Roe v. Age

Don't be intimidated by the metallic chic or the weird-sounding dishes

It's recently become apparent to me that I have reached the age when a few misguided folk may start referring to me as "a woman of a certain age." I'd like to stress that this assessment has no real basis in chronological fact; I'm as young as the number I enter on the StairMaster, and I defy you to prove otherwise.

But in other ways -- small, valet-parking, cabernet-versus-Budweiser kind of ways -- I may have to concede to a greater-than-twentysomething level of maturity.

This state of being of course has no bearing on the dishes that I consume and enjoy or write about, but it does perhaps influence the kind of restaurants I prefer to go to if given my druthers.

More's the pity for Roe(651 Howard St., 227-0288, www.roerestaurant.com), which some folks of a certain age may bypass because it's billed as a nightclub, and because, well, it is in fact a nightclub -- at least upstairs. Beyond that, women of a certain age with a fashion vocabulary that has been reduced to clandestine midnight forays into the depths of the J. Jill catalog (no names, please) may feel intimidated by the metallic chic of the place -- the pulsing of the white spherical window coverings, the slink of the gold lamé walls, the sha, sha, shaof the hostess' chain-link halter top. And then there's the fact that people of a certain age with vision correction over 2.5 may find themselves circling around South of Market craning to find the discreet-to-the-point-of-invisible sign and slim doorway just off Hawthorne Lane. The entrance itself may be another deterrent: Once one is inside the dimly lit hallway, paths diverge to nightclub (upstairs) or bar/restaurant (street level), each with a separate door that somehow bespeaks a deeper level of commitment than the average diner-of-a-certain-age may be ready to extend.

Despite all these obstacles, I did in fact find myself seated quite comfortably in the dining room at Roe one night not long ago, staring at a menu of French-influenced Burmese and Japanese dishes that seemed far too interesting and intricate to be dismissed as "nightclub food."

And they were. Along with the namesake roes -- some five varieties of caviar -- and a goodly selection of sushi and sashimi, owner Ben Chu and chef Herman Chin have created a number of taste-bud-dazzling, jump-up-and-down/do-the-hokeypokey kind of dishes that make it easy to ignore the soft thump-thumping of the happy feet overhead.

Chief among these is the fermented green tea salad -- a Burmese delicacy that's rare in these parts (the only other version I've found is at the always-reliable Mandalay restaurant in the Outer Richmond, though I've heard Burma Superstar on Clement also makes a good rendition).

This is one of those dishes that sounds weird, but isn't.

Fermented tea leaves taste a little like earthy, smoky, slightly bitter grape leaves, the kind you wrap around Greek dolmas, and once combined with crunchy, nutty textures such as peanuts and sesame seeds, they are no stranger than the pickled cabbage you get at Japanese restaurants.

In this sparkling variation, the salad is layered, napoleon-style, beginning with the tea leaves, followed by diced onions, chopped roasted peanuts, diced tomatoes, yellow split peas, another layer of tea, more tomatoes, sesame seeds, roasted fava beans, coconut chips, and fried garlic. The stack is then drizzled with a sauce of lemon juice, garlic oil, fish sauce, and shrimp powder. The beauty of this approach is that it allows each element to both stand alone and combine with the others -- nuances of texture and flavor that may escape less experienced palates, but will no doubt thrill diners of a certain age.

 
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