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The Raw and the Cooked 

Curious George, of Aqua and Fifth Floor, opens his quirky new jewel box

Wednesday, Oct 27 2004
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For sentimental reasons, I knew just where I wanted to take my 11-year-old godson, Chester, for dinner a couple of months ago, when he was visiting the Bay Area from the East Coast: George Morrone's new restaurant, Tartare. Two years ago, when Chester lived in Berkeley and I was in Los Angeles, I had come up for a few days and taken him to Redwood Park, the chef's previous place. It was a warren of huge, high-ceilinged rooms in the base of the Transamerica Pyramid, where we'd enjoyed an extraordinary prix fixe tasting menu. Near the end of the lavish and delicious meal, Morrone came out from the kitchen to tour the dining room. He's a dark, intense man, with the compact build of a boxer or wrestler, who obviously enjoys give-and-take with his customers. He asked Chester how old he was, and said that the boy was an even better eater than his daughter, who was around the same age; he also invited Chester into the kitchen to make his own banana split for dessert.

Chester told Morrone that he collected signed menus from his favorite restaurants: "I knew I wanted one from you," he said, charming him, "from the first course." When he returned to the table with his suitably baroque ice cream confection, he had a menu inscribed "To Chester -- I think someday you will have my job." "Should I tell him I'd rather have yours?" Chester asked me wickedly. "Being a chef is too much work!"

It can also be heartbreaking: The multimillion-dollar Redwood Park closed within the year. Morrone, famed as the only local chef to garner four-star reviews for his efforts at Aqua and the Fifth Floor, took his time before opening another place. But S.F. foodies didn't adopt a wait-and-see strategy; the just-opened, unreviewed spot was fully booked for the Saturday night I wanted, a week hence.

We were wait-listed, so I tried to book us at another top-of-the-line eatery. Only the brand-new Frisson could take us at a reasonable hour; Michael Mina and Fifth Floor offered 10 or 10:30 p.m. reservations; and Gary Danko was fully booked. "Hey," I thought, "things must be looking up if there are so many people not only willing but eager to spend hundreds of dollars on dinner." I felt a flash of pride in San Francisco.

And a flash of pleasure when we got a call saying we had a table at Tartare. The pleasure continued when we walked into the beautiful little restaurant, located, I thought somewhat ironically, across the street from the Transamerica Pyramid. Cozy and snug, with an arched, woven-wood lattice ceiling, the single room seemed the antithesis of the very grand Redwood Park. Not that it's any less designed: Not an inch or an aspect of the place, from the smoked-wood paneling to the ostrich-skin hanging back-cushions along the banquettes, has been ignored. But the overall effect is simple luxury, partly because of the warm, all-encompassing lighting.

We were led to a table for two along the banquette and began perusing the deceptively short menu. I say "deceptively" because, although there were only 18 dishes with brief descriptions, the imaginary tastings they set off in my brain -- the part that decides what I'll be eating -- were complex. The menu has four categories: "raw and rare," comprising five tartares; "naked and natural," including two carpaccios, oysters, and a salad; "simply soup," with four offerings; and "old and new," five entrees. Classic hand-cut beef tartare -- well, the mind thinks it knows what that will be, but even if you've had numerous tartares, and I have, I've never had one with habanero-infused sesame oil, plums, and mint before. King salmon tartare with house-ground banana curry? Carpaccio of opakapaka with orange oil and toasted cumin? And the "simply soups" weren't simple at all: How about a garlic parsley bisque with black mussel flan?

While crunching an exotic and refreshing amuse-bouche of tiny vegetables (onions, carrots, and mushrooms) pickled in what the menu called Indonesian spices, we decided on three courses, perhaps unconsciously trying to duplicate something of the elaborate tasting menu we'd shared before at Redwood Park: We started by splitting a soup, then moved on to two tartares, followed by Morrone's signature tuna foie gras "melt" for Chester and a poached poussin in almond milk with sour lime for me.

The soup was an ethereal yet deep-flavored cream of corn, with a dusting of smoky paprika and a knot of boned pork sparerib meat, infused with ginger, in its center. The cream of corn was genius on its own, and didn't quite seem to need the chewy meat, even as an interesting textural contrast.

