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North Star

Wednesday, Sep 8 1999
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North Star is a newish restaurant in Potrero Hill, created by the owners of Noe Valley's Firefly, and the connection between the two places is evident. The food at both is seasonally influenced, with frequently changing menus; both attract a regular neighborhood clientele; and both add French and Asian flourishes to dishes with American foundations.

The tag line on North Star's menu reads "Homestyle Cooking with No Ethnic Boundaries." This nurturing, utopian ideal is exhilarating, it seems -- when you enter at dinnertime, everyone appears excited, and indeed, the food and wine are good. The vibe conveyed by the comfortable local crowd, whose members certainly aren't averse to spending $20 to $30 on dinner once a week or so, is something along the lines of, "Our new clothes suit us well, it's late summer in San Francisco, and things are going fine."

The restaurant has a clean and cozy feel: There's a small bar area, décor featuring blond wood and flowers (including petals strewn on the bathroom floor, lending it a cheesy-movie- murder-scene ambience), and friendly but often hurried waitstaff. North Star adjoins and collaborates with the Little Dipper Bakery, which provides many dessert and brunch treats to the restaurant, and after a recent bit of chef upheaval, the kitchen seems to have settled into a solid, tasty groove under the leadership of Ricardo Cabrera, previously seen slinging creative tapas at Timo's.

The starters list includes several salads. A plate of mottled heirloom tomatoes and hearts of palm ($6.75) is hearty, garlicky, and refreshing -- the tomatoes are top-notch -- while an arugula/prosciutto/fig salad ($7.75) features large balls of crumpled prosciutto, drizzled with an almost-too-rich roasted garlic/balsamic dressing. There are excellent options for the non-salad-eater as well. Squash pancakes with apple chutney ($6.25) are an American-style take on latkes. The pancakes' flavor is mild and not especially squashy, but they're wonderfully crispy and tender, and the chutney is tart, sweet, and plentiful. Also terrific are the scallops ($8.50), which are colored ocher with an annatto marinade, then grilled and served in little spicy pools of chipotle aioli (it's a relief to see so little aioli here, by the way, after being nearly drowned in it at Timo's), accompanied by smooth mashed potatoes and musky, veiny taro chips. The scallops themselves are good but not great emissaries of their species, but the preparation is delicious, and rejuvenating to a palate that has met one bland seared scallop too many.

Restaurant gossipmongers may find it interesting to note that ahi maki tempura ($7.25) is the lone menu remnant of the previous chef's regime. Meaty tuna and avocado are wrapped into rolls, which are then battered and briefly fried, leaving the fish raw. The batter's thin and doesn't have much presence in the finished product, but the frying gives the dish a satisfying, fatty richness not typically found in sushi.

The entrees veer a little more toward "homestyle" than do the appetizers, delivering sizable portions with broad, honest strokes of flavor. A grilled wild salmon fillet ($16.50) seems a bit bland at first, but the crisp crust and pale flesh turn out to be delicious and satisfying. It is served on a bed of pearl pasta. Vegetable lasagna ("with three cheeses and two sauces") is rich, creamy, and scrumptious, and only $11.50 -- although if lasagna is what you're really after you can get one that's equally good or better for half the price elsewhere (at Caffe Ponte Vecchio, for example). A tomato-y cranberry bean stew ($11) is also delicious, featuring big chunks of flavorful vegetables, including fennel, and savory, tender strips of grilled eggplant and zucchini on the side. It comes with crostini topped with a strong lemony pesto.

The "Missouri Mama" meatloaf ($12.75) suffers a bit from multiple personality disorder, torn as it is between slick professional preparation and the dish's homespun roots. This is, sadly, a common diagnosis at "homestyle" restaurants. Here the meat (and the accompanying mashed potatoes) is puréed much more finely than Mother's was, which results in a somewhat distasteful pâté-ish texture. The loaf also has an unexpectedly spicy, cumin-y flavor; the accompanying mushroom gravy is excellent, though. Other entrees include Southern fried chicken and a Brazilian-style mariscada of fish, shellfish, sausage, and rice.

It is clever restaurant practice to offer a palette of desserts that complement one another, since dessert is the course most frequently shared. North Star does a terrific job of this. Four desserts, $5 apiece: angel food cake (a slice, not an individual cakelet! Yay!) with chocolate chunks and a sweet mocha sauce; shortbread cookies with coconut cream, mango chunks, and mint leaves; an apricot-berry tart; and a vanilla crème brûlée. The shortbread represents a little too much eclecticism in one place, while the crème brûlée is tasty but somewhat ho-hum. The other two choices, though, are delicious, the cake marvelously light and full of flavor, and the tart, well, tart, with a firm but flaky crust.

In less than a year, North Star has blossomed into a yummy casual restaurant, slightly brighter and more accessible-feeling than its sister. With pleasing food, some clever ideas, and reliably good implementation, it seems destined to become a Potrero Hill mainstay.

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Paul Adams

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