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The menu, however, has a splashy feel: We are drawn to two appetizer trios, one that allows you to choose three smaller versions of any of the eight starters and another that is a nightly changing selection of three seafood dishes (even though, at $19, they're roughly twice the price of the regular appetizers). I go for the stuffed Fresno chilies, eggplant pillow, and plantain soufflé; Ruby gets the seafood trio, this night featuring a spicy squid seviche, salmon tartare, and sushi. My platter is beautiful and generous -- three halved chilies piled with a firm stuffing of ground shrimp and pork, seasoned with ginger and black beans; a fat "pillow" of eggplant that spills forth wild mushroom risotto, shredded duck confit, and aji amarillo butter when you cut into it; and a cute little soufflé, puffing out of its tiny soufflé dish, that the server slices open and soaks with hot coconut sauce poured from a special jug.
The kitchen has worked very hard, but not to much effect. The eggplant doesn't come together -- it tastes bland -- though the hot little chilies are tasty enough (like good dim sum), and I find myself wondering if you'd really want more of either dish as a starter. I love the texture and elusive flavor of the soufflé, especially with the rich, oniony coconut sauce, but again it seems to me that a larger amount would be cloying. The seafood platter isn't much better -- white squid rings with red peppers and avocado; two boring, firm slices of California roll, as big as wagon wheels and as dull as can be; and a heap of fresh, sparkling salmon tartare, the best thing on the plate.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
Plantain soufflé $9
Seafood trio $19
Coconut flan $9
Limón, 3316 17th St. (at Mission), 252-0918. Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday until 10:30 p.m. Open Saturday from noon to 10:30 p.m., Sunday from noon to 9 p.m. Closed Monday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 14, 33, 49. Noise level: moderate to high.
Circolo, 500 Florida (at Mariposa), 553-8560. Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and for dinner Monday through Wednesday from 5 to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday until 11 p.m. Limited lounge menu available Monday through Wednesday from 5 to 11 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult during the day, easy at night. Muni: 27. Noise level: moderate to high.
Rich follows rich: On my expensive ($29) surf-and-turf plate, I really enjoy only the tiny, succulent lobster tail, which I could have finished in two bites, but I make it last for five or six, dragging the morsels through a ramekin of melted butter. The thick slices of filet mignon are oddly coarse-grained and tasteless, dribbled with an unnecessary reduction, and the two short-rib ravioli propped up alongside them, as well as the fussy little bundles of green beans, make no sense at all to me. Nor does Ruby's huge braised lamb shank, sided with baby bok choy and purple potato chips, which looks beautiful, shiny and glazed, but tastes mushy and way too sweet. I'm surprised after the simpler, truer, much more satisfying dishes at Limón.
We quite enjoy the silky coconut flan with lychee-ginger granita that we share, but it's too little, too late.
I feel perplexed and even doubt my memory. Could the food really have been so disappointing? A little supper of tapas at Fonda, in Albany (1501 Solano, 510/559-9006), is the perfect reality check: The grilled skirt steak is juicy and full of flavor -- everything Circolo's filet mignon wasn't -- and the scallop seviche is so vibrantly spiced that it makes my face glow, pleasantly, from the heat. And we get superb fried squash flowers stuffed with ricotta and herbs in a pool of fresh tomato salsa with corn. This is what you want from Nuevo Latino cooking. Circolo is turning out tortured creations with much less flavor.
Soon after my visit to Circolo, I find out that Limón plans to move, within the month, to a new, larger space around the corner on Valencia. But the Castillos aren't abandoning the old space. Its new specialty? Rotisserie chicken.
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