Judging a book by its cover might be a sin, but how about judging a restaurant by its name? In most cases this is probably at least premature, if not quite a sin, though the name Mecca presents a strong temptation. Here we have a restaurant that opened a decade ago on a stretch of mid-Market that wasn’t exactly Shangri-la; the neighbors included a Ford dealership, one of the tattier Safeways, and, a bit later, the sex club Eros. On the other hand, the location was about midway between Zuni and the Castro, and it is along that vector that Mecca — which became Mecca SF last fall under new ownership — has found its enduring identity.
When I first stepped into Mecca 10 years ago, I thought: Studio 54. There was the glam underground feel, the distinct homo vibe, the tall curtains of purple velvet hanging like regal robes and serving as partial screens while also soaking up, in grand fashion, some of the noise reverberating from the many hard surfaces, the concrete and stainless steel, that gave the space its urban edge. As it happened, I had visited Studio 54 in the early 1980s, when the place was senescent and overrun with bridge-and-tunnel folk but still recognizable as a onetime theater of some kind, with an extant stage and balcony — along with fabulous curtains. Mecca, it seemed to me then, wasn’t a direct clone of but was definitely inspired by Studio 54; the drugs, sex, and exclusivity might not be as overt and intense, but in compensation there was food — good food — and a conspicuous valet service, which not only took care of patrons’ fancy cars but also alerted passersby that happenings of note were occurring within.
On a recent visit, we arrived in a Prius — holy of holies for today’s rich liberals, with plenty of rear legroom — and parked directly across the street. Inside, the layout seemed unchanged from my last tour, 3 years ago, or for that matter from 10 years ago. The gigantic, horseshoe-shaped bar still dominates; there is still a cluster of tables under the front windows (which are screened with steel mesh — a Jetsons touch) and another cluster in a curtain-screened alcove behind the host’s station. The curtains did seem to me to be a different color now — camel or cappuccino rather than purple or claret — but that could be a trick or fault of memory.
The change of hands last fall has resulted in, among other things, a new chef, Sergio Santiago. He was born in Puerto Rico, and he describes his Mecca SF menu as incorporating “certain tones of New Latin cuisine.” Maybe, but what most struck me was the richness of Santiago’s cooking. In this sense he has more in common with his recent predecessors, Michael Fennelly and Stephen Barber, than with the restaurant’s opening chef, Lynn Sheehan, whose style of well-polished Cal-Med rusticity was very much in the tradition of Zuni and Chez Panisse.
True, you can still find that sort of dish on Santiago’s menu. The Mecca french fries ($6), served in a paper cone with a ramekin of homemade ketchup, leave nothing to be desired and are nicely sharable. Just as plainspoken is the whole artichoke ($9), baked with parsley and bread crumbs and served with a side of garlic butter for dipping — an important procedure, given the leatheriness of much of the flesh. (Artichokes steam much better than they roast, in my experience, unless they are baby artichokes.)
But it is impossible not to notice the infiltration of luxe onto the bill of fare. Caviar. Lobster. Foie gras. Very Campton Place and expense-accounty, and please have your statins ready. Oysters provide a balancing tonic and reaffirm the Zuni connection; they are available raw on the half shell or, as a quartet ($12), fried and doused with a mignonette. Crab cakes ($13) are good, if out of season — a beurre blanc emboldened by tasso (prosciutto’s poor cousin) is a nice flourish — and they are also noticeably spherical, as opposed to the more typical patty. Among the simplest of the smaller choices is a salad of mixed baby greens, though $12 seems a little steep for what you get.
As is so often the case now, the main dishes seem to sag a bit when compared with the smaller but more glittering starters. It is like going to a play that sets up spectacularly in the first act, then doesn’t quite make it up the mountain. At Mecca SF, this phenomenon has to do at least in part with the usualness of the offerings: There is chicken, beef, lamb, catfish, and duck breast. (No vegetarian choice.) I liked a pork tenderloin ($27), roasted to perfect succulence and presented with mashed sweet potatoes and a tangy chutney of Granny Smith apples; I liked too a roulade of salmon ($26), the disk of fish wearing a top hat of pickled cucumber and radish tissues. But these dishes seemed to be wanting some of the subtlety of the earlier courses.
Desserts (by pastry chef Mie Uchida) are mainly of the modern-art school: for example, a flange of chocolate bread pudding ($9) flanked by small globes of chocolate and peanut butter ice cream — the overall look that of a miniature public sculpture — and a trio of crèmes brûlées ($9), chocolate, coconut, and vanilla, lined up on a narrow platter that resembles a railroad cross tie. The F train, incidentally, stops just about at the front door. No valet needed. Wave as you pass. SFBG
Dinner: Tues.–Thurs., 5:30–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.; Sun., 5:30–9 p.m. Lunch: Sun., from 1 p.m.
2029 Market, SF
- No categories
The road to Mecca
The popular imagination supposes that restaurant writers are Olympians, dispatching thunderbolt justice to places that scorch their garlic (a sin smellable from several blocks away) or fail to refill the water glasses, or whose restrooms are in a state of untidiness that would make the White Glove Lady shriek. But the real powers of restaurant writing, at least as I have understood it, are more subtle and have to do with bringing attention to worthy spots that might otherwise languish unnoticed. A kind word or two might help a small place breathe — or not. One hopes, but at the same time one develops a certain aversion to glancing in the rear-view mirror, there to see a restaurant one had liked and written about, sometimes just a few months earlier, with windows now newspapered over and one of those change-of-ownership placards taped to the door. It is a little bit like seeing balls of sagebrush tumble through a ghost town.
A slightly less chilling variant of this transformation is the restaurant that, in the wake of a favorable notice or two, changes its name but not much else. This is a mystery to me. If you got a good review and you change the name, people who come to you because of the review may well be confused and a little suspicious. If you acquire a well-reviewed restaurant, what do you gain by changing the name but not the essence of the place? Food writers might be likely to review anew if a barbecue spot becomes a temple of raw cuisine, but they will be considerably less inclined to do that if a Chinese-Vietnamese place becomes a straight Vietnamese restaurant or a pan-Mexican place a Yucatecan one.
My examples are neither random nor hypothetical: The Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant called Lucky Time that I wrote about just over a year ago (on March 9, 2005) did indeed become, in recent weeks, a Vietnamese restaurant called either Will’s or Will’s House, depending on whether you consult the menu card, the awning over the door, or the records of the county clerk; while the Noe Valley restaurant favorably reviewed in these pages as Mexico City (on Dec. 24, 2003) became a branch of Mi Lindo Yucatán the following July, after some ownership juggles. (I wrote about the original Mi Lindo Yucatán, on Valencia near 15th Street, in March 2004.)
Last things first. I have eaten at Mexico City/Mi Lindo Yucatán a number of times before and after the change of name and slant and am not sure I notice much difference other than that a hand-lettered sign proclaiming “the art of Mayan cuisine” now dangles over the sidewalk. Inside, the look is still Daliesque, with bright blues and reds, rectangular panels slanting away from the walls near the ceiling, and paintings (presumably in the style of the Maya) on the walls. The salsa is still smoky and excellent; the chips crisp, well salted, and reliably replenished. I was surprised to find less turkey on the menu than at the Valencia Street location, for the turkey (despite its associations in American consciousness with the Pilgrims and all-American Thanksgiving bloatoramas) is native to the Yucatán and has long been central to Mayan cooking. (There is an excellent discussion of all this in Jared Diamond’s recent book Collapse.)
