Watergate was one of those survivors, a seared-ahi kind of hot spot that evolved upward and outward from the old post-bust neighborhood and now serves its warm lobster martinis and pecan-crusted racks of lamb from lusher quarters atop Nob Hill. In its place -- and not far from Luna Park, Foreign Cinema, and other hipster enclaves -- is Watercress. It's a genteel throwback to the days when S.F.'s status as a great eating town was founded as much on its wide array of terrific, affordable restaurants as on such haute-cuisine venues as the Dining Room and La Folie. Walter Liang, executive chef at both Watergate and Watercress, has designed his newer operation with a more casual clientele in mind, serving a simpler, more bistro-esque menu for a minimal stipend. But his platters are as thoughtfully executed, elegantly prepared, and brightly cosmopolitan as ever.
In fact, it's a bit startling how inexpensive the good food is, especially after half a decade of $100 dinners at allegedly midrange restaurants. Each appetizer costs $6 -- even the roasted mussels with chardonnay ginger sauce and the house-cured salmon with pickled English cucumbers. Entrees range from $10 to $15 and might include duck confit with roasted garlic or almond-crusted sole with bok choy and brown butter. Every dessert -- among them chocolate cappuccino profiteroles and cheesecake with chocolate truffles (a bonanza if ever there was one) -- is a laughable $3.50. The real bargain, though, is when you combine an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert of your choice into a three-course prix fixe for a mere $20.
At first glance, Watercress looks like a bit of Union Square transplanted to the Mission, with thick draperies, dark wood paneling, and gilt-framed paintings accenting a high-ceilinged dining room of cream-colored walls and exposed wine racks. But the welcome is warm and the mood is friendly, and the indirect lighting and subtle backdrop of cool jazz create an ambience conducive to celebration and conversation.
The cuisine is advertised as French/Asian fusion, but most of the dishes are of the hearty Italo-California variety, with an occasional Pacific Rim accent thrown in. A tasty example is the watercress salad, a light and refreshing cornucopia of roasted beets, Bosc pears, roasted pecans, and peppery greens in a bracing red-wine vinaigrette. Another appetizer, grilled tiger prawns served smoky and dripping with butter, arrives on a bed of dreamy mashed potatoes and the Louisiana trinity of scallions, celery, and tomatoes. A less successful starter is the crispy squid; although the calamari itself is light, crunchy, and practically greaseless, its accompaniment, a spicy dipping sauce, has a distracting bottled flavor to it. But the wonton's terrific: a crisp, cloudlike shell enclosing tangy molten goat cheese, with daikon, greens, and pecans providing textural contrast.
The entrees further illustrate Liang's dedication to bright, lively flavors, culinary harmony and cohesion, and presentations that excite the eye as well as the palate. The pan-roasted salmon, for instance, features a thick fillet of perfectly rich, moist fish (the unattained goal of many a striving restaurant) served over a layer of sweet, earthy carrots and parsnips, with a roasted-pepper coulis and a sparkling-fresh mango salsa balancing the whole. The risotto is one of the finest in the city, a big bowl of comfort food that's creamy and hearty without being heavy or sodden, its chunks of wild mushroom and thick slices of grilled eggplant offering up lots of lusty flavor. The braised lamb shank falls apart in juicy shards when you touch it with your fork, its wonderfully fatty flavor tempered by purple mashed potatoes; a fragrant ratatouille of squash, zucchini, eggplant, and tomatoes; and a lamb jus spiked with Shaoxing sherry. Best of all, though, is the hugely satisfying roasted pork loin chop and its braised red cabbage studded with hunks of smoky bacon; a drizzle of Fuji applesauce adds a sweet touch to this robust platter.
Some of the desserts aren't as impressive as the dishes that precede them. The napoleon is lovely to look at, but its layers of puff pastry sandwiching whipped cream and out-of-season strawberries -- even with a piña colada sauce on top -- don't add up to much. The St. Honore is a (very) distant relation to the spectacular cake of cream puffs, spun sugar, and Grand Marnier available at many a North Beach bakery; the Watercress version is just another cream and pastry stack-up with bits of kiwi and coconut thrown in. But the poached apple is marvelous: a supple, slow-cooked Fuji dressed in cabernet syrup, its almost jellied texture nicely set off by a thick dollop of chantilly cream and a sprinkle of crunchy walnuts. The chocolate génoise, meanwhile, is as fun and festive as the apple is sweet and simple, with caramelized bananas, candied pecans, a spectacularly dense chocolate mousse filling, and a tiny chocolate gelato sandwich alongside it, bringing a bit of the circus to the table.
Watercress offers a wine list of about two dozen vintages plus five or six choices by the glass, a surprisingly minimal selection considering the kitchen's dedication to fine dining. But the four dessert wines include Domaine de La Pigeade's luscious Beaumes de Venise muscat, and although there are only three (non-draft) beers available, Sierra Nevada is one of them. Sipped along with food like this (especially at these prices), it makes even 2004 seem endurable.