanadas depend on a red salsa, waterier and hotter than its fresca cousin. Even the sauces you can’t see, such as the vinaigrette that dresses the chopped lettuce accompanying the taquitos ($7.50), add a charge. There is nothing quite like undressed lettuce, sitting there like a pile of hay in a barnyard, to let the air out of the balloon of anticipation, and yet this seemingly minor oversight is common practice in many Mexican restaurants. If nothing else, the kitchen crew at Regalito sweats the details.
The only sauce I didn’t respond to was the roping of red-pepper coulis across the enchiladas rojas ($7.50), flaps of corn tortillas also topped with white pipings of crema, like decorations on a birthday cake. The sauce’s rich rust red color belied its undersalting. On the other hand, the tortillas weren’t deep-fried — a small mercy.
Many of the small dishes, of bar and side food, are remarkably tasty: brilliant little pirouettes of flavor and texture you could easily choreograph into a light, leisurely meal or an extended cocktail hour. If you’ve ever saved the seeds from your Halloween pumpkin and later tried to roast them, only to meet with disappointment, you will find the pepitas ($2) — pumpkin seeds toasted with chili, salt, and lime — to be revelatory. Mostly they are tender and melt in the mouth without leaving behind that terrible cud of fiber.
Beans, of course, are available in a variety of guises. Among the possibilities are stewed pinto beans ($2.50), mild and meaty, and ejotes ($3.50) — green beans — sautéed with delicate ribbons of white onion and finished with a squeeze of lime. And while we are on the subject of limes: the house-made limeade ($1.95) is a phenomenon of dense sweet-sourness. If you’re tired of lemonade and you want a bit more excitement than the usual aguas frescas can provide — or you seek the grease-cutting power of citric acid — you will be happy with it. Think of it as a little gift to yourself — a regalito, as Spanish speakers say.<\!s>SFBG

Tues.–<\d>Fri., 11 a.m.–<\d>10 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.–<\d>10 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m.–<\d>8 p.m.
3481 18th St., SF
(415) 503-0650
Beer and wine
Pleasantly noisy
Wheelchair accessible

East meets West Hollywood


› paulr@sfbg.com
As you step into Roy’s Restaurant, you will notice the names of many cities stenciled in gold on the glass door — places where other Roy’s Restaurants can be found. You might feel as if you are sidling into one of the branches of a Parisian house of couture or the district office of some international brokerage firm. My eyes darted briefly to the end of the two-columned list, half expecting to see the reassuring words “FDIC insured.” I didn’t see them. But then, insurance, whether from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or some other gracious entity, isn’t really necessary at Roy’s. The place has found its feet here, and they are feet that move with a definite San Francisco style.
When our Roy’s opened six years ago, I walked through the doors into a fabulous inaugural dinner party and was disappointed. It was a lovely restaurant, yes, with innovative and well-prepared food conceived by Roy Yamaguchi, the founding chef and eponym — but it wasn’t in Hawaii, and the island magic seemed lost on the streets of San Francisco. The handful of Roy’s Restaurants in Hawaii are among the original ones, and they reflect the islands’ paradisial temper; life moves a little more slowly there, and people are less tense with the metropolitan urgencies. The Roy’s on the Big Island even has, for alfresco types, a kind of docklike deck extending over the water, and if you take a table there, you can practically hear the just-caught fish flopping around on the weathered timbers. The cooking reflects the immediacy and locality of the ingredients — seafood just minutes from the sea, beef from cattle raised on the Big Island — as well as the distinctive blend of influences, from Japan, Polynesia, and Europe, that give the Hawaiian Islands much of their gastronomic and cultural flavor.
Transport all this to a gritty and often chilly stretch of Mission Street and you have the restaurant equivalent of a heart transplant. There is no dock whose pilings are lapped by soft, warm waves, no purple sunset or palm fronds waving in a gentle breeze; there is just damp concrete and Muni buses. Even the interior decor is mostly in the urban vein: a huge exhibition kitchen and a honeycomb of wine bottles similar to the one at Bacar. If, like me, you remember Roy’s as part of the Hawaiian enchantment, you might well find the difference shocking and even disappointing. But this is unfair to our Roy’s, which in truth has become an excellent restaurant very much in the metro-California manner. If the long list of cities on Roy’s front door reveals that Yamaguchi has built an empire, it also tells us that, like the Roman Empire and its ecclesiastical successor, he has done so by adapting a core formula to local conditions, tastes, and expectations.
Roy’s core mostly has to do with the food, and its center of gravity (the menu’s term of art is “classic”) lies within the confines of the prix fixe, a $35, three-course dinner. The street signage describes the restaurant’s cooking as “Hawaiian fusion,” and for me the fusion isn’t so much East-meets-West as East–meets–West Hollywood. Yamaguchi cooked in Los Angeles in the 1980s, and he has a Wolfgang Puckish flair for boldness — grilled shrimp (part of the prix fixe first course) served with wasabi cocktail sauce, for instance, or a large, spherical crab cake ($15) mounted like a trophy on a pedestal of tinglingly spicy kimchi — sweet, hot, sour, and rich, all in the same bite.
The fixed-price dinners all open with the same appetizer trio, of which the shrimp is a constituent. Its companions include a single, but heavily meaty, baby back rib — tender as the night, Szechuan spiced and wood grilled — and a chef’s-choice item that might be a nicely crisped pot sticker. On the question of main dishes, choices open out. Here we find four possibilities, reflecting a world of influences. Large prawns in a tangle of pad thai — threads of carrot and daikon radish tossed with rice noodles — seem quite comfortably Southeast Asian, while charbroiled short ribs (of beef) are as tender and engagingly stringy as Grandma’s pot roast on a chilly Iowa night.
I was pleased that the hibachi-grilled salmon was wild king salmon presented on a molded pad of jasmine rice, though it seemed a bit late in the season for the fish to be local. The dish I found most representative of Roy’s local sensibility was a mahimahi filet, crusted with macadamia nut crumbs (a very Hawaiian touch), then sautéed and served with lobster-butter sauce (a rather French touch, I thought) and thick slices of new potatoes. The overall effect was less one of fusion than of California cooking. One minor note of discontent: the potatoes were undercooked.
Our friends, who are Roy’s devotees, urged upon us the melting hot chocolate soufflé, an innocuously cakey-looking object that was indeed filled with melted chocolate. At the touch of a fork, it oozed out like lava onto the plate. Less dramatic, but also texturally memorable, was a macadamia nut almond tart — a disk of one’s own, tasting a lot like pecan pie and topped with crumbles of macadamia nuts and a shift knob of vanilla bean ice cream. The tart was almost too sweet for me.
The devotees made a point of saying they prefer Roy’s to Boulevard. I am not sure I agree with them, but I understood their point, and perhaps the real news is that Roy’s and Boulevard can be mentioned in the same sentence these days — can be compared. The two, while neighbors, are very different sorts of restaurants, but each is a San Francisco restaurant, sprinkled with a bit of the local pixie dust. For Roy’s, member of a chain whose roots are halfway across the Pacific, that’s certainly some dust it’s glad to have. SFBG
Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.
Dinner: Mon.–Thurs., 5:30–10:30 p.m.; Fri.–Sun., 5–11 p.m.
575 Mission, SF
(415) 777-0277
Full bar
Moderately noisy
Wheelchair accessible

The salt point


As a partisan of salt, I could hardly help but love a restaurant called Salt House, and I did — and do — but … how funny that there apparently are no saltshakers at the bar. I was casting about for one, wanting to salt something up a little while waiting for someone to arrive, but I had to settle instead for pouring myself more water from the glass jugs the staff set out for your very own. Water is nice, of course, but sometimes only salt will do.
Salt House is the latest project from the brothers Rosenthal, Mitchell and Steven, who for the last decade or so have run the kitchen show (and I mean this quite literally) at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio, where the exhibition kitchen is of the capital-E sort. The first stage of the Rosenthals’ exit strategy involved opening their own restaurant, Town Hall, in an old SoMa building a few years ago. Salt House is their Chapter Two and coincides, more or less, with the end of their reign at Postrio.
Like Town Hall (which is just around the corner), Salt House has been installed on the ground floor of a venerable structure, a century-old building that used to be a printing plant. The restaurant’s street-front space is boxy, fairly narrow, and deep — like a garage bay for an 18-wheeler, if there are such bays. In keeping with SoMa’s postindustrial fashionability, there are exposed wood beams (including a kind of indoor arbor, sans greenery, near the host’s station) and exposed brick, along with a line of light fixtures that look like barrels beginning to explode above the dining room and neoquaint incandescent bulbs dangling over the zinc bar.
Mostly, though, I noticed the windows, huge multiglazed modern marvels that admit oceans of light while giving the entire redo a distinctly sleek, Mies van der Rohe cast. If you want to know if an old building has been rehabbed, look at the windows; if you see a certain waviness, like heat rising from pavement on a hot day, you are probably looking at original window glass and an unrehabbed building. If you see gleaming perfection, a sheen like the undisturbed surface of a pond, you are looking at renovation money, and perhaps at Salt House.
The food might be called California pub food, but it is pub food of a high order. As at Postrio, the Rosenthals have orchestrated a brass band of big flavors. Even the little bar snacks are vivid: the house-made “pot o’ pickles” ($5) — an array of vegetables including cauliflower, baby carrots, pearl onions, and wax beans — jumps with a vinegar charge in its fist-sized crock; and the mixed nuts ($5) — almonds, pistachios, a cast of thousands — are roasted with one of life’s great improbables, truffle honey, along with sea salt. (This was the dish I was trying to salt up at the bar, incidentally. The sea salt had settled at the bottom of the crock, a fact we discovered only when the crock was nearly empty.)
Nearly every dish has some flavor kazoo. In the poutine ($7 at dinner, $10 at lunch), basically a plate of potato chips dribbled with short-rib gravy, it’s the layer of gorgonzola, which not only gives a textural effect like that of nachos but adds a tremendous charge of pungency up the nose. In the shellfish stew ($19), mainly mussels and shrimp, it’s a broth infused with saffron aioli. In the pizzalike preserved tomato tart ($11), it’s the intensity of the preserved tomatoes — along with the squares of luxuriously buttery pastry crust they sit on. In the chili-roasted oysters ($13), it’s the fiery chili sauce, which, it must be said, makes the dish a little top-heavy.
The watchword for fish is crispy. This cannot be a bad thing. A mackerel filet ($9) wears a waistcoat of golden panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs), while pan-roasted skate wing ($24) gets a nice searing on both sides before being plated with roasted, quartered brussels sprouts, chunks of salsify, and dabs of a tarragon salsa. Skate wing, with its corrugated texture, is one of the most interesting fish to eat — getting the last of the flesh away from the bone is like cleaning stray hairs from a comb — and yet we should not be eating it. Too late I learned from Seafood Watch that skate are seriously endangered and should be avoided. Like sharks, they reproduce slowly, and they are taken through the highly destructive method of trawling. (Mackerel are in the “best” category, but that was just a lucky stab for us.)
I would be glad to learn that skate had been replaced on the menu by petrale sole or some other type of local, floundery fish that might not be as fascinatingly ribbed but isn’t teetering on the brink, either. The Rosenthals are eminences here; if they set a good and conspicuous example, others will follow. It would be a great help to ordinary diners if restaurants simply refused to buy and serve any seafood whose populations aren’t in sustainable shape (per Seafood Watch or some similar authority) and indicated as much on their menus — maybe with a smiling or dancing fish icon?
Sundries: desserts ($7) are mostly in the American grain, including a lewdly moist warm chocolate Bundt cake and some nostalgia-laced butter pecan ice cream, presented in two scoops. The house-blend wines, including a fruity-floral white, are available on tap (from steel barrels) and are presented in several sizes of nifty apothecary bottles, near relations of the water jugs and perhaps of the saltshakers, if they ever come to pass.<\!s>SFBG
Mon.–<\d>Fri., 11:30–<\d>1 a.m.; Sat., 5 p.m.–<\d>1:30 a.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.–<\d>midnight
545 Mission, SF
(415) 543-8900
Full bar
Wheelchair accessible

