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Love, Japanese-Style 

Wednesday, Mar 17 1999
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Anzu
Hotel Nikku, Second Floor, 222 Mason (at Ellis), 394-1100. Open for breakfast weekdays 6:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday "Smooth Jazz" brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. ($35 prix fixe, $22 seniors, children 6 to 12 $17), dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. every day. The Ellis Street porte-cochere provides wheelchair access via elevators, complimentary valet parking at lunch and dinner, and discounted parking at brunch. Muni: 38 Geary, short walk from Powell Street station and all Market Street lines. Sound level: quiet.

Will sushi and steak be the surf 'n' turf of the millennium? That seems to be the idea behind Anzu, the plush two-headed restaurant on the second floor of the Japanese-owned Hotel Nikku. One of the kitchen heads is Tokyo-trained master sushi chef Kazuhito Takashi, in charge of the sushi and sashimi that occupies the first page of the menu; the other chef, Swiss-born and European-trained Phillippe Striffeler, presides over grilled meats and fusionish appetizers and fish entrees. But don't go expecting the famed Waggyu beef from Kobe: This beef's from Chicago.

Each evening Anzu's neon sign casts its silhouette onto the sidewalk at Mason and O'Farrell, but the easier route to the restaurant is via the Ellis Street porte-cochere, where a bank of elevators takes you straight to its second-floor roost, bypassing the lost-in-the-lobbies escalator tour. Upon arrival, you'll find a classic hotel restaurant, with subdued lighting, thick rugs, and well-spaced tables -- a perfect setting for a discreet rendezvous or a small, serious business dinner. Sinatra and Tony Bennett sing softly in the background. The large, attentive waitstaff is utterly professional, and even the pointed wooden chopsticks are classy -- they may be paper-wrapped, but they're highly polished. (Despite all this decorousness, you need not dress to the nines; the sixes suffice in this touristy context.)

To my relief, the sushi ($3.50-6 per order, or $32 for a combination platter with sashimi) isn't mass-produced, as it is at some hotel restaurants, but made to order. It was worth the short wait: Even such goofily named "pop" makimono as the Kamikaze and the Rock 'n' Roll emphasize freshness, balance, and proportion. The fish is flown in daily from Boston and Japan and the rice has just a trace of sweetness from the sushi vinegar. If the nori wrappers are on the thick side, that's a matter of chefly preference. The one glitch is the limp, pallid pickled ginger.

Sushi is far from the only appetizer. One Occidental starter is extraordinarily delicious, one of the best soups in the city. Crab, smoked corn, and shiitake mingle in a velvety chowder ($6.50) that's really more of a bisque -- richly flavored shellfish stock lightly smoothed with cream. Our other starters sounded equally luxurious but proved of a somewhat lesser order. "Asian" gravlax ($9.75) had mild-tasting cured salmon fillets of varying quality, some pieces satiny but others slightly tough and gray-edged. The fish was lightly streaked with cream cheese and served with avocado blini, little pancakes that, on our second visit, were too gooey, with the pasty flavor of undercooked flour. Still, we could have eaten a mountain of the accompanying herbed watermelon-cucumber relish, which tasted like bulgur-free tabbouleh. Spicy chilled prawns ($10) with an actual tabbouleh (of lentils and couscous) were merely unmemorable, served too cold for optimum flavor.

In America, foie gras is such a rare ingredient, local chefs usually reserve the precious liver for the odd saute, while those in French-speaking countries may boldly bake it into páte or arrange it in terrines. Striffeler's checkerboard terrine of unctuous duck foie gras and duck meat ($9.50) was a delightful change of pace, but suffered under a Babel of loud garnishes -- a cloyingly sweet compote of rehydrated dried cherries in port sauce, a heap of frisee, and matchsticks of puckery Granny Smith apples. Baked together, the fruits might make a nice pie, but in the current context all the elements spoke different languages.

An appetizer of near-raw beef served as a bellwether for the quality of the steaks. Beef tataki ($11.50) featured sheets of bland scarlet meat overwhelmed by a tart soy marinade. Subsequently, my handsome-looking rare steak was no match for the dark-fleshed rib eye I'd just eaten at Harris'. Anzu obtains its prime beef from Chicago's Allen Brothers meat packers, who use Cryovac-aging (or "wet-aging," as butchers call it) instead of dry-aging. Sealed in shippable vacuum-packaging, the meat grows tender almost to mushiness, but without exposure to air there's no shrinkage to concentrate its flavors. With no "gamy" undertones to threaten timorous taste buds, wet-aged beef is suitable for hotel restaurants, which must cater to "captive" audiences of random backgrounds. Depending on size and cut, steaks at Anzu run $22 to $32. Far more satisfying was a pair of big, tender lamb chops ($30 for a 16-ounce portion), emerging from the grill with a salty, smoky crust. Veal T-bone ($28) and pork chops ($21) are also on the menu.

With the grilled meats, there is a choice of six sauces; the bearnaise, however, was distinctly sweet and sticky, rather than tart and buttery like classic versions. A wild mushroom ragout (in which I could identify porcini, shiitakes, and creminis) was glutinous from the cornstarch that thickened its commercial-tasting brown stock base. I preferred the caramelized Maui onion cabernet demi-jus, which was just a reduction, not a concoction. (There's herb butter, lemon-caper butter, and hoisin barbecue sauce, too.) Other than sauce, the only meat accompaniment is a cute little open-faced vegetable sushi atop a ti leaf. Filling the gap are an octet of side dishes. We adored a creamy wild mushroom bread pudding ($4.75) and enjoyed crisply "frizzled," barely battered chili cumin onion rings ($4). Shallot whipped potatoes ($4) were not just whipped, though, but beaten to death, or at least to gumminess. Chunky fire-roasted ratatouille ($4) was fashionably lean, more virtuous than seductive, while sauteed baby spinach was tender but stemmy ($4). Other choices ($3.75-4.25) include green beans with applewood-smoked bacon, roasted garlic risotto, and shoestring fries.

The fish entrees, on the other hand, arrive fully accessorized. Our gently poached salmon fillet ($16) was topped with a lightly browned, custardy streak of ginger "crust." It sat on a bed of baby spinach in a shallow pool of slightly sweet plum wine-based beurre blanc. Standing watch (until felled by our forks) was a minitower of irresistibly succulent risotto with a topknot of fried ginger shreds.

For a hotel restaurant, Anzu's wine list is relatively brief (perhaps 40 choices -- the hotel is too new to have built up a serious cellar). It's moderately priced, with bottles from $18 (Chilean merlot) to $63 (Puligny Montrachet), with most in the $35 range, and eight or nine selections available by the glass. Oddly, sakes aren't listed, but ask and you shall receive.

Desserts ($6.50) include various ice creams and sorbets, a tempuraed banana "split," and a seasonal fruit clafouti (fresh fruit chunks in a custardy pancake). The house specialty, a soufflelike bittersweet chocolate truffle cake, must be ordered at the start of the meal; this flawless version of the currently fashionable "chocolate lava" cake is very moist and not oversweet.

Having dinner at an elegant hotel restaurant carries a hint of escapist pleasure, like a two-hour luxury microvacation. Anzu's cuisine may not be in the same class as the Ritz-Carlton's -- but then it's a lot more affordable than the Ritz, and several dishes approach perfection. As for sushi and steak -- well, they're not like love and marriage: You can have one without the other.

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Naomi Wise

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