A meal I didn't eat last week reminded me of a curious meal I'd had months ago, one that had swum in and out of my consciousness at intervals afterward without ever awakening a desire to revisit the restaurant where it had taken place. I was exploring the various nooks and crannies of the Japan Center, a place I grew almost instantly fond of despite the rather grim and cheerless face it presents to the world. I fantasized doing a Jane Jacobs makeover on the exterior, installing windows in the grimy white stucco, planting flowers, putting a newsstand, a flower shop, a Hello Kitty store along the Post Street façade, painting some sort of stylized Japanese landscape mural along the Geary side, anything to make it look as interesting on the outside as it is within.
Because in addition to noshing around, I enjoyed choosing among the more than 400 different kinds of pens at the Kinokuniya Stationery Store, and picking up a set of Spirited Away postcards at its neighbor, the vast Kinokuniya Book Store. I wandered through Genji Antiques, in the Miyako Mall, the quietest neighborhood in this hidden city-within-the-city, where my nose was intrigued by the sharp, sweet, homey smell of frying onions. It made me hungry; I followed the scent through the corridors, exactly as though it were anthropomorphized into a cartoony, beckoning finger.
It led me into a strange, glassy room, glowing a nacreous pale green. One man, dressed all in black, was sitting and eating at a bar straight out of The Shining; another black-garbed man stood behind it. "Can I see a menu?" I asked. I saw nothing on the sheet he handed me that sounded like the appetizing, aromatic dish the other man was avidly eating. "What is he having?" I asked. "Oh," he shrugged, "he's a friend." Clearly I wasn't, and I left feeling like an Alice who wasn't invited to the tea party.
Something about the encounter felt familiar. It swam up through the haze: The matte-green glass reminded me of another odd room, another curious menu. Months ago I had taken my friends Janice, Adam, and Chester to dinner in North Beach at Schilling, the new outpost of a locally renowned chef who'd surfaced here some time after closing down his place at Market and Valencia.
I'd never been to his previous restaurant, but I'd heard he was a master chocolatier and pastry chef. I was pleased that he'd installed his new place in a once- glorious turn-of-the-last-century building, originally built to house a bank at the prominent, sharply angled southwest corner of Broadway and Columbus, but most recently home to a Carl's Jr.
We entered what seemed to be a deli, though pride of place was given to a case filled with fancy chocolates; another refrigerated case, off to the side, held a few packaged sandwiches and salads. "We're here for dinner," I said. "We have an 8 o'clock reservation." They seemed surprised to see us, but a tall young waitress led us upstairs to a room that seemed equally surprised to be a setting for, well, dinner.
The tables were tiny, round, green glass things, more suited for cocktails, and they were surrounded by bright pink leather chairs that looked uncomfortable. The walls were pale pink, and the round lights on them glowed a brighter pink. The riotous, jungly carpet at our feet was also largely pink. "Korova Milk Bar," Adam and I agreed. The furnishings, I thought, could have been purchased at the going-out-of-business sale of a determinedly modernist cabaret, but everything seemed brand-new, unused.
Big, arched windows overlooked Broadway, but two of the round green tables had been pushed together in the middle of the room in anticipation of our arrival. We were the only inhabitants. We were handed something like a long, slim flip-book, bound in gunmetal silver, which contained several long, slim pages, one each titled Caviar, Cold Bar, Vegetarian, Fish & Seafood, Meat & Poultry (the last three subtitled Small Plates), Fromage & Dessert, and then Brunch, which we ignored for the moment.
We ignored Caviar, too; well, we didn't ignore it, exactly, but gaped a little at its accompaniments of toasted brioche, red onions, sour cream, quail eggs, Absolut Citron granité. Even the low end -- $40 for an ounce of sevruga -- seemed off-kilter, when the highest price elsewhere on the menu was $15 (for filet Gorgonzola, zucchini mousse, oven-dried tomato, merlot-carrot infusion), not to mention the caviar tasting menu, an ounce each of sevruga, osetra, and beluga, which should have cost $167 but whose $170 tab added $3, presumably to cover the 24-karat gold leaf that joined the list of accompaniments. I'd seen gold leaf on desserts and bits of gold floating in exotic liqueurs, but gilding caviar was a new one on me.
