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Weimar Vibe 

Wednesday, Jul 23 1997
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Bauhaus
6139 Geary (at 25th Avenue), 387-1151. Serving dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m., until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. There's live jazz in the bar from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on weekend nights. Complimentary valet parking. Served by the 38 Geary bus. Bar tables and bathrooms are wheelchair accessible; upstairs dining rooms are not. Reservations recommended for weekend seating after 8:30.

Since early April, I've been bombarded with publicity for Bauhaus, a combination restaurant, jazz club, and art gallery oddly located in the mid-Richmond, and decorated in accord with its name. (Bauhaus -- the art movement, not the restaurant -- was the sleekly functional design mode created in Weimar Germany in the '20s, celebrating the belief that technology would bring us all a whiz-bang future. The style was later conscripted into Nazi architecture.) Between the restaurant's swank look, its fashionable "fusion cooking" menu (by veteran chef David Wees, late of Garibaldi), and its 15 premium vodkas and 13 tequilas, I wondered if Bauhaus -- the eatery, not the design scheme -- might become the next obligatory watering hole in the Bix/Cypress Club/Infusion retro-chic orbit. I flung on my monkey fur, TJ grabbed his muskrat, and we hopped in Chet's Duesenberg and rambled out Geary.

After leaving the Doosie with the valet parkers outside the art deco-rous edifice, we traversed a long hallway displaying photos of Bauhaus milestones, from the face of architect Walter Gropius to a chubby troupe of modern (or "Moderne") dancers. Around a corner at the hallway's end, we encountered the hostess. She advised us to wait in the bar until our table was ready. There we hit serious interior design, black and white and satiny steel all over. The barchairs were tall, cruel exercises in plane geometry, with chromed frames and shallow, sharp-edged black metal trapezoidal seats. I prayed for a sign -- a sign saying, "Do Not Sit on the Works of Art." None materialized, so we mounted the highchairs, contemplated the high-fashion drinks list, and fidgeted. "Looks like the '50s' ideal of the Modern House," said TJ. "No," said Chet, "'30s translated to '50s translated to '90s. Shiny and heartless." Perhaps the torture seats inspire patrons to drink away their pain, but when we declined, we were shown to the still-sparsely-populated dining room upstairs. It continued the bar's icy ambience, with the addition of playful, emotionless bright paintings along one wall and a white-on-white sculptural excrescence on the other. (A more dedicated art gallery is one floor farther up.) Chet and I settled comfortably in a low-backed curvy banquette, TJ facing us on a human-adapted version of the barchairs.

The bread basket held room-temperature focaccia and heavy white bread, accompanied by a ramekin of tangy tomato concasse instead of butter. We surveyed our fellow eaters. "Look at that gorgeous girl at the next table!" said Chet. "And those old men along the wall. And here comes a guy with his son riding on his shoulders -- nice, a family place, you can bring your baby. But I just can't get a handle on who these people are!"

The menu features a long list of starters (including four caviars priced by the ounce from $10 to $60), but many of them -- Caesar salad, fried calamari, crab cakes, steamed mussels, and polenta with wild mushrooms, in order of citywide frequency -- are fad foods served wherever up-and-comers graze. Five main courses represent four national cuisines. The 30-bottle wine list ($14 to $40 per bottle, a gentle markup of about twice retail, with a few by the glass averaging $5) is considerately divided by type as well as color, e.g., "Softer, Fruity Reds" vs. "Robust, Textured Reds," and each has a line of description. Our young waiter, nervous under the grilling Chet gave him, knew about food but not about wine, but was enterprising enough to confirm with the chef that the red we were contemplating would suit our globe-hopping food choices.

Unable to face crab cakes yet again, we chose appetizers still in the first phases of fashionability. Ahi carpaccio ($12) consisted of ultrathin raw slices of a superb, sashimi-grade red tuna. "Best ahi I've ever had, a new top," said ahi addict TJ. The fish was lightly dressed with capers, a few fine vegetable shreds, tiny black caviar beads (the cheap bottled stuff, probably, but when used right it's good), and a subtle dressing, which the menu described as a "cilantro-jalapeno vinaigrette." None of us picked up any such pushy flavors, nor did we want to. Grilled quail ($10), semiboneless, was marinated in honey, ginger, garlic, and Chinese five-spice mixture, and in taste and texture rivaled the best local Hong Kong-style versions. It came with a useless heap of carrot strings. Potato and celery-root latkes with smoked salmon ($10) were another winner. The light, crisp-surfaced pancakes were made of crisscrossing long potato shreds like Swiss rssti, with mild, tender bites of celery root lending variety. The plate included a heap of mixed lettuces, a teeny dollop of creme fra•che, and a slice of delicious Russian-style smoked salmon, wet-cured like lox but much smokier.

