It was a warm weekend night and the crossroads of the Inner Sunset looked like a patch of Santa Cruz, aswarm with summer dresses and baggy shorts. Three males of the latter category, fast-tracking down Ninth Avenue, were briefly arrested by the goofy tilted-trapezoid front window that marks House. "Looks like the architect didn't know what he was doing," one of them sneered. "Nah, I think it's symbolical," said another. "To show they have an off-center way of cooking."
No surprise that, among three guys on the street, one should already know about House's cuisine -- since the restaurant's springtime arrival, its fashionable East-West cooking has won neighborhood loyalty and drawn diners from all over the city. House's special twist is that, while most "fusion" (West-East) restaurants have Euro-American chefs playing with Asian (etc.) influences, the fare at House (like that at nearby Eos) has its roots in Chinese cuisine, rather than Cal-Mediterranean, however the results may converge.
The much-acclaimed original House (which has a "the" in front of it, in contrast to the Sunset one), founded by ex-accountant Larry Tse and his wife, Angela, is a tiny spot in North Beach, where driving is hell, parking's impossible, and buses are crammed. Out west, on the new restaurant-destination strip around Ninth and Irving, driving and parking are merely awful, and six Muni lines debouch within a block. This branch is also much larger -- perhaps it could be distinguished from the North Beach version by the title "the big House."
Dawn the disgruntled lawyer and Steve the EPA sleuth arrived, and as we entered, a 30-ish salt'n'soy sextet were exiting. "Whew!" said a tall, pretty Chinese-American woman. "Good to get out of that noise!" We entered past a small, modernistic bar and were shown to a decent-size table in a high-ceilinged room hinting equally of The Flintstones and the '50s, with cavelike splotchy dark-gray walls, asymmetrical hanging lights, and a slightly lopsided black metal chandelier alluding to the mobiles of Alexander Calder. But since several tables had just vacated, the noise was a mere dull roar, allowing us to converse semiaudibly until the tables repopulated (about midway through our dinner) and the racket resumed.
And conversation was needed to choose our food and drinks. To the longish small-print dinner menu were added three special appetizers and four special entrees that the waitress had memorized but we couldn't. (Hey, Tses -- there's a xerox shop right down the street.) The wine list was lengthy, too, ample in the middle range ($25-35) but fairly shallow at the low end, from which our $19 Muscadet proved crisp but sour.
While debating the choices, we nibbled crisp zucchini rectangles marinated into sweet-sour "bread and butter pickles" that gained a nutty note from a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. We began with bay scallop and shiitake dumplings ($7), six delicate steamed wheat-flour crescents enclosing a burst of bright flavor, with a mild soy dip alongside, and a heap of tasty House-made potato chips. The dumplings were, simply, good dim sum. The crisp dough shells of a pair of deep-fried salmon rolls ($6) resembled lumpia, but were filled with solid cylinders of salmon. We found them heavy, but they were much enlivened by a vivacious sweet-sour dip sharpened by Chinese mustard, and by the accompanying sweet-sour vegetable shreds. "Spicy satay chicken wings" ($5) were neither "satay" (i.e., spit-grilled) nor very spicy, but proved to be good old Cantonese-American "sticky wings" in a mustard-spiked red sweet-sour sauce with a touch of hot pepper. "Is this sincere, or is it supposed to be Chinese-American 'retro' food, like meatloaf is Euro-American 'retro'?" I asked. We couldn't tell, but with or without irony the wings were fun, and it was also fun to speculate whether the garnish of red-and-white-striped vegetable strings was made from bleeding radishes or tie-dyed daikon. Rounding out our appetizers was a salad special ($7), made of five precious tomato varieties with a pleasant but wimpy papaya-cilantro vinaigrette. "You could easily make this yourself; just cruise the produce aisle at Andronico's," said Dawn.
