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Shock and Awe 

Scott Howard offers superb white-tablecloth food on bare wood tables

Wednesday, Jan 11 2006
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When people ask me about my favorite new restaurants, sometimes I sense a certain disappointment -- even if I rave about a place -- if my suggestion doesn't fulfill their expectations for the shock of the new. They want a novel cuisine (or combination of cuisines), or unfamiliar ingredients, or a presentation they haven't seen before, or extremes in decorating. Good food just isn't good enough. (While I was thinking about this phenomenon I leafed through the new San Francisco Cuisine 2006: Menus and Recipes From the Bay Area's Finest Restaurants & Top Chefs, and ran across this in a section of culinary-themed cartoons from the New Yorker: a disgruntled-looking man saying to his wife, as they both perused menus, "I don't see one damn thing we haven't eaten before.")

Recently I entertained two couples visiting San Francisco from their homes in Los Angeles, both of whom traveled here specifically in search of gastronomic delights, including that elusive shock. I was delighted to introduce them to Scott Howard, a young restaurant that offers excellent, personal, seasonal California-French cooking that tastes good and proffers at least a frisson of novelty in its eponymous chef's combination of ingredients and techniques (as exemplified in a first course of hamachi tartare served under an oval scoop of green apple sorbet, topped with crunchy almonds and cocoa nibs).

I found the menu's sections innovative in their multiple temptations. The list is divided into "raw," "charcuterie," "salads," and "appetizers" on one page, followed by "seafood," "meats," "vegetables," "potatoes," and "grains and beans" on the next, the dishes below each heading described with a simple vertical catalog of ingredients. The numerous offerings enticed us all (over two meals) to compile dinners with an extra first course. ML and Skip had come to S.F. to attend a Pinot Fest at Farallon. Our dinner at Scott Howard was something of a warm-up, to which they'd brought a rare bottle of one of their favorite pinots, a 2001 Bonaccorsi from Santa Barbara. But we chose a delicious and novel Heidi Schrock Vogelsang, a complicated, fruity, multi-white grape blend (Riesling and muscat included), which went wonderfully with our eclectic starters. We began with three choices from the raw bar: a delicate, virginal-looking array of whitest fluke sashimi, touched with kaffir lime juice and plated with translucent gelée made from young coconuts and pale, mildly nutty hon shimeji mushrooms; an equally fragile mating of sliced ivory scallops, almond oil, and yuzu capped with precious beads of caviar and dusted with fennel pollen (the word "exquisite" came to mind, both for the elusive, evanescent flavors and the careful presentation); and a sturdier combination of Japanese aji, aka horse mackerel, a good, oily fish that stood up well to its scent of vanilla and its accompanying tomatillo and chorizo sauces. We couldn't resist sharing a fourth selection from the raw list, my favorite of all we tried: the freshest lobes of sea urchin and nuggets of succulent, fatty toro perfectly paired with ripe avocado and fresh wasabi. After one bite I wanted always to have avocado with sea urchin, a combination I'd never had before.

We moved on to a classic truffled galantine of pintade (guinea hen); a rich potato salad, also truffled, with radishes and chives; and a uniquely conceived foie gras brûlée, a shaky round resting in a pool of strongly flavored lobster consommé, garnished with blood orange sections and fennel and topped with an incredibly thin, separately baked crust meant to imitate the burnt-sugar topping on a crème brûlée, which added a layer of textural interest to what was already interesting. Everything we'd tasted was so delicious that every dish we'd considered and hadn't ordered became a wistful memory.

Skip was delighted to see Tasmanian sea trout on the menu, a fish he'd had for the first time within the week at Providence, his and ML's new favorite L.A. restaurant. I thought he might have tried it before under its more familiar name, salmon trout, but no. He loved it in its second incarnation, its lightly cooked pale-pink flesh propped up on a bed of saffroned leeks, surrounded by fat, barely poached Hama Hama oysters. I was equally beguiled by my meaty slabs of duck breast, with a sophisticated apple compote, a fragrant gastrique, and a crisp flag of serrano ham. ML found his short ribs, in a porcini jus with baby carrots and a celery root purée, succulent (and the best match with the pinot), but said they were "nothing we haven't seen before." (Unlike, of course, everything else we'd eaten.) Our single vegetable side, chanterelles sautéed with baby spinach and plump caper berries, was everything it should have been and sufficient for our hunger (though I looked longingly at the potato gratin with goat cheese and thyme and the lentils with duck confit and grain mustard, among many alluring sides that we didn't try).

I was happy, as we tucked into our sweets (an assortment of house-made ice creams, a textbook yeasty and alcoholic baba au rhum, and a tiny banana cream pie), that I'd been able to treat ML and Skip to a memorable meal. We offered the remains of the pinot to our server. After sharing it with the sommelier, he brought us our check and proudly told us he'd waived the corkage fee -- a lovely gesture spoiled only slightly by the fact that we bargain hunters had already read in the wine list that for each bottle we bought, one corkage fee would be waived, up to two bottles. When we pointed this out he looked momentarily crestfallen, but we thought it was better in the long run for him to know his restaurant's policies, even if it was graceless of us to tell him.

My second meal, with Steve and Mary, was graceful indeed: the most elegant and witty dish the tartare with apple sorbet; the most luxurious a lobster salad with truffles, blood orange, and tarragon -- or was it the pork belly with salsify, black pepper gastrique, and pears (which Mary called "the best bite of fat I've ever had in my mouth")? Or the sweetbreads with smoked bacon on potato purée with truffled Madeira sauce? The venison with turnips, juniper, and hedgehog mushrooms?

Our amuse-bouche was a morsel of seared lamb loin on pickled black trumpet mushrooms, which rhymed with my main course of rare lamb loin served with a palette of garnishes, to use singly or in concert: shredded picholine olives, a heap of orange saffron, an unexpected dab of watercress purée. The desserts (a chocolate napoleon, a sundae, and a quartet of pear confections) seemed not quite up to the standards of what went before -- or perhaps we were just too sated.

Mr. Howard, who charmingly admits he left his last post, Fork in San Anselmo, to create a name for himself in San Francisco, is devoted to getting the best out of each of his spectacular ingredients. And he does so in an almost unsettling setting reminiscent of a plush ski lodge, which presents white-tablecloth food on place mats over bare wood. Call it the shock of the nude.

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Meredith Brody

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