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Super Size Me 

Big, beautiful lobsters and fried fish are the stars at 500 Jackson

Wednesday, Apr 14 2004
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As soon as I got the schedule for the 47th San Francisco International Film Festival, I called Robert up to see if he wanted to join me at some movies. I was especially thrilled that the festival was showing Super Size Me, the documentary whose filmmaker eats breakfast, lunch, and dinner for an entire month at McDonald's, super-sizing his order whenever it's suggested, which I'd been longing to see ever since it debuted at Sundance. (My sister the doctor wasn't surprised at his reportedly hefty weight gain, but was a little dubious about some of the other health problems he claimed: "Liver failure? After a month?")

I was also attracted to After You, a French film, because it's about a maitre d' at a posh Parisian restaurant and stars Daniel Auteuil, José García, and Sandrine Kiberlain, three excellent actors. And Everyday People, an American independent about the effect the possible razing of a multicultural Brooklyn diner has on the surrounding community. And there was a new movie from England, The Mother, with a script by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Roger Michell, with no restaurant connection at all! I recommended several films to Robert that I'd seen last year at Toronto: Guy Maddin's deliriously stylish period musical about a song contest, The Saddest Music in the World, in which Isabella Rossellini, heiress to a brewery fortune, walks on crystal legs filled with beer; The Green Butchers, a sly black comedy from Denmark in which human flesh turns out to taste like chicken; and one I just adored, Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn, whose action takes place entirely during the last screening of King Hu's martial arts epic in a huge, crumbling Taiwanese cinema on the night it's due to close forever. I was even interested in seeing those again.

And then the question of sustenance came up. Robert was perfectly delighted to duck into the mall next door and slurp up a quick bowl of noodles -- "That's what's great about going to the Kabuki," he said -- but he pointed out that if we were just going to a single movie together and not indulging in the kind of marathon viewing I feel compelled to do during the festival (I don't know if the term "obsessive-compulsive" came up, but it was in the air), the world was our oyster, and not just the immediate neighborhood.

"Remember, after First Thursday," Robert said, referring to the regular downtown art-opening night a few of us had attended together, "we drove across town for dinner." It turned out that he had a specific place in mind: "It's a straight shot down Jackson from the festival. No problem parking around there at night." I got the feeling he wanted to try it out. We were talking early on a Sunday morning, and no, Robert and Gail couldn't take in a movie that day with me (Monday is their ritual movie night), but sure, dinner was OK. So we booked a 7 p.m. meal at 500 Jackson, the new seafood place in the space that had most recently housed the Cypress Club.

It was delightfully easy to find parking, and the room was delightful, too, even though I missed the wacky, cartoonlike décor of the vanished restaurant. I loved being led to a big, comfy leather-upholstered booth. There was something vaguely marine about the forms in the mosaic floor, but the wood paneling and sleek fabric lighting fixtures just felt grown-up and posh. I was amazed at how quickly Robert zeroed in on what he wanted to eat from the huge menu: "I'll have the fish and chips," he said. We bullied Gail into ordering the steamed Maine lobster: "I can't order something that's $42," she demurred, but I assured her we'd all pitch in and help her with it, lobster being something I have never had quite enough of. Gail and I then turned around and changed Robert's order: "Get the fried platter," we urged. "More stuff to try." Me? I chose the cedar-plank roasted salmon, though not without input (Robert thought I ought to try the petrale sole. And then there was the skate wing with brown butter. We didn't go anywhere near the "Landfood" section -- a steak, a half chicken, a hamburger).

We were already thrilled with the warm, kernel-studded corn sticks that came in the bread basket, and requested more of them with our starters: two large white bowls of soup -- lobster-sweet potato bisque and smoked duck, crawfish, and andouille gumbo. (Robert had heard that the chef, Robert Murphy, had cooked in New Orleans; I knew that he'd worked at Restaurant Lulu.) I'd also chosen a few things from the raw bar: Kumamoto and Hog Island oysters from the six varieties on offer, littleneck clams, and a couple of poached jumbo prawns.

