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A Welcome Homecoming 

Jianna

Wednesday, Oct 18 2000
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Recently, I spent 2 1/2 weeks traveling through Greece, a land of stone, sun, aquamarine seas, and nights that caress the skin like warm, electric silk. It took about seven seconds for me to realize that 2 1/2 weeks isn't long enough to savor the joys of miraculous Hellas -- six weeks is more like it, or perhaps eight, or even a thousand -- but since I only had 2 1/2 of them, I decided to prioritize. Thus, on my first day in Athens, I accompanied my travelmates to the Acropolis, then peeked out the window of our hotel at the remains of the Temple of Zeus. Then I drank some ouzo, decided I'd done enough ruin-gazing, and turned to what one might call non-intellectual pursuits.

Still, I did learn a few things I'd like to share. For example, I learned that the word malakas (Greek for "bastard/ dumb-ass/frequent masturbator," used either in a friendly, familiar sense or a not-so-friendly one) can easily be employed 50 times a day, and that you shouldn't always trust your malakas Athenian cab driver when he claims the nightclub you want to visit was just bombed but he can suggest another. (That would be a strip club that paid him a commission for delivering us.) I learned that journeys don't really begin until you stop expecting things to be the way you want them to be and accept them as they are; that German shepherds will ride on mopeds; that sleep isn't as necessary as the experts claim; and that if you follow the music through the marvelously confusing streets of the island of Mykonos near dawn you'll find Greek women dancing in ways that render the soul incandescent and make men want to forget the way home.

I also learned that Mythos, the Hellenic lager, is indeed an epic brew; that you should never trust an Englishman's restaurant recommendations; and that being dragged behind a speedboat in an inner tube is the perfect hangover cure on the island of Ios, where the Flaming Lamborghinis (four shots of liqueur, flaming, downed in one gulp) produce a drunkenness of invincible proportions. I learned that, while traveling through Greece, every day can shimmer with joy and possibility, and in fact the only sad moment occurred in magnificent, mountainous Crete, when I realized my companions would be continuing their journey while I had to start making my way home.

In other words, it was a brilliant trip, and I probably shouldn't have come back. Lord knows I nearly cried when I caught my first glimpse of fog, then nearly lost it again a few days later when I realized I had to (gasp) work. But then I suppose things could have been worse, since my first duty consisted of the following: get dressed, drive over to my friend Chloe's house, then head to North Beach for a luxurious two-hour dinner at Stockton Street's eminently praiseworthy Jianna.

Having drawn paychecks at an impressive list of eateries over the years -- the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Hotel Bel Air and Spago in Los Angeles, and North Beach's Moose's -- chef/co-owner Mark Valiani appears to have come into his own at Jianna. Put simply, his "evolving American" cuisine speaks of a chef at the top of his game, drawing freely on the cuisines of Europe, Asia, and, of course, North America to yield stunning dishes that never cost more than $19.

In terms of décor, Jianna is an intimate spot marked by smoky, purplish-blue walls, glints of fiery copper, and a sweeping front window that adds a spacious feel to the otherwise smallish dining room. Nice touches abound: For example, we appreciated the fact that our silverware was arranged in a roughly triangular pattern right down to the butter knives and napkins; that the wine list offered a gorgeously buttery, can't-miss Fetzer Reserve chardonnay along with 14 other wines by the glass and more than 150 by the bottle; and that the men's room (OK, maybe I was the only one to appreciate it) contained a collection of tastefully alluring black-and-white photographs.

But, most of all, we appreciated the food, drawn from a well-crafted, one-page menu in which just about everything (prawns with chili-mint pesto, mint-and-mustard-crusted lamb, sautéed foie gras with white peaches and cream) looked good. We each began with a pair of tidbits that epitomized the benefits of gastronomical innovation -- fresh, unadorned oysters on the half shell (food in its natural state), followed by oysters Jianna (food in its elevated state), draped with crunchy tobiko and haunting bits of dill, then served with a delicate, tangy-sweet verjuice-carrot mignonette, a brilliant juxtaposition of textures and flavors, and by far the best oysters I've had all year.

From there, things fell within an admirable range: quite good to undeniably excellent. An example of the former would be our first appetizer, the mild house-cured salmon with crisp, savory potato fritters and a piquant tomato-dill vinaigrette, while the latter visited us in the guise of a spicy tuna and tempura shrimp combination. This dish was a work of art: Two slender chives met like dueling foils over a pair of lightly battered shrimp and a pocket of raw tuna drenched with a silky, scintillating wasabi cream. Bits of cucumber, sliced avocado, and edamame (soy beans) added depth and complexity, while a salty-sweet, pan jus-like soy sauce seemed so entirely appropriate we simply had to take a moment to salute the kitchen's expertise.

Meanwhile, a Caesar salad with white anchovies and a Parmesan crisp (fine-grated baked Parmesan) proved a few shades above average, while Chloe's roasted baby beet salad took strides toward the divine. Here, tender beets rested around a delicate cup of Bibb lettuce, the blend sprinkled with a light walnut-mustard vinaigrette -- a simple mix, perhaps, yet one that captured the soul of that timid, ground-dwelling creature, the beet, quite perfectly.

By that point, I was almost glad to be home, because while I love a well-prepared Greek meal, I adore San Francisco cuisine more. The only disappointment among entrees was a lack of lamb (the kitchen had run out), so we made do with that perpetual refuge for the culinarily unadventurous, steak. In this case we got a lightly charred New York strip loin with crumbled blue cheese, a mild port demi-glace, a side of fresh green beans, and potatoes gratin, all of which proved satisfying, but no more. Huge, pillowy sea scallops seared until they took on a shadow of crispness, then set atop a mountain of sweet potato purée laced with snap peas, golden chanterelle mushrooms, and a light curry cream, took us to a more interesting place, but still paled in comparison to our third entree, a crisp, juicy, impossibly flavorful skillet-seared duck breast with fried rice, Chinese broccoli, and an exquisite huckleberry ginger sauce.

Jianna doesn't offer desserts, but rather, petit desserts, which are nearly as large as what you'd find elsewhere and considerably less expensive. I like this idea (I mean, why get two big sweets when you can get three medium ones for the same price?), and liked it even more when our waiter presented us with a luscious apple tarte Tatin with vanilla bean ice cream and cinnamon crème anglaise, a rich, molten, flourless chocolate cake that put a blush on Chloe's cheek unlike anything I've ever seen, and a perfect buttermilk panna cotta with fresh strawberries and toasted almonds.

After trying a bite of everything, Chloe looked away from the table for approximately two seconds, then looked back at the suddenly empty dessert plate and asked, "Where did they go? How did you do that?" (Magic, of course.) For a final treat, we staged a Taylor Fladgate vs. Dow's 20-year-old tawny port battle royal, the latter a bit more fruity and bold, the former a bit more silky and honey-sweet, both more than adequate to ease a wretched, Greece-sick malakas like myself back into the daily grind.

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Greg Hugunin

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