Flipping back and forth among the pages, we assembled a meal from the more than two dozen small plates. We began with two soups, one of which, a light-textured, brothy purée of mushrooms (a special that night) was so superb that I anticipated a feast.
But what followed was mostly a rout. The lobster bisque, with a rubbery seafood terrine, was ill-served by what was called "tarragon creamy foam." The presentation of the poached oysters -- a champagne velouté, vegetable julienne, salmon caviar, and a fleuron of flaky pastry -- was flawless, but the oysters themselves were mealy. The baked halibut, with a sweet pea purée, fava beans, chicken jus, and smoked salmon chips, we ordered partly because the flavors didn't come together in our minds -- nor did they on the plate. The duck confit was wildly salty. The only thing I remember about the fried chicken liver is that it was forgettable. There was, however, a good, very generous spinach salad, with currants, caramelized pecans, and Gorgonzola.
For dessert, 10-year-old Chester chose albacore sashimi with Sichuan tuna tartare, pickled ginger, and taro chips. They were out of the sashimi, the tousled-hair, gap-toothed, charming waitress, told us, so she brought us lots of the tartare, which had, I thought, picked up a slight taste of the refrigerator.
The rest of us tried beautiful little cakes of mousses layered on spongecake, the most successful being a mint-infused black-and-white mousse on a layer of chocolate génoise. Suddenly the room changed from bizarre Weimar cabaret to demure Mitteleuropean tearoom. As we got up to leave, three young, attractive Japanese came in and clustered around a table overlooking Broadway.
Cowed a bit by the expensive Statues of Liberty molded in marbled chocolate, we chose only a couple of treats from the case before we left. They were lovely, but the evening hadn't left us with a sweet taste in our mouths. I really didn't get the place. Though I thought about it from time to time, I never got around to scheduling a return trip.
Until the glowing green room in the Japan Center reminded me of those glowing green tables. I enlisted Cathy, who'd been a fan of Schilling's previous venture, to join me for dinner.
Again we were the only diners on the pink mezzanine, even pinker now that the green tables had been cloaked in white linen. The menu had changed, too; it was no longer a long, silvery notebook, but one modest, simplified printed page, with no categories, no caviar, no gold leaf, and much of the exotica pruned away -- 15 dishes. Overlooking Big Al's and the Condor, we chose a balanced meal: a salad to share followed by two fish dishes, two meat.
Cathy was stunned by the kitschy setting. "The other place," she said, "was severely stylish: poured concrete floors; deep, rich, spicy colors, orange and red, which went with the chocolaty sauces. And there was a huge open kitchen."
The kitchen, under less of a strain (and, Cathy pointed out, with Schilling himself in the house) produced a nice little meal: another good, generous, well-dressed salad, seasonal greens enlivened by crispy shallots; a firm square of vanilla-marinated grilled mahi-mahi on a bed of light, thin spaetzle, whose oval shape was echoed by the dish they were served in; and an extravagance of crab tucked into a buckwheat crepe, folded into an appealing square package, then topped by a melting scoop of herbed crème fraîche, something of a modernist's tartare, the dish marred only by an overabundance of saffron.
The duck confit was less salty this time, and well-served by its sauerkraut and layered pommes Sarladaise. The fussy steak dish from the previous menu had disappeared, replaced by a straightforward, chunky filet au poivre, sided by a mountain of tiny, thin, crisp fries flecked with parsley, a "small plate" writ large. We took quite a lot of food home.
I could find no taste of Gorgonzola in the otherwise impeccable Gorgonzola crème brûlée, nor pear in the otherwise charming gâteau Medusa, topped with a tangle of chocolate. And the sweets we chose on the way out -- a molded cherub stuffed with orange-scented chocolate, spicy preserved ginger dipped in milk chocolate, tiny bittersweet truffles, a caramel-filled dome, and an almond pyramid -- were again exquisite. The experience, this time, was much less wacky. But there was still a strange disconnect between the food and the room.