On the Right Track

Red Herring Restaurant and Bait Bar

After five years in San Francisco, my friend Dana is leaving -- a sad thing, for sure, but there it is. You could say our paths crossed a few times during that period: I was the first person she laid eyes on the night she arrived in the city (she was staying with my roommate); later, she became my girlfriend; still later, we moved in together -- a union that, I like to think, led to some of her best times in the city (and, she has assured me, some of the very worst). After we broke up, when things had settled a bit, we grew even closer. It wasn't an everyday kinship, but still, we each knew the other was only a local phone call and a cab ride away.

Now Dana's heading east to try her luck in an apple much bigger than this one. She will leave one car poorer, two cats richer, and five years older. To save on rent, she will stay with me during her final weeks, just as she did when she first arrived. Assuming she can cadge a ride to the airport, I will be the last person she sees before leaving, and this whole chapter of her life will have a nice symmetry to it, as though things were meant to turn out as they did.

As heir apparent to whatever furniture and kitchenware Dana leaves behind (my favorite part of the deal), I figured it would be remiss of me not to commemorate her departure with one last meal. Which led us to Red Herring, the newest addition to tony Steuart Street.

Trafficking in Cones: Celebrity chef James Ormsby with spicy Maine crab and  cucumber salad.
Anthony Pidgeon
Trafficking in Cones: Celebrity chef James Ormsby with spicy Maine crab and cucumber salad.

Details

155 Steuart (at Mission), 495-6500. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (bar menu served until 5:30 p.m.), dinner served every day from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: can be difficult. Muni: 14, 32. Noise level: low to moderate

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Red Herring evolved out of the former Bistro Roti. In its dining room, dark wood and brick reminiscent of the old city meet the chichi lighting of the newer, more expensive San Francisco, just as the talents of much-lauded chef James Ormsby meet the countless, ocean-spawned delicacies known to the hungry under the simple term "seafood."

Like Bistro Roti before it, Red Herring leans toward upscale, drawing the most discriminating of diners -- not self-styled gourmets, nor, God forbid, food critics, but well-connected restaurant people, who eat out for free, or close to free (it's called a "comp," and yes, they tip), just about every night. Dana fit the bill, having worked at a number of swank restaurants over the past five years; her friend Tabitha is a manager at a well-known North Beach eatery, and both graduated from a prestigious culinary institute. To sample the wine list we invited James, a former assistant sommelier.

We began with alcohol, a contributing factor in at least 30 dozen of the best evenings of my life. With more than 100 wines at his disposal, James opted for variety with a Riesling flight from the Herring's global sampler ($9), which featured half-glasses of the following: 1) a Smith Madrone, Napa Valley (reminiscent of white peaches, or perhaps honeysuckle); 2) a Leeuwin Estate, Australia (far too muted and unassertive, like the kid in school who knew the answer to every question but was too shy to raise his hand); and 3) a Weingut Carp-Schreiber, Germany (spicy, complex, fruity, traditional, certainly the best of the three).

I, on the other hand, chose an Absolut Mandrin and tonic ($6), which hinted of ... hmm, I'd have to say orange, although it had a certain tonic quality to it as well.

For appetizers, we began with a half-dozen Sinku oysters on the half-shell ($10.50) over crushed ice, which were accompanied by slices of lemon, a sassy champagne mignonette, and an unfortunate ketchuplike cocktail sauce that needed something -- anything! -- to make it spring to life.

On first taste, I feared that the pumpkin soup with toasted pumpkin seeds ($5) would also leave us wanting. However, the purée lingered subtly on the palate; one of those clever soups that makes you think it's not going to do it, and then, before you know it, it's done. The spicy Maine crab and cucumber salad in crispy cones ($10.50) had the opposite effect. Topped with a sprinkling of tobiko, the cones were as good as food gets on the first bite, but needed more zest to satisfy all the way through. And while James was quite fond of the fresh Florida shrimp tamale with ancho chile masa and Scharffen Berger mole ($8), we were all dazzled by the Amalfi white anchovies on tomato bruschetta ($6.50), which was sprinkled with a vinaigrette so piquant it could have stirred the taste buds of the dead.

The dedicated oenophile will find Red Herring a sample-friendly destination. The wine list features some 20 vintages by the glass -- and, for those not ready for such a commitment, by the half-glass -- allowing James to create a flight of his own. Moving on to reds, he chose a Langlois Chinon ($3.75), which had a full body, perhaps a voluptuous body, but by no means a bodacious body (I was worried about that); an inky, South African Delheim Pinotage ($4), which proved burly in a lean way, ferocious yet not overly aggressive, earthy but pleasantly refined; and a far more gentle Villa Guilia Chianti, Tuscany ($2.75), a smooth, soft, almost romantic third leg of the flight.

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