The final frontier


› paulr@sfbg.com
Regrets? I’ve had a few. At the top of the list is that, due to circumstances beyond our control, I will never get to see Beethoven play the piano — unless we have misunderstood the time-space continuum. This seems more likely than not, given the reliable arrogance of human science, and I do retain a shred of hope.
The also-rans run well behind. I do not expect my idea for a sport-tuned, high-performance Prius — the Priapus, a Prius for men! — to make it onto a Toyota production line any time soon, alas and alack. And I am sorry I can’t remember what many areas of the city looked like a decade ago, before the Great Bulldozing. What was it like to sail down the Third Street corridor? I remember doing it at least once, in the middle 1990s, on a mission to take some moribund computer equipment to a recycling facility near the foot of 23rd Street. There was a certain ominous, video-game facelessness to the buildings, and I was glad when the errand was over.
As for restaurants: once you’d passed south of 16th Street, where 42° sat at the back of the rather dingy Esprit Center (since demolished), you were in a different world. You had passed through border control, a kind of Checkpoint Charlie of culture, and you were on your own. But … change was not far off. Soon the development tide would flow south: there would be a new baseball park, a new UCSF campus, a new Muni light-rail line. And the neighborhood’s obvious virtues — nearness to the city center and the bay, flat streets, warm weather, gorgeous old industrial buildings (many of brick), sweeping views — would begin to be noticed.
Today, Third Street is lined with new live-work and other lofty-looking buildings, and people must be living and working in them (or working nearby), because if you step into the New Spot, a new spot serving Mexican and Salvadoran food, you are likely to run into a wall of these people, at least if it’s around lunchtime on a weekday. They all look to be about 30 years old, give or take, and are dressed with that studied scruffiness I associate with the late, great dot-com boom. Are we now surfing some wave in the space-time continuum back to 1999? Certainly, the traffic and parking situations are horrendous in the area, as they were elsewhere in the city at the close of the last millennium — and the crush is all the more shocking in what I had long thought to be a kind of ghost town, a deserted neighborhood that was fun to bike through on a hot autumn Saturday.
The New Spot is to Salvadoran and Mexican cooking what Chutney (on lower Nob Hill) is to Indian and Pakistani cooking. The look is minimalist clean, prices are low, and the food is fresh and meticulously prepared. My only cavil on freshness concerns the chips, which twice seemed stale to me, though the spicy-smooth red salsa ($1.40 for a half pint, if you want or need that much) covered up much of the weariness. The guacamole ($2.25) is good too, though I would have liked bigger avocado chunks and maybe a bit less lime juice.
The Salvadoran-style dishes dominate the menu and include those old standbys, pupusas (just $1.60 each, but you have to order at least two). These are disks like small pita breads, and they can be stuffed in a variety of meaty and meatless ways. We found the queso con frijoles version — with a good packing of refried beans and oozy queso blanco — to do very nicely, especially with some pico de gallo and shredded, pickled cabbage (curtido) on the side.
Pasteles ($5.50 for a plate of three) turned out to be lightly deep-fried corn pies filled with more queso. (I’d ordered chicken but was pleased with the cheese.) Generally, I stay out of the deep-fried end of the pool, but these pasteles were of a delicate crispness that made me think of golden clouds. The menu lists chile relleno ($7.50) — a fire-roasted poblano stuffed with cheese (or choice of meat) and served with salsa, beans, and rice — as a Salvadoran specialty, and perhaps that’s because it isn’t dipped in batter and fried, as in the more typical preparation you find in Mexican restaurants around town.
The fish tacos ($3.15) are exemplary. I always try a place’s fish tacos, since the range of possible outcomes is so great. Good ones are unforgettable; bad ones are … forgettable. Bland, usually. The New Spot’s menu doesn’t say what kind of fish is used — some kind of cod or pollack, I would guess, or possibly tilapia, judging from the bits of soft, white flesh — but the grill imparts some appealing smoke, and the crispy tacos are filled out with shredded lettuce (instead of the more usual shredded cabbage), diced tomato, refrijoles, salsa, and guacamole. Like a regular taco, really, and the better for it.
The food, it must be said, doesn’t exactly fly out of the kitchen, in part because the dishes are made to order and also because the crunch-time crowds are thick. At the moment, alternatives in the neighborhood are few. But the New Spot is flanked by signs of yesterday and tomorrow; on one side is a faded old-school Chinese restaurant on its way out, while on the other is a café, Sundance Coffee, that could easily be associated with a museum of modern art. The times, they are a-changin’. SFBG
Mon.–Fri., 6 a.m.–7 p.m.; Sat., 7 a.m.–5 p.m.
632 20th St., SF
(415) 558-0556
No alcohol
Noisy if busy
Wheelchair accessible

Where the buffalo roam


› paulr@sfbg.com
Many hamburger places are at some pains to keep you from seeing, or wondering, exactly what’s going into — as opposed to on top of — your burger. So I was rather surprised to find, at Bullshead Restaurant (a West Portal spot that recently opened a branch in the Castro), a glass display case near the entryway, laid out with various high-end-looking cuts of meat along with a selection of preshaped burger patties, as at a butcher’s shop.
“Is this stuff for sale?” I asked.
A staffer behind the counter nodded.
“Even the buffalo burgers?”
“Yes. They’re $10.95 a pound,” she said. She pointed out the buffalo burgers in the case, where they lurked in the back, behind their beef counterparts, and were distinguishable from same by a darker color, almost the purplish shade of a bruise, as were the strip and loin steaks. My first thought was that $10.95 per pound is a little steep for hamburger, even if beautifully formed into grill-ready patties, but on the other hand it’s roughly comparable to the tariff for Boca Burgers, the excellent poseurs made of soy.
Buffalo meat is also supposed to be better for you than beef: lower in calories and cholesterol, higher in protein. The restaurant’s documentation contends that eating it contributed to the well-being and longevity of the various tribes of Plains Indians, for whom the animal was an important source of food. Even if the health factor is a wash, we should still cast a kindly eye on buffalo meat: the buffalo is an American original, its return from near-extinction is a modest but real ecological triumph, and the burgers made from its flesh are, quite frankly, superior to beef burgers, at least at Bullshead.
They are also a little more expensive, on the order of a buck to a buck and a quarter per order, depending on the dosage of meat you want. (You choose between third- and half-pound allotments, and your options include, in addition to buffalo and beef, organic beef and turkey.) But they are dressed just like their more plebeian siblings, in garb that ranges from a simple slice of cheese (American, Swiss, cheddar, jack, or mozzarella) to more elaborate combinations involving mushrooms, bacon, blue cheese, and avocado. There is even a Hawaiian burger, topped with pineapple rings — shades, for some of us, of the dread Hawaiian pizza from undergraduate days.
But let us first consider the terrain as it might appear to a vegetarian or someone who just isn’t that hungry. Our party one evening included such a person, and her eye was first drawn to the ocean burger, where said eye remained until we were told the fish was deep-fried. So long, see you tomorrow. That left the garden burger ($8.95), which the menu card laconically described as a “grilled vegetarian patty” with slices of avocado and a sauté of mushrooms and onions. I was not feeling too optimistic in this matter, fearing that we would be served one of those disks of mashed legumes with bits of carrot and peas and a few sprouts shooting forth like strands of uncombable hair. But the vegetarian patty turned out to be quite nearly fantastic, of plausibly burgerish texture and well seasoned with cumin and just enough cayenne pepper to be interesting. The avocado and sauté were fine, and the side of coleslaw needed only some salt to pass muster.
The pepper jack buffalo burger ($9.75 for a one-third-pound edition) didn’t carry much of a pepper charge — a pity, since pepper jack cheese is a lively variant of a stolid old standby. But the meat was so luxurious it did not matter: it was intensely flavored without being greasy and had been cooked medium rare, as ordered, with a center rosy as a child’s cheeks on a bright winter morn. The organic-beef version (also $9.75 for one third of a pound) was creditable, but it did not have quite the intensity of flavor or the moistness.
We tried the latter — along with an excellent pastrami sandwich ($7.95) served with commendable fries — at the Castro location, which opened recently in one of those upstairs-downstairs buildings across the street from the Cala Market. Previously there had been several generations of Italian restaurants in the split-level space, and a canopy of inverted wine goblets still hangs like a flock of glass bats on a rack above the bar on the main floor. The aura is sunny and pleasant, with an unobstructed view of street traffic (which is ceaseless and stares right back at you), but it doesn’t feel like a place that serves buffalo wings and buffalo burgers, and it doesn’t look anything like its West Portal sibling.
“Don’t you feel like we’re at a restaurant someplace in the Midwest?” one of my companions said apropos the latter location. Yes: apart from the display cases up front, the senior Bullshead is a warren of old wood, yellowish floors, and yellowish light and could easily be named the Pine Cone and be seated beside one of those old two-lane US highways that crisscrossed the country in the long-ago days before the interstates. The setting is a little creaky, yes, a little dowdy, but it is also friendly, and familiar in a profound way. It’s a little bit like the diner in Diner, a spot for impromptu gatherings by the cheerful young, or that nameless café in the cartoon strip Blondie where Dagwood Bumstead is always stuffing his face at lunch. I don’t think that place serves buffalo burgers, at least not yet.SFBG
West Portal: Tues.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Mon., 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
840 Ulloa, SF
(415) 665-4350
Castro: Sun.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–11 p.m.
4230 18th St., SF
(415) 431-4201
Beer and wine
Pleasant noise level
Castro location not wheelchair accessible

Life after Julie, continued


› paulr@sfbg.com
Reincarnation is a sketchy proposition, even if you’re a restaurant. True, you won’t come back as a rabbit or a mosquito — a couple of the less juicy possibilities human beings have to worry about in anticipating their next go-round in life — but you will certainly be stuck with a past that, even if punctuated with interludes of glory, has to have culminated in some sort of gloomy closure for you to be available for reincarnation at all. The truth is that the names of successful restaurants don’t recycle easily. Two vividly local examples: Stars and Trader Vic’s.
For years I would pass by Julie’s Supper Club, on Folsom, and I would mean to go there even as I was on my way to someplace else, to many someplace elses. The supper club (opened by Julie Ring in 1987) was a SoMa stalwart in the early 1990s, when the neighbors included Appam, the Acorn, and, just a few blocks west, Hamburger Mary’s. All those places had closed by the turn of the millennium, but Julie’s soldiered on, though without Julie herself: she’d sold her interest in 1998 and moved along to other ventures. When the end finally came for Julie’s Supper Club, about a year and a half ago, it was as if the last veteran of the Civil War had died.
So much for Julie’s Supper Club, I thought, RIP. Rumor told of some new loungey deal, with a new name, to open in the space, and rumor, as we all well know, is always true, except when it isn’t. The recently opened successor to Julie’s Supper Club is … Julie’s Supper Club and Lounge II. I am not sure about the Roman numeral, which makes me think of Super Bowls or people who wear monocles. It seems weighty in a way the new proprietors might not necessarily intend. But it also suggests continuity, a fusing of western SoMa’s seedy-glamorous yesterdays with a lively tomorrow.
Since I never saw the inside of the original Julie’s, I cannot say whether much has been changed, though I suspect not. The look is very hip-loungey, with a series of warped-L ceiling supports (whose holes of various sizes give one the sense that they’re made of colored Swiss cheese) and a long bar backed by a mirror and a battery of pink neon lights that look like they’ve been salvaged from the starship Enterprise (so often wrecked and reincarnated, like a stock-car racer). The oak floors are simply magnificent; they are a rich coffee color and are immaculately glossy, as if they belong in the ballroom of some posh town house on the Upper East Side.
The biggest change is probably chef Shane Suemori’s food. Under the old regime the vittles used to be a mélange of Californian and American influences; now, according to the menu card’s terrifying proclamation, it is “fusion cuisine, where east truly meets west.” There is also a quesadilla ($9), but pass on that: it consists of a pair of semi-stale tortillas enclosing an undistinguished filling of melted white cheese, diced yellow bell peppers, and chopped chicken. This is the kind of food famished travelers have to eat, at the kind of price they have to pay, while held captive at those prisons called airports. Marginally better (but still airportworthy) is a Japanese chicken curry ($7), which consists of chicken chunks, bits of carrot, and potato quarters in a golden sauce that reminded me of similar sauces I used to make from those soaplike bars of curry paste.
At its best, the cooking is quite innovative. I’d never had anything remotely like the lemon ponzu somen salad ($6), which was like a pasta sushi, with four little nests of cooked somen noodles arranged around a dipping dish of ponzu. And the asparagus cheese tease ($7) turned out to be a kind of vegetarian version of pigs in a blanket, with the asparagus stalks swaddled in phyllo leaves and baked with mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. The ends of the stalks could have used trimming; they were inedibly tough, but then it is not really asparagus season.
The crab cakes ($16 for two) were slightly larger than golf balls and were simply terrific, particularly with the spicy creole sauce, but the presentation was otherwise about as minimalist as it gets, with the pair of spheres sitting naked on the plate like … like … I can’t say it, but you see what I mean. A little more generous was the oven-roasted chicken breast ($14) stuffed with cheese, cut into quarters, and set atop a mound of cheese mashed potatoes and a mix of sautéed eggplant, zucchini, and tabs of carrot. The sole dessert, meanwhile, bananas flambé ($6) presented in a martini glass, was positively luxurious. The lengths of fruit were swimming in a warm custard beneath whose bubbly surface lurked large chunks of chocolate. There was even an ornamental sprig of mint on the plate beneath the glass!
The reincarnated Julie’s prices don’t look too high as printed, but when you see what you actually get, you start to wonder. Of course, we live in the age of the $40 main dish, as the New York Times reported recently. Still, should a glass of no-name cabernet sauvignon cost $10? (We were given no wine list, just offered a few banal choices.) Should a doll-size snifter of Rémy Martin cognac — good though hardly regal — cost $8? I might have minded less if plate after plate hadn’t seemed quite so abstemiously composed and if I’d never laid eyes on the airport quesadilla. SFBG
Lunch: Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Supper: nightly, 5–10 p.m.
1123 Folsom, SF
(415) 864-1222
Full bar
Wheelchair accessible

