By Mollie McWilliams
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Alex Hochman
By Joseph Geha
By Anna Roth
1101 Valencia (at 22nd Street), 824-1222. Open daily 5 to 10 p.m., on Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Street parking chancy; there's public parking on 21st Street between Mission and Valencia. Muni via the 26 Valencia, 48 Quintara/24th Street, and all Mission Street lines. The 24th Street BART station is three blocks way. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible.
"Did I ever tell you about the little red rooster in the back yard?" asked Pat, a Weekly photographer and our dinner companion at the Rooster. "We were living in this sprawling house in the Inner Richmond, and one of my housemates decided we should raise chickens in the back yard. We weren't allowed to have pets, but the landlord hadn't said anything about poultry. So Lynne built a coop and we bought a dozen little hatchlings. Well, after a while one of them started to crow, and we realized we had a male. We named him Skippy.
"Then Skippy began to crow all the time, and we knew we had to do something -- the neighbors might start complaining and we'd get busted. So Lynne, who grew up somewhere out in the country, took him into the garage and ..." (Pat gestured.) "We decided we'd have to eat him, make him into chicken soup. But he was still very young; it was so sad to look at those little bones in our soup bowls. Poor Skippy, such a short life."
The Rooster on Valencia Street's new "restaurant row," far from sharing Skippy's fate, is crowing lustily and dishing up large portions. With its bohemian decor and fashionable "fusion cooking" it's a natural for the neighborhood. And if fusion cooking is the latest fad, this is one restaurant that comes by it naturally, via owners Shaw-Na Lee and her husband, Jean-Paul Billault. The wine list is a U.N. of bottlings (with most at a fair markup to the $20 to $35 range), and the eclectic menu mingles Asian-influenced dishes with such French bourgeois classics as beef bourguignon. Italian and Latin American cuisines get to strut this stage, too, along with a revival of that near-obsolete bowl of Americana, Waldorf salad, updated with blue cheese and a walnut-oil vinaigrette. Many of us routinely cook like this at home (minus the Waldorf), but so multinational a restaurant menu raises the question: Is it fusion -- or confusion?
The restaurant's look indicates deliberate confusion. In an endearing evocation of hippie-era interior design, some hanging light fixtures are lacy, others sketch flowers in tin, and a huge, old metal chandelier is furbished with (it appears) shards of plastic. A sinuous art nouveau twig design is painted on the bar wall, and ornate Chinese fabrics or Victorian-style lace curtains veil large sliding windows. A dozen-odd well-spaced tables made of beautiful scarred wood afford comfortable room for both food and elbows. Atop the walls, gigantic mirrors with ornate hand-painted frames hang atilt, reflecting other tables and transforming them into French impressionist bistro scenes. It's some of the sweetest decor in town, but loud, lively ambient music plus a large, lively crowd trying to outshout it once again puts the "din" in "dinner."
At our initial scouting expedition, TJ and I started inauspiciously with "Papa Lee's vegetable dumplings" ($5.95), consisting of five potstickers filled with a very bland mince of tofu, black mushrooms, and rice vermicelli. A pair of dips consisted of sweet-hot Chinese chili-garlic sauce, and undoctored Kikkoman soy. "Red Earth Salad" ($5.95) was more fun, with a tangy lemon vinaigrette coating roasted red beets, pecans, and soft goat cheese over spring greens. Returning some days later with Pat, we dutifully ordered the inescapable Caesar salad ($5.95) and were glad we did. This vibrant version had a lemony eggless "mayonnaise" balanced by the nutty sweetness of a rich, freshly shredded Parmesan. Our only complaint was that there were three of us, but merely two anchovies. (Sheesh, one extra anchovy would bankrupt them?)
We also had ginger and lemongrass mussels ($6.50), consisting of 12 small black mollusks in an understated Thai-style broth. We ate just eight, finding them acceptable but not exquisite; the other four were clenched shut, dead before cooking. (When you expose live mussels to cooking heat, they open their shells to breathe their last gasps. If they don't open, you don't eat them if you know what's good for you.) When the waitress noticed the leftovers, and we obituarized the four bivalves, she asked if we'd like some others and we declined. The bill wasn't itemized, but apparently she subtracted the charge for the dish, an honorable move.
At our first dinner we had a risotto with shiitakes, sun-dried tomatoes, and white truffles ($13.75) as a separate pasta course to avoid overwhelming other flavors with the pungent truffle aroma. Oddly, what used to be a rare, pricey ingredient has been showing up all over town -- the funky fungi are becoming nearly as ubiquitous as Caesar salad. Fat and firm-grained, the rice tasted more like the sushi variety than the standard risotto-type, arborio. As we dug into the brothy, rather sour mixture, we found strings of melted cheese, which unnecessarily weighed down the already-heavy mixture.
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