The nightly specials menu did offer a pair of turkey tamales ($11.95), served like an open-faced sandwich on a square mat of corn husk and dressed with a slightly sweet tomato salsa. The turkey itself was a little tough, like the Thanksgiving leftovers that get made into sandwiches, but our expectations for turkey are fairly modest in this country, so it didn’t matter much. Otherwise, the food was what we think of as Mexican: a wonderfully smoky tortilla soup ($3.25), a fish taco made with grilled (rather than batter-fried) catfish ($5.50) — healthier, no doubt, but lacking the sinful rush of crunchiness — and a quesadilla mar y tierra ($10.95), with shrimp and strips of grilled steak whose tenderness amounted to a polite rebuke of the turkey.
A neighbor recommended Will’s House to me.
“It’s right on 14th at Market,” she said.
So it is. So was Lucky Time, which served an agreeable hodgepodge of Chinese and Vietnamese dishes in the very same space from the fall of 2004 until late this winter. One of Lucky Time’s owners was Billy Deng; the proprietor of Will’s House is named Will … something. I called, wondering if Billy had become Will. At first I was told by an employee that Will’s surname was Lee, then someone else got on the line to say the surname was uncertain. So, a mystery wrapped in a muddle.
The food, on the other hand, is a simpler matter. It is now “authentic Vietnamese,” according to the menu card, with pho, lemongrass, Saigon salads, lotus root, and vegetarian options well represented. There is one of the better Vietnamese sandwiches in town ($5), with a choice of lemongrass chicken, grilled beef, or pork on a first-rate baguette and rounds of fresh jalapeño pepper for some real flaminess. Grilled five-spice chicken over rice ($8) has the butter-tender quality of confit, while grilled barbecue lemongrass pork rolls ($6.50) sound more heart-unfriendly than they turn out to be, with lean meat wrapped with fine noodles in uncooked rice paper.
Design-wise, not much has changed. The restaurant’s interior is still cool and softly lit, and the ribbon of mirror still encircles the dining room. Plus ça morph … SFBG
MI LINDO YUCAT
Island in the sun
Of the great Mediterranean islands, Sardinia is probably the least well known. Crete has its Minoan past and the mythic connection to Atlantis, Sicily its mafiosi; Corsica was the birthplace of Napoleon — but Sardinia is best known for lending its name, after a fashion, to a small member of the herring family, the sardine, which is abundant in the island’s waters and usually ends up being salted, boiled in oil, and packed in tins for export.
The sardine does not, interestingly, loom large on the menu of la Ciccia, a restaurant serving Sardinian cuisine that Massimiliano Conti and Lorella Degan opened toward the end of March in a storefront space at the foot of Church Street. The place isn’t hard to find: Picture a southbound J-Church train not making the sharp left onto 30th Street but instead flying off the tracks straight into a building — as if in some Keanu Reeves movie, perhaps Speed X? — and the building would be la Ciccia’s. If that is too dramatic, look for the sign, with its handsome orange lettering.
The address was the longtime home of Verona Restaurant and Pizza, a homey neighborhood spot serving Italian and Greek dishes — and, of course, pizza. Verona’s dimness has vanished, and the smallish dining room has been discreetly swabbed with modernity — the walls are an elegant pale green now, and there is a new sense of airiness — but a certain charming rusticity persists. The menu card is written in Sardinian, a Romance language closely related to Italian but plainly distinguishable from it, and the kitchen continues to turn out pizzas — some of the better pizzas you’ll find around town, in fact.
If you see the pizza as a splittable or sharable course among courses, rather than a meal unto itself, you will have begun to discover one of the central charms of la Ciccia. Those who want the standard American meal of starter, main course, and dessert will find what they are looking for, but those who seek to replicate one of those lovely European intervals of deliberate grazing, of a series of courses shared without hurry, will find la Ciccia’s variety of offerings, from pizza and pasta to "antipastusu e is inzalaras," rich enough to satisfy them too.
The pizzas are thin of crust and made to order, and the only bad thing I can say about them is that sometimes the points are droopy. But this could have been at least partly our fault, since the pies were presented to us unsliced (in accordance with Sardinian practice), and, in a pleasurable echo of certain kindergarten projects, we cut them up ourselves, with steak knives. The Sarda pie ($10) featured, in addition to a delicate smear of tomato sauce and several blobs of melted mozzarella, a Grecian punch of oregano and capers, while the margherita ($10), that trusty old friend, was fitted out with basil chiffonade.
Mozzarella recurs in a deconstructed salad ($8) of julienne roasted red bell pepper (like a heap of tiny, glistening snakes) and tongues of zucchini, the plate drizzled with balsamic vinegar. So far, so good for vegetarians, who will want to avert their eyes when the plate of salume ($9) appears: Here we have, in addition to crackerlike Sardinian flatbread (curled as if from the heat of the oven), slices of testa, lardo, and two kinds of salume. I liked it all, though the creamy white lardo seemed to be pure pork fat.
Seafood tends to be a natural principal of island cuisines, and while the preeminence of animal husbandry on Sardinia is reflected in the meatiness of la Ciccia’s cooking (and in the name itself, which means "belly" in Sardinian), the restaurant does have its treats from the sea. Prominent among these is octopus ($10) braised in olive oil with chili peppers, basil, and mint and presented with quartered oven-roasted tomatoes. The oily sauce is dark, exotic, and luxurious, while the octopus itself has something of the character, firm and slightly salty, of preserved fish.
As for meat: You’ll catch a nice whiff of fennel from the pork sausage that enriches a lively saffron-tomato sauce for gnocchetti ($13), a pasta variety that resembles half-split soybean pods. True carnivores might want something like the lamb stew ($17), a hearty but rather somber bowl of tender meat cubes, potatoes, and peas in a sunless brown sauce purported to contain saffron. It is good but not especially interesting, just as the lasagnette ($10), a kind of loose-leaf layering of semolina ribbons and shredded cabbage under a cap of melted pecorino cheese, is interesting but not especially good — a kind of sauerkraut pasta, tangy-salty with an odd glimmer of sweetness.
A word on the wine list, which, being replete with Sardinian bottlings both white and red, is probably one of the more striking ones in town at the moment: Because Sardinia is a world unto itself in many ways, its viticulture, like its food, is diverse. Its most famous wine is produced from a white grape, vermentino, whose best examples grow in dry, windswept conditions in the northeast part of the island. Argiolas’s Costamolino bottling ($26) is a little rich by this standard, with plenty of tropical fruit, but quite seductively drinkable. A crisper white, for my taste, is the little-known nuragus de Cagliari (another Argiolas, $8 a glass), a seafood-friendly wine produced in the southern part of the island, around the provincial capital, Cagliari. There are even excellent reds, among them monica de Sardegna (yet another Argiolas product, $7 a glass), a svelte but tight wine, like a good pinot noir and definitely a cut above pizza wine, though good with — good — pizzas. SFBG
Nightly, 5:30–10 p.m.
291 30th St., SF
Beer and wine
Umlaut with that?
A friend from LA said, upon stepping into Lettüs Café Organic, "I feel like I’m back in LA. On Rodeo Drive somewhere." Ah, Rodeo Drive, home of the Polo Store, haunt of Nancy Reagan. Lettüs isn’t quite the kind of place where you’d expect to see Mrs. R. — she seems more like the Spago Beverly Hills type — but the Rodeo vibe was palpable and even I caught it, though Lettüs’s Marina environs, its urban density of souls, have always seemed more Chicago than LA to me, more Lincoln Park. Of course, I once lived in Chicago; I have never lived in LA but have been to Rodeo Drive.