Nights of the round table


› paulr@sfbg.com
If, like me, you associate the letters K and L with wine — as in K and L Wines — you might have to do some expectation adjustment when you step through the doors of KL Restaurant, a Hong Kong–style seafood house in the westernmost Richmond. Despite the heavily maritime menu, the only alcoholic drink on offer is beer, and the only beer is Heineken. No Tsingtao? Not even Sapporo or Tiger? Unheard of. Not that there’s anything wrong with Heineken.
The restaurant’s winelessness did not come as a complete surprise. We’d been advised beforehand by an in-the-know member of our party that if we were going to want wine, we would have to pack it in ourselves. Who would not want wine with seafood? I thought while vaguely intending to take a well-chilled bottle of Navarro gewürztraminer, gewürz being one of those fragrant German grapes that stand up nicely to Chinese food. And: who would want beer with seafood? All of us, as it turned out. The gewürz did not get chilled or packed in, the beer turned out to be a good match with dish after dish (the wine would have too, it must be said), and the result was a tableful of slightly woozy satiation — the way one might feel at the end of, say, a wedding banquet.
KL’s banquetish aura isn’t of the lordly sort. The main dining room is huge, unfancy, and airy; its principal wall hangings are announcements of the day’s specials, hand lettered in Chinese on plain white paper. There is also a battery of aquariums in which various creatures of the deep await their rendezvous with the big mesh scooper. If it weren’t a restaurant, with a telltale sizzle coming from the kitchen, it could be a pet shop. But the tables give us our chief clue. A number of them are round and large, suitable for the seating of up to a dozen — and large parties do show up with some frequency to fill them. There is also an adjoining room that serves as a kind of overflow dining room but would also do (despite its coat-closet starkness) as the setting for a private party — a more intimate banquet, perhaps.
KL convincingly stands for the proposition that the best interior design element in any restaurant is the presence of human beings. If you attract scads of interesting people — families in generational layers, from grandparents to tykes; a crew of early-20s types and their rainbow of RAZRs clustered at a banquet table; the odd outworlder; groups meeting on the sidewalk outside or laughing at the host’s station — you do not need anything else to achieve the buzz, the low but steady roar of enjoyment, all restaurateurs are looking for.
Good food helps too, of course, and KL’s food, considered as a ratio of price to value and as an exercise in variety, is good. The kitchen is particularly skilled at sampan preparations, which involve a peppery batter-fry. I am not sure this is the best way to have Dungeness crab ($14), since most of what ends up covered in delicious, spicy-crisp batter is shell. Still, you do get some batter-on-flesh effect, mostly with the body chunks, and as for the legs — you can scrape the tasty crust off with your teeth before cracking them open. And if that is too much work, you can luxuriate in the surrounding fermented-black-bean sauce, which has the texture of a pilaf and a strong salty bite.
While deep-frying often brings an extra dash of delight to otherwise bland foods, such as the potato, I am obliged to report that the deep-frying of oysters ($8.95) has the opposite effect. The unmistakable flavor of brine disappears, as does the slippery-soft, slightly naughty texture; in its place we find an ordinary meatiness like that of chicken liver. A bright red, slightly sweet sauce served in a dipping plate on the side provided color more than anything else.
Salt-and-pepper squid ($6.95), on the other hand, turned out to be a success: tender with just a bit of chewiness and the pepper in the batter helping cut the grease. Even better was a platter of sea scallops ($8.95) stir-fried kung pao–style, with chunks of red and green bell pepper, chopped scallion, and a heavy showering of peanuts in a dark, thick, smoky-sweet sauce.
The sizzling-rice seafood soup ($5.95) didn’t amount to much beyond its rafts of sizzling rice: just some sliced shiitake caps, bits of chopped scallion, and a few lonely dried shrimp bobbing in an OK broth. And the steamed prawns ($21.90), a platter-filling spectacle of finger-size crustaceans split in half and sprinkled with a garlic-shallot sauce that looked like couscous cooked in bleach, were distinctly disappointing, rubbery in the mouth and tasting of feebleness.
One of the best dishes — oh irony! — has nothing to do with the sea. This would be the minced squab lettuce cup ($11.95), a mu shu pork–like construct (complete with a side of hoisin sauce) in which pristine iceberg lettuce leaves are substituted for the pancakes and the meat mixture is scooped into them. If you’ve ever struggled with squab in a restaurant that served the little fowl on the bone — for flavor or authenticity’s sake or due to the chef’s busy schedule — you will sniffle in appreciation at the ease and pleasure of munching through this dish.
For a restaurant whose clientele appears to be overwhelmingly Chinese, service is Anglophone-friendly and quite gregarious, though I felt the Heinekens were pushed a little too keenly. Service with brio, meanwhile, does not necessarily mean efficiency: we went out of our way to order an item and it never appeared, except on the bill. So: celebrate, but verify. SFBG
Daily, 10 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
4401 Balboa, SF
(415) 666-9928
Very noisy
Wheelchair accessible

Sea rations


› paulr@sfbg.com
One of the stronger arguments for vegetarianism is variety: there are far more kinds of vegetables and ways of preparing vegetables than there are meats and ways of preparing meat, even if you eat mutton. (And know where to get it.) Fish and seafood too are more various than meats — or at least they have been. There is growing evidence that most of the world’s major fisheries are drifting toward collapse; the British author Charles Clover gives a chillingly thorough review of the evidence in his new book, The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat (New Press, $26.95).
Eating fish, then, is no longer presumptively virtuous. It matters what fish we eat: farmed or wild, how and where taken if wild, health of the overall population, and so forth. Earlier this year, while reacquainting myself with Hayes Street Grill after some years’ absence, I noticed that the menu card now gives a good deal of information about the sources of the restaurant’s maritime dishes. The plain assumption is that diners want and need this information, that they are beginning to understand that choices about food involve a moral dimension and that considering the moral dimension of one’s choices need not ruin the meal nor the evening.
Given HSG’s position as an exemplar, I was curious as to whether its attention to sourcing might have begun to influence other seafood houses around town. One of the most obvious places to start looking would have to be Alamo Square Seafood Grill, which since the middle 1990s has sat atop a romantic stretch of Fillmore a block from the hilltop park that provides its name. From the beginning, Alamo Square borrowed a page from the HSG playbook by letting diners choose from among several varieties of fish, cooking method, and sauce. One difference: you did not get fries, as at HSG. On the other hand, there was — and remains — an early bird prix fixe option, three courses for $14.50 and a reminder that Alamo Square began as an offshoot of that long-running prix fixery, Baker Street Bistro, at the edge of the Presidio.
The restaurant looks none the worse for a decade of wear, except that the northern face of the street sign (wreathed in Christmassy little white lights) has lost its initial A: if, trekking uphill, you come across a place called lamo Square, you are there. Inside the storefront space, the mood is one of candlelit intimacy, and the crowd is varied, consisting largely of people in their 20s and early 30s (neighborhood folk?), along with the occasional interloper. A youngish couple who had Marina written all over them arrived in a silvery Aston Martin coupe, which they parked in the bus zone right outside the restaurant’s door. Oh Department of Parking and Traffic, where are you at those rare moments when you could actually be useful? Not that some DPT timeliness would have mattered in this case, since the canny pair took a window seat with a view of bus stop and car.
Our first order of business was establishing which of the proffered fish we might conscionably eat. Trout: no, a farmed carnivore, with aquafarming the cause of environmental pollution and carnivorous fish requiring on the order of four pounds of wild fish to return a pound of salable flesh. Mahimahi: attractively firm and abundant, though flown in from Hawaii. Red snapper: a local fish with decently managed populations, just a wee bit boring. And … an ahi tuna loin, prepared according to a set recipe. Tuna is dicey: bluefin is a no-no, other varieties somewhat less so.
Red snapper ($13.95), luckily, takes well to blackening even if it’s just the Pacific kind, not the true variety from the Gulf of Mexico. We found the mâitre d’hôtel sauce — basically a garlic and parsley butter — to be just assertive enough to make its voice heard without challenging the fish. The more party-hearty Provençale sauce — of tomatoes, black olives, capers, and garlic, a combination reminiscent of Neapolitan puttanesca — made a nice match with grilled mahimahi ($13.95), a fish that, like chicken, welcomes a little help and usually benefits from it. Platters of fish (not too little, not too much) were served with brown rice pilaf and a mélange of sautéed vegetables, among pattypan squash, zucchini, carrots, and button mushrooms; none of this quite matched good French fries for excitement, but it was all pretty tasty and much lower in fat.
The kitchen handles nonfish dishes with equal aplomb, from an amuse of wild-mushroom pottage spiked with a little balsamic vinegar and presented in demitasses to a fabulous salad of shredded romaine hearts ($6.75) tossed with crisp lardons, slivers of carrot and French radish, garlic croutons, blue cheese, and lemon oil. A soup ($6.25) of artichoke and fennel topped with pipings of curry oil was desperately underseasoned — all we could taste was the sweetness of the fennel — but a few good pinches from the tabletop salt dish coaxed the artichoke flavor forth.
There was even an occasional flash of wit, as in a tarte tatin ($5) made with pears instead of apples and presented in the au courant, deconstructed style: the pear slices were fanned over a floor of pastry. It looked a little like a pear pastry lasagna the chef hadn’t quite finished putting together. On the side, a pat of vanilla ice cream nodded to tradition.
As we left, we noted the Marina couple chattering away in their little surveillance box and the Aston Martin still sitting in the bus stop, ticketless. We gave the restaurant pretty good grades, in the A to A- range, for both overall experience and sustainability. Maybe the place can use one of those As to get the sign fixed. SFBG
Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.; Sun., 5–9:30 p.m.
803 Fillmore, SF
(415) 440-2828
Beer and wine
Wheelchair accessible

Love child


› paulr@sfbg.com
At the Front Porch, you will find a front porch. It’s not the kind of porch you’d see at Grandma’s house, with the bug screens and the swinging lounger; it’s more a big-city version, a covered sidewalk garden casually set with small tables and Adirondack chairs — an alfresco waiting room for those waiting to score a table inside. This is a nice idea, since the Front Porch is one of those restaurants that seems to have been packed from the moment it opened its doors, toward the end of the summer.
If you imagine the love child of Range and Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack, you will have a decent picture of the Front Porch. The crowd is hipsterish, though less visibly monied than Range’s; there are fewer black cashmere mock turtlenecks and Italian shoes, more thrift-store ensembles and scruffy beards. The Emmy’s connection isn’t trivial, either, and not just because Emmy’s is but a few blocks away. The chef, Sarah Kirnon, is an Emmy’s expat, as is one of the co-owners, Josephine White. (The other owner is Bix-seasoned Kevin Cline.) Kirnon’s menu is, as it was at Emmy’s, value conscious, though many of the dishes break the $10 ceiling (if not by much), and the food nods in a Caribbean direction (Kirnon grew up in Barbados) while keeping its feet pretty firmly on all-American soil.
Once you are summoned to your table, you will find, inside, a cheerfully honky-tonk look: sage green walls, a floor covered in red and cream linoleum, a long bar of burnished wood backed by an antique cash register, an old-style ceiling of tin squares impressed with artful curves, and a good deal of din. The wait, incidentally, need not be interminable; we waltzed in one evening and immediately bagged the last table for two, and on another resorted to Plan B — immediate seating at the bar — which for me carried happy associations of dinner at Stars’ mammoth installation. The restaurant accepts reservations for larger parties only, which raises the crapshoot factor for twosomes.
The Caribbean notes most resoundingly struck by Kirnon’s kitchen had to do, so far as I could tell, with okra. This semiexotic vegetable, the key ingredient of gumbo, turned up one evening as a deep-fried starter and again in the same evening’s edition of Sarah’s vegan surprise ($9.50). In the latter dish, halved lengths of it, looking like split jalapeño peppers, swam in a spicy tomato sauce along with cubes of butternut squash, while looming in the middle of the broad bowl was a craggy jumble: a stubby cylinder of corn on the cob and a clutch of plantains, battered and deep-fried and looking like giant McNuggets. The overall effect was one of sweet fire, though I think the plantains would have been just as nice and not as rich if they’d been sliced and oven-roasted into chips. And a word of reassurance to those who dislike okra for its horror flick sliminess: in Kirnon’s hands it seems to remain firm and ungross of texture.
Well-crisped plantain chips (for scooping) appeared with the tuna tartare ($8.63), the diced, deep-purple fish quite spicy and topped with scatters of minced scallion and flying-fish roe. Also surprisingly spicy was a stack of heirloom tomato slices ($7), mainly because of the slathering of creole mayonnaise; an acidic counterpoint was provided by a jaunty cap of pickled carrot and red-beet slices.
The main courses glide effortlessly between prole and petit bourgeois. On the nether end we have the Porch burger ($11), a big — but not too big — pat of broiled beef topped with melted cheddar cheese and two slices of crisp bacon. The bun, fresh and tender but … too big. The burger in the bun looked lost, like a little boy trying on one of his father’s dress shirts. At the far end of town we find the tony Dungeness crab porridge ($11.50), a Range-worthy dish whose porridge consists of white polenta (“grits” is the local-color term) bewitchingly scented with lemon. In the middle of the pond of porridge rests an islet of crab meat flecked with habanero peppers and scallion. Habaneros can be scorching, but here they behave.
The porridge’s well-dressed siblings from the starter menu might include a pistou look-alike: a broth of lime juice, rock salt, and puréed mint ($6.50) set with avocado quarters, green beans, and svelte coins of radish and cucumber — tasty and discreetly austere. Indiscreetly unaustere are the deep-fried chicken livers ($6) on a slice of brioche toast with a drizzling of caramelized onion sauce. We agreed that this dish tasted like a cheeseburger, but perhaps that was just the fat talking.
Desserts (all $6) pack a homey punch. We found a subtle sophistication in a slice of pumpkin Bundt cake laced with chocolate chunks and plated with a sensuous puff of what the restaurant calls “sweet cream” and what most of us know as whipped cream. The same cream turns up like a wisp of tulle fog beside a slice of yellow cake with double chocolate frosting — as good as anything Mom used to make. For that frisson of decadence, $2 extra buys you a scoop of vanilla on the side, and as we were especially decadent, we ended up — by accident or design? — with both the cream and the ice cream. The plate looked as if a blizzard had just roared through.
No blizzards in these parts, of course, just — sometimes — unnaturally early rain. We waited on the front porch until it had mostly abated, then made a dash for it. SFBG
Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5:30–10:30 p.m. Continuous service: Sun., noon–9 p.m.
65A 29th St., SF
(415) 695-7800
Beer and wine
Wheelchair accessible

Got capsicum?


