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Rock Soup

Wednesday, Feb 27 2002
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In a childhood crowded with Curious George, Augustus Gloop, and the collected works about Tintin and his dog Snowy, Stone Soup was one of my favorite works of literature. It tells the story of three soldiers who wander, cold and hungry, into a town of wary and belligerent villagers. Turned away from every door, they borrow a kettle, build a fire, gather up some rocks and well water, and throw together a pot of what they call stone soup. The three men taste it, rhapsodize over its flavor, and wonder if anything might improve it. Fascinated, the villagers emerge from their huts, gather around the kettle, and, one by one, contribute an ingredient or two from their meager larders -- a handful of salt, a head of cabbage, an onion, a piece of sausage. The soup thickens with ingredients and common purpose, and by nightfall it has become a rich and delicious feast the villagers enjoy along with the soldiers.

The moral of the story -- well, you know the moral of the story. In any case, I've loved soup ever since. The damp warmth and herbal fragrance of a big bowl of the stuff perfectly delineates the concept of comfort. Soup is rife with both uniform pleasures and regional distinctions. I've enjoyed clam chowder in Boston, conch chowder in the Bahamas, she-crab soup in Charleston, menudo in L.A., stracciatella in Florence, gazpacho in Barcelona, turtle soup in New Orleans, matzo ball soup in New York, artichoke soup in Pescadero, and a truly memorable cream of leek soup at the Savoy Tivoli back in 1970. I've even been known to throw together the occasional borscht, Germiny à l'épinards, and kaeng tom yam kung myself -- usually with a little help from my fellow villagers.

There's good food to be had at Rock Soup, an 8-month-old Outer Mission gathering place that takes its name from the old fable, but none of it involves soup. This is a disappointment. One would think that a place with the word soup in its moniker would excel at creamy bisques, hearty chowders, spicy gumbos, and delicious consommés from around the globe. But when we arrived on a stormy evening, with the rain pouring down and the wind whipping up 29th Street -- ideal conditions for a rejuvenating bowl of soup -- the black bean was watery and flavorless despite the hearty texture of the beans and the fragrance of cilantro; the tortilla was similarly bland and thin, its side of avocado, chilies, and chips notwithstanding; and the chicken noodle featured none of the soothing benefits one would yearn for on such a night. You'd do better in your home kitchen with a blender, a bouillon cube, a couple of vegetables, and a kettle of tap water.

There are other reasons to visit Rock Soup. As befits a place named after the fable, it's a community hangout with neighborhood types from Bernal Heights, Noe Valley, Glen Park, and the surrounding districts enjoying the friendly vibrations and the casual atmo. A variety of live music (folk, jazz, and blues, for the most part) plays almost every evening, which can kick up a hell of a racket in this acoustically challenged space. The restaurant is situated in a former bank with vaulted ceilings, stone floors, ornamental sconces, and a gorgeous Tiffany-esque chandelier, lending the place a majestic aesthetic missing from most coffeehouses but contributing to the noise level. Several of the non-soup dishes, although simply prepared, are satisfying and inexpensive -- not a bad combo in these hard times.

The Brunswick stew, for instance, is a good, down-home meal in itself, with its shards of richly seasoned beef, corn kernels, tomato chunks, onion, and spices served over creamy, buttery, piping-hot mashed potatoes. The meatloaf sandwich is another comfort-food triumph. A slab of warm, moist meatloaf comes wrapped in chewy, smoky bacon and presented between toasted slices of Metropolitan's exemplary white bread. The whole thing melts together in your mouth. The risotto is a disappointment: an unexciting mess of spinach, mushrooms, and tepid, undercooked rice that obviously didn't receive the attention such a temperamental dish demands. But the chicken pot pie is more like it. Despite its undersalted flavor (which is easily remedied), the combination of plump white meat, tender baby vegetables, thick (but not gloppy) white gravy, and pleasantly doughy top crust works well. The house bruschetta -- crunchy slices of sourdough topped with the irresistible combination of sweet apple and pungent blue cheese -- makes a fine starter, side dish, or snack.

Among the best things on Rock Soup's menu are its two desserts. The Hershey bar cake is light but every bit as rich as its namesake, a big slab of endorphins accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream from the incomparable Mitchell's just up the street. Ice cream pie (aka mud pie) is a San Francisco tradition of long standing, and Rock Soup's rendition is a proud example of the genre. Everything you could want in a dessert is present and accounted for: thick fudge, crunchy toasted pecans, and more of that dreamy vanilla ice cream, all of it served up in a delicate crust made mostly of ginger snaps and butter. Yum.

The wine list consists of eight reasonably priced local and imported vintages, each available by the glass and the bottle. A fine alternative is the draught Hoegaarden, a top-fermenting Belgian wheat beer spiced with Curaçao and coriander. It's an appropriately welcoming brew for the surroundings, especially when it's dark and cold out, the music is lively, the spirits are friendly, and there's a slab of ice cream pie on the horizon. Actual soup isn't essential to stone soup, after all.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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