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M.F.K. Fisher once said never to eat dinner in a room with a dance band. Since din with dinner is not our preference, we've tended to avoid places that tout music and live DJs. But a tip from a friend sent us to Mercury Lounge, whose Web site was alarmingly billboarded with upcoming events, including a comedy jam as well as music-themed evenings. But at an early-evening dinner we couldn't have been happier with the delicious array of pan-Asian small plates. And, at a calm, relaxing Sunday brunch, everything we chose from an even more eclectic menu, including fried chicken and waffles and BLTs alongside Asian dishes, was tasty and satisfying.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Region: South of Market
When we called late one night to make a reservation, the place was jumping — so much so that we could barely hear each other. But at six on a weeknight, the dining room was quiet.
Mercury Lounge's decor was all over the place. The foyer boasted an unusual and strikingly modern aquarium with golden-orange fish swimming in large glass balls set in filigreed, carved black wood. The large bar against the wall had an imposingly Victorian air. In the still-sunny evening, the window-lined main dining room, with its utilitarian tables and chairs and worn floor, looked a little shabby, brightened only by a couple of large paintings. We poked our heads into the separate, very dark lounge, lined with booths, which seemed more stylish, but was completely empty at 6 p.m.
The cocktail menu was filled with interesting-sounding drinks: We couldn't resist an icy Thai basil gimlet ($9) and a tall drink featuring Hendrick's gin, cucumber, and absinthe ($9), so well made that it would have been easy to drink our way through the list. And after sampling more than a third of the 28 small plates on Mercury's menu, we felt the same way about its food.
The first dish to arrive was the Asian chicken salad ($6), a dish I usually wouldn't order; I was more intrigued by the seafood kimchi among the salady offerings labeled Re-Freshing Starts, but sometimes you have to bow to the wishes of the table. And I was glad I had. This was a well-balanced version of the dish, with a sesame-soy vinaigrette coating the shredded chicken, carrots, cilantro, crispy noodles, and torn romaine lettuce.
In short order, we received lumpia ($8), whole shrimp with seasoned pork stuffing, tightly wrapped in a egg roll, expertly fried, and served with a sweet dipping sauce. Small chunks of crispy salt-and-pepper–coated sea bass and tofu ($12) were similarly well fried and showered with fried Thai basil and slivered green chiles, the fish sweet and tender under its thin, crisp coating.
We couldn't stop eating the sizzling plate of grilled pork sisig ($14), chewy, char-kissed chunks of pig tossed with chopped green chiles and red onions, and the bistek ($15), similarly chewy and satisfying thin-sliced steak with plenty of caramelized onions in a soy calamansi (Asian citrus) sauce. Both dishes reflect the Filipino heritage of chef Dominic Ainza, veteran of the pan-Asian kitchens of Betelnut and Poleng Lounge.
Ainza has a nice way with vegetables as well as meat. Firecracker corn kernels ($6) were wok-tossed with jalapeños and topped with the textural surprise of popcorn, while tiny Chinese eggplants ($6) were sautéed and coated with a mild, sweet adobo sauce. Thin egg noodles ($8) came in a wonderfully spicy garlic sauce.
The glazed short ribs ($10) were a little gristly under their sticky hoisin glaze. But the pale crispy calamari ($8) were brightened by their accompanying sweet green chile sauce. The homey pork adobo fried rice ($7), soft bits of braised pork, scrambled eggs, and onion, didn't seem fried at all — its soft texture and bland flavor needed something more to sustain our interest.
There were two desserts on offer: a dense square of Filipino bread pudding, served with coconut ice cream, and a good panna cotta topped with strawberries (both $6). We might not come back to hear DJs Phatrick, Un.D.Fine, and Owl Boogie, but we would for the garlic noodles, firecracker corn, and sisig.
In fact, we began with a towering plate of sisig nachos ($9) at Sunday brunch. Every table around us had a plateful, perfect for curing the hangovers of the night before, perhaps incurred in this very spot. If we'd finished all the chips, topped with straight-ahead junk-food nacho cheese sauce and shredded cheese as well as the irresistible grilled pork, onions, and chile, there would have been no room for our main courses, which would have been a pity. The brunch menu offers a wide array of three-egg scrambles (all $9), including Mercury's version of chilaquiles as well as the one we tried, the Chicken or the Egg: chicken, spinach, green onions, sun-dried tomatoes, and pesto, softly scrambled with eggs and covered with melting sliced Parmesan. The classic Filipino breakfast of heady garlic-fried rice topped with two over-easy eggs came with tocino (preserved pork) or longanisa sausage ($8), and a salad of chopped tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs. We chose the longanisa: two fat spicy small links and a long sweet one. The excellent Southern-style fried chicken, two wings and a halved breast, came with a large and rather dense mildly spiced waffle ($11). Even though it was Sunday, we all had full afternoons ahead, or we might have dived into the bottomless mimosas or Bloody Marys ($11), which seemed to adorn as many tables around us as the sisig nachos.
We considered splitting an order of what Mercury calls the best hazelnut French toast ($8), but we were too full already, and boxing up leftovers. We'd save that for another quiet Sunday at the multiple-personality Mercury Lounge.
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