A Promising Essence

Describing Tisane's decor as industrial is like calling a log cabin rustic. From the steel-framed plate-glass windows and the big girder holding up the ceiling to the concrete blocks painted blue, the restaurant looks like a factory outlet for Spacely Space Sprockets.

I felt a faint chill walking in, even though it was noontime on a sunny weekday. Maybe the gelid ambience is designed to encourage consumption of tisanes — infusions of dried herbs into a tea-like hot drink. The restaurant offers a variety of them, as well as a selection of regular teas and coffee. In a nice European touch, you can have an infusion pot brought directly to your table, for customized steeping. On a wall near the cash register, open shelves hold a Crate & Barrel-like array of plunger pots and other brewing devices.

I love shiny culinary implements, and a hot drink would have been lovely, but we were hungry. The hostess, smilingly brisk, showed us to one of a set of small tables lined up along a bench that bisects the restaurant. Apart from the bench, the furnishings mostly combine bleached wood and austere steelwork — as if Scandinavian Designs had established a premium line.

Tisane's cooking doesn't square with the restaurant's look. I half-expected ultra-innovative, post-nouveau food, but as a staff member explained to me on the the telephone when I was trying to make reservations (they don't take them yet), “The food is home cooking, with love.” That is not the language of business, but then restaurants like Tisane aren't like other businesses — they're labors of love that, if they manage to survive, might become art.

Tisane is too new to have reached that point yet, but there are flashes of promise. We shared a bowl of the soup of the day ($3.75), a chicken broth with yellow corn and chunks of chicken and potato. The corn made the dish cloying. The broth was too thin to support the robustness of the other ingredients, and it could have used a little color — some diced peppers and chopped parsley or cilantro. Sometimes just making a dish look fresher makes it taste fresher.

The chickpea puree with rosemary and crispy flatbread ($4.50) needed salt. Also, we did not detect the rosemary, whose penetrating pine-resin fragrance is unmistakable. The flatbread, with its encrusted bubbles, reminded me of Indian nan; it was good for scooping up the puree, but it didn't add much flavor.

One of the day's lunch specials was a tombo tuna “salad” ($9), which included (besides the fish) green beans, roasted red pepper, nieoise olives, chickpeas, tomatoes, marinated artichokes, hard-boiled eggs, and anchovies — all dressed with a lemony vinaigrette that did not suffice to make sense of the plate. Each of the salad's ingredients lay in its own tidy pile; it was as if the chef had done all the prep work and arranged all the ingredients, then forgotten to bring them together into a real dish. The result looked like a big appetizer plate. (The fish was overcooked, too.)

The day's pizza special, broccoli alla romana ($8.50), had a good crisp crust with a fat rim of dough. The broccoli had been chopped into a coarse mince and blended with garlic and pepper flakes. The baking turned the broccoli mix a sickly green, but the garlic (along with shavings of Parmesan cheese on top) gave the sauce an extra dimension of flavor, and the pepper flakes left a pleasant afterglow.

For dessert, the gateau au chocolat ($4.50) was a grand name for a pretty ordinary slice of chocolate cake that was also a little dry. But the custardy lemon tart with strawberries ($4) was intense with the taste and fragrance of the lemon. The tart was just sweet enough not to cause puckering, and the pastry was beautifully crisp and crumbly. In the spirit of the restaurant, we also tried a small French press of coffee — which made a smooth, strong brew, if not quite the “espressolike” essence our waitress had promised.

The dinner menu included many of the same first courses, salads, and desserts as the lunch menu — for example, the herbed goat cheese ($5.50), with marinated nieoise olives, toasted almonds, and grilled bread. The cheese was whipped up to an airy — and spreadable — lightness, but the neat little piles of olives and almonds seemed like strangers at a party. What was I supposed to do with them? An added difficulty was that the olives were served with the pits; I was working on the olives long after the plate was otherwise bare.

The heirloom tomato salad ($6.50) was a better choice — fat slices of red, green, and gold tomatoes, with a few sections of orange, a scattering of the ubiquitous nieoise olives, and a shallot vinaigrette that tasted gorgeously of candied orange zest. The citrus' edge nicely cut the tomatoes' rich meatiness, but the olives seemed to have stumbled in from a different dish.

A house specialty is a daily pasta, baked in a ceramic casserole in the pizza oven. Our version ($9.50) featured bent tubes of pasta in a sauce of eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, bread crumbs, and mozzarella cheese (melted to crustiness on top). It sounded plain, but like all great cooking it amounted to more than the sum of its parts. It was so rich that the lack of meat didn't matter.

I broke my rule about never ordering risotto in restaurants (because it so often arrives gummy or mushy) and recklessly ordered the risotto with corn and scallops ($13). To my well-muffled surprise, the risotto arrived glossily al dente, each grain of rice intact but tender. The scallops, too, were nicely browned and just cooked through. But if the pasta was greater than the sum of its parts, the risotto was less. It seemed to need the clarifying flavor of a sauce — and, like so many dishes at Tisane, a splash of color.

As the evening wore on, the place filled up rapidly — astonishingly so, I thought, considering that it's in a warehouse district. Clots of people bubbling with conversation brought to Tisane a warmth and color it otherwise lacked — proving the subtle but essential point that the senses work in harmony, and that there's more to good food than taste.

Tisane, 2170 Bryant, S.F., 641-8458. Mon-Fri 7-10:30 a.m. & 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Tues-Fri 7-11 p.m.; Sat 5:30-11 p.m.

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