Cuckoo for Coco500

Most of Coco500's magic has to do with the food and the service
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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

An adage favored by the paterfamilias: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. He has generally deployed this wisdom in the matter of automobiles, while for me it has tended to apply to ... well, practically everything. Bizou, for instance. This was the restaurant Loretta Keller opened at the corner of Fourth Street and Brannan in 1993, a time when the corner of Fourth Street and Brannan was a pretty lonely place at night. There was as yet no baseball park or light-rail line nearby, just the dowdy Caltrain station and lots of empty-looking warehouses slouching in the gloom.

Keller had worked at Stars in its glamorous heyday, but her restaurant, which served rustic French and Italian foods in a setting of rustic elegance, most closely resembled Zuni Cafe. The place was always, in my experience, discreetly stunning, and when I learned a few springtimes ago that she was recasting it for contemporary tastes, I thought, Oy. The subtext of the change seemed to be that the city's most recent bevy of young, rich plutocrats was uninterested in a restaurant with a hint of Provençal languor; to lure them in, you needed halogen spot lamps, unadorned surfaces, certainly more noise, and a menu promising excitement.

Coco500, Bizou's successor, does answer to this description, but it is nonetheless just as stunning in its own way and is a worthy bearer of the torch. I went in warily, full of skepticism, and was almost instantly won over, and that is about the loudest hallelujah I can sing for any restaurant, reinvented or otherwise.

Most of Coco500's magic has to do with the food and the service, it must be said. The redesign of the interior emphasizes blond wood and is reminiscent of a Scandinavian Designs store or a sauna, and while there's nothing wrong with the Danish modern look, it doesn't exactly send the most accurate subliminal signals about what sort of food to expect. If the cooking is no longer about Provence and Italy, it's still Cal-Med in some fundamental way. You're not likely to find lutefisk on the menu, though there is plenty of seafood, and even in California an ethos of seasonality has to account for winter's being one of the seasons. Bizou was good at this; so is Coco500.

Let's start with a marvelous flat bread ($10), like the thinnest of thin-crust pizzas, topped with a fine mince of mushrooms and, for some extra chthonic intensity, truffle oil. The sense is of eating slices of especially flavorful winter-dampened earth, and the crust could not be better.

Seafood is more seasonal than we're sometimes aware, though most Bay Areans probably associate king salmon with summer, and this Bay Arean associates halibut with winter. Ono, on the other hand, I associate with Hawaii; it's one of those marvelous fish taken from the deep, clean waters around the islands, and while it makes a doubtful entrant on a restaurant menu in San Francisco, thousands of miles distant, Coco500's kitchen does manage to turn it into a delicious crudo. The chunks of opalescent white flesh are sprinkled with fennel shavings, drizzled with a blood orange gastrique, and wrapped in wildly unseasonal, but tasty, basil leaves. It's like eating prescooped Chinese lettuce cups.

More winter: celery root ($6), roasted with thyme and neatly cubed, could almost have passed for some sort of potato dish. A cream of cauliflower soup ($6) did not lack for cream — an ingredient of underappreciated potency that can overwhelm through sheer richness but didn't quite here. Bits of chervil and squirts of paprika oil over the soup's surface helped maintain balance.

Duck is also wintry for me, maybe because it's a close relation to goose and roast goose is a classic holiday dish, dramatic if, in the end, more trouble than it's quite worth. Boneless duck breast, on the other hand, is a type of flesh for all seasons: red and meatlike for bad weather but also highly grillable and always easy to deal with.

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