French Connection

Meribel, with its modern menu, joins the Nob Hill Club

For those who think San Francisco's best days of grace and amenity are behind her, Meribel will give a pleasant shock. The restaurant (which occupies the space formerly filled by Alexis, where Nancy Oakes, among others, worked) is entirely at home in its timelessly grand Nob Hill setting, with the cable car trundling by and the Mark Hopkins and the brooding Pacific Union Club for neighbors.

But the food emerging from chef Derek Burns' kitchen, feebly described as "French-inspired" by the restaurant's PR machine, is arrestingly up-to-date, if not flashy. Burns has an awesome resume for a 31-year-old: He's worked for Joyce Goldstein, Julian Serrano, and Elka Gilmore, and he's not afraid to import bold and exotic flavors into his classic French techniques.

The space itself is unusual: a set of ascending galleries set at right angles to one another, so that you're continually turning right and taking a few steps up until, if you reach the last set of tables, you've doubled back and are looking down at the California Street entrance. Although Meribel lacks a single big dining room, each of the high-ceilinged galleries is airy and mutedly elegant: It's like an unmenacing, art nouveau maze.

At lunch the Mystery Writer and I sat in the middle gallery, basking in the milky autumn sunlight that flowed down through tall windows looking south. I wanted soup but was told there was none and that, furthermore, there were no specials not listed on the menu. A French restaurant without soup -- even onion soup -- seemed peculiar, as if the chef had some sort of grudge against soup or didn't like making it, or had simply forgotten to include one on the menu.

Grilled potato dumplings ($7.50) weren't a substitute, but they were delicious in their own right. They looked like polenta triangles but had an appealing, crisp-tender texture rather than the dense, damp sponginess of polenta. Still, even nicely textured potatoes would be dull without lively garnishes, such as bacon and chives, bread crumbs, arugula, and baby leeks diced on the bias. The overall effect was something like a traditional warm spinach salad, with starch instead of greens.

Considering that Meribel just opened in October, the menu's notion of "Meribel Classics" struck me as premature. (Another complaint: The menu makes no distinction between first and main dishes.) But if the seared scallop fettuccine ($18) isn't a classic yet, it will be. The plump, quarter-size scallops had been browned to a good crunchiness outside, then arrayed around a haystack of pasta flecked with chanterelle mushrooms, scallions, lemon, and chives and sauced with mushroom jus. Chanterelles have an apricotlike fruitiness that intersected electrically with the lemon's acid, giving the sauce a sly bite.

The Pacific dip sandwich ($9.50) was a nice piece of fusion cooking: a classic French dip, with teriyaki-cured ahi tuna instead of sliced beef, a citrus-soy ponzu sauce (served on the side in what looked like a cappuccino cup) instead of beef jus, and the volcanic wasabi instead of Dijon mustard. The Mystery Writer particularly approved of the bread, a French roll of focaccialike tenderness that did not fight being eaten.

The eclectic lunchtime crowd -- a mix of business people, tourists, and locals -- turned distinctly grayer, wealthier, and patriarchal at dinnertime: At every table near us, a silver lion seemed to preside. I couldn't see the street but had no trouble imagining a parade of impressive cars with CD changers and leather seats queuing for the restaurant's valet parkers.

As good as lunch had been, dinner was better, beginning with a complimentary morsel from the chef: a pumpernickel crouton, topped with a dollop of saffron aioli, a slice of house-cured salmon, and a sprig of dill. If the appetizer had been larger than a single bite, it might have been too rich, but as a tantalizing nibble it nicely fulfilled its mission of making us eager for more.

I was slightly disappointed by the lobster "ravioli" ($13), which promised the moon -- a mix of spiced lobster and glass noodles wrapped in translucent won-ton skins, served with julienned vegetables and a lemongrass-chili consomme -- but delivered less. The consomme, in particular, lacked pep and in fact seemed more sweet than bold. Better were the berry-smoked goat cheese tarts ($7.50), a sublime combination of darkly creamy cheese and perfect pastry crust -- tender and crisp. Cheese makes a nice match with apples, and the accompanying salad included (besides butter lettuce, celery, and walnuts) slices of sweet Fuji under a rich vinaigrette of port and walnut.

Main courses were more distinctly French. The crispy veal sweetbreads ($19) had been breaded and sauteed in the manner of escalopes de veau and tasted like them, though richer; they were served on a bed of escarole and frisee with a plush, almost syruplike truffle vinaigrette. On the side was a buttery-crisp puff pastry box, which we greedily cracked like burglars into a bank vault in order to get at the wild mushrooms inside.

The grilled salmon roulade ($19.50) -- flaked fish molded into a disc -- was too fishy for my taste, and the surrounding broth of fish fume had been "enriched" -- absolutely the right word! -- with golden saffron aioli, which added to the weightiness of the plate without smoothing the fish's rough edges. Bits of zucchini and tomato at the side had been artfully carved; I wish there had been more of them to lighten things up.

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