Named for Shakespeare's King of the Fairies, Oberon's cooking is earthbound but fickle and fey -- alternately delightful, desultory, and disastrous, sometimes simultaneously on a single plate. But it has improved since the Indian summer's nightmare of our first visit last fall. It was during the mismanaged "grand pre-reopening festivities" after several months' hiatus following a fire; then, a plague of pacing problems sadistically separated starved patrons from their sustenance. Our long-awaited dinner, arriving after two hours of dry bread and water (once we'd consumed our butter ration and bar wine), offered little to recommend but a glorious rabbit "ravioli" and a decent rack of lamb.
Since then, though, Oberon has had time to settle in. Its original chef departed, bequeathing the kitchen to his two sous-chefs. Extraneous factors have changed, as well: Panos, Stoyanoff's, and Asakimapoulos have all closed, leaving the city near-bereft of Greek food. Oberon's cuisine, if not strictly Greek, embraces the Mediterranean rim, a sea of olive oil lightly lapping the shores of Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor. (The menu offers lots of lamb but no dolmas.) Then, too, on Sunday and Monday nights an $18 three-course prix fixe (soup or salad, choice of entree, dessert) includes an option of the lamb rack, rare in local restaurants at any price. Finally, in the Chronicle's new ratings of restaurant noise levels, Oberon -- free of last fall's rumblings of stomachs and of mutiny -- came in "quiet," which alone nearly made it worth another look, listen, and taste.
A weeknight visit found the space pleasantly calm, with the ubiquitous Gipsy Kings soft on the sound system, but on a Saturday evening, a live pianist and a young blond New Yorker playing amplified "Gypsy" violin throbbed out indigenous tunes of Romany, Hungary, and Hernando's Hideaway. The duo began concertizing in the cozy bar, which sports a bosky, sentimental oil painting (by Steve Pan) focused on a curly blond bodybuilder Oberon in Grecian skivvies, every inch a fairy as he sits sulkily near a sleeping Titania. Soon, the violinist strolled to the small second dining room alongside the bar, site of a cheerful birthday party, which welcomed (or perhaps had hired) him. As the party waned, the fiddler ambled into the main dining room, transmuting the Godfather theme into an anthem of Slavic soul-suffering. With low lighting and a score of comfortable seats at ample-size tables, the dining room's wall-mirrors provide an illusion of spaciousness.
Despite the Motel Row location, the current crowd seemed more local than last fall's aged-tourist crop. What hasn't changed is the kitchen's consistent inconsistency. Take my favorite appetizer, ground lamb skewers ($5.25). Instead of the familiar (and ever-dry) Punjabi seekh kebabs, these resemble Armenia's luscious lule kebabs, lean ground lamb seasoned with vibrant fresh herbs rather than dry spices, the browned exteriors ideally cosseting pink centers bursting with juice. Two of our kebabs were heavenly, another was marginal, and the fourth was mummified. Such unwelcome variety is mystifying, assuming the skewers were all gas-grilled simultaneously. Besides a dynamic and spicy herbed yogurt dip, the garnishes included a sampling of highlights from other appetizers: spring greens with blue cheese (from the pear salad), and pita pieces, piperade of grilled onion and sweet pepper, and spicy baba ghanouj eggplant dip (all from the meze plate).
We also enjoyed a "bowlful of clams" ($6.75), medium-size Aqua Gems from Washington state and tiny Manilas festooned with shreds of pancetta in a buttery, salty, clammy broth that was great for dipping bread. Evidently cooked separately, both types of bivalves were sublimely tender -- even if a few tight-shut mollusks had evidently died ahead of schedule. Other appetizers, however, seemed rote versions of standards. The "Oberon Salad" ($4.75) was an ordinary Greek salad (less zesty than the version at the late Panos), with greens, feta, Kalamata olives, blah blah blah. A salad of arugula, pears, walnuts, and maytag blue cheese ($5.75) was the same pleasant dish we've found at 20 other restaurants, except this kickless arugula was disappointingly demure.
