Puck's Kitchen

Oberon
1450 Lombard (at Van Ness), 885-6555. Open daily 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Reservations recommended for Sunday and Monday. Valet parking $5, street parking unlikely. Muni via the 19 Polk, 30 Stockton, and the various Van Ness lines.

Named for Shakespeare's King of the Fairies, Oberon's cooking is earthbound but fickle and fey -- alternately delightful, desultory, and disastrous, sometimes simultaneously on a single plate. But it has improved since the Indian summer's nightmare of our first visit last fall. It was during the mismanaged "grand pre-reopening festivities" after several months' hiatus following a fire; then, a plague of pacing problems sadistically separated starved patrons from their sustenance. Our long-awaited dinner, arriving after two hours of dry bread and water (once we'd consumed our butter ration and bar wine), offered little to recommend but a glorious rabbit "ravioli" and a decent rack of lamb.

Since then, though, Oberon has had time to settle in. Its original chef departed, bequeathing the kitchen to his two sous-chefs. Extraneous factors have changed, as well: Panos, Stoyanoff's, and Asakimapoulos have all closed, leaving the city near-bereft of Greek food. Oberon's cuisine, if not strictly Greek, embraces the Mediterranean rim, a sea of olive oil lightly lapping the shores of Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor. (The menu offers lots of lamb but no dolmas.) Then, too, on Sunday and Monday nights an $18 three-course prix fixe (soup or salad, choice of entree, dessert) includes an option of the lamb rack, rare in local restaurants at any price. Finally, in the Chronicle's new ratings of restaurant noise levels, Oberon -- free of last fall's rumblings of stomachs and of mutiny -- came in "quiet," which alone nearly made it worth another look, listen, and taste.

A weeknight visit found the space pleasantly calm, with the ubiquitous Gipsy Kings soft on the sound system, but on a Saturday evening, a live pianist and a young blond New Yorker playing amplified "Gypsy" violin throbbed out indigenous tunes of Romany, Hungary, and Hernando's Hideaway. The duo began concertizing in the cozy bar, which sports a bosky, sentimental oil painting (by Steve Pan) focused on a curly blond bodybuilder Oberon in Grecian skivvies, every inch a fairy as he sits sulkily near a sleeping Titania. Soon, the violinist strolled to the small second dining room alongside the bar, site of a cheerful birthday party, which welcomed (or perhaps had hired) him. As the party waned, the fiddler ambled into the main dining room, transmuting the Godfather theme into an anthem of Slavic soul-suffering. With low lighting and a score of comfortable seats at ample-size tables, the dining room's wall-mirrors provide an illusion of spaciousness.

Despite the Motel Row location, the current crowd seemed more local than last fall's aged-tourist crop. What hasn't changed is the kitchen's consistent inconsistency. Take my favorite appetizer, ground lamb skewers ($5.25). Instead of the familiar (and ever-dry) Punjabi seekh kebabs, these resemble Armenia's luscious lule kebabs, lean ground lamb seasoned with vibrant fresh herbs rather than dry spices, the browned exteriors ideally cosseting pink centers bursting with juice. Two of our kebabs were heavenly, another was marginal, and the fourth was mummified. Such unwelcome variety is mystifying, assuming the skewers were all gas-grilled simultaneously. Besides a dynamic and spicy herbed yogurt dip, the garnishes included a sampling of highlights from other appetizers: spring greens with blue cheese (from the pear salad), and pita pieces, piperade of grilled onion and sweet pepper, and spicy baba ghanouj eggplant dip (all from the meze plate).

We also enjoyed a "bowlful of clams" ($6.75), medium-size Aqua Gems from Washington state and tiny Manilas festooned with shreds of pancetta in a buttery, salty, clammy broth that was great for dipping bread. Evidently cooked separately, both types of bivalves were sublimely tender -- even if a few tight-shut mollusks had evidently died ahead of schedule. Other appetizers, however, seemed rote versions of standards. The "Oberon Salad" ($4.75) was an ordinary Greek salad (less zesty than the version at the late Panos), with greens, feta, Kalamata olives, blah blah blah. A salad of arugula, pears, walnuts, and maytag blue cheese ($5.75) was the same pleasant dish we've found at 20 other restaurants, except this kickless arugula was disappointingly demure.

Our meze plate ($6.50) was a lineup of the usual suspects from any Palestinian deli (baba ghanouj, tabbouleh, piperade, pita) in blandified renditions, along with a few original numbers (good marinated shiitake slices; undercooked baby potatoes and artichoke heart nubbins), plus one minuscule mussel daubed with mayo.

The pick hits are still the rabbit ravioli ($12.50) and the rack of lamb ($18.75). The rabbit features tender fresh pasta sheets with a vibrant light sauce, interspersed with a wealth of mushrooms and moist, boneless braised bunny. "What foods these morsels be!" our friend Chet quipped puckishly last September. At that dinner, the overwhelmed kitchen was attempting to turn out the lamb racks like a sweatshop turns out Nikes, so you couldn't specify doneness.

But at our recent visit, the rack was cooked rare to order, four rose-rare chops butter-tender with a light, pleasing rosemary-tinged sauce. The accompanying potato gratin had been improved, its erstwhile pugnacious pecorino component wisely replaced by a milder, creamier cheese, perhaps Lappi. On most plates, the requisite fodder consisted of young carrots with their green tops and fresh flageolets, slim French green beans. Early in the week, these were sweet-flavored, but by the weekend they tasted tired, as though stored too long and too warm.

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