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Dream Date 

Dame woos with an eclectic menu of simple, elegant offerings

Wednesday, Mar 27 1996
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Is Dame in the Castro? We couldn't quite decide. The intersection of Market and Guerrero is a gray area, a transition zone. Neighborhood signals are mixed: Across the street is the 1808 Club, a venerable jerk-off venue for gay men; while just a few blocks down Market toward Van Ness are two terrific restaurants, Carta and Zuni Cafe. Dame is entirely at home in their company; it's a small, simply decorated storefront bistro whose kitchen carries off the small, eclectic menu with real polish.

When we arrived, a few unfashionable minutes early, on a Saturday evening, the place was empty except for a group of four men at a table near the front windows. But an hour later, as our main courses were served, the restaurant was full, and there were little clots of people waiting on the sidewalk outside. As far as I could tell, virtually everyone -- men and women alike -- was gay, yet the place seemed to be entirely free of that random sexual energy that so often builds like a hazy thunderhead around gatherings of gay men. It was like a crowd of couples on first dates, deeply oblivious to everyone and everything but the fascinating person across the table.

Our table (no first dates) discussed politics, with the occasional emphatic pronouncement. "The people are not to be trusted!" I said loudly (thinking of Proposition 13 and Ronald Reagan), interrupting rapturous conversations at, and drawing bemused stares from, nearby tables. My friend the Insider thinks that the people are to be trusted -- that their collective wisdom steadies the body politic. Our philosophical positions were irreconcilable, so we ordered Gorgonzola fries ($5.50) to launch the meal and promote harmony. People never seem to fight when eating good food, and Dame's fries were smashing: thin, well-crisped frites with just the right amount of Gorgonzola (enough to assert flavor and gooey warmth; not enough to turn the dish into a swampy mess) melted among them.

We agreed that President Clinton looks far better in long winter coats than he does in the pinchingly small shorts he insists on jogging in. Prediction: If he sticks with the coats, he will be re-elected. Dole: the Walter Mondale of 1996. A suicide mission.

The french fries vanished; the first courses arrived.
A bowl of tomato soup ($5) was pale and creamy, like a bisque. The broth was delicately perfumed with the piney essence of rosemary. A chunk of grilled garlic bread floated like a piece of driftwood at the edge of the bowl: crisp outside, sensuously chewy within.

Spinach salad ($6) featured a generous pile of raw leaves, upon which were piled slices of deep-purple beet cut on the bias (which looked to me like oblong discs of grape Jell-O, except without flavor) and shreds of onion roasted to caramelly sweetness. The Insider complained that the balsamic vinaigrette was a little heavy on the olive oil. Certainly the kitchen wasn't stinting on the vinaigrette, but the dressing didn't strike me as oily.

The antipasto plate ($5) assembled a hodgepodge of barely steamed winter vegetables -- including beets, carrots, and rutabaga -- along with a pile of mesclun, a heap of roasted eggplant, and a few slices of salami. A shy vinaigrette wasn't enough to bring the plate together, though the various shapes and colors made a pretty picture.

I often go out to eat with a friend whose knack for ordering the wrong thing is eerie. But not this time. When the server described the evening's special -- filet mignon ($16.50) on a bed of Gorgonzola hash browns, surrounded by roasted onions and asparagus -- his eyes lit up (though he dislikes asparagus and can sometimes be seen pouting when I buy a bunch at the farmers market). The meat -- cooked beautifully rare, as ordered -- was meltingly tender and juicy. The Gorgonzola hash browns were a crunchy-creamy reprise of the frites, while the roasted onions added a bit of winter heft to the dish. (And the pencil-thin asparagus were eaten without complaint.)

The smoked pork loin ($12) was a pale pink. An accompaniment of white-corn polenta looked like lumpy mashed potatoes and was scented with rosemary, while chunks and shards of root vegetables (carrots, rutabaga, beets) were scattered around the plate.

The grilled rock shrimp ($14) were just slightly caramelized on the outside but still juicy inside; they'd firmed up nicely without turning tough. The bed of sun-dried tomato risotto, on the other hand, sounded promising and had an appealing sunrise color, but it was undercooked for my taste and needed some salt. Although sun-dried tomato usually adds a deep, meaty complexity to a dish, it seemed to have no taste at all in the risotto. Again completing the plate: roasted root vegetables.

Al Gore: He will run in 2000 and lose; people won't vote for wood. He'd been on the TV news the night before, hawking "Net Day." The medium treats him unkindly, makes him look like a fleshy kid instead of an eminence grise -- someone who's finished too many desserts at political fund-raisers.

All Dame's desserts were $4.50, which would have been a decent deal even if they'd been half as sumptuous. The profiteroles consisted of four truffle-shaped pastries stuffed with vanilla cream and separated from one another on the plate by little cumulous clouds of whipped cream, with chocolate sauce over all.

The cappuccino ice cream was barely sweet and flecked with ground coffee beans. It tasted intensely of espresso. A bath of hot-fudge sauce made up for any sugar deficit, and chocolate-chip biscotti, while fresh and tender-crisp, brought a welcome bit of chewiness.

Vanilla-bean creme brulee wasn't on that evening's menu, but the Insider had had it there before and ordered it again. It was mousselike in its lightness, and the taste of vanilla (under a hard surface of perfectly crystallized sugar) was direct and clean. It was the purest and least lavish of the three.

My repeated attempts to pinch a menu having been foiled, I stood on the sidewalk after we'd paid and made a few notes from the one posted in the window. No one cruised me -- a relief and a secret disappointment. Perhaps the people inside thought I was some sort of Pat Buchanan operative, plotting culinary mischief against one of the best restaurants in or near the Castro. Or were they just enjoying their food, and getting to know their dates?

Dame, 1815 Market, S.F., 255-8818. Tues-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sun & Tues-Thurs 5-9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat 5-10:30 p.m.; Sun brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

About The Author

Paul Reidinger

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