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Barometer Fluctuates at Mercury Appetizer Bar on Lombard at Van Ness 

Wednesday, Oct 3 2007
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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.

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.)

I chose the longsilog, a traditional Filipino breakfast of longanisa (four fat little links of crisp-skinned porky goodness) along with rice topped with two fried eggs and sided with four pale slices of roma tomato. It's served with a shaker of white vinegar slightly flavored with slivered onion and garlic; a homey plate of food. My companion had a misnamed farmers' market scramble, because farmers' market indicates freshness, and its vegetable mix of tomatoes, roasted peppers, onions, spinach, and mushrooms was tired and overcooked, as were the eggs, into a stodgy nightmare. But worse still was our shared "the Best Hazelnut French Toast," which would have offended even under another name. The soggy, limp, tasteless halved croissant and a slice of bread would have mystified anyone as to why French toast was a dish that people enjoyed.

I returned despite the disappointing meal. The dinner menu was intriguing, and our server told us the chef had cooked at such S.F. hot spots as Poleng Lounge and Betelnut, and that dinner was actually a treat. As was my next meal, although again Mercury showed some growing pains. When we called for takeout one night at 5:20, as per the menu ("Call in your order for pick-up, ready in about 15 min."), we were first told that the kitchen didn't open until 6 p.m., and then that they'd see what they could do. What they could do was most of what we wanted, right away — no tamarind glazed pork ribs, no baby bok choy, but lovely crisp lumpia, miniature egg rolls stuffed with ground pork wrapped around a whole shrimp complete with tail, and easy-to-eat, lightly fried chicken wings in a sticky, sweetish orange glaze. We loved both the beef dishes: thinly sliced Korean-style beef quickly grilled and served with a few leaves of baby spinach in a drizzle of chile sauce, and another of amazingly tender chunks flavored with lots of fresh ginger and chopped green onions on a heap of limp yet seductive sweet-potato fries. The kitchen didn't have the cucumber salad we'd ordered, so instead it treated us to a smallish portion of slivered green papaya salad extravagantly stocked with fat fresh pink shrimp in a nuoc cham (fish sauce) dressing. The only loser was the tired shrimp fried rice, nicely spiced, but torpedoed by its meager, almost invisible accoutrements of egg, onion, and overcooked baby shrimp. I wished only that I could have gotten a Lady Marmalade to go (or maybe a Lemongrass-Vanilla Sidecar) to wash it all down.

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Meredith Brody

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