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The Comforts of Home 

Home

Wednesday, Apr 10 2002
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The neon sign over the entrance reads "Welcome Home," but Home isn't like any home I've ever been in. Its mood leans more toward the hipster lounge than, say, the Cleaver household. The décor is too impassively sleek for the disarray we associate with everyday domestic life. Most subversive of all, the stuff from the kitchen is mostly delicious.

This isn't to say there aren't homelike aspects to the place. Kitchen-cupboard odds and ends out of some Eisenhower-era sitcom decorate the otherwise moderne setting. Adjacent to the dining room is a tobacco-friendly patio, referred to in true Mayberry fashion as the Back Porch. There's even a dysfunctional family dynamic at work: The maitre d' is like a controlling, nasty-tempered older brother, while the waitstaff takes on the traditional roles of diplomatic middle siblings, easing the clientele through their meal.

The menu also sports domestic aspects. Cream and comfort are recurring culinary themes. Among the rouille, bruschetta, farro, and passion fruit, insurgent elements like brisket, pot roast, and macaroni and cheese rest like favorite cousins at a family gathering. Despite the cell phone-and-Lemon Drop atmo, owners John Hurley, Stu Gordon, and Lance Dean Velasquez have attempted to create a place where homesick auslanders at the brink of the continent can relive the tastes and smells of their far-flung youth -- with a few Left Coast flourishes thrown in.

Hurley, Executive Chef Velasquez, and former partner Frank Everett opened and closed the restaurant JohnFrank in this same location over the course of the past year. Their new venue retains many of JohnFrank's characteristics -- the slick interior, the upscale comfort food, the unavoidable low-slung chain-restaurant architecture -- but aside from less arugula, a more modest wine list, and smaller portions (and prices), the main difference between Home and JohnFrank is that Home contains, well, customers.

They seem happy to be there, too. Velasquez, a veteran of Campton Place and the Ritz-Carlton Dining Room, has assembled a menu that's a bit more rustic than JohnFrank's while still retaining the latter's multicultural accents. One survivor from the old menu was well worth resurrecting: the potato gnocchi, which are so pillowy that they really do seem to melt in your mouth. These light buds have an earthy potato taste that blends well with the Reggiano-rich cream sauce, the sweet baby peas, and the salty shards of Black Forest ham. All the comforts of home also feature in the white bean soup, a thick, warm bisque with the smoky essence of ham hocks. The Dungeness crab remoulade is a misfire, however. Instead of a local variation on New Orleans' shrimp remoulade, in which jumbo prawns rest in a garlicky, cayenne-infused sauce, what you get here is a lightweight tartar sauce with no discernible crabmeat or much depth of flavor. A better seafood option is the ceviche of the day, which on the night of our visit was North Atlantic salmon. Ceviche's marinating process can overwhelm the taste of any fish, but in this case the citrus and spices seemed to highlight the salmon's silky texture. To top it off, the dish comes with a dollop of cilantro-scented guacamole and corn chips in long rectangles.

The menu's creamy focus is exemplified in the shrimp risotto. Hearty and chewy, the rice is aromatic with the absorbed essences of spinach and saffron, while half a dozen plump, juicy prawns provide brine and bite. The snazziest thing on the menu is the steamy, tender mahi mahi, which gets most of its flavor from a drizzle of aioli and its bed of marinated farro, a moist, garlic-steeped cousin to couscous. The duck confit with cannellini beans and sausage is less cassoulet than casserole; served in a crock like its Gallic forebear, it's cooked so long that it becomes a salty, dried-out mess with no distinguishing characteristics or individual flavors. But the Niman Ranch pork tenderloin is thick, supple, and beautifully flavored with a subtle molasses glaze. It's accompanied by marinated red cabbage with a hint of vinegar and a luscious hillock of buttery grits suffused with pungent tasso ham. We also ordered a side dish of macaroni and cheese, which came to the table bubbling and fragrant but tasted like the Kraft boxed variety of our youth, except that it wasn't orange and it cost $4.50. A more pungent cheese and pasta cooked al dente would've been nice.

Another JohnFrank veteran, pastry chef Claire Legas, has set aside the macadamia brittles, peanut butter mousses, and black currant tea ice creams of her previous dessert menu in favor of simpler, more satisfying offerings. The dark chocolate almond brownie is a hedonist's delight: a dense, intense triangle of chocolate torte ribboned with mousse and studded with almonds, served with feng shui elegance at the base of one of the restaurant's signature huge, bone-white platters. The rhubarb crisp, a JohnFrank carry-over, doesn't have quite enough tangy rhubarb pucker, but it's warm and soothing with a wonderful fruity, crumbly consistency. The passion fruit Twinkie is as crackpot as it sounds. It looks terrific in the art deco tradition, two hollowed-out columns of pale sponge cake filled with ivory-colored cream and set on end in a pool of mango coulis. But the cake has no character, the coulis is bland, and the passion fruit cream tastes odd. The mascarpone pudding, on the other hand, is worth ordering; it's a deep bowl of fluffy mousse with the subtly piquant flavor of the Italian dessert cheese. Marinated tangerine sections and two soft, spicy ginger cookies accompany this stellar meal-closer.

The 13-item wine list is eclectic enough to include vintages from France, Spain, Italy, and the Northwest alongside selections from wineries in Monterey and Sonoma; each comes by the glass. (Hogue's Columbia Valley Fumé Blanc is especially good with the risotto.) The beers include Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Pyramid Hefeweizen, and Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale as well as -- yes! -- Pabst Blue Ribbon. You'll find house cocktails, too, among them decidedly unsuburban potables like the Homeboy, the Twister, and the Pink Pussycat. Sip them at the long, gleaming bar -- or better yet, at one of the window-side tables looking out on the busy intersection of Market, Church, and 14th streets. This immediate panorama might be the homiest aspect of Home, these busy, bustling, streetcar-clogged thoroughfares that represent many a newcomer's brand-new home.

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Matthew Stafford

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