Give Me Moa!

The Moa Room
1007 Guerrero (at 22nd Street), 282-1007. Open 5:30 to 10 p.m. weekdays, until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Tuesdays. The restaurant is not wheelchair accessible. Reservations strongly recommended. Parking is difficult. Muni via the J Church.

Where do you take your out-of-town friends for dinner when said friends are gourmet cooks living in the South of France? Years ago, Terry and Lois (the erstwhile Quiche Queen of San Francisco) ran a takeout shop on Polk called the French Pantry. Now they've got a genuine French pantry -- they bought an old stone-walled bakery in a village south of Carcassonne and converted it into a bed-and-breakfast. Every year, they come "home" during the slow season, December and January. They were eager to try one of the year's "hot new places"; coming instantly to mind was the Moa Room.

Diagonally across from the famed Flying Saucer, the Moa Room is conceptually one of the children of Chez Panisse, stressing high-quality meats and produce. Open since last spring, it's a collaboration between two "gardeners": New Zealand-born chef Jan Gardner and Calistoga organic farmer Linda-Marie Loeb. Gardner, a CCA graduate who was taught by Saucer star Albert Tjordsman, made some awesome connections as a caterer for visiting film productions: Named for an extinct antipodean bird, the Moa Room was designed by Oscar-nominated production designer Andrew (The Piano) McAlpine.

"This was a very good choice," Lois purred, settling on one of the long yellow-green banquettes that line two walls -- comfortably firm, she noted, and narrow enough to let diners sit up straight and reach the table without having to battle the upholstery. "I love the menu," she continued. "Apparently they change it every week. It's not too long to be manageable, and all of it sounds good. And I really like this wine list. They have bottles from all over, even New Zealand." "Can we get any New Zealands by the glass?" Terry asked. Lois scanned the list again. "Damn it, no," she answered, "and I really would have liked to try one without spending $33 a bottle!" We settled on an $18 Viognier from the Ardeche (which proved rather harsh) followed by a mellow $21 Mourvedre from exotic Emeryville. As we waited for our appetizers we took in the big, Maori-influenced stone and metal art on the walls, and the handsome black-and-white open kitchen -- which, alas, sent forth sufficient din to inspire a compensating roar from some 40 patrons all trying to hear themselves talk.

Knowing that we planned to share, our server intelligently brought appetizers in two rounds. First to reach the table were precisely 12 small, tender black mussels in a carrot and green curry broth ($7). The Thai-influenced curry was based on minced green herbs (rather than dried spices), its creamy broth deliciously complex, with the sweetness of carrot and garlic, the zestiness of cilantro, and the aggressive citrus notes of fresh kafir lime leaves. The house-baked sourdough was a little too heavy for sopping the last drops of sauce; it got on better with the butter (which was of superior quality). "We just started baking our bread," the waitress told us. "This is the first time it's actually come out right -- it seems to change with the weather. A few days ago, we had to run out to the bakery." Next up was a leek, port, and Stilton soup ($5.50). TJ, sipping, asked about the ingredients. "Port wine and Stilton, an English blue cheese, are a classic after-dinner pairing that they've turned into a soup," said Lois. "That's what I love about this menu. The combinations make sense; they're not aiming to shock." But the soup's flavor was primarily a sooth-ing rich cheesiness, comforting against the winter downpour but lacking any detectable wine flavor. "Maybe they just waved the cork over the soup pot, like vermouth in the ultimate dry martini," said TJ. Well, any port in a storm.

Our second round of appetizers included sweet potato pancakes with duck confit and cranberry relish ($6.50). "This is a classic combination, too," said Lois, "like turkey and cranberry sauce." While hot, it was a toothsome juxtaposition of light sweet crepes, rich fowl, and tangy fruit. Ten minutes later the final bits had turned from crepes to Krusteaz; as the pan-cakes cooled, they gained weight along with the eaters. We also tried the beet, orange, and pecan salad ($5.50), which included baby greens, tiny red and yellow beets, a few whole nuts, and some unbilled mandarin orange slices in a likable but elusive thin red dressing. We decided that the fetal beets would've had more flavor if allowed another week's gestation.

As often seems to happen (for some mysterious reason) at restaurants headed by CCA grads, the main courses were less consistent than the starters. The favorite was Gorgonzola, spinach, and ricotta ravioli ($12.50). The pasta were of classic ravioli size and thickness (that is, not the big near-transparent wonton-skin versions of the more uppity local eateries). They were topped with sweet bits of caramelized shallots, and were bathed in a smooth, rich Marsala cream sauce that bore just the right touch of the sweet heavy wine. "With a sauce like this, the pasta doesn't even need a stuffing," said TJ. "It's like a great veal scallop sauce," I thought. "This could make a wonderful sauce for braised Belgian endive," Lois schemed. In contrast, Terry's gargantuan braised lamb shank ($14.50) was unsauced, its meat a bit dry. It came, though, with a moist mushroom-barley risotto that the barley lovers found divine, and even the barley-shunner (me) still found very good. Carrots and sharp winter greens lent clean contrasts to the dense meat. Another entree had grilled portobello mushroom ($12.50), perfectly cooked, presiding over a humid bed of polenta with the texture of soupy cream of wheat. Underneath it all was a slightly spicy sauce that vaguely involved chilpotle chiles, and along with the mushrooms were two big succulent grilled chiles: an earthy red poblano with a wee nip, and a wicked green-black pasilla with a Steven Seagal kick.

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