By now, 9 p.m. on a weekend night, the place was packed. During a lapse in the jazz-Muzak, we eavesdropped on nearby conversations, still trying to place the crowd. Our waiter (who'd spoken with us in a standard California accent) was taking the orders of two young women, chatting with them in Russian. We sent out our earbeams, and nearly everyone else was speaking Russian (or accented English), too. Had we been in a science-fiction movie made during the Red Scare Era, this could have been a very redscary moment. However, nobody bore any telltale flecks of natal pea-pods on their shirts. "The Russians have come, the Russians have come!" I whispered. Were we not on Geary? Was this not a building of Bauhaus design (like the nearby Russian Bear Restaurant)? The younger patrons were normally dressed (not in the Bear bunch's Untouchables drag) and the older ones had the familiar lineaments of intellectuals. This was not a downtown Bix crowd but -- a Richmond District Bauhaus crowd. And I still don't know whether they're attracted to deco style for itself, or ironically.

Our first entree was a mistake in several ways: Salmon on a bed of pesto-dressed green fettuccine was a daily special, not the menu item we'd ordered. Thinking it was a substitution, we tasted it. The salmon was OK but the pasta was badly undercooked and the sauce was bitter. Just as we pushed it aside to die, the waiter came back. Trembling before the imperious Chet, he delivered a charming apology: "I've probably just ruined my future career, but I brought you the wrong dish." The "real" salmon ($19) stood up much better: It was a luscious cumin-rubbed grilled slab of fish topped with salmon caviar. ("Salmon is really my favorite roe," said Chet. "Me too," I conspired.) Alongside was a smooth, spicy avocado sauce well-matched to the salmon's richness. Pomegranate rack of lamb ($18) had fine, well-aged marinated meat cut into thin chops after roasting. The dish has a long history in San Francisco: The signature entree at Bali's (a Russian restaurant frequented, in its '60s heyday, by Rudolf Nureyev), it entered the general repertoire via restaurateur/recipe-sharer Narsai David (currently Macy's' food maven). This enjoyable version was a little sweeter than Narsai's, taming the puckeriness of the pomegranate. We hadn't been asked how well-done we wanted the meat and the default was (in the French style) very rare in the center -- perfect for us albeit perhaps underdone for other tastes. Both salmon and lamb came with slightly tough whole flageolets (French mini-string beans), roasted new potatoes, and firm-textured corn bound in a mild curried cream sauce. Our final entree was "jerk" pork loin ($15), which had a heap of sticky black beans instead of potatoes. The tough, overcooked pork slices tasted like they'd been marinated in witch hazel. The pineapple cubes on top had the same flavor. We each could eat just two bites -- one to taste, the second to confirm. It amazed us this came from the same kitchen as the quail and lamb.

For dessert, we tried the sorbet assortment: scoops of plum, berry, and nothing (probably grapefruit). Only the plum had a satisfying intensity, but I liked the accompanying almond tuile (a large flat cookie). A chocolate tart proved to be another Narsai-inspired recipe, the "chocolate decadence" so popular 20 years ago, here surrounded by a pale, doughy crust. I'm still bored with decadence (a sort of bittersweet fudge), and no one liked the crust, but both the guys loved the rich filling, especially combined with the shredded mint garnish. At the waiter's recommendation, Chet had a cafe presse (arriving in a whole miniature coffee-maker), which proved weak. My espresso arrived cold; I sent it back but when it returned, a muddied flavor hinted it had been nuked, not replaced. Meanwhile, a jazz-funk band started playing in the jampacked bar downstairs. Most of the food had been fine, albeit more trendy than trendsetting, but the jerk, the funk, and the feeble finale impelled us to a fast escape. The hard, stylish setting, Eastern European crowd, and pricey but inconsistent cooking left an odd impression. "Overall," Chet summed up, "it's like being in Prague -- when you want to be in Paris.

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Naomi Wise

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