A few years ago, just before a friend of mine went off to cooking school in Paris, I managed to ask him this question: Why isn't gay-ghetto food better?
It was a question that had been on my mind since I was a senior in college, when a well-meaning friend took me on a minitour of gay eateries in the city — the P.S. on Polk Street, the Mint on Market, the Neon Chicken on 18th, the Patio on Castro. All served up big plates of dreariness, even in the judgment of a far younger and less demanding self. A mystery, and maybe not an important one — but my friend's answer was revelatory.
“Because the food doesn't have to be better,” he said, and though that had never occurred to me, I saw immediately what he meant. Gay ghettos are not food meccas; they are gay ghettos, where people often have other things — or people — on their minds. Anyone who's ever been in a gay restaurant has recognized that patrons are sometimes more interested in each other than in the food. Or they simply want to patronize a gay establishment.
Against this primal sirocco flutters La Paloma (“the dove”), a made-over bagel shop on a quiet block of 18th, up the hill from the Castro Street maelstrom. The cafe retains a functional vestige of the old bakery: At the back of the dining room are the glass cases in which cookies, tarts, galettes, and other baked goods are still displayed.
But the front two-thirds of the narrow, deep room have been refurnished with postindustrial tables and chairs made of blond wood and stainless steel. The chairs are so heavy that when I first went for lunch with my poetess friend Vita, I thought they were bolted to the floor. In moving my chair back a few inches I nearly upset the whole table.
“Careful, dear,” Vita said, pouring herself a glass of Pellegrino.
The lunch menu is mainly sandwiches. I wanted to try the savory turnovers, a house specialty, but our waiter told us they weren't available that day — no other explanation given. (“He looks like Wally Cox,” Vita said, not unkindly, of him.)
We each had a sandwich. Vita rather reluctantly accepted the waiter's recommendation of the “exotic” turkey salad ($5.95) on cornmeal bread, while I had the roasted eggplant on brioche ($5.95). My sandwich was OK, but when we were halfway through, Vita demanded that we switch.
“Sweet,” she said of her exotic turkey. And so it was — astonishingly so, like something you'd find stuffed in a pastry. My eggplant sandwich, in fact, turned out to be about the only item we ordered that wasn't sweet and fruity. The day's soup was apple-fennel ($1.75 for a cup), which proved to be not as cloying as it sounded, but still not exactly robust.
And the antipasti plate ($5.95) featured, among other things, pears and onions that had been marinated in cabernet sauvignon. A little pile of black olives offered a plaintive contrast of saltiness to what was otherwise an orgy of commingled fruit and wine. Too many items on the plate were also an odd purple color; it looked like Star Trek food. We could not finish the pears.
For dinner, I took a friend who told me he'd be a bad food critic because, no matter what a restaurant's food tastes like, “I'm just so grateful that you can go someplace and sit down and they actually bring you food.” (Again, we had difficulty with the chairs.)
“I'm not that grateful,” I said, wondering if stubborn ingratitude is the sine qua non of successful food writing.
My grateful companion chose for a first course the cream-cheese tartlet with Jonathan apple, Genoa salami, vanilla, and field greens ($6). The tartlet was a small, perfectly flaky disc dripping with cream cheese; it was also … sweet. In fact, dessertlike. The greens and salami were like visitors from another dish, but although the sweetness was too much for both of us, the contrast with the salami's saltiness was pleasantly vivid.
The roasted tomato and sweet corn salad with basil, sherry vinaigrette, and basil oil ($5) had a nice balance of flavors. The natural sweetness of the corn was muted and made more complex by the roasting, which also added a smoky note to the acidic tomatoes. The vinaigrette was rich and lusty.
The fresh trout ($15) was braised in parchment with fennel, Roma tomatoes, arugula, and white wine. This dish lacked the restaurant's signature sweetness, or, for that matter, any other distinctive taste. More astonishing was that the fish was served whole — including head, skin, and bones. The presentation was startling without being appetizing, and it made for a lot of work in the eating.
The ground turkey Wellington ($12) was a pastry shell stuffed with seasoned ground turkey and served with caramelized onion ragout, herb-roasted potatoes, and an apple-cider reduction. The potatoes were fine, but everything else on the plate was drowning in a diabetic overload of sweetness. Turkey, like chicken, is usually none the worse for strong seasoning, but there is something wrong with a main course that tastes like the inside of a filled doughnut.
Considering the excessive sugariness of almost every item on the menu, La Paloma's desserts (all $5) were surprisingly restrained — just sweet enough to bring the flavors into focus. The creme brulee had a good brittle crust and a perfect custard consistency. And the warm Jonathan apple galette with berry sauce and whipped cream had far more bite and texture than either of the main courses we tried.
Give the kitchen credit for an unusually strong thematic consciousness: the heavy use of seasonal fruits, the marinating of fruits and vegetables in wine, the persistent sweetness of so many dishes. The problem with La Paloma at the moment is that the themes seem to be ends in themselves, rather than ways of giving good food distinctive twists. The dismal restaurant scene in the Castro makes the stakes a little higher than they might otherwise be; the neighborhood needs more good restaurants. May this dove soon find its wings.
La Paloma, 4416 18th St, S.F., 863-2237. Tues 7 a.m.-4 p.m; Wed-Fri 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat-Sun 8 a.m.-10 p.m.