By Omar Mamoon
By Kate Williams
By Pete Kane
By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
I used to wish I'd been invited to a banquet M.F.K. Fisher wrote about, typical of the Victorian era (indeed, one served to Queen Victoria herself): "... two services -- the first consisting of four soups; four different hors d'oeuvres ...; four 'removes' (truffled pullets, ham in aspic, stuffed leg of lamb, beef filets larded with anchovies); sixteen entrees ranging from turtle fins with a Madeira sauce through roasted pigeon breasts; and a 'sideboard' of venison, roast beef, roast mutton, and what was in 1841 called 'vegetables,' an overcooked, overseasoned, and usually ignored collection of turnips, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. The second service ... began with six roasts -- two each of quail, young hares, and chickens. Then came six different kinds of puddings. ... Next, and finally, came sixteen side dishes ... a kind of reverse Russian-buffet of everything from truffles to gooseberry jelly, a macédoine of fresh fruits, new green peas a la française, string beans in butter, strawberry tarts, artichokes, a chicken aspic, whipped cream with sugared almonds." Fisher adds, almost unnecessarily, "An incredible hodgepodge!," but points out that a guest would take it in stride: "He chose what he wanted, sent away what did not please him, asked for and was poured the drinks he fancied, in an elegant confusion which was routine, scheduled, and even mildly enjoyable."
I liked the sound of this extravagant profusion, especially the fillip of the final weirdly assorted side dishes, despite the fact that I am notoriously inept at buffets. Somehow I imagine that, at this vanished feast, I could assemble a wacky yet pleasing assortment of savories and sweets, the salty anchovies of the beef filets leading to a rhyming mouthful of turtle fin, a slice of venison prettily nestled next to one of mutton, a bite at the end of earthy truffles, verdant green peas, a jeweled fruit tart.
And then I realized that I had been duplicating Victorian practice during two recent forays into what I think of as "The New Grazing": an evening at a tapas bar and a dinner chosen while ambling up and down the aisles of a new Monument to the Art of Eating (once known as a supermarket). Aline and I strolled into Iluna Basque on a Thursday night around 7, already pleased because we'd found a good parking space less than two blocks away, and were gratified to be led almost immediately to a small table for two; we'd feared the worst, since the place doesn't take reservations. We admired the sleek, modern room, wood-paneled and sharp-edged, not at all rustic as I'd expected a Basque restaurant to be. The menu, headed "Basque Tapas/small plates," is shortish, fewer than two dozen items, and arranged in a haphazard fashion not unlike Queen Victoria's banquet: It starts with four assorted seafood dishes, with soups and salads tucked in here and there; crisp fried potatoes emerge near the top; seafood reappears (tuna, mussels, and prawns), separated by duck rillettes and pipérade and, oh, here's a tortilla (a frittatalike cold omelet), and then comes a pizza, and the last dish is a cassoulet.
San Francisco, CA 94133
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
Crab croquettes $4.75
Cassoulet with lamb chop $10.50
Pineapple carpaccio $4.75
Grilled flank steak $12.99/pound
Grilled salmon $15.99/pound
Combo sushi $9.60
Grilled vegetables $6.99
Chocolate cream tart $3.99
Iluna Basque, 701 Union (at Powell), 402-0011. Open Monday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to midnight. Closed Sunday. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 15, 30, 41, 45. Noise level: high.
Whole Foods Market, 399 Fourth St. (at Harrison), 618-0066. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy (store lot in building). Muni: 12, 30, 45, 76. Noise level: moderate.
The eccentric listing signaled us to pick and choose by appetite -- not to start safely, traditionally, with garlic soup or baby lettuce salad, and then go on to seared tuna or chicken stew. We were to assemble an unconventional assortment.
Everything looked good to us, everything looked possible. We solved the white or red question by ordering sangria (I thought I'd start with a sherry, but wasn't attracted by the only one offered). It was a sultry night, and the beautifully blended punch of red wine and fruit, so often haphazardly assembled, hit the spot.
As did almost everything that followed: crisp yet creamy little croquettes of crab called txangurro, thin coins of sautéed scallops intriguingly paired with slippery cuts of artichoke glazed with Banyuls vinegar, a discreetly sized leg and thigh of duck confit napped with a fresh orange marmalade. A white bean and pig's feet cassoulet (said trotters reduced to near-invisible shreds) was topped with a well-seasoned rare lamb chop. Even Aline, not a fan of innards, enjoyed the special we ordered -- small chunks of sweetbreads, some firm, some custardy, also paired with artichokes. The only disappointment was a dull dish called chicken axoa, tiny cubes of chicken stewed with onions and peppers.
The room, already full, suddenly got much noisier: "The alcohol has kicked in," I said. Still, we lingered over coffee and a plate of three Basque cheeses (the server knew only that two of them were different manchegos -- which we found quite similar -- and returned from the busy kitchen with no additional information), and a wonderful sweet-and-salty fillip of thin slices of grilled fresh pineapple coated with a bit of dulce de leche, yielding juicy yet crunchy mouthfuls.
A few nights later I called Stan, Suzanne, and their son Sam and proposed dinner out. They hesitated, charmingly, before confessing that, well, Sunday night in their house is consecrated to The Sopranos. I switched to dinner in: How about if I bring takeout from the new branch of Whole Foods? Yes! Suzanne offered to come and help me choose.