By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Lou Bustamante
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By Max A. Cherney
By Anna Roth
By Alex Hochman
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Remember those final years of the 20th century, when the market was as vertical as the rent on a Russian Hill one-bedroom, recession talk was as meaningless as your standard Web site, and the air was filled with the scents of optimism and SUV exhaust fumes? Scrubbed-faced argonauts poured into San Francisco from Sioux Falls, dreams of obsolescent software dancing in their heads. A newly gilded City Hall glittered above a Tenderloin laundered of all those pesky panhandlers. Dreary old warehouses in SOMA bustled with high-fiving junior executives in Dockers, and a new ballpark rose along the shores of a vibrant if vessel-free Embarcadero. Bars, restaurants, and businesses of all sorts opened and prospered, and there seemed to be a cobalt-colored martini at every elbow.
Muni: N, 30, 42, 45, 76
Noise level: elevated
Martini -- $5
Barbecued spareribs -- $9
Steamed mussels -- $7
Curve burger -- $8
Cookie sandwich -- $7
Chocolate fudge brownie -- $7
Red Hook -- $4/pint
All this has changed, of course, and Curve, a 3-month-old bar/restaurant half a block from Pac Bell Park, exemplifies our current status quo: fiscally apocalyptic yet pleasantly artless. From its broad windows you can look out on a vista of vacant lots and desultory foot traffic. In the large, mahogany-edged, tile-floored bar, with its jukebox, pool table, and timeworn disposition (Curve used to be the Bay City Bar & Grill), patrons quaff liquor with post-bust let's-get-drunk brio and the televisions spill effortlessly into the smallish dining room, giving the place a sports-bar atmo. The restaurant derives much of its personality from its proximity to the ballpark: A curveball is central to its logo, Giants schedules are scattered here and there, and a framed portrait of Barry Bonds has a place of honor in the men's restroom. The décor has an unfinished feel about it, though, featuring those burnt-orange sponged walls familiar to any late-'90s restaurantgoer, with an occasional lacquered-wood wall hanging to offset that evicted-loft look. Service is friendly and down-to-earth -- a request for the cocktail menu earned the response, "Well, we have Corona for three bucks tonight" -- and despite a few concessions to the neighborhood's dwindling trend quotient (shaved fennel, tangerine vinaigrette), the only decent food on the menu is honest, robust American.
The barbecued ribs are a fine example. Good spareribs are at a premium in white-collar S.F. (Brother-in-Laws' soulful, porcine-powered exemplar notwithstanding), but Curve's version had a tender, slow-cooked texture perfectly matched by a spicy, dripping-rich sauce. The ribs came in a starter serving of eight on a bed of pungent mustard greens. Another, fancier American classic, oysters Rockefeller, didn't fare as well. The plate looked terrific -- half a dozen baked bivalves served up hot and bubbly with watercress and spinach -- but the central ingredient, the oysters, tasted old. They were so overpowering that they dominated both the greenery and the thick, lifeless sauce glopped around them.
Steamed clams and mussels made for a better shellfish appetizer. Strikingly presented in a pyramid with twin flanks of garlic toast, the briny little morsels were as juicy as the oysters were dry. Given the accompanying sharp, sweet sauce of fennel, orange rind, and butter, I felt fortunate to have lots of Acme's incomparable sourdough on hand to sop up the last few drops. As for the bread salad, Zuni has nothing to worry about. Instead of soft chunks of sourdough ideal to the task of soaking up a flavorful vinaigrette, Curve paired half a platter of dense, unassailable croutons with a bland dressing that wasn't worth soaking up anyway. The rest of the platter -- mediocre feta, lackluster tomatoes, and your standard spring greens -- was mere filler.
The Curve burger, though not in the same juicy category as those at the Balboa Cafe and Burger Joint, was satisfactorily smoky, tasty even though our "medium rare" order arrived barely pink in the middle. We enjoyed ours with sweet caramelized onions, chunks of Maytag blue cheese, and slender slices of creamy avocado -- a delicious handful. (Other accouterment options include Gruyère, Swiss, cheddar, mushrooms, roasted peppers, and pancetta, each available for an additional dollar.) The thick-cut fries sharing the plate were adequate, though nothing special. The same can be said of the 12-ounce rib eye, a skinny piece of steak half-submerged in a soupy Madeira sauce. Although the liquid was spiked with green peppercorns and the steak had a pleasantly charred flavor, the side of mashed potatoes seemed watery and the meat was tough; the dish cried out for some crisp, clean texture.
The pork tenderloin's a better bet: thick slices of sweet, tender meat touched with a whole-grain mustard jus with plenty of spicy character. A rich ragu of onions, peppers, garlic, spinach, and potatoes made for a robust (if overly salty) accompaniment. The caponata that came with the grilled salmon was also powerful, but not in a good way -- here the intense flavor of the sauce (predominantly capers and olives) overwhelmed the subtle taste of the fish, which lacked that ideal creamy texture to begin with. (As with the burger, we ordered the salmon rare and it arrived at the table nearly medium.) In addition, its plattermate of polenta was cool, gelatinous, and bland, another example of the kitchen's occasional forays into the heavy-handed.
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