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High and Low 

The upscale sister to the Magnolia Pub offers sophisticated cocktails and small plates in a stylish setting, yet it's an uneven experience

Wednesday, Jan 24 2007
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Haight may be my favorite shopping street in the city, chockablock with bookstores both new and used, gift shops where you can find $2 tchotchkes and thousand-dollar robots, clothing stores where you can find fancy-label $400 jeans, and others with racks of $3 pre-owned blouses. It's a street of contrasts high and low, though not so much when it comes to its restaurants, which tend to be cheap, cheerful, and funky, such as Memphis Minnie's, the Pork Store Cafe, and Cha Cha Cha.

The eccentric decade-old Magnolia Pub fits right into what it calls on its menu "this special neighborhood." A dazzling assortment of artisan beers is brewed in the basement of their corner building, at Haight and Masonic, built in 1903 to house a pharmacy, which was succeeded by the Drugstore Cafe, which became the Drogstore, and then Magnolia Thunderpussy's bakery, sentimentally referenced in the current occupant's name. The place is homey rather than chic, with tiled floors, straight-backed booths, well-worn wooden tables, a bucolic painted mural, beer lists chalked up on blackboards, and a menu of comfort food from all over the map.

For a number of years now in Paris, fancy chefs have opened less-expensive spots, often right next door to their upscale places. Magnolia Pub has gone in the other direction with its sister spot, the Alembic, a sleek, chic bar four blocks up the street. It's dark where Magnolia is light, snug rather than airy, stylish and urban instead of countrified funk. You enter a dark and glittering world. The tall ceiling is covered with bronzed pressed tin, and the shelves behind the bar are laden with tempting liquor bottles. There are Magnolia beers on tap, but the Alembic offers a cocktail menu featuring a page of classic preparations and another of original drinks. Beyond the bar is a space with eight or so small black wood tables, where you can command sophisticated small plates.

Eleanor and I were discussing a dinnertime of 7 or 8, but when she heard that the Alembic doesn't take reservations, she wisely counseled arriving as early as we feasibly could. We were sitting at one of the small black tables before 6 p.m., me sipping one of the bar's own inventions, a delicious concoction called the Aviator (gin, lemon juice, and maraschino liqueur), freighted with tiny brilliant ice shards, and Eleanor enjoying a glass of Berdugo from the compact but interesting wine list.

The wittily laid-out menu features a cover that somewhat mysteriously states "Good Friends and Great Enemies," and whose back mentions "Unsurpassed Attention Unless We're Busy." Magnolia bows to no one in its extensive reading material — not only can you read about its history and philosophy on its menu, but the separate beer list qualifies as a brewing seminar all on its own. The Alembic's menus are shorter and sassier. Inside there's a page of "Nibbles," seven dishes ranging from sweet and savory roasted nuts with sage to crispy duck and porcini mushroom risotto cake with mango coulis, and another page entitled "Local Love," — we're told ingredients come from nearby "small ranchers, farmers, and other artisan producers." There's also one with 14 small plates meant for sharing with meat, vegetable, and fish dishes interspersed in no particular order. It's a menu that inspires hunger in me: Everything sounds yummy, from the charred young Monterey squid, nine-spiced, with coriander seed vinaigrette, to the jerked lacquered chicken wings with cool yogurt dipping sauce.

In any event, we don't order either of those dishes. We start with mussels "McLean," nice small mollusks steamed with Magnolia Blue Bell Bitter, and flavored with chunks of andouille sausage and chopped green onions. The shellfish are tender and sweet, but there's a funky taste contributed by the sausage that we both find a little off. We love the falling-apart chunk of barbecued pork belly, though digging around in its surrounding lake of creamy grits threaded with sauteed winter greens for the accompanying deviled hard-boiled duck eggs is a bit awkward. We fare better with the luscious, chunky sliders, two fat and juicy little Moroccan lamb burgers with roasted peppers on focaccia slicked with spicy harissa aioli and tapenade: yum. And we're also happy with the sweet roasted cipollini onions and Brussels sprouts, glazed with brown butter and honey and sprinkled with crushed hazelnuts for a bit of crunch. We're mystified by the "cheesecake," a mixture with the texture of clay in a shallow oval dish, topped with raspberry sauce and sided with a couple of cookies. At first Eleanor thinks it's unadulterated cream cheese, but further investigation elicits hints of vanilla and sour cream. On such a short dessert list — just four items, including a chocolate bourbon bread pudding, warm fruit compote, and pineapple tart — this one isn't pulling its weight. I'm happier with my nice glass of port.

There were more hits than misses. But I find myself wanting to order the sliders again, because they were so good, and the mussels, because they weren't (and I wonder why). On my second visit, a chilly Sunday night, I arrive at 20 minutes to 7, after some satisfying shopping across the street at a fancy vintage store called Decades of Fashion and some even more satisfying shopping at the local Goodwill, to find all the tables filled and two parties ahead of us on the waiting list. I'm with Jennifer, who lives in the neighborhood and is thrilled with the new spot (already a regular, she runs into pals dining a few tables down). My Negroni is lovely, though it doesn't boast the flotilla of ice crystals I liked so much before; Jennifer has a glass of jammy Pinot Noir.

Again, I find our meal curiously uneven. I like the goat cheese fritters, three airy spheres atop an underdressed but pleasant salad of endive, thin-sliced apple, and walnuts, and a special that night of winey chopped red cabbage topped with more tasty goat cheese. But the cassoulet of wine forest mushrooms, autumn squash, and Great Northern white beans is bland, as is the gumbo, served in its own cunning little metal casserole, with crayfish and scallops submerged in the rice, topped with two pale flabby oysters, the whole curiously under-flavored. I'm also not enthralled with the Lancaster County "cheesesteak" (the quotation marks are the menu's), oxtails braised in burgundy and porter atop crisp thin toasts, drizzled with melted cheese. Both the cheesesteak, at $16, and the gumbo, at $13, seem pricey (though they wouldn't, I reflect, if I'd liked them). From the brief list of four desserts, the warm winter fruit compote we want isn't available, so we finish with a nice but not particularly exciting pineapple tart: good pâte feuilleté topped with the sharp fruit and a ball of vanilla bean gelato.

The Alembic's chef, Eddie Blyden (whose Web site, www.chefblyden.com, details an amazing resume, including stints in Germany, Switzerland, the Caribbean, and a number of top New York restaurants), has also revamped the Magnolia's menu. Curiosity led to a recent late supper there, that was more successful than either of my forays up the street. Edith and I shared a plate of crispy Monterey squid with a spicy fennel and sriracha aioli; an enormous portion of pistou, more stew than soup, full of white beans, carrots, mushrooms, zucchini, and spinach in a trickle of fragrant basil-and-garlic broth; and a satisfying pork schnitzel sandwich on a sturdy roll sided with German potato salad, which we realized after ordering was inspired by the obscure German silent movie, Nathan the Wise, we just saw at the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival.

I'm perplexed. I like this meal at Magnolia, which shares inspiration and philosophy with Alembic's cuisine, quite a lot. I'm especially thrilled with my bargain beer sampler: six glasses for $7.50, all delicious. Edith, half my size, surprises us both by cleaning all three plates: "I usually don't eat like this," she says.

Still, I think of those juicy lamb sliders, the sweet roasted onions and Brussels sprouts, the lush pork belly: There must be other triumphs hiding on the Alembic's menu. I'm happy to try again.

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Meredith Brody

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