"Everything is good for you, and expensive," my LA friend continued, apropos the LA-ish menu at Lettüs. Ah, I thought, we could be talking about the Newsroom Café, that West Hollywood haunt (on Robertson, near Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, nowhere near Rodeo Drive but just across the street from the Ivy) of alfalfa sprouts, fat-free yogurt smoothies, and youthful pretenders to movie stardom, everybody wearing their fancy sunglasses inside — which of course is not necessary at Lettüs.
The good-for-you part I could accept, for Lettüs, as its full name suggests, deals almost exclusively in organic food and relies as much as possible on local produce. The pricey part, on the other hand, I balked at; Lettüs isn’t exactly cheap, but it isn’t expensive, either, for what you get, with only a handful of items costing more than $10. Plus, you are afforded an opportunity to ponder the umlaut, a flourish that puts one in mind of, perhaps, a Swedish delicacy like pancakes with lingonberry sauce, though the menu is devoid of Scandinavian influence (except for smoked salmon); most of the culinary cues are either Medi-Cal or East Asian, which leaves one with a general impression that an outpost of Chow has collided with one of the ZAO noodle bars.
The most Scandinavian element of Lettüs (other than the umlaut) is probably the interior design, walls and ceiling of slatted, pale wood, with interstitial bars of fluorescent lighting and sleek, spare furniture. There is a certain saunalike feel to the look, or perhaps it is vaguely Japanese. Either way, it manages to be both rustic and urban, cool and warm, an appealing casual-sophisticated setting for the casually sophisticated food of executive chef Sascha Weiss. (His partners in the endeavor are Matthew Guelke and Mark Lewis; the restaurant opened near the end of last year.)
If Weiss’s food has a theme, it might be "when worlds collide": chipotle-scented black bean soup ($4) with avocado salsa on the one hand and, on the other, mango chicken or tofu lettuce cups ($8) — shredded napa cabbage, a Thai-ish blend of ginger, cilantro, basil, and sweet-hot chili-tamarind sauce, and either baked tofu or grilled chicken bundled in swaddlings of Bibb lettuce for easy finger feeding. And if you have a third hand, how about some bruschetta ($5), points of grilled levain topped with white butter beans, roast garlic, cherry tomatoes, and basil?
Bigger dishes are available, of course, from various sorts of panini and open-faced sandwiches — including an entrant of grilled chicken breast ($9.50) with marinated peppers and pesto quite as potent as anything you’d get at Chow — to noodlier choices. Here we have a pasta ($8), fusilli sauced with arugula, sun-dried tomatoes, broccoli, and chickpeas, with a layer of olive slivers and gratings of parmesan cheese on top, a concoction surprisingly hearty despite the absence of animal flesh. There is also a plate of brightly acidic soba noodles ($7) — warm or cold, your call — tossed with julienne zucchini, carrot, and red bell pepper and a lime-sesame vinaigrette dotted with sesame seeds.
But in the main, the happiest course is probably to nosh. Most of the food lends itself to splitting and sharing, in particular the spring rolls ($6), rice-paper wraps stuffed with rice noodles, carrots, and lettuce, sliced into bite-size cylinders, and presented with dipping sauces of spicy peanut and sweet chili. Only slightly more cumbersome to divvy up is a salad of avocado and grapefruit ($7.50) nested in a carpet of peppery-nutty arugula and dressed with a grapefruit-juice vinaigrette; this is about as simple as it gets, and about as good, with butteriness, fruit, bite, and nose brought into a powerful harmony.
Given the confident eclecticism of the savory dishes, the desserts are surprisingly flat-footed. A pair of hazelnut shortbreads ($1) dipped in dark chocolate were not dipped in dark chocolate but presented to us naked. They were fine, crisp yet tender of crumb, but I felt obliged to ask after the missing chocolate. "We don’t have those today," our hapless server reported. Coffee cake ($4), meanwhile, was on the dry side despite an interspersion of blackberries and a streusel topping. Only the chocolate mousse cake ($5), served on a plate piped with raspberry sauce, was "dense" and "rich" as promised by the menu card — moist, too, they could honorably have added.
A word on the table service, which is of the semi variety: You order at the counter, are issued a placard with a number, seat yourself (displaying numbered placard), and wait for the food to start arriving. The system is fairly efficient, though cafeteria-esque, and the placards aren’t the usual cheap plastic numbers but cast steel, with numbers handsomely embossed in gold. Nancy Reagan might not buy them if she saw them in a window on Rodeo Drive, but she would at least look. SFBG
Lettüs Café Organic
Mon.–Fri., 7:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m.; Sat.–Sun., 8 a.m.–10:30 p.m.
3352 Steiner, SF
Beer and wine
Tea might be yang to coffee’s yin in the morning land of Caffeination Nation, but despite the presence, in yin as in yang, of humankind’s favorite stimulant, tea is surely one of the most soothing ingestables known to us. It is what you have a cup of when it’s raining, or you’re feeling blue or a little achy; as with chicken soup, its healing powers are legendary. The very picture of a cup of tea, wreathed by wisps of delicate steam, tends to set the mind at ease. And, of course, this isn’t just some gauzy, sentimental picture, since scientific investigation has found tea to be ample in the antioxidant compounds that help human beings resist disease.
It is beautifully appropriate, then, that we should find both chicken soup and a wealth of teas on the menu at Modern Tea, a gorgeous tea emporium and restaurant — rather in the mold of the Castro’s Samovar Tea Lounge — that opened recently in a gorgeous Hayes Valley space, of exposed brickwork, plate glass, and warm wood, that once housed Terra Brazilis. After that Brazili-Cal bistro closed, there was a brief and misplaced intermezzo of South Asian cooking under the name Tandoori Grill, but with the advent of Modern Tea, all is again as it should be: a distinctive and worthy endeavor in a strikingly stylish setting.
Not many changes have been made to that setting, except that the steam tables for the Indian buffet have been removed from the area in front of the elevated exhibition kitchen and the walls have been painted the color of green tea ice cream. The layout is the same, the taverna-style wood tables and chairs the same — or, if not the same, so similar to their predecessors as to seem the same in memory. What has changed is the mood, the tempo; what was, not too many years ago, a bustling station of the night now has the slightly calmer, sunlit affect of a café, though a café that serves tea instead of coffee and is much better looking than its fellow cafés.
The animating spirit of Modern Tea belongs to Alice Cravens, whose pedigree as a teamonger is lofty. She has run the tea service for places like Chez Panisse, Delfina, and Zuni, and it is not surprising that, in opening her own place, she would adopt the ethos of those distinguished spots as her own, with an emphasis on sustainability, seasonality, and a certain earthy simplicity that manages to be consistent both with elegance and with tea. "We buy our ingredients direct from local farmers and businesses whenever possible," the bill of fare announces, "with preference towards organic and earth friendly farming methods."
