By Molly Gore
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Sometimes the meals you remember most vividly are not the best ones -- or even ones you actually consumed. You might shudder every time you walk past the pizza place where your boyfriend broke up with you (he continued eating the pepperoni pie, the garlic bread, the salad caprese, the heartless bastard, while you wondered if you'd ever eat again). Or you might dream of sharing Emma Bovary's sumptuous supper at the fancy ball that opened her eyes to the world of luxury previously unknown to her: truffles, lobsters, quails, iced champagne, pomegranates, and pineapple.
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.
270 Columbus Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94133-4518
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Grilled mahi-mahi $12
Filet au poivre $15
Duck confit $9.50
Gorgonzola crème brûlée $7
Black-and-white chocolate mousse $6.50
Almond pyramid $1.75
Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., and for brunch Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Monday
Wheelchair accessible on ground floor only
Muni: 12, 15, 30, 41
Noise level: low
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.