Fanning the Flames

One night I had a few too many cocktails and told my girlfriend I loved her. This was, as she pointed out, a ploy to get out of driving her home ("Stay with me tonight... I love you!"), but still, I'd already been contemplating the issue for some time, and meant it, and have affirmed my love many times since. In fact, I often go on at great length about how she burns my bridges, shatters my soul, how I love her so much -- "How much?" she asks -- well, so, so much I don't always know where to begin.

Or, in other words, I run out of material, the curse of poets and would-be soul mates since the dawn of time. But, as George Herbert once wrote, love and a cough cannot be hidden, and this doe-eyed little demon manifests itself in other ways: Flowers on her birthday, phone calls, holding hands, "innocent" kisses, Number 13 on Esquire's Things a Man Should Do Before He Dies list, and, even better, Belon.

I mention the last because Belon is a restaurant that cares, and if you take someone special there -- a friend, a lover, a family member, yourself, a major campaign contributor, an adoring venture capitalist, that friendly clerk from the neighborhood store -- he or she should get the impression you care as well. Though it's only been open since January, the restaurant's service and presentation show few signs of growing pains, and these are more than offset by clever nuances that enhance simple, French brasserie-style fare.

Anthony Pidgeon

Details

Open Sunday through Thursday from 5 p.m. until midnight, weekends from 5 p.m. until 1 a.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: available at the hotel. Street parking: can be interesting, in an edge-of-the-Tenderloin sort of way. Muni: all streetcar lines (exit at Powell Street), 31, 9. BART. Noise level: moderate.
25 Mason (at Turk) in the Hotel Metropolis, 776-9970

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From the entrance, a gallery of oysters on crushed ice leads through to a moderately bright space featuring pale wood and high ceilings, producing an open, comfortable feel. At the table, rock salt is accompanied by a tiny pepper grinder, baguettes are sliced as needed, and, as the seafood bar platters are whisked away, hot towels allow you to freshen up so, while the afterglow of this delightful, hands-on experience lingers, the smell of fish does not. Even night owls have a place at Belon: A late menu -- including the full seafood bar, appetizers, a few entrees, and lighter fare (an omelet and a glass of wine, $9) -- is served until midnight during the week, 1 a.m. on weekends. Finally, those of us who, as a result of work, prior commitments, or, in my case, extended disco napping, sometimes find it impossible to get to dinner before 11:30 p.m., are accommodated just like everyone else.

Of course, none of this would do anyone any good if the food were terrible. And since seafood -- in particular, the French belon oyster -- is the featured attraction, we put our heads together for what proved a difficult decision. For example: Had we desired to begin, and end, with the seafood bar, the grand belon ($66) -- six belon oysters, six Atlantic oysters, six Pacific oysters, six prawns, a dozen mussels, six littleneck clams, periwinkles, and half a Dungeness crab -- might have proved sufficient. Or, if we'd only wanted to leave room for appetizers, the petit plateau ($44) -- six Atlantic oysters, six Pacific oysters, four prawns, six littleneck clams, six mussels, and half a crab -- would have been a wise choice. But since we wanted to last until dessert, we cut straight to the heart of the matter with the oyster sampler ($38, $5 extra to substitute four belons), plus half a crab ($12) and two glasses of sparkling wine -- a dryish, Segura Viudas, Spain ($7), and a fruitier, crisper, far more inspiring Green Point blanc de noirs, Australia ($8.50).

Obviously, we preferred the latter, whose pale pink hue matched the blush of my cheek as I embarked on what I hoped would be a grandiloquent toast. Unfortunately, the toast was mediocre at best, and, for everyone's sake, will not be repeated. Fortunately, the arrival of 20 oysters -- plus half a crab -- gave me time to come up with some better stuff.

Like sashimi, there isn't much one can do to improve raw oysters other than to buy the freshest ones available, arrange them as beautifully as possible, and include a few condiments to enhance what is, essentially, a food that should stand on its own. I think Belon is with me on this one, since presentation was a focal point: A metal stand was placed at the center of our table bearing a platter of crushed ice ringed with spanking-fresh bivalves, the ice strewn with a few strands of seaweed, a bouquet of prickly crab legs reaching from its chilly depths.

We began with the more expensive belons ($2.95 each when ordered alone) -- a smallish, flat-shelled oyster that, while indigenous to France, is also cultivated on the West Coast, in this case Puget Sound. Though the taste of a belon is often said to be "metallic," I'd describe it as purified essence of the sea; a clean, powerful tang that needs no lemon or other accessorizing, as evidenced by the fact that, as my girlfriend downed her first one, her eyes flared in a way that I have seen before, but never as a result of food.

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