So when Carta closed its doors for renovation and reconfiguration earlier this year, expectation and trepidation were afoot. Carta had featured a pleasantly goofy conceptual gimmick that showcased a different international cuisine each month, resulting in a year-round panorama of moussaka, tandoori, and lobster Newburg, much of it delectable. It was a unique restaurant in a city overrun with places to eat. Paisley's, Carta's heir apparent, opened its doors a month ago. Although the new place relinquishes its predecessor's global attitude, focusing instead on the inevitable California-Mediterranean mishmash, at this point in its evolution it's just about as goofy.
It starts with the setting, a smallish rendezvous spot under the 101 overpass on Market. "Space Age Bachelor Pad" seems to be the unifying stylistic statement, as a thrumming backbeat and cheerfully surreal quasi-Magritte artworks of beach balls and horses' rumps dominate the angular lines and mulberry accents of the dining room. Moody (i.e., dim) lighting creates a comfy, romantic aura (though it makes it hard to read the menu), and the overall result is something more than the usual hip-industrial exposed-pipe aesthetic. Cloth napkins out of your grandma's pantry add to the erratic atmosphere.
The current menu is as unfocused as the surroundings. A shaved fennel salad is supposed to come with roasted beets, candied walnuts, manchego cheese, and fresh peaches -- a potentially rich, unusual dish -- but the latter two ingredients were nowhere to be tasted when we were there, resulting in an unexciting platter of barely dressed frisée with a few lackadaisical chunks of beet and walnut scattered about. Another starter, ravioli, had a good house-made texture, but its stuffing of eggplant, fennel, and red onion was so muddled that the resulting flavor was lifeless and indistinct. A better bet is the Mediterranean flatbread, grilled crisps layered with chopped mushrooms, sun-dried tomato, melted mozzarella, and hearty chunks of pork sausage. Even better is the tartare, a cool, glistening hillock of creamy raw salmon and ahi tuna. But like the peaches and manchego, the tartare's advertised accompaniment of fried wontons never showed up.
The best of the large plates was the grilled rib-eye, mostly because of the light, crisp onion rings that accompanied it. The steak itself wasn't particularly tender or juicy, but it had a nice smoky, fatty taste to it. The grilled salmon was pretty good, too, but it came with big hunks of tomato on dry toast masquerading as "heirloom tomato crouton salad" on the side. The eggplant involtini -- eggplant stuffed with spinach and ricotta -- was not only as goopy and indistinct as the ravioli filling, but was so unsatisfying overall on a recent visit that I had to go across the street to It's Tops for a BLT after dinner. The grilled marinated baby chicken, meanwhile, was dry and tedious and unfulfilled by its add-ons of listless pesto and overcooked polenta.
Four desserts are listed on the menu, but only two were available when we dropped in. The cheesecake with strawberries lacked actual strawberries but had instead a drizzle of generic red stuff, and the cheesecake itself, while inevitably delicious (I've never met a cheesecake I didn't like), had all the homemade personality of an item from the Safeway freezer section. The chocolate pot de crème, on the other hand, was wonderfully dense and bittersweet in the intoxicating Scharffen Berger tradition, even if an advertised complement of peanut brittle was as nonexistent as the cheesecake's strawberries. The best dessert was probably the one improvised by our affable, attentive waiter at our request: a good old-fashioned vanilla milkshake, whipped up to a perfectly thick yet sippable consistency and rich with the flavors of cream and vanilla.
The 38-item wine list features a rather impressive selection of vintages from France, Italy, Australia, and our own back door, most of them in the $20 to $40 range. The Domaine de Cabasse Les Deux Anges in particular is a pleasantly full-bodied, slightly fruity Côtes du Rhône that goes well with the lusty flatbread. Eleven wines are available by the glass.
The best thing about Paisley's may be its adjacent cranberry-colored saloon. Elegant and inviting in a coolly minimalist way, the bar proffers a whimsical selection of house cocktails in addition to rediscovered classics like the Negroni, the Sidecar, and the Brandy Alexander. Sipping the Perfectly Peachy -- a cool combo of peach schnapps, peach nectar, and peach vodka -- is like licking the juice from really ripe fruit that's been soaking in booze for a day or two. In a similar vein, the Green Apple is as tart, crisp, and cool as a Newtown pippin, schnapps-and-vodka kicker notwithstanding. The Raspberry Lemon Drop is an ideal thirst-quencher: sweet and refreshing in an alcoholic fruit-punchy sort of way. And the Dreamsicle is a nostalgic glassful of orange juice and thick cream spiked with triple sec and vanilla vodka -- and makes a fine dessert option to boot. (There's a puckery, powerful lemonade available for the teetotalers as well.) Every Saturday night the bar offers live jazz out of the grand piano in the corner, and you can spend a pleasant hour or two nursing a Green Apple, nibbling a piece of flatbread, and deciding where in this great restaurant town to go out to dinner.