› paulr@sfbg.com
With time, one finds oneself bidding fond farewells to one’s spicehound friends. Oh, nothing changes too dramatically, except that bit by bit (or bite by bite), onetime fire-eaters lose their taste for the thrill of capsicum. Certain alluring foods of yore — chili, pepperoni pizza, Mongolian beef — start to cause problems, especially if eaten too near bedtime. You still go out with them, your spicehound pack, but when they point at this or that on the menu, wondering which dishes are spicy, they are plotting routes of retreat now, not angles of approach. Everybody is silently hoping to sleep through the night, like babies with dry diapers, not awaken at 2 a.m. with a remorseful jolt and a growing blaze amidships. People sip their green tea, and they do so carefully.
For years I held out against this trend. X and Y might no longer fling themselves into the spiciest dishes they could find, like boys from a Mark Twain novel plunging with a whoop into a water hole of unknown depth, but I still had a taste for flame. Then, recently, I ate at So, a modish Chinese noodle house on that insanely busy stretch of Irving just west of 19th Avenue, and I heard the bell toll. There was no need to ask for whom it was tolling: it tolled for me. It tolled and tolled, in fact, and I ignored it. Later I was sorry, but at the time I was in a bliss of tingling lips and couldn’t be bothered to heed the alarm.
So is an atypical Chinese restaurant in a number of respects. For one thing, its menu consists largely of soup and noodle — and soupy noodle — dishes, as at a Vietnamese pho house. It also has a spare, modernist youthfulness devoid of tired linoleum floors and harsh overhead lighting; the walls are bright yellow and the ceiling a rich gray blue, while a noisy crowd young enough to match the youth of the staff sits at rosewood tables on rosewood chairs. Mainly, though, So is a temple of the incendiary. I cannot recall the last time I found so much chile firepower in one place. It is the gastronomic equivalent of a munitions cache.
So … you have been warned, or summoned. I must also add that portion sizes are simply immense. The noodle soups are served in bowls the size of cantaloupe halves and can easily satisfy two if not three, especially if you open with one of the splendid starters. If you notice that these take a little longer to reach the table than is usual in Chinese restaurants (many of which rush them out in just a few minutes), it’s because they’re made to order and with care. The pot stickers ($5.50) in particular are exceptional; they reach the table nested in a pinwheel pattern, are fragrant with fresh ginger when opened, and — what is most noticeable — are wrapped in homemade dough that has a definite fresh-bread springiness and smell to it. When you eat these pot stickers, you will likely realize that most of the other restaurant pot stickers you’ve ever eaten in your life were prepackaged and reheated items. Mass-market, mass-produced stuff. So’s are revelatory.
Nearly as good are fried shrimp dumplings ($6), also powerfully gingery, and dried sautéed string beans ($5) in a thick garlic sauce. The So chicken wings ($5.25) — really a hodgepodge of wings and drumsticks — are a clever and potent Chinese retort to the American cliché of buffalo wings; So dips its poultry parts into a batter that crisps up nicely, then drizzles them with a molasses-thick sauce of garlic, ginger, and slivered red chiles for some smolder. The sauce accompanying the curry coroque ($4) — three Japanese-style potato croquettes, about the size and shape of Brillo pads — looks similar but has a stronger acid presence: hoisin with some rice wine vinegar?
The starters are tasty but not, as a rule, hot, which makes the arrival of a dish like pork with hot peppers ($6.35) — a platter heaped with a stir-fry of shredded meat, chopped jalapeños, onions, and scallions, with a spicy garlic sauce — rather bracing. Only slightly less forceful is shredded pork with garlic ($6.35), which substitutes serene water chestnuts and willow tree fungus for the raucous hot peppers and adds a splash of vinegar for clearheadedness.
“My nose is running,” said the spicehound emeritus to my left. He found himself confronting the seafood soup noodle ($6.35), a sea of spicy broth clogged with shrimp, calamari, scallops, and napa cabbage — something like an East Asian answer to cioppino. His longing gaze drifted across the table to the seaweed noodle soup ($6.35), a kind of giant egg-drop soup fortified with seaweed and spinach, peas, mushrooms, and shrimp. The flavor of the broth was deep but beatifically mild, like the blue of a lovely sunset at the end of a windless and warm — but not hot — day.
The social experience of So is nearly as intense as the peppery food. We found the place packed early on a Sunday evening; tablefuls of young folk mounted a steady roar of conversation while others waited on the sidewalk, barking into cell phones of many colors until tables opened up. The service at dinnertime is friendly and efficient but forever teetering on the brink of being overwhelmed. During a noontime visit, on the other hand, I found a rather startling calm and was able to notice that a “help wanted” sign was posted on the front door — a clue that business is quite a bit better than so-so. SFBG
Tues.–Thurs., 5–9:30 p.m., Fri.–Sat., noon–10 p.m., Sun., noon–9:30 p.m.
2240 Irving, SF
(415) 731-3143
Beer and wine
Very noisy if crowded
Wheelchair accessible

Charm latitudes


› paulr@sfbg.com
Presidents are so seldom intentionally funny that when a genuine wit makes it to the Oval Office, we (the people!) tend to notice and remember. As a quipster, John F. Kennedy is without peer in modern times, and while his crack that Washington, DC, is “a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency” might not be his best line, it’s still a pretty good one — not to mention useful for certain latter-day restaurant writers, who admire the deftly phrased paradox while being perennially fascinated by the truth embedded in it. Whether in the New World or the Old, we tend to think of the north as the home of efficiency and practicality, the south of beauty and sensuality, and can ever the twain meet without some sort of Death in Venice disaster?
Kennedy described himself as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris” — another excellent line — so we know he traveled to France. Did he notice, when there, that France might be the one place on earth where the twain could indeed be said happily to meet — that France is simultaneously a northern land of clean cities, fast trains, and a more or less honest bureaucracy and also a Mediterranean realm on easy terms with life’s sunlit pleasures? If so, he has left us no witticism to announce the fact. But I think he would have warmed to Cafe Claude, which isn’t in Paris but feels as if it is, on some lane in the Marais too narrow even for Europe’s ubiquitous Smart Cars.
Here the lane is Claude Lane, a brief segment of asphalt lined by tall glassy buildings that rise in the complex borderland of Union Square, Chinatown, and the Financial District. Nearby Belden Lane, paved with bricks and lined from one end to the other with cafés, trattorias, and fish houses, is better known as a Euro-style restaurant row, but the basic principle is the same, as is the strollable, alfresco feel. The city seems less encroaching in these places, and that is largely because cars are unable to speed through.
Cafe Claude opened more than 15 years ago, so teething and shake-down issues belong to the deep past. The more pertinent question for a place of this age is whether it manages to be both polished and self-renewing or whether senescence has set in. In Café Claude’s case, the answer is pretty clear: it’s in its prime, lively and well run, with food of the urban-earthy sort — rustic dishes prepared with soupçons of metropolitan flash — so characteristic of a certain stratum of Paris restaurants.
For many people, the ultimate treat in French bistros is a plate of steak frites. For me, it is roast chicken ($12.50), a leg and thigh slow-cooked to a gold-dripping tenderness and served with a bright mix of chard, lemon slices, and black olives adrift in the jus. Fries go quite as well with roast chicken as with beef, but at Claude you have to order them on the side ($4, plenty for two). They are sprinkled with herbs and served with a “sauce piquant,” a kind of paprika-enhanced sauce gribiche, lumpy with stubs of cornichons.
The duck rillette ($5) situates a petite slice of meaty pâté, about the size of a brownie, in a vast nest of greens. If shared by two people, the dish is like a charcuterie version of an Easter egg hunt, with the spoils consisting of a single egg. It is best to think of the rillette as a tasting experience: a burst or two of flavor, then on to something weightier, such as that excellent blast from the past, coquilles St. Jacques ($11). Here we have a trio of sea scallops on the half shell bundled with shrimp, mussels, and mushrooms and sealed, oysters Rockefeller–style, under a broiled cap of Gruyère and bread crumbs. The presentation is simple but impressive, and there is a definite unwrapping-a-present pleasure in cracking through the cap to the glistening treasures within.
Weightier still is lamb confit ($23), two rounds of lamb loin braised to pot-roast tenderness and served atop shreds of green cabbage dotted with black olives and bits of red bell pepper. Lamb fat can get pungent if heated, and I had a worry or two beforehand that lamb cooked in lamb fat would be a little too gamy, but the dinnertime kitchen (under chef Leo Salazar) succeeded in discreetly hitting the mute button, with the result a nice lamby — but not too lamby — flavor.
Complaints: the roast-carrot soup ($7), with a submerged reef of Emmentaler gratings, was tongue-searingly hot. A napoleon ($12) of sliced tomatoes and tabs of feta cheese was underseasoned, though the heirloom tomatoes were gloriously ripe. A pan bagnat ($10) featured a smear of tuna salad apparently made from ordinary canned tuna.
But all this was forgiven and then some when the list of digestifs was found to include Armagnac. Armagnac! A snifter for $8 — not bad. Could this be the next big thing? I sippingly pondered that question while the clafouti monster across the table dove into a griotte cherry version ($7) — eggy, I thought (upon a sample or two), but attractively so and baked in a handsome dish of white porcelain.
Cafe Claude must be one of the nicest spots in town to eat outside. There is less tumult and wind than on Belden, and while conventional wisdom teaches that the alfresco season is fleeting in this land of pampered softies, we must remember that the French have a different view: Parisians will take their coffee at sidewalk cafés even with snowflakes twirling softly down around them. So there is northern charm after all. SFBG

Continuous service: Mon.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m. Dinner: Sun., 5:30–10:30 p.m.
7 Claude Lane, SF
(415) 392-3515
Full bar
Wheelchair accessible

Mild to wild


› paulr@sfbg.com
“Mandarin” is a word that suggests a certain grandeur or even haughtiness. Mandarin English is the language of such pompmeisters as William F. Buckley Jr., George F. Will, and all those other East Coast bow-tied toffs with Roman numerals after their names. As for mandarin food: if you are enjoying this style of Chinese cooking, you must sit up straight, keep your napkin in your lap, and not eat with your fingers. Can you see Buckley or Will eating pot stickers with their fingers?
Perhaps that is a needlessly nightmarish image. Mandarin need not mean “chokingly formal.” Even the Mandarin in Ghirardelli Square, despite much plushness and high style, retains an agreeably casual air — and the Mandarin is not the exclusive home of mandarin cooking in the city. Although mandarin cuisine is sometimes known as “the food of the emperors” and is strongly associated with Beijing — China’s imperial city — it can be found in creditable form here in such neighborhood restaurants as Ah Lin, which opened last year on Cathedral Hill in a space left behind when the peripatetic the Window returned to its original home on Valencia.
If you’re looking for cathedrals, Cathedral Hill isn’t a bad place to start your search: at one end of Ah Lin’s Bush Street block stands Trinity Episcopal, an imposing gothic edifice that looks as if it were transplanted from some village in the north of England. If that doesn’t suit, there are plenty of alternative choices just a brief journey down Gough. And at the other end of Ah Lin’s little urban world (to complete our sacred-and-profane cycle) is Wheel Works, a temple of the automotive, whose large, white, mostly windowless garage takes up most of the view through the restaurant’s windows.
Fortunately, it is not necessary to look outside, because the interior of the restaurant is appealing in its modest way: walls done up in a paint scheme of rich blue, with peach accents and some framed art pieces, along with a good-sized light box whose ground-level plantings give it the look of a big (and slightly tippy) terrarium. Linoleum? Didn’t notice any, but then, I wasn’t looking, and one of the reasons I wasn’t looking — apart from the childish hope that if I didn’t notice it, it couldn’t be there — was because I was too engrossed in the food.
As a devotee of spicy food, my Chinese preferences over the years have tended toward Szechuan and Hunan cooking, each of which makes liberal use of chiles — and chilis — to kindle that characteristic blaze on the lips. Mandarin dishes, on the other hand, tend to be milder, but mild does not mean bland, and as the kitchen at Ah Lin proves over and over, even even-tempered dishes can have their own sort of savory intensity.
The restaurant’s chow fun ($6.95), for instance, sounded very Clark Kent–ish to us — wide noodles with a restful choice of chicken, beef, shrimp, or vegetable — but while the array of these last was routine (snow peas, broccoli florets, sliced mushrooms), the noodles themselves tasted as if they had been cooked in some kind of broth. (Chicken, perhaps? Vegetarian sticklers will want to inquire.) This is a very easy and effective way to enliven starches, but just to make sure, the kitchen also added shreds of basil for some freshening perfume.
Another subtly addictive, peppery broth was the basis of the ocean party soup ($5.50 for a small bowl that was more than enough for two people), a mélange of shrimp, bay scallops, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and snow peas. Having sampled this soup and the chow fun, we did feel we probably could have passed a pop quiz on what the restaurant’s vegetable bin held.
The menu is full of classic preparations. I fell into a Proustian reverie — memories of long ago and far away on Halsted Street — while engulfing the excellent mu shu pork ($7.50), notable here for its tender pancakes. Even more impressive was a roasted half duck ($8.25). The bird carried a faint and unsurprising whiff of five-spice powder, but its real power lay in the combination of wonderfully crisp, cognac-colored skin and confitlike meat, juicy and tender. At the price, it’s one of the best bargains going.
There is some spice to be had, mainly at lunch. Orange-peel beef ($5.75) is one of those cardiac-arrest dishes you know you shouldn’t have but can’t resist, and there’s a good reason you can’t resist: the knobbly shreds of meat are perfectly crisp and the dark-brown sauce intense with citrus and basil; this is just the kind of thing we might find Homer Simpson gorging on from a big paper bucket, if only it were a little dryer. Hunan fish ($5.75), meanwhile, featured a tangy-sweet sauce with a discreet hint of heat, but what was more striking was the fish itself — fish cakes, really, with a certain sponginess of texture the price of uniformity in size (for more reliable cooking) and the chance to mix seasonings with the flesh. The cakes aren’t unmanageably rubbery, but they can’t match the more usual cod or flounder filets for velvetiness. Lunches come with a cup of soup, a quite lively sweet-and-sour maybe, and rice — brown rice, if you prefer.
Although the restaurant is quite small, service can be stressed. The noontime crowd is sizable, and in the evening take-out orders pile up on the cashier’s podium at the rear of the dining room. So: serenity now, and your order will be along soon enough. SFBG
Continuous service: Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sat., noon–9:30 p.m.; Sun., 4:30–9:30 p.m.
1634 Bush, SF
(415) 922-5279
Beer and wine
Moderately noisy
Wheelchair accessible

