The Moss Room

Hidden beneath the new Academy of Sciences building, this California culinary oasis offers simplicity and sophistication
Photo by Rory McNamara

The basement restaurant is an odd duck — odder still if the basement is in a museum in a relatively remote park. Yes, my 16-ton hints do pertain to the Moss Room, the venture orchestrated by Loretta Keller and Charles Phan that opened last fall in a subterranean sector of the new Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park.

A word, if I may, about that building, which faces its nemesis, the DeYoung Museum, across the concourse the way Minas Tirith faced Minas Morgul in The Lord of the Rings: one fair, the other sordid. The Academy of Sciences building is, for me, the far superior design because it subtly but unmistakably refers to its predecessor and because, with its expanses of glass and filaments of steel, it sits in its sylvan setting far more lightly. It does not imperially impose itself on its surroundings. Also, it has the Moss Room.

Strange to say, but the restaurants the Moss Room most resembles are both downtown, where the Academy should have been moved. One is Shanghai 1930, a similarly elegant basement, like a lavish bunker. The other is Bix, above ground but with underwaterish light and a bold staircase. At Bix, the staircase rises to a mezzanine; at the Moss Room, it descends from a cafeteria to the subterranean sanctum and adjoins a channel-like aquarium and a wall garden.

These design details suggest the restaurant's commitment to sustainability, and as weary as sometimes one grows in using that word, it's probably worth repeating with respect to a place that is inside a science museum in the middle of a large urban park. If any restaurant should be attentive to food's ecological dimension, it should be the Moss Room. And it is, with the passion extending all the way to the wine list, which is organized under the rubrics "organic," "biodynamic," and "sustainable."

The Moss Room's look doesn't suggest its kinship to Keller's other restaurants, Bizou and Coco500. The former was like the best restaurant in a quaint Provençal town, while the latter offers a slightly deracinated spareness meant to appeal to urban youth. The food, though, is another matter. Keller has long been a leading exponent of a cooking style I associate closely with Zuni Café: the cuisine of Italy and the south of France, fluffed and freshened. We could call this style "rustic" or "lusty," to use two clichés much favored in a certain cliché-choked competing venue — but let's not. How about "lustic"? Or perhaps "lustique"?

Because the Moss Room, despite being below the water line, is a more elegant venue than either Bizou or Coco500 — a carpeted hush, dim lighting, high ceilings, the zen spectacle of drifting aquarium fish and herbs growing from the wall above them — there is a certain tension about the food. Should it be elegant or lustic? Can it be both? When you try to be both, you risk being neither.

The small plates reflect a certain restlessness. They range from a humble plate of hummus and pita bread ($10) — glistening like naan — embellished with roasted red-pepper and manouri cheese, to the more elaborate batter-fried squash blossoms ($9) zipped up with goat cheese, mint, and roasted-garlic aioli.

A bowl of corn chowder ($8) did strike me as quite Kelleresque. The corn came from Brentwood, and the chowder was made with chicken and shrimp stocks, along with bits of bacon for deeper flavor. Summer corn is famously sweet, of course, and shrimp stock can intensify this effect. So can under-salting.

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