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Call Off the Quest 

O'Reilly's Holy Grail satisfies on every level: a beautiful room with interesting and delicious food

Wednesday, Sep 21 2005
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OK, I know the technology has been around for a long time, but it still amazes me when my friend Carl e-mails me from Japan and says he wants to have dinner at O'Reilly's Holy Grail when he's next in town, asks what night and time are good for me, and volunteers to make the reservation.

I'm mostly impressed that Carl manages to keep up with the local dining scene, as well as the ones in Tokyo, Los Angeles, and several other cities he frequents. His initial e-mail even says he's excited about the "peat-smoked" pork shank. Where he learned about that, I'm not sure, because it's not until a follow-up e-mail confirming our reservation, titled "O'Reilly's Holy Themepark," that he says he's taken a look at the spot's Web site and is having second thoughts: "It reminds me of that King Arthur restaurant that used to be down in Buena Park. Gads." But he's still keen on the idea of pork.

I'm already happy that the building that housed Mayes Oyster House since 1906 will be not only a restaurant again, but also one that serves oysters. (It contained a jazz-and-Ethiopian-food place for a few years.) This section of Polk has been growing increasingly shabby over the past several years, and I'm thrilled by the new look of the place, which has thoughtfully, I think, kept the art deco neon Mayes sign, but has smartened up the exterior considerably with fresh paint; it glows even as I walk toward it in the dark.

And when I step inside, I'm gobsmacked. This is one beautiful room. Everything gleams: polished wood floors, magnificent arched stained-glass windows, massive wrought-iron chandeliers suspended from a high coppery ceiling. I like it immediately. Carl is waiting for me at a tall table in the marble-floored bar area, a big, icy martini in front of him. We're led past the piano, whose ivories are being played by a guy with a Gershwin/Kern/Hart repertoire that delights me, to a leather booth for two. "I don't really remember what Mayes looked like," I say to the host. "I just remember a lot of booths. Is the tin ceiling original?" He tells us: "No, we changed everything -- we kept some of the booths. The stained-glass windows came from a church in Ireland."

I'm excited by the menu, too. I've never been to Ireland (which may be rectified in the coming year, when my goddaughter attends Trinity College in Dublin), but for years food and travel magazines have been touting the new Irish gastronomy and the respectful handling of the island's wonderful raw materials: seafood, lamb, and dairy products. "This is a fascinating menu," I say; there are lots of things on it I've never seen before, more so under appetizers than entrees, which, except for the pork shank we already know we're ordering, seem to be straightforward assemblies of meat, fowl, or fish with interesting sides: halibut in brown butter with sautéed spinach, lemon, and capers; roasted free-range chicken breast with goat cheese champ (buttery, oniony mashed potatoes), sweet peas, and carrots; rib-eye steak with foie gras potatoes and Irish whiskey sauce.

Carl and I are of the same mind, zeroing in on the more unusual dishes, which means we order four starters to share, followed by the pork shank, again to share. We begin with the sweet corn and oyster chowder, a huge oyster floating in the puréed soup among a scattering of cubes of salty, smoky house-made ham. This soup has everything going for it: garden, sea, and farmyard, in several textures and flavors, in happy combination.

Our next three dishes prove to be a happy combination, too: the terrine of "crubeens" (pig's feet), two slabs that are so lightly gelatinous they fall apart at the touch of a fork into shreds of satisfyingly chewy and suave meat, set off by crunchy, bright cabbage slaw and a sharp mustard vinaigrette. The Dungeness crab bake is its opposite, a pillowy, lush dish blending lump crabmeat with corn kernels under a soft blanket of champ. The only dish that disappoints is the sausage and oyster fritters: I expected light and airy beignets, in which both sausage and oysters could be discerned, but we get sturdy lengths of deep-fried sausage, in which the presence of oysters, probably minced and added to the ground sausage meat, seems elusive -- adding only some saltiness to the mixture. The spicy tomato-saffron aioli that the fritters are plated with doesn't bring much to the party.

