Chet clearly needed a fun-break from tending a sick friend. "C'mon, let's go eat out, name your poison," I said, and Fly Trap was the nonvenomous name he voiced. Maybe he read my mind -- for years I'd been meaning to try it and this was a good excuse.
It's a favorite of several other friends; moreover, its prime location and classic dishes make it a hangout for business lunchers, Multimedia Gulchers, and restaurant school habitues. Stately decor and a long menu of historic San Francisco favorites breed the illusion that it's been around since the last fin de siecle, but it actually opened in our own early '90s. Did the owners realize, when they chose its moniker, that the neighborhood would soon become a habitat of Web-spinners?
The menu includes such fond, uncomplicated throwbacks as chicken Jerusalem ($13.75), calf liver with bacon and onions ($13.50), snails bourguignon ($7.75), Rex sole meuniere ($13.50), and of course Hangtown Fry -- all vanishing flavors in a world of (say) grilled snapper with lemongrass aioli and mango-rau ram salsa. With a sepia-toned array of many-sized pictures on the creamy walls, the site is handsome, nooked and crannied, and we were seated in a handsome nook with speakers aimed right at our cranny. Tall columns lofted to the high ceiling, tall mirrors hung on the walls, sweet little lamp-sconces evoked Prohibition, and with nothing but tablecloths to soften the sound, Saint Billie's blues were loud enough to hurt. I could hear my tablemates but not a word from the waitress; TJ could hear Chet but not the waitress or me; Chet could hear everyone including the people at the next table, who evidently could hear him right back.
Unlike a superior subsequent dinner on a less hectic evening, the kitchen's products for the packed house alternated between the gorgeous and the gruesome. Celery Victor ($6.75) was a stunning victory. This turn-of-the-century San Francisco treat originally had poached celery heart in a mild-mannered vinaigrette topped with chopped hard-cooked egg and anchovy. In Fly Trap's zesty revision, tart light tomato sauce glazed a huge half-a-heart, topped with rings of sliced egg and whole anchovy fillets so succulent that, if I knew the brand, my pantry would marry it. Around the edges were good Kalamata olives and toothsome tomatoes imported from someplace where tomatoes are ripe. But in the opposite corner were sweetbreads with pancetta ($5.75), pallid, slippery gland-lumps in a thin, livery sauce with some pancetta so overcrisped it resembled Farmer John bacon. TJ's taste buds detected the vinegar-water soak that starts the raw pancreas on its long path to the plate. "The first time I ever made sweetbreads," I said, "I braised them by the awful old Joy of Cooking recipe and they came out ..." "... Just like these," Chet chimed in.
We shared a Hangtown Fry ($9.50). "It was invented in Placerville -- then called Hangtown for obvious reasons -- during the gold rush," I yelled at TJ, who, at first taste, asked why the hell I'd ordered it. "The two most expensive foods in the Sierra were eggs, a buck apiece, and oysters shlepped on ice from the coast. When miners struck it rich, they celebrated with Hangtown Fry -- a fried-oyster omelet." "Where's the oysters?" shouted TJ, after a few more bites. "There's oysters here?" Chet riposted. There were a few bits in the center, outnumbered by cooked-in nuggins of some smoked-pork product, subbing for the pair of bacon slices traditionally draped over the top as garnish. (For classic Hangtown Fry, try Tadich Grill or Sam's Grill, both true antiques with staffers who personally fed the prospectors.)
