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Rise and Shine 

La Luna

Wednesday, Feb 6 2002
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La Luna is one of the new Nuevo Latino restaurants that have been trickling into the city for the past few years. Of course, there are no old Nuevo Latino restaurants in San Francisco, which is a shame: New Yorkers were enjoying this tasty fare back when most of us were still opening our first e-mail accounts. A bold, vibrant style of cooking, Nuevo Latino marries cuisines from just south of the Rio Grande to the tip of Cape Horn (plus the Caribbean and Spain) with familiar French techniques. Every time I review a Nuevo Latino place I wish the city had more of them, as I did while visiting La Luna. Owner Odette Carmona has opened a charming little bistro where friendly service meets affordable prices and a clever, wonderfully refined creativity.

The place is located on 24th Street near Folsom in what you might call an authentic corner of the Mission: During dinner, for example, someone traced graffiti into the dirt on my car window. But don't let that scare you -- the weekend scene at Blondie's is far more terrifying. Besides, as you stroll down 24th, gazing at the joyerías and panaderías as car stereos pump gangsta rap and oompah bass, you might think the Mission still has some of the flavor that supposedly disappeared amid the gentrification of the late '90s.

Certainly, La Luna has it (flavor, that is). It's a warm, lively spot where sunny yellow walls play off vivid blue sheets of canvas hung from the ceiling. Sleek droplights bear a grinning moon pattern, and a trompe l'oeil street scene painted on one wall adds an illusion of space to the tiny dining room. The place was packed as my friend Petra and I strolled in -- just after a group of 21. Fortunately, we had a reservation, and as Odette greeted us we saw that exactly one table sat empty. The restaurant was occupied by a young, cultured crowd (if I had to guess, I'd say at least three of the customers have travel posters from Costa Rica in their bedrooms). Petra thought our waitress was "extravagantly beautiful." I eventually agreed, but for the first few minutes I couldn't take my eyes off the menu.

The thing about a new-school cooking style like Nuevo Latino is that with some two dozen cuisines to draw on one could easily get carried away. At La Luna, on the other hand, chef Juan Mejia shows an impressive restraint. The relatively short menu offers classic dishes and familiar combinations of flavors sparked with enough inventiveness to make you feel you're exploring something new. Similarly, the 21-bottle wine list ($18-30, 16 by the glass) is brief but well chosen, focusing on vintages from Argentina, Chile, Spain, and California. A small sampling treated us well. The Medrano Estates malbec was a soft, lush, pinot noir-like ambrosia. A chardonnay of the same brand proved a crisp, dry white with a hint of sweetness, which went well with La Luna's lighter seafood dishes. We found a bolder, bigger sip in the velvety-smooth Concho y Toro cabernet. The restaurant also offers a sharp, fruity sangria and a limited selection of bottled beers.

There's no greater test of a small restaurant than to see how it serves its regular customers after taking orders for a party of 21. In our case, the large delegation (those bastards) cleaned the place out of two of the most tempting choices, plantain balls with pork and banana cream and trout grilled in plantain leaves with caper-lemon sauce. Entrees were slow in arriving, but all told the kitchen handled the rush just fine. Appetizers in particular were spectacular. An order of empanadas consisted of crisp yet chewy pastry shells filled with a simple, addictive blend of chicken, bell peppers, onion, and tomato. Seafood tamals translated as a pair of corn husks filled with moist, fluffy masa laced with clams and bits of corn, served with wedges of feta, olives, and a mildly fiery jalapeño-cheese "pesto." Though the sides (pesto excepted) were rather ordinary, they were a brilliant way to add complexity and variety of flavor to the dish.

Just about everyone likes deep-fried calamari, so we weren't surprised to see it on La Luna's menu. Though the thicker pieces were a bit rubbery, it was still a fine starter; it arrived with a lemony "sunshine" aioli colored with a hint of annatto. Our salad, impeccably dressed with a subtle orange-hazelnut vinaigrette, was simply excellent, offering a well-balanced blend of mixed greens, juicy orange, toasted hazelnuts, and delicately bitter hearts of palm.

Entrees didn't quite live up to the starters. On the two fish dishes, the fillets were served with the skin still attached (were we supposed to eat the skin?). The mango sauce that came with our salmon was ladled over the skin side, and the fillet was raw in the center. In all fairness, though, the kitchen had just knocked out 21 entrees, and another minute or so on the grill would have produced a fabulous plate. That said, we did enjoy a mound of heavenly coconut rice laced with sweet, fresh mango. Thick, meaty fillets of yellowtail were perfectly cooked, but again, there was the skin, and both the accompanying calamari rice and lemon-cilantro sauce lacked the zip that characterizes La Luna's best dishes.

Among them, count an entree that many will consider an old friend: carne asada. At its worst, carne asada can be as dry as grilled rawhide. At the other end of the spectrum, you get La Luna's version -- a sheet of juicy, tender, flavorful top sirloin served with rich, smoky black beans and crunchy tortilla strips. Here, the Nuevo Latino touch was light; atop the asada sat a classic roasted tomato salsa and a dusky ancho chile aioli. A nudge was all it took to elevate the familiar to the extraordinary.

Normally, you get three dessert choices at La Luna, but if 21 people order just before you do, you may get only one. It happened to us, but things worked out just fine: The remaining option, sol y luna, consisted of a dense, moist crescent of bittersweet chocolate cake topped with a dab of sultry dulce de leche and one of the shortbread and caramel cookies known as alfajores, the whole accompanied by fresh raspberries, raspberry sauce, and slices of tart kiwi. It was so good that I went back the following night to try another dessert -- Flan Extravaganza. As the name implies, this ain't your mother's flan. A firm, creamy custard rested on a sol y luna- esque bittersweet chocolate cake capped with whipped cream and chocolate and raspberry sauces. According to Odette, the chocolate cake overlap will soon be remedied, but it didn't bother me one bit. After all, offering two versions of the same excellent pastry is better than serving 10 different mediocre ones, and it would take more than a little repetition on the dessert menu to eclipse an operation as promising as this.

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Greg Hugunin

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