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Oriental to Occidental 

The twain meet at Orocco, a supper club for the '90s

Wednesday, Jan 10 1996
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Orocco styles itself as an "East-West supper club," but when I made a reservation recently I was in denial about the supper-club part. The supper clubs of my youth were dark roadside joints filled with prime rib and cocktails and cigarette smoke and lonely traveling salesmen ogling the waitresses. They weren't quite restaurants, and they always advertised themselves with gaudy neon signs.

"The band's just setting up," the hostess assured us as she led us to our booth. She smiled at us, as if this were the best of news; I managed to smile back even though I felt like giving the old Groucho Marx line: "Hello, I must be going!" It's one thing to have a sax CD playing mutedly on the sound system, but quite another to try to enjoy dinner and conversation with a live band tootling away at the other end of the room. I glanced resignedly in the direction of the stage and saw that they would be awhile in starting: There would still be time for some communication at the table before the decibel level soared.

Orocco's dining room is the restaurant equivalent of the new Ford Taurus: suggestive curves and ovals, with spot lighting everywhere. It's the sort of space in which Alec Baldwin would have dinner with a beautiful, eager woman before donning the threads that make him The Shadow.

Immediately after taking our seats, we were served shots of ginger-lemongrass consomme in demitasses -- an inviting and civilized touch to start a meal. The broth reflected mostly the sweet heat of the ginger. I downed mine in one slug, and it left a glow inside like that of a good brandy. (Warm, fresh bread arrived promptly, too, along with sweet butter.)

The idea of pairing Asian ingredients with Western cooking techniques is not exactly revolutionary in the Bay Area; Oritalia and Yoyo are among the better-known places already working that corner of the fusion field. But in cooking, as in so many creative endeavors, imagination is only part of the equation. The other half is execution -- and Orocco executes its menu perfectly.

Choices divide into small and large plates, a subtle twist on the conventional hierarchy of first and main courses. Orocco doesn't call its small plates "tapas," but that is basically what they are. Unlike appetizers, which often amount to little more than a bite or two, the small plates are substantial. Two would make a decent meal; three a filling one.

We chose three for our table. They all sounded delectable, which meant that at least one was bound to be a dud. But each was splendid -- a tour de force of sauce-making.

Marinated portobello mushrooms ($8) were grilled and served in slices. The marination kept the mushrooms moist during the dry-heat cooking, and the result was almost like tender pieces of steak. The Pommery mustard sauce could have been bitingly acidic (one of mustard's original purposes was to mask the flavor of less-than-fresh meat), but in the hands of chef Alexander Ong the condiment minded its manners. It deepened the rich creaminess of the sauce and enhanced, rather than challenged, the mild flavor of the mushrooms.

Crispy fried calamari ($7) had been dipped in a light batter and deep-fried in properly hot oil. They were crisp on the outside, tender within (always a test with calamari, which quickly toughens with overcooking), and I detected no excess grease or sogginess. A ramekin on the side held aioli mixed with hoisin sauce, whose plummy flavor also carried a bit of salt. A full plate of the calamari would have been overwhelmingly rich, but a small one made an ideal starter.

The sauteed spicy shrimp ($7.50) were arrayed in a coconut sauce around puff pastries that looked like little hamburger buns. The pastries had been sliced open crosswise and garnished with shredded green papaya. The basic pitch of this dish was sweetness, from shrimp to papaya to sauce. The coconut milk's cloyingness was adequately damped by a bit of curry powder, but I would have liked it better with more ginger or garlic.

Curry also figured in a large-plate pasta -- fettuccine with ginger sauce ($13). Like mustard, ginger's fiery directness can mask the inferiority of basic ingredients, but here it was barely noticeable. The dish was at heart a pasta primavera, with an Asian spin. Amid the creamy ribbons were kernels of yellow corn, carrots sliced on the bias, snap peas, and asparagus spears. It did need a tweak of salt, which we had to ask for. (I would have preferred soy sauce, a more authentic way to season the dish, but our server either didn't hear me or they don't have table-size dispensers for it.)

Seared ahi tuna ($18) is one of those offerings that's on just about every menu in town these days, and I often don't even consider it, though I like fresh tuna. I asked the server for her recommendation and accepted her suggestion that I try it. The fish was expertly seared -- a golden molasses color outside and purplish rare toward the center. It had been cut into triangular shapes and arranged on the plate like the mysterious rocks at Stonehenge. The dish also included wilted arugula (with its slightly bitter nutty flavor), along with an inky sauce that consisted of black-bean essence, Szechuan spices, and pepper oil. These last two ingredients suggested that there would be heat, but the dish, though tasty, was mild-mannered.

The sampler souffles ($8) for dessert were three: chocolate, pistachio, and pineapple. As a chocolate addict, I was surprised to find that I liked the pineapple (the healthy choice?) most of all. The fruit's flavor, enhanced by creme anglaise, was pure and intense. The chocolate, on the other hand, was the weakest of the lot, despite coffee creme anglaise. All three souffles were, under their crusty caps, sensually warm and tender.

By now the band had struck it up, on a vaguely Manhattan Transfer-ish note. Jazz -- especially with vocals -- pulses and tilts, so that you barely notice it one moment and are unexpectedly moved by it the next. For a long while I sat there just listening -- and marveling at a graceful rebirth of the supper club.

Orocco, 3565 Geary Blvd., S.F., 387-8788. Mon-Thurs 6-10:30 p.m.; Fri-Sun 6 p.m.-midnight.

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Paul Reidinger

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