By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
By Max A. Cherney
By Anna Roth
By Alex Hochman
By Anna Roth
I didn't have big expectations for our meal when I invited Ron and Dinora to dinner at the new Fillmore Grill, largely because of the restaurant's name. The word "grill" is usually code for short-order cooking, steaks and chops and things that are merely turned over rather than involved in any kind of complicated cookery.
Mixed green salad $6.75
Shrimp, scallops, and mussels in romesco $8.75
Wiener schnitzel $16.75
Lamb shank $18.50
Crème caramel $6.75
Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m.
Muni: 3, 12, 22
Noise level: moderate
Not that grills don't have an honorable place in the restaurant world, as well as in my personal one. I can't count the number of perfectly grilled lamb chops I've consumed at Hollywood's Musso and Frank's Grill over the years (the rumor that I dined there on its opening night in 1909 is somewhat exaggerated), and I bow to no one in my affection for Sam's Grill and Tadich Grill.
I also expected something informal because the place doesn't take reservations. But I was somewhat taken aback by the extreme brevity of the menu: four starters (two of which were salads -- the inevitable mixed greens and the inevitable Caesar), two pastas, and half a dozen entrees. Most grill menus (see Musso's, Sam's, and Tadich's, for comparison) are dauntingly lengthy affairs: The trick is to find what the place does best, as in those lamb chops -- or, in the case of Sam's, a surprisingly moist and delicious old-fashioned (and novel, for that reason) poached salmon with egg sauce. What, I wondered, would be left to try on my second visit to Fillmore Grill, and what would induce neighborhood visitors to return?
The answer, it quickly turned out, was simple: excellent ingredients, thoughtful cooking, and generous portions. Which were all in support of a menu that was quite a bit more ambitious than the classic grill menu I was anticipating, both in conception and execution.
There were actually five starters, it turned out, including an unlisted soup of the day -- carrot-ginger, a velvety version with more bite and interest than many other carrot-ginger soups I've tried, a surefire combination that can still be a bore in the bowl. The plateful of mixed baby lettuces and greens in a sparkling lemon vinaigrette, sprinkled with toasted filberts, was beautiful, and one of the more tempting salads I've had lately. And I was quite taken with my dish of shrimp, scallops, and little mussels cooked in romesco sauce with spinach. Not only were the shellfish properly and lightly cooked, but the sauce was also authentic -- complex, deeply flavored, and chile-spiked, not the tomato-sauce-with-some-chopped-nuts-tossed-in that many chefs seem to think will pass for romesco.
I relaxed and admired our setting: a long, bilevel room, spacious enough for several seating areas (including five cozy, wood-framed booths lined up like a Pullman car on one wall) and a roomy bar in the back. The place gleamed. It managed to look both comfortingly familiar and brand-new at the same time. The golden tone of the wood and the warm russet color of the opposite wall combined with the intelligent, subdued lighting to make us all look pretty attractive -- especially the more than a dozen women, all dressed up and dramatically hatted, who had taken over the bar before moving to a long table set up for them at a banquette in the upper part of the restaurant. "I think they're a group called Ladies With Hattitude," our sweet server told us, "that has dinners around town." "I thought they were some Ya-Ya Sisterhood thing," I said, finding them more adorable than annoying.
Perhaps I was mellowed by our continuing good meal: a sturdy yet tender osso buco with creamy polenta; fresh halibut sparked with a tomato-anchovy vinaigrette and sided with summer vegetables, including peas and haricots verts, that honored the late season; and my choice, tasty grilled pork loin accompanied by tangy (if a bit too firm for my taste) Austrian potato salad, an indicator of the heritage of chef Albert Rainer, who also co-owns downtown's Cafe Metropol. There was a level of comfortable expertise demonstrated that made Fillmore Grill feel more like a destination than a neighborhood restaurant. "This place," I said, after we'd enjoyed a fresh take on tarte Tatin made with figs instead of apples and a rich yet airy chocolate torte topped with chocolate profiteroles and surrounded with a faintly spicy crème anglaise infused with Earl Grey tea, "is better than it has to be."
Still, the brief menu kept me from returning too quickly. I'd let the new spot, which opened in July, have a few weeks to (I hoped) augment its offerings. When I did schedule a return dinner, it was almost scuttled by the cancellation, that day, of my guests. I left a brief message for Peter and Anita, asking if they were free; no, I heard Peter respond later on my machine, didn't I remember that I'd consulted with them last week on a choice of restaurant for their regular dinner with Anita's Aunt Yvonne? Oops. After a couple of other equally fruitless attempts, I fell back on the people who can't say no to me: Mom and Dad.
"I love being backup," my mother said as we drove to dinner, which was one of the only cheery things said in a conversation that was otherwise pretty grim, covering the painful defeats of the Giants, the Athletics, and, something we feared all too accurately that election night, the governor.
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