Chances Are

A seasoned chef throws caution to the wind and leaves his old standbys behind

It's only a couple of weeks in and already 2005 is shaping up to be the year of "What the hell ... chance it" -- advice my friend Bruce used to throw out randomly to strangers at parties and then walk away, leaving them mostly bewildered but occasionally emboldened as they made their way to the punch bowl.

It's a phrase that doesn't hold the bravado and confidence of "Carpe diem" or the utter fearlessness of "Live each day as if it's your last," but is born of a more whimsical lowering of the guard, a throwing of caution to the wind, which in the face of all that's crazy and wrong with the world at large (and the economy at small) is a sign that fills me with hope.

What on Earth am I talking about? A full slate of new restaurants, chefs with cojones who boldly go where many have gone (and failed) before, the new faith and sincerity, baby. Oh, and brown is the new black, which I read in the New York Times a month or so ago and which the servers at the new cozy-chic Russian Hill boîte Luella (1896 Hyde, 674-4343) all wear with insouciant style. Chef Ben de Vries, formerly the wunderkind at Andalu, is the brave culinary soul behind this latest undertaking, joining the likes of Frisson, Bocadillos, Quince, Oola, and Myth in defying the gloomers and doomers.

Luella sports a natural-modern design palette -- sage, khaki, bamboo -- which at first seems too neutral for the lively menu, but as each course appears, makes more sense: Less distraction around the room means more concentration on what you're eating. And that's a good thing. Because what you're eating requires your full attention.

De Vries describes his food as Mediterranean-inspired, but that's just a peg for a restaurant reviewer to hang her hat on. Luella is a truly San Francisco restaurant, in that no one culture or country or region of influence is dominant, but somehow everything works together to create a uniquely West Coast whole.

An Anglophile's dream of seared beef fillet in puff pastry with bone marrow butter and Yorkshire pudding goes head to head with earthy wild-mushroom gnocchi and de Vries' signature Coca-Cola-braised pork (in this rendition made with shoulder, not ribs, as it was at Andalu). Crispy sweetbreads and heavenly Brussels sprouts fried in caper-brown butter rub elbows with his famous polenta fries in spicy tomato vinaigrette.

"I deliberately left behind the ahi tacos [an insanely popular dish at Andalu] so I wouldn't be stuck with a menu I couldn't change and play with frequently," says de Vries.

As big a fan as I am of those tacos, I forgot they ever existed after one bite of Chicken al Mattone, a traditional Tuscan dish de Vries began dabbling with when he was chef at the now-defunct Ristorante Ecco. Here, he marinates the chicken for four to five days in rosemary, oregano, parsley, thyme, crushed chilies, garlic, and lemon. Then, rather than cooking the chicken under a brick, he places it in a smoking-hot cast-iron pan and puts another pan on top, flattening and searing it. The result is intensely herby, tender, and moist meat, harmonized by fennel and red onion in brown chicken jus, offset with rings of fried aromatic Meyer lemon and mâche. Fried Kennebec potatoes tossed in champagne vinaigrette add the finishing touch. It's a spunky dish full of fun and flavor -- the kind that might cause you to lean over to the diners at the next table as they ponder their options and whisper, "What the hell ... chance it."

 
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