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Raise the Bar 

Given its location, in the midst of the food fantasia that is the Ferry Building, MarketBar should be better

Wednesday, Dec 3 2003
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"Know thyself," the saying goes, and one thing I know is that the sensation of peace and calm that some people say they get in church comes over me most predictably at farmers' markets. Oh, I like going to museums and browsing in used bookstores, too, and feel a certain elation when I enter a train station, which continues during the train ride. But for guaranteed relaxation and pleasure, there's nothing like strolling among the food stalls, taking in the sights and the sounds and the smells, and pausing from time to time to choose some fresh and healthy and delicious stuff to take home. It's a ritual I never get tired of.

My father is of the same mind, and one of the first things we did together after I moved back to the Bay Area was to visit the Saturday market on the Embarcadero. Frog Hollow peaches! Cowgirl Creamery cheeses! June Taylor jams! Afterward, we had sautéed sweetbreads and pulled-pork Benedict for brunch at the Fog City Diner, and returned home refreshed, laden with amazing things to eat. A perfect morning.

So, a couple of weekends ago, we found ourselves at the Ferry Building, where the Saturday market has moved, giving up its cozy unity (stands now reside both in front and in back of the building) for dramatic views, fresh sea breezes, and proximity to the posh food stores that have colonized the ground floor. It's something of a culinary Disneyland, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Fall is not the most glamorous growing season, of course, but we found plenty in the piles of apples and pears and persimmons and cabbages and turnips and herbs to buy. Which predictably induced hunger. My father looked longingly at the tri-tip and sausages smoking seductively on a huge grill outside the windows on the southern side of the Ferry Building. I drew him away, because we were going to lunch in the new restaurant that recently opened behind those very windows, MarketBar.

When we entered, we faced the long glittering bar of its name (which I'm told is popular after work and with commuters), balanced on either side by two rooms of equal size, nicely if simply fitted out with long mirrors above banquette seating and white-clothed tables and wooden chairs. The place was quite full, but we were led to a four-top near the bar and entrance to the kitchen.

Both of us were slightly bored by the menu: butternut squash soup, minestrone, market greens, bruschetta, crab cakes, mussels, two pizzas, Niman Ranch hamburger, Niman Ranch pastrami sandwich, one pasta, tuna, seafood stew, chicken breast. That was it. There seemed to be no connection to the beautiful cornucopia surrounding the place on every side, nor to the season. Below almost every table were baskets spilling over with the spoils of the morning's shopping. These were serious foodies, which the menu didn't seem to acknowledge.

I asked our waiter, "How do you make your Bolognese sauce?" "With meat," he said, abruptly. I was taken aback. Spaghetti Bolognese = spaghetti with meat sauce; that's Italian Food 101. I wanted to know how this kitchen made its meat sauce. So I tried again, somewhat cautiously: "When you say meat, do you mean beef?" "It's a famous meat sauce," he said, impatiently. "Without tomatoes; that's why it's white." And he left.

When I told this story to another food writer, he said, "Bolognese sauce has three meats?" "Two, usually," I said. "And they could be almost any combination. Pork and pork sausage, for instance. But that doesn't matter. What matters is, he didn't know, and he couldn't be bothered to find out." I ordered it anyway. My father ordered the Niman Ranch pastrami sandwich, but he's sensitive to onions, so he asked to have the house-made onion relish served on the side.

Another server brought us two bowls of minestrone. "No," I said, "I'm the mushroom salad." It was brought to me by our waiter, who said, "I remember you said mushroom salad" – but apparently not long enough to alert the kitchen. It was a nice enough salad, the firm chunks of button mushroom enlivened with chopped red and yellow peppers and glistening with good olive oil, but I wondered where the chopped egg and black olives mentioned on the menu were. Since the menu had been printed and dated for that day, I guessed that the egg and olives were garnishes that hadn't found their way onto the plate, rather than ingredients in an entirely different salad. But after our waiter's deft handling of the Bolognese question, I didn't want to trouble him.

