Painting by the Numbers

At 900 Bush, enjoy the California cooking and ignore the wall art

No cosmetic detail of 900 Bush whets one's expectations. From the outside the place is undistinguished, except for a bright-red neon sign announcing "restaurant and bar," and even that tips more toward garish than welcoming. Inside, 900 Bush looks like a tatty Lyon's, with banquettes upholstered in muddy-red Naugahyde and the walls hung with pallid watercolor landscape paintings that might have been salvaged from a failed motel. There is a television mounted on the wall, depressingly near the bar.

If I hadn't seen the menu beforehand, I might have abandoned all hope and settled for a good patty melt with a slice of hothouse tomato on the side. But the menu promised a classic sort of California bistro cooking -- lots of pastas and grilled fish, among other things -- delicately twisted and tweaked with Asian and Southwestern flourishes. We took a table under one of the tall plate-glass windows that give onto busy Bush Street; the restaurant is slightly below street level, and it was odd to feel that pedestrian passers-by could look down and see what was on our plates.

Whatever was on our plates wasn't there for long, because the dishes on the menu at 900 Bush don't just sound eclectically appealing, but -- more to the point -- are well-prepared by the kitchen. The pasilla pepper ($5), for instance, had been breaded and fried up to a crisp golden bronze, but the real treat was the stuffing: goat cheese (for smoothness and tang), prosciutto (for a bit of creamy saltiness), and shrimp (for a hint of aqueous sweetness), melting and swirling together to become something sublime.

The smoked duck and mushroom ravioli ($4) disappeared just as fast as the pepper, mostly because of an addictive cream-chive sauce that seemed to achieve its full glory on chunks of bread we dipped into it after the ravioli were gone. Only the shrimp cakes ($6) -- "made with tender bay shrimps" -- disappointed me. They were limp and palely soggy, as if they'd been cooked in oil that wasn't quite hot enough to crisp and brown them properly.

Chef Ponnarong Nimearm-on's kitchen specializes in rack of lamb ($17) and makes its presentation stylish and direct, with the ribs nicely frenched and served on a simple sauce of whole-grain mustard. The little pats of rare meat at the ends of the bone were exquisitely tender and, for texture, just slightly spongy. A choice of side dishes included, for the Boss, creamed spinach and hearts of Shanghai bok choy.

Around here, you can't eat too much salmon. In fact, it's hard to get away from it. 900 Bush is no exception: The grilled King salmon ($13.50; a pretty decent price) was a broad, thinnish fillet, expertly cooked and dressed with a curry-pesto butter that gave an exotic, sharp richness to the familiar flavor of the fish.

I'm mystified when someone orders chicken breast in a restaurant. Yes, it's versatile and low in calories, but it's everyday food, and it detracts from the specialness of eating out, of being astonished by what a restaurant kitchen can do. But 900 Bush's version ($13.50) wasn't bad if less than astonishing -- a fat, juicy piece of poultry slathered in an autumnally heady sauce of shiitake mushrooms and Madeira wine.

We returned on a World Series night, when all eyes (except mine: I was facing the other way) were fixed on the television as the Yankees came from far behind (during our first courses) into a tie (during our main courses) and then went on to win (by the end of dessert). Our waitress, an Easterner by birth, was beside herself with excitement and kept forgetting our order -- taking it first by memory, returning moments later to refresh what she'd forgotten, returning a third time with pad and pen to write it down, which is what she should have done the first time. It's showy to remember a table's orders, if you get it right; hideously embarrassing otherwise, and (worse) irritating to customers.

Having complained relentlessly in this column about the ubiquity of deep-fried calamari, I proceeded to order it yet again, hoping the kitchen's promised twist -- spicy Thai -- would come off. And it did, sensationally. Instead of the usual breading, the squid rings had been dipped in a sticky bath of citrus and chili that fried up into a glaze both savory and sweet. The result was like calamari candy. The restaurant ought to be passing around complimentary plates of this stuff.

On the delectability scale, the Pacific Rim roasted duck ($13.50) trailed the calamari by just a notch or two. The bird (leg and thigh) had been given an almost confitlike effect that left its meat moist and fork-tender. As for the seasoning, our waitress described it to us (after consulting with the chef) as "garlic, cilantro, and 'Oriental spices.' I guess he doesn't want to give away all his secrets!"

I guess not. But there were no secrets to give away in the New York steak ($15), a tender and flavorful piece of meat grilled rare and served with first-rate frites, like edible matchsticks, which completed the casual Frenchness of the plate.

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