Squarely in Place

“Nobody goes to Union Square anymore,” I've been informed. “It's full of tourists.”
Oh. Once again, I'm out of step. Even though I live closer to Stonestown, I wouldn't dream of going anywhere but Union Square for a department-store fix. Not even for free parking. Avoiding malls is one reason I still live in the city.

I know: Things have changed. No more I. Magnin; Gump's has moved a block away; the park is a mess; blah, blah, blah. Union Square is still, for me, a focal point of the city. Here's what I love: the civility of tea at St. Francis' Compass Rose; the rarefied air of the Dunhill cigar store, like walking into a giant humidor; the bright splashes of color from the year-round flower vendors; everything about Sears Fine Foods; Macy's vast furniture floor; contemporary art at Braunstein-Quay and photography at Fraenkel Galleries; and … goodness me, I'm starting to sound like a gushing tour guide.

I even love the Sutter Stockton garage — a stretch, I realize, especially since they put in those cashier machines. Automation notwithstanding, I do get a charge out of getting a space on the lower level and heading out to play, knowing it only costs a dollar an hour.

As for food, well, one can't live on Sears' dollar-size pancakes or popovers from Neiman Marcus. And one does-n't have to. There's Anjou on Campton Place for French bistro-ites; Scala's for Italian; the French Room at the Clift for elegant what-used-to-be-called Continental. And there's the 2-year-old Cafe Akimbo, a California restaurant with a distinct Asian accent, on Maiden Lane.

Maiden Lane, incidentally, used to be heavy on the chichi. With the closing of Robison's, the fancy doggie store, however, and plenty of vacant storefronts, the block seems to have fallen on hard times. Chanel and Pierre Deux look sort of lonely amid the “For Lease” signs and piled up garbage.

Akimbo, formerly the Maiden Lane Tea Room, is somewhat hidden away, three stories above the street via a small, creaky elevator. The open room, dominated by yellow and cobalt-blue geometric shapes, is sleek and contemporary.

At dinner early in the week, the place is deserted and the food so good we want to tell everyone. The Akimbo rolls ($5.95), spring rolls with pate, enoki and shiitake mushrooms and mango sauce, served with pickled carrot and daikon, present a distinctive contrast of flavor (sweet and sour), texture (smooth pate and rough greens) and color. The poached calamari ($5.25) with mixed greens in a miso-mustard dressing is tender but would have been better warm.

A broiled black cod ($12.95) is sensational, crisp on the outside and moist within, served with red bell pepper, green soy beans, sweet corn and rice-flour noodles. Linguine ($9.50) with Chinese roast duck, shiitake mushrooms and yellow chives is dominated by the duck flavor, the other ingredients fighting for recognition.

We decide to go lightish for dessert, choosing a raspberry mousse from a display tray. A mousse-filled sponge cake surrounded by white and dark chocolate swirls, our choice is definitely not light but worth every bite.

Service is gracious but somewhat awkward, as we're two of only four people in the place. We dine to Anita Baker, careful to say nothing too scandalous. On the way to the car, a peek into Campton Place reveals a full house. Anjou slightly less than full. Doesn't anyone know about Akimbo?

The answer is yes, but, apparently, only during the day. When we return for lunch, the place is almost full with shoppers toting Crate and Barrel and Brooks Brothers bags and smartly dressed office workers. We get off to a great start with the chilled soft tofu ($2.95), sprinkled with dried shrimp “confetti” and dried flowers and bathed in a lemon soy dressing. Red shrimp flecks and yellow flowers adorn the soft, creamy squares of tofu, complemented by the tart dressing. The juicy prawns ($5.25) have an Indian tandoori flavor, and come with a mint-cucumber salad.

Pan-roasted salmon ($12.95) is served in a rich mushroom-sorrel cream sauce with asparagus and yellow squash. A different chef seems to have turned out the grilled lamb chops ($12.95), which come positively drenched in a garlic-herb butter, a fate that also befalls the scalloped potatoes and vegetables (asparagus and squash again) on the plate. The kitchen is having a run on the braised beef short ribs ($9.95) in port wine sauce, a heavy wintery dish that's a bit incongruous among the more delicate offerings. Mango mousse arrives, wrapped in a wide pastel cloth ribbon, with fresh raspberries; mint chocolate mousse is dense and creamy.

Overall, Akimbo is a great find, but at times the East-meets-West aspect falls apart like some well-intentioned cross-cultural exchange. The kitchen does better with fish, vegetables and delicate Asian dishes than hunks of red meat.

On your way home, take a walk around the square and be thankful that no matter how much things have changed, the center of the city is blissfully unmalled.

Cafe Akimbo, 6 Maiden Lane, S.F., 433-2288. Open Mon-Sat 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

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