Ready or Not

Early success settles on the Inner Sunset's Avenue 9

Success, especially if sudden, can be a trial by fire for a restaurant. Favorable early press -- such as has lately been visited on Avenue 9, a mod, modest bistro in the Inner Sunset -- often means big crowds, waits for tables, the exhaustion of some items on the menu, and, possibly, slapdash preparation of others. People hear that a place is good and they expect it to be good -- and good it had better be, because effusive love can turn to loathing as quickly in the restaurant business as elsewhere in life. Most diners don't cut much slack for start-up strains and glitches; they don't care that good is something a restaurant becomes. They care about what they're paying for now.

Fortunately, Avenue 9 is already quite good. It could be the Firefly of 1997: a neighborhood restaurant serving an attractive California menu in a quarter not previously known as a culinary haven; and it's flooded with destination-seekers as a result. Avenue 9 has the sort of food, at about the same cost, you can find in similar smallish places all over the city now. The menu is varied, inventive but still comfortable, and priced reasonably. The decor is slick and coolly eccentric -- blond wood and iron-framed chairs under various pastels; it did not strike us as the sort of interior design that will wear well. But the crush of people blocking Avenue 9's door so far do not seem to mind.

Such a crush is generally a good sign that one ought to have phoned ahead for a reservation, instead of -- like us -- blithely showing up. All the same, we managed to be seated immediately (it always helps to be a party of two), though not near the big open kitchen that dominates the front of the house. Glasses of ice water and a basket of tender, fresh focaccia were immediately set on the table and kept constantly replenished throughout the meal. If the staff was fazed by the crowd, it didn't show.

The day's special pizzetta ($8) was just the right size to split as a starter. The pie's fine, crisp crust had been layered with brie and studded with capers, slices of red onion, and thin, translucent bits of salmon whose edges slightly caramelized in the oven. I thought the cheese might be too rich and creamy, but it was milder and less assertive in its melted state, whereas the fish was the opposite.

Buttermilk-battered oysters gave a suave, musky twist to an old favorite, the BLT ($8), though the bread (fresh focaccia again) helped considerably, as did the generous slices of bacon. The oysters also made the sandwich more filling; a basic BLT, while tasty, doesn't really amount to much.

Grilled yellowtail jack ($13) -- a carefully cooked piece of mild white fish -- benefited hugely from its sauce of stone-ground mustard beurre blanc, which managed to catch the mustard's essence without the bitterness or acidity. But the mashed potatoes underneath struck me as a little ponderous for a noontime, weekday meal. And there was something disheartening about a piece of white fish on a bed of white mush. A small pile of wilted arugula leaves lightened things up, but more would have been welcome.

After such hefty main courses, dessert wasn't at the top of my list, but my companion (an inveterate sweet tooth) insisted, and we agreed to share the devil's food cake ($4). It turned out to be a little dry, despite the accompanying pool of chocolate sauce and the sweet-tart slices of satsuma tangerine ranged around the cake like half-moons.

At dinner we again benefited from the power of two and were whisked past larger parties to a waiting table, next to a solitary Frenchman who was thoughtfully nibbling the last bits of meat from his duck confit.

"My compliments to the chef," he said to the server in his cautious English. "His confit is" -- he paused briefly while pondering the mot juste -- "very good." From a Frenchman, that's about the highest praise imaginable.

The Frenchman apparently had not sampled the evening's soup, roasted root vegetable ($4), a pallid and undersalted broth laced with colorless chunks of rutabaga and parsnips. Roasting the vegetables generally deepens their flavor, but not here.

That was the only bad dish we were served. A plate of lamb ribs ($6) was given a fruity tang by a black bean sauce, and the ribs themselves were flush with tender meat. (Less fat than pork or beef ribs, too.)

On the evidence of the Frenchman's satisfaction, we ordered the leg-of-duck confit ($13) and were rewarded with slightly crisp skin and a good deal of dark, moist meat. The leg sat on a salad of fennel and arugula (an oddly alluring blend of licorice, bitters, and nuts), with little triangles of polenta crisps for starch and -- a delicately exotic twist -- a sliced pear.

The grilled salmon napoleon ($14) assembled two salmon fillets and a mound of mashed potatoes into a rough tower from which chunks of pappadam protruded, as if part of a crude auger. A bright lemon sauce was further enlivened by capers made crunchy (and there's a lot to be said for variations in texture, especially on a plate filled with soft things) in hot oil. Still, as much as I like mashed potatoes, I wonder if they're not being overused at Avenue 9, especially with fish dishes.

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