Since restaurants tend to age in dog years, a restaurant that reaches its 12th birthday like Farallon might be called venerable. It has survived its perilous youth to achieve, perhaps, the stability of middle age, and the good news is that while not all that many restaurants see their 12th birthday, the ones that do stand a reasonable chance of seeing quite a few more.
Mark Franz, who cooked at Stars while that glittering spot was still in the hands of founder Jeremiah Tower, has been the man at Farallon from the beginning the man, at least, in the kitchen. The designer was Pat Kuleto, and the restaurant's interior décor shows a definite kinship with other Kuleto projects from the mid-1990s; like Boulevard (1993), it is rich in fanciful lamps and light fixtures, and like Jardiniere (1997), it includes a conspicuous sweeping staircase.
But mostly there is the Captain Nemo effect, the sense of being in some magical grotto at the bottom of the sea. Many of the visual effects are not subtle: the huge faux scallop shell that forms part of the ceiling and the row of lamps like line-caught fish hanging in front of the exhibition kitchen are two that spring to mind. But Kuleto did not neglect the finer touches, even if it takes a bit longer to notice them. The tiled mosaics on the wall arches, for instance, are quietly spectacular in their byzantine colors and details. The mosaics have worn well. They lend an air of permanence and impressiveness, and they're what you find yourself staring at long after you've stopped noticing the more outlandish stuff.
The menu describes the cooking as "coastal cuisine," an au courant designation for imaginative or contemporary seafood. The restaurant's obvious peers are Aqua and Waterbar; it's less monumental than the former and cozier than the latter, and because it's just a few steps from Union Square, I wondered if we would find some pandering to tourists some version of cioppino, say. I didn't notice any such over-obviousness. The theme instead is one of discreet sophistication, cleverness that does not call attention to itself.
Sashimi of ahi tuna ($18), for example, is the kind of thing you could get at dozens of restaurants around town. But Farallon's kitchen gave the glistening ruby tabs of flesh a sly Spanish twist, with an overlay of a boquerón (a white anchovy), a scattering of slivered almonds, and a nearby berm of ñora-chili purée, like an honor guard.
A buckwheat blini (part of a four-course, $65 prix fixe) was soaked and I do mean soaked in melted butter, then topped with alternating lengths of gravlax and sturgeon, themselves capped with crème fraîche and a brief hailstorm of salmon roe, like little pebbles of orange glass. The lesson here was butter, its delicate, singular richness. Accept no substitute, because there is none.
The combination of cantaloupe and prosciutto is friendly to the point of cliché, so a little inventiveness is welcome. Farallon's summer melon salad (also part of the prix fixe) featured a core of cantaloupe dice wrapped in swaths of prosciutto and topped with what looked like simple shaved ice but turned out to be verbena granita. Since we intuitively associate color with flavor, it was startling to find so much punch packed into something that looked as if it had been reclaimed from a hotel ice bucket.
The menu does not beat you over the head with screeds about sustainability, and perhaps this restraint is wise, since seafood choices are so often fraught ones. I love arctic char a milder, eco-friendly relation of salmon and I very much liked the way it was handled here ($35): gently roasted, then finished in a cast-iron pot with some white wine and a succotash-like medley of corn kernels, summer squash dice, and cubes of Spanish chorizo.