I am a little surprised that there are no sandwiches on offer, even at lunch — but perhaps this reflects a fierce determination to avoid any echo of English-high-tea, hotel-lobby cliché, such as cucumber sandwiches on white bread trimmed of its crusts. On the other hand, the soups are uniformly excellent, from the Tuscan-style chicken soup ($5.95 for a bowl at lunch, $6.50 at dinner) — really almost a kind of minestrone, rich in carrots, onions, and chard, with shreds of chicken meat added — to a gratifyingly thick "old style" French lentil soup ($5.95/$6.50), made with Puy lentils. (These are the terriers of the lentil family: They are small, gray green, and tough, though they turn a rich camel color when cooked and, if cooked long enough, become appealingly toothsome while producing an almost gravylike broth.) For sheer dietary virtue it would be hard to beat the quinoa chowder ($5.95/$6.50), which floats the pebbly Inca grain in vegetable broth with chunks of potato and, if you like, a sprinkling of feta cheese on top for a bit of salty sharpness.
Although the menu offers no sandwiches, bread is not completely absent. It turns up in an excellent strata ($8.25 at dinner), a savory pudding with goat cheese and roasted tomatoes, and in the lemon bread pudding ($4.50), a tiramisu-like layering (in an open-topped jar) of bread crumbs, whipped cream, and intense lemon custard. Other starches also appear, including rice noodles as the bed for a carrot and kale "coleslaw" ($8.25), leavened with hijiki seaweed and a sesame vinaigrette; this is one of the few Asian-influenced items on the mainly Euro-Cali menu. Potatoes turn up, in gratin form, as an accompaniment to chicken and sausage meatloaf ($11.75), three hefty slices of ground, herbed flesh, mixed with Italian chicken sausage and topped with streaks of a barbecuey sauce, that will do justice to the heartiest appetite.
A cautionary note on this last point: Modern Tea is probably not the place to go if you’re in the market for a heavy-duty, high-calorie dinner. Lightness and delicacy are central themes, and even the most substantial courses are meant to keep harmony with such fine teas as osmanthus silver needle ($5.25), a gently floral white leaf from China, or the barely richer sevan blend ($3.50), an Armenian herbal mix of chamomile, lemon balm, oregano, basil, bean core, hawthorne berry, linden fruit, and St.-John’s-wort. If you find you do need some last-minute ballast, an opportune choice is the chocolate sheet cake, a moist sponge cake sold in brownielike one-inch squares, dusted with powdered sugar, for $1 per. Goes well with yin or yang. SFBG
Tues.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m.; Sat., 10:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m.; Sun., 10:30 a.m.–7 p.m.
602 Hayes, SF
Beer and wine pending
Get thee to a naanery
Polk is a many splendored strasse, with lower lows and higher highs, socioeconomically speaking, than practically any other road in town, with the possible exception of Market Street. Below California, there is still an agreeable crunch of urban grit under your feet, you still see the occasional boy hustler, and the restaurants tend toward the ethnic and cheap — but this neighborhood is the western edge of the Tenderloin, after all.
Above Broadway we are in chi-chi-land, cheek to cheek with some of the town’s swellest swells (but what cheeks do I mean?) and gazing upon the menu cards of such redoubts of swankery as La Folie and Le Petit Robert. Is this, then, a bipolar story, a tale of haves and have-nots or -littles, grit and glamour, worlds apart? Have I forgotten the stretch of Polk north of California and south of Broadway, the transition zone? I have not.
It is on this very stretch of street, in fact, that we find Indian Aroma, a nicely middle-class South Asian restaurant in a middle-classy neighborhood in a city whose middle class seems to be disappearing in our drive for third world–style stratification of wealth and status: a handful of chubby-cheeked plutocrats and masses of the disenfranchised. The place is far from a dive, with handsomely set tables, a paint scheme of sponged ochres and umbers, a huge round mirror mounted in one wall like a giant’s monocle, a nonperfunctory wine list (including several selections by the glass), and professional table service. On the other hand, it’s not particularly pricey (most main dishes are within a tick or two of $10), it’s easy to glide into, and there is the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet — at $8.99, not the cheapest buffet of its kind in town, but pretty reasonable all the same and with better-than-average food.
Indian Aroma is a reincarnation of sorts of Scenic India, which, until it closed three years ago owing to loss of lease, was one of the better Indian restaurants on the Valencia Street corridor and held a strategic location near the corner of 16th Street. The new location can’t match the old for hipster-central cachet, but it does have its charms, mainly of variety: The Civic Center and Tenderloin are within walking distance, as are the hillier, tonier precincts of Nob and Russian Hills and the human parade a block west, along Van Ness.
There is also the stabilizing presence of owner and head chef Tahir Khan, whose Bangladeshi-influenced cooking features spices ground and blended in-house — hence the Indian aroma, which wafts onto the street and helps drifting pedestrians distinguish between the restaurant and the Christian Science Reading Room next door — halal meats, and for those averse to meat (halal or otherwise), a wide variety of meatless choices.
Khan’s kitchen does a decent job with flesh — there is a good lamb curry ($8.95), with cubes of boneless (and reasonably tender) meat in a tomato-based sauce, and a nice, slightly sweet version of shrimp bhuna ($12.95), large prawns sautéed in a stir-fried spice mixture with tomatoes, ginger, and garlic — but really, if the only nonvegetarian items on offer were of chicken, you wouldn’t complain. Chicken is possibly the meat most compatible with, even in need of, strong spicing, and the tandoori chicken ($8.95 for a half bird) is marvelous, tangy-tender with an edge of char, while the chicken tikka masala ($10.95) met with the enthusiastic approval of the CTM aficionado, who spent several minutes wiping up the remnant gravy with shreds of cooling naan. Even the plain chicken tikka ($10.95) — chunks of boneless, marinated meat cooked on skewers in the tandoor — met the highest standards of moistness and tastiness despite an absence of sauce.
The vegetable dishes too are solid, if stolid, citizens. Spinach, the bane of many a childhood but a cherished source of antioxidants for adults, appears in two guises: cooked simply with tomatoes and a curry blend (saag bhaji, $5.95) and with chunks of white cheese instead of tomatoes (saag paneer, $6.95). Mutter paneer includes cubes of the same fresh white cheese but replaces the spinach with peas for a touch of sweetness that nicely smooths the edge of the curry sauce, while chana masala ($5.95) lets chickpeas be chickpeas, with gentle spicing that bolsters rather than competes with the beans’ naturally nutty flavor.
Many of these dishes turn up at the lunch buffet, along with a mild, though dramatically yellow, mulligatawny soup (a close relative of dal, the famous Indian lentil stew) — the presence of turmeric was strongly suspected — and fabulous pappadum, the wrinkly, crackery disks of flash-fried lentil flour still carrying a slight sheen of oil. Lunch also includes pakora, the fritters of shredded vegetables, though like forensic examiners studying the evidence of an especially baffling murder, we were unable to establish which.
The naan, of course, is splendidly pillowy and warm. At lunch it’s free and abundant — so go then if you’re hooked — but even at dinner, when you have to pay by the piece, you get a disk the size of a medium pizza for just $1.50. Adherents to a variety-is-the-spice-of-life philosophy might opt instead for the puri ($1.50), a naanlike round of dough that’s puffy, golden, and slightly crisp from a turn in the deep fryer rather than the oven; like its distant relation langos (the fried bread of Hungary), it resembles a pizza crust made of pastry. But enough pillow talk. SFBG
Dinner: Sun.–Thurs., 5–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5–11 p.m.
