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Sufferin' Succotash 

Exposure to mediocre fare turns our critic philosophical

Wednesday, Jan 8 2003
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Once I was at a book reading of two restaurant critics, writers I had read and admired, and an audience member asked a question: "Do you ever get tired of eating in restaurants?" The two of them looked at each other and trilled almost in unison, Why, no, never, how could we, we have the best job in the world. As a murmur of happy appreciation and agreement ran through the crowd, I thought, You lying bastards, sometimes you're tired or you're not hungry or it's pouring rain or you have a headache or somebody cancels on you at the last minute and you can't find anyone else to go with you and you're dialing the phone in desperation to find a companion because you're on deadline and whether or not you want to go out to eat you have to go out to eat.

Another time when it is not the best job in the world is when you are out with friends and you want to show them a good time and the food isn't what you'd hoped and even though you know it's not your fault -- you are not in control -- you feel guilty and responsible and pretty sure they will have something else to do the next time you call to ask them out. (Not to mention you're racking your brains for somebody you can ask to accompany you to the second meal who won't hold you accountable for what you know will be less-than-stellar eats. I have a couple of friends down in L.A. who fill this particular bill because they don't really possess taste buds -- they have other talents -- but even so, there was one place I went to that shall be nameless, Smitty's, that was such a disaster I never could figure out whom to invite for a subsequent meal. Some of the people who were present at the first dinner would taunt me occasionally by saying, "I see you still haven't gotten around to reviewing Smitty's." Only they changed one of the letters in its name.)

Cathy, Jay, and I set out for dinner at Succotash, a new restaurant, anticipating "sophisticated American comfort food with a twist, under $12," as the place had described its fare. Fashions in food sometimes surprise me -- who can tell why an urge to eat spelt or tapas sweeps the nation? -- but after a year like we've had, the desire to jump into big creamy bowls of mashed potatoes or to toy with a plate of entirely compliant meatloaf should surprise no one. (Though on the whole I agree with the sage who said, "All food is comfort food.") I liked the sign Succotash sported of a bright-green lima bean, one of the main ingredients in the dish it's named after. I was less thrilled with the chilly reception we got at the door, both literally (the large barroom was icy) and figuratively -- the main dining room was full, and there was some confusion as to where to stash us before we were led into the (literal, figurative) Siberia of an additional narrow dining room (three booths, three tables) on the far side of the bar.

Confusion again: A server came in, thought our table was ill-lit, promised to set a booth for us. Time passed. A couple was seated in our promised booth. I protested, mildly; we were moved to another booth, from which I could observe the wacky cloth constructions, like fabric stabiles, stretched between the booths, the fake greenery twined around some of the pipes overhead, and the changing colors of the plasma screens set into the far wall.

The room warmed up. I was surprised when I didn't find either meatloaf or mashed potatoes on the menu; in fact, none of the starters we ordered -- peasant duck pie, crispy shrimp and salmon cakes, and butternut squash risotto -- is a comfort-food cliché. I've never even heard of peasant duck pie, which turned out to be a pretty, carefully crimped, decidedly aristocratic puff-pastry disc that came with the unpeasanty garnishes of roasted shallots, arugula, and a cognac jus. The salad was nicely dressed, the pastry was flaky, but its filling was unrelievedly dark and salty. The shrimp and salmon cakes (with tiny diced vegetables) were unremarkable, and salty. Just as I was thinking that the cuisine would markedly improve if someone pried the salt shaker from the fingers of the chef, the risotto arrived, oddly tasteless despite being dotted with pistachio pesto and enriched with dry jack cheese. The best bites were those containing one of the fried sage leaves sprinkled about. It needed some salt to wake it up. (All three of us had a go at it. We ate the sage leaves and left most of the rest.)

Our main courses came: salmon for Cathy, pork loin for Jay, and "Nika's favorite chicken pie" for me. When I lifted off the top crust of my pie (well, the only crust; the filling was in an ovenproof dish), I was greeted by the singularly unappetizing sight of a congealed mass of white sauce as inviolate and unbroken as a newly frozen pond. I poked about; the gluey mush contained shreds of chicken and vegetables. Perhaps more heat would have released the bits of flesh and produce from their bondage. Maybe it would have looked better, à la Swanson's yellow, more custardy filling, but it would have tasted the same -- unrewarding. Nor was I comforted by the sturdy brick of mushroom and sage bread pudding, more bread than pudding, alongside Jay's equally sturdy, way-overcooked, stolid chunk of grilled pork loin, with its dark, salty, overreduced sauce, or by Cathy's grilled wild king salmon, usually one of my favorite fish, which tasted a trifle whiffy to me. Fortunately, Jay had ordered a side of garlic cheese fries: The potatoes were hand-cut, the cheese was blue, and the fries were compulsively edible. The side of buttery succotash -- corn, limas, diced tomato -- was very good, too.

But Cathy was laughing at my discomfort, having now eaten with me for two disappointing meals in a row, as luck would have it the first two restaurants I'd review for SF Weekly. Oy! I was reminded of the time my friend Danny, a dyslexic movie producer, came to visit me at the used bookstore I was working in and turned about the room in a panic, knowing there were stories trapped inside the pages of the books that surrounded him but incapable of getting at them. I knew there was delicious food being served at that very moment in San Francisco; I just wasn't sitting in front of it.

The desserts were better than what had come before (and not salty). We were still kinda hungry, so the hot fudge sundae, the gingerbread a la mode (both concocted with excellent commercial ice creams), and the pumpkin pot de crème were welcome.

In the normal order of things, I would have left Succotash without a backward glance or any thought of returning. But there were sandwiches I hadn't tried, and a separate brunch menu, so I felt I should. But whom could I invite and be sure they'd still talk to me afterward? Suddenly I knew -- Mom! She's like home: the place where they have to take you in when you have to go there. (In fact, she lives there.) I knew it would require more than a dull dish to make her reject me.

And, indeed, we had a better meal and a better time. I liked the big room much more than the small one (no odd fabric dividers, no entwined fake vegetation), and the place was warmer in the light of day. We enjoyed being there, as did a number of other brunch devotees. Mom was pleased with her "eggs benny," made with Hobbs bacon, though I would have liked the yolks on the poached eggs to be more liquid and thought the buttermilk "biscuit" could more properly be termed a roll. My Niman Ranch burger was more rare than medium rare, but what the hell, it was perfectly respectable. Continuing in the tradition of the sides being the best things on the table, the thin-cut buttermilk onion rings, sweetly substituted at my request for the fries that usually come with the burger, were tasty and crunchy. We split an order of quite decent lemon ricotta pancakes stuffed with strawberries for dessert.

It was a better meal, but I was flooded with relief that I didn't have to ask anybody else to eat with me there again. Alas, I sound like a curmudgeon, but get me on a good day and I am Pollyanna the Glad Girl. (Actually, that was my friend Jonathan's name for me, though he altered it ever so slightly and called me Pollyanna Borgia.)

Corny enough for succotash.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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