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Slim Pickins 

Pomelo

Wednesday, May 1 2002
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Having spent her formative years near Church and 30th, my friend Leah told me all about the neighborhood as we drove toward Pomelo. Back in the day, she said, you had the Irish homeboys, the Latino homeboys, and the Filipino homeboys. She pointed out restaurants that used to be other restaurants. She assured me that someday, a good tenant would occupy the site of the old Star Bakery at 29th Street. She noted St. Paul's -- a magnificent church -- then plugged Church Produce ("Always Greek, always good"). We drove down her mother's street. Leah showed me a park where the various homeboys used to drink, play music, and fight on occasion. Now that park has a fancy-ass dog-walking pen, and Leah doesn't like it one bit. The old days are gone, the neighborhood has gentrified, and even the homeboys don't beat each other down like they used to.

Granted, Leah's not entirely averse to the changes (after dinner, for example, she almost talked me into checking out the "hottie Korean boy" who works at a sushi place up the street). I'd label the area Outer Noe Valley, and can see why people have been moving there. It's not as chichi as Noe around 24th Street, yet a bit more upscale than the nearby corner of the Mission. The main drag, Church, offers a diverse collection of salons, corner stores, specialty shops, and small, modest restaurants that cater to local crowds. One of the newest is Pomelo, an offshoot of the original, Judah Street Pomelo. Both serve more than a dozen cuisines, from Italian pastas to Asian curries and an organic quinoa pilaf. At Pomelo on Church, the result is depthless: If this is a culinary world tour, it's the equivalent of visiting 14 countries in two weeks while dining in airports.

Sometimes I like a restaurant's concept and not its food, but this isn't the case at Pomelo, where I like neither. First off, I'm not crazy about its slogan, "Noodles and Grains Unite," which seems misleading: Other than the mung bean and buckwheat varieties -- the latter of which is technically an herb -- most of the noodles I eat are already made of grains. I actively dislike the way the menu lists appetizers as "side trips" and entrees as "destinations." The décor I don't mind. A sparse, brightly lit dining area is marked by pale hardwood floors and funky chandeliers composed of gleaming wire tangles that end in lights like glow sticks. I adore the prices -- most entrees cost less than $10 -- but then, it doesn't matter how cheap the food is if it isn't good.

As with the menu, Pomelo's beverage list spans the globe, running from a gigantic mug of spice-rich Indian chai tea to chilled Hatsumago sake, a smooth, delicate sip with a sharp, bright finish. The six-bottle wine list ($16-28) treated us less well. At $4 per glass, the Riverside syrah was the least expensive choice, and one taste of this biting, tannic red told us why. The Brancott sauvignon blanc was also off, with a metallic aftertaste lurking beneath the wine's signature grassiness. The most expensive vintage, a light, dry Baileyana chardonnay, was the best. Hoping to explore new territory, we also tried the hibiscus champagne cocktail, a sweet if slightly acrid flowery brew. I wouldn't want to drink multiple hibiscus champagne cocktails, but on a hot evening one would hit the spot just fine.

On the night we visited, Pomelo was packed, and the staff was overwhelmed on all fronts. The service was slow; empty glasses remained on the table until we began our third round of drinks; and the kitchen flubbed some dishes that are so basic there's no excuse for anything less than perfection. An order of bruschetta consisted of thick, doughy slabs of whole wheat sourdough topped with tomatoes and basil. The essential flavors balanced well, but the bread hadn't been toasted, nor did it seem to have been rubbed with the traditional garlic. The namesake Pomelo salad consisted of a heap of well- dressed greens tossed with jicama, mushy grapefruit, and red wine vinaigrette. Grapefruit excepted, it was the best starter we tried. Next came barley miso soup with silken tofu, shiitakes, and green onions, in which a dull, muddy dashi stock tarnished what should have been a relatively foolproof preparation.

The culinary malpractice continued with the entrees. Koh Samui -- a Thai-style coconut milk curry with straw mushrooms, tiger prawns, and grayish, overcooked long beans -- came served over a heap of leaden, sticky jasmine rice. For $8 ($10 with prawns), Thai-style fried rice with onion, egg, tomatoes, and cucumber might seem like a good deal, but you can get the same dish for less at any Thai noodle joint, and have it with eggplant, crab, Chinese sausage, or roasted duck, not to mention the condiments (pickled chilies, soy sauce, hot sauce) that let you weave your own mosaic of flavors. The special of the day, a greasy fillet of salmon over orzo tossed with sesame oil, was a pedestrian, one-dimensional stab at fusion. It took awhile for our final entree, the Italian Cremona, to arrive, perhaps because the kitchen was busy overcooking it. A heap of soggy egg ribbon pasta, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, lemon thyme, toasted ricotta, and squishy, wrinkled asparagus was surrounded by a pool of vegetable juices that I would have poured off had an appropriate receptacle been available.

Pomelo was out of the chocolate spongecake dessert special. Gelatos and sorbets rounded out the choices, so we had a rich, toasty coconut-almond fudge gelato and a sugary, less impressive red zinfandel-blackberry sorbet, then made for the door as quickly as possible.

The food quality improved on a second visit, but not enough. A plate of crispy, Filipino-style pork and shrimp spring rolls served with a pair of spicy dipping sauces -- one thin and sour, the other thick and sweet -- was the only dish I'd order again. A Sri Lankan curry with bananas, opal basil, and red chilies sounded promising, but was marred by block-cut chunks of dry, overcooked chicken breast. My final dish, the Bologna, translated as fresh fusilli in a classic ragù of tomatoes, beef, pancetta, carrots, and celery. The sauce was wonderfully rich, but the key element -- the pasta -- was soggy once again. I'd never accept such mediocrity from an authentic "ethnic" restaurant, and I don't find it any easier to swallow at this odd hybrid.

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Greg Hugunin

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