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I had a feeling my girlfriend and I were in for something more than your average dinner when, after I called Forbes Island to make a reservation, the man who answered told me to look not for a restaurant, but for the gray courtesy phone near the Blue & Gold Fleet at Pier 39. And I definitely knew the meal would prove out of the ordinary when, after I'd used that gray courtesy phone to announce our arrival, a sort of tiki-style houseboat on twin pontoons began chugging toward us from a cluster of palm trees -- palm trees? -- that bobbed at the far end of the harbor.
San Francisco, CA 94111
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And I definitely, definitely, definitely knew we were in for an extraordinary culinary excursion when the houseboat arrived, and Mr. Forbes Thor Kiddoo -- a colossal man with a handsome, suntanned visage in a navy blue dinner jacket -- welcomed us aboard. We were about to visit his very own floating island, he explained: a 700-ton, engine-propelled behemoth he'd built himself, complete with white picket fences, 40 tons of topsoil, 100 tons of sand, and a 40-foot lighthouse -- the last of which, he added with a proud grin, is the only privately built structure of its kind on the planet.
From its delightful bamboo-and-palm garden to its restroom equipped with brass grab bars (security in the event of the occasional swell), Forbes Island offers more than a meal: The place is a vacation in itself, a restaurant that makes you not want to eat because there are too many other things to explore. In fact, it's remarkable in more ways than can possibly be enumerated, not the least of which is the fact that it is the only eatery in San Francisco where skipping out on the check would entail a long, cold swim back to shore.
After we'd climbed aboard the vessel/artificial land mass Kiddoo had called home for more than a decade before converting it into a restaurant in February, our host provided us a quick tour whose highlights included the beachside "Tahiti Room," a small waterfall, and an antique ship's wheel he said had been around Cape Horn 17 times. Afterward, we climbed up one set of stairs, then back down another as Kiddoo led us into a dark, wood-trimmed, underwater dining room that could have been pulled straight from a Jules Verne novel.
Here, soft classical music floated among silver candelabras and statuettes, the pitch of the ocean marked by the gentle sway of a brass chandelier. A fireplace gave off a soft, warm glow as our fellow diners came and went, returning each time with tales of some new facet of the island to explore. Then our waitress presented us with menus, and I suddenly realized that -- oh yeah, we had come here to eat. Heck, the whole experience had proved so entertaining to that point, the place could have served boiled sea lion at $50 a plate and I still would have come away happy.
Fortunately, Forbes Island is home to award-winning chef Paul Irving (formerly of the Sonoma Mission Inn), whose mastery of the culinary arts has not been hampered in the least by the structure's tiny on-board kitchen. Forgoing what looked to be a promising wine list, we ordered a round of cocktails ($6.50 each) -- a margarita, rocks, with salt for myself and an Absolut Citron and tonic for mademoiselle -- before indulging in a broad selection of appetizers. We began with a Caesar salad ($9), whose whole hearts of romaine garnished with parmesan, garlic croutons, vine-ripe tomatoes, and anchovies inspired my girlfriend to swear it was one of the best Caesars she'd ever had. Next, we sampled what proved to be an intriguing "double" soup ($6) -- a hearty, sweet white corn purée surrounded by a moat of tangy tomato purée (picture a white island floating on a sea of red) that proved to be the best -- if only -- double soup I've had the pleasure of coming across.
These were followed by a rock shrimp and mango cocktail ($12), a mélange of mango, shrimp, and red onions served in an oversized martini glass. Seasoned with coriander and a potent Thai chile dressing, the cocktail's flavors blended sweetness with spice, the latter of which crept up on me after a few bites and lingered a bit longer than I would have preferred.
But no matter -- while sweetheart was visiting the restroom, I made my way deckside to have a smoke and cool my palate, gazing out on inky black water rendered brilliant by a half-million or so winking city lights. By the time I returned, a small crab had perched outside the portal near our table, a sort of wistful longing spread across his crusty mug. Had I been less hungry, I might have invited him in for a bite, but as things stood, well, I wasn't about to let a single morsel go to waste.
Decidedly impressed thus far by the Forbesean experience, I was not the least bit disappointed when our entrees arrived. My girlfriend chose the penne pasta ($16), which featured bits of chevre (goat) cheese, pine nuts, white corn, zucchini, and summer squash. I, on the other hand, was feeling a bit more ravenous, and indulged in the roast rack of lamb provençale ($26). Lightly breaded, perfectly prepared, juicy, rich, in many ways beyond mere words, the lamb (said to be one of the chef's specialties) was magnificent. Accompanied by a stuffed tomato, potatoes au gratin, and an assortment of fresh vegetables bathed in the meat's rosemary-touched jus, the lamb was, in fact, so downright spectacular I nearly ordered an additional portion. This, however, would have been a mistake, since it would have left little room for dessert.
OK. I realize this review is glowing a bit too brightly -- and in the interest of journalistic integrity I should point out that I am in no way related to, acquainted with, or secretly enamored of either the chef or the proprietor -- but, incredibly, things only got better. The warm summer fruit crisp with Tahitian ice cream ($8) proved a brilliantly delicious cobbler, stuffed to the brim with blueberries, raspberries, and peaches. As delightful as the crisp was, however, it doesn't haunt me the way that evening's "chocolate inspiration" still does: A warm chocolate torte ($8) smothered in luxurious chocolate sauce and garnished with raspberries and fresh whipped cream, it was so completely satisfying that I was tempted to lick the plate clean after we'd finished.
Before departing, we took a quick tour of some of the rest of the island's features: a private -- though somewhat cramped -- one-table dining area in the wine cellar, and one of those cumbersome, old-fashioned, bubble-head diving suits. Then we ascended the 56-step spiral staircase into the lighthouse, which features beautiful stained-glass windows and spectacular, 360-degree bay views.
On our return to shore, we took a quick stroll along Pier 39, past Kitty City and Krazy Kaps and umpteen thousand tourists in their shorts and tennis shoes, shivering in the frigid summer wind. Normally, I'd rather spend an afternoon in a South of Market traffic jam issuing death threats to the world than pay a visit to the city's tourist ghetto. But in the case of Forbes Island, with its friendly service, enchanting cuisine, and endless variety of amusements, I'd definitely make an exception.
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