In the family way


› paulr@sfbg.com
When last I saw John Lombardo, proprietor of Lombardo’s Fine Foods, he was hurrying along the sidewalk outside the windows of his recently expanded Mission Terrace operation — a café now adjoins the catering kitchen — on his way home to … change the baby’s diapers? He had revealed to us his domestic mission, with apologies and having first checked to make sure we were satisfied with our food, and it is some measure of how satisfied we were that I forgot why he said he was rushing forth almost as soon as he’d said why. He vanished with a wave of his hand (the family place is just around the corner), and we waved back before reimmersing ourselves in an evening of home cooking, an orgy of manicotti, macaroni, orzo, and lasagna, all made according to what Lombardo told us were “family recipes.”
Cultural dry rot takes many forms — as we can see just by glancing around us these days — but one of the most insidious of those forms, for me, is the loss of ancient culinary knowledge passed down through generations, until some generation isn’t interested or can’t be bothered, and the chain breaks, the knowledge is lost, people end up ordering boxed pizza or microwaving canned soup in desperation. Some family recipes do get written down, and written recipes are better than nothing, but most of them don’t get written down. There is no better way to learn to cook, moreover, than by watching someone who knows what she or he is doing. Cooking is a sensual experience — it requires the engagement of the senses, all of them — and even the best written recipe can never be much more than a ghostly guide by comparison.
Who taught Lombardo how to cook? He graduated from the California Culinary Academy and has been a professional caterer for more than 20 years, so there we have at least two nonfamilial elements of the answer. But as my companion and I stood at the glass case, pointing at this and that with a question or two, Lombardo’s answers tended to include the phrase “family recipe” with some frequency. An orzo salad ($4), for instance, with julienne red bell pepper, shreds of mint, and crumblings of sheep-milk feta cheese folded into the ricelike pasta, was a family recipe. So was manicotti ($6.50), flaps of pasta like pig’s ears stuffed with herbed ricotta cheese and bathed in a garlicky marinara sauce decorated with basil chiffonade. We mopped up the last of the marinara sauce with chunks of grilled Italian bread.
The lineage of the lasagna ($10) did not come up, but any mother (or father, for that matter) would have been proud to bequeath to later generations the animating combination of beef and fennel-scented sausage at the heart of this classic dish. The addictive roasted red-pepper soup (thickened with potato and laced with sunflower seeds), which appeared as an opening act, wouldn’t be a bad legacy either.
Opinion at our little table (the café is tiny: just a handful of tables, though lots of windows) diverged rather startlingly on the matter of the macaroni and cheese ($8). We have never before disagreed about mac and cheese, have loved every one, fancy or plain, with Gruyère and Emmentaler or jack and American — yet the assessor across the table did not quite care for this version, with its faint, Asiatic breaths of nutmeg, turmeric, and mustard seeds and its vivid yellow color, while I found those effects (apart from the yellow) reminiscent of pastitsio, a traditional and beloved Greek dish. We did agree that the accompanying black-bean chili, with its pipings of crème fraîche, was lovely.
For Lombardo, pasta is very much the motif and casserole the method, but his flavor palettes, while heavily Italian, are not exclusively so. Besides the black-bean chili, there is also a fine turkey enchilada casserole ($9): almost a kind of Mexican lasagna, built on a floor of masa and including roasted poblano peppers, white cheese, a chili-scented tomato sauce, and plenty of turkey meat — stringy but tender, like Thanksgiving leftovers.
And there is life beyond pasta and casseroles: the café also offers a range of grilled panini — slices of grilled Italian country bread enclosing such treats as roast beef ($9). The roast beef sandwich includes caramelized onions, shavings of Gruyère, and smearings of horseradish sauce, with a crouton-rich (and under-anchovied but still quite tasty) Caesar salad on the side.
The front of the tiny house is intermittently overseen by Lombardo’s wife, Gwen, whose presence enhances the family-affair effect. She takes orders, runs the cash register, and serves the food while her husband the chef works behind her in the open kitchen, which occupies the long leg of the L-shaped space. It is possible that she also occasionally dashes home on some child-related errand, but when she is in situ, the Lombardos are not so much a power couple — the Bob and Liddy Dole of food — but joint laborers for love in a field that, while difficult, still makes room for little guys. For the restaurant business remains surprisingly, stubbornly local; yes, there are chains, but the chains tend to remind us of how many places are not chains: are instead unique, are expressions of a single sensibility, or are the product of a determined team that’s found a neighborhood niche. Will Lombardo’s Fine Foods turn out to be life’s pinnacle for John and Gwen Lombardo? The excellence of the orzo salad suggests to me that the answer is no — heights still to be scaled — but in the meantime, home is where the heart is. SFBG
Continuous service: Tues.–Fri., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.–9 p.m.
1818 San Jose, SF
(415) 337-9741
Beer and wine pending
Moderately noisy
Wheelchair accessible

Watch on the Rhine


› paulr@sfbg.com
If San Francisco were Europe, Divisadero Street would be the Rhine: the heavily traveled commercial artery that crosses a jigsaw puzzle of (sometimes) quarrelsome fiefs, duchies, and principalities on its way north or south. In this paradigm I make the stretch of Divis from California to Geary, more or less, to be our Alsace-Lorraine, the six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the-other province long the subject of a tug-of-war between greater powers. The contenders across the pond were (and maybe are) Germany and France; over here they are Pacific Heights, land of the rich blond hets, and a confederation of the Lower Haight, NoPa, and parts of the Western Addition — in other words, hipster lands.
Naturally I am not suggesting that Pacific Heights is our Germany; not at all. For some years, the most conspicuous outpost of Marina culture on the nether side of Pacific Heights has been Frankie’s Bohemian Café, a lively simulacrum of some Prague haunt filled with riotous American frat boys who take their Pilsner Urquell by the pitcher. But in recent months there has been southward creep and the establishment of a new outpost: Tortilla Heights, a Mexican restaurant for gringos that opened earlier this spring in the strange space that used to belong to Minerva.
The space is strange — to me — because I can’t quite decide if it more nearly resembles a sound stage or a gymnasium in a public school. If the latter, then the decor is now in the prom-night vein, with some kind of cantina theme: brightly colored lights hanging from the ceiling, booths along the wall sheltered by thatched faux-roofs, and salsa music. The design touches are enough to let you know you are in some kind of Mexican restaurant, but they also have an improvised, portable quality that doesn’t suggest permanence.
And yet … on a recent Saturday night, we found the place pretty well jammed, and it was early. And while the crowd had its share of blonds and fratty types, it also included an elderly couple with their walkers, along with several sets of young mothers whose small children clung to the legs of mommy’s jeans or were stowed under mommy’s arms; it was like a social version of Noah’s ark. There is a chance that this eclectic group was drawn by the restaurant’s witty name — which reminds us, simultaneously, of Tortilla Flats and Pacific Heights — but it is more likely they came for the food, which is surprisingly good. While the menu is very much in the American comfort zone, it includes a variety of regional Mexican dishes, and the kitchen’s preparations are careful and emphasize freshness.
The Yucatecan-style citrus marinade in the grilled citrus chicken burrito ($6.50), for example, is noticeable as both a hint of sweet-sourness in and a tenderizing influence on the poultry flesh. It’s a small detail, but good cooking is nothing but small details. Another such detail is the roasted garlic cream that adds a grace note of luxurious richness to the otherwise virtuous plate of Cabo-style fish tacos ($11), a troika of warm white-corn tortillas stuffed with grilled white fish and shredded cabbage.
A larger detail is that the bigger plates do not come larded with huge scoops of rice and beans — starch that most of us really don’t need, especially if we have stuffed ourselves with complimentary chips and salsa while waiting for the show to begin. (Tortilla Heights, not surprisingly, is swift and generous in replenishing the chips bowl; the salsa was pleasantly fiery on one visit, undersalted on another.) Big blobs of beans and rice do have a way of furnishing a platter, but when they aren’t there, it’s easier to see the dish you actually ordered: an Oaxacan tostada ($11), say, with a heap of wonderfully tender carnitas (along with cilantro-lime cabbage and shavings of parmesan cheese) atop a pair of crisped corn tortillas. Or the blue-corn enchiladas ($12) filled with grilled chicken and topped with melted white cheese and a tart tomatillo salsa.
My friend the cheddarhead, a reliable lover of all things cheesy, did not like the queso chorizo ($5), a small tub of melted mixed cheeses laced with chunks of chili sausage and strips of green chile. The cheese did have a certain Velveeta quality, but it was just the right consistency for dipping surplus chips into. The guacamole ($5), meanwhile, was mainstream but beautifully made, with fresh avocados still chunky from not being overmashed and a good jolt of lime juice for mood lighting. The cheddarhead lodged no complaints.
The contemplation of desserts in Mexican restaurants is usually a perfunctory business. You have flan, and maybe something else. At Tortilla Heights, the dessert menu is characteristically brief, but it does contain one extraordinary item: the churros ($4), a half dozen or so ridged torpedoes of cinnamon-dusted, deep-fried pastry, about the size of medium zucchini, with a ramekin of caramel sauce for dipping them in. The sauce is good, but if it weren’t there you probably wouldn’t miss it, because the churros are sufficient unto themselves: a divine combination of crunchy and tender, sweet but not too sweet, an exotic whisper of cinnamon, and — yes — the fattiness that makes pastry, pastry, particularly if deep-fried. You might well feel uneasy, maybe even guilty, about enjoying them so much, but don’t worry — you had the fish tacos and didn’t like the queso, so you’ll be OK. SFBG
Continuous service: Tues.–Sun., 11–2 a.m.
1750 Divisadero, SF
(415) 346-4531
Full bar
Wheelchair accessible

Camp Hip


› paulr@sfbg.com
Everybody seems to love Thai food, but the oohing and aahing is generally confined to the cooking. You don’t hear much about the stunning designs of Thai restaurants. In one sense, this is just fine; good food is its own reward, and overclever interior decoration can lead to sensory overload. Still, Thai restaurants tend to be plain Janes more often than not, many fitted out with those steel-frame chairs that look like they’ve been salvaged from the mess hall of some battleship that’s being put into mothballs, or scrapped.
You will not find such chairs at Be My Guest, a Thai bistro that opened recently along inner Clement. You will find, instead, curvy white plastic numbers that look like halves of giant eggshells mounted on bird legs. Have we stumbled onto the set of an early Woody Allen movie, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, maybe, in which Woody plays spermatozoa anxiously awaiting to launch to … he knows not where? One would not say the overall bleachiness of Be My Guest’s look — white walls and curtains complete the laundry-day motif — is beautiful, exactly, but it does command attention and does strike a certain balance between camp and hip. (Camp hip, is this a permissible term?) And those who detect a slight LA edge in the playful tackiness will not be surprised to learn that there is a sibling restaurant, Gindhi Thai, in the southland.
The chairs are not particularly comfortable. They have a water-slide quality, and one has to be careful not to end up on the floor while shifting one’s legs, which must serve as braces. But that is really my only misgiving about a place that otherwise is a worthy addition to the already formidable array of restaurants along Clement between Arguello and Park Presidio. Be My Guest might not quite be a destination restaurant on its own, but it is part of, and contributes to, one of the city’s premier destination zones, those stretches of street you can meander along, studying menu cards, until you find a place that appeals and pop in, knowing you aren’t likely to be disappointed. (NB: parking is an ordeal.)
Like a number of Thai places I have visited recently, Be My Guest is rather effortlessly vegetarian friendly. To make sure, I paid a visit with a vegetarian friend, who immediately picked up the flavor of shrimp in the basket of delicious rice crisps of many colors set before us, to nibble as we pondered the menu. (With this quibble duly noted, we nibbled them together.) She went on to detect the presence of fish sauce in the delicious tofu larb ($6.95), minced (and slightly rubbery, but not in a bad way) bean curd mixed with lime juice, mint, and chiles and heaped on romaine spears useful for scooping. Since I am just a part-time vegetarian, it would never have occurred to me that fish sauce — which is as central to the Indo-Chinese cuisines as soy sauce is to the cooking of China and Japan — would raise an issue. Full-time vegetarians will want to plan accordingly.
No flag was raised over the sweet-potato fritters ($6.95), which resembled dragonflies cast in bronze and would have been even better if there’d been some kind of sauce to dip them in. (The fritters were presented with cucumber two ways: as slices linked together in paper-doll fashion, and diced into a vinegary little salad with carrot threads.) And we knew beforehand that the panang curry ($9.95), fettucinelike strips of boneless chicken awash in a well-tempered red sauce, would present no vegetarian issue, since no vegetarian would go near it despite its rich deliciousness. (Panang curry is a coconut-milk curry enhanced with ground peanuts — a Malaysian touch.) On the other hand, the veg curry corner ($9.95) — a crock of soupy, basil-scented green curry laden with broccoli florets, chunked eggplant, snow peas, and green beans — passed vegetarian scrutiny like a traveler, divested of shoes, watch, belt buckle, loose change, and toothpaste, sailing through a security checkpoint at the airport.
Given the egg-shaped chairs, it follows that we would find an omelet ($6.95) on the noontime menu — a vegetarian omelet no less, filled with mixed greens, spinach, asparagus, mushrooms, and tofu and given a definite Southeast Asian perfume by ginger and lemongrass. But the wider possibilities of lunchtime are grouped under the rubric “Afternoon Delight,” which provides (for $7.25) a choice of starter and of main course, along with soup, salad, rice, and seasonal fruit. One day’s soup, of celery and tofu in a pale vegetable broth, we found to be no better than serviceable, the salad was a wallflower heap of mixed greens, and the fruit consisted of some grapes and orange wedges. But the fish cake, though texturally a bit of a rubber sponge, was intensely tasty (and a pretty caramel color), while a red vegetable curry was rich and just spicy enough to conceal the plebeian character of its carrot-and-potato ballast.
Thai bistro. I choke slightly on this expression while accepting that, at least in its American sense, it does apply to Be My Guest. The place captures just the right balance of hominess and style: its hours are liberal and its prices moderate, and it draws (especially on weekend evenings) a diverse crowd, tilting toward youth and bubbling with energy. And that’s everything you always wanted to know. SFBG
Dinner: daily, 4–10:30 p.m.
Lunch: daily, 11 a.m.–3 p.m.
951 Clement, SF
(415) 386-1942
Full bar
Moderately noisy
Wheelchair accessible

