July 10, 2002

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In with the new

OVER THE COURSE of spring and early summer there's been something of a rash of new restaurants opening – Julia, the Chezes (Papa and Spencer), Incanto. That's good news for an industry that's taken quite a hosing in the past 18 months; if there's not yet light at the end of the tunnel, at least there's a bit of a glow in the tunnel. But the opening of new restaurants is only the most dramatic of the many forms of rejuvenation in the business. The lesser tweaks, reshufflings, and makeovers might not have quite the brass-band impact of total newness, but many of them are nonetheless noteworthy.

Chefs. Surely these are some of the most mobile creatures on earth, darting from gig to gig like hummingbirds in a flower garden. When last I ate the food of Remy Bernabe, he was the chef at Café 180, which had popped up in the old Bull's Texas Café space near the foot of Van Ness Avenue. Despite Bernabe's pedigree as an alumnus of Masa's, Café 180 folded forthwith (though not, I hope, as a direct result of my going there). But earlier this week there crossed my desk a menu from Il Pirata, bearing the news that Bernabe is now executive chef at that foot-of-Potrero-Hill joint.

At Le Colonial, meanwhile (which once upon a time was Trader Vic's, where once upon a time a group of us got tremendously blasted on tureens of tropical drinks to celebrate our graduation from college), the new executive chef is Kellie Nguyen-Rabanit. She will, says the blurb, "continue Le Colonial's tradition of serving contemporary Vietnamese cuisine with French colonial influences." No mention of tropical drinks, or any other touches that might attract festive undergraduates.

Then there are the makeovers. One of my favorite restaurants, Campton Place, reopened recently after a big redo, the first in its 19 years. The rose color scheme is gone, replaced by cream, gold, and chocolate, but the tables are still appealingly far apart. That sense of distance from one's fellow diners is perhaps the greatest luxury Campton Place offers, followed closely by chef Laurent Manrique's menu and its emphasis on carts (cheese, dessert, and foie gras) and tableside service.

And let's hear it for McCormick & Kuleto's and Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto, which in mid June added Chignik red sockeye salmon to their menus. These are wild salmon, fished near the Aleutian islands. Wild salmon is the only kind of salmon any of us should be serving and eating; farmed salmon is an environmental horror. If a menu offers salmon but doesn't say what kind, ask; and if the answer is farmed, make a face and get something else.

Paul Reidinger paulr@sfbg.com