Everything was better at our second dinner. Over Chet's warnings ("It's white," he complained, "like Victorian invalid food!"), TJ and I thrilled at the "white salad" ($7.50), with its juxtaposition of Belgian endive and fresh water chestnuts -- the bitter with the sweet, sparked with red pepper slivers and the earthiness of sliced mushrooms. (Chet had eaten it last summer, when cauliflower made a poor substitute for endive.) Vichyssoise ($3.75) was a third cousin thrice-removed from the Waldorf Astoria's belle epoque indulgence, cream-laden chilled potato-leek soup. Here, the chalk-white potion's tartness sang loudly of yogurt, with ample minced chives buying some indulgence for the "lite" revision. I do the yogurt version at home for lunches, but at a restaurant I'd prefer decadence. Oysters Rockefeller ($7.75; both Antoine's and Galatoire's in New Orleans claim this invention) was very tasty -- although more of a "Spinach Rockefeller." Five oyster shells held a savory green filling and a nice browned-crumb topping, but yielded only one identifiable bite of mollusk-meat. Well, the joint isn't called the Oyster Trap.
Among the entrees, Chet fondly remembered veal piccata ($14.75) but alas, none of us were in the mood for gruel-fed calf-in-bondage. TJ had grilled salmon ($15.50), moist and tender over a millimeter-thin slick of beurre blanc, with crisp shoestrings accompanying. Chet's special of rack of lamb ($19.50) came medium-rare to his order, toothsome in a light deglaze, with unperverted homey mashed potatoes. My special of sauteed "breast of duck" ($16.75) with black currant sauce was a compendium of error, a parliament of fouls: Perhaps the kitchen ran low on maigret, because only four minuscule slices arrived, ranging from rosy and right to sere and beige. With these came a fried chicken-drumstick impostor, which proved to be the stringiest duck limb I've encountered north of the equator. The currant sauce was OK. The entrees came with crisp-tender asparagus, and we added a side dish of creamed spinach ($3.75) -- a local cliche, perhaps, but exquisitely accomplished here (even better than Harris'!), with chopped spinach cooked so gently it tasted herbal, bathed in alluring, nutmeg-bold reduced cream. It, alone, would lure me back into the Fly Trap.
The crabbiness we felt while ordering our second dinner was dispelled when the crab cakes ($13.75) lived up to our waitress' enthusiasm. They're listed under the appetizers, but were ample as an entree: Two large juicy patties (only slightly marred by a few bits of cartilage) in a crisp, thin, browned crust sat in another dribble of beurre blanc. (I only wish the restaurant would let me mind my own fat intake instead of doling out sauces like Jenny Craig or Ebenezer Scrooge.) Crab agnolotti ($14.50) had half-moons of crustacean-stuffed thin pasta in a nutmeg-laden cream sauce similar to that of the spinach. Plump and satisfying, these pasta pillows seemed the platonic-ideal version of those skimpy "gourmet" ravioli in supermarket dairy cases.
Chet remembered excellent desserts from an earlier excursion; our Saturday night specials reached their apogee with an ethereal, tangy chardonnay sorbet over a bed of raspberry sauce ($4.25), with an anise biscotto (that is, one biscotti) linking it to Earth. Hot apple crisp ($6.50), though, was more like nut crisp, with minimal fruit chopped too small, overwhelmed by the coarse and charred topping; the vanilla ice-cream scoop on top was supermarket-ordinary. Also burned on top was the caramel glaze of the creme brulee ($4), with a bland white custard under the crackle. But a couple of nights later, the chocolate torte with mascarpone cream ($5.50) ranked among the best chocolate desserts I've had recently. The torte seemed a brilliant hybrid of two nonce desserts, "chocolate decadence" and tiramisu -- with the custardy texture of the latter, the bittersweet intensity of the former, over a powerfully bittersweet, firm chocolate crust.
It was served over a splash of barely sweet mascarpone sauce, but I'd bet that mascarpone also informed the filling. This dessert ranked even a smidgen higher than Chet's exquisite low-fat chocolate decadence, his finish to great meals that may begin with his ardent, full-cream vichyssoise.
While not every dish here still embodies gold rush extravagance or belle epoque luxury (given the city's radically altered tastes), at its best the Fly Trap weaves a web that captures a large, diverse audience. When it's good, it's very, very good, and when it's bad, the next course will usually be better.