A lover’s lane


› paulr@sfbg.com
Of the top 10 questions I am most often asked about restaurants in the city, the top two by far are “Which is the best?” and “Which is your favorite?” Since “best” is a snake pit of competing considerations and unacknowledged biases, I am happier with the second, which is all about acknowledging one’s biases — about being in touch with the inner bias. For me, it is also far easier to answer, since my favorite restaurant in the city, the one I have recommended to inquiring minds for more than a decade, is Hawthorne Lane. (And a brief digression here for the honorable mentions: Firefly, Delfina, Gary Danko, and Boulevard, each reliably sensational in its way.)
How do I love Hawthorne Lane? Let me count the ways. The food, of course, has always been exquisite, though the many Asian touches favored by the original chef, Annie Gingrass, are much less in evidence under the current regime of Bridget Batson; the only more-or-less intact survivor I recognized from the old days is the Chinese-style roasted duck.
Speaking of survivors: the restaurant itself qualifies as one, having surfed the treacherous dot-com wave and its rough aftermath with grace and without frantic reinvention. The restaurant still looks much as it did when it opened in 1995: there is handsome ironwork on a glorious old brick building, a casual front room whose ovoid bar stands amid a ring of booths, and a regal passageway to the main dining room, with its exhibition kitchen, banquettes upholstered in rich fabrics (some floral, others striped), and plenty of paintings (most of the colorful-squiggly school) on the walls. The look, with its meant-to-last fusion of traditional and modern elements, is timeless and has worn well.
Best of all, you can offer this observation and many others across your table without having to shout to be heard. You might even be able to whisper, or at least murmur. For Hawthorne Lane has artfully managed noise from the beginning, and on that basis alone it long ago won my heart. The place is busy and it is lively, but while the cauldron of sound simmers and bubbles, it never boils over. The result is a restaurant in which it is possible to converse while enjoying the food, and for some of us this basic and ancient mix of satisfactions remains one of the heights of civilization.
The food would be enjoyable in any event. While I mourn the passing of the $28 three-course prix fixe option — offered in the dark autumn of 2001, when air travel was stunted and tourism anemic — I am glad to find that most of the main courses on the ever-changing menu are now available in half sizes (at reduced if not quite halved prices), an innovation that encourages the trying of more dishes and the ingestion of fewer calories while helping with money management. (Hawthorne Lane is expensive, and you could easily drop $100 a head there, but you can also spend quite a bit less and not cheat yourself.)
One of the few big dishes not offered in smaller guise on the main menu is the Chinese duck — but it did turn up as a downsized item (for $15) on the bar menu, inclusive of split scallion buns with which to make little duck sandwiches. We agreed that the finger-food angle was fun, but the dish on the whole seemed to be a little out of tune, with too much vinegar in the sauce, like a light on an overcranked dimmer. Could this imbalance perhaps be because the duck is a signature dish from a regime that’s no longer there?
Otherwise, Batson’s cooking is both passionate and elegant. From the fire-breathing brick oven emerges a small but memorable procession of clever pizzas, among them a pie ($12) topped with prosciutto, Mission figs, and arugula leaves: an artful combination of salty, sweet, and nutty, with plenty of white cheese to serve as emulsifier. Squash blossoms ($14), icons of summer, are stuffed with goat cheese and basil, tempura-battered into flute shapes, deep-fried, and presented on mixed greens with a pool of soffrito and cherry tomatoes.
Even more deeply imbued with the essence of summer, if that’s possible, is an heirloom tomato risotto ($13 for a half portion), intense with tomatoey-ness despite its golden color and enriched with plenty of parmesan cheese. The dish is like a distant, aristocratic relation of mac and cheese, with the differences as apparent as the familial similarities. We caught no plebeian echo, on the other hand, in the crisped striped sea bass ($17 for a half portion). The small chunk of filet was indeed well crisped, the better to stand up to a cap of peperonata and a few coins of fennel root (nature’s little breath mint) braised with leek and pancetta.
The half-sizing joyride ends abruptly at the dessert border. But this poses no hardship, because people seem routinely to share desserts in a way they do not always share savory courses. It helps that Hawthorne Lane’s desserts are big and complex; we saw a trio of the seasonal sorbets — spooned cornucopia-style into crisp fruit cups — arriving at the next table and silently wished that couple luck for the long march. For us, the matter at hand was the fetchingly named peach buckle ($9.50), a kind of stone fruit coffee cake with slices of Frog Hollow peach atop an almond streusel and cinnamon meal baked over everything, like stucco. We buckled down and demolished it. SFBG
Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m.
Dinner: Sun.–Thurs., 5:30–9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.
22 Hawthorne, SF
(415) 777-9779
Full bar
Pleasant noise level
Wheelchair accessible



› paulr@sfbg.com
“You’re not getting older, you’re getting better” is one of those things you say to someone who’s getting older and not better and is sensitive to the decline because of yet another birthday. (Birthdays beyond the 30th are at best memento mori, at worst a cumulative curse. After 30, one should count them by 10s.) Yet y-n-g-o-y-g-b is not just a mollifying phrase to be found on a Hallmark card; sometimes it is actually true. Many of the grander wines improve with age, up to a point, and so does the occasional well-conceived restaurant, particularly if the restaurant is a bistro.
“Bistro” is a much-abused term in our gastronomic idiom. Its meaning has been pulled and stretched to cover all manner of restaurants, bound together perhaps by just the faint suggestion of casual hipness. But even in America, where language is treated as cavalierly as food additives and war, words do retain core meanings, and the core meaning of bistro remains French. A proper bistro is quintessentially a neighborhood restaurant, well established and appealingly scuffed, with a brief menu of mostly traditional (French) dishes at moderate prices.
Le Charm is a proper bistro, though it is in San Francisco, not Paris, and when it was opened in 1994 by Alain Delangle and Lina Yew, its neighborhood was a little iffy. The SoMa of that time was already beginning to don its new Loftland identity, but the donning was uneven, and large swaths of the area were still grubby and gritty enough to make opening a nice restaurant a bold proposition. These days … well, SoMa is far more residential than a decade ago, and in that sense le Charm, the neighborhood restaurant, now has a neighborhood to belong to and neighbors to serve.
The wait has been kind to the restaurant. Although the space was recently remodeled, it has a look of woody permanence, with golden oak trim, cinnamon-colored walls, and a trellised garden set with tables. My basic impression, from years ago, was clatter, but while the restaurant now is hardly quiet, steps seem to have been taken to curb the noise. The floor is carpeted, and this alone makes a big difference.
Le Charm has been, from the beginning, a prix fixe haven, and while today’s bill of fare is fitted out with a full complement of à la carte choices, the prix fixe — $28 at dinner for three courses — continues to fascinate. Usually I succumb to this fascination, since the latter menu is full of the sort of earthy standards that make French food approachable and even lovable, from onion soup to blanquette de veau, and the fixed price means you need not worry about the bill, unless you go nuts with the wine. (Le Charm’s wine list is brisk, moderately priced, and surprisingly tilted toward California bottlings.)
But I do not always succumb, particularly when in dessert-forswearing mode, as we all must be from time to time. I was, moreover, interested in the mosaique ($8), an à la carte offering that turned out to be a kind of chilled vegetable terrine, wrapped in a skin of leek and cut into large, roughly triangular flaps. The terrine consisted of snow peas, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, and shiitake mushrooms, while the leek skin was tender enough to be cut with an ordinary knife.
I also wanted lentils, and that meant the boudin blanc au foie gras ($19), stubby lengths of mild white sausage cut on the bias and given a Stonehenge arrangement around a moody hillock of Puy lentils, with interpolations of peeled, seeded tomato quarters.
Across the table, another story was unfolding, a $28 tale in three chapters that opened with a salad of cubed red beets set in tatsoi greens (decent, but more about looks than taste) and ended with an orange crème brûlée topped with slices of mandarin orange. In between there was a plot twist: the restaurant’s justly famous chicken-liver salad substituted for a selection from the standard, and weightier, main courses, with a corresponding discount of a few bucks. (I was surprised to see the possibility of duck confit passed over by someone I had long understood to be an insatiable duck-confitista.)
The chicken-liver salad — buttery chunks of meat with the mildest breath of liver flavor, scattered like boulders across a meadow of mixed greens — might work a bit better at lunch, when less heft is desirable, at least for those who need to remain conscious for the remainder of the workday. (A friendly warning here: the garden, in good weather, provides an al fresco experience you might have some trouble pulling yourself away from.) I was disappointed to find no croque monsieur on the midday menu, but quiche lorraine ($9.50), an egg tart stuffed with ham and cheese, wasn’t a bad substitute and was also served whole: a disk the size of one of those personal pizzas you can get at Roundtable.
Tart lovers of the sweet tooth variety will appreciate the tarte tatin, which at $4 is something of a steal and is also excellent — not the usual state of affairs for restaurant tartes tatins, too many of which have runny caramel and mushy apples. Le Charm’s version features shapely hemispheres of firm fruit, bronzed and slightly translucent, as if formed from amber, along with viscous caramel and flaky pastry. The formula is simple, really (tarte tatin is much easier to make than ordinary, American-style apple pie), yet a well-made one never fails to charm. SFBG
Dinner: Tues.–Thurs., 5:30–9:30 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.; Sun., 5–9 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.
315 Fifth St., SF
(415) 546-6128
Beer and wine
Wheelchair accessible

Shack chic


› paulr@sfbg.com
The crab shack is a species of restaurant indigenous to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States, and so in these Pacific parts is something of a rarity. Back East, crab shacks tend to be found near beaches — my first experience of one was at Rehoboth Beach, Del., in the summer of 1987 — and to emphasize freshness and immediacy over elaborate preparation. Hence the omnipresence of crab and lobster rolls, french fries, fried clams, steamed crustaceans presented whole and chilled, and other simple, honest fare from the sea.
(A word to the wise: according to the Urban Dictionary, www.urbandictionary.com, “crabshack” also means “crusty slut.” Use of condoms is advised when approaching same, but why? Do rubbers stop critters?)
If you were to launch a search for crab shacks in San Francisco, you would probably not begin at the bustling vortex of Market, Church, and 14th streets — our version of Piccadilly Circus, with not a beach in sight but zillions of streetcars and buses and a subway line underfoot and a zillion transit connections with a zillion pedestrians to make use of them, or not. Also: cars beyond number; you are well advised not to drive into this maelstrom. But do go, by foot or bike, Muni or horse, because at this insane intersection you will find, in the longtime Café Cuvée space (subsequently and briefly occupied by World Sausage), the Woodhouse Fish Company, a cheerfully clattery simulacrum of a crab shack with a to-the-point menu of crab-shack greatest hits, convincingly rendered.
The space has always been a little awkward, despite its high profile at a busy crossroads. There isn’t a proper entryway — you step in and are among tables — and the street presence can seem a little too immediate when a bus roars by or an ambulance shrieks or (less frequently, but surprisingly frequently this summer) a hot wind blows. The lack of a buffer zone was a burr under Cuvée’s elegant saddle, but it matters less for an urban crab shack.
Although tumult from the outside world does seep in with regularity, the place doesn’t look like a shack. It’s been redone in handsome white and green tiles, with a bit of kitschy crab iconography worked into the floor. The look is clean and low maintenance, if reverberant. But tidying up does have its price; a glance at the menu card reveals plenty of numbers in the upper teens, with a few over $20 — not exactly shacky. On the other hand, $29 for a one-and-a-half-pound Maine lobster, served chilled, with drawn butter and coleslaw, isn’t a bad deal. Lobster is best when tinkered with little; the meat has a subtle sweetness that builds if left alone but is easily drowned by sauces. However, some sauce work might have helped the disappointing coleslaw. The cabbage shreds were pretty enough, a mélange of purple and green, but the dish was a little thin in the creaminess department.
A near relation to the slaw, but better equipped, cream-wise, is the iceberg wedge ($5.50), a quarter head of iceberg lettuce showered with bread crumbs, in the manner of a gratin, and lounging amid a supplicant pool of blue cheese dressing dotted with garlic croutons, tomato wedges, and slices of ripe avocado. The truth is that there is too much boring lettuce here — iceberg’s dim reputation is hardly undeserved — but the peripheral players are zesty enough to conceal much of the boringness. A more sophisticated sort of chilled salad is the stuffed avocado ($16); the fruit is peeled and halved and the halves stuffed with, respectively, crab meat (whose sweetness, like that of lobster, benefits from light handling) and peeled prawns. Sauces stand ready at the sides of the platter: a decent cocktail sauce and a distinctively clean-flavored lemon mayonnaise instead of the usual suspect, tartar sauce. I dunked both garlic bread and fries in the mayo and was pleased.
The clam chowder is excellent and is available by cup ($4.50) or bowl ($6) or as part of the Gloucester lunchá ($8.75). This midday option (available until 3 p.m.) also includes half a crab roll — with a seam of melted cheddar cheese that seems out of place — a stack of good fries, and a watermelon point. The roll’s roll was soft and toasty warm, but I wondered: if this is a half roll, how big is a full roll? The answer must be that if you have to ask, you don’t want to know.
You can also get fried Ipswich clams (flown in from New England) on a roll, but at dinnertime one does not favor sandwiches, so we go instead to the platter version ($20), a formidable mass of clam meat liberated from shells and given a knobbly breading before the quick swim in hot oil. Impressions: excellent rough-tender texture, clam meat has a chicken-livery flavor I’d never noticed before, and a plateful of fried clams with french fries is a lot of fried. A squeeze or two from a lemon wedge cuts the greasiness a little though not a lot, but even a little is better than nothing.
An excess of fried food during a dinner’s savory sequence can induce panic about dessert — i.e., should I have fries and a slice of chocolate mousse cake with a scoop of gelato? should I phone ahead for an ambulance? — but Woodhouse solves this problem by not offering dessert. You might luck out at dinner and score, gratis, a thumbnail-size brownie for everyone in your party: petits fours, crab-shack-style. I admire this cheerfully stern no-sweets policy. And … a hint for you sugar sluts: Just Desserts is just around the corner. SFBG
Daily, 11:45 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
2073 Market, SF
(415) 437-CRAB
Beer and wine
Wheelchair accessible

