Ivy's League

“The food here used to be boring,” my friend said of Ivy's as we sat one evening at a round table for four in a quiet little alcove near the front of the restaurant. The space, with its low ceilings and mazelike partitions, seems like a small, quietly intimate cafe, though in fact it has a good many tables. From ours, we could barely glimpse the tops of other patrons' heads, and the gentle isolation was relaxing.

The food at Ivy's these days certainly is not boring, but I don't want to say it's interesting, either, because “interesting” is so often a euphemism for “inventively bad.” A few years ago, I had dinner with an old friend at chic Nora's in Washington, D.C. He ordered the risotto with dandelion greens, which he ate with grim determination.

“How is your dandelion risotto?” I finally worked up the nerve to ask.
“Interesting!” he snapped.
There was no dandelion-greens risotto on the dinner menu at Ivy's when we visited. There was a pasta special, as well as a daily fish dish and a soup of the day. Otherwise, the menu ranged widely, from grilled rabbit to chicken-and-porcini-stuffed ravioli. The plates were big on sauces, garnishes, and condiments, which made for exhausting reading but lots of flavor and color.

(Has anyone else noticed the menu inflation in this city, in which virtually every ingredient of every dish is fetishistically listed? I've had out-of-town visitors tell me they're simply intimidated by menus that amount to texts requiring deconstruction. Other people I know will refuse to order a dish because its clutch of ingredients includes one item they think they won't like. Going over a menu should not encourage customer persnicketiness, and it should not be like explicating hieroglyphics. As the famous stylist William Strunk advised his students, “Simplify, simplify!”)

Our soup of the day ($3.50) was a prosaic turkey vegetable. There were large chunks of breast meat and a lot of yellow corn kernels gathered in a peppery broth. My first spoonful seemed to say, “Add salt,” but I waited a moment as the flavors assembled on my tongue, where they lingered. Considering the lightness of the broth, the soup was substantial, with a soft holiday echo, like something your mother would make on a cold December day from the Thanksgiving leftovers.

Prosciutto di Parma ($7.50) sat in the middle of a plate edged with a mango glaze, which brought some of the fruity sweetness of melon (a classic accompaniment to the Italian ham). Atop the thin slices of meat was a pile of julienned jicama, red pepper, and watercress that added texture and color; the pecan vinaigrette brought a bit of sharp nuttiness that cut the slightly acrid taste of the meat.

The pan-fried salmon cake ($7.95) had a perfect texture — smooth, but not mealy, beneath its golden crust. A pineapple-red onion relish, with its sweet-sharp balance, neatly bracketed the fatty richness of the fish.

Smoked prawns ($7.50) were dressed with a creamy basil-garlic sauce that added a rich-tart layer of flavor to the naturally sweet shellfish. The smokiness made the dish seem summery, with the outdoors taste of a Fourth of July picnic. The garnishes — blue corn flatbread and frisee salad — added mainly color.

Ivy's describes its main courses as “entrees,” a standard American usage that has severed the word from its original French meaning. (“Entree” means “entrance” in French, and in France an entree is, naturally, a first course, an introduction to the meal.) Although the misusage is not Ivy's fault, it's annoying all the same. But by any name, the main courses were well thought-out and carefully prepared.

Grilled rabbit ($18.95) was served with a chunky coulis of bright red peppers and wild rice-corn-papaya fritters. (There was too much going on here; the fritters lacked a clear taste and were a little spongy.) The flavor of rabbit is often likened to that of poultry, but it has a subtle savor all its own, richer than white meat and a little sweeter than dark. The roasted garlic aioli didn't add much besides calories.

We ordered the grilled New Zealand venison ($18.95) medium rare, and that's how it came: seared on the outside, a deep rose toward the middle. Farmed venison has a mild flavor that reminds me faintly of beef, and like beef it doesn't need much embellishment. On our plate, it didn't get much. Both the portobello mushroom sauce and the horseradish mashed potatoes were flat — a small disaster that might have mattered more if the meat hadn't been as good.

The grilled swordfish special ($18.95) was almost overcooked but remained juicy, if slightly rubbery. It sat on a bed of earthy-tasting puree of celery root and was topped by a smoked red-pepper sauce that gave the dish a dark, insinuating flavor, like a husky whisper.

The daily pasta ($14.95) was cayenne-pepper fettuccine, tossed with grilled rock shrimp, julienned red peppers, and broccoli florets. The sauce — of white wine, olive oil, and herbs — still tasted mostly of smoke, but that big flavor worked well with the heat of the cayenne and the sweet shellfish. (The broccoli seemed out of place here; the florets added good color and some shape, but their damp green flavor didn't quite belong in a dish that was chiefly Southwestern.)

“That sounds interesting,” said one of my dining companions as he scanned the dessert menu, his glance alighting on the chocolate-chili torte with orange-chipotle sauce and a candied jalape–o ($5). He knew that he had to order it, even though he knew it would be bad — and it was. A dry chocolate cake that scorched the tongue. Vanilla-bean gelato alongside the torte offered a bit of consolation (and cooling). The candied jalape–o, striped with some sort of edible gilding, was pretty in an odd way, but we didn't eat it.

Arab curse: May you live in interesting times. Ivy's has done that, and has lived to tell, unlike several of its neighboring competitors, which have repeatedly changed faces or are struggling with culinary staleness. The new owners and their new menu must see to it that Ivy's food finds that happy medium between boring and interesting.

Ivy's, 398 Hayes, S.F., 626-3930. Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Mon-Thurs 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat 5:30-11:30 p.m.; Sun 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.

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