It's probably the best view of the city, that moment when you emerge from the Waldo Tunnel and the bridge and the fog and the hills strike you as they did Steinbeck four decades ago. It's a work in progress, a panorama that alters from moment to moment as the light changes and the night falls.
The other evening, two hours past sunset, a smattering of rainfall had cleansed the air and from the Waldo Grade the city sparkled, crystal clear, in a way I'd never seen it. Every office, apartment, and mansion had its shades up and its lights blazing. The illuminations around Embarcadero Center, a gift of the holiday season, made the northeast tip of the peninsula look like a pile of presents waiting to be opened, and the Alcatraz lighthouse resembled nothing so much as a beacon for welcoming Santa on his upcoming visit. The Union Square windows aren't what they used to be and the Christmas tree tottering atop Coit Tower is a rapidly fading memory, but in this chameleon of a city there are always other compensations.
Take the Fillmore, once a bustling cultural mecca (in the postwar years my parents used to frequent the district's after-hours jazz joints in the company of the legendary Johnny Cooper, an Ellington confrere), now enjoying a renaissance of sorts. The Boom Boom Room, John Lee Hooker's sleek and lively temple to R&B, jazz, and blues, is a good launching pad, particularly Friday nights from 5 to 8 p.m., when the molto hep Blues Fuse adds a soul-enhancing dose of supple sounds to your evening cocktail. Next? Dinner, of course, and, this being the middle of Japantown as well as the Fillmore, the choices are multitudinous. But for a truly eclectic San Francisco evening, head three blocks northwest into the neighborhood's quieter reaches for outstanding Thai food at Neecha Thai Cuisine.
The great thing about Thai food is its fresh, spicy, deceptive simplicity, ripe with bracing accents and crisp flavors. Thailand is one of those countries that has taken the best aspects of its neighbors' cuisines and improved upon them, weaving its own particular culinary attitudes into the whole. From China comes a wide variety of noodle dishes as well as the stir-fry and the steamer; from India there are curries, chilies, cilantro, and coconut milk; Burma, Laos, and Malaysia add their singular accents as well. The result, overlaid with the country's own culinary invention and fertile environment, is a cuisine absolutely distinct from any other, in which each flavor is clean and lucid and the whole never overwhelms the sparkling parts.
Take tom-ka ($6.25), for instance, a thick soup that is particularly suitable the week before. The richness of the coconut-milk base is a cushion for the disparate flavors of earthy mushroom, delicate lemongrass, bracing lime, and galangal, a citrusy member of the ginger family; the result is both supple and lively, and altogether soul-soothing.
Neecha is also adept at appetizers, especially that Thai restaurant standby Indonesian sa-tey ($6.25). Oftentimes the coconut-marinated, charcoal-grilled chicken skewers are tough, overdone, and beglopped with sweet peanut butter, but here the meat is moist and smoky, the peanut sauce is sharp and savory, and there's a nice vinegary cucumber salad alongside to balance it. The corn cakes ($5.50) are crisp little saucers of fried kernels and flour, nice and simple, and muk klob ($6.50), deep-fried squid with chili paste and onion, is crunchy and redolent of deep-fried basil. But pla goong ($6.50) is the starter supreme: prawns marinated in a verdant array of lime, mint, and lemongrass and charbroiled until hot and crunchy.
Among the entrees, the angel wings ($6.75) sound at least interesting -- chicken wings stuffed with ground pork, carrots, mushrooms, and silver noodles -- but the result is thick, dense, and complicated, the antithesis of the Thai food experience. Similarly, the sahm gur ($7.95) tastes like an overly anxious refugee from the fussy kitchens of Cathay -- sweet and sour pork, chicken, and prawns stir-fried with pineapple, baby corn, ginger, onion, cucumber, and mushrooms. Two simpler dishes showcase the kitchen's culinary skills to greater effect. The roast duck ($7.25) is everything this deliciously fatty fowl should be -- rich, supple, and subtly complemented with the sweet-spicy flavors of the East. And pla pow ($8.50) is a tangible example of Thailand's reverence for and mastery of fresh fish. A thick salmon steak is wrapped in a banana leaf with a variety of pungent herbs and grilled; when you open the packet the fragrance of damp greens and sweet phosphorescence is irresistible, and the salmon is tender and succulent indeed.
There are three desserts: fried bananas ($2.50), coconut ice cream ($2.50), and -- you guessed it -- fried bananas with coconut ice cream ($3.50). According to my fellow diners, the fried bananas are exemplary, sweet and not too mushy, and I can attest to the quality of the ice cream; it's rich, ribboned with coconut, and refreshing, an appropriate conclusion to the meal.
When it comes to Thai food I like a nice cold beer, Tsing Tao ($3.25) in particular, but Neecha also features a brief wine list that includes two chardonnays ($17 each), a sauvignon blanc ($16), a fumé blanc ($14), a gewürztraminer ($10), a white zin ($10), and a cab from Robert Mondavi ($23). You can also get Sebastiani's cab or chardonnay by the glass ($2.50), half-carafe ($6.50), and carafe ($12).
Afterward we headed south for a frame or two at Japantown Bowl and a nightcap at a Post Street watering hole with Sierra Nevada on tap, Gustav Klimt on the walls, and Frankie Yankovich on the jukebox. In other words: Joyeux Noël, everybody!