Lunch: Daily, 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
1653 Polk, SF
Beer and wine
City on a hill
It is noteworthy, though seldom noted, that Rome’s claim to be the capital of Christianity is, you know, a little … odd. All the Passover and Easter drama — the donkey and the palm fronds, the Last Supper, the betrayal by a kiss in moonlit Gethsemane, the crucifixion, the rock mysteriously rolled away from the mouth of the tomb — was supposed to have taken place in, or near, Jerusalem, after all. Why, then, do we not find the pope there, waving to the crowds from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? One obvious part of the answer is, of course, that Rome, not Jerusalem, was the seat of the Caesars, whose honorific title, pontifex maximus, was appropriated by their successors in imperial interest, the popes (hence pontiff). Another might be that Jerusalem is a contested city, the symbolic heart of a triad of related monotheisms whose fierce and often violent competitions carry some of the sharp flavor of sibling rivalry.
When you take a seat at little Old Jerusalem Restaurant, which opened earlier this winter on an as yet unyuppified stretch of Mission, your eye is ineluctably drawn to the mural of the Old City that fills most of the restaurant’s long north wall. Yes, you think, the city on a hill, bundled within its 16th-century Ottoman walls, really is that color, a pale gold with just a slight suggestion of rose. And: Yes, there is the gilded Dome of the Rock, conspicuous in its looming centrality, at least in the mural. Jerusalem is many Jerusalems: It is the place from which Mohammed is said to have ascended to the heavens as well as the home of the Western Wall and of the pit where St. Helena claimed to have found pieces of the True Cross.
Fortunately, everyone likes falafel, the hamburger of the Middle East and the lingua franca of Palestine, a torn land desperately in need of shared joys and pleasures. You can buy falafel from street (or lane) carts all through the Old City, but if you happen to be here instead, you’ll find that Old Jerusalem’s version is pretty good, consisting of golf ball–size spheres of ground, seasoned chickpeas that are a deep, crusty bronze outside and pasty green within and just 39¢ each if you can stand your falafel naked. (A sandwich edition, with pita bread and condiments, is $4.99.) Naked falafel balls are actually a little harsh for my taste, a little dry in the mouth, but luckily the menu, while fairly brief, is rich in saucy and spreadable things that can be discreetly spooned around, whether the tahini-lemon dressing of a Jerusalem salad ($3.49) of quartered tomatoes and cucumber chunks, or the fabulous hummus that turns up as an accompaniment to many of the larger plates.
These are of variable appeal, with dryness being an intermittent issue. The best are quite fine and memorable, and in this category I would certainly put the chicken shawerma ($9.99), chunks of tender, boneless meat slow-roasted on one of those vertical spits to help retain moisture. Not far off the pace is shish taouk ($9.99), more boneless chicken chunks, grilled this time on skewers and not quite as tender or moist, though still tasty and with an appealing hint of char. For purposes of skewer grilling, the red meats hold up better, and Old Jerusalem offers both beef and lamb versions of shish kebab. The peripatetic appetite may well be most interested in the combination plate ($11.99), which offers an ensemble of skewer-grilled chicken, lamb, and beef, along with a length of grilled kifta, a kind of cilantro sausage — very tasty, but parched, we found, and in need of a sauce. (The restaurant filled with smoke shortly before this platter was presented to us. We could have been witnessing a magic act at the circus.)
So meat is hit-or-miss, but it is probably for the best that the rest of the world isn’t quite as meat-involved as we are. When we move into the field of legumes — which are cheaper and healthier than meat and, in the view of many of us, tastier and more interesting too — Old Jerusalem reliably shines. There is the fine hummus. There is also a chickpea stew called fata ($4.99), a mix of whole and puréed chickpeas mixed with tahini sauce and spooned over torn chunks of pita bread. And there is qodsiah ($4.99), an addictive mix of hummus and foul, a similarly seasoned, rust-colored paste made from (presumably dried) fava beans. All are eminently scoopable with pita bread (baskets of which, still warm from the oven, are continually refreshed) and highly compatible with the plate of dill pickles and olives that is presented shortly after the menus.
The restaurant’s signature dish takes the improbable form of a dessert. It is kunafa — "shredded wheat in goat cheese baked in syrup," says the menu card. Sounds dreadful as described, but it turns out to be a svelte square, jellyish red-orange on top, with a base layer of cheese. We took a pair of skeptical first bites but were soon won over by the mix of sour, fruit-sweet, and creamy, with a faint echo of crunch. You can get a single square for $4, and that’s plenty for two people (it’s rich), but the kunafa is also issued in larger denominations: A full sheet is $60, and there are half- and quarter-sheets available too: a triad, or trinity, of choices. SFBG
Old Jerusalem Restaurant
Daily, 11 a.m.–10 p.m.
2976 Mission, SF
Crazy on you
Kookez looks like a name from The Epic of Gilgamesh, or perhaps the name of some lost city in ancient Persia — near Shiraz? — but really it’s a kind of phonetic or spoof spelling. Hint: Resist the urge, almost irresistible in this city, to see the word kook; remember that we deal in food and restaurants here and visualize … cookies! (No, not whirled peas.) For Kookez Café is, indeed, in part about cookies; they are the pride of founder, owner, and baker Lynn Marie Presley, and a selection of them, along with other tempting baked goods, is on display in a glass case just inside the entryway.
But Kookez is about more than cookies. It is the successor to the long-running and successful Miss Millie’s (recently decamped to the East Bay) and accordingly has inherited the pole position in Noe Valley’s busy weekend brunch derby. It is also a cozy evening spot, serving "coast to coast" American comfort-food dishes — many with a decidedly Southern accent — in as appealingly old-fashioned a setting as you’re likely to find around town. The look is that of some venerable, family-run café on a narrow lane in Paris or London: lots of warm wood, yellowish wall lamps, snug booths, and a small garden in the rear whose charms are, thus far in this indescribably dreary spring, hypothetical. Those with long memories will recall that the space, before becoming Miss Millie’s, belonged to a coffeehouse named Meat Market, which took its name from the butcher shop that once occupied the premises.
An overhead rail for hanging split carcasses is still mounted from the ceiling just in front of the small exhibition kitchen, where the chef, Amir, goes about his business. When Miss Millie’s opened, in the mid-1990s, the original menu was vegetarian, and the rail was left in place as an ironic reminder, a kind of memento mori for meat eaters, or maybe non–meat eaters. But Miss Millie’s later expanded beyond meatless offerings as the neighborhood changed, and as Kookez picks up the baton, the neighborhood continues to change.
Noe Valley is known as the city’s "baby belt," and really you can’t go a block without encountering a baby stroller, a nanny, a pack of tots, or a young father carrying an infant in some kind of chest sling. The Kookez brain trust is on the case; in addition to the cookies, the restaurant offers a kids’ menu (cupcakes included), the waitstaff seems unfazed by strollers zooming to and fro inside, and the cards of fare are laminated. I understand the precautionary nature of taking this last step, since children do have a way of spilling, scattering, smearing, and otherwise making messes with their food. At the same time, the menu card entombed in plastic does summon for some of us the ghosts of forgettable meals in chain restaurants near freeways at the outskirts of cookie-cutter cities in the heart of the heart of the country.
For the most part, Kookez pulls off its Comfort Food Nation conceit pretty nicely. The familiar stuff is the best: a bowl of New England clam chowder weighted with potatoes and bacon and heady with black pepper ($4.95); a chicken pot pie ($10.95) with a lovely golden pastry crust and a pea-rich stuffing; an excellent hamburger ($8.50), subtly swabbed with chipotle aioli and served with a stack of garlicky home fries in need of but a sprinkle of salt to come to attention; an herb-roasted half chicken ($12.50), tender and moist and plated with garlic mashed potatoes (under- and perhaps unsalted) and sautéed zucchini.