The tuna tartare was a fresh take on a dish that has become a cliché -- heated with peppers, cooled with mint, and sweetened with diced plums. Chester adored it, as he did the ostrich tartare, wittily served in what I thought was an exceptionally thick-walled oval soup bowl, which turned out to be an actual ostrich egg shell. The beefy meat was well served by its chunky Roquefort vinaigrette and cracked pink peppercorns: a crunchy and creamy dish.

It was a joy to watch Chester enjoy his tuna, a dish inspired by the classic tournedos Rossini: a potato cake topped with a bit of sautéed spinach, then with meltingly soft, rich tuna seared on one side, capped with carefully seared, also meltingly soft, rich foie gras, the whole thing napped with an intense red wine sauce. It's an overpowering and seductive dish (we'd had a miniature version of it at Redwood Park), but Chester relished every exciting, voluptuous mouthful. I found my poussin, served with jasmine rice, a little bland and inexplicable beside the tuna, its Asian flavors a bit elusive. (If you only offer five cooked main courses -- I saw several people choosing the generously portioned tartares or carpaccios as entrees -- in a restaurant of this ambition, with a chef of this ability, they should all be extraordinary.)

On the way to the bathroom, Chester was thrilled not only to see the kitchen (through a wall of glass), but also to be invited in; he emerged with a signed menu, two business cards, and an invitation to stop in when he was back in town. He returned to share two amazing desserts: a toasted pistachio soufflé, enhanced with sauces of nectarine and lemon, and a beguiling plate bearing a cakelike fig and cherry "confit," a tangy triple crème mousse, and crisp, tiny, cinnamoned French toasts, a well-orchestrated assortment of textures and flavors. We scarcely needed the miniature spicy ice cream sandwiches we received afterward, but we ate them nevertheless. Chester and I agreed that this was the best meal we'd had together in many moons, and we left to recount it to his parents, who were dining with friends at Harbor Village a short walk away. (And though Tartare is by no means inexpensive, our meal there was much less pricey than one at Michael Mina, Fifth Floor, or Gary Danko would have been.)

When I wanted to return with Jeff and John, more visitors from the East Coast (who had requested a restaurant that was "seasonal and chef-driven"), Tartare was again fully booked for the Thursday I wanted, but we got a reservation for the following day. They loved the chic, buzzing room, the interesting wine list (I started with a lovely elderflower aperitif), the menu with its original dishes, and the rather extraordinary array of equally original dishware. (They identified the swooping curves of the bread dish and the asymmetrical butter dish as influenced by famed ceramicist Eva Zeisel.) I'd learned that Morrone's first cookbook was coming out, Simply Elegant Soup, so I was pleased that Jeff wanted the trio of chilled heirloom tomato. I envisioned it as three shot glasses of soup, but no: As you can see for yourself on the book's cover, it's three triangles of soup -- red, orange, and green -- miraculously sharing the same bowl, with a flan of avocado mousseline balanced on chopped tomatoes in its center and topped with a knotted sprig of cilantro. (The recipe cautions that you need "at least" two people to pour the chilled soups into the bowl at the same time, and recommends, "Try to prevent the soups from merging into each other." There's the rub!) The soups incredibly tasted like themselves, i.e., the three different kinds of tomatoes. It was a triumph.

I also enjoyed my own two-soups-in-a-bowl, a mandala containing crab bisque spiced with masala, yin to the yang of a flavorful pumpkin bisque garnished with steamed pumpkin and clean-tasting lump crabmeat. I liked the chewy, hand-cut texture of John's classic beef tartare, but even with capers, onions, and a raw quail yolk, it needed something more.

John had a rerun of the flawless tuna and foie gras. I found that the crust of wattle seeds and a coriander almond pesto obscured the flavor of the Australian rack of lamb it covered (though I must admit that my mother adored the leftovers, including a roasted tomato and eggplant), and my big, beautiful Meyer Angus sirloin was also a little underflavored, beneath its silky, beefy reduction tempered with malt vinegar. I preferred its sides -- crunchy duck-fat fries and, especially, the divine creamed corn, crisp ivory kernels with a hint of habanero, swimming in cream.

For dessert, another perfect pistachio soufflé (the sommelier told us that the nectarine sauce was sweetened with a touch of elderflower syrup, echoing my earlier drink) and an individual baked Alaska, whose meringue should have been thicker, and puffy rather than sticky, but which was redeemed by succulent Amarena cherries. "He's a fabulous chef," my friends said as we left. I felt proud of San Francisco once again.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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