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Seedling 

Redwood Park

Wednesday, Jan 30 2002
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When Elisabeth Daniel opened for business at the edge of the Financial District a little over a year ago, the times were still ripe for a sumptuous new San Francisco restaurant out of the Ernie's/Masa's/La Folie tradition. Redwood Park, which opened seven weeks ago in the same glittering neighborhood, has even higher aspirations. Its credentials are impeccable. Michael Mina, the man behind Aqua, Charles Nob Hill, and other culinary landmarks, is the owner. Heading up the kitchen is George Morrone, the superstar chef who helped put both Aqua and the Fifth Floor on the Zagat-anointed map. The menu combines classic French cuisine with whimsical favorites out of the Morrone repertoire. A reputed $4 million-plus was spent transforming the old Vertigo restaurant into a sleek shrine to the culinary arts. The setting is indeed dramatic, situated as it is at the base of the Transamerica Pyramid overlooking a tranquil grove of coast redwoods.

The question, of course, is whether all this gustatory velvet can cut it in our newly downsized world. Early capacity crowds, most of them swathed in Armani, seem to indicate that it can. Designer Tony Chin has created two spaces where their hunger can be satiated. The main downstairs restaurant is elegant in a sleek, Scandinavian sort of way, ideal to the presentation of Morrone's richer creations. Things are more casual in the upstairs grill, with its long, attractive bar and quiet alcoves where diners can sample somewhat simpler fare in softly lit comfort. Both levels benefit from Morrone's striking presentations -- duos and trios of delicacies prepared tableside and proffered in witty, intricate combinations. These extravaganzas are lovely to contemplate and inspire no little anticipation, but by the time you make your way down to the dishes' actual flavors and textures, they don't quite live up to the platters, settings, and prices.

Our visit to the downstairs restaurant began with the trio of soups en croûte, three small crocks topped with puff pastry, each presented with a differently seasoned mascarpone. There's something wonderfully hopeful about digging into a layer of flaky pastry and being hit with a fragrant cloud of steam, but these split pea, shallot, and mushroom creations were so similar in creaminess, coloring, and flavoring (perfunctory) that just one style would have sufficed. Next up was the Caesar salad prepared tableside, a nearly extinct genre of performance art I keenly appreciate. This one befitted the elegance of the surroundings and the attentive service: Our server wheeled a cart laden with chilled romaine, coddled egg, anchovy fillets, amber olive oil, wafer-thin crostini, and a slab of Parmigiano, then assembled the whole with careful finesse. Since the salad was prepared to order, my disappointment was probably my own fault -- I should've hollered, "More anchovies! More Parmesan!" -- but the end result was closer to the thin nouvelle cuisine Caesars you get everywhere nowadays than to the glorious, garlicky mess still available at Alfred's and other old-time holdouts.

The menu is rich with the ingredients Morrone has used with such panache in the past -- foie gras, caviar, quail, lobster -- but the best entree is the simply prepared, honest-to-God Dover sole (most places serve local sole), a fish worth showcasing on its own terms. This denizen of the frigid English Channel is so fantastically delicate that masking it with a creamy sauce would be positively actionable. Fortunately, it came served with an unfussy lime meunière studded with black walnuts, which accentuated the fish's crisp, moist, feathery nature. Deboned at our table, the fish arrived with small individual pots of steamed heirloom potatoes and roasted beets of various colors. The New Zealand beef tasting was a more elaborate proposition. A perfectly good rib eye and a perfectly good New York steak were paired, respectively, with a thick béarnaise and an unexciting Diane sauce (a light cream with brandy and pepper). The results, while satisfactory, didn't attain that meaty nirvana occasionally encountered at, say, Harris'. Both cuts came with hot, crunchy pommes frites and a delicious spinach concoction so submerged in cream that it sent the whole platter into cholesterol overdrive.

We finished our downstairs meal with an uncomplicated, marvelous napoleon in which layers of buttery puff pastry alternated with layers of tart lemon curd. It shared the platter with moist squares of pound cake flavored with poppy seed and verbena, topped with tiny scoops of lemon ice and pungent mascarpone ice cream. Another dessert, the made-to-order ice cream, set off further culinary fireworks. (When a cart passed our table after we'd ordered it, one diner said, "Thank God; I thought they were going to crank the ice cream in front of us, too.") The stuff isn't whipped into shape until it's requested, and that late effort makes for a pleasantly soft texture, but as with the soups, the two offerings (vanilla bean and toasted coconut) were too similar, both bland and beige. The saving graces were the complements: a rich brownie with a warm, gooey, bittersweet interior and a short-crust pastry topped with grilled slices of pineapple.

After the watchful service and formal ambience of the downstairs dining room, the upstairs grill felt like a good old San Francisco hangout. The friendly atmosphere matched the spare, elegant walnut furniture, the high-backed chairs, and the cozy alcoves with private stereo speakers and redwood views. What's more, the grill's prices were reasonable and the food, for the most part, was simple and good.

We began with a beautifully configured fillet of beef tartare, a mound of glistening, hand-cut steak cubes surrounded by radiating spokes of capers, red and white onion, lemon zest, mustard, and parsley. A quail yolk nestled on top, and a bowl of olive oil sat nearby. If the eventual mixture tasted more of mustard and capers than of endorphin-raising red meat, its satisfactions were nevertheless plentiful. The tartare was especially tasty with the french fries, the first I've had hereabouts that approach the silky texture of the Belgian variety (they're even served in a traditional paper cone). Redwood Park's secret: duck fat. (The malt vinegar aioli was also an asset.) Another starter, the twice-baked lobster soufflé, was more elegant yet equally rewarding. Lobster essence infused every pocket of this light, delicate creation, with shards of sweet lobster meat resting at the bottom.

Among the entrees, the suckling pig cassoulet was a real disappointment. Instead of a hearty, slow-cooked casserole, we got a thin bean soup dotted here and there with fatty pork. The beans felt tough and the garlic cloves stiff -- indications that the pot sat on the fire too short a time for the flavors to melt together. The sausages, too, seemed uniformly leathery and lackluster. The wood-grilled sand dabs (boned and reconstructed at the table, natch) were tender, if a bit dense, with a delicious lime vinaigrette; unfortunately, the sauce masked the delicate flavor of the fish. Some of the best foods we ate at Redwood Park were the sides that came with this dish: a canister of bright green, leafy spinach with bits of grilled onion and a potato gratin with plenty of spudly flavor and a minimum of unnecessary opulence.

The desserts upstairs were exemplary. There was nothing fancy about the butterscotch pudding, which was just a deep, comforting bowl of cream, butter, brown sugar, and spice accompanied by half a dozen tiny cookies. The apple confit turned out to be deceptively plain: thin slices of Granny Smith apple baked with walnuts and the apple's own juices until soft, sweet, and fragrant.

The wine list is the same upstairs and down, a thick, impressive catalog of thoughtfully chosen vintages from around the globe, predominantly France. Sommelier William Sherer has put together a cellar of rare treasures (including a 1929 Mouton-Rothschild, yours for a mere $2,300) and more affordable bottles from lesser-known vintners in Chile, Spain, Italy, Australia, and even California. The markup is considerable -- a goodly percentage of the offerings rest in the three-figure range -- but two dozen come by the glass. One, La Jérôme's 1999 Côte du Rhône, is young but well balanced, with a pleasant, unaffected spiciness. Hopefully Redwood Park will eventually attain the same goal.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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