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It's been a while since a restaurant made as dazzling a first impression on me as RNM. My friend Rachel and I were seated in the mezzanine, a dark, secluded balcony where stylish couples lounged on couches, sipping wine, nibbling small plates, watching Blade Runner play soundlessly on the flat-screen TV. Below us, carefully focused track lights illuminated polished, dark wood tables. Gorgeous, chain-link curtains stretched from floor to ceiling. The chandelier, a massive skein of steel cords tipped with tiny lights, struck us as vaguely ominous but very, very cool. I half expected the thing to come alive and envelop one of our fellow diners. Even the ladies' room had attitude: According to Rachel, it contained a print depicting dogs prostrating themselves before a woman in a slinky robe. Intrigued, I visited the gentlemen's quarters and found ... a poem. Though I'm all in favor of literary endeavor, I have to admit I felt slightly ripped off.
San Francisco, CA 94117
Region: Haight/ Fillmore
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Salmon confit $10
Grilled prawns $11
"White Castle" burgers $10
Pork tenderloin with red pepper ragout $13
Sorbet in waffle cones $6
Ferrande sauvignon blanc $6 per glass/$22 per bottle
Open for dinner Wednesday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday till 11:30 p.m.
Muni: 6, 7, 66, 71
Noise level: loud
Still, I do love the setup at the Lower Haight's hot new eatery, which brings upscale cuisine to a neighborhood better known for ethnic restaurants, fast-food joints, and boho beer-and-wine bars. RNM -- named after chef/owner Justine Miner's late father -- strikes the perfect balance between classy and casual; it's a place where you can have a formal, sit-down meal or grab a quick bite at one of two gleaming, stainless steel counters.
The menu offers a trendy selection of French-, Italian-, and Americana-style small plates. Unfortunately, I wasn't always as impressed with their execution as I wanted to be. Some dishes shone, a few fell flat, and many seemed to need the elusive spark that separates a good plate from a great one.
To put it another way, when I think back on RNM I recall admiring the edgy décor, noting the hip young crowd, and enjoying myself thoroughly -- then I remember the food. These aren't top-tier small plates along the lines of Isa or Chez Nous, but RNM is groovier than both of those places put together, and the operation as a whole is solid. A kindly host greets arriving customers at the door, service is smooth and friendly, and the 85-bottle wine list ($22-86, with nine choices by the glass) beats the pants off anything in these parts. The list includes some excellent choices, such as the clean, crystalline Massone Gavi or a Ferrande sauvignon blanc with hints of honey and green apple. The Pipers Brook pinot noir had a tannic finish at first, but softened as it breathed.
The food doesn't quite fall into the classic small-plate mold. Choices run from standard appetizers to pizzas to mini entrees with a full complement of meat, veggie, and starch. Dishes are beautifully plated, and at their best reveal a kitchen that could rival any similar establishment in San Francisco.
Take the salmon confit, a clever riff on the traditional French dish. Velvety stewed salmon and strips of smoked salmon wrapped together in a svelte bundle produced a wonderful contrast of texture and taste, the plate finished superbly with a crunchy fennel and radish salad, dabs of crème fraîche, a touch of dill, and a light lemon vinaigrette. Equally dazzling were the grilled hearts of romaine, a selection I remember fondly from Julia McClaskey's stint at Dine during the dot-com heyday (Miner was her sous-chef). A hint of smoke accented the crisp greens, piled in a neat heap with thin-sliced pear, toasted hazelnuts, and nuggets of tangy blue cheese.
Other starters lacked the harmony of RNM's finest offerings. A chunky white corn soup topped with a poached oyster and a drizzle of truffle oil proved one-dimensional, in that the sweetness of the corn overwhelmed the other ingredients. Plump grilled prawns, served over corn with a Maui onion salad and toasted sunflower seeds, were a mixed bag: Each element was fine by itself, but the whole never exceeded the sum of its parts. The cornmeal-crusted tomato Napoleon with buffalo mozzarella and basil sounded like an interesting fusion of the French dessert with an Italian caprese, but it didn't come together. Though we adored the golden crust, the tomatoes were a bit mushy and the other flavors never came through. The house-made charcuterie plate, meanwhile, felt like a tired standard that didn't belong on the menu of a sleek new restaurant. The dish included a slab of creamy pork pâté, serrano ham, pepperoni, spicy coppa salami, cornichons, toasted bread, marinated olives, and -- the only taste that was in any way captivating -- duck rillettes tossed with microgreens.
The thin-crust pizzas were the biggest letdown. During one visit, an otherwise tasty pie with pancetta, radicchio, and (an unexpected choice) thyme came loaded with so much mozzarella that the crust left our fingers coated with grease. During another visit, we tried the special -- a sauce-free pizza with artichokes, ricotta, and lemon oil -- and while its crust was perfectly crisp, the lemon oil was so jarring that I found myself missing the pizza from the first dinner.
The offerings improved, however, as we trekked farther down the menu. Buttery seared scallops arrived nestled in a whisper-light artichoke purée, with a zippy romesco sauce and picholine olives. Medallions of pancetta-wrapped pork tenderloin showed the kitchen's full potential: Served over a pool of creamy polenta, the medallions were blanketed with a silky, sweet, roasted red pepper ragout. Normally I'm not a burger guy, but curiosity demanded that I sample RNM's "White Castle" variety -- a pair of juicy patties sandwiched between focaccia with a luscious (if slightly goopy) mix of white cheddar, caramelized onions, tomatoes, and greens, served with thin-cut fries.
Curiosity also demanded that I try two of the more gimmicky desserts. House-made Oreos each contained enough rich, satisfying chocolate to flavor a dozen of their store-bought brethren, but we got only two of them, plus a bland vanilla shake -- a huge disappointment for six bucks. Better to have the trio of sorbets in waffle cones, neatly presented in a wooden rack. A delicate lemon sorbet led to a tart passion fruit, followed by an overly sugary raspberry, all of them topped with fresh berries. Be sure to share the sorbets with someone special -- after all, you'll be licking from the same cone. The trio can't be considered fine dining, but it is fun dining, and there's nothing wrong with that.
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