The chilled tomato tower ($7.75) — basically a napoleon, layers of red and gold tomato slices buffered by disks of mozzarella and seasoned with basil and balsamic vinegar — would be a lovely dish in summer, when the tomatoes are soft, juicy, and deeply flavored. At the end of winter, one tastes mainly the chill. The mango quesadilla ($7.50) is a worthy attempt to dress up a possibly overfamiliar friend; the decorations include a nippy blend of jack and brie cheeses, the aforementioned mango, and slices of strawberry on top. The strawberry slices looked a little forlorn on the golden half disk, as if the door to a party had been shut in their faces and they were left to pace around outside. At the same time, their presence did suggest not just seasonality but the possibility of some clever innovation: How about pureeing them with some garlic, cilantro, cayenne, and lime juice into a kind of spring salsa?
One of the best of the Southern-inflected dishes is the bayou butter-BQ dippin’ shrimp ($21.50), eight or nine big sautéed prawns accompanied by three lengths of grilled fresh okra — a surprisingly appealing bit of exotica — and not one but two dipping sauces: a peppery bourbon-butter number and a fruity-sharp jam of ginger and chilis that’s reminiscent of something you might be served with pot stickers. I would say this dish is well worth its sticker price, while noting that the sticker price is slightly lofty for a neighborhood joint. And it isn’t alone in being on the high side of $20; two other dishes also wander above the tree line, while several more are in the upper teens. But … this is the new Noe Valley, the Beverly Hills of the Googleocracy.
This can be a depressing line of contemplation, and a ready antidote is the infantile pleasure of dessert: a slice of rich amaretto cheesecake ($7.95), say, with blood orange sorbet. Or just a cookie — maybe chocolate chip ($1.50) — if you’re not nuts about such a rich finish. SFBG
Dinner: Wed.–Sat., 5:30–9:30 p.m.; Sun., 5–9 p.m.
Brunch: Sat.–Sun., 9 a.m.–2 p.m.
4123 24th St., SF
Beer and wine
Cav Wine Bar
REVIEW Maybe it’s the flight of robust German reds talking, but Cav seems like the sleekest, yet somehow the most laid-back, entry in the recent rush of wine bar openings. (Is there, like, a wine bar mafia hiding out here lately?) While other new oenophile venues certainly have their particular charms, Cav’s the only one that aims for hipness without turning class into sass.
Owners Pamela S. Busch and Tadd Cortell have fashioned a list with global reach (Portugal, Australia, the surprising Germany) that highlights the adventurously cozy and pairs it with a full menu of worldwise California fare — gnocchi with crayfish and sunchokes ($7.50/$15), lamb osso buco with creamy semolina polenta ($10/$20), both available as tapas or main courses. Along with the quiet, humming atmosphere, outgoing staff, and clean-lined, low-lit interior (like being on "a train ride for taste buds," as a friend described it), this makes Cav a perfect date place — strange wines to talk about and comfy food to share. Another bonus: Because Cav focuses on little-known foreign regionals, there’s no pressure to look like an expert. Menu and flights change weekly. (Marke B.)
CAV WINE BAR Mon.–Sat., 5:30 p.m.–1 a.m.
Kitchen closes 11 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., midnight Fri.–Sat.
1666 Market, SF. (415) 437-1770, www.cavwinebar.com. D/MC/V, $$$
Deeper into sushi
Opera Plaza doesn’t look like restaurant heaven, and, for the most part, it isn’t. The development’s long-running success story is Max’s Opera Café, a faux deli that deals in mountainous portions, with dill pickles and fries. Over the years there have been a few places with more style, among them Carlo Middione’s Vivande and Bruce Cost’s Monsoon, but in neither case was traction established, and neither concern lasted long.
The crash of Monsoon isn’t all that difficult to understand in retrospect. Whereas Vivande at least had a big sign overlooking the busy corner of Franklin and Golden Gate Avenues to let potential patrons know it was there, Monsoon (which opened soon after the 1989 earthquake) was buried deep in the complex and wasn’t all that easy to see even from the interior courtyard, complete with its Stalinist concrete and fountain. Here, too late, are my directions: Enter the courtyard from Van Ness, with A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books on your right, pass the fountain, and shear to your right as you approach the movie theater. You will see a neon sign and, beyond some glass doors, will find yourself at the host’s station in a restaurant, and while the restaurant won’t be Monsoon (which closed early in 1993), it will be pretty good. It is Shima Sushi and represents a return to respectability for a centrally located yet obscure site that had fallen into slightly tacky gloom.
A postulate I have been forming recently is that many troubled and oft-flipped restaurant spaces find a stable life serving sushi and other Japanese food, and Shima Sushi bolsters the argument. It helps, certainly, that uncooked fish has long been a form of fast food in Japan, for the large lunchtime crowds at Shima consist, one supposes — to judge by the office garb and accoutrements — largely of people who work in the neighborhood’s complex of municipal, state, and federal offices, and they are visibly under some time pressure. Shima accommodates them gracefully, with bento boxes ($7.95 for a choice of two items, $8.95 for three) featuring such delicacies as tuna sashimi and crisp-skinned, smoky-sweet salmon teriyaki, along with miso soup, mixed green salad, and bean sprouts with scallions. (There is also a vegetarian bento box.) Other choices include a sushi lunch special ($8.95), with a California roll (real crab is $1 extra and worth it) and a mix of sushi pieces likely to include tuna, hamachi, salmon, and shrimp. Those averse to raw flesh have recourse to various forms of teriyaki, tempura, donburi, and udon. Service is quite swift and polite, but the staff is too busy hurrying to do much hovering, and once you’re served, they’re likely to let you be unless you make some want or need known. Then they do come running.
By evening, the mood of the restaurant visibly softens: The light seems a bit yellower, the blond wood of the Japanese-style partitions a bit warmer, the bubbles in the aquarium a bit bigger and lazier. The patronage, too, mellows — but then, people do live in and around Opera Plaza, and for them, Shima is a jewel of a neighborhood restaurant, with a favorable quality-to-price ratio and enough room to accommodate walk-ins while keeping the noise level reasonable. The dinner menu resembles an expanded version of the lunch menu; the chief additions are a list of specialty rolls and a trio of "special combinations" — blow-out sushi festivals served in wooden boats. You order according to the size of your party; we were three and opted for the Shima special ($75, "serves three or more") but quailed when the ship approached the table looking like one of those freighters you sometimes see sailing through the Golden Gate, so laden with booty as to be nearly submerged.
"We’ll never be able to eat all that," said one of my fellow musketeers and one justly renowned for doughtiness in the face of huge amounts of food. As things turned out, we did empty the ship of its cargo, which the other musketeer, to my right, perhaps a bit less doughty, described as "tuna-heavy." As indeed it was, not that there was anything wrong with that. We worked our way through nigiri and sashimi editions of maguro, toro, and albacore (underrated; always fabulously buttery), along with salmon, red snapper (thin sheets of pearly flesh splashed with rose), and bonito, whose ribbing gave each piece the look of a chunk of burst all-terrain tire on the shoulders of a mountain highway. Astern, the ship had been laden with rolls, among them Super California — strips of barbecued eel laid atop rice disks stuffed with avocado and snow crab — and Lion King, a California roll wrapped in salmon, then baked in foil like a potato.