The reflecting pool


› paulr@sfbg.com
A chicken-and-egg — or maybe fish-and-roe — problem: do neighborhood restaurants tend to reflect the character of a neighborhood or does a neighborhood take its cues from its restaurants? The answer is probably both, since that is usually the answer to such trick questions, but in general there is more of the former than the latter, I would say. The truly revolutionary restaurant, the place that makes a startling announcement of intention on a street of sameness, birds of a feather flocking together, is fairly rare. Or, to exhaust this vein of sorrily mixed metaphor, a rare bird. Or fish.
You can hardly miss Pisces California Cuisine, a small seafood house that opened in March on a drab stretch of Judah in the outermost Outer Sunset, one of those descending western neighborhoods whose colorless, low buildings seem to melt into the gray sea. The whole area cries out for a massive repainting, perhaps from the air by one of the California Department of Forestry’s firefighting tanker aircraft, refitted to spray some actual color. Shades of red, orange, yellow, and pink would be nice.
Pisces’s facade is black: a bit stark but handsome nonetheless, and drastically unlike any of the nearby storefronts. Though the restaurant occupies a midblock space, it is easy to find, since black facades aren’t commonplace even in your most happening habitats. Inside, Pisces has the SoMa loft look: it’s an airy box, clean and spare, with exposed ductwork and sleek Euro-modern furniture. Behind the bar hangs a plasma TV tuned to ESPN for a slight sports bar effect: a sop to neighborhood sensibility?
The food, on the other hand, is full of casual metropolitan style and is available at both dinnertime and lunchtime in prix fixe guise. In the evening, $22.50 buys you three courses (chosen from a brief list), while at noon you pay $11.50 for two courses (from another brief list) plus tea or coffee. As a rule I am mesmerized by the siren call of the prix fixe; it is generally a good deal, reduces the job of sifting through choices (and later, parsing the bill), and tends to emphasize both the chef’s interests and seasonal treats.
At the moment there is no sweeter a seasonal treat than king salmon, now in its second summer of regulation-induced scarcity. So finding it on Pisces’s prix fixe list was like a sign from above: You must have this. And I did; but first I had a bowl of kabocha squash soup, electrified with some generous flicks of cayenne pepper and shavings of fresh ginger and poured over crisped strips of taro root to give textural interest. For color, a miniature bouquet of microgreens.
The salmon, a large filet, arrived on a berm of mashed potatoes ringed by a honey-soy emulsion, which resembled caramel sauce. Between the fish and the spuds lay a duvet of braised spinach leaves and slivers of shiitake mushroom. The fish, grilled to medium-rare, was excellent in its simple way, but even meaty fish like salmon doesn’t stand up particularly well to mashed potatoes. They could have been done away with entirely or reduced to an ornamental role or replaced by taro root in some form.
Across the table meanwhile, a bowl of excellent, thick chowder ($4) heavy with clam meat slowly disappeared, to be followed by a plate of batter-fried calamari ($9). The calamari pieces were on the flaccid side (oil not hot enough?) but were redeemed by a habit-forming sweet-sour barbecue sauce for dipping.
Despite the king salmon and “California cuisine” nomenclature, Pisces’s food is far from purely seasonal. Kabocha squash, for instance, speaks of winter. So does crab, which turned up in a good crab salad sandwich ($9.50) in the company of good fries. The salad carried a few flecks of shell, but I chose to interpret this as a sign that the kitchen is cracking and cleaning its own crabs even in the off-season. And let us not forget such beyond-seasonal dishes as seafood linguine, offered as part of a lunchtime prix fixe and featuring bay scallops, shrimp, and mussels — all farmable — in an herbed cream sauce. The beauty of a preparation like this is that it’s almost infinitely variable: you toss in a little of this, a little of that, whatever’s good today or (yes) in season — even king salmon — and it will still make people happy, especially if they’ve opened with a good Caesar salad, showered with croutons and squiggles of shaved parmesan cheese.
Desserts here are good if mainstreamish, and they make up in price what they lack in imaginative verve. The fudgey chocolate brownie cake ($5.75), for instance, topped by a little helmet of cherry ice cream, would probably cost at least $3 or $4 more at any comparable restaurant east of Twin Peaks while being not quite as big; Pisces’s version survived a two-front assault for several minutes. A crème brûlée (part of the prix fixe) wasn’t quite as shareable but did reflect stern and basic virtues: it consisted of a straightforward vanilla custard of just the right fluffy-firm consistency under a thick, brittle cap of caramelized sugar, and it was served in a plain, white, round ramekin of the sort you see stacked in cooking-school kitchens. While my austere, puritan self approved of the lack of ornamentation or embellishment, my other self — or one of them — couldn’t help wondering if a little garnish would have been entirely out of place. A sprig of mint is never hard to come by, and it is the season of berries after all — stone fruit too. Maybe cherries … black cherries? SFBG
Lunch: daily, 11 a.m.–3 p.m.
Dinner: daily, 5–10 p.m.
3414–3416 Judah, SF
(415) 564-2233
Beer and wine
Pleasant noise level
Wheelchair accessible

Mood elevation


› paulr@sfbg.com
Among proper names that suggest height or loftiness, few have a grander pedigree than Ararat, the moniker of the mountain or mountain range where, according to the book of Genesis, Noah’s ark was supposed to have made landfall after riding out the flood. Today’s Mount Ararat, a volcano rising nearly 17,000 feet above sea level, lies in northeastern Turkey, near that country’s borders with Iran and Armenia. Perhaps Noah and his menagerie washed up there, perhaps not; biblical scholars seem to love a good controversy, and various contrarian speculations bring the ark to ground on this or that mountaintop in Iran.
Whatever. While we wait for intrepid researchers to sort it all out with their satellite photos and expeditions and deconstructions of scripture, we can enjoy ourselves at Ararat, a Mediterranean tapas place opened by Koch Salgut in March at a Castro location not quite 17,000 feet above sea level but far enough above the street — 18th Street, if it matters, and for the people watchers among us it does — to provide a definite aerie experience. For a number of years the space housed North Beach expatriate la Mooné, and while that restaurant didn’t set any longevity records in the Castro, it did survive long enough in its comfy second-story digs to suggest that lack of a street-level presence isn’t necessarily fatal — not, at least, in a location with as much foot traffic as you find at 18th Street and Castro. Look for the sidewalk placard and the broad white staircase in need of a paint job and you are there, in a dining room the shape of a fat L with a groined ceiling and surveillance-friendly windows.
The chef, Caskun Bektas, has cooked in Istanbul, so there is a definite Turkish-metropolitan spin to the food. He turns out some dishes you aren’t likely to come across anywhere else, but even the more usual “Mediterranean” stuff confirms the sharp rise in Castro cooking standards in recent years. Despite the many distractions of the neighborhood’s street theater, people expect better food and know what to look for — and at Ararat, they are getting it.
Oddly, the one item on the menu we weren’t enthusiastic about is the first one listed and bears a distinctively Turkish name. It is ezme ($7), a mushy blend of barbecued eggplant, tomatoes, lemon juice, garlic, and roasted red bell peppers. We found it to be a little bitter, which is hardly an unfamiliar issue when dealing with eggplant.
But … the rest of the tapas (“mezes” is the authentic term) ranged from good to superb. (You can get a mixed platterful with warm pita triangles for $13; individually, they are all in the $5 to $7 range.) Falafel, tabbouleh, dolma, and hummus were all as expected, while the savory pastries — flutes of whole-wheat filo dough filled with feta cheese and herbs and crisped in oil — were like something from a Pepperidge Farm package and seemed to expand the field of possibilities for a cuisine that has come to occupy a spot in this country much like the one Mexican food held a generation ago. Restaurants serving the foods of the eastern Mediterranean have proliferated in recent years, and more and more people like the food and are comfortable ordering it, at least if they stay within the well-lit bounds of the familiar: dolma, shawarma, and falafel, nothing weird or unpronounceable, please.
Speaking of which: I have never had a preparation quite like Bektas’s signature dish, beyti kebab ($16). I have eaten and loved kebabs of various kinds, of course, and I like lavash (the Syrian flatbread), so I expected I would like “lavash rolls filled with delicate ground sirloin served with garlic flavored yogurt and marinara.” And I did. But I did not expect the beauty of the form. The lavash had been rolled around the meat like a wrapper — the meat wasn’t ground, incidentally, but it was surpassingly tender: filet mignon? — and then the package had been cut into thin coins that fanned out nicely on the plate. It was a little like a miniature beef Wellington, with yogurt instead of mushroom sauce.
The kitchen’s other savory showstopper is a shrimp casserole ($8), a crock of prawns swimming in a thick tomato sauce with bits of green bell pepper, caramelized onions, and mushrooms under a cap of melted mozzarella. This dish seemed more Provençal than Turkish, but it disappeared so fast it was hard to be sure. Running respectable races in the same heat were kakavia ($10), a stew of salmon, clams, mussels, shrimp, and scallops in a watery pepper-paprika broth, and kalamarika ($8), batter-fried calamari accompanied by batter-fried slices of lemon and potato, which were hard to tell apart without biting into them.
Also respectable, if not quite memorable, were a braised lamb shank ($18) served with couscous and an herbed tomato-Chianti sauce and mercimek kofte ($6), a hummus relative with red lentils substituted for chickpeas. Weaker — in fact disappointing — was the Ararat salad, a fey compilation of mixed greens, dried apricots, and walnuts, with a crotton of fried goat cheese on top. The promised balsamic vinaigrette was undetectable. Were we being set up for dessert?
If so, we must be grateful, for the dessert menu too includes a sublime dish: the nightingale’s nest ($5), a coil of baklava filled with lavender honey and finished with whipped cream and scatterings of crushed pistachios. Baklava so often flirts with being a cliché, like flan, but in imaginative and conscientious hands it can sing a lovely song, an ethereal melody from on high. SFBG
Dinner: Mon.–Fri., 4–11 p.m.
Continuous service: Sat.–Sun., 11 a.m.–11 p.m.
4072 18th St., SF
(415) 252-9325
Full bar
Somewhat noisy
Not wheelchair accessible

