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I wouldn't say that the Mercury Appetizer Bar wormed its way into my affection, chugging along like the Little Engine That Could. Quite frequently during our rocky three-meal acquaintance I thought of it as the Little Engine That Couldn't: couldn't open on time, or at least at the times stated on its Web site and menu; couldn't make a decent cup o' latte; couldn't serve several of the dishes confidently listed on its Web site and menu. In other words, the Little Engine was off the rails.
1434 Lombard St.
San Francisco, CA 94123-3112
Region: Marina/ Cow Hollow
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Lady Marmalade martini $9
Sisig (grilled pork) $9
Spicy garlic noodles $8
Pork and shrimp lumpia $8
Grilled Korean style beef $11
Ginger beef $14
Garlic flat bread $1
And yet, after starting with a nearly gruesome brunch that I will temporarily draw a veil over, the little place served us some delightful little dishes. I say "little" because, as Mercury indicates in its name and subtitle ("Brunch-Cocktails-Little Plates"), the spécialités de la maison are pan-Asian savories served in smallish portions designed to be shared.
I'd noticed a few Filipino dishes (lumpia, chicken adobo) on the menu, so I invited my Filipino friend Ruby to Mercury for an early dinner. The Web site offers "dinner and cocktails from 5 p.m. to close," the menu states that Happy Hour is "Mon.-Fri. 5-7 p.m.," and when I phoned I was told the place opened at 5. So we felt safe arriving at 5:40 p.m., freaking out only slightly when we thought we saw someone locking the door as we turned the corner onto Franklin to park. When we walked up, the door was ajar, and a pretty young girl sneaking a smoke outside — who turned out to be the bartender — told us they weren't yet open. "But they said 5 when I called," I protested, mildly. So she let us in, and we perched at one of the several high tables for two opposite the bar.
I'd already learned at brunch, somewhat to my dismay, that there was really only one table of normal height in the place — two largish deuces pushed together in the window. Because there was a laptop and some papers askew on it, I decided it was already claimed (by, it turned out, the young chef, who casually cleared off his stuff while we were perusing the ambitious and fanciful 15-strong drinks menu). Cocktails included such multiple-item libations as a Honey-Lychee Daiquiri (Myers Platinum, Soho Lychee Liqueur, honey syrup, lime) and Chai Iced Tea (Phillips Union Vanilla Whiskey, Voyant Chai Cream Liqueur, Thai tea, half and half). "Can you make all of these?" I asked, idly. I was won over by her candid response: "Yes," she said, "if we have the alcohol and the garnishes on hand."
What they didn't have was ice, so she left to get some. On her brisk return, she whipped up a sake-tini (wasabi-sake blended vodka, muddled cucumber) for Ruby and something called a Lady Marmalade (Absolut, Grand Marnier, marmalade, splash of OJ) for me, both served in martini glasses. A more experienced bartender would have made the drinks of equal sizes — mine stood half an inch taller in the glass — but they were both delicious, Ruby's with the fresh green taste of cucumber and mine not too sweet. The ice had been put to excellent use: Exquisitely thin shards floated on top of the oily liquid.
We were feeling better, admiring the New Yorky brick-veneered wall around the bar, the arty sculpture-paintings made of quilted metal squares hanging across from it, and trying to ignore the football game played quietly on the big-screen TV. We tried to order rice plates (which add rice and cucumber salad to a number of dishes), but we were told that cooking the rice would take half an hour, and we were offered grilled flatbread instead, which was fresh, slightly puffy, and tasted nicely charred.
The chicken adobo shocked Ruby and me. I expected browned, crisp, skin-on chicken, flavored with a peppery, garlicky, vinegary adobo marinade. Instead we got a bowl of pale chunks of chicken in a creamy coconut-milk sauce, mildly vinegary, topped with green onion shreds. Pleasant, easy to eat, but not my idea of adobo. The chef later explained that this was chicken adobo bicolano, which the menu calls a coconut version of the "National Dish of the Philippines." We liked the sisig, chewy pieces of grilled marinated pork with slivered jalapeños, sliced onions, and a heap of fresh, crunchy cucumber half-moons, even if it was also a departure from the chopped, stewed pork and parts you'd find under that name in Manila. And we really liked the spicy garlic noodles, which looked deceptively simple – just a heap of toothsome egg noodles on a plate – but tasted strongly of the minced garlic, sriracha hot sauce, and soy they'd been tossed with. Tasty!
No exclamation point comes attached to anything we had had at brunch, unless derisively: the worst latte I've ever had! Lackluster eggs! Inexplicable French toast! Even though we rolled in around noon, we were the sole customers for most of our meal. Once again, the place seemed not yet ready for its close-up. The boyish server seemed eager to please, but slightly clueless, offering us tacky take-out stirrers for our dank lattes. (He seemed surprised that we would prefer spoons.)
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