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Wednesday, Nov 10 1999
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Foreign Cinema is in the Mission, but seems reluctant to admit it. After you debark from your silver Grand Cherokee, you pass through shiny steel doors and file down a long, stark corridor, at the far end of which a large man in a uniform checks your name against his list before permitting you to be escorted through a second set of doors into the holding cell -- I mean, the restaurant. Co-owner Jon Varnedoe is the master gentri-preneur who made Bruno's what it is, and with Foreign Cinema he's tapping into the synergy of the Mission stretch that includes that restaurant, Cha Cha Cha, and Beauty Bar. Foreign Cinema enjoys the same exciting, diverse, lucrative clientele that these establishments do: namely, successful multimedia people.

The restaurant is divided into a courtyard and a large indoor dining room and is decorated in the classic industrial style, with plenty of exposed concrete, steel, and bare wood. The principal design feature, of course, is the screen at the back of the courtyard on which movies are projected nightly. This is a nice idea, but the logistics are problematic. Although the sound is audible, it's not loud enough to be comprehensible. Presumably this is the reason for the stipulation "foreign": Subtitles make it possible to follow the action. But unless your date is very boring, it's unlikely that the film will be much more than ambience. Still, if you notice your companion gazing raptly over your shoulder, it is an indication that you need to scintillate a bit more. For those seated indoors this is less of an issue, as the view of the screen is reduced to a mere slice. (The restaurant plans to introduce a second screen soon, this one intended for actual undivided-attention viewing of films, conceived, says management, as a way of giving back to the community.) The service is skilled but suffers a bit from hauteur: The waitstaff seem to believe they're far too cool to wait tables, and do it only out of a charitable impulse.

Chef Laurent Katgely has his French pedigree in order. Frogs, ducks, crayfish, snails -- all four of these characters, and a number of their little friends, are present on the menu, but the dishes are subtle and minimally adorned, the culinary equivalents of soliloquies, rather than grand production numbers. This approach leaves little room for error, relying as it does on high-quality ingredients and sheer skill, and while some of the dishes are triumphant, there are a few whose shortcomings are quite apparent.

Fresh asparagus ($8), served with a light, creamy truffle sauce that contains abundant shreds of the magnificent fungus, is an example of a triumph. The dish is essentially perfect. The asparagus is carefully selected and optimally flavorful, and the dressing tastes strongly of truffle; the two flavors, both pungent, compete in an intriguing way. The escargot "casserole" ($8) is a small dish of the chewy mollusks, roasted. As is traditional, they are indulged in garlic, with a few whole cloves tossed in to keep them company, but bizarrely, here they're stiffed when it comes to the other treat they are promised in the afterlife: The dish could use quite a bit more butter. The snails are succulent but not as savory as one would hope, while their resilient texture is well-developed, but doesn't quite overcome this blandness.

The frog leg fricassee ($9) suffers a different fate. Ideally, frogs' hind legs have a subtle flavor and a sublimely tender texture. But Foreign Cinema's frogs' legs are on the tough side -- likely a symptom of overcooking -- and the delicate taste of the meat is wholly masked by a thick, sour, curry-Riesling sauce, whose excessive tartness is oddly reminiscent of tamarind. One might as well be eating pale, overcooked chicken for all the frog enjoyment one gets. If these legs taste as they do because they have been disguised for a timid audience, it's a shame.

The warm crayfish salad ($8) is a nice starter but not terribly exciting. The tiny crustacean (yes, there's only one) is bisected attractively and shares a plate with a number of long wax beans and pieces of dense, creamy salsify root, but the small appetizer is dominated by a great quantity of fresh dill, an often-underappreciated herb here overappreciated by far. The salsify's gentle, oceanic flavor is lost in the onslaught of dill, and the crayfish barely survives with its distinctive sweetness intact.

The wait between appetizer and entree, intended to be a time for reflecting, anticipating, and ordering a second bottle of wine, can stretch into an hour when Foreign Cinema is busy. The roasted Sonoma duck breast ($18), however, is wonderful -- plump and meaty and juicy, without any trace of oiliness or gaminess. The little rare slices could probably pass for very tender steak, if you weren't paying attention; the dish is a keeper. But the filet mignon it emulates, ironically, is not. The latter ($19) is served atop a tremendously good buttery potato galette, with delectable trumpet mushrooms. The meat, however, is somewhat subpar. Filet mignon is prized for its tenderness, not its flavor -- if you want tastier meat, cut closer to the bone. It is, therefore, tragic when a filet mignon is insufficiently tender, as is the case here. Nobody wants to spend his or her night out chewing filet mignon.

In another interesting entree, a pumpkin is filled with creamy risotto ($12). The squash yields perfectly to the knife, and the risotto that spills out is well-flavored and well-cooked. Still, there's none of the drama that would bring the dish to the next level. It's tasty but little else. Similarly, the herb-crusted chicken breast ($13) is, though a teeny shade dry, nicely flavorful -- but lacking surprise. The bouillabaisse ($18), on the other hand, is startlingly flavorful and exciting: The broth is flavored primarily with lobster, and a lobster tail waves seductively from its depths. Also present is monkfish, which feeds largely on shellfish and passes their sweetness along to us. A couple of bivalves recline in the soup. The accompanying aioli is strongly garlicky, as it should be, tempered by the brilliant red roe of the lobster.

Dessert at Foreign Cinema is creative and can be wonderful. Case in point: the chocolate soufflé ($7). With no pretensions to fluffiness, it is intensely chocolaty, with a cakelike crust and a rich, dense interior reminiscent of cake batter. The soufflés are made to order, but the kitchen may run out, so it's not a bad idea to preorder yours before your meal starts -- say, three soufflés per diner. The other desserts are interesting but will be hard-pressed to win fans from the soufflé. A baked pear ($6) is served in a pool of goat cheese that is unabashedly salty and unsweet, with just enough honey to counter the goaty tang. The crème brûlée à la cassonade ($6), aka crème brûlée with sugar on top, aka crème brûlée, is excellent but very strongly flavored with lavender. If lavender is a culinary herb to you, you will enjoy this dessert, but if you associate the fragrance primarily with bath products, you may not find it to your liking. The chocolate pot de crème ($6) is very nice indeed. Perhaps, if there are no more soufflés, you could get it.

The wine list is well put together, interesting, and wide-ranging. Though France is dominant, California is well-represented, and unusual selections from both regions are present.

All in all, Foreign Cinema is a pleasant destination. The quality of the food is inconsistent, the outdoor dining can be chilly, and the servers even chillier, but the movie-screen idea is fun -- gimmicky, yes, but we like gimmicks -- and the high points of the cooking are very high. The sensitive stomach may find it disturbing to see the conspicuous wealth within the restaurant contrasting with the gritty poverty just outside on Mission Street, but hey -- if the valets are prompt, you'll hardly notice.

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