No Parking Zone

Socca provides a taste of downtown in the Richmond

We wondered, as the maitre d' seated us, what Socca might have been in those lives that preceded its present incarnation as an American-Provencal bistro, with high ceilings and butter-colored walls laced in spots with bright blue stripes. The terra-cotta floor tiles and the arches over some of the booths reminded me of certain Mexican restaurants on the Peninsula, but a waggish East Bay friend was convinced the space had once housed a family-style Italian restaurant.

“And it had to have had 'village' in the name somewhere!” the Wag said enthusiastically, his mind racing to create a suitable history before the first courses appeared. ” 'Roman Village'!” he suggested an instant later.

It seemed to the rest of us like a plausible theory; we were deep in the Richmond, after all, and far from the downtown chic to which Socca, in style and cuisine if not location, belongs. Like so many outposts, the restaurant is having a greater effect on its neighborhood than vice versa: Parking is all but impossible, for one thing. I dropped off my companions so they might claim our table and, with a wave at the valet, set off to find street parking. One orbit of the block convinced me that it was folly to continue.

“I knew you'd be back,” the valet said as I handed him the key.
“I had to try,” I replied. He thought that was awfully funny and drove off laughing. The valet service costs $4 ($5 on Fridays and Saturdays), and it's worth it.

There are so many Provencal-style restaurants in the city now that it's hard to keep them all straight. I would like to be able to say that Socca combines sensational food and low prices in a package that makes the trek irresistible, but although it's reasonably priced, it's not meaningfully cheaper than such kindred places as Firefly and Pastis. And the food isn't better.

As is more and more the case these days, most of the kitchen's genius went into the first courses. The smoked salmon on toasted brioche ($7.95), for instance, garnished with capers and creme fraiche, was a suave take on bagels with lox and cream cheese. (More American than Provencal there.) And the artichoke and mussel chowder ($5.25) artfully joined the nutty flavor of the 'chokes to a classic seafood-soup base; the result was thick, green, and mouth-filling.

Our table gave mixed reviews to the fava bean and rock shrimp cassoulet ($7.50). The tarragon and mint lent the dish a distinctive peppery buzz, and we all liked the shrimp. But opinions varied on the fava beans: I thought they were sumptuously meaty, but one of my tablemates dismissed them as “floury.”

Grilled sea scallops with watercress and tangerine vinaigrette ($8.25) sounded gorgeous and turned out to be OK. The scallops were tender and sweet, but the tanginess of the citrus seemed to get lost in the dressing's general creaminess. A little chopped cilantro would have been nice.

The restaurant's namesake socca ($2.50) was a leather-colored crepe made of chickpea flour. It had been folded in half and cut into triangles. Ground cumin gave it a direct flavor, but it could have used something inside — melted goat cheese, maybe, or slices of roasted pepper? By contrast, the crispy shoestring potatoes ($2.95) were served with homemade ketchup, a condiment sweet and lumpy with fresh tomatoes.

“When you have fresh ketchup, you realize that ketchup really is a chutney,” the Wag observed. (According to Chutneys and Relishes by Lorraine Bodger, the difference between a chutney and a relish is that a chutney is cooked. Either can be made from fruits or vegetables; while a tomato is technically a fruit, it serves mainly as a vegetable in our cooking.)

The Wag recently abandoned 12 years of vegetarianism, and he was not put off by the fennel sausage that accompanied the grilled monkfish ($14.75). The filet itself arrived moist — sign of skillful cooking — and the surrounding ingredients (braised cabbage, leeks, fingerling potatoes, along with the sausage) sounded hearty. But the dish didn't cohere; it needed a more assertive sauce to bind the flavors together.

Our lone vegetarian's cavatappi pasta ($12.75) was tossed with asparagus, oven-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, and balsamic vinegar — a nice combination that's just as good and half as expensive at Pasta Pomodoro. The sauteed halibut ($13.95) carried a thick layer of very salty tapenade; in the basil-infused pistou around it drifted fava beans (again) and pearl onions. Again, expertly prepared fish. The dish's colors were a fresh spring green.

The grilled New York steak ($16.50) came rare, as ordered, but the meat itself seemed a little short of juice and flavor. The Roquefort potato pancake at the side was decadently cheesy, and the winy-looking bone-marrow sauce concentrated the meat's essence (and made up considerably for its dryness).

The grilled lamb ($16.95) was much better, the rare meat tender and juicily gamy. Mr. Steak and I in fact ended up trading, though he didn't like as much as I did the lamb's lovely bed of white beans and asparagus, nor the sweetly sharp onion-raisin confit.

Sweetly sharp in a fruitier way was the the caramelized lemon tart with strawberry sorbet ($5). In fact it was just sweet enough to mute the sensation of biting into a fresh lemon slice: a bold, serious dessert for grown-ups. (The richly pink sorbet also concentrated the flavor of its fruit, with just enough sugar added to round off that edge of rawness.)

The three creme brulees ($5), on the other hand, while nicely executed, were less impressive. The chocolate and vanilla were exactly what one expected, but the flavor of the wild card, blood orange, didn't quite emerge. (Maybe add some lemon juice?)

Socca's level of competence is very high, and it isn't the only place where the most brilliant dishes are the first to arrive. But there is something wrong — perhaps with our culture's basic scheme of small first courses and large main ones? — when the heart of a meal is a letdown, however slight.

Socca, at 5800 Geary, is open Sundays and Tuesdays through Thursdays 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 10 p.m. It's closed Mondays. Call 379-6720.

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