Nights of the round table

Pub date November 7, 2006

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