East Meets Zest


When undertaking the task of reviewing a restaurant, the first step is to round up a troupe of fellow food-lovers, food-lovers who will have something interesting to say about the food they'll be devouring and who won't be squeamish about tofu, tentacles, and other undiscovered culinary country. Because the week I intended to eat at Oritalia was also a particularly busy one, I was a bit behind schedule: When Saturday afternoon rolled around I realized that my deadline hovered on the horizon but I hadn't yet assembled my band of diners. I started calling the usual suspects, each of whom had a variably viable excuse for missing out. Stansbury was scrubbing abalone shells. Kate was watching a Get Smart marathon. Pablo was recovering from gum surgery. Even Merle and Anaïs, my San Anselmo stalwarts, were atypically daunted by the southbound traffic and opted instead for an evening at home far from the pressures of eating and drinking and talking about it afterward.

All of this is to explain how I found myself alone at Oritalia's Dragon Bar at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, studying the tapas menu and sipping a mojito. As it turns out, unilateral menu-canvassing is especially easy at this bastion of Italo-Asian cuisine. Not only is the long, elegant bar a fine spot for single dining, but the curious nosher can also sample several selections from the appetite-friendly tapas menu without feeling overwhelmed. Since sitting and snacking at a bar is a pleasure I never tire of, the evening progressed most happily.

Oritalia is located in the Hotel Juliana above the Stockton Tunnel, across Bush from fabled Burritt Street, the alleyway where Miles Archer met his maker in The Maltese Falcon. After a thorough retrofit the restaurant reopened a month ago, and now it's even more architecturally striking. The overall look is derived from the kitchen's Oriental-Italian proclivities: walls dappled a deep Mediterranean salmon inset with spotlighted crevasses holding urns, vases, and dragons from various Asian traditions. Modern Asian art hangs beside Italianate light cones in sunset orange and wrought iron; the chandeliers look like upturned, intricately designed parasols. Toward the back of the restaurant are sumptuous booths where you can ensure your privacy by drawing the deep blue drapes closed and using a light switch to summon your waiter. They're a luxurious hint of old S.F. The bathrooms gleam in black tile and marble with accents of dried flowers and red velvet. The sound design, meanwhile, is a suave tapestry of sitars, accordions, and what one might call techno-belly dance music. These disparate elements somehow blend into an edgy opulence.

The bar, my original destination, creates a Euro-intimate mood with its wine racks, candles, blue velvet stools, hardwood floors, and rustic brickwork jazzed up with backlit Asian designs and brushwork. Menus arrive printed on parchment and secured to wooden boards with decorative lacquered chopsticks. The tapas they describe bear no discernible similarity to the olives and omelets of old Madrid, but “tapas” is as good a descriptor as any for these intricately balanced, carefully crafted multicultural nibbles. The pommes frites are a towering hillock of fried potato threads interspersed with bits of toasted nori (seaweed) and served with an eye-opening ginger aioli dipping sauce. Warm and crisp from the oil, the frites have an earthy potato taste (actual potatoes!) absent from the common french fry, and the mildly sweet nori is a surprising complement.

The Maine lobster salad isn't as successful. Although its lobster shards are succulent, the cilantro-strewn slaw that surrounds it overpowers the crustacean's delicate flavor, and the sweet potato pancake beneath is thick, gummy, and bereft of yammy flavor. The Fuji apple salad is a better choice. A square, black lacquered platter comes piled high with a lively assortment of salad greens, crisp strips of sweet apple, and peppery pecans; at each corner is a cloudlike puff filled with heated, runny, pungent blue cheese. The blue crab cakes are even better: Lighter and moister than the usual leaden grease-absorber, these are served atop a rich, silky sauce enlivened with ngo om, aka Southeast Asian rice paddy herb. Another winner is the carpacio (as the menu spells it). A triangular black platter arrives layered with barely seared, paper-thin fillets of beef flavorful enough to stand up to a fine dusting of togorashi chili and a fine ribbon of wasabi aioli: roast beef and horseradish, Asian style. Strands of citrusy arugula and burdock root add pleasantly distinct accents. Best of all, though, is the tuna tartar, an Oritalia classic. A tower of cubed, raw ahi, cool and creamy and blended with pine nuts and diced avocado, turns up with a dollop of wasabi, a pile of fresh ginger, a crunchy bouquet of cilantro, and a stack of four warm sticky-rice cakes. Light, airy triangles of oniony focaccia accompany the tapas.

I returned a few nights later with an available friend to check out the entrees. The lamb loin's a dream: a big, beautiful platter of bright red tomatoes, deep green fava beans, orange-yellow polenta, glistening black olives, and the precisely pink interior of the meat. Crusted with fennel and tender within, the lamb's richness blends with the suppleness of the vegetables and the bite of the olives to offer a roundness that the lobster salad, for instance, lacks. The ahi entree is the lamb's opposite. Colorless, tasteless, and limp, the dish is practically taste-free despite the blood-red visual perfection of the tuna and an advertised presence of daikon radish. The thick slabs of fish rest upon a soupy vegetable vermicelli that appears to contain carrots and enoki mushrooms but doesn't taste like it. My advice: Stick with the lamb.

Desserts include an unusually good lemon-mascarpone sherbet, reminiscent of a light cheesecake and spooned atop a stack of melon slices in a bowl of watermelon essence, and an unspectacular panna cotta with a slightly bitter coconut flavor that only underlines the pudding's singular blandness. (The macadamia brittle that shares its platter tastes nice, though.) My favorite: pineapple upside-down cake, a pineapple upside-down cake distant from the canned pineapple ring/maraschino cherry rendition of memory but just as homey and comforting, updated here with lemongrass marinade and vanilla gelato. Order it with a cup of Ginger Twist tea, a floral confabulation of mint, ginseng, ginger, and lemongrass. The Husch sauvignon blanc, from Oritalia's relatively brief but pleasantly eclectic wine list, is a good choice for the earlier stages of the evening. Enjoy a couple of glasses along with your crab cakes and carpacio and you'll have a most pleasant evening ahead of you.

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