He was having enough problems, what with his memory and all. After we finished the mild, sweet minestrone (vegetables in clear broth livened up with a splash of olive oil) and the salad, he came to the table. "I should have remembered this; it happened a couple of weeks ago," he began, and then went into a little digression. "You see, when you're as large a restaurant as we are" (I looked around; the whole place sat about 80 – not an extraordinary size, as far as I was concerned), "and serve as many people as we do, you have to prep things in advance. And the pastrami sandwiches were all made this morning and there's no way to get one without relish."

I felt my inner Jack Nicholson coming out, the one who would have said, "You have pastrami back there, don't you? And rye bread? Put one between the other and you'll have a PASTRAMI SANDWICH WITHOUT RELISH!" But my father headed that off by quickly saying he'd have the hamburger, medium rare.

The garganelli Bolognese, soothingly bland, was very pleasant, though it reminded me more of lunch in Milan than in a market hall. My father diplomatically said his hamburger was good; it wasn't. It had no crust at all, and it was rare (rather than medium rare) and mushy all the way through.

I watched as my espresso and my father's cappuccino cooled on the edge of the counter a few feet from where we sat. Restaurant etiquette forbade me from getting them myself, but just as I was about to do so anyway, our waiter picked up the tray.

And disappeared into the kitchen.

And came out and stopped at two other tables before delivering us our cold brews.

I beckoned him over and asked, "Could you get me another espresso, and make sure it's hot this time?" which is as rude as I permit myself to be. (In restaurants.) He brought it hot and told me it was on the house, which was as it should have been.

But it had not been a stellar lunch, neither in its food nor its service. It seemed truly odd to feel at such a remove from the setting and the season, when we could have assembled a brilliant meal within a few feet of the place (oysters at the Hog Island oyster bar, one of those grilled tri-tip sandwiches, a pear tart with blue cheese and walnuts or an apple crostata from the Frog Hollow shop). Especially since the other restaurants run by MarketBar's owners do such a good job of fulfilling their expectations: Florio is an excellent simulacrum of a French neighborhood bistro, and Bix is a witty take on the supper club, with food both snacky and luxurious.

Still, the longer evening menu seemed more interesting, more produce-heavy, so I had higher hopes for my dinner there with Bernice and Chi-hui. They were only modestly realized. Chi-hui is a vegetarian, and I was so thrilled when our waiter knew that the potato and leek soup was made with vegetable broth (and took our question seriously) that I could have kissed him. I was even happier that the soup was the first thing I'd tasted at MarketBar that was wonderful: rich, creamy, full of flavor. I was less enthralled with the rest of our meal. Bernice and I split a dryish spaghetti carbonara to start, and then went on to two entrees: a big, thin swordfish steak (insert mercury gag here) on a bed of sautéed mushrooms and tomatoes that had little to do with the fish plopped on top of it; and a steak ordered black-and-blue that arrived half right (indeed rare, but the restaurant doesn't seem to have a surface hot enough to crust either the steak or the hamburger) on top of slightly underdone shelling beans. Chi-hui's pizza bianca was forgettable; our sides of sautéed Swiss chard and forest mushrooms cooked with herbs in parchment were the best things we had to eat besides the soup, but not startlingly so. Our desserts made a feeble obeisance to the season: unremarkable gingerbread pudding with pumpkin ice cream, and green apple sorbet with warm, seasonal – and largely flavorless – fruit compote.

I hesitated to suggest MarketBar when six of us needed supper after a movie on a Sunday night, but reduced expectations and a quiet, uncrowded room led to a pleasant if not gastronomically inspired evening. We shared a clumsily arrayed cold seafood platter, ignoring the mushy, waterlogged shrimp for the tiny, crisp oysters, mussels slicked with an herbed cream, and three morsels of lobster; a decent charcuterie assortment surrounding a watery heap of undressed shaved fennel; two well-intentioned meatballs; and an undistinguished green salad with twice too much dressing. The best main course was the moist and tasty roasted whole Avian chicken, with little velvety peeled potatoes and cress in chicken jus. The cookie plate, though missing the "tiny sweets" advertised, was a nice assortment, including a biscotti, a thin chocolate cookie with nuts, a madeleine, and a buttery biscuit dabbed with jam.

Right now the place has a clear field until the Slanted Door and other sit-down restaurants open at the Ferry Building. But MarketBar, curiously unambitious, is only living up to the second half of its name.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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