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Twenty Five Lusk: Food is secondary in this grandiose space 

Wednesday, Dec 22 2010
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In the late 1980s and early 1990s, San Francisco had a serious crush on the supper club, a decadelong trend that only survives in the success of Bix. With their lush, vintage-meets-rockabilly decor, the new supper clubs promised an all-in-one evening of drinks, dinner, and live entertainment, which ranged from swing bands to trans-glam chantoozies. Even though no one's clearing the floor for dancing, something about this year's surge of restaurants with grandiose interiors and showcase bars reminds me of the '90s supper clubs: They're places to dress up for. Places where the food is a complement to a vibrant scene instead of its sole focus. Places like Comstock Saloon, Bar Agricole, and now, Twenty Five Lusk.

Going by square footage alone, the latter, which opened in mid-October, appears to be two-fifths restaurant, three-fifths lounge, so I divided my trips to the place accordingly. A couple of start-ups could fit into the old brick warehouse that partners Matthew Dolan (chef) and Chad Bourdon (GM), plus their backers, hollowed out and turned into a lounge (below) and restaurant (above).

To do the job, they picked Cass Calder Smith, an architect whose spaces (LuLu, Cebicheria, La Mar, Perbacco) have been the site of so many multimillion-dollar business deals that the SEC should install agents in every restaurant he builds. True to Smith's style, the sense of luxury Twenty Five Lusk evokes is a bit cold yet sleek and masculine, Sean Combs in his Grammy attire, or Timothy Dalton–era James Bond.

Giant, unvarnished beams crisscross between rough concrete walls, marking a grid of supports that should survive more than a couple of earthquakes. For every rough surface, there's a smooth one — a glossy obsidian wall, a polished white plastic table. In the downstairs lounge, the more striking of the two spaces, a series of stainless steel tubes descend two stories, flaring at the bottom into fireplaces in which blue glass flames flicker over black rocks. Rings of white and black furniture circle around each of the tubes, echoing the conversation pits of the 1960s. The dining room on the mezzanine level is lighter and cleaner, an open expanse dotted closely with lacquered wood tables and white chairs. Everyone who mounts the stairs to their table pauses for a few moments outside the glass-walled kitchen, gawking at the white-coated chefs ricocheting between silvery surfaces.

Twenty Five Lusk is situated at one of San Francisco's newest vortexes of power — the SOMA neighborhood where Internet money, baseball money, and biotech money intersect. Despite the youth of the clientele, there are almost as many suits as at a symphony concert there, a place so glossy the Vans-and-tweed crowd shies away. In six months or so, the wealthier suburbs may begin making 25 Lusk a destination, but they are not here yet.

Bourdon, a Farallon veteran, knows the importance of good service to this crowd. Under his aegis, the servers dance their poised ballet in step, hitting all the right marks for a meal that costs between $75 to $100 a person. A waiter will glide in, bow over the table, and leave; the gap soon filled by a water-bearer and then a buser bearing bread rolls. There are not one but three extra bites to mark the transitions in the meal: limp truffled gougères before the apps, fluted tuiles after the entrées, and coconut macaroons with the check.

Dolan has trained in New Orleans and New York, helmed kitchens in Finland, and served as the chef at Garibaldi's in Laurel Heights. His dinner menu is seasonal and intricate, and where the hipster class of chefs thrills to devices and DIY, Dolan composes his plates in a classic idiom spelled out in veal-stock reduction sauces and creamy beurres blancs.

A meal may start with a row of rabbit ravioli ($14) stuffed with sage-perfumed, shredded meat — rabbit treated as game, not as a mammalian chicken — and served over a wine-darkened reduction sauce punctuated with tiny cubes of pumpkin. Smeared across the top of the plate is black garlic purée, a bit much to take in. A dish the servers say is becoming a signature is his cauliflower crème brûlée, perhaps the most startling and successful of the dishes I tried: The light glints ominously off the pane of caramelized sugar capping a savory cauliflower custard, but the chef counters its sweetness with a small salad of pickled sunchoke shards and faintly truffled arugula. (There are a lot of truffles on the menu. Twenty Five Lusk wants to be a truffle kind of place.) The sweet and sour combine, explode, and disappear, leaving the diner to wallow contentedly in the cream-drunk custard underneath.

Dolan uses that spike of acidity frequently, to mixed effect. He tops a mushroom risotto with a spoonful of pickled cauliflower, and the tart bite flares up, cutting through its intense richness. The rice is slightly grainy, but it has umami galore. A piercingly tart celery-root "choucroute" — basically a shredded-root salad — proves too dramatic for a fillet of sole, a demure fish that whimpers in response to the slaw's loud jabs.

The cooking is solid, even if it strains to match the splendor of its surroundings. I found Dolan's intricate cooking almost better suited to the miniatures he serves alongside cocktails at the bar. Each the size of dim sum items, the dishes are ordered by the cluster (three items for $19, four for $25) rather than the piece. A sparkling, sweet lobster salad in a fine brioche roll; warm, soft pretzel rounds served with a thimble of truffled fondue for dipping. A doll-sized grilled cheese, a smear of foie gras across its top the only out-of-place note. Orange spikes of crisp sweet-potato fries sprouting out of a white china teacup. They're all fodder for accompanying Michael Musil's cocktails (all $11), which veer toward the sweet and the fruity. An International Orange throbs with dark rum but tastes most like an alcoholic Creamsicle; the kick of a frothy, beautifully balanced Tequila Sour is softened by the satiny sweetness of pineapple gum syrup.

Twenty Five Lusk, by and large, passes my measure of a successful restaurant in that it achieves almost everything it sets out to do. The building, the service, and much of the food all communicate a polished grandeur. In the tradition of the old supper clubs, the place creates an immersive environment. And yet I never felt myself swept up by the romance of the scene it creates the way I was by Bar Agricole's exquisite cocktails and expansive barrel-stave wall or by the imaginative Barbary Coast detailing of Comstock Saloon. It's a restaurant designed for business dinners and tech-firm holiday parties, not alt-weekly food writers, and the owners' read of their audience is sure. I wish the place all the best.

About The Author

Jonathan Kauffman

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