The Shape of Things to Come

The chefs at 2001 sculpt mini works of art that are surprisingly delicious

One thing you can say about 2001, the six-month-old restaurant at 17th and Kansas: They're pulling out all the stops. On every dish. All the time. So if you're from the school that considers a sprig of parsley decoration enough, this is not the place for you. If, on the other hand, thoughts of potato flowers springing from duck breasts turn you on, go for it. You'll have a ball.

Chef-owners Paul and Barbara Jellison, late of Club 181 and the famed River Cafe in New York, are clearly passionate about their work. And though dinner at 2001 left me with mixed feelings, I'm definitely rooting for them, hoping the neighborhood (that nighttime Neverland between Potrero Hill and the Design Center) can support their crazy ambition.

For starters, we chose the polenta with a sautŽ of wild mushrooms ($6.50) and the house-smoked salmon, filled with cream cheese and served with a potato pancake ($7.25). The polenta, crisp squares of baked cornmeal soaked in a winey sauce and topped with shiitake slivers, was a true winner. It was also the most visually restrained dish we sampled.

By contrast, the salmon was a busy little plate: a generous slice of smoked salmon curled around a cylinder of herbed cream cheese, all of which was sandwiched in a lacy potato pancake and accompanied by vinaigrette-dressed greens. The perfectly balanced salmon was good enough that had it sat solo on the plate with a wedge of lemon, some people would have been quite content.

Okay, I'll stop being cagey about my bias — I'm one of those people, a fan of simplicity when it comes to food. Architecture belongs on buildings. When served a multitiered, precariously tilting creation, I get nervous. I also get suspicious that the chef is putting too much time into looks and not enough into taste.

Happily, this is not the case at 2001. Taste is by no means a secondary consideration. But Paul Jellison is an artist. His black metal sculpture is all over the restaurant. And he evidently spends as much time thinking about elaborate presentation as about scrumptiousness.

On to the entrŽes. Crisp roast duck with caramelized fruit chutney and potato croquettes ($14.75, and the most expensive dish on the menu) was a riot of activity. Not only was there the aforementioned potato flower, but also a tuberous-looking potato croquette, a mold of garlic and tomato flan, asparagus and chunks of fruit. Once you poked through all of that to find it, the duck was indeed crisp-skinned, moist and delicious.

Pan-roasted trout ($12.75) also suffered from out-of-control production values. (If the Jellisons were film-makers, they'd do Busby Berkeley.) The whole boned trout, topped with a crust of crispy potato ovals, reclined on a bed of lentils and roast garlic. Spears of asparagus and more vinaigrette-dressed greens crowded the plate. But the highly costumed fish was perfectly cooked. As was the tender six-hour lamb shank with whipped potatoes and vegetables ($11.75), which arrived upright, draped with a roasted red-pepper blanket and festooned with a stalk of rosemary.

We shared a dessert sampler plate (Barbara is the pastry chef), full-portion servings of bittersweet chocolate cake, apple tart and espresso Bavarian mousse. If you're not prepared to go hog-wild, the warm apple tart, actually a mini pie with flaky pastry and tart apples, outshines the others.

Formerly Hamburger Nancy's, 2001 (named for its address) is basically a dressed-up joint. The decor is a hodgepodge: Tudor ceiling beams, industrial-looking black metal chairs, a tile floor and flowered barstools. An interrogation-strength spotlight, which glared down on us for a good 15 minutes, was finally softened.

So after all that, why am I cheering for the Jellisons? First of all, once you get past the issue of ornamentation, their food is very good and prices are not stratospheric.

Also, they're working their buns off, doing lunch (soups, salads and four hot entrees), dinner, and a mini delicatessen and bakery. Takeout, by the way, is straightforward and highly recommended, with nary a potato flower in sight. We tried a Cobb salad ($6.50) and a club sandwich ($7) on one of the first sunny days of spring. Both had large chunks of freshly roasted chicken and the highest quality bacon.

Finally, I want this restaurant to succeed because I'd love to see some more after-dark activity in the 2001 neighborhood. Besides Garibaldi's CafŽ, there's not a lot of choice.

Give 2001 a whirl. And think of it this way: For the price of your dinner, you get a little theater on your plate.

2001, 2001 17th St, S.F., 621-2001. Open Tues-Sat 11:30 am-10 pm, Sun noon-9 pm.

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