In due course the denuded ship sailed away, guided by a smiling server who nonetheless shook her head in polite awe at what we had accomplished. A few moments later she showed up with small bowls of green tea ice cream: reward or penalty? Neither; the ice cream was included in the deal, to be shipped under separate cover. The doughty musketeer made a face at the prospect of green tea ice cream but polished it off since, in the end, a sweet is a sweet is a sweet, especially if at no extra cost. SFBG
Dinner: Mon.–Thurs. and Sat., 5–9:30 p.m.; Fri., 5–10 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
601 Van Ness, SF
Beer and wine
The burger hopper
The hamburger has a certain Zelig quality in America: It turns up all over the place, in guises high and low, at fancy metropolitan restaurants and greasy truck stops on the outskirts of every Podunk and Palookaville from coast to coast. Some, like the famous Zuni burger, are made from carefully ground high-end beef; many others — many, many others — are made from meat whose provenance we probably don’t care to think about.
The hamburger, then, is democratic in the best American sense. It looks as good in coat and tails as it does in a pair of sweatpants. It uncomplainingly accepts the companionship of cheese, yes, all kinds of cheese, but also of bacon, avocado, mushrooms, and grilled onions — not to mention lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles. It can be made in a flash — cooked in a pan, under a broiler, on a griddle, over hot coals — and eaten with ease, being a variant of that incomparable finger food, the sandwich. It is suitable for practically any occasion; it is our national food. Presidents and paupers alike eat hamburgers.
Yet as democracy in America wanes, one cannot help wondering about the fate of the burger. Of course, San Francisco is not the ideal location for these kinds of ruminations, for this has never been much of a hamburger town. The city’s culinary roots are, instead, Franco-Italian, Chinese, Mexican, and maritime — none of them huge on ground-beef patties — and in later years we have witnessed a bloom of vegetarian regimes in which the trusty burger is anathema or worse. Add to all this a raft of concerns about mad cow disease and E. coli contamination, LDL and the ethical treatment of animals, and you have a recipe for … linguine with broccoli, or something.
Yet the burger is a hardy little fellow, and places that honor its tenacity persist and even, modestly, proliferate. One new such spot is Toad’s, which opened toward the end of January in the old Café Arguello space at Valencia and 26th Streets. You would not think, walking into Toad’s, that here is a restaurant dealing mainly in hamburgers and hot dogs, nor for that matter that you were entering a restaurant named Toad’s; the cream-and-dark-wood look is one of understated elegance and makes the tall, straight, boxy space look like a small Town Hall. The flat-panel television mounted above the bar toward the rear and tuned to ESPN does give a slight sports-bar air and does, perhaps, whet the appetite for such all-Americana as buffalo wings, potatoes, nachos, and curly fries, all of which the menu offers.
Not too many years ago, curly fries were a Jack in the Box exclusive, but now you can get them at one-off places like Toad’s, and they’re every bit as good — crisp and slightly spicy coils — as the fast-food version. You can get a full order of them, complete with buttermilk ranch dressing, for $3.95, but a better option might be to upgrade the fries included in the cost of your burger. This slight surcharge bumps the price of the well-seasoned and juicy avocado cheeseburger, say (with a half avocado’s worth of buttery, ripe slices and choice of cheese), from $8.95 to $9.95 and provides more than enough curly fries, unless you are really fixated.
In keeping with the restaurant’s handsome look, the Joe Six-Pack menu is full of sly upscaleness. The beef burgers are made from Black Angus, and there are several meatless choices available (including the amazingly lifelike Boca burger), along with homemade chili and soup of the day ($4.95 a bowl), which, even when it sounds drab — zucchini and mushrooms, maybe, classic bottom-of-the-bin, end-of-the-week stuff — is likely to be spiffed up with some cumin and chili pepper. You can get Stella Artois and Big Daddy IPA on tap. The one thing Toad’s doesn’t have is the alfresco option. For that you’ll have to traipse over to Barney’s Gourmet Burgers in Noe Valley.
Like Toad’s, Barney’s is a burger joint with a fair amount of discreet spit and polish. The space used to belong to a bistro, and the beer garden–worthy garden out front, set with umbrella-shaded tables and potted plants, was an important draw for diners who might otherwise be tempted to step into Little Italy (now Lupa) across the street. When Barney’s took over, there was quiet mourning in some quarters at fate’s lack of imagination, but the place has had a long run and — to judge from the crowds in the garden day and night — a successful one.
As it happens, Barney’s, too, offers curly fries, and they are as good as Toad’s (and Jack’s), right down to the ranch dressing. Although I made the mistake of ordering the curlies separately, I thought I was exercising moderation by getting only a half basket of them ($3.50) and was dismayed to find, when I weighed myself the morning after, that I’d gained five pounds. Moral of story: no morning-after weigh-ins, and curly fries should probably be eaten with tweezers, or handled with some of the same ceremony and officiousness that Seinfeld‘s übertoff Mr. Pitt brought to the enjoyment of his Snickers bars. (Knife! Fork! White linen napkin!)
The burgers, they are fine and conform nicely to the local standard. (Assuming you know what I mean, I shall say no more.) Lighter eaters and beefphobes will be relieved to learn that Barney’s offers turkey burgers outfitted in various ways — dusted with Cajun spices ($6.95), maybe, then blackened like Gulf red snapper. Such a burger might not play in Palookaville, but here in the big city, it’s the people’s choice, or one of them. SFBG
Dinner: nightly, 5:30–9:30 p.m.
Lunch: Sun., noon–3 p.m.
1499 Valencia, SF
Beer and wine
Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers
Mon.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.
Sun., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.
4138 24th St., SF
Beer and wine
Pleasant noise level
Travelers on Interstate 280, northbound across the south face of the city, may well have had occasion to use the San Jose Avenue exit, a two-lane ramp that curves through a tunnel and onto another multilane road scarcely different from the freeway itself, except for the Muni trains running along the median and the lower speed limit, which is generally ignored, as is the case on the freeway proper. But, like a wadi fading in some desert, San Jose Avenue soon becomes a ghost. Traffic curves onto Guerrero and speeds north, and San Jose itself seems to end even before reaching Cesar Chavez.
It doesn’t end, though. It’s just interrupted, and a block north of Cesar Chavez it resumes its languid progress as a kind of village lane all but inaccessible to the automotive furies on nearby thoroughfares and lined with quaint old houses and a small slice of park, beatifically calm. At the foot of this segment of street, in a building that could easily be mistaken for a Laundromat, we find Wild Pepper, a recently relocated Chinese restaurant (ne Long Island, on Church) notable not only for its isolation — for restaurants, like wolves (and humans!), tend to operate on a pack model, clustering together — but also for its offer of evidence that two people can indeed eat quite royally in this town and still get out the door for less than $40, maybe nearer $30. Those numbers include tax and tip, yes — the latter covering table service at tables covered with proper white linens and set with handsomely lacquered rosewood chairs.
None of this is to suggest that Wild Pepper is the lap of luxury. The setting, intimate to the city yet remote from it, has its charms, of course; I would not have been surprised to find a hitching post for horses outside the front door. The interior design too, while not without its flourishes, including an aquarium full of bubbles and decorative tropical fish, is Spartan in the manner of one of those semilegal in-law apartments in which the dehumidifier is always running. But all this means is that there is less sensory clutter to distract one’s attention from the excellent food.
