What's in a Name?

“At least an hour,” I heard the maitre d' say into the telephone as we stepped into that still-nameless restaurant on Market near Noe. No need to hear the beginning of the sentence: The place was packed.

“What do you call the restaurant when you answer the telephone?” I asked her just before we were led to our table (having taken the precaution of making a reservation the week before).

“Market Street Restaurant,” she replied.
“Ah,” I said, nodding, though this did not strike me as satisfactory. The place needs a proper name; Market Street Restaurant makes it sound like a greasy spoon. Wild Palms, the name that appeared later on the credit card chit, would be a good name for a gay bar, and it's not exactly ill-suited to the restaurant, either. While the nameless place clearly pretends to a certain culinary sophistication, mainly it's cruisy.

The food — imaginative and unpretentious — isn't bad. First courses include various soups and salads, but we settled on a pizza ($8.95) topped with grilled eggplant, diced tomato, and smoked Gouda cheese. The cheese gave a creamy earthiness, and the tomatoes (a little pallid, I thought: very late harvest) were innocuous. But the eggplant was dry and tough, having been cooked twice. The crust was standard-issue California: thick and bready.

Still, there was too much life in the dining room to complain about a B pizza. Our server managed the tricky feat of being both highly efficient and slyly flirtatious, while the rest of the staff kept water glasses filled and bread on the table. Despite the noise and the hubbub, the restaurant soothes: It's done up in gentle beige tones, with lots of spot lighting.

The wild-mushroom pasta ($12.95) filled a large bowl to overflowing. Amid the maze of fettuccine ribbons was a medley of boutique mushrooms (I recognized oyster and shiitake), along with roasted garlic cloves and chunks of roasted onion. Bits of spinach and a clutch of diced tomatoes, though familiar in their pallor, brought some much-needed color to what might otherwise have resembled a ruined blond wig. The sauce — cream cut with broth — made the dish go: It was heavy with mushroom flavor.

The roasted monkfish ($14.95) was a beautifully conceived and executed dish. Within a kind of lean-to fashioned from a corn husk lay the fish fillet (still moist and firm), along with a rock-shrimp tamale that in taste and texture reminded me of white-corn polenta. A garnish of black bean salsa added a bit of dark spiciness.

“You didn't finish!” our server admonished me as he cleared the plates. He meant the corn husk, and for a mortified moment I thought he would deny us dessert unless I choked it down. But he whisked away the plate. A moment later the dessert menus appeared.

My friend and I were in instant agreement: the chocolate mousse cake ($5.95). This turned out to be a neat disc of delectable goo, pierced by little dark-chocolate spears and garnished with an artful webbing of dark and white chocolate. The plate itself had been dusted with confectioners' sugar and scattered with chunks of toffee. It was the sort of dish a child would have wanted to lick clean. But we were bigger than that — barely.

Stepping into the aptly named Slow Club on a weekday evening is like discovering that a certain strain of ponytailed yuppie is farm-raised. The carefully unorthodox style of the clientele isn't surprising: Apart from the Muni bus barn across the street, the biggest economic concerns in the area are KQED (whose modernist palace is but a block away) and the Bay Guardian, a corner of whose building the restaurant occupies.

I was anxious to make a Bruce B. Brugmann sighting, but the inside of the place is dark and lit largely by moody candles, making identification difficult. Our party waited briefly at the bar that constitutes most of the Slow Club's far end while a table was prepared. For an instant I felt like a rancher surveying an industrial-art deco pastureland, watching his natty herd graze.

There is a lot of grazing going on at the Slow Club. It's a place to unwind, and it has a pleasantly desultory feel, as if the people nibbling and drinking and talking aren't in any hurry about anything. The restaurant serves a full dinner menu Wednesday through Saturday, but it also offers a daily list of tapas that can be ordered in batches and assembled into a kind of upscale family meal. (On Tuesday nights tapas are the only choice.)

As with all tapas menus, the great danger is unevenness, and the Slow Club is not immune to the peril. But the strong dishes far outweigh the weak ones. And some are better buys than others, though no plate costs more than $7 and most are no more than $5.

The plate of steamed mussels ($5.50) was the best deal: a dozen or so good-size mollusks in a sensuous bath of tarragon-scented saffron cream. Tarragon is the subtlest of the licorice flavors, and it infused the sauce as with a faint pastel tint. Everyone at our table greedily dipped chunks of bread into the bottom of the shallow bowl long after the mussels themselves had disappeared.

Another good choice was a platter of roasted Yukon gold potatoes ($4), flecked with garlic and needles of rosemary and served with a large dollop of aioli. Rosa's “killer” chicken tamale with salsa cruda ($3.50), on the other hand, was a sharp disappointment: Its cornmeal shell was slimy and barely warm, and the filling was anemic. The pork tacos ($5.50), too, suffered from rubbery corn tortillas, though the meat itself was tender and tasty.

In the middle: appaloosa beans with goat cheese ($4.50) (satisfying, but in need of a judicious spice kick); polenta with portobellos and chorizo ($5) (excellent combination, but the polenta tasted off); and grilled prawns ($6.50) (fiery sounding, but tame on the plate).

One great thing about tapas is that, with all the sharing and the variety of courses, people eat (and spend) less, while going away satisfied. Eventually. At the Slow Club, no one's in a hurry.

Market Street (aka No Name) Restaurant, 2223 Market, S.F., 431-0692. Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Sun 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sun-Thurs 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat 5:30-11 p.m.

Slow Club, 2501 Mariposa, S.F., 241-9390. Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Tues-Sat 6:30-11 p.m.

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