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Rockin' Flavors 

Vernon Morales' new spot at a former concert venue brings out the best in its ingredients

Wednesday, Aug 17 2005
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To begin at the end: After our dinner at Winterland, my friends Robert, Gail, and I were brought a rectangular white porcelain plate bearing three small, plain-looking cookies, three fruit jellies, and a little white porcelain cup containing nut brittle. We'd already dined solidly on three courses each, plus two elegant freebies -- an amuse-bouche of soup and a small extra sweet, sort of an amuse-dessert -- so it wasn't as if we were hungry. (I remember a meal at Chanterelle in New York when the unexpected arrival of a plate covered with tiny fresh raspberry tarts at the very end of a lavish meal elicited despair because none of us was up to the challenge, and we thought asking for a to-go bag would be déclassé.) And these offerings looked a little severe, a little ordinary. But as we tried each one, cries of appreciation were heard. The citrus pâtes de fruits were impossibly tender and fragrant; the cookies were frangible, buttery, similarly delicate; and the brittle was crunchy, also buttery, and full of fresh nuts. We were thrilled by each component in the assortment of friandises, and also by the contrasting textures and flavors: salty and sweet, crunchy and smooth, crisp and melt-in-your-mouth. This extra fillip at the end of an extraordinary meal encapsulated the philosophy of chef Vernon Morales, veteran of the Flying Saucer in San Francisco and El Bulli in Spain: Everything we'd eaten was carefully thought out, combining flavors and textures in both complementary and oppositional fashion, and was exquisitely cooked so that each dish brought out the best in its ingredients.

It was a hell of a meal, though not quite as challenging as we'd expected from early reports on the place. I was looking forward to trying the dish that was most talked about when the restaurant first opened: an appetizer of a poached egg served in asparagus broth with bacon ice cream. But it was nowhere to be seen on the menu that we were handed. "Where's the bacon ice cream?" I asked, only to be told that the new summer menu had just been put in place the week before. I was reminded of the first time I dined at WD-50 in New York, whose mad-scientist chef, Wylie Dufresne, has been cited as an inspiration by Morales, and was planning to order a pavé of fresh oysters he'd invented by somehow gluing together the slippery beasts without compromising their integrity. It, too, had gone missing, though when I asked our server why, she replied, airily, "Oh, he took it off the menu because it was all anybody was ordering."

We found lots of other appealing dishes to order on the menu at Winterland, though we looked in vain for the unusual, even wacky, combinations we were expecting, such as licorice-glazed rabbit. We felt the chef might be pulling back a little, creating more accessible food. Foam, the airy sauce invented by Ferran Adria at El Bulli and abused ever since all over the world, was unmentioned. The small ramekins of gingered carrot soup that arrived as our gifts from the chef contained a tantalizing surprise, however; not just refreshing segments of pink grapefruit, but also an icy spoonful of sharp turmeric (the spice that gives mustard its color) granita, which played off the soup with color, taste, temperature, and texture. It was a triumph.

We also loved the beautifully arranged plate of octopus carpaccio that we shared, tempted by the menu's separate listing of several "crudo" plates before its appetizers. The squares of octopus, perfectly arranged in rows, were not actually raw, but cured and blanched, still chewy, dusted with orangy smoked paprika, and the geometric pattern was enhanced with carefully placed, impossibly tiny dice of crisp, sweet Asian pear and threadlike lengths of crunchy, briny, brilliant-green sea beans. There could have been an increased proportion of pears and beans, as far as I was concerned, but they were terrific with the octopus. All three of us were reminded of the cooking of our friend Peter, fond of both sea beans and Asian pears, and thought that he'd be happy here, in the stylishly modern room, sitting on a comfy banquette, admiring not just the plush drapes that shut out the world (or Sutter, anyway) but also the stylish modern cuisine.

Our happiness increased with our three starters: a bowl of satiny roasted white corn soup, improved with the trifecta of vanilla oil, flaked Dungeness crab, and the earthy fungus that grows on corn, huitlacoche, wittily echoing the main ingredient of the soup; a delicately sautéed soft-shell crab on a bed of creamy avocado with cubes of mango and a passion fruit dressing; and an escabeche of lean, chewy rabbit and suave, plump snails. This combination, like a little stew, was slightly tart from its spicy marinade of citrus and onions, served with calasparra rice (which we were told is used for paella in Spain, and later found out comes from the Spanish province of Murcia), its fat, short grains green with parsley and sided with a purée of garlic. All three dishes were stunning, and we cleaned our plates.

