By Anna Roth
By Pete Kane
By Molly Gore
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Lou Bustamante
By Pete Kane
By Ashley Goldsmith
Show biz is an often overlooked factor in the world of pleasurable restaurantgoing. More than service or location or any other aspect except food, show biz is the crucial element that separates the simply pleasant dining experience from the deliciously jubilant outing. And, especially in this town, restaurant show biz can range as far and as wide as the entertainment world itself. There's everything from high drama (the Fifth Floor) to film noir (It's Tops) to musical comedy (Asia SF) to Italian opera (Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store) to Grand Guignol (the Rooster) to jazz fusion (Yoshi's) to science fiction (xyz) to the Arabian Nights (Pasha). And nowhere is the colorful, surreal world of the circus better exemplified than at Flying Saucer.
The brainchild of chef Albert Tordjman (who departed Flying Saucer's kitchens a year ago), the restaurant takes its inspiration from sources hitherto unknown on planet Earth. It's cuisine gone mad: platters of edible zaniness that, like all great works of surrealist art, are also carefully planned creations. Despite freestyle hints of lemongrass, plantain, kiwi, and habanero, and the original chef's description of his food as "world beat," Flying Saucer can only be regarded as representing California in all its push-the-envelope, narcissistic, firecracker-loving glory, a technicolor-Disneyland palette in which Gorgonzola fondue, truffle cappuccino, and other exponential examples of Golden State frivolity make up the individual elements of the work. But while new chef Kenneth Aldin has maintained Tordjman's Dali-esque vision, creating platters awe-inspiring in their inventive abundance, a few of his edible mosaics don't come together easily, and others lack the culinary zest so plentiful to the eye.
When the combinations work, they work devilishly well. Our meal began with an amuse-bouche of beet soup served in a teacup, not your basic borscht but a silky brew imbued with fresh fennel. One would think that two sweet root vegetables would merge into a cloying, ponderous mess, but the result -- bright, verdant, spicy, and soulful -- was completely invigorating. Accompanied by warm sourdough and butter laced with fresh cilantro -- nothing is simple here -- it made for a most satisfying starter.
The soup was followed by three appetizers that prepared us for the I.M. Pei bedazzlements to come. The calamari ($10) was, simply put, the best in my experience: Hot, juicy, and tender, with none of the ponderous breading and dripping grease associated with this usually chewy cephalopod, it came in a big unruly pile crowned with a bouffant of shredded green papaya and set in a pool of basil vinaigrette. The ice cube salad ($10) was just what you might expect -- iceberg lettuce carved into a big green-white cube, with a rigid spiral of deliciously smoky fried pancetta wedged inside, the whole strewn with caramelized shallots and served sitting in a cool pool of the aforementioned pungent, blue-veined Gorgonzola fondue. The spring bouquet salad ($10), a big, beautiful garden patch of herbs, flowers, and greens of several varieties, looked really terrific, per the house style, but its advertised kiwi-papaya vinaigrette was practically undetectable, resulting in a lovely still life of no little boredom.
It's at entree time that the kitchen kicks into high artistic gear. Platters serve as easels; vegetables are carved into origamic accents; and disparate creations are molded and arranged into a specifically conceived whole. Example: the ono brochettes ($25), in which wooden spears of (perfectly) grilled Hawaiian whitefish and smoky-sweet pineapple chunks were embedded into a half-ring of pineapple. Surrounding them on the platter were two banana-leaf cones filled with rice subtly flavored with coconut, a salad of diced sweet mango and surprisingly mild habanero chile, a huge slice of beet carved fetchingly into a buzz saw, and the joker in the pack, a delicious eggplant-tomato timbale with an Italianate outlook that clashed with the platter's overwhelmingly tropical attitude.
Like all the platters, the salmon ($27) was generously apportioned: Its two thick fillets challenged the usually miserly standards of California cuisine. But despite its moist, flaky nature and its dried-porcini crust, the fish was disappointingly bland. Luckily, and inevitably, there was plenty of other stuff to marvel at: the plump carrots plucked, it would seem, from some neighboring garden, half-submerged in a deep, earthy mushroom-truffle "cappuccino"; the damply fragrant rainbow chard cushioning the fish; and below it, a marvelous, herb-green purée of Yukon Gold potatoes. The evening's protein highlight, though, was the grilled double-cut pork chop ($26), a thick, juicy, completely satisfying behemoth with a stellar supporting cast straight out of the Mississippi Delta: crisp egg rolls stuffed with collard greens; a rich and golden-orange purée of sweet potatoes; a chilled, bracing compote of nectarines and sweet, sassy Vidalia onions; and a unifying jolt of whiskey-fueled Worcestershire sauce.
The desserts take the kitchen's predilection for the architectural toward its most dizzying level. Chief amongst them is the Aztec chocolate cake ($9), a virtual municipality of tastes and textures. A large rectangular platter decorated with chocolate-sauce flying-saucer designs formed the bedrock for a rich, moist chocolate-cake skyscraper drizzled with fudge sauce, a strawberry-sorbet bungalow zapped with a lightning bolt of white chocolate, shrubbery in the form of fleur-de-lis melon slivers and sliced-strawberry bouquets, and a smoothly cylindrical espresso flan set upon another cylinder of chocolate cake and speared with a feathery antenna of spun sugar.
The raspberry tartlet ($9), while nearly as aesthetically striking as the cake extravaganza, wasn't as culinarily arresting. A square of shortbread, submerged in a bowl of coolly refreshing melon soup limned with kiwi shavings, supported a block of hard, tasteless berry sorbet, a tiny (and rather tough) tartlet strewn with fresh raspberries, and, resting atop, a spun-sugar cage filled with several more raspberries. The most successful of the desserts was the rich, moist, densely dreamy banana bread pudding ($9), a panoramic evocation of East Indian flavors. A dollop of pungently aromatic cardamom ice cream sat upon the pudding while a chocolate-candy cone filled with a rich custard sauce sprouted outward, a spun-sugar borsalino teetering on top; a chai-infused caramel sauce supported the whole subcontinental shebang, while vertical sentinels of banana policed the platter's rim.
Given the intricate, methodically detailed nature of pastry chef Roger Feely's creations, it's not surprising that the desserts take some time to arrive at table. (While you wait you're treated to a big burgundy glass overflowing with that most circuslike of confections: cotton candy.) Service in general ranges from the friendly and informative to the brusque and harried, with the venue's intensity and noise level rising as the evening progresses. The setting is as ornately theatrical as the food: boysenberry sorbet-colored walls, paintings out of several genres, scalloped accents, Grecian urns, the occasional Roman pillar, and, in the shadowy back room, Egyptian friezes, Etruscan objets d'art, and a massive bust of some ancient god presiding over it all. As befits the ambience, the music ranges from mariachi to funk to Tony Bennett, while the kitchen staff -- you can see them working away behind a glass partition -- whips up ever more vertical, ever more dazzling culinary creations, many of them welcomed into the dining room with gasps of awe and sprinkled applause.
That's show biz.