May Night at an Oasis

Aram's
Mark Twain Court, 3665 Sacramento (at Locust), 474-8061. Open Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Restrooms are not wheelchair accessible. Reservations advisable for weekends. Parking: not half bad. Muni: 1, 3, 4, 33. Sound level: usually civilized but can be loud when the room is full; sheltered off-street patio is very quiet.

A forecast of a balmy May evening seemed like a perfect reason to make patio reservations at Aram's.

Boy, were we fooled.
Entering Mark Twain Court in a chilly drizzle, we followed a narrow, gently sloping brick alleyway past several decorous little shops, trying to identify all the herbs growing in large terra-cotta planters along the way: Here's rosemary for remembrance, and chive, mint, basil, lovage, cress, and thyme for flavor. When we reached the arbored, heated dining patio and stepped into the restaurant to say we'd arrived, the owner suggested we stay inside and enjoy the warmth.

Sensibly, we abandoned our alfresco fantasies, and were seated instead in an intimate, low-ceilinged room with an exhibit of oil paintings on the walls. A big front window overlooks the verdant courtyard, and a long mirror in the back of the dining room reflects it to diners facing the other way, so the garden is always in view. Aram's

is the post-retirement return of Lebanese-born Khajag Sarkissian, former owner of the Caravansary, a minichain that in its early '70s heyday provided some of the bare handful of good local Middle Eastern restaurants. The current venture is a block uphill from Laurel Village, on the former site of Rosmarino, whose owners have moved on to Absinthe.

Aram's, which is currently celebrating its first birthday, designates itself a Mediterranean restaurant, but the creations of chef Aaron Peters (formerly sous-chef at PlumpJack and Aqua) would more accurately be called "Cal-Med-Parisian Bistro." The mezza appetizer assortment ($8 for one person, $16 for two, $6 for each additional person), for instance, mingled vibrant authentic flavors with oddly muted ones. Among a dozen-odd charming finger foods accompanied by cumin-dusted toasted pita points, the brightly seasoned dolma and the deliciously sour eggplant caviar stood out, as good as or better than any in town, though the cumin-free hummus was pallid and the tabbouleh citrus-deprived.

The evening's soup ($5), a thick artichoke and leek puree, was also rather tame, but set off by a garnish of intense, juicy mushrooms. Another appetizer was a flaky, house-made phyllo shell filled with melting aged goat cheese dusted with minced hazelnuts ($9). The dramatic matchup of assertive flavors -- here, muscular, caprine cheese played against sweet-sour braised cipollini onions and sharp watercress in a champagne vinaigrette -- proved to be characteristic of Peters' kitchen.

In true Northern California fashion, the menu changes weekly to exploit the freshest produce, much of the latter coming from an organic gardener whose small plot is only a few blocks west, and who also maintains Aram's patio plantings.

Half and full portions of linguine with seafood ($9/$16) or risotto with seasonal flavorings ($7.50/$14) serve as either appetizers or entrees. We chose the risotto, a loose and brothy mixture dotted with peas, green garlic, pecorino cheese, and smoky slab bacon. While risotto with peas is a classic, this rendition had at least one flavor too many to let the ingredients get cozy together.

The choice of entrees is a brief, standard list -- currently, chicken, duck, lamb shank, pork, and a vegetable plate for good measure. A prix fixe dinner ($25) includes soup or salad, your choice of dessert, and a weekly changing entree. Ours was a Moroccan tajine of chicken, olives, and preserved lemons. Classically, a tajine is a Moroccan stew cooked in a special earthenware pot, but Aram's revision was actually an improvement over the oilier purist version. The chicken hindquarter had been brined, seasoned, and flame-crisped, emerging with juicy meat under a crusty exterior. The pieces were surrounded by tender Mediterranean vegetables, mixed olives, and aromatic couscous enlivened by bits of salty, pungent, preserved lemon peel. The first bite may be shocking, but by the third, most diners are hooked.

More conventional but perfectly executed was seared duck breast ($18), which re-emphasized the restaurant's signature contrasts of bitter and sweet: Rosy little crisp-edged medallions of duck were swathed in a port wine sauce flecked with custardy cubes of apple. Alongside was pleasantly astringent Swiss chard and a heap of mashed potatoes with a musky hint of white truffle oil.

The only fish entree is the "fish of the day," and that day it was a complete original. Local halibut ($20) rubbed with simple seasonings (salt, pepper, paprika) was seared crusty and nearly dry. It rested on a bed of hard-seared asparagus, leeks, and clam-shell mushrooms -- a smaller, much gamier kin to oyster mushrooms. (The menu listed baby artichokes, too, but these were missing in action.) This intriguing combination started out thrilling, but each of us in turn gave up after a few bites, exhausted by the brash intensity of the mushrooms.

Given the smallness of the restaurant and the briefness of the dinner menu, the list of house-made desserts is quite ambitious, with seven sweets ($6.50 each) as well as a cheese plate ($7). I'm not a great dessert devotee to start with, and I wasn't crazy about either of our choices. The apple tarte Tatin may have stood too long; its crust was soggy, its caramel sauce slightly burned. Alongside was a scoop of fiercely gingery ice cream studded with chunks of fresh ginger, and on top were delightful "apple chips" -- crisp, paper-thin fried fruit slices. A Meyer lemon tart had an ordinary crust with an achingly sweet custard filling, topped with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream. A streak across the plate of thick, tart, delicious huckleberry compote lent some relief from the sugar dose.

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