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900 Bush (at Taylor), 928-1888. Open for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 10:30 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Reservations recommended. Full bar. Parking: valet $7, street parking hopeless. Muni: buses 2, 3, and 4 on Sutter or Post (an uphill walk to restaurant) or 27 on Bush at Leavenworth or Jones (in the Tenderloin). Sound level: generally pleasant.
The word "chef" means not "cook" but "chief" -- as in, "the boss." Top chefs rarely cook the dinners they devise. A few get some kick from the tension of cooking for crowds; most prefer to invent and refine new dishes but have well-rehearsed staffs actually produce them.
At Oodles, open since last summer, you'll rarely spot chef/owner Elka Gilmore wrangling skillets. You will see a most trusted collaborator meticulously cooking up the goodies -- Derek Burns (recently chef at Vertigo), who served as Gilmore's sous-chef while she was gaining fame at Elka's in the Miyako Hotel. After several years of musical toques (in the city and elsewhere), they've temporarily reunited at Oodles, with Burns as chef de cuisine to Gilmore's executive chef. (The length of his gig will depend on what other opportunities arise.) Even before Burns' arrival, Oodles must have been pretty terrific, but with Elka's inspirational brilliance matched with Derek's expertise, this is a golden moment to eat there.
It was a dark and stormy night, hardly fit out for man nor beast, when -- chilled to our bones -- we arrived at Oodles. The evening's bread was a soft focaccia flavored with caramelized onions and fresh scallions, accompanied by an imperceptibly "curried" warm olive oil. Our ebullient Momakowa unfiltered sake ($6/glass), cold and fizzy like a margarita, was poured in traditional fashion into a square wooden Japanese cup until it foamed over into the square saucer beneath. Soon after, the waiter delivered glass demitasses filled with warm lime consomme, with strips of barely opaque sea scallops afloat in the pale golden liquid. The scallops lent flavor to the broth and the broth flavored the scallops. Suddenly we were warm, happy, and awe-struck at this augury of the extraordinary meal that lay before us.
Oodles -- despite a clunky name that makes it sound like some corporate pasta chain -- represents a culinary genre Gilmore calls "Asian Bistro," serving a boundary-breaking East-West fusion influenced by French, Japanese, and Southeast Asian cuisines. Located at Nob Hill's base, about a block east from the edge of the Tenderloin, the restaurant's wraparound windows and cool, stark decor bring to mind a Beverly Hills burger joint. The eight-course tasting menu ($42, or $60 with a matching flight of beverages) is almost de rigueur for a first visit, giving an overview of Gilmore's inventive cuisine.
About three-quarters of the tasting dishes are available (sometimes in slightly altered form) on the a la carte menu, which is divided into three courses: appetizers ($5-10), more substantial small plates ($5-13.50), and entrees ($12-18.50). A well-considered beverage list (with beers, cocktails, and bottled waters) includes highly original wine choices, selected to complement the cuisine. Most are well under $30 per bottle (with a wide choice of glasses at $6 or less). Vintner Heidi Schrock was visiting from Austria that week, so the tasting menu's flight included two crisp, unusual whites from her vineyard, Ruster, including an obscure varietal called Furmint.
We'd ordered the tasting menu (with the beverages), supplemented by a la carte dishes from each course; the kitchen accommodated us by dividing the divisible dishes before serving. Our waiter, enthusiastic and knowledgeable (but not, thank heavens, chummy) matched the meal's pace to ours, and poured our wines generously. Other staffers -- including the bartender and even a prep chef -- also circulated through the room, helping out with service as the restaurant filled up.
Were I to describe every dish in detail, today's paper would have to be called "The Oodles Issue." Instead, I'll just touch on some highlights (and one lowlight). Most of our favorite dishes were appetizers and small plates; even on a tight budget, diners can organize a fine meal here by choosing from these lighter courses. The creation that struck me as the quintessence of Gilmore's genius was foie gras ($13.50). The duck liver was the tenderest I've eaten in years, sauteed with precision and perched on a thin sheet of toast balanced atop fresh grapes glazed in sugar and star anise. Just as the waiter promised, eating all three layers together truly made magic: My palate's virginity seemed restored, as though tasting foie gras for the first time.
Both the tasting and a la carte menus offer curry-cured salmon ($7.75), a little circle of the softest, most delicate Asian gravlax, topped with coral salmon roe gleaming like glass beads. Underneath was a mint- and currant-strewn bed of diced cauliflower and potato -- look-alikes with such different flavors! Another masterpiece from the tasting menu was the edible equivalent of a cashmere cloak that wintry night: A creamy puree of lentils de puy was so rich and savory that the plebeian beans seemed as luxurious as their garnish -- bits of sauteed foie gras, seared crunchy on the exterior and tender inside. A bowl of coconut soup ($6.50) filled with firm rings of calamari and very soft fat noodles proved another stomach-warmer with unexpected resonances. Alongside each cup was a tiny, blistering-hot Thai chile and a slice of lime. The waiter assumed we knew what to do with these, which is to waft the chile through the liquid or drop it in to steep; to squeeze in lime juice a few drops at a time or plop it in to steep, too. With each alteration, the soup's flavors grew more complex, and we became the chef's collaborators, tasting as attentively as she had.
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