Nut of This Earth

The Acorn's light-handed cooking pays homage to and plays off the food's ethnic character

"I have to sit with my back to the wall," said my friend the mystery writer. "I have enemies."

All writers have enemies, even if they have to invent them, but it's hard to imagine even the most neurotically imaginative writer being ill at ease in the Acorn -- a cozy, soothing place with a big garden in back that's as quietly mesmerizing as an aquarium. In any event, literary figures tend to get whacked in print, not restaurants. I ceded the wall seat to him, and the subject of enemies died away in the ordering of lunch.

It was one of those flawless autumn days when the warm air was filled with pale gold sunlight (or was that smog?) -- the sort of weather that perfectly suits the Acorn's generally light-handed style of California cooking. We split a bowl of the soup of the day ($4.50), a formidably somber dish of spinach, mushrooms, and lentils that was brightened by chopped scallions and squiggles of aioli. The three main flavors joined in a satisfyingly earthy harmony, but all the same I wondered why the kitchen was serving such a fortifying soup on a day when the sun lit up the garden. Whatever the calendar says, September and October are summer around here.

The spinach and arugula salad ($10.50) seemed more appropriately summerlike. It featured well-browned strips of roast pork and chunks of salty-tart feta, but the wild card was slices of pear. Their sweetness balanced the saltiness of the cheese (feta, like goat cheese, can be overwhelming) and the richness of the pork.

The roast tombo tuna sandwich ($9) was served on focaccia, with a side of Thai noodles -- a classic California plate. The bread was moist and tender, and the tuna appeared to have been mashed up with mayonnaise into what was like an uncooked seafood cake. I've had lots of tombo tuna recently -- almost all of it overcooked. The Acorn's method imposes some cost in calories, but the mayo also keeps the fish from drying out, and it adds texture and flavor.

For dinner, I claimed the wall seat. (Not for fear of enemies, but to watch the crowd, which was mutedly eclectic. One man seated near me, probably a lawyer showing off for his girlfriend, niggled with the waiter about how rare the kitchen could cook the flank steak.) The dining area is divided into two deep, narrow rooms, which makes them warmer than they might be otherwise. It's also much easier to eavesdrop, which could be a plus or minus, depending on your station in life. (Writers tend to be terribly nosy.)

The rest of my party arrived late and hungry, and we began by ordering a battery of first courses, which were served swiftly. The endive salad ($6.50) used the same geometry of flavors as did the lunchtime salad: It balanced the pungency of blue cheese with the soft sweetness of ripe pears, while toasted pecans added a crunchy grace note.

The tempura-style artichoke ($7.25) sounded splendid but did not, for us, meet expectations. The artichoke was stuffed with crab meat, then dipped in batter, deep-fried, and served with a red-pepper vinaigrette. The artichoke turned out to be tender, but neither the crab stuffing nor the batter had much flavor, and the vinaigrette tasted more of vinegar than red pepper.

The best of the first courses was the Domi Yoji deep-fried prawns ($8). They were coated with rice before frying, and served on a plate with swirls of hoisin sauce (fruity-sweet) and wasabi (nose-tinglingly sharp Japanese horseradish). There were only three prawns -- just enough to tantalize without satisfying.

But our sense of longing did not last, because the main courses were all generous and beautifully executed. Dijon and herb-crusted pork loin ($14.50) turned out to be a version of Wiener schnitzel, with the meat sliced into thin scallops, breaded, and sauteed. The jasmine rice on the side was moist and buttery, but the stuffed vegetable -- a beet -- was stuffed with beet. Even a beet lover might have found that excessive, and I'm not a beet lover.

The seafood-stuffed pastry puff ($16) brimmed with chunks of salmon and sea bass; there were also shrimp and mussels. The pastry was delicately crisp, but the black-bean sauce could have used a jolt of seasoning. Black beans like a bit of fiery spice, but these were mild and retiring.

The crispy half-chicken ($14) was a wallop of comfort food, first browned in oil and then finished in the oven, giving the skin a rich golden color and good crackle. Beneath the chicken was a pile of smooth, well-seasoned mashed potatoes; the rest of the plate was taken up by a ragout of corn, artichoke, mushrooms, and tomato -- colorful chunks whose strong flavors were uncomplicated by ambitious spicing.

Desserts (all $5) varied. The ricotta cheesecake had a mealy texture and not much taste. The chocolate amaretto trifle (something between a custard and a mousse) could sate the most ravenous chocoholic, but it was too rich after so much food. The Concord grape sorbet was a depressing Army-green color, but that merely proved how much confidence the kitchen had in its taste, as pure and penetrating as a single note played on a flute. The sorbet had more flavor than the fruit from which it was made -- an intense concentration of the Concord grape, with just enough sweetness.

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