You've probably heard that when Columbus first brought tomatoes from the New World, Europeans thought them poisonous. Botany wasn't a science yet, but people must have divined the "love apple's" kinship with Atropa belladonna -- deadly nightshade, the toxic hallucinogen that witches consumed in tiny quantities to get that old "I'm flying!" feeling. Both plants are members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which also includes eggplants, potatoes, chili and bell peppers, and tobacco.
Ruby's Nightshade, named for this fascinating family, is a descendant of just plain Ruby's, the Third Street restaurant that served as the Algonquin dining room of Multimedia Gulch, minus the Algonquin's stylish neighborhood, gracious decor, and witty table chat. When computer magazine editors took writers to lunch, the favored meal was pizza and the prandial repartee ("I need more megs but have no free slots for the SIMMS ... ") was closer to Dilbert than Dorothy Parker.
After eight years on the site, Ruby's lost its lease, and left behind its signature icon, a papier-máche-looking tomato hung over the front doorway. But owner Dan "Ruby" Rubinstein is a former cabby, a breed not easily defeated. Last spring, he reopened in a larger spot on a better block across town, near the Kabuki multiplex, exchanging the old techno crowd for new technoid decor.
The large front window frames a sexy-looking bar decorated in the shades of night, an intimate black horseshoe with dramatic pendant can-lights that conjure the mood of an Edward Hopper painting. Entering, you're greeted by the sound of down-tempo classic jazz and a welcome from "Ruby" himself, a cordial, salt-and-pepper-goateed bear-man. A commodious dining room, cool but comfortable in muted grays with an oxblood tiled floor, offers well-spaced seating in several mini-climates -- outdoorsy along the side window, cozily clandestine on the banquette tucked behind the entry's divider-wall, or see-and-be-seen at one of the center tables or a larger, taller banquette under a long, nondescript mural. Scotching any chance that stylishness might bloat into pretentiousness, several kicky oversized sculptures of various nightshades (eggplant, tomato, and a big homely potato) appear around the room. (Although none depicts tobacco, at present indulgers can fume at the bar.)
Arriving latish on a wet weeknight, TJ and I began with one of the house's cocktail creations, the Deadly Nightshade ($5.50), an irresistible, tangy-sweet blend of vodka, triple sec, lime juice, and Chambord (raspberry liqueur). More than two of them, you might fly like the witches of old. "Not only will they get you snockered," Rubinstein remarked as he served our drinks, "they could send you into a diabetic coma."
Our pile of "firecracker calamari" ($6.50) was one of the best squid extravaganzas we've encountered lately. Tender rings and tentacles had been flash-fried in a thin, crunchy batter explosively stoked with black pepper and cayenne. They came with lemon slices, and a ramekin of a sour, spicy coral dip that the menu called "rouille." "What's rouille?" TJ asked. "It's like aioli," I replied -- "handmade mayo, with red pepper and cayenne where aioli has garlic." We sampled some. "Hold it," TJ said, "this isn't mayo. It's just yogurt dosed with cayenne -- and I hate yogurt." We were also mildly disappointed by the crostini platter ($7.50), despite the delicious roasted red pepper batons decorating the herbed baguette toasts. Of the three spreads served on the side, only the piquant sun-dried tomato pesto was virile enough to play against the bread; the puffy Greek potato-garlic mixture (Greeks call it skordalia, and use it as a fish sauce) was too tame for the toast, and a weakling eggplant puree was too tame, period. Accompanying nibbles included spicy little green olives, broiled zucchini strips, baby salad greens, and hard, bland tomato chunks undeserving of the name of nightshade.
We'd meant to have pasta as an Italian-style intermezzo course, but the hour was late so our half order of butternut squash ravioli ($6.75/$12.75) was brought while we were still working on appetizers. It's a smart move to offer this pasta (and this one alone) as a half order: Not only is it too rich for an unshared main course, but the half-size option must entice more diners to order it, and hence come back for more. Big disks with thin, tender shells and ample filling, every bite brings a walloping burst of lightly sweetened squashiness, piqued by the musk of the fried sage sprigs on top.
We loved our entrees, too. Although the kitchen was out of the duck breast we'd wanted, our alternate choice of stuffed chicken breast ($13.75) was a triumph. Chicken breast is usually just the tofu of animal protein, but here it was flavor-packed. Cooked on the bone (to maintain its moisture), it was stuffed with goat cheese, pancetta, herbs, and roasted garlic, under crackling-crisp skin redolent of fresh rosemary. Alongside was a mound of earthy carrot and zucchini strings, a heap of home-style mashed potatoes rich with roasted garlic and tangy with yogurt, and a gaggle of intrepid sauteed wild mushrooms, probably fresh bolets (porcini). The New York steak ($17.75), arriving pepper-crusted and very rare as ordered, lay on a bed of garlicky sauteed "autumn greens" (a.k.a. collards) drenched in au jus.
The meat was apparently of choice supermarket-quality (Falletti's or Andronico's) -- tender, but rather bland compared to steakhouse-quality aged prime. But the nightshade that shines in the colder months is potato, and the meat took a secondary role to the mouth-filling star of the plate, a thickly sliced baked potato painted with minced parsley and rich, assertive melted Gorgonzola cheese.
For our second dinner, we tested the restaurant's delivery system -- Nightshade offers free delivery citywide, and ours came pretty quickly. We started with the soup du jour ($4.50), a "chicken vegetable" crossbreed between beanless minestrone and French onion soup, its bold broth sweetened and darkened by caramelized onions. We also enjoyed a soi-disant "classic Caesar salad" ($5.25/$8.75). Of course, no restaurant in America still serves a "classic" Caesar, complete with raw egg, given the salmonella risk -- but I wouldn't assassinate this semiclassical Caesar. The zesty dressing was tart and creamy, redolent of roast garlic and a fearless blast of anchovy. The freshly made herbed croutons were crisply aromatic and the romaine youthful, even if the shredded Reggiano lacked the nuttiness of the better grades of this cheese. "Is it from Parma, Italy, or Parma, Michigan?" I asked the ceiling, which didn't answer.
Our entree was Ruby's formerly famous cornmeal-crust pizza -- slices of each of the half-dozen current flavors, which arrived neatly assembled into a piebald pie. Our favorite toppings were the rich "five cheeses," the wild mushroom and leek combo with roasted garlic, and the Greek-style spinach with black olives, feta, and roasted tomatoes. I liked, and TJ didn't like, the New Mexico (with corn, red pepper, scallion, and crumbles of a light sausage, no tomato sauce), and neither of us was thrilled by the stodgy eggplant or the scanty Italian sausage toppings. But basically we're just not fans of cornmeal pizza. Rubinstein learned to make it when he was a partner in Vicolo (near City Hall), which invented this genre -- but as an ex-New Yorker he must secretly know that cornmeal pizza isn't pizza; it's highfalutin cornbread.
Last spring, the Chron reviewed Ruby's Nightshade and gave the pizza a rave, the rest a tepid two stars. Since then, the restaurant has acquired a new chef, a young woman named Lee Strandberg, and given what we tasted I'd reverse its assessment. Forget the pizzas, go for the burn! Strandberg's flavors are big, bold, and sometimes rambunctious -- and for a change her entrees surpass the appetizers (just as they do when most of us cook at home). The cooking reminds me of Amey Shaw (now the highly respected chef of the Alta Vista), when -- young, smart, and reckless -- she furnished the final fiery burst of excitement at Berkeley's Fourth Street Grill. Shaw has mellowed and Strandberg may, too -- but right now you can catch her on her upward course, airborne on the drafts of nightshade.