At night, the shiny new California Academy of Sciences is locked up tight, but there's no signage for the Moss Room, its fancy dining room downstairs. If you wander around the building's west side, you'll find a makeshift host station on the patio of its first-floor Academy Cafe. It's staffed on a freezing night by a shivering young woman whose only job is to point you indoors through the now-closed daytime cafeteria toward the dramatic stairway that leads to the subterranean Moss Room. The stairway, floating above a waterway, runs alongside the forty-foot moss-lined wall that gives the place its name.
The chic, modern space seats about 65 and was designed by Olle Lundberg, who did the Slanted Door. It was warmed up somewhat by a glowing amber bar, glimpses into the bright semi-open kitchen, and colorful patterned carpeting. But the bare wooden tables, looming dark-stone wall, and glass-enclosed private room felt hard-edged and somewhat chilly.
I've loved chef Loretta Keller's food at her SOMA restaurant COCO500, formerly named Bizou. Its design changed more than did her food: local, seasonal, organic, homey yet sophisticated, and full of flavor. (We called it the Best Revamp of 2006 in our Best of S.F. issue.)
Here Keller is the proprietor, along with Charles Phan of the Slanted Door, whose Asian cuisine is spotlit upstairs at the Academy Cafe. Chef de cuisine is Justin Simoneaux, who executes the Moss Room's Mediterranean-influenced California menu. I recognized several dishes from COCO500, notably the country-style pork terrine with housemade pickles and mostarda relish ($11); the grilled Monterey squid ($11) seemed familiar.
Four of us shared three starters. The five fat little salt cod fritters ($9) were served with a bright lemon aioli and spicy piquillo peppers, one of Keller's favorite ingredients. For once, the nuggets of crispy sweetbreads ($14) were actually crispy, on a bed of mâche dressed with mustard and scattered with cornichons, capers, and thin-sliced beets. I wasn't taken with the grilled Fuyu persimmon salad ($12), which I'd expected to be warm; there were, indeed, grill marks on the chilly sliced fruit lining the plate, but to no obvious benefit. And the chopped endive and radicchio, garnished with pomegranate seeds and Medjool dates atop the persimmon, didn't come together successfully. The portions, while not stingy, were not generous, either.
The orderer of the thick-bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin ($24), served with braised greens, Granny Smith apples, and a sauce sticky with mustard and apple cider, adored it. I found it pleasant but a little underflavored. Similarly, the recipient of the pasta dish, cavatelli ($21) made with Bellwether Farms ricotta and served with a rich red-wine braised duck sugo and pecorino pepato (salty Italian sheep's-milk cheese flavored with whole black pepper) was happy with it, while I thought it was good but not great.
What I did think was great was an unusual "risotto" ($20) made with plump and toothsome farro instead of rice, with wild nettles, chanterelles, grana padano, and just a hint of truffle oil. If I'd eaten as much of it as I wanted, nobody else would have had a bite. It was an amazing and earthy plate of food, unlike anything I've ever tasted.
Alas, the dish I chose — after hesitating over roasted breast of guinea fowl with almond curry and root vegetables — was almost inedible. I liked neither the texture nor the flavor of the tomato-braised Spanish mackerel ($23), a sturdy, oily fish I usually enjoy, but this night so mushy and enough past its prime that the advertised preserved lemon and mint disappeared. We shared a vegetable side of baked beans ($6) with smoked pork belly and oven-dried tomatoes that tasted as if somebody had gone to a great deal of trouble to replicate canned pork and beans.
The room was full, but I wasn't sure why. Was it the relative newness of the place, or its interesting location? No other S.F. museum houses so ambitious a restaurant. Based on this uneven meal, I didn't feel compelled to return. I wasn't completely taken with the room or the food — although my friends were considerably happier.
My spirits rose somewhat with dessert. Pastry chef Rachel Leising, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America and a 22-year veteran of such iconic S.F. spots as Fran Gage's Patisserie Française and Elizabeth Falkner's Citizen Cake, has created a tempting menu filled with uncommon sweets. On this very-late-fall night, we enjoyed an Appleseed Farm quince tart ($9) — and tart it was — paired with house-made honey-buttermilk ice cream and a bright-tasting, bright-colored citrus compote. Equally seasonal and even more delicious was a moist pumpkin pudding cake ($9) dressed up with candied almonds, citrus chunks, and a ginger crème chantilly. Even the dense chocolate pot de crème ($9) was favored with mascarpone cream and a spicy Mexican chocolate tuile.
At lunch, the Moss Room is open only to those who've paid the Academy of Sciences admission fee ($14.95-$24.95). At night, entrance is free. But as we left I handed a fin to the poor door greeter, still chilled on the dark, empty patio. I thought it was the least I could do.