Carl's instinct about the peat-smoked pork shank proves correct: It's a wonderful, wonderful dish. The massive, shiny, reddish cured meat falls off the bone in voluptuous chunks. I love its accompaniments of creamy, slightly grainy butter beans, cooked with bright green favas and a bit of tomato, Black Mission figs, and a sticky mustard sauce. We'd also ordered a side of colcannon, which I've usually had as mashed potatoes blended with cabbage; here the cabbage is dark green kale, stringier, prettier, and deeper in flavor than other cabbages, and the colcannon is perfect with the smoky meat and the pearly sauce. "I think this is the best meal we've had together in San Francisco," I say.

The delicious food, served in such a beautiful and comfortable setting, has induced a happy mood in me that continues through Carl's round, warm plum upside-down cake, touched with ginger cream, and the elevated peach melba that I get, elevated because it's made with a fresh poached peach, best-quality vanilla ice cream, house-made raspberry sauce, and a touch of Grand Marnier: Peach melba doesn't get any better than this. I think I have found the Holy Grail indeed. I look at the main courses that seemed less than compelling before, but now, knowing the kitchen's philosophy and what it can do, I find them enormously appealing -- especially the grilled lamb loin with garlic-mustard glaze, green beans, and "butterball" potatoes, and the wild king salmon with potato-chanterelle ragout, Romano beans, and red wine sauce.

I'm greedily looking forward to my next meal here, which, alas, won't include the salmon or the steak with the foie gras potatoes. The presence of an eggs Benedict-like dish on the brunch menu, as well as Irish stew, says "Mom and Dad" to me, and I'm intrigued by such items as the Connemara boxty, potato and leek cakes with smoked salmon and sour cream.

When I returned to the Holy Grail with my parents, the traffic heading toward the bridge on the Saturday afternoon we chose seemed straight out of Godard's Weekend, truly the worst I've ever seen, and it strained our nerves. But in the daytime the building looked even more inviting, with flowers, lanterns, and a curious cart outside that was painted with the Mayes name. My parents were as impressed with the room as I'd been, as we snuggled into a cozy booth right under the row of stained-glass windows, which shed a benevolent light over our lavish meal, erasing any lingering tension.

We started with a half-dozen oysters, one each of the six available that day (local Hog Island Sweetwater and Marin Atlantic, and Effingham, Fanny Bay, Saint Simon, and Malpeque Bay from Canada), each shell still cupping the precious oyster brine, served with a sharp Irish cider mignonette and a spicy cocktail sauce that my father liked so much he saved it to use with his eggs. We also shared a simple but extravagant Dungeness crab salad, tons of the snowy sweet meat piled upon shredded romaine lettuce mixed with avocado, heirloom cherry tomatoes, and a creamy, lemony dressing.

My mother said that the house-baked light brown bread that was the base of her eggs St. Patrick -- topped with two poached eggs and limp, meaty Irish bacon, blanketed with béarnaise, and served with sautéed fingerling potatoes and peppers -- had forever spoiled her for English muffins. My father surprised me by going for the Irish breakfast, here called O'Ceanndubhain's Fry, instead of the Irish stew. But the oval platter, covered with two eggs over easy, Irish bacon, slices of the bready, tasty round Irish sausages known as black and white pudding, two link sausages, and baked beans, proved to be the apotheosis of the Irish fry-up.

As was my Irish stew: Carrots, parsnips, and chunks of lamb floating in a brothy gravy, it looked simple but tasted complex. I've had several stews, daubes, and braises recently in which the meat, disappointingly, was still dry and mushy despite the cooking technique designed to render it moist. These tender lamb chunks were luscious.

For dessert, we had a vanilla bean crème brûlée and an artisanal cheese plate that surprised me by having only one Irish cheese, a Cashel blue, though the three others -- a lovely Epoisses, Morbier, and brie -- were all à point, and came with a compote of port-spiced pears and sugared walnuts.

After two meals, I was completely in love with the Holy Grail. I mentioned as much to several friends, who surprised me by scoffing: "Oh yes, when we think of Irish food, we think of good cooking." "You're living in the past," I said, "when English food was a joke, too." When I finally check out the Web site, I don't get Carl's theme-park fears, but it is flowery and over the top, even dragging in poor old Proust, never much of an eater. I'm surprised to learn that the executive chef, Seán Canavan (sounds Irish!), was born in Germany, less surprised that he's cooked with such masters as Roland Passot of La Folie and Gray Kunz of Lespinasse. His food, for me, is the Holy Grail.

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Meredith Brody

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