Escaping Metreon

Montage
Metreon Center, 101 Fourth St. (at Mission), 369-6111. Lunch served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner 5 to 11 p.m., bar and terrace menu 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Reservations advised for weekend dinners. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: city garage at Fifth and Mission. Muni: all Metro lines, BART, all Mission and Market Street bus lines, plus cross-town 9, 15, 27, 30, 45, and 76 lines. Sound level: moderate.

Everest on a hundred-foot IMAX screen! After waiting months, years, decades, I couldn't wait another minute, and headed for the mall. It was Saturday, and while waiting a little longer for show time, we strolled the mall, mingling with the masses. There were almost as many staffers as patrons, standing around smiling and offering help and beaming out a sort of Disneyland "You will have fun" vibe. We discovered that browsing Metreon is a hunger-raising experience, with eateries or snackeries on every floor emitting whiffs of tempura, pizza, burgers, ramen, and so on. But our post-Everest destination was Montage, the sole serious restaurant in the group.

Normally, I wouldn't think of reviewing a restaurant during its first month, but by virtue of its size, financial backing, and location, Montage has hit the ground running. It's so large (265 seats plus bar and terrace), its look so expensively architectural, and its ownership so very corporate (Sony Corp. and Levy Restaurants) that for all I know the staff held dress rehearsals for weeks before the mid-June premiere. At the same time, the menu gave strong, hopeful indications that the concept of the restaurant is not just to feed migratory birds, but to attract the natives for repeat visits.

The menu is classically Northern Californian -- in fact, it's reminiscent of Zuni. Unfussy and sophisticated, it emphasizes seasonal and local ingredients (e.g., Bellwether Farms cheeses and burger buns from Noe Valley Bakery). The kitchen is rooted in the local food scene: Executive chef Jennifer Cox is a protege of Barbara (China Moon) Tropp, and pastry chef Eric Shelton hails from stints at Montrio, Mecca, and Vertigo.

Following Metreon happy-time protocol, when you make reservations the receptionist asks for your first name as well as your last, and the staff makes sure to use your given name when they show you to your table. They are very nice anyway. (In fact, they graciously accepted an almost-last-minute change in our reservation time to accommodate our movie screening.)

Stepping past the bar and into the thickly carpeted dining room is a relief. The rest of Metreon is a nonstop demonstration of the power of Sony sound systems. Montage, on the other hand, is lively but low-key. In contrast to the boxy mall architecture, the decor is a witty eyeful of restful curves and whimsical trapezoids, in misty blues and greens with multicolored lamps. You won't see a single straight line in the room. Most of the seating is in comfortable booths, whose cherry-wood dividers delineate areas for foursomes, for families, for couples, and (in the center) an unboothed area for larger, louder groups. Several screens near the ceiling re-emphasize the "montage" theme with a silent videotape of semiabstract animation. Most diners couldn't keep their eyes away from it, giving a new meaning to the term "TV dinner."

There's a bar menu of finger foods, light sustenance for mall-crawls or post-film snacking. Several appetizers amusingly blending Peoria and San Francisco food customs appear on both the bar and the dinner menus -- tourists can find comfort in a shrimp cocktail ($10), but with an ancho chili cocktail sauce. Upholding our local cliches are fried calamari ($8.50) and house-smoked salmon ($9), while avant-gardistes can choose a lemongrass chicken consomme ($6). We began with a platter of a half-dozen Hama Hama oysters ($10.50) from Washington state, their silky meats about the size of a quarter. Their mignonette dressings (a trio of sherry-pepper, Szechuan peppercorn, and champagne-shallot) weren't half bad. A likable appetizer of wild mushroom flatbread ($9) was, essentially, a round of thin pizza dough, lightly glazed with mild Crescenza cheese overlaid with juicy, thin-sliced cremini, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms.

I was curious about rosemary-skewered day boat scallops on a bed of warm frisee and radicchio ($9.50) -- rosemary is a good friend to grilled salmon, but I couldn't imagine how it would work with scallops. The latter were impaled on bamboo skewers, along with herb twigs stripped of all but a top knot of their piney leaves. My date, who loves rosemary, wanted more of the herb, while I soon decided that I wanted none at all, finding the slight medicinal flavor too alien to the sweetness of the shellfish, while the bitter greens of the bed afforded no mediation.

Eight main courses run from a hummus crepe platter ($13) to a grilled rib-eye of "all natural" beef ($22), each with tempting seasonal accompaniments. We tried a grilled Arctic char ($18), a rich, buttery cold-water trout. The kitchen's timing was dead-on; the thick fillet could not have been moister. It reclined on an exotic Levantine couch of pearl couscous dressed with roasted tomatoes and kalamata olives. Herb-roasted young chicken ($17) was young and tiny indeed, but huge in flavor. I rarely order chicken at restaurants because it's basically a boring bird, but in Montage's choice rendition it resembled a higher species. It had evidently been brined, so that even the breast meat was moist and savory, salted all through the flesh. The crisp skin was enhanced by a last-minute strewing of fresh herbs, while the accompaniment was a charming, summery saute of sweet corn, toy box tomatoes, and pea sprouts. Alongside was a heap of exceptional onion rings, made of sweet Maui onions in an airy batter that remained crisp and pleasing even when it cooled.

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