King Creole

PJ's Oysterbed
737 Irving (at Ninth Avenue), 566-7775. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 5 to 10 p.m., and until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Dinner reservations necessary. Parking difficult. Muni via the N Judah, 6 Parnassus, 43 Masonic, 44 O'Shaughnessy, 66 Quintara, and 71 Noriega.

Step right up folks, step right up for the ride of your life through the Tunnel of Din! PJ's Oysterbed is more than a restaurant, although it's a very good restaurant. It's also an expensive little fish market, and it's a scene -- not a striving, see-me downtown scene, but a cozy ongoing neighborhood party.

PJ's started out as a so-so fish house, but by now it's fairly won the right to call itself "Bayou by the Bay" -- although, to nitpick, more dishes are Creole (sophisticated French-Spanish-African New Orleans cuisine) than Cajun (French-black-Choctaw country cooking). Some years ago, Michael Reese (a San Franciscan in love with Louisiana food) took over the kitchen for a couple of weeks for a special "crawfish festival." The festival became an annual event; then the Louisiana menu spread to weeknights year-round (because Reese didn't want to work weekends). Now that it's full time, Reese is listed as "guest chef," but executive chef Pachi Calvo y Perez offers fare of both the Left Coast (e.g., soy-glazed ahi) and the Gulf Coast ("Creole tapas," et al.). And the joint jumps day and night.

Peering in from outside, the left window reveals dead fish on ice; the right window frames live people (all ages, genders, local races -- I didn't spot any Ainu or Maori) comfortably crammed in, chatting and chewing. The menu in the door-alcove is only loosely related to the actual bill of fare, which changes each week with the catch. You enter through a sort of tunnel, passing iced oyster beds and then a bar to your left, both fronting a long open kitchen with steel-plated walls, leaping flames, and five (we counted) hot and cold running chefs. The farther you go, the louder the noise, until finally you reach the reception desk, where the right-hand wall ends, opening to the dining room, and the converging sounds of at least five speakers. That cold Monday night, the speakers were playing '70s disco. (TJ figured that half the patrons used to dance to it, and the other half hopped to it in their cribs.) Reserving a few hours ahead, we'd gotten the last open table (at 8:30 p.m.) and were seated after a 15-minute wait in a cozy, crowded room with dark, hardwood floors like an old-time saloon, and various Louisiana artifacts (including a giant pair of wooden comedy-tragedy masks, signifying Mardi Gras) on the wall. Resonating hard surfaces, loud music, waitstaff yelling to each other from bar to dining room, patrons trying to make themselves heard -- that's why it's the tunnel of din. But the waiters are gracious, well-trained, plentiful -- we counted 10 to serve about 30 customers.

The list of "original" cocktails was tempting after a long work day. Against my better judgment I tried a vodka-chambord elixir called "Cotton Candy," but two sips of the kiddie-sweet stuff confirmed my suspicion that the creations cater to novice imbibers. ("Have that destroyed," I said, and the waiter didn't charge us for it.) The good news is that most wines are available by the glass. The bad news is that the (too few) good wines aren't, and markups run 300 percent. (My $6 glass of bumptious chardonnay, $24 per bottle, is $8 a fifth at the supermarket.) The brews are weighty in ales (including Louisiana's Dixie Voodoo), scanty on beers. Why no regular Dixie so we can all get Dixie-fried?

Each Monday night, PJ's offers two half-priced specials on oysters. We started with a half-dozen Washington Squamish (normally $9), tiny but sweet, although weary oyster-opening hands left a little gritty shell in half of them. One of the dips was mainly vinegar and onion; TJ liked it, I found it overstrong. The other was a well-balanced blend of classic New Orleans do-it-yourself fixin's: ketchup, horseradish, lemon, and Tabasco. Although you get lemon wedges on the side and two hot sauces and Creole mustard on the table, I had nothing to add. Of "Shut My Mouth BBQ'd Oysters" (usually $4 for two bivalves), TJ said, "Good oysters, but the sauce is pretty tomatoey." "Actually, this tastes pretty Cajun," I observed. "My friend Marc Savoy, who's an accordion-maker in Eunice and a great cook, makes sauce a lot like this, only he puts in fresh lemon slices and more onions." We also tried Oysters Rockefeller (two at $4.50). "What's this crud on top?" we said almost in unison. "It's called 'Rockefeller' because it's green as in money -- not white as in mozzarella!" I ranted. "Butter, lots -- cheese, no!" Underneath, though, were juicy oysters and a yummy spinach and Pernod mixture, near as good as Galatoire's and better than Antoine's (both claim credit for inventing the dish).

An entremets of "Gumbo Drocco" ($7, named for owner John Drocco) was an enormous portion that the staff split for us into two soup bowls. "Guest chef" Reese must have tasted some homemade African-American fried chicken gumbo, divine but rare in restaurants. Since PJ's makes seafood gumbo (and no purist ever puts chicken in seafood gumbo or vice versa), instead of fried chicken they add terrific little fried okra fritters, adding that smoky hot-oil note, along with the regular okra (crisp, not slimy) and just a touch of file (a Choctaw mixture of sassafras and thyme). There's just the right amount of rice, too, and like the oysters, the spiciness is dead-on -- piquant but not painful.

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