Blue Cheer

Lapis

If I knew ahead of time that I was about to be stranded on a deserted island and was given the (equally improbable) opportunity to take just one book along with me, it would have to be the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition Unabridged. Its 2,508 pages are packed with stuff: charts illustrating Morse Code, Volcanoes of the World, and Basic Knots and Hitches (potentially lifesaving stuff on an uncharted desert isle); French, Spanish, German, and Italian dictionaries; a 28-page atlas; and helpful tips on calculating the air distance from Keflavik to Caracas, properly addressing a Chargé d'Affaires, avoiding sexism in daily conversation, understanding chess, and reading a blueprint, and spelling, pronouncing, etymologizing, and in general understanding several hundred thousand words, oblique and otherwise. For instance: look up "lapis," get yourself redirected to "lapis lazuli," and find out that the "lazuli" part shares French, Arabic, and Persian bloodlines with the word "azure" -- defined, finally, as the particular blue color of a clear and cloudless sky.

The definition seems to fit our year-2000-model Embarcadero (if you don't mind a waterfront more or less bereft of any actual boats, that is). The hated freeway has been absent for nearly a decade, leaving unencumbered vistas behind. There's this cool new ballpark you may have read about down near China Basin, with its very own ferry slip. A new streetcar line allows you to trundle up and down the waterfront in gorgeously restored vintage-1928 Milanese jitneys. Even the implausible palm trees add a hint of Pacific Rim foliage. And in addition to thriving restaurants both old (Red's Java House) and new (Waterfront), this recently decrepit stretch of real estate boasts a dazzling three-month-old eatery as jewellike as its name: Lapis.

In the restaurant's case, the name probably has more to do with the deep color of the inlet from which the kitchen draws its inspiration, the Mediterranean Sea. One more Mediterranean-fusion restaurant would appear to be about 734 too many, but instead of concentrating on the region's usual suspects -- Spain, Italy, and Provence -- chef Thomas Ricci (of Elan Vital fame) takes in the area's entire width and breadth, acknowledging the fact that the sea washes up on Asia and Africa too, and that all of these sea-fed places share certain culinary characteristics that make triple-continental fusion not only tasty, but climatologically logical. There are hints of Athens, Beirut, Algiers, and Istanbul in a menu fragrant with fennel, eggplant, tahini, olives, pomegranate, garlic, garbanzos, and mint; the dishes speak of life -- zest, languor, and earthly pleasures, with enough California-cuisine fireworks to keep things feasibly modern.

Truly, Madly Mediterranean: Lapis offers triple-continental fusion.
Anthony Pidgeon
Truly, Madly Mediterranean: Lapis offers triple-continental fusion.

Details

Pier 33 (at the foot of Bay Street), 982-0203. Lunch served Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Wednesday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday until 10:30 p.m. Bar open Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations suggested. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: valet available. Muni: F, 15, 42. Noise level: lively yet unobtrusive

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A visual association is offered up as well, right out Lapis' plate-glass windows: our own particular inlet lapping up against the restaurant's superstructure. The water here isn't as lapislike (or unfrigid) as the stuff found 135 longitudinal degrees to the east, and instead of bustling longshoremen loading and unloading cargo, the view is accented by lemon drop-sodden dot-commers ensconced at the window seats. Their sky had just developed some pretty hefty cumulonimbi when we dropped in for a bite to eat, and we speculated on the effect the recent stock market dive might have on us personally: Cheaper rents? Fewer cell phones? Fewer SUVs? We toasted our own cloudless horizon, ordered several courses of food, and appreciated our immediate surroundings.

Lapis (the color) is a running motif in the interior design of Lapis (the restaurant) -- it shows up on the menus, in the waitstaff's Mao suit-like uniforms, and throughout the restaurant's color scheme, accented here and there with bronzes, rich draperies, and rough timbers. The ceilings and windows soar, allowing in plenty of light and oxygen, rustic-modern art adorns the walls, thickly embroidered cushions and banquettes face out toward the bay, and a dramatically backlit bar gleams with glassware and vertical proto-deco. It's a properly eclectic setting for food that encompasses the myriad cultures of both the Mediterranean and its local progeny: lemon-chicken soup with spinach dumplings and poached quail eggs ($8), herb salad with goat-cheese fritters and pomegranate vinaigrette ($8), crab cake with Moroccan carrot salad and cilantro purée ($13), coriander-crusted chicken with Egyptian rice and manchego ($18), braised lamb shank with mint pesto and goat cheese-eggplant crisps ($21), banana Tatin with spiced walnuts ($7).

We began by selecting one of the establishment's elaborately adorned flatbreads, a difficult choice to make: duck confit with taleggio ($9)? Eggplant caviar with kalamata olives, zucchini, and two kinds of cheese ($8)? We settled on a variety that combined tender red bliss potatoes with deep green spinach, soft, supple cloves of roasted garlic, and my favorite blue cheese on Earth, cambazola ($8) -- what's not to love? Meanwhile, a selection of Mediterranean dipping sauces ($8) is served with a variety of wonderfully pungent olives and pita bread baked in the establishment's wood-fired oven: a thick, creamy hummus rich with sesame; a cool, fresh dill raita studded with cucumber; and a good, chunky baba ghanouj. And the seared diver scallops ($14) are not only sweet, smoky, and moist, they're served with the contrasting accents of a pungent black-olive tapenade, a crisp tomato confit, and al dente ravioli filled with fresh fennel.

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