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The Son and Heir 

Cosmopolitan Cafe

Wednesday, Aug 23 2000
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A brief culinary history of my father: While growing up in Minnesota during the lean years of the Depression, my father was always hungry, a condition he blames not on a lack of food but on the cooking of my grandmother, who didn't believe in using more ingredients than necessary in the kitchen, or even seasonings, for that matter. Yes, she was English, but since her cooking was the only cooking he knew, my father had no idea where his insatiable food-lust came from. Then, one day, when he was about 15, his longings coalesced into a single desire: apple pie. He asked my grandmother to bake him one, but she handed him a cookbook and told him to bake his own.

Which he did, cutting lard into the flour, slicing an orchard's worth of apples, dusting them with an island's worth of sugar and a forest's worth of cinnamon. He slid the pie into the oven and waited, and since my grandmother's version was a somewhat miserly affair -- hardly any fruit, a crust like a hobo's shoe -- you can imagine my father's delight when he opened the oven an hour later and saw this gigantic, golden mountain of a pie oozing juices all over the place, filling the kitchen with its rich, sweet smell.

By the time I hit the scene, dinner chez Hugunin could consist of anything from snapper and mushrooms in a creamy white wine sauce to chicken Florentine with fresh lemon and a crisp Parmesan crust. We feasted on coq au vin, beef burgundy, chicken Kiev, paella, huge, juicy tri-tips, arroz con pollo, and flaky, melting, unbelievable king salmon caught from the deck of San Francisco's own Wacky Jacky. And then, if you throw in the restaurants we ate at, good places where you could get rack of lamb and Alaskan king crab and where they always served wine to 12-year-olds, well, I had one of those childhoods that makes me look back and say, "Damn, Pop, you're the best!"

I recently had an opportunity to return a tiny portion of the favor when I took my father and stepmother Jean to Spear Street's very excellent Cosmopolitan Cafe. According to ancient legend, Cosmo has taken over a cursed location (formerly Etrusca, Eric, and Capital Grille), and while that didn't concern me, to be honest I didn't expect much from the place, either, for four reasons: 1) I don't like the name (too ... cosmopolitan); 2) I don't like the big, pastel mural over the bar (too pastel); 3) While scouting Cosmo in advance, I tried one drink, the Tropical Cosmopolitan, a slightly bitter, mango-based cocktail that 4) was ringed with granulated sugar.

Having eaten at Cosmopolitan Cafe, I still have the same four beefs. I even tried the Tropical Cosmo a second time -- again, it tasted bitter, and lacked the tartness that, to me, defines a good Cosmo, which is ideally made with fresh-squeezed lime juice. Mango just doesn't provide that necessary tartness, and seems better suited to rum drinks.

Of course, such gripes tend to fade rather quickly when you try seven dishes and all seven of them achieve their potential so effortlessly you have to wonder why all food isn't this good. Mural excepted, the space is stunning. A high, arched ceiling gives the place the open, cavernous feel of an air-plane hangar, though it's anchored with tall windows, plenty of dark wood, snaky metal light fixtures, rich, blue-green zebra-striped carpeting, and deep, inviting, luxurious booths. If you look closely, you can almost see the jazz (both recorded and live) floating around before it cascades to your table, where it hovers at the edge of conversation but never intrudes. Furthermore, our wineglasses were so huge that if God ever tells me I get one last chalice of the grape, these are the glasses I'll request.

Obviously, such magnificent stemware needed to be filled. After perusing the extensive, affordably priced wine list, my father selected a half-bottle of Murphy-Goode sauvignon blanc -- crisp, grassy, reminiscent of a fresh, dewy meadow -- while Jean, who has yet to adopt my clan's passion for intoxicating beverages, filled hers with a good, wholesome glass of low-fat milk. Me, I prefer liquor, and, after sipping some sauvignon, I tried the other two specialty Cosmos (sugar omitted on request): a perfect, traditional version made with Absolut Mandrin, cointreau, and fresh lime juice, and an equally perfect Berry Cosmopolitan in which blackberry and raspberry juices provided all the tartness anyone could ask for, and an exquisite fruitiness to boot.

We began with the appetizer trio inspiration of the day, Dungeness crab done three ways -- tempura'd over spicy corn relish, shaped into a crisp, traditional crab cake, and incorporated into a rich, silky bisque. That's a lot of effort to put into one appetizer, if you ask me, and the sign of a restaurant that cares. Our next dish, arugula and frisée salad with crisp duck, kept the good times rolling. The arugula provided a marvelous backdrop for warm savory duck, pungent blue cheese, and juicy, lightly sweet Asian pears.

Our favorite, though, was the deep-fried shrimp with shredded phyllo, one of those appetizers a person could lose himself in and never want to find his way out. When touched with a fork, the phyllo was so crisp it shattered, adding a nice crunchiness to four juicy crustaceans. The phyllo's usefulness didn't end there, however: We simply had to combine it with the accompanying sweet pickled cucumbers and beets, which, in turn, absolutely had to take a dip in a pool of salty-sweet miso, which wanted to be all over the shrimp, which called for more beets, more phyllo, more cucumbers, more miso, more shrimp, a sip of Berry Cosmo, and so on.

Entrees left us with two conclusions: 1) We were eating some very good food at 2) very good prices. We tried three, beginning with a juicy, thin-sliced hanger steak fanned over garlic-sautéed spinach, served with thick, crisp steak fries, and a zesty, blood-red jus. An amazing pan-roasted chicken with sautéed Swiss chard, summer squash pancakes, and a roasted garlic herb jus proved one of the best dishes I've seen all year for the price: The chicken was crisp, juicy, and rich with herbs, the chard glowed a deep, healthy green, and the light, crunchy, hash brown-style pancakes contrasted nicely with the chard, the chicken, and, of course, the jus -- again, an entire universe on one plate.

Then came a dish I don't normally like, pepper-seared ahi. Though I'm very much enamored of a good steak au poivre -- or, for that matter, ahi dusted with fine pepper -- coarse ground pepper has overwhelmed the tuna in too many versions I've tried previously. Perhaps the trick is to use really huge, fresh chunks of ahi, as Cosmo does, which allows for more tuna with each bite, and less pepper. Tempura'd green beans, chilled, lemony jasmine rice, and a tangy citrus soy sauce also balanced the dish.

At this point, we were quite full, but not grotesquely so, which called for something sweet. Cosmo offers a number of made-to-order desserts (12 to 15 minutes to bake, according to the menu), and so, as we finished the last few bites of our entrees, we ordered the chocolate chunk cookies with a Tahitian vanilla malted milkshake. Exactly 15 minutes later, the cookies arrived, so hot they seemed to still be baking, forcing our attention to the smooth, creamy milkshake. I liked that shake, but loved the cookies -- about half chocolate, half dough, so rich and decadent neither Jean nor my father could finish even one. But then, from where I was sitting, that was a good thing, for two reasons: 1) It only takes one good cookie -- or even half of a great one -- to sate one's sweet tooth at the end of a fabulous meal; and 2) Since Dad and Jean couldn't finish their cookies, that left a few last bites for me.

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Greg Hugunin

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