By Anna Roth
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Gordon's House of Fine Eats
500 Florida (at Mariposa), 861-8900. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; serving dinner Sunday and Monday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Thursday, Friday, and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight. Reservations: recommended. Parking: valet, but pretty easy without help. Muni: 9, 22, 27, 33. Noise level: loud.
The atmosphere at Gordon's seems oddly familiar, as though an industrial-chic restaurant in the industrial zone is something that we've seen before. Hello, what's that out the window? Slow Club? Universal? Circadia?
So OK, maybe Gordon's isn't the first place around here with exposed ductwork. What's original is the menu. Gordon Drysdale appears to have been given free rein, and it shows in the zaniness of the dishes and the way they're organized: The dinner menu is divided into five sections -- Healthful, Comfort, Local Favorites, Luxury, and International. Each is comprised of a couple of small plates and a few large plates; patrons order whatever they want, within a category or across category boundaries. This helps make Gordon's a good restaurant for experimentation, but the diversity of the menu disunifies the meal somewhat -- it's more like sampling from a bar menu and less like a traditional dining experience.
The restaurant is a huge space, on two floors, with lots of unfinished wood. The staff wears Ben Davis uniforms, presumably as part of the industrial theme, but there are other themes running concurrently -- Chinese art vies with live jazz for the attention of short-attention-spanned urban cocktaileers. Another way in which the place feels more like a bar than a restaurant: The cocktail menu is less friendly than those at restaurants. The menu's description of its El Diablo, for example, secretively says "wickedly smooth" and nothing more. If this is a marketing gimmick, it's a misguided one. I imagine dozens of conversations:
Drinker: "Wickedly smooth," eh? What's in the El Diablo?
Bartender: It's tequila, cassis, and ginger ale.
Drinker: Oh. Well, I guess I'll just have another Cosmo.
Restaurants' drink menus tend to be more informative than this, as a rule.
But on to the food. The small plates: Vegan pea soup (Healthful; $6) is quite tasty -- less rich and hammy than its traditional relative, but sufficiently creamy and smoky to satisfy a non-vegan palate. Moving on to the Comfort zone, a personal pepperoni pizza ($8.50) is cheesy, salty, heavy, everything you could ask, although the crust is a bit too soft and bland. This is one that should be shared, or that should form part of a meal of just small plates. But there's little on the menu that would pair well with the pizza. Whatever; maybe the baby lettuces salad (Local Favorites; $6.50), which is large and dressed in vinaigrette, would work.
In the Luxury department, there's coquilles St. Jacques ($11), a nice but not stellar version of the classic. Certainly, given the heading, one would expect more. The two scallops are ever so slightly tough; the mushroomy cream sauce is pleasant, and complements the bivalves, but doesn't stand well on its own. A much better stab at luxury is the lobster bisque ($8.50). It's not as cream-intensive as many a bisque, but it doesn't lack for flavor, with plentiful cognac and chunks of lobster speaking sweetly of the sea.
The International section is problematic. Too often its dishes seem unwillingly fused, and fail to satisfy. Asparagus spring rolls ($7.75) come with an "egg sauce" for dipping. This would be just a delicious asparagus-and-hollandaise dish (the asparagus is perfect), but the wrappers add unnecessary starchiness, rendering it tasty but ungraceful. The accompanying herb salad, though, is excellently refreshing and pungent. Provençal-style country terrine ($7.50), meanwhile, is deliciously complex, with chunks of meat, spicy greens, and cornichons, but it's not clear in what way it's "international."
International remains a muddled category in the large plates column as well. Spaghetti with mussels ($14.75) comes in a tomato sauce, accompanied by terrific smoky garlic bread. Sounds good, right? But the sauce baffles the taste buds unpleasantly with a large dose of gratuitous mint. Seared halibut in pipian sauce ($17.25) is more palatable. Pipian, as you know, is a pre-Columbian sauce from Mexico containing ground pumpkin seeds (and sometimes other seeds and nuts), tomatillos, and chiles. It's tart and succulent, and the nuts give it a surprising fatty richness that sets off the moist, flaky fish to advantage. Still, the large piece of fish and sizable helping of homogeneous sauce can get a little monotonous, and are an indication that, at Gordon's, sharing dishes is the best way to go.
The Healthful menu's fava ravioli with chanterelles and artichoke chips ($14.50) sounds intriguing, but the strong vegetal broth it's served in completely overpowers the dish, making the ravioli seem bland. The mushrooms are delicious, though, and the chips crunchily unique, though one feels that frying would make a better chip than the dehydrating that evidently goes on here.
Less healthful persons may opt for the Angus rib-eye steak (Luxury; $28), which doesn't disappoint (though ours was considerably overcooked), with a savory, salty crust and velvety interior. It is served with several potatoes' worth of french fries somewhat the worse for their strong oregano taste -- adding herbs to fries is a case of needless tampering with a perfect formula. The boneless short ribs ($17.75) are another satisfying piece of meat, slathered in molasses-heavy barbecue sauce and served with delicious slaw and mashed potatoes made with enough butter to remind you that you're eating off the Comfort menu.