Even while fighting a driving rain with an inadequate cheap umbrella, walking up from the Financial District into the heart of North Beach is pretty damn delightful. Along the way, you pass interesting architecture, the venerable and essential City Lights bookstore, and countless eateries ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Daniel Patterson's rigorous and inventive Coi is hidden mere steps away from tourist traps complete with carnival barkers posted outside.
This rainy night I'm headed to a newish place for dinner. Avenue G opened at this location in March, closed in May, and recently reopened after renovations. It's in a choice corner spot on Washington Square that previously housed the old-school La Felce. You walk into a nice barroom. On the right, through an opening, is an urbane dining room, nicely done, if somewhat characterless, with a mirror stripped along one long wall, tall and comfortable leather chairs, and white table linens. You could be almost anywhere, though the menu opens with a lengthy and slightly embarrassing paean to San Francisco and, incidentally, itself. "Avenue G," it says, "captures the essence of San Francisco cuisine. Like the city itself, it takes the rich traditions of Asia, Europe, Latin America, and California, and transfigures them into something unique with respect, authenticity, and love."
This worries me. The dreaded word "fusion" hasn't popped up. Yet I'm sensing confusion, especially when the introduction continues: "San Francisco cuisine is hard to characterize ... the essence of San Francisco food is elusive, floating on a vast culinary landscape between clam chowder in bread bowls and the world's most expensive haute cuisine." Clam chowder in a bread bowl is an embarrassment, and San Francisco doesn't even boast the United States' most expensive haute cuisine, thank goodness — that would be New York — much less the world's most costly, which can be found in, oh, London, Paris, Zurich, and probably Dubai. But definitely not in San Francisco.
And the essence of San Francisco cuisine today, I would say, is — you've heard this before — ingredient-based, fresh, seasonal, and increasingly local. Avenue G's menu is all over the map, literally. The starters alone reference China (spring rolls), the Philippines (pork adobo-filled profiteroles), Peru (seviche), Japan (sashimi), Vietnam (raw beef with lemon), and Italy (a mixed antipasto of eggplant rollatini, prosciutto-stuffed mushrooms, and something called prawn scampi, which is almost like saying shrimp shrimp). And for a place that exalts San Francisco, Avenue G ought to be ashamed of the dull, puffy, fake bread it serves, the kind that compresses down to nothing, unlike sturdy San Francisco sourdough. It's served slightly warmed, with a ramekin of butter that has picked up that unfortunate whiff of the refrigerator.
We choose to begin with the sea bass seviche, the duck spring rolls, and a Dungeness crab pot pie. From the short (about a dozen reds, and an equal number of whites), pricey, and eclectic (Chile, Spain, and Germany, as well as France and Italy) wine list, we choose from the low end: a reasonable M. de la Fruitière Muscadet ($24). The duck spring rolls — five small, tightly wrapped cigars — bear little of the fragrance of their promised five-spice, but they come with a pleasant sweet coleslaw, displaying little of the sesame flavor mentioned on the menu. But it's fun to pile a bit of the slaw on the spring rolls and crunch away; they're easy to eat.
A generous portion of seviche comes in a big white bowl. Its ingredients, including diced sea bass and larger chunks of sweet potato, float in a broth of lime juice, cilantro, and rocoto chile, a new one on me — a Google search tells me it's a South American chile pepper related to the habanero, but Google also says it's Mexican. And mild. Or moderate. Or quite hot. Whatever. The ceviche is pretty mild, anyway, both in heat and in flavor.
Were it not for the unexpectedly dazzling Dungeness pot pie, I'd call our first course dull. But the pie, though it looks humble in its little institutional metal pan, with a homey-looking topping of puff pastry, is actually delicious. An extravagance of lumped crabmeat and mushroom duxelles floats in a rich, creamy sauce, which had about double the amount of red pepper flakes in it for my taste, but what the hell: I can't stop eating it. My friends agree that it's the star of the starters.
We continue on our map quest: Brazilian wild sea bass feijoada, Catalan salmon and crispy prawns, and stuffed pork Valdostana. The last was chosen over Korean glazed beef short ribs, Oaxacan grilled Angus ribeye, and spicy tandoori chicken curry when I asked our server what she recommended among the meat dishes after I was told that the Guinness-braised lamb shank I had my eye on was not available that night.
We hadn't consulted her on the fish dishes, but we thought both the ones we tried were pretty much a disaster. The salmon came plopped unattractively in a white bowl, set on a white plate with a pile of fried shrimp alongside. The shrimp were hard, salty, and overcooked. The salmon, in a horror of a sweet glaze, was mushy and salty, sitting in something identified as lobster sage broth, with, apparently, green madras olives, sun-dried tomato puree, artichokes, and Spanish rice — but the combination tasted mostly metallic. The sea bass feijoada was similarly unpleasant: mushy-textured fish heaped on a messy, salty accumulation of what the menu called drunken black beans, linguiça, acorn squash, and cumin-scented caramelized onions. I love linguiça. I love cumin. In several bites, I could taste neither.
I think the pork wasn't stuffed that night. Anyway, my slice — I just checked the remains in the fridge — betrays nothing of the rosemary, prosciutto, and fontina stuffing mentioned on the menu. It was covered with a marsala mushroom cream sauce, topped with a few slices of underripe fig, and artlessly sided by a clump of congealed polenta and another clump of spinach. If the polenta had been mashed potatoes, and the spinach had been speckled with an enormous quantity of chopped garlic, the plate could have issued from an Iowa kitchen rather than an Italian one. My friends, again, think I have ended up with the best dish on the table, but I'm not really beguiled. The plate apparently was cooling for some time, and the pork is not only barely lukewarm, it also has the same mushy texture as both the fish dishes.
The desserts are, if anything, more careless than what came before: an individual cheesecake so dry and hard that my spoon bounces off it, really nasty; and "berries and cream" that turn out to be chunks of the same underripe figs, plums, and tasteless strawberries under unadulterated whipped cream.
I take another look at the menu. (There's also a bar menu, with such items as baked brie and something called Nashville Fingers, which are chicken tenders, oy vey, done what seems to me to be Buffalo-style with Tabasco, celery, and blue cheese ranch dressing.) There are so many wacky-sounding ingredients on the menu, in such unappealing combinations, that I expect Gordon Ramsay to burst out of the kitchen in a nightmare, simplifying as he goes. Avenue G's menu promises the world, but it isn't delivering.