Our meze plate ($6.50) was a lineup of the usual suspects from any Palestinian deli (baba ghanouj, tabbouleh, piperade, pita) in blandified renditions, along with a few original numbers (good marinated shiitake slices; undercooked baby potatoes and artichoke heart nubbins), plus one minuscule mussel daubed with mayo.
The pick hits are still the rabbit ravioli ($12.50) and the rack of lamb ($18.75). The rabbit features tender fresh pasta sheets with a vibrant light sauce, interspersed with a wealth of mushrooms and moist, boneless braised bunny. "What foods these morsels be!" our friend Chet quipped puckishly last September. At that dinner, the overwhelmed kitchen was attempting to turn out the lamb racks like a sweatshop turns out Nikes, so you couldn't specify doneness.
But at our recent visit, the rack was cooked rare to order, four rose-rare chops butter-tender with a light, pleasing rosemary-tinged sauce. The accompanying potato gratin had been improved, its erstwhile pugnacious pecorino component wisely replaced by a milder, creamier cheese, perhaps Lappi. On most plates, the requisite fodder consisted of young carrots with their green tops and fresh flageolets, slim French green beans. Early in the week, these were sweet-flavored, but by the weekend they tasted tired, as though stored too long and too warm.
Moussaka ($12.75), Greek lamb and eggplant casserole, became one of TJ's favorite dishes when he lived in Southern California, next door to Athens-born neighbors. "This is nearly it!" he exclaimed at first taste. "I'd have to draw a fine line between the way those guys did it and the way these guys do it." "These guys" did it pretty well by my standards, too, with nearly greaseless ground lamb and a light ricotta topping (rather than the common alternative of a heavy cheesed-up bechamel sauce). The eggplant was mushy, the seasoning perhaps oversubtle, but in compensation there was a delicious simple sauce of lightly reduced meat stock. But the kitchen relapsed into culinary schizophrenia with linguini and shrimp ($13.75). The pretty mandala of pancetta-wrapped prawns arranged over the pasta were perfectly grilled and delicious, but despite a plethora of parsley and a scattering of capers and diced tomatoes, the near-soggy noodles tasted dull and greasy. They may have been cursed by the dread canola, the last oil you want to meet in a restaurant.
At a table near us, a 30-ish honey-blonde abandoned her roast chicken ($12.75) after two bites and begged for tastes of her tablemates' lamb rack and grilled salmon. We could sympathize, if her chicken, like ours, arrived with tender breast but bloody thighs. Unsauced on a bed of currant-strewn bulgur (tabbouleh wheat), its skin simply seasoned with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, the fowl reminded me of my Aunt Irma's "special" rotisserie chicken -- not bad (when cooked correctly) but hardly restaurant fare. The blonde was lucky she hadn't ordered the abominable lamb shank ($13.75). A big, tough hunk braised at least an hour too little in some inconsequential liquid, then calloused by harsh reheating on the grill, it squatted on an abject bed of flavorless white beans.
Our servers were passable but apparently innocent of kitchen briefings (or tastings). One of them forgot to mention the night's special; three others couldn't answer our questions without huddling with their peers or dashing off to consult the cooks. Several of our questions concerned desserts, of which we were mightily wary following the fall fiasco, where the soi-disant "dessert sampler" consisted of a couple of cookies and a goblet of yogurt atop some sour raspberries, a sort of poor man's Yoplait. At our first revisit we tried the chocolate fudge torte ($6.25), a floury-tasting demiglobe with a moist bittersweet glaze and an underlayer of acerbic fruit syrup strewn with unseasonal blackberries the size of Amazonian bumblebees. At our Saturday-night dinner we were about to force ourselves to try another dessert, but that evening host/co-owner Zoran Matulic graciously treated the guests to a supernal Croatian pear liqueur -- and we couldn't bear to vitiate that gorgeous flavor with any doubtful house-made sweet. The spirit imbuing the restaurant is evidently not that of the regal, glittering fairy king, but his wacky servant Puck -- not Wolfgang Puck, of course, but Robin Goodfellow, brewer of potions and maker of mischief, a sprite who's surely responsible for the antically uneven productions of Oberon's kitchen.