Energy Food

mc2
470 Pacific (at Montgomery), 956-0666. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., for dinner daily 5:30 to 10 p.m., on Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Reservations strongly advised. Parking: $7 valet at dinner; several lots ($10 and up) on Sansome or Broadway. Muni via the 12 Folsom, 15 Third, 41 Union, and 42 Downtown Loop.

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.

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