You know your city's changing when a celebrity lawyer dies in his traces and his landmark office becomes a restaurant exuding status. In mid-May, Melvin Belli's former brick-walled digs on historic Jackson Square gained a plate-glass window and a spectacular remodeling. The result is mc2 -- named, of course, for Einstein's formula for energy. I imagine that many of the well-heeled, shy-of-40 patrons are Belli's corporation-law grandnephews, joined by their business-side counterparts from the downtown canyons. They may have left their jackets at the office, but many of the random-gendered dinner groupings were clearly work colleagues who'd brought their offices with them. Even at a late Friday seating, I overheard a gent to my left (spearing a rosy duck breast slice) muttering about "sales management ... relocate where they pay a dollar an hour"; on my right (playing with burgundy-satin tuna under a crisp potato lattice) "my 20th high school reunion" segued into "had to rent a U-haul and move here in four days." Fittingly, the valet parking charge is added to the food bill, so business diners needn't hassle petty cash.
Even with reservations you can't pass the bar; the maitre d' insists everyone serve a short sentence there. Chet had managed to snag a barstool in the three-deep crush, but confessed he wasn't entirely happy to habeas his corpus to its gleaming metal hot-seat. After some minutes, we were reprieved to an off-round table with slippery ash-blond moderne chairs in the central portion of the dining room. Under a handsome wooden lath "wave" ceiling, we enjoyed ambient classic-jazz vocals (Horne, Holiday, Torme, et al.). Nonetheless, we envied the couples at the comfortable banquettes against the old brick back wall. A subsequent visit proved those tables sonically unblessed (even cursed); however, while most center-area servers are young men dripping unearned hauteur, at the banquette we lucked out with a vivacious Englishwoman who described the dishes with passion so eloquent as to rival the food writings of Calvin Trillin or M.F.K. Fisher.
mc2's executive chef is Yoshi Kojima, chef de cuisine at Rockenwagner in L.A. and more lately executive chef at the Pan Pacific Hotel locally. His fare is the nonce combination of French/Californian with discreet Asian touches and vertical compositions, shaping food into little volcanoes erupting garnishes. For whatever reason, the dishes at our Friday night dinner-a-deux at the banquette were tastier than at our Thursday threesome a week earlier. We were thoroughly thrilled, for instance, by a special appetizer of rose-velvet duck foie gras served over tiny circlets of brioche, surrounded by toothsome poached fresh peaches ($17). (I have no doubt the regular-menu foie gras appetizer, with black truffle vinaigrette, would be nearly as sensual in soberer fashion.) Gruyere-stuffed portobellos ($8.50) were another surprise; arranged around a haystack of red lettuce leaves, instead of stuffed caps, pairs of thick mushroom slices crisply coated in a light, well-seasoned breading were held together with melty cheese.
Our earlier appetizers included local sardines with grilled eggplant ($9.50) featuring small thick fillets of oil-rich silver-skinned fish, cleverly paired with thick, pale rounds of nearly oil-free grilled eggplant layered with roasted tomato. Chet and I found the eggplant rather chewy and bland, but it appealed to TJ's leaner tastes -- de gustibus non disputandum, as Belli might have said. Beef cheek ($11.50) braised in black tea leaves came with satiny caramelized apples, haunting puffs of celeriac puree, and dark, classic, hence utterly rewarding port sauce -- but alas, the meat seemed to need more cooking (or more stringent trimming) to tame the gristle. Crab flan with fines herbes soup ($8) featured a dark-green broth wherein hunkered a small puff of shredded crab meat resembling an unfried crab cake. Chet pronounced the broth "grassy"; we soon redubbed it "weed soup."
