By Mollie McWilliams
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Alex Hochman
By Joseph Geha
By Anna Roth
181 Third St. (at Howard), 817-7836. Open daily: breakfast 6:30 to10:30 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Parking: manageable ($10 valet parking available after 6 p.m.). Muni: 12, 15, 30, 45, 76. Noise level: lively.
181 Third St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Region: South of Market
It's a good idea to visit the spare, peaceful Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial for a moment of humanitarian contemplation as you make your way across Yerba Buena Plaza, the cavernous Moscone Center to your right, the Metreon megaplex behind you, and, straight ahead, rising like some Fritz Lang Ybertemple from the asphalt, the cool, glittering Museum of Modern Art. Urban renewal never looked so good; the greenery and skating rink and waterfall and kid stuff are lovely and compelling. But there's no discernible pulse, and on particular evenings it can all seem very icy and beautiful and excessive. Dr. King makes for a noble tonic.
Smack in the middle of all this SOMA rebirth looms the space age w hotel, all its 32 floors open now, along with the restaurant it begat, xyz. You can discern the ambient mood of the establishment from the minimalist sleekocity of its name; it looks like the sort of place Keanu Reeves would order a gin rickey in some ironic, postmodern sci-fi flick about the 21st century. Everything soars. The ceilings rise beyond human grasp, the bromeliad arrangements aspire to the same ceilings, and the totally mod circular booths enwrap you within their own particular velour verticality. Portholes set into a back wall offer peeking privileges into the kitchen. The waitstaff, meanwhile, dresses all in Martha Graham black, like a squad of stealthy ninjas adept at the retrieval of expensive vintages.
To storm this expressionist citadel I enlisted the support of two visual artists known only as x and y. (Since I went to film school, I got to be "z.") I figured that with SFMOMA right next door and God knew how many industrial-chic artists' lofts with-in splattering distance, I might need a pair of bohemian bearers to interpret any puzzling imagery.
We began in the upstairs bar (there's another one downstairs) with Stolichnaya martinis as cold and crisp as a Mies Van Der Rohe skyscraper -- appropriately contextual aperitifs. The barroom itself is low-ceilinged and cozy, in a Jetsons-in-sharkskin sort of way, with pools of indirect lighting, gleaming tables looking down on the restaurant proper, weird-tasty Japanese-animation pastel-seafood appetizer crisps, and, best of all, a bar that changes colors from moment to pulsating moment, like a long, rectangular lava lamp, rendering your cocktail several different shades per minute.
As we settled around our tiny table, artist x, aged 28, tuned her eardrums past the lively din of a crowded city restaurant circa 8 p.m. on a Saturday night and pinpointed the venue's recorded tunes of choice: 10-year-old pop music. "They're targeting my demographic," she said, nibbling analytically on her twist of lemon. It did indeed look like most of the other diners were 28 as well, the successful sort of 28 that comes with Italian suits and a Saturday night of Chilean sea bass, instead of pizza and a Bud.
"Well, is the place, um, arty?" I asked, getting down to brass tacks.
She thought about it. "If advertising art is arty, then yeah, this place is arty."
So is the food: a palette of verbena butter, shaved manchego, pea tendrils, and macadamia brittle arranged into striking compositions suitable for eating. The starters run the culinary gamut from your basic Star Route mixed baby lettuces with lemon-thyme vinaigrette ($6) to cutting-edgier fare like seared scallops with red mustard greens and toasted nori ($12). I myself was delighted with the venue's caviar presentation ($12), dollops of buttery paddlefish eggs and two kinds of tobiko (one of them tinted a bracing horseradish green) served on cucumber rounds and topped with creme fraiche. The combinations worked well: The cucumber freshened up the caviar, the caviar brought out the cucumber, and the cream sent it all home on a cushion. The portobello salad ($10) was good too -- its bed of shaved fennel and chunks of ricotta added nice, lively accents -- but the mushroom absorbed most of the dressing, turning a perfectly good slab of portobello into a vinaigrette overdose.
The entrees are equally indicative of chef Alison Richman's aesthetic sensibility: roast chicken with lemon-fennel risotto ($16); mirin-braised sea bass in onion-olive broth ($22); roasted duck breast with Maui onions, bok choy, and fresh litchi ($26). Artist y called the rich, tender, dry-rubbed fillet of beef ($26) "the best fillet I've ever had -- it melted in my mouth." The fillet's accompaniment, lightly sauteed water spinach and crunchy fried carrots, added nicely contrasting accents. The salmon ($24), on the other hand, was kind of spongy (although its coating of crisp, mouth-bursting black and white sesame seeds was very tasty), featuring strangely inappropriate fresh kumquats, fantastically good pea tendrils, and a sparkling spring leek jus.
Pastry chef Salina Rubio's dessert menu ($8.50 per dessert) is one of the most immediately captivating around; everyone I showed it to acquired the look of someone confronting a bottle of beer after several unscheduled days in Death Valley. We tried four of them. The key lime mousse pie is fantastic: The bracing taste of the fabled Florida citrus bites at you from the comfy depths of a creamy, meltingly light mousse, while its sweet-crunchy crust of macadamia brittle, resting in pools of tart strawberry and mango compotes, creates a deliciously complex treat. The lavender creme brulee isn't as successful -- it's too sweet, and the lavender is only a rumor -- but the trio of shortbreads accompanying it are as rich and buttery and just plain good as anything I've ever eaten.
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