I sat in front of Paragon recently in warm twilight and felt that I was inside a movie about the 1980s. The rest of my dinner companions were late (parking in the Marina is hell), and the world passing to and fro in front of me consisted of surreally attractive people driving great cars (SAABs, Jeeps) and carrying upscale takeout back to apartments with views. Things don't appear to have changed much since the days when Reagan was president. If anything, the Marina is a little spiffier.
Paragon, a bar and grill, is a yuppie saloon at the center of this posh universe. All the place needs is a set of those swinging half-doors that sheriffs used to burst through in the Wild West. Inside, the front room is a dark bar done up in burnished wood, with a gorgeous clientele of both sexes sipping drinks and gazing up at a big television.
The dining room is in back, away from street traffic. My first thought was: There's been a mistake. They don't even serve food here. Then I worked my way to the dining room and thought: OK, they serve food, but it's bad saloon food and they're not proud of it. They don't want people to see. Then my group arrived, and we sat down and started eating. I thought: Who would ever think that a place like this would serve such good food? But Paragon does.
The cooking is American in a way that's not as common in San Francisco as in other U.S. cities. The dishes emphasize the great staples of the American table: chicken, beef, and pork. There's also pasta for health-conscious times, and several seafood dishes, including salmon (which seems to be on every menu in town). The cooking is not quite sensational, but it's solid, and just imaginative enough (the shrimp and red snapper taco salad with avocado mousse, for instance) to bring depth to food that might otherwise seem overfamiliar.
Among the first courses, two — soup and pizza — change daily. We passed on the pizza (chicken and mushroom) but did try the beef and barley soup ($4.50). They weren't kidding about the beef; large chunks, and a lot of them, bobbed in a soup so laden with barley, carrots, and onions as to resemble a stew. It's the kind of dish Paul Bunyan might happily sit down to after a day of epic North Woods labor. It did need a bit of salt.
The bruschetta ($4.50) included two large, round slices of crusty bread, topped with a tomato relish and Parmesan cheese. The diced tomatoes were red-ripe and sweet (something of a wonder in this off summer) — a central taste that played evenly against the various bites of basil, garlic, virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinegar around it. The cheese added a rich saltiness. If prepared too far in advance, bruschetta can turn soggy, but Paragon's version resulted in marinated bread that didn't fall apart.
The house-cured salmon ($8.50) was served with elongated triangles of grilled bread, sliced thin, and a pile of lightly dressed mesclun. The fish was drizzled with lime juice and black pepper cream, which I thought added a sultry note. But a fellow diner (a food pro trained in France) thought that it was a mistake to serve cured salmon — one of the fattiest of fishes — with a creamy dressing. He would have settled for the stringency of the lime.
He also thought that the buttermilk dressing on the crispy chicken salad ($8) was too peppery. It was. The pepperiness didn't make everyone start sneezing, but it did overwhelm the meeker flavor of watercress in the mix. The arugula, however — nutty and slightly bitter — stood up to the dressing, and the chunks of lightly battered, deep-fried chicken benefited from all the pepper. The deep frying left the white meat cooked through but still juicy.
The main-course chicken, grilled free-range breast ($12), was supposed to come with summer vegetable pearl pasta (which resembles orzo), but we substituted garlic mashed potatoes. These were slightly grainy rather than velvet smooth, and their garlic taste was faint. The breast itself had been carefully grilled with the skin on to preserve juiciness. A garnish of chubby green and yellow beans completed the plate.
(Our waiter, to his credit, noticed that the chicken breast was the one dish we didn't finish. When he asked if there was something wrong with it, we explained that we were phobic, perhaps irrationally, about chicken skin. He offered to bring us another course, and when we declined, he simply took the chicken off the bill. “I give this place five stars,” said one of my tablemates, “just for that.”)
The grilled maple pork loin ($12) was carefully overcooked, though thanks to the kitchen's skill, it didn't entirely dry out. (The sweet-onion chutney helped.) Studies show that commercially raised pork presents no real risk of trichinosis and that cooking to an internal temperature of 140 degrees is enough. But the truth is that if you serve people pinkish pork in this country they won't eat it, so most places don't try.
We ordered the herbed skirt steak ($13) rare, and it came that way — neatly sliced and topped with a daub of kalamata butter, which resembled an olive mousse in its tasty fluffiness. The homemade fries were a little too big to eat gracefully, but bits of skin added authenticity, and the homemade ketchup was less sweet and pasty than the commercial kind. It retained the pulpiness of real tomatoes.
The pan-roasted salmon ($13) came topped with an unidentified relish of chopped green vegetables, but it was just a little dry and could have used a bit of sauce. The accompanying straw potato cake consisted of coarsely shredded potatoes that were totally deep-fried; the cake was like a huge, thick potato chip, but not oily. It also had an appealing tinge of sweetness we decided had to be either cinnamon or cardamom, but when we asked our waiter to check, he returned with the disappointing answer, “Shallots.” Chefs do guard their secrets.
By the time we left, the dining room was beyond full — people were standing around waiting for the live music to begin. Everyone looked like a movie star. SAABs double-parked on the street. Reagan still president? Martinis all around. Check, please.
Paragon, 3251 Scott, S.F., 922-2456. Open daily, 5:30-10 p.m.; bar open daily 4 p.m.-2 a.m.