As Wild Pepper’s menu reminds us, excellent Chinese food need not be imperial nor be prepared with a banquet table and 14 courses in mind. Earthiness helps, pepperiness too, along with an attention to freshness of ingredients and continence in the use of cooking oil. As an introduction to these admirable qualities, Wild Pepper offers a deceptively boring-sounding cucumber salad ($3.95); the crisp, cooling cuke is cut into coins and dressed with a simple but lively oil flecked by chili flakes and minced garlic. If you thought the cucumber was a dark green torpedo fit only to be made into effete little white-bread sandwiches for the high teas beloved of the garlic-fearing English, you will be pleased to think again.
Many of the menu’s more attractive offerings are to be found under the heading "chef’s specials." Here we find such treats as minced-chicken lettuce cup ($6.95), basically a variant of mu shu pork (including a small dish of hoisin sauce), with chicken substituted for the pork and immaculate leaves of iceberg lettuce for the pancakes. Also good, if on the richer side, is Szechuan crispy beef ($8.95), cords of shredded meat hot-wokked to a certain snappiness in the company of slivers of onion and an unassumingly brown but potent sweet-sour sauce laced with Szechuan peppercorns. For a Thai spin, try basil eggplant with prawns and scallops ($10.95) — the classic Siamese combination of sweet and spicy, with the eggplant neither tough nor mushy, those disastrous termini of many a home cook’s ministrations.
If there is a weakness on the menu, it lies in the hot appetizers and can be recognized by the alluring but somehow repulsive scent of the deep-fryer. The pork pot stickers ($4.50 for six) are an exception, being just pan-seared instead of dunked in a vat of hot oil. But they are an exception; also a bit floury. The combination plate ($6.25) gives the full oily effect; here we have egg roll and fried chicken wings (which consist of little more than deep-fried batter and some slender bones — but are tasty!), along with a pair of pot stickers and a couple of disks of crab Rangoon: crab meat mixed with cream cheese and, yes, deep-fried. Good, but positively Homer Simpson–esque.
A better hot first course might be one of the soups. Hot and sour ($2.75 for a cup) is fine in a mainstream way, but a more enriching choice might be the ocean party ($6.95 for a large, and that means at least six cups’ worth), an egg drop soup fortified almost beyond recognition. Emendations include seafood, of course (mainly scallops and chunks of white fish), along with shreds of bok choy, rounds of baby corn, panels of carrot, and slivers of shiitake mushroom. There is no obviously dominant ingredient in this soup, and its flavor is delicate — easily obscured, say, by the bite and fire of the preceding cuke salad, if you had eaten that first, as we made the mistake of doing. But we found that once the cuke fireworks had ended, the soup quietly asserted itself until its mild flavor filled our mouths and we could not get enough of it. Pepper, you see, is nice, whether red, black, white, or Szechuan, but it is not the only way to go.
11 a.m.–<\d>10 p.m.
3601 26th St., SF
Beer and wine
Heart of glass
One way to temper the shock of the new is to leaven it with bits of the old. The Europeans are expert at this, though they are more likely to do it the other way around: fluffing the old with bits of the new. On a long-ago visit to Oxford, England, in the first gray days of 1989, I was startled to find a Benetton, slick with plate glass and multicolored neon, installed along the high street in a sooty medieval building. We did not go in — for what would be the point? — but continued on to Christ Church College after a brief pause for fish and chips in a hotel pub.
If Bushi-tei is the most beautiful restaurant to open in San Francisco for a long while — if it is, in fact, arrestingly beautiful — it is because its designers understood that the present and the past are having a long conversation about the future. Bushi-tei (the name is said to mean "samurai with a big heart") is ultramodern and at the same time rustic; it is plate glass, frosted glass, a table for 16 topped with glass, and it is aged lumber salvaged from a mid-19th-century building in Nagano, Japan, and strategically placed around the dining room so that one moment you think you are south of Market, the next in the dining hall of a medieval monastery, and the moment after that in a ski lodge, with winter whistling beyond the log-cabin walls.
The main floor of the dining room is dominated by the huge glass-top table, laid with a long row of flickering votive candles as if it were part of the set for a Brother Cadfael mystery on PBS, or in the sanctuary of some Anglican church at Advent. Was the restaurant expecting some huge party? I asked our server. I was full of apprehension, for huge parties tend to grow festive and then raucous, which can have a swamping effect on parties of two.
She shook her head. No, no big party, she said. I asked what the big table was for, then, and she explained it was sometimes used to accommodate lone, stray diners, as was done at inns in the days of Chaucer. Town Hall, in SoMa, has used a similar communal table to great effect while at the same time smoothly accommodating walk-ins and other slipshod planners.
Town Hall does not have food like Bushi-tei’s, however. The executive chef, Seiji "Waka" Wakabayashi (one of his recent gigs: Ondine, in Sausalito), is fluent in the high culinary idiom of France as well as the varying dialects of the Orient, and the result is an extraordinary and stylish melding of East and West, presented on gorgeous white ceramic tableware (from Tak and Wak) that perfects the interior design.
As at the fancier sorts of French places, the sequence of courses is punctuated by little grace notes that don’t appear on the menu, starting with an amuse-bouche of, say, tuna paté in a little pastry buttercup and scattered with minced chives, and ending with petits fours, about which more anon. In between are dishes of greater substance in which disparate elements are often artfully mingled, as in a carpaccio of golden beets ($12), sliced into thin coins and overlaid with bolts of fluke (a remarkably tasty white-fleshed fish), some mizuna for shrubbery, and red dots of raspberry-ume sauce. (Ume is a Japanese plum variety noted for its tartness.)
When the food is not a mingling of East and West, it tends to be Western. A quiver of grilled asparagus spears ($6), for instance, is simply dressed Mediterranean style with some verjuice and sea salt and topped with shavings of parmesan cheese, while pan-seared Sonoma duck breast ($22), finely carved into carpaccio-like slices, each with a heart of rose, is accompanied by braised spinach, a crème-fraîchey whip of mascarpone and mustard, and dried chutney.
Not all the fusing, meantime, is flawless. It should be back to the drawing board for the seared blue-fin tuna belly ($28), a slim filet of doubtless pricey fish — in sushi bars, tuna belly is prized for its fattiness and commands a high price — that does not respond well to heat. Fish fat might be highly desirable when uncooked, but when cooked, it develops a strong, acrid scent and flavor I found dislikable despite the camouflage of celery-root puree, bean sprouts, and lime-herb sea salt. Since it takes all kinds to make a world, it did not entirely surprise me that my companion liked the tuna belly as much as I deplored it; he is, after all, a tireless eater of crackly, crinkly, aromatic bronze skin, whether of chicken or salmon. There was something deeply atavistic going on here, some ghost conjured from the hunter-gatherer past whose presence I could sense but not see, something about smoky, fatty flesh. I traded for the remains of the duck, gamy but still civilized.
The petits fours — an intense chocolate tart the size of a half-dollar and an orange financier of about the same size, glazed with Cointreau or some other orange liqueur — make a nice postprandial nibble. Sweet tooths of a harder core will want something more substantial, though, and among the more interesting of the larger choices is a black-sesame blancmange ($6.50), essentially a kind of pudding served in a nifty little capped pot and topped with pineapple dice: sweet but not too sweet, and interesting, though not shocking. *
Tues.–Sun., 5:30–10:30 p.m. (Fri. until 11:30 p.m.)
1638 Post, SF
Beer, wine, sake
In the arena of raw seafood, the Japanese are not unchallenged. They are probably dominant, of course, being masters of nigiri and sashimi and of rolls in versions beyond count. But the Spanish and French and their New World offshoots offer us ceviche (or seviche)