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The sign in the window of Kavkaz said "Closed," but the oracular television suspended above the bar flashed and flickered with -- Armenian-language programming? CNN reports on Chechnya? No: ESPN. Kavkaz may be an Armenian restaurant, but this is still America, and Americans watch sports on TV. (Even during dinner.) Certainly the bartender was riveted, hands on hips and head tilted back, as if he were positioning his face for that perfect cathode-ray tan. We found the door ajar and stepped in gingerly.
My dining companions had been slightly mystified by the idea of an Armenian restaurant; it's not an ethnicity, or a place in the world, that sounds a strong chord here. The Armenian republic used to be part of the Soviet Union, but Armenia itself was and is vaguer: a region of the Caucasus (between the Black and Caspian seas) that includes parts of Turkey and Iran. It's essentially in the Middle East.
A private party having taken over the main dining room (which we glimpsed down a short corridor), we were shown to a small table in the front of the restaurant, near the bar, where we could keep tabs on the latest-breaking news from the world of sport. A basket of bread (including warm, soft pita) was swiftly brought, and just as swiftly snatched from us. With raised eyebrows, we watched the server carry the basket to the next table.
It was an honest mistake (they arrived before we did), but still: There is nothing quite so graceless as taking food from the hands of hungry diners. We were left with our water glasses and the few scraps of bread we'd managed to lift from the basket before the man removed it. Another basket, with apologies, soon arrived, and we quickly put most of its contents on our bread plates, just in case they changed their minds again.
The assorted fish Kavkaz ($14) offered a selection of smoked fish, caviar, and butter -- a Caspian dish. The smoked salmon was decent, but the balyk (a whitefish) was almost unmanageably tough, like wet, salty shoe leather, and we finally abandoned it. Smoking fish is tricky business; it's critically important to use first-quality ingredients.
Although the menu had promised red and black caviar, we were served only the red variety: a tiny landslide of translucent orange pebbles that tasted, not unpleasantly, of brine. Also promised by the menu but missing from the plate were the eggs, which might have brought, at least, a little tenderness.
The ockrashka ($4.50) was a yogurt soup mixed with herbs, cucumbers, and a scattering of diced red peppers that added a bit of visual flair.
"It's like white gazpacho," said one of my fellow diners.
"Salty white gazpacho," I said. I rarely complain about oversalted food in an era when even the best restaurants routinely undersalt things, but the ockrashka was almost unpleasantly salty. Biting into a slice of cucumber was like stepping briefly from mercilessly hot sunshine into the shade -- a moment of relief before bravely wading out again.
The khingal Kavkaz ($6.50) was a plate of potstickers, but there were no sauces to dip them in. The chubby, crescent-shaped dumplings were nicely done, stuffed with spicy meat and well-browned outside, but without dipping sauce they were naked and incomplete.
After the farcical business about the bread, service improved. Water glasses were kept filled, and dishes were brought and removed with a minimum of fuss and disruption.
One of my companions was interested in the khashlama ($8), a spicy lamb stew, as a main course, but when we asked the server about the cut of meat in the dish, he issued what amounted to a warning.
"It's the shank," he said. "On the bone. I just wanted you to know."
He went on to assure us that the khashlama was excellent, but my prudent friend retreated to his fall-back choice, lamb po karsky ($14). These were kebabs of boneless meat, cooked to a state of well-done grayness and served with pickled vegetables and two rather enormous baked potatoes. Lamb's distinctive flavor can carry a dish, but it doesn't stand up well to overcooking; the meat quickly becomes dry, spongy, and lifeless.
Chicken tabaka ($10) sounded promising: a whole baby chicken fried and served with special garlic sauce. The poussin's skin was nicely browned, but it too was overcooked (and dry), and the garlic sauce didn't deliver much in the way of either moisture or tang. Two more gigantic potatoes, like moon rocks.
The dolma ($8.50) were like a clutch of fat little pickles arrayed in a circle around the edge of a plate pooled with a little too much oil. The grape leaves themselves struck a nice balance between tender and chewy, and they were stuffed with an appealing combination of spiced meat and rice. Still, it was more like eating an entire plate of finger food at a party than a proper main course at dinner. How about one or two big dolma, presented with more color -- a red-pepper coulis, for instance, or a bed of mixed greens?
We left the restaurant musing about the strengths and limits of ethnic food and the importance of using the best ingredients available. So much ethnic cooking is peasant cooking in origin, and many peasant techniques (strong spices to mask off flavors; braising to make tender inferior cuts of meat) were developed to compensate for the humbleness of the ingredients. Do these old ways and old dishes have a place on today's culinary scene in San Francisco, a city awash in top-grade agricultural bounty? Or are they merely quaint anachronisms, like antique cars that cough and fume and run mostly on fond memory? The happiest fate for an ethnic cuisine here is to become tangled up with all the others in our ongoing ritual of cross-pollination and restless search for quality ingredients. May Kavkaz soon make that leap.
Kavkaz, at 4314 California in S.F., serves dinner Tuesdays through Sundays from 5 to 11 p.m. It's closed on Mondays. Call 386-0916.
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