October 23, 2002

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Glamorama

By Paul Reidinger

AT SOME ( fairly recent) point on the arc of my life I began to develop an allergy to glamour. Public environments whose style and showy energy gave pleasure in years past began to give, instead, headache. Naturally I shunned clubs and galas, but even nascent recluses have to eat, and I would emerge from many an exciting, happening restaurant feeling as if I'd been mugged. But of course, to paraphrase Seinfeld's George Costanza, it wasn't them, it was me: with time I was reverting to puritan type, growing impatient with ornamentation and affectation even as the culture at large became ever more affected. The phrase from divorce law is "irreconcilable differences."

So I was surprised to step into RNM, a very glamorous – perhaps the most glamorous – restaurant in the Lower Haight, and find that I liked it. With its high-ceilinged boxiness, moody purple color scheme, and suspended halogen lights (some of them nested in a chandelier that looks as if it's made of shredded potato), it struck me right off as a little Mecca, and I have always liked Mecca, which reminds me of Studio 54, as, I gather, it is supposed to.

The worst thing you can say about RNM is that it embodies the onward-and-upward tenor – the increasingly glamorous tenor, as it were – of the neighborhood. This isn't all bad; lower Haight Street is no longer as scary as it was a decade ago. But RNM, with its edgy spit and polish, would not seem at all out of place on Chestnut Street, or down in the neon-lit precincts of Metreonland – places where the breezes of affluence still swirl. Even in dire economic times, San Francisco doesn't lack for people with money.

Yet for all its high style, RNM does manage a real neighborhood conviviality. And chef Justine Miner's American cooking manages the neat trick of honoring her Dine roots (she was sous chef) while remaining affordable, with prices for main dishes hovering stubbornly just above $10. A ten-spot, for instance, will buy you one of two excellent pizzas, one topped pissaladière-style with fontina cheese, caramelized onions, and chanterelle mushrooms; the other with meaty pancetta, grilled radicchio, and thyme. In either case, the crust is thin and crispy-tender, the combination of toppings arresting but not overcomplicated.

Then there are the cheeseburgers ($10), round patties wedged into square buns, with cheese and grilled onions. They could pass for White Castle burgers, except they are much better – in fact excellent, well-seasoned and juicy – and White Castle burgers are as square as their buns.

While it is true that much of the food emerging from the kitchen is of the high-end soda-fountain variety, there are dishes that would not seem out of place at temples of haute American cuisine like Boulevard or Hawthorne Lane. The heirloom tomato napoleon ($7) is one such dish; its layerings of mozzarella and toasted bread produce an attractive sandwich effect, though ripe tomatoes do have a way of leaking liquid and that has a way of resulting, sooner or later, in soggy bread.

Seared day boat scallops ($14, a sweet price for a dish like this) arrive on a mashed potato-like pillow of pureed artichokes, with a ruby red splash of heirloom-tomato sauce at one end and a canopy of watercress overhead. Even a fairly earthy-sounding dish like braised short ribs ($12) gets a classy twist: a bright, tart accompaniment of lemon risotto scattered with scallion slices.

Of course, there are some dishes that really don't need a twist – a classic plate of charcuterie ($11), for one, featuring house-made chicken-liver pâté and rillettes, prosciutto, olives, and cornichons, with plenty of Dijon mustard and toast points on the side to expedite passage. (Another effective expediter is a pint – for $5 – of Stella Artois, the incomparable Belgian beer.)

I was struck, on a pair of visits, by RNM's near-perfect balancing of energy and intimacy. The place could very easily be turned into a thunderdome (as is often the case at the much larger Mecca), but the music and the sound of conversation at other tables, while omnipresent, is not intrusive. It is especially not intrusive on the mezzanine, where we would gladly have taken a table one evening if not for the oppressive heat.

As it was, we ended up near the open door, which admitted a slight (and slightly cooling) breeze, which whetted our appetite for dessert. And what better for dessert on a cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof evening at the end of summer than a mixed-berry shortcake ($6), the mixed berries being strawberries and what appeared to be miniature blueberries? We inquired and were told (after our server consulted with the kitchen) that these were huckleberries. By the time word reached us, however, the berries in question were long gone, along with the homemade biscuit and the great puff of whipped cream that had looked, in its brief moment of glory, like a bit of summer cloud fallen to the plate.

Moral of story: never walk out of a restaurant without checking to see if there are traces of whipped cream on your face. Not glamorous. QED.

RNM. 598 Haight (at Steiner), S.F. (415) 551-7900. Dinner: Wed., Sun., 5:30-10 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 5:30-11:30 p.m. Full bar. MasterCard, Visa. Moderately noisy. Wheelchair accessible.