If you're like me, you go to restaurants in part for food you wouldn't or couldn't make at home. Restaurants have access to the best and most varied ingredients; they have the skills, and the incentive, to produce dishes we wouldn't likely get anywhere else. That is their business. They traffic in realizing our culinary dreams.
The Rooster lays no claim to “home cooking,” but that's largely what it offers. The kitchen is capable of turning out exquisitely dreamy dishes — the salmon fillet braised in chardonnay, soy, ginger, garlic, and scallions ($12.95) — but the “house specialty” is four varieties of Chinese clay pot — which is to say, stew.
There's nothing wrong with stew. Stew is fine. But stew is comfort food, something that belongs in a big steaming bowl in the middle of a friend's dining room table on a wet winter night. You don't have to be too careful in making stews; they will accept a kitchen's odds and ends, the last roundup from the vegetable bin, and often benefit from them. The individual ingredients in stew don't matter as much as the overall effect, so that no one is likely to notice if you use Foster Farms chicken instead of Rocky the Range in your gumbo. The fineness of individual ingredients will disappear in the smoky, slightly acrid taste of okra.
The Rooster's gumbo N'Orleans clay pot ($11.50) is chockablock with shrimp, scallops, chicken, and andouille sausage, all bathed in a tomato sauce that tastes like … okra. If you like okra you will like the dish, but I doubt you'll be able to tell much else about it.
The zarzuela espa–ola ($12.95) is barely distinguishable from the gumbo, except that, because the dish is basically paella, the signature flavoring is saffron. The kitchen doesn't stint on the mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops, or whitefish, and the clay pot (with a deep sediment of yellow rice at the bottom) could easily serve two adults if they weren't starving. It's deftly executed paella, presented in an odd if attractive way. But it's still paella, and a great deal of it. By the time you finish you think to yourself: I got my money's worth, and I never want paella again.
The other clay pots are lamb tajine Moroccan ($11.95), with olives, cinnamon, and saffron on a bed of couscous; and vegetable ragout proveneal ($9.75), a classic ratatouille of tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, and eggplant served over roasted potatoes and shiitake mushrooms.
The clay pots make attractive serving vessels, but they do not necessarily improve on the traditional methods of preparing the dishes served in them — a sign the kitchen is perhaps a little too respectful of ethnic boundaries. The Rooster features the cooking of southern Europe and Asia, but while menu items jump gazellelike from one continent to another, the tastes and ingredients remain segregated. The North China vegetable dumplings, for example (at $5.95 the most expensive starter), are filled with black mushrooms, rice, tofu, and vermicelli, but nothing that brings real flavor. They might have benefited from a slice or two of okra, or saffron, or a garlicky tapenade.
The genius of California cooking has been the willingness of chefs to jumble tastes, techniques, ingredients. Sometimes, disaster results. (One of the worst dishes I've ever been served was “Chinese paella.” It was like rice cooked in pure soy sauce, and it cost more than $20. But it sounded like a worthy idea, and at least the chef gave it a go.)
But there is always the chance of some sublime combination, waiting for someone to risk cooking it. Most of the Rooster's menu, however, is unadventurous. The kitchen is clearly capable of doing imaginative things, and the restaurant's gorgeous looks — like a Proveneal inn gone swank — suggest that the owners (Jean-Paul Billault and Shaw-Na Lee) aspire to more than “better safe than sorry.”
If you are lucky enough, as I was, to visit the Rooster on one of those San Francisco summer evenings in which the sunset is actually visible, you will find the main dining room bathed in the last reddish rays of day as they pass through the plate-glass windows that look onto Valencia and 22nd streets. You will find the restaurant, with its clay-colored walls and fancifully painted roosters, invitingly warm; you will find people sitting at the chic bar, staring at themselves in the mirror that runs the bar's entire length.
Toward 8 o'clock the place fills up rapidly. One group of six looks like a caucus of department chairmen from Berkeley. And did the threesome at that tucked-away table — two men and a woman, all in their 20s and rakishly attractive — meet through a Wild Side ad?
You will be seated, if your group is large enough, at a farm table worn to relaxing dullness. Service is French: swift, attentive, unobtrusive, smarm-free. The waiters look as if they could be either graduate students or skateboarders (or both) in their other lives. But they know their stuff.
You will order starters. If you want escargots ($5.25), you will be brought a heap of meaty, mild-tasting sauteed snails with diced tomatoes in a port-tarragon broth that is liquory sweet and needs salt. Also needing salt is the Yucateca salad ($5.25), a creamy mix of avocado, baby artichoke hearts, and corn on a bed of mixed greens dressed with roasted jalape–o salsa. The salsa sounds thrillingly fierce, but it turns out to be meek, and it drowns quietly in the salad's sweetness.
Wine with dinner? The restaurant offers selections from California, France, Spain, and Australia; almost everything is available by the glass (from about $3 to $6.50), and bottles range in price from $13 to $27.
Desserts (all $4.50) do not disappoint. There is the obligatory tiramise, and a sagging, gelatinous flan that has no flavor, but the white-chocolate cheesecake captures the evanescent whisper of white chocolate without becoming heavy. And the orange-chocolate cake holds its two formidable flavors in a real balance.
You step out into the warm evening feeling full, but not quite satisfied. The kitchen is a bit schizo, as if two mothers-in-law, each with their jealously guarded family recipes, are jousting for stove time. The Rooster's carefully policed distinctions among ethnic foods are almost touchingly quaint. The mothers-in-law need to sit down over a clay pot stew — or, better yet, that plate of braised salmon — and stir together some of their recipes.
The Rooster, 1101 Valencia, S.F., 824-1222. Sun-Thurs 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri & Sat 5:30-11 p.m. (Credit cards not accepted.)