By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
By Max A. Cherney
By Anna Roth
By Alex Hochman
By Anna Roth
For several years I indulged in a hobby both personally enriching and fiscally exorbitant: the creation of elaborate, sit-down ethnic meals. I had gotten hold of the Time-Life Foods of the World series of cookbooks, 27 volumes of national/regional cookery with splendid photography and text by the likes of Waverly Root and M.F.K. Fisher, and like some fanatic angler or sky diver or stamp collector, I became obsessed with the notion of cooking a long and many-coursed meal based on each and every one of the volumes.
San Francisco, CA 94133
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
Grilled baby octopus -- $10
Salt cod brandade -- $8
Braised Sonoma rabbit -- $19.25
Roasted black bass -- $26
Seasonal granita -- $7
Crème brûlée trio -- $7.50
Open for lunch daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to midnight.
Parking: inconceivable. Muni: 15, 30, 41, 45
Noise level: pleasant
Every dinner had to be (had to be!) as authentic as possible, which meant shopping forays to Russian delicatessens, Indian supermarkets, and globally inclined liquor stores. I combed secondhand record stores and library CD racks for appropriate aural accents -- Hanunóo Music From the Philippines, say, or Let's Be Merry in Salzburg. The cooking process -- a methodical, time-consuming weekend of sushi rolling, samosa wrapping, or tapas collating -- was inevitably chaotic. But the results were usually commendable.
Except for the main dishes. It might've been that I used up all my wits and prowess on the starters and the desserts (my favorite aspects of a meal) and was dreading the prospect of tackling another elaborate course. Or it might've been that I was unwilling to get experimental on the most expensive part of the menu.
A lot of the restaurants I've been visiting lately have the same problem: terrific beginnings and memorable endings and a whole lotta nothing in between. Pinocchio is a case in point. After you settle into the restaurant's handsome surroundings and sip at a glass of Valpolicella or a freshly shaken cocktail, the appetizers arrive on small, square platters garlanded with flowers, aromatic with unexpected spices. After the first bite of some entirely new and complex flavor sensation, you are seduced. Then the equally attractive but culinarily shallow entrees arrive, and you find yourself confused and deflated, pondering the meaning of it all. Then the desserts turn up like the cavalry, rich with chocolate and butter and gustatory wit, and after a final sip and nibble you stroll out into the night, satisfied anew.
The restaurant's situated in the classic Columbus Avenue flatiron that once housed Tavolino and still boasts such signature North Beach touches as tile floors, carved woodwork, vintage photographs of Roma and Napoli, and floor-to-ceiling windows offering prime glimpses of the passing parade. (Sidewalk tables out front offer more interactive contemplation.) Terra-cotta accents and arched, vaulted ceilings enhance the inevitable Mediterranean mise en scène, and next to the open kitchen and its bushels of fresh greens and iced platters of fish there's a handsome marble-topped bar where you can sit and sip and pretend you're on the Piazza San Marco. It's the perfect place, in other words, for a bittersweet negroni, which you can get tarted up with flavored vodka but which is at its best the old-fashioned way, with just sweet vermouth tempering the Campari and a dollop of gin contributing its juniper jolt.
This attractive yet predictable setting has been infused with flavors and aromas wildly distinct from the neighborhood's usual gnocchi-driven fare. For instance, they serve a plate of thinly sliced smoked trout dressed with a blood-orange vinaigrette and shavings of bittersweet fennel and sour apple. The dish's confluence of citric smokiness and understated pungency results in a fresh, light antipasto with an unexpected afterbite. Or take the brandade, a purée of salt cod, oil, and garlic folded into mashed Peruvian purple potatoes. The saltiness of the fish and the earthiness of the spuds are an ideal match of elemental flavors, dazzlingly presented on soft flatbread sprinkled with a bouquet of spring blossoms (watercress, borage, and Johnny-jump-ups). Another appetizer is equally comforting -- a creamy, rich polenta with plenty of body and a complex substratum of flavors, among them fenugreek, truffle oil, and a jus of wild game. A ragout of wild mushrooms gives the dish contrasting heft. The grilled octopus is simplicity itself -- baby polpetto broiled to the smoky stage and served on a bed of feathery frisée. Nothing more is needed: This mollusk is a bit on the chewy side but is perfectly cooked and has the smoky succulence of good tandoori.
These edgy appetizers raised the possibility of a continuously inventive dining experience. Instead, when entree time rolled around we got three pastel shades of gnocchi -- they call them "gnocchetti" -- that were perfectly lovely in appearance and texture but had no particular taste (they're made of red beets, spinach, and saffron, but only the latter flavor asserted itself). The accompanying lemon-butter sauce and a half-dozen plump prawns provide a bit of oomph. But the farfalle (bow-tie pasta) is something you or I would cook at home after a day at the office -- a bowl of forgettable al dente noodles doused in what's advertised as oven-roasted tomatoes and caramelized onions but tastes like your everyday spaghetti sauce. Even the addition of squidlike cuttlefish can't liven things up. The entree's not bad, but it's not worth 14 smackers either.
The braised Sonoma rabbit is served two ways: as a juicy joint of coniglio and in drier form as sliced fillets. In both cases the slow-roasted shallots and garlic cloves and the bed of creamy polenta steal the show. The specialty of the house is the whole roasted fish of the day (black bass in our case). It's baked in a 500-degree oven to sear it, and the result is ceremoniously boned and filleted at tableside. In the end you're left with a really succulent platter of fish (and, despite the best efforts of the server, several tiny bones), but in terms of taste it gets most of its charge from the marvelous caper/lemon/olive oil sauce poured over it at the last minute. The accompanying spinach is unexciting and a bit gritty and the potatoes are dry and overroasted.
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