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Carl was in town on his annual visit from Tokyo, where he spends most of the year teaching and concertizing, and I wanted to take him someplace wonderful. Not just because he loves to eat and is a discerning companion, but also because the last time he was here, our attempt at gastronomic bliss was a miserable flop. We had a curious, dispiriting lunch, a tasting menu of many courses that left us doubting the reputation of both the restaurant and its newish chef (oh, OK, it was Campton Place). (I'll admit that lunch is not the ideal time to sample a chef's wares, since he may very well not be in the kitchen, but his philosophy and recipes are still on display. And dinner would have had to have been many, many times better than what we had to have impressed us.)
Seared foie gras $15
Corn pudding $11
Corn soup $8
Black bass $17
Cheese plate three for $14
Banana soufflé $10
Open for dinner Sunday through Wednesday from 6 p.m. to midnight, Thursday through Saturday until 1 a.m. Late-night menu available after 10 p.m. Bar open from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Parking: valet, $8
Muni: 10, 12
So it was with a little shiver of both anticipation and concern that I made our dinner reservation at Frisson (which means, yes, shiver) for a Tuesday night in August. I had never tasted chef Daniel Patterson's food before, though I had read and heard many good things about his previous restaurant, Elisabeth Daniel, which closed at the end of last year. I entered Frisson and shivered with excitement: It looked wonderful, sleek and modern and retro all at the same time. Carl was already there, sipping a glass of champagne in the stylish semicircular bar room, perhaps inspired by the huge photograph of champagne bubbles that is its backdrop.
We were led into the big round dining room, and I surprised the hostess by requesting to be seated within view of the theatrically bright kitchen, visible through glass windows as well as its wide doorway. I've always liked the kitchen ballet, and this one appeared even more appetizing because of the youth and attractiveness of its crew.
Both of us liked the décor, especially the dramatic domed ceiling with a floating-spaceship effect; flattering pink light streamed down on us through polka-dot cutouts. We were seated on the end of a sinuous banquette upholstered in burnt orange; dividers between the upper and lower levels of the room boasted modernistic, abstract assemblages of translucent pale-yellow resin squares and rectangles. The glossy dark-wood tables were bare, save for angular flatware. I mentioned Stanley Kubrick and his iconic designer, Ken Adam; Carl said it reminded him of cutting-edge places in Tokyo, "But they would be half or a third the size."
Everything on the orange-and-yellow menu, a fusion of global ingredients and French techniques, seemed enticing. On the left side were small plates, under the stark headings First (eight starters and salads), Second (eight starters and fish), and Third (a vegetarian dish and four meat dishes), all priced between $8 and $18; a server urged us to order two dishes from each. We deviated a bit from that instruction, since on the opposite page, titled Last, was a list of intriguing cheeses as well as desserts (simply called Desserts), and we knew that we would be trying both. So we chose two Firsts and two Seconds, and split a Third.
I was a bit taken aback by the dollhouse appearance of Carl's first course, three coinlike (and more like dimes than quarters) rounds of bone marrow topped by grains of California osetra caviar, elegantly lined up on a pristine white rectangular plate with a swirl of deep-red beet purée. But the one morsel I tried was an evanescent flash in the mouth of pure genius, the thinnest crispy layer surrounding lush unctuous fat, rhymed with the salty, crisp beads of the sea, and sweetened with a swipe through the beets. My palate was crying out for more. We also loved the similarly brilliant cornmeal-crusted foie gras, creamy within an infinitesimal layer of resistance, sided with lavender-scented onions and a touch of balsamic. "The portions remind me of Tokyo, too," Carl said.
The second course was equally amazing. We split a warm yellow corn-brioche pudding, glazed with white truffle butter and served with dabs of fragile corn meringue. I was stunned at how much true corn flavor came through in every airy bite, and how it was enhanced rather than obscured by the whiff of white truffle oil. We shared a bit of beautifully cooked black bass on a bed of braised lettuce, flavored with tiny dice of pork belly and enticingly perfumed with -- a new one on me -- litsea cubeba. (Our helpful and charming server, Jessica, attempted to describe its obscure source to us, and then said, "It's like lemongrass." When I got home, I consulted Patterson's impressive new cookbook, Aroma, co-written with Berkeley perfumer Mandy Aftel, and learned that litsea cubeba is an essential oil distilled from the fruit of the may chang tree, a Chinese member of the laurel family. Who knew?)
We were mildly disappointed with our meat course, two tiny, rare rib chops (not quite the "lamb rack" of the menu) rubbed with the Moroccan multispice mixture ras el hanout (which can contain more than a hundred spices), though we loved its accompaniments of rarely seen fresh chickpeas and slivers of preserved lemon. (It was the first time during the meal that I thought to myself that $18 was a lot for this little bit of food; the dazzling skill displayed in the earlier dishes seemed priceless.)
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