Until We Eat Again

Cafe Monk

My friend Barrie is moving from San Francisco to Covina. Yes, that's an utterly incredible statement, and about as easy for me to swallow as a fist-sized lump of coal, because Covina is somewhere east of Los Angeles, and a long, long way from here.

She didn't make this decision lightly, of course, because Barrie loves San Francisco as much as anyone I know, but her room has been rented and there's no turning back, which made me realize some truths: that loved ones should be cherished, that self-deception takes its toll, that the more you have the more you stand to lose, and, Lord help me, that my dear friend Barrie -- who was my girlfriend for a year and a half and one of the best, most trustworthy, and irreplaceable friends I've ever had -- is moving. To Covina, a town that is home to Bluesapalooza and the NHRA Thunderfest, and the former bearer of the motto "A mile square and all there."

Granted, this may have something to do with her new sweetie, who lives in Covina, but still, I didn't believe it, because I always figured that, like me, Barrie would remain in San Francisco until today's young captains of industry are sporting dot-combovers and the city's 14 hills have eroded to 13 nubs and a small mound. I mean, sure, I too have trekked to some pretty strange places in the name of passion -- Stockholm, Hanover, the Hague, Walnut Creek -- but I always came back. And Covina? Permanently? She would have given me million-to-one odds on that a year ago. Such is the power of love.

California-style Italian With a Nod to France: Cafe Monk Assistant Manager Natalie Liabeuf.
Anthony Pidgeon
California-style Italian With a Nod to France: Cafe Monk Assistant Manager Natalie Liabeuf.

Details

777-1331. Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: moderate to difficult. Muni: 30, 45. Noise level: low to moderate.

Sweet corn soup $7
Steamed mussels $10
Pan-seared Niman Ranch rib eye $22
Roasted half chicken $15
Pan-roasted salmon $18
Chocolate espresso torte $6
Au Bon Climat pinot blanc, glass $7

564 Fourth St. (at Bryant)

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Of course, I wasn't about to let Barrie skip town without a final meal, which is how we ended up at Fourth Street's Cafe Monk. The first thing we noticed was the sign out front, which looks a bit like a gigantic round of steel-encased cheese, a throbbing, ceaselessly rotating beacon that ushered us into a narrow hallway that, in turn, led to a funky, intimate, warehouse-looking space. The hostess appeared quite happy to see us (a good sign), and in fact just about everything about Cafe Monk was promising, from the diner-style open kitchen to the gorgeous circular bar to the oval-shaped booth at the center of the restaurant. Industrial-style track lights seemed to hover in midair, like falling stars, and soft jazz floated through the atmosphere as a single, orbicular light eased its way from red to green to the warm, luxurious blue of a summer sky over Covina. Portraits of various monks lined the walls -- Edward Hieronymus Monk, Maximum Monk, Baby Betty Monk, while to my left was a painting of a gigantic, lime-green dog. In other words, it's an eclectic space, and worked just fine for us.

We began with two glasses of crisp, piquant Jacquesson rose brut champagne, that I might toast the departure of this dear, dear friend. I hardly knew where to start, actually, and so, I toasted everything, from the good times we've had to the good times we'll have again when Barrie visits to the good times she's sure to have in December at the Covina Christmas Parade. I toasted the new job she hopes to find, and, since Barrie hopes to do good deeds, I toasted them as well. I toasted San Francisco, which will surely welcome her back if she so chooses, then toasted my couch, where she's welcome to crash, then toasted Barrie herself, because she's a sweetheart and an adventurer if ever there was one. Then we toasted the good people at Jacquesson et Fils, for producing such a marvelously toast-worthy brut, and, finally, we toasted the truly cavernous champagne flutes at Cafe Monk, without which so many toasts would not have been possible.

With that, we began our final meal together as fellow residents of San Francisco. Our three appetizers might best be described as California-style Italian dishes with the occasional nod to France, and all three combined ingredients at their prime with a light touch on the seasonings to admirable effect. The sweet corn soup tasted exactly like corn on the cob -- light, wholesome, summery, perfect -- a lively, unassuming chowder anchored by a pocket of tender Dungeness crab. Likewise, the spinach salad showed an appreciation for the goodness of natural foods. Fresh, crisp spinach played off thin-sliced roasted peppers, bits of mild, licoricey fennel, and a slice of cool, luscious mozzarella, the whole underscored by a delicate lemon vinaigrette and a mild, fruity raspberry coulis.

My favorite, though, was a heaping bowl of steamed mussels in an intriguing, anise-tasting pernod broth, which proved as subtle and seductive as any doe-eyed Covinian. At first, I wasn't sold on the broth, and focused on the tender, juicy, perfectly cooked mussels, then turned to the garden of crisp shallots lurking at the bottom of the bowl. But as I ate the shallots, something strange began to happen: I spooned some broth, then spooned some more, and, though I still wasn't sure if I liked it or not, I couldn't stop, either. Even Barrie, who despises mussels for some reason, joined in. We crunched a few shallots, spooned more broth, and dipped some bread, then sat back, contemplated the broth for a moment, and continued -- the undeniable sign of success.

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