The prawns were jumbo indeed, the other shellfish sparkling and crisp, and my prettily arranged plate came with a trio of sauces: mignonette, cocktail, and an aioli that was so delicious I kept it after my denuded shells were carted away. The lobster bisque was also superb: a strong flavor of lobster with an intriguing hint of the sweet potato and a luxurious texture. The gumbo was well-balanced in flavor, too, and full of little crawfish bodies, shreds of duck, and chunks of sausage. "It's the soup that eats like a meal," I said.

The main courses looked equally huge. Gail's 2-pound lobster came split, for easy access to the tail meat, along with a glittering complement of tools for cracking the claws, the requisite ramekin of drawn butter and half-lemon wearing a little muslin cap, a heap of pepper slaw, and a tricky cone device full of house-made potato chips. There was also some decorative seaweed on the immense oval plate. Robert's platter was heaped with rock cod, scallops, shrimp, oysters, more of the brightly colored slaw, a boat of tartar sauce, and a mountain of shoestring fries. My normal-sized meal, a square of salmon and a pile of sautéed spinach leaves plunked onto the small, blackened board the salmon had been cooked on, looked like dollhouse food next to theirs.

We loved our dinner. The lobster was everything a lobster should be -- gently cooked, meaty, and sweet -- and it must have just attained its weight because its shell was still thin and easy to crack. "Somebody knows how to fry back there," was the judgment. The fried seafood, at other places reminiscent of Mrs. Paul's, was divine, with crackling thin batter and juicy flesh inside. The tartar sauce was heady with tarragon as well as pickles. Even the slaw was special, crunchy and peppery. The salmon was rich-tasting, and the terrific spinach stiff with garlic. We shared a side of cauliflower enlivened with chopped egg, bacon, bread crumbs, and parsley. Robert had chosen an unfamiliar but fragrant South African sauvignon blanc from the impressive list, a bargain at $26.

We didn't need dessert, but still chose a few from the all-American list, which was rubber-stamped onto the white paper covering the linen tablecloth after our plates were cleared. We got a sundae glass full of very good butterscotch pudding, a pungent Key lime tart, and a not-very-interesting apple pie a la mode. Robert pointed out that 500 Jackson serves food straight through from lunch until closing, making it even more convenient. I said, apropos the meal's rather stately pace, that I wouldn't want to eat there before an event, but yes, it would be perfect after one.

Which shortly proved to be the case, when I returned for dinner with Tommy after seeing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; I felt Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Charlie Kaufman, and Michel Gondry were all about as good as it gets. Parking was again gratifyingly easy, although this time, we were given a regular table in a room that was much busier this night. Again our portions appeared fit for Brobdingnagians. I finished my entire bowl of New England clam chowder, shining with cream, a few clams in the shell hiding in its depths, which pretty much did me in for the meal. Tommy's Dungeness crab cake was huge, a good if not stellar version, though I enjoyed its bed of strips of pickled fennel and the house's excellent tartar sauce. I'd thought about ordering some fried calamari for us, too, but I saw the mountain of it that went past us to another table and was glad I hadn't. (Until I heard its orderer exclaim about how good it was. I trusted him, after the fried food I'd had here before.)

The chile-and-garlic-roasted whole Dungeness crab Tommy had was generous and fun to eat (I like playing with my food), though the strong flavors obscured the sweet crab a little. Its accompanying broccoli rabe was nicely bitter. I had a slab of Alaskan halibut, fractionally overcooked for my taste but nicely amped up with a slick of fragrant basil pistou, resting on a bed of mashed potatoes surrounded by a fresh spring vegetable ragout of artichokes as well as carrots, beans, and peas. The server even sweetly brought me an off-the-menu ear of corn when I got jealous seeing one at another table (enjoying it as part of a lobster-and-clambake dinner). I would be happy to come back and eat some big, beautiful seafood during the film festival. Or any old time.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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