Robert had claimed the main course that all of us coveted: the Kurobuta pork duo, which was crispy belly, cooked "sous vide" (poached in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag for many hours), then quickly seared for a crisp crust atop melting-soft meat, and braised cheeks, served with amaranth grains (much like quinoa), a roasted peach, and black pepper jus. Succulent indeed. Still, Gail was very happy with her seared Black Angus rib-eye with red wine sauce, served with a terrine of potatoes layered with salty serrano ham and a scattering of spring vegetables including fresh peas and baby carrots. I loved my Columbia River sturgeon set atop a silky port wine glaze, its rich oiliness cut by a tart horseradish sauce sprinkled with beads of caviar and a garnish of roasted beets.

Before our desserts arrived, we were delighted by an unexpected treat: saucers bearing a few juicy hot strawberries and a puff of foamy crème fraîche. Unexpected combinations also abounded in our desserts. The tender caramelized French toast was sided with olive oil ice cream and tart pomelo peel marmalade. Corn bread served with blackberry chutney and goat cheese sorbet formed a slightly wacky trio that sounded like something once thrown together from leftovers, but was amazingly successful. My pick was balls of ripe sweet melon, perfect honeydew, perfect cantaloupe, adorned with warm sabayon and Campari granita. I didn't find the lime jelly mentioned on the menu, but who cares? It was a delightful dish.

I was very intrigued by the three-course, $31 prix fixe menu that we'd arrived too late to try (it's offered nightly from 5:30 to 7 p.m.), featuring dishes drawn from both the dining room menu and a separate bar menu (of nibbles as well as heartier dishes) served in the adjacent, somewhat sparer lounge. When I returned for an early dinner several weeks later, Anita and I started in the bar, at a low table, and ordered a few snacks: yucca chips and salt-cured anchovies, which came draped over a block formed from tomato marmalade and creamy white farmer's cheese. We also had special drinks: a caipirinha made with fresh raspberries and the exquisitely refreshing Campari cooler, with crushed cucumber and orange as well as Campari and ginger ale. When Peter and Karen joined us, I barely allowed them to relax with their drinks, whisking them away to a table in the dining room, afraid to miss the prix fixe (and I was hungry!).

We all were greeted with elegant tall shot glasses filled with layered chilled tomato soup over gazpacho. Then Anita and I went the prix fixe route. Among the three choices per course, she opted for an excellent heirloom tomato, mozzarella, and arugula salad, followed by grilled chicken with rosemary, fresh chickpeas, and French beans, and a soft chocolate savarin cake with roasted green tea ice cream. I started with a rerun of the white corn soup, which was greeted with approbation by everyone at the table. I went on to barely sautéed California sole, under a classic brown butter sauce with capers and lemon (missing the summer truffles adorning the version on the regular menu, but I generally find summer truffles to be a pale imitation of what I think of as real truffles anyway); and for dessert, a thoughtful cheese plate, one runny, one hard, unexpectedly paired with crunchy nougat and a slick of rose petal jam, as well as walnut bread.

Peter was enthralled with his starter of young cuttlefish roasted with bacon, falling apart into soft strings, and plated on a squid ink vinaigrette adorned with meaty enoki mushrooms. An almond vinaigrette as well as a creamier dressing set off Karen's salad of French green beans, artichokes, and yellow wax beans.

Since I'd sampled the pork duo on the previous visit, I was sorry to steer Peter away from it (long-cooked pork belly is one of his specialties), but he professed himself extremely well-pleased with his hefty roasted veal chop and its many accompaniments: roasted chanterelles, crisp nuggets of sweetbreads and bits of chorizo, a crisp of serrano ham, and potato confit, with a bit of veal jus sharpened with sherry vinegar. I was almost as beguiled by Karen's roasted skate wing, its slightly stringy texture, not unlike the cuttlefish, contrasted by the crunch of toasted hazelnuts and a similarly toasty brown butter sauce, with Jerusalem artichokes and roasted asparagus. (I find myself wanting to append "Yum" after every dish.)

Tonight there was no extra pre-dessert surprise, but Karen enjoyed a straightforward assemblage of roasted peaches, vanilla ice cream, and a buttery financier pastry, and Peter was as taken with the melon salad, deceptively simple in appearance yet sophisticated in taste, as I had been. Over the plate of cookies and candies that appeared, we quibbled over our memories of the old Winterland, the skating-rink-turned-concert-venue torn down in 1978 and supplanted by the apartment block whose ground-floor space is now, after a couple of other inhabitants, Winterland the restaurant. We're all much more likely to sit for hours at table these days than stand for hours at a rock concert, and Vernon Morales excites me now as much as Jimi Hendrix did then. When Anita and Karen ignored their cookies (fearing they might explode, à la the Monty Python "wafer-thin mint" routine), I swooped in. I was not going to leave a single buttery crumb behind.

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