Among our main courses, the simple grilled fishes were grand; the more elaborate dishes weren't. The favorite was a special of grilled "Hawaiian butterfish" ($15). The huge boneless wedge, leaning atilt against a mound of mashed potatoes, wasn't a member of the small, dark-fleshed Atlantic species called butterfish -- it was obviously cut from a large fish of very white, firm, lean piscinity (perhaps porgy). The butteriness lay not in the flesh (which was cooked through but not dry) but in the sauce underneath, a wasabi cream combining smoothness, sharpness, and an unexpected crunch of tobiko (flying fish roe). The spuds were plain and yummy, as were a handful of firm asparagus spears. Of equal quality but even greater austerity was a giant fillet of Chilean sea bass ($14), leaning atilt on a mound of plain white rice, and cooked so tender the flesh quivered like Jell-O as the waitress set it down. Browned outside, white but moist inside, it came with a heaplet of Chinese long beans, crisped by dry-frying. "These beans are great," said Dawn. "They chose only slim, young ones, so they're not tough." Alongside came a ramekin containing a sauce of soy, dark sesame oil, and shreds of deep-fried fresh ginger, much like the dip you get with potstickers in Mandarin restaurants. "The sauce is better on the rice," Dawn observed. "It doesn't do anything for the fish."
"Hey, it's chow fun!" said Steve, puncturing the menu's fancier-sounding "grilled duck over wasabi noodles" ($11.50). The sauteed flat noodles with slivered cukes (etc.) were topped with awkwardly chopped shreds, slivers, and squares of nondescript fowl, altogether resembling a dish I'd throw together on a leftover duck's last night. I brought most of it home, and the ingredients grew lovey-dovey while they spent the night together, melding the next day into a well-focused cold noodle salad that would easily be worth the $4 you'd spend for it at a Larkin Street luncheonette. Sauteed seafood on spicy red rice ($14.50) was, however, beyond redemption, all aswamp in a heavy red substance that tasted like canned tomato sauce with a hefty dose of added sugar. Mixed in were corn kernels, black beans, and some other beans (grayish, dry-textured) that I can't name and never want to meet again. Scattered atop and through it were a few OK mussels and assorted dried-out fish bits. We all really tried to come to terms with it, but I finally admitted, "This is awful, I hate it." "Yeah!" said TJ. "It tastes like the Spanish Rice recipe from the back of a Minute rice box, circa 1964." "Or jambalaya, sweet and sour jambalaya!" said Steve. "It's got succotash, too, so it's succotash jambalaya," added TJ. "No, it's more a paella," I said, and the others nodded. "Sweet and Sour Spanish Rice Succotash Paella! The perfect recipe for the working mom of the '90s."
We had a small pot of intensely floral jasmine tea ($4), chosen from a lengthy tea list, and chose two desserts that proved as divergent as the main courses. The more we ate, the less we liked the banana cream tart ($6), which had fresh sliced bananas (so far so good) tented over a too-modest puff of mild-mannered whipped cream, topping a tough chocolate cookie disk, which, if dropped, could break your toe. Scattered around were filling-pulling sticky-glazed macadamias, which reminded Steve of the packaged Mauna Loa brittle that every Waikiki tourist tries once. It was incoherent greasy kid-stuff -- but the coconut creme brulee ($5) was a triple-X adult sweet. A thin coat of tart papaya sauce sat atop the crackly skin-deep caramel crust. All atremble was the custard, with its clarion tone of pure coconut. A few strawberry slices were strewn about. "I don't like coconut," Dawn declared. She tasted it anyway, confessing, "Oh, this is different, it's more like coconut milk." At the end, with a tiny bit left, the group deferred to its slimmest member. "I can't see something that good going to waste," Dawn sighed, scraping the plate. Each of us eyed the faint slick that remained, speculating whether anybody would notice if one of us were to lick the saucer.
Given the unevenness of the dishes we tried, I'd guess the big House is having growing pains. After the accolades that the little House received, the new branch is large and busy enough to present new challenges. At our visit, the kitchen seemed overreliant on campy "Cantonese-American" sweet and sour sauces, and even those ranged from invigorating to merely amusing to actively unpleasant. Our best dishes were classically European -- grilled fish and creme brulee, which also happen to be the primary attractions at the city's outstanding fusion-free seafood house, Hayes Street Grill. The latter is known for pristine quality, rather than for the kind of creativity with which House made its reputation. For the moment, though, House's more inventive East-West fare seems to be tilting, like its window, in odd directions. So when you choose your House dinner, give the menu a K.I.S.S. -- Keep It Simple, Stupid.