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Calm Waters 

Pacific

Wednesday, Feb 2 2000
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There are several time-honored rules of thumb the restaurantgoer picks up over the course of a gastrointestinal lifetime, warning signs to heed as one plans an evening of wining and dining. Namely: Avoid restaurants with a really great view. Avoid restaurants with large ads in the Yellow Pages. Avoid any restaurant where the owner can be seen standing balefully in the front doorway, arms crossed. Avoid restaurants located in strip malls. (Exception that proves the rule: Milano in Tiburon's Cove Shopping Center.) And, most important, avoid restaurants located in, on, under, or adjacent to a hotel.

There are exceptions, of course. The best breakfast I've ever eaten was devoured at Campton Place, located in the hotel of the same name in the alley of the same name. The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton once created a meal so memorable I remember its date (Aug. 4, 1994) the way some people remember their birthdays. xyz, cutely complemented by the w hotel, prepares an ahi sandwich with wasabi aioli that rivals anything between sliced bread. The Pelican Inn in Muir Beach serves up Falstaffian banquets to match its broad-timbered, firelit accommodations. And what would a trip to the Gold Country be without a big platter of biscuits and gravy at the Murphys Hotel? For the most part, however, hotel dining rooms can be as safely disregarded as midwinter strawberries and neon-colored martinis.

Now then. The Pan Pacific Hotel is located in that glittering stretch of Post Street that encompasses the St. Francis, Farallon, Postrio, the Prescott, and Morton's, a deluxe couple of blocks fragrant with freshly tailored pinstripes, gardenia corsages, and bridge-and-tunnel nights on the town. The hotel's lobby, done up in marbled grays and browns, sports huge Asian brush paintings, Oriental carpets, a few potted palm trees, and wall niches abloom with multicolored bouquets: a pleasant place to escape our winter rains. An atrium-style elevator whisks you to the third floor, where despite the enveloping cloak of hoteldom the Pacific restaurant aspires to greatness, and on occasion succeeds.

First, though, a cocktail. Emerging from the elevator you're greeted by a striking central fountain enlivened by Matisse's dancing figures in wrought metal; a talented noodler sits at the nearby grand piano, two hearths crackle and warm the neighboring upholstery, and to the left is a roomy lounge with comfortable armchairs, pools of lamplight, broad windows overlooking the Mason street life, and, cheerily if incongruously, a big-screen TV glittering down at one end of the room. At the other is a cozy, leather-upholstered, subtly spotlit bar backed with a glass-enclosed cupboard lined with liqueurs and spirits of transglobal elegance. The ideal setting for an icy Bombay Sapphire martini: vaporous transcendence and salted peanuts in a little silver bowl -- what more can you ask?

The restaurant's name says it all. This is a place to enjoy not only the fruits of the sea, but the culinary bounty to be found on its far distant rim: ginger, taro, lotus, and other Asiatic subtleties. Unfortunately, Pacific shares the golden hues and murmured elegance of the hotel proper, and its food, while often marvelous, lacks the edge and spark the ingredients deserve.

Given the high quality and freshness of the raw materials, this is oftentimes a moot point. Take the blini ($12), a superb example of elegance and simplicity. The basis, a thick buckwheat pancake, is mildly sweet and yeasty; its fluffy consistency is offset by a velvety fillet of cured salmon with a hint of citrus and crunchy little bursts of osetra caviar. More spectacular, but equally tasty, the tartar duet ($11) pairs two spheres of cool, almost creamy puréed raw fish -- ahi and hamachi -- one rolled in crushed peanuts, the other in minced herbs, both highlighted by the piquant contrast of crunchy marinated lotus root.

Meanwhile, the sweet potato gnocchi ($9), while unaccountably light -- it almost floats off the platter, an unholy amalgam of yam, butter, and steam -- is culinarily unassuming, more texture than taste, even with the addition of several tiny, briny crawfish. And the best thing about the terrine of foie gras ($13) is its star and namesake, a Sonoma-bred example of the genre, lighter and more subtle here (and better) than usual; an accompanying warm quince coulis is just a bland and watery distraction.

Time to move on to the entrees. Again, stick with the fish. The kitchen's light touch with salmon is demonstrated in an intricate dish involving fillets of the fish rolled up and wrapped in Swiss chard, like sushi ($22); the fish, light and moist as a delicate mousse, is supported and accented by a bed of sturdy winter vegetables en ragout touched with port and ginger. The freshness of the striped bass ($25) hints that the ocean of the title is just outside the back door of the restaurant instead of 78 blocks away; again, a sparklingly good, blessedly simple rendition balances out the platter's general busy-ness, in which a ragout of pea shoots and fingerling potatoes and hints of carrot and taro add complementary, if uninspired, complexity.

The menu isn't all about the Pacific Ocean. The roasted lobster ($32) features nice big chunks of shelled Homarus americanus, and lots of it, sweet and juicy; a heavyish, too-sweet rock shrimp risotto and a few cursory vegetables (artichoke, salsify, and black trumpets) decorate the rest of the plate. One foray was made out of hydrospace and onto land. Although the roasted beef tenderloin ($28) is like butter -- it really is; the tines of a fork pass through it like whipped cream -- it and the more robust braised short ribs that share the plate (this is a menu item dripping with testosterone) don't have the rich character of the fish dishes. But the supporting cast -- a creamy, complex potato gratin ribboned with foie gras and truffle essence, and a few token braised leeks pungent with spice -- brings it all home.

The desserts display some of the inconsistency of the main menu: a sure culinary touch undermined by perfunctory follow-through. The bread pudding ($8) is light and fluffy on the inside, crusty on the outside, but aside from the occasional poppy seed, the dish is little more than bland. (A scattering of minced agrumato, a Japanese fruit, offers a nice tinge of flavor, though.) The bittersweet chocolate mousse ($8) is nice and smooth, but not intensely chocolatey enough; its cushion of chocolate spice cake is dry and flavorless, but the sharp taste of red currants in port essence jazzed things up a bit. The trio of mousses ($7) is attractively presented: three tiny pots filled with hazelnut, mandarin orange, and chocolate purées. But only the latter has any richness of character (and it's an undeniable knockout). The pear tartlet ($8), however, is a gem of a meal-closer: warm, light, moist, and crumbly, perfect on a wet, cool day.

Over the course of a couple of visits we tried the tasting menu, a bargain at $55. It began with that wondrous cured salmon, topped with caviar, then moved on to the foie gras terrine, the sweet-potato gnocchi, and the salmon wrapped in Swiss chard. This was followed by three French cheeses, served with grapes and baguette: a pungent Roquefort, a warm and bitter-creamy brie, and a nice Gouda-like white cheese edged with rosemary and garlic. The chocolate mousse concluded the meal.

Service was impeccable, prompt and unassuming, ideally suited to the venue's placid atmo. The wine list is lengthy and California-based, with a rather heady markup. Coffees and teas are presented by the (attractive, self-pressing) pot, and there's a $20, three-course menu available at lunch that changes twice a week.

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Matthew Stafford

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