TJ and I observed the great fish-on-Friday tradition: Mediterranean rouget (ingloriously misnomered "red mullet" in English -- it's not a real mullet but a goatfish, poor dear) has exquisitely fine, sweet lean flesh. Four small fillets came with artichoke-fava bean fricassee and "herb tomato nage" ($22). The creamy blond sauce, flecked with anise-flavored fresh herbs, had buttery lobster undertones; the favas were the first good ones we've eaten this year (perhaps because they were cooked long enough) and the artichoke hearts and baby carrots were deliciously true to their own characters. A special of soft-shell crab ($24) included prawns, sea scallops, and a dab of black caviar. Each element had been cooked separately according to its needs: The scallops were tenderly pan-cooked and the unspeakably wonderful prawns were wood-grilled head-on, peeled and deveined just at the center. For a change, the busters were moist-cooked (instead of fried) in a coral New Orleans-style sauce that was a little sweet and quite a little spicy. The wine and beer lists cover the waterfront of price, size, and style; I skipped the usual chardonnay to rediscover the pleasures of a good sauvignon blanc (Groth, $6.50 a glass) with rich seafood.
The previous Thursday, the game was afoot: Spring rabbit "three way" ($22.50) had tender boneless loin cylinders, a leg stuffed with greens, and a liver grilled on a spear of fresh rosemary. The powerful, slightly gritty leg-greens (probably Swiss chard) overwhelmed the mild meat, but the bed of tomato-infused couscous dotted with puffs of pea puree was, we decided, the best couscous any of us had ever eaten. (In fact, it was probably not couscous but tabbouleh -- same bulgur wheat, less finely milled.) Roast young guinea hen ($20) similarly suffered some green overkill; the lower parts were fine but the breast medallions were imbued with a rather swampy herbal marinade that reawakened the Chet/Naomi-vs.-TJ food debate. We all liked the "provencal potato" accompaniment with its tomato and olives. A well-trimmed roasted rack of lamb ($24.50), "medium rare," was crimson inside, just as TJ and I like it (but too red for Chet), with tender, greaseless meat. "Oh, the foam!" cried Chet in delight, scooping up one of the lovely mysterious white cloudlets melting in the tasty, light sauce. Accompaniments included a grilled lemon section brilliantly stuffed with fresh sour sorrel, and a "trio of quenelles" -- a small puff of cauliflower, a small puff of roasted tomato, and a larger potato puff that tasted shockingly as though the boiled potatoes had spent some days in the fridge.
One of our desserts (all $7.50, by pastry chef Carina Hale) also included some subpar ingredients that evening: A perfect, creamy "Hawaiian" cheesecake over a terrific coconutty crust was topped by grilled pineapple that tasted over the hill, and garnished with a rancid-tasting ribbon of white chocolate. However, our raspberry souffle with almond creme anglaise, cooked to order, was all it should be -- although we wished our attitudinous waiter had bothered to mention it would require a 15-minute wait. A cheese plate was minimal but pleasing with Stilton, aged cheddar, and a creamy French cheese resembling Muenster, accompanied by chopped figs, walnuts, and thin bread slices. Friday's Scharffen Burger chocolate lava cake resembled a Miró painting gone 3-D, with a zigzag chocolate cookie, a small scoop of pistachio ice cream balanced atop a cylindrical chocolate cookie, and in the center, a globe of phyllo (supplanting the expected chocolate cake), enclosing a terribly sweet gush of pedigreed chocolate goo -- of appeal, probably, to desperate chocoholics.
While awaiting the souffle, we admired the visual details -- the color-coded uniforms of the staff, the long, bright exhibition kitchen along one wall, a wine cellar dimly visible through a long window in the bricks, and props as delicious as the best dishes; I suffered houseware-envy over the sculptured metal bread basket. But mc2's strength lies as much in pleasing bellies as eyes. In a city abounding in similar menus and equally arresting design, Kojima's imaginative fare is distinguished by its firm base in classical discipline, and in respect for the ingredients' inherent flavors. Although not every dish was to my taste -- and a couple of them bespoke lapses in ingredient quality -- none exemplified the too-common chefly egotism that subjects helpless ingredients to cruel and unusual punishments, or the mass production methods that sap their savor. Chet and TJ and I agreed that we'd happily eat at mc2 again -- if we weren't so mc-hammered by the bill.