A Grown-Up Restaurant

Sophisticated and delicious fare in a chic city setting

It was eerie, the other morning, waking up to news of Susan Sontag's death, when I had had a gastronomic memory of her only the night before, sitting alongside the exposed-brick wall in Oola, South of Market, which reminded me of one of my favorite restaurants in New York, Miss Ruby's, in Chelsea. It seemed that every time I ate dinner there in the late '80s, the unmistakable, unmissable Sontag was dining there, too (it wasn't far from her house), often with Lucinda Childs, the dancer. I loved Miss Ruby's down-home yet sophisticated American cooking, her wonderful fried chicken, ham, gumbo, and corn bread. In the spring, there would be shad roe, fiddlehead ferns, raspberry pie. "What a wonderful place to have as your neighborhood restaurant," I'd think enviously, even though Miss Ruby's was just a brisk walk from my own apartment. Sontag's leonine head, with its trademark quiff of white, would be bent over her food: I knew she took her food as seriously as she did literature, music, art, movies, and politics ("A writer is someone interested in everything," she once wrote), because of a friend's anecdote.

David had met Nicole Stephane, the actress and producer, at a dinner party in Paris, and when she heard he would soon return to New York, she enlisted his aid in delivering a collection of treats to Sontag: pâtés, cheeses, a special kind of smoked salmon. It was quite a motley assembly of fragile and aromatic bundles, but David accepted because Sontag was one of his idols. He fantasized that, overcome with gratitude, she'd invite him in for tea (maybe even sharing some of the miniature macaroons he'd brought her from Ladurée) and, as so many others had, succumb to his charms, and they'd become fast friends.

This charming fantasy carried him through the unpleasant reality of finding room in his overstuffed luggage for the last-minute arrivals, lugging the delicacies, convincing a wary customs inspector that they were merely foodstuffs and not illegal in themselves (well, maybe some of them were, but it was a more innocent time), using them as a clever cloak to obscure more nefarious items. ("I'd never had a more thorough search of my baggage," David sighed -- and his difficult travel stories were legion.)

Fashionable Fare: Dark, stylish Oola has a compact 
but alluring menu.
Anthony Pidgeon
Fashionable Fare: Dark, stylish Oola has a compact but alluring menu.

Location Info

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Oola Restaurant & Bar

860 Folsom
San Francisco, CA 94107

Category: Restaurant > French

Region: South of Market

Details

Foie gras $14

Mushroom tart $11

Caesar salad $10

Roasted salmon $23

Chicken "under a brick" $17

Lamb two ways $22

Apple crisp $7

995-2061

Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., Sunday and Monday until midnight

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: valet, $10

Muni: 12, 27

Noise level: moderate

860 Folsom (at Fifth Street)

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But he showed up on Sontag's doorstep with all the comestibles intact, and laid them out proudly on a long library table (what other kind would she have?). Whereupon the grande dame checked them against a list Stephane had sent her and turned icy.

It seemed that a little can of special potted meat was missing, an expensive little can. Despite David's protestations that he'd faithfully delivered all he'd been entrusted to bring, he was not only not offered the cup of tea he'd imagined, but was also summarily shown the door. "I should have asked her to give me back the flowers I'd brought," he said, only mock-bitterly, pleased to have a personal story about the goddess, even if a less than perfect one.

If we'd been eating dinner at Oola that night instead of the night before, I would have told my friends this story, and we would have stopped addressing ourselves to our delicious meal for a moment and lifted a glass to Sontag and her varied appetites. Oola is a much more soigné room than the one that housed the late-lamented Miss Ruby's; the exposed brick here looms two stories over high-backed booths upholstered in green velvet and polished dark-wood tables, while lengths of coppery gauze, draped over pipes, flutter above them. A classic long bar, backed by a glamorous array of glittering bottles, runs the length of the long room, opposite the booths and a few tables tucked in the back at cozy banquettes.

On my first visit, Suzanne and Peter, up from Pasadena, and I were seated at one of those pleasant tables in the back. The menu was compact (10 starters, seven mains) but alluring. Suzanne, who doesn't eat red meat, was briefly attracted to the oysters (Oola had two kinds that night, Kumamoto and Miyagi), but remembered that she and Peter were planning a dinner the next evening at Oakland's Pearl Oyster Bar, so decided to start with the mushroom tart and go on to the sea bass. Peter usually avoids red meat, too, but occasionally goes nuts and surprises me, as he did by zeroing in on the foie gras (which I'd smugly assumed I could order) and following it with a burger ("I have one biannually," he said, "but I forget if that means two a year or one every other year"), an "all natural Creekstone Farms hamburger," in fact. I was a little under the weather and opted for the soothing appeal of the soup du jour (or nuit, as Oola serves dinner only) -- broccoli-cheese -- and linguine with clams.

Our starters were rich, rich, rich. The broccoli was just a happy echo in my cream-colored, cheesy soup. The two suave, thick rounds of foie gras cooked à la torchon were dramatically and beautifully accompanied, on a stark rectangular white platter, by a heap of garnetlike brandied cherries and a coral-colored slab of persimmon, both fruits glowing like stained glass, plus two tiny stacks of toast rounds and a drizzle of vanilla oil. Chanterelle and blue oyster mushrooms were heaped atop herbed goat cheese and caramelized onions on a puff pastry base, with a bit of fragrant truffled honey. Suzanne and Peter asked for a salad, to offset all of this delicious but unctuous fare, and the mixed greens we got reminded me of one of the best salads I'd ever had, just-picked herbs and little lettuces from a backyard plot at a long-gone restaurant called Shakers in Portland, Ore., knowingly and lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice.

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