Aslam’s Rasoi


› paulr@sfbg.com
If Rasoi, a gently fading South Asian restaurant on the tumultuous Valencia corridor, had collapsed altogether in the face of last year’s Dosa challenge, shock would probably not have been the general reaction. Dosa (which opened last fall with a South Indian menu) was and remains the new wave, and its swirling, youthful crowds would not seem out of place at the entrance to a popular nightclub. Rasoi, on the other hand, was a homey ’90s relic: the dining room was a large, largely featureless box filled with dusty sunlight slanting through enormous mullioned windows looking west, with ceiling fans churning lazily overhead to keep the dust motes in motion. Being there was a little like sitting in a Wild West saloon that happened to smell of curry, and the restaurant’s virtues were a certain leisureliness and friendliness, along with modest prices for decent food in substantial portions.
Longevity, of course, is not really a virtue in restaurantland. (Nor, for that matter, in America generally, land of the new and improved.) Some places do endure and are duly honored for this achievement, but most fold with little or no fanfare, even after runs of a decade or more. Saigon Saigon, one of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants from the early 1990s and a Rasoi neighbor, recently went under with barely a gurgle. I would have forecast a similar outcome for Rasoi, except that the location somehow attracted the attention of Mohammed Aslam, a chef who’s cooked at the highly regarded Indian Oven in the Lower Haight. He thought he could breathe new life into Rasoi’s rasoi (“kitchen” in Hindi), and the place is now called Aslam’s Rasoi. And he has indeed breathed new — in fact, spectacular — life into the old horse. If you are looking for the best South Asian food on Valencia between 20th and 22nd streets, there is now a genuine horserace between Dosa and Aslam’s Rasoi, resplendent now not only with a north-tilting menu of considerable force and fire but with freshly sponge-painted walls, dramatic new cabernet-colored draperies, and refinished wood-plank floors.
Despite the competition, the two restaurants are not difficult to distinguish. The most obvious difference has to do with meatiness, and if you are interested in flesh, Aslam’s Rasoi is the place. The offerings here include a wide range of lamb, chicken, and seafood dishes, many of them prepared in the tandoor. In my experience, the tandoor isn’t quite the forum for prawns, though in Aslam’s version ($17) the shrimp do retain their soft, springy quality, growing neither rubbery nor mushy in the high heat. Also, they are assertively spiced: a leitmotif of the food generally.
A better tandoor choice might be boti kebab ($15), marinated lamb cubes roasted up to a rosy medium-rare and nearly as tender as beef sirloin. (Needless to say, the menu is devoid of beef.) And the lamb’s saucier relation, chicken tikka masala ($13) — chunks of boneless chicken breast roasted in the tandoor and then sautéed in a mildly spiced cream sauce with quartered tomatoes — is about as good as it gets and will have you scrambling for naan to mop up the last of the sauce. The bread selection, incidentally, is broad; there are a dozen options, including a savory onion kulcha ($3), a disk of naan sprinkled with onion and cilantro. But the plain naan ($2) serves quite nicely as an adjunct to one’s fingers.
If there is a weakness to the menu, it has to do with the appetizers, most of which are deep-fried. On the other hand, deep-fried food is satisfying, and it tends to appear quickly — important considerations for the hungry. Pakoras (basically vegetable fritters) are common in Indian/Pakistani restaurants; here the assortment ($6) includes florets of broccoli and cauliflower, along with rounds of batter-dipped eggplant that look like little pizza crusts. A more compelling variation, Bombay pakoras ($7), uses calamari instead of vegetables and a chickpea batter for a bit of extra crunch. And speaking of crunch: the flash-fried wafers of lentil flour called papadum ($2), none better!
Vegetables, fortunately, while accepting the batter-and-boiling-oil fate with grace, also respond enthusiastically to other treatments, and in these, subcontinental cuisine happens to be rich. While there is a certain greatest-hits quality to Aslam’s meatless choices, there is also a smattering of the less familiar, and all the dishes are made to the highest standard, with quality ingredients, careful preparation, and an enthusiasm for spicing that is perhaps the main reason so many people love this kind of food.
Among the less spicy of the vegetable preparations is dal saag ($9), an oblong platter of spinach cooked with lentils that tastes mainly, and appealingly, of spinach. The saag paneerist in our party found it acceptable but still yearned for saag paneer ($10) — spinach cooked with cubes of fresh white cheese and often (as here) charged with some real chili heat. Also quite lively was the chana masala ($8), spicy chickpeas stewed with tomato and onion. And while paneer tikka korma ($11) isn’t exactly a vegetable (it consists of chunks of cheese bathed in a mild yogurt-fenugreek sauce), Aslam’s will be acceptable to vegetarians, at least to those of the lacto sect.
As a general proposition, desserts at South Asian restaurants can be safely ignored. Aslam’s, though, has a pair of pretty good ones: a house-made cardamom ice cream called kulfi ($6), presented as a sliced roll, like a frozen banana; and a cardamom-and-saffron rice pudding (kheer, $4), creamy-rich and, by a nose, just sweet enough to qualify as a sweet. SFBG
Dinner: nightly, 5–11 p.m.
1037 Valencia, SF
(415) 695-0599
Beer and wine
Moderately noisy
Wheelchair accessible

To be continued . . .


› paulr@sfbg.com
Time’s arrow flies in only one direction, pace Martin Amis and Captain Kirk, and with this verity in mind we should probably be more careful than we are about distinguishing between a progression and actual progress. The former is inevitable and constant, the ticks and tocks of the clock; the latter is neither. “The world does not only get worse,” says the mordant narrator of John Updike’s 1997 novel Toward the End of Time — but it often does, and it often does so under the thrilling guise of progress.
If you go out to eat with any frequency in the city, you will understand what I am talking about here. There isn’t much new about the mindless celebration of newness, but there does appear to be a definite tonal shift in newer restaurants now, away from graciousness and enveloping warmth and toward harder surfaces, louder music, more noise, and an overall severeness of look that owes, perhaps, too large a debt to loft design.
If places like Hayes Street Grill and Restaurant LuLu opened today, we might well wonder whether either of them would get off the ground. In the Age of the iPod, both are dramatically short on glitz. Hayes Street Grill (opened by Pat Unterman in 1979 and still run by her) is a faithful reinterpretation of such old-line seafood houses as Tadich Grill and Sam’s; there is a lot of wood and brass, and a wealth of booths and half walls that suggest a friendly maze. LuLu meanwhile (opened by Reed Hearon in 1993), despite being located in an old building in what was once a warehouse district, has something of the feel of an amphitheater; the main dining room is a huge open space with a sunken floor. There is also the bewitching scent of smoke from the wood-burning oven, which glows and flickers in plain sight at the rear of the room, as if in the great hall of some medieval king. Both restaurants offer highly professional, practiced service and food of unfussy elegance that is one of the central and best characteristics of the local style. Both are easy places to have conversations in.
Progress beyond these discreetly exalted points, in other words — those points being among the main reasons we have restaurants in the first place — might not be progress at all, although it is a little late in the day to be sounding this cautionary note. At the same time, the state of exaltedness must not be taken for granted, lest staleness set in. Age can bring refinement and confidence or a plague of debilitations on the downward road to closure. It is no small tribute to say of this pair of contemporary San Francisco institutions that they have never been better.
Of the two, Hayes Street Grill would seem to have enjoyed the less bumpy passage, for it has remained in the hands of its founder for more than a quarter century, and its basic scheme — of grilled fish with a choice of sauce, along with french fries — remains at the heart of the menu. The bill of fare dwells more now on the provenance of the seafood (Pacific swordfish, for instance, is taken “long-line, circle hook” — this is reassuring), but the Sichuan peanut sauce is still peppery-rich and a nice match to the mild white flesh of the California sea bass ($22.75). A voluptuous shrimp-avocado louie ($16.50), with Mariquita beets, features prawns from Morro Bay, while a plate of pan-fried Hama Hama oysters ($16.75), with coleslaw, tartar sauce, and fries, reminds us that (1) oysters are pretty good cooked as well as raw and (2) HSG’s fries remain competitive with the best. They are somewhat thicker than matchsticks, but this means they retain heat better, and they achieve the ideal balance between crisp and tender. Of course they also go well with the cheeseburger ($13.50), a straightforward presentation of Niman Ranch ground beef and Grafton cheddar on a bun, without distracting frou-frou beyond the fries.
At LuLu, the agent of ubiquity is not the french fry but the wood-burning oven, whose smoky perfume casts a spell of enchantment even in the middle of the day. You find yourself thinking of the mountains, winter, a horse-drawn sleigh, mulled wine. Or: pizza, which has been a LuLu specialty from the beginning and through the large changes in the kitchen — the handoff from Hearon to Jody Denton in 1995, and from Denton to Jared Doob in 2003. If most of us probably don’t associate pizza with brunch, it might be because we’ve never had LuLu’s egg pizza ($16.50), a kind of deconstructed omelet, of caramelized onion, parmesan cheese, pancetta — and of course a whole egg, over-easy-ish — on a thin crust. It doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does. Also sounding unworkable, but working, is the venerable, if less brunchy, calamari pizza ($17.25), the slices of squid glisteningly tender and accompanied by a scattering of arugula leaves, chili flakes, and aioli. Simple, potent, proven.
One of the pleasures of brunch is archaeological: examining certain sorts of jumbled dishes, such as oven-baked eggs ($13.50), for leftovers from the day or two before. We found shreds of duck confit in one batch (with spinach and braised spring onion), but the next week it was roast pork — could this have been left over from sandwich production? Doesn’t seem likely, for the roast-pork sandwich ($11.95) is a colossus, with mozzarella, romesco, and baby spinach on a raft of pillow-soft red-onion focaccia. Our progress through it was slow but determined and, in the end, satisfactory. SFBG
Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. Dinner: Mon.–Thurs., 5–9:30 p.m.; Fri., 5–10:30 p.m.; Sat., 5:30–10:30 p.m.; Sun., 5–8:30 p.m.
320 Hayes, SF. (415) 863-5545
Full bar
Not quiet, but reasonable
Wheelchair accessible
Sun.–Thurs., 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m.
816 Folsom, SF. (415) 495-5775
Full bar
Can get noisy, but bearable
Wheelchair accessible

Town and country


› paulr@sfbg.com
It is safe to say that when city people talk about going on a jaunt to the country, the country they are talking about going on a jaunt to qualifies as the country mostly by virtue of not being the city. Jaunters are not proposing to leave civilization; city people do not drive to Healdsburg on a tranquil Saturday afternoon in June, braving bridge traffic and 101 traffic, so that they can milk cows or pull weeds at a biodynamic winery. City people go, one suspects, largely in hopes of escaping the city’s fog and wind, of seeing the sun and being able to wear short-sleeve shirts without shivering or looking like foolish tourists.
If these simple graces are what you have in mind, then you will find Healdsburg an accommodating place in early summer. Later the weather will grow torrid, and even the lush, arboreal green of the quaint town square will not be enough to banish the faint fear of heatstroke. But the square will still cast its 19th-century spell, and if you are seated in Bistro Ralph, on the north edge of the square, you might find yourself looking out the plate-glass windows to the shady prospect and imagining that you are beside a cooling pond somewhere in Monet-land, at Giverny itself, perhaps.
Ralph Tingle opened Bistro Ralph in 1992, and I remember peering inside the restaurant on a mid-1990s jaunt with European friends and thinking, How chic, how citified! At that time, Healdsburg still seemed to me to be mostly a dusty, sleepy country town — a more relaxed version of day-trippy Sonoma — and Bistro Ralph an aberration arresting in its sleekness, not a harbinger. But … it turns out to have been a harbinger. Today the town square on a warm weekend afternoon is like Union Square, aswarm with expensively dressed pedestrians and honking, bumper-to-bumper traffic: late model cars furiously getting in one another’s way. The wealth of spanking-new or just-renovated buildings — there is one for Gallo, another for a restaurant called Zin — look as if they belonged on the set of a Spielberg movie.
In this transformed locale, Bistro Ralph is no longer quite so striking. You could walk right by it, in fact, if your thoughts were elsewhere (it’s narrow and midblock, unlike Gallo and Zin, a pair of cornerstones), and once inside, you might find yourself paying less attention to the restaurant’s kinship with Zuni and Mecca than to its resemblance to an old Roman storefront: narrow, deep, and cool under a high tin ceiling. Toward the rear of the dining room stands a longitudinal bar, while at the very rear is a semi-exhibition kitchen — not big, but then the restaurant itself is quite snug, not much larger than the original Delfina.
The wine list consists exclusively of bottlings from the Healdsburg vicinity, and this bias gives our first hint as to what Tingle’s food is going to be like. Although California wines have their virtues, they do tend to be fruity and a little boisterous — not the food-friendliest qualities, unless the food is equally assertive. And Bistro Ralph’s is. The only dish we could find on the shy side, in fact, was a Caesar salad ($8), which lacked anchovies, used a mild aged–jack cheese from Vella instead of the traditional parmesan, and was tossed with a dressing in want of more garlic. On the other hand, the spears of romaine were immaculate, and a pair of croutons smeared with a loud red rouille gave a nice murder-mystery twist.
But let us forgive and forget the salad. The rest of the dishes were notable for their muscularity, beginning with a heap of calamari ($11) dipped in a peppery batter before being flash-fried. The pepper was enough to carry the day, but just to make sure, the kitchen provided a pot of gingery sesame-soy sauce for dipping. A bowl of tortilla soup ($6), thick and glossy like velouté, was the most intensely flavored such soup I’ve ever tasted: a liqueur of roasted corn. There was visual and textural interest here too, from crispy strands of fried tortilla and drizzlings of cilantro oil, but, as with the calamari, the soup could easily have stood on its own.
Liver raises a flag for some of us — calves’ liver especially; chicken livers are manageable. Tingle’s version ($12) presents the latter sautéed in a rich yet nicely acidic bath of balsamic vinegar, caramelized onions, and pancetta, with a block of fried polenta to one side, a golden promontory over a moody brown sea. If you’re inclined toward the reddish orange end of the spectrum, you will like the lamb burger ($9.50), whose spicing appears to include (sweet) paprika. Of at least as much note, though, is the pile of sublimely crisp matchstick fries on the plate.
The dessert list is largely a choco-fest. An exception is the “best” crème brûlée ($7.50), whose custard is flecked with vanilla bean to reinforce the claim of superlativity. As for chocolate: It gets no more chocolatey than the marquise Taillevent ($7.50), two petite slabs — rectangles, not squares — of a substance our server described as “a cross between a mousse and fudge,” adrift in a puddle of crème anglaise. Like any great dessert, this one disappears quickly but leaves you with a memory, a pleasurable tingle. SFBG
Lunch, Mon.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
Dinner, Mon.–Sat., 5:30–9 p.m.
109 Plaza, Healdsburg
(707) 433-1380
Full bar
Can get noisy
Wheelchair accessible