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There are so many arty touches, big and small, at Alice's that the Chinese food itself could easily become an afterthought. The interior design is more like that of a museum than a restaurant, from the fresh white walls and handsome new oak floors to the tall door of intricately carved wood that stands like a screen in the middle of the space. The owners' collection of blown glass in various shapes and colors -- angelfish, lanterns, and other baubles -- decorates a well-lighted alcove under the rear ceiling.
It did not quite surprise me, then, when I glanced at the bottom of my dinner plate and read "WEDGWOOD BONE CHINA MADE IN ENGLAND." It was plain white tableware, but still, it passed the bone-china test: When I held it up to bright light, I could see the shadow of my hand behind it. And if the plates were unadorned, the little porcelain teapots on the tabletops, each with a distinctive and colorful design, made up the deficit. Alice's is a wealth of these small flourishes, which, in restauranting as in life, are greater than the sum of their parts. They give the restaurant an aura of specialness.
In certain quarters of Noe Valley, that's not a bad thing to have. These days 24th Street, with its fleet of double-parked trucks, looks more and more like a choked Manhattan side street, and elsewhere in the neighborhood the drums are sounding against commercial development, especially when, as with restaurants, the development encourages more odors, human traffic, and parking problems.
San Francisco, CA 94131
Region: Twin Peaks/ Glen Park
Just a few blocks along Sanchez from Alice's is the lightless husk of That Blue Place, a half-built restaurant that died on the vine a year ago when irate neighbors mounted a successful permit challenge. Outer Noe Valley doesn't look like restaurant country; it's almost entirely residential, and at night the streets are dark and quiet -- a near-ghostly setting in which Alice's neon letters and stripings glow like a beacon.
"The space was terrible when we took over!" co-owner Sharon Huynh told me recently. (The other co-owner is her husband, James Sung.) The corner storefront's previous incarnation had been a health-food outlet. As with Savor on 24th Street, the cosmetic transformation has been so vast that it's hard to remember what used to be there.
Alice's joins Firecracker in leading a neighborhood renaissance in Chinese food. The menu offers traditional Hunan and Mandarin recipes; it's the clean, agile preparation and color-conscious presentation that make them distinctive.
But first there are the appetizers, an orgy of small items from the deep-fryer. We began one meal with potstickers ($3.50), which were a bit soggy, though tasty. Vegetarian egg rolls ($2.50), while light and crisp, suffered from a tame filling. Fried crab-meat rangoon ($3.50) captured very little essence of crab and seemed to have been stuffed with dip left over from a New Year's party. And drums of heaven ($2.50) -- chicken legs dipped in chunky batter and deep-fried to a rich gold -- were like a couple of pieces of KFC extra crispy: tender and flavorful enough, but indecently caloric.
(For dabblers, the combination plate for two [$5.25] features egg roll, rangoon, potstickers, and drums of heaven on one oily plate.)
The main courses, while just as familiar as the opening ones, seemed to have emerged from a different, and far livelier, kitchen. House special duck ($7.25), for example, assembled slices of asparagus spears, tiny broccoli florets, chunks of dark duck meat, mushrooms, and coarsely diced red bell pepper in a savory brown sauce with a slow, insinuating heat.
The orange beef ($6.25) also featured chunks of red pepper, which I blithely assumed to be sweet and not -- as it turned out -- jalapeno. But the red chilies, while formidably hot, brought an attractive splash of color to the plate, as did the bed of Boston lettuce at the side and, speckling the beef itself, julienned orange zest. Beef and orange don't seem to be the likeliest of combinations, but together they're addictive, and Alice's version, with its generous pile of tender beef glistening like chocolate, is especially good.
We returned for dinner several days later determined not to fall into the oily-appetizer trap. (We also imported a pint of beer from the bodega across the street, the restaurant having yet to obtain its license. "Maybe soon!" Huynh said to us when we were seated. Neighbors permitting.)
Soup instead. A brief discussion of whether the sizzling-rice soup ($5.95 for a large bowl) would be bland in the mainstream manner. Despite faint objections from across the table, I pressed ahead, having always enjoyed the ritual of the crisp, sizzling rice being dunked into the soup at the table and the contrasting texture it brings to the broth. Even without the rice, the soup was chockablock with solids: tofu, scallops, shrimp, and mushrooms, all of which gave it a mild but penetrating perfume. (The broth did benefit from a bit of tarting up with rice vinegar and soy sauce.)
Main courses, again, were simply conceived and expertly prepared. Spicy chicken with fresh basil ($6.25) joined the herb's bright fragrance to a fruity sauce of fermented black bean; there was plenty of chunky chicken and (mild) red pepper.