You know you've been around a while when every time you go to a restaurant, you remember the place it used to be. Speaking of being around a long time, there was a discussion in the office the other day about a CD-ROM documentary on the Summer of Love and someone incredibly young piped up and said it's a part of history people don't know much about. History?
But I digress: Restaurants that used to be other restaurants. Like George's Global Kitchen, which was American Chow, and before that a Chinese place.
And before I go any further, let me state for the record that I know owners George Aknin and Trish Robbins well. Aknin, a native of Marseilles, has worked in restaurants all over town including Izzy's, Cypress Club, Masons and CafŽ Claude. Robbins was a KFOG deejay in another life and still likes to get up and sing with the band, any band, whenever the opportunity presents itself. She definitely remembers the Summer of Love. Did I mention that they're married? And have worked together for over two years? And are still married?
George's Global Kitchen is one of the most feel-good places in the city precisely because of the couple at the helm and its reflection of their spirit. Casual, nothing fussy, high-quality and lots of fun. Given their location — a little triangle on Division under the freeway overpass — they were not out to do Chez Ritzy.
The room is open and simple: Formica tables, wooden chairs and half-dome industrial lighting. Above the small barstool counter are clocks from time zones all over the world, including places the owners have traveled (Motu Tane, Nawiwili), a place they think is cool because the time is 15 minutes later than everywhere else (Khum Jung), and Trish's birthplace (New York's 72nd and Third). Maps line the walls, reflecting the restaurant's motto, “Think globally, eat locally” — a happy slogan that's open for interpretation.
And the menu is basic American roadhouse fare, with traces of Mexican/French/Italian creeping in on the specials list. All dinner entrees, by the way, are under $10 ($7.50 is the top price at lunch). The chefs are a team: Yannick Meraud, most recently of the City Club, and Margaret Macdonald, who worked prep at Fog City.
A special appetizer shrimp-and-pesto quesadilla ($5.95) served with chunky fresh salsa is light and delicious, filled with sweet rock shrimp. On another day the special quesadilla is lamb. A roasted eggplant and garlic soup ($2.75) is rich and mellow; those who want something that shouts garlic should head straight for the roasted garlic heads with tomato-and-onion-topped crostini.
Other appetizers on the regular dinner menu include spinach salad with warm bacon dressing ($6.50), fish cakes ($6.75) and fried calamari ($5.75).
Among the entrees are homemade ravioli filled with ginger-cured salmon in a cream, shallot wine sauce ($8.95) and braised lamb shank with herb polenta ($9.95). The large ravioli are surprisingly delicate, the sauce complementing rather than overwhelming the salmon filling. The lamb shank is tender and hearty, but the rosemary-and-thyme polenta is too herby.
Standards on the menu are the deservedly popular meatloaf and garlic mashed potatoes ($8.50), grilled salmon ($9.75), grilled pork chop ($9.95), marinated roasted half-chicken with risotto ($9.25) and New York strip steak with french fries ($9.95).
You can also get a great cheeseburger at night for $6.95, pair it with beer from Washington state (Pyramid Hefeweizen) or Benecia (Devil Mountain Golden Ale), kick back at the counter and relax. While you're at it, you may as well order some hot, crispy onion rings, a nostalgia item that always makes me feel like getting on a plane for New York.
Desserts are the weakest part of the menu: a lemon tart not tangy enough, an apple coconut crisp uninspired. The dense chocolate truffle torte with walnuts and raisins, more like a slab of fudge, is the most successful.
At lunch, the fare goes all the way from a classic BLT and a roast turkey sandwich ($6.50) to a roasted leg of lamb ($7.50) and linguine with chicken, spinach and mushroom ($7.95). An unusual offering is the pan bagna ($6.95), a Proveneal sandwich of egg, pepper, anchovy, tomato, cucumber, olives and lettuce. You also can't go wrong with the grilled fish on a baguette ($7.25) — red snapper rolled in semolina flour with a caper tartar sauce. The most expensive bottle of wine, a 1991 Fox Hollow Cabernet Sauvignon, sets you back $21. Aknin is a knowledgeable oenophile. On our last visit, he recommended a $19 Saddleback Pinot Blanc, whose tropical complexity immediately cured our chardonnay/sauvignon blanc rut.
Aknin and Robbins, by the way, are definitely not calling it in from a condo in Maui. One of them is always there, at every lunch and dinner, greeting, schmoozing, busing, making wine suggestions and, in general, giving every table friendly attention. The restaurant attracts an eclectic bunch, almost all of whom seem to know the owners by name. That sense of being part of the place happens pretty fast.
Like so many other energetic restaurateurs in town, these two are doing everything they can to make the place sizzle, short of dragging people in off the street and force-feeding them: The couple has winemaker dinners and cigar nights; they cater; they open up a private patio in those mythical warm-weather months. But it's the combination of creative, fresh food at rock-bottom prices and dynamic owners that really make this place cook.
George's Global Kitchen, 340 Division, S.F., 864-4224. Open Mon-Fri 11:30 am-2:30 pm, Tues-Sat 5:30-10 pm.