Through a Glass Darkly

The madding crowd and the serious palate converge on Mecca

On the charm scale, Mecca's exterior rates a clean zero. It looks like a misplaced Ice Station Zebra, with a punitive concrete facade and broad, blank steel-framed windows smoked over with mesh shades. It's the sort of industrial space that could easily be colonized by the adjoining car dealership, should the need ever arise to display more Fords.

One big reason Mecca doesn't look too inviting is that it doesn't have to: It's far and away the best restaurant in the Castro (a neighborhood starved for good food), and it's crowded almost all the time. If the building had the belle epoque charm of Boulevard, in the Audiffred Building, or the Golden Gate Bridge views commanded by Greens, in Fort Mason, it might easily be overrun. (The only view is of the Safeway across Market Street: No wonder the shades are always pulled.)

The restaurant's interior, on the other hand, is an outsize blend of loft and palace: high, bare ceilings and regal purple drapes hanging in voluptuous curves from the walls, the dim lighting of the space punctured here and there by the bright jewels of small spotlights. Just to the left of the maitre d's podium is a long, curvaceous bar, a glamorously human detail that softens hard urban edges. The restaurant's ambience is that of a chic underground club -- a 1990s speak-easy with great food instead of (just) hooch.

Mecca has cut a high profile in its few months of operation. Like Zuni Cafe, it draws a glam crowd of neck-craners, busy seeing and being seen -- not the sort of people who are always paying scrupulous attention to what's on the plates in front of them. But if the hobnobbers are too busy scoping out neighboring tables to appreciate the food, so much the worse for them. Chef Lynn Sheehan has assembled a menu with real dynamics whose choices range from rustic peasant dishes to those imaginatively sophisticated preparations that, being beyond the comfortable reach of even accomplished home cooks, are a reason to go out to dinner. Eating them is believing.

And then there are the in-between creations, at once simple and stylish, like the bowl of roasted fennel soup with Pernod ($5.25) with which I started dinner on a recent evening. The roasting muted the fennel's licorice perfume and gave it a caramelly, smoky richness that suffused the soup. And the liqueur, instead of muddling the flavors, deepened the root's aromatically fruity essence.

(On another visit, a bowl of pureed watercress soup [also $5.25] was hugely less successful. It was an incomplete flavor, like a background to some big taste that never arrived. But, to be fair, our server had warned me beforehand that while Mecca's soups "are usually excellent," this one wasn't. And she was right.)

The Boss and I split a four-cheese pizza ($9.75) dominated by Gorgonzola -- a pungent flavor some people aren't keen on. But the strong cheese behaved itself and was offset by a fragrant sauce of tomato and rosemary. Crust: perfect, thin and nicely blistered by the wood-burning oven.

A fat veal chop ($18) was cooked a pale, lavender rare, as ordered. The rest of the plate -- wilted red chard, a wild mushroom pancake, and a Stilton cheese sauce -- had the distinctly hearty aura of late autumn: comfort food gone upmarket.

The grilled tuna ($17), usually a lighter sort of dish, was also dressed for the change of season. It was cooked (at the kitchen's discretion) medium-rare and served with a pile of wilted arugula, a ragout of chanterelle mushrooms and diced potato, and a roasted-onion vinaigrette -- a substantial and earthy mix that made the fish seem meatier.

Meantime: constant refilling of water glasses and the bread basket, including addictive house-made herbed flatbreads (there's also a plate of green and black olives to start); good pop songs on the sound system; the businessmen at the next table speaking rapid Italian, and the young couple on the other side having a honeymoonish time.

There is something surreal about finding a recipe from a cooking magazine on a restaurant's menu. The warm wild-mushroom salad ($8.50) on a second visit was given away by its Parmesan crisp: a helping of grated cheese baked on a greased sheet into a kind of savory wafer. I've made a salad almost identical to Mecca's, from a recipe in Fine Cooking, but the restaurant's version (mushrooms sauteed instead of grilled) was none the worse for being familiar.

Having tried and failed to warn me away from the watercress soup, our server went on to express doubts about the baked rigatoni ($13.50), with tomatoes, ricotta, roasted fennel, and black olives. It was, she thought, "too rustic," but I was in a rustic mood, and I was happy with what I got: a hefty crock full of simple and intense flavors.

The duck breast ($16.25), by contrast, was a model of restaurant-kitchen elegance: the meat cooked rare and arranged in a fan of slices on a pile of shredded cabbage, with halves of roasted fingerling potatoes -- well-salted! -- on one side and a dark, syrupy sauce of roasted figs and huckleberries on the other.

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