February 5, 2003

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Survivor

By Paul Reidinger

CATASTROPHES – ; economic meltdowns, for instance – are of course bad by definition, but they aren't always all bad. Sometimes there are survivors, and while survival is often the result of luck, sometimes it is actually deserved.

The obverse proposition, alas, is that sometimes survival is deserved and death comes anyway. Although Gordon's House of Fine Eats might have catered to nouveau riche multimedia brats, the food was genuinely excellent and the setting splendid. Yet that was not enough to save it, or for that matter the rest of multimedialand, when the clock finally struck midnight and all those glittering coaches – most of them leased Range Rovers – turned back into pumpkins. The after-dark effect these days, in some formerly hopping parts of the Mission District, is very ghost town, like an urban version of Bodie State Park.

And while ghost towns can have a certain eerie beauty, they are melancholy too, which is why stepping into Blue Plate lately is more than usually cheering. It is cheering because it is thriving, and it is thriving because its stylish combination of value, innovation, and excitement – the last two nicely balanced by the familiar – never goes out of style.

Chef Cory Obenour opened the restaurant in 1999, and while the place was almost immediately dubbed a "hipster" haven by the Zagat restaurant survey at the height of its own dot-com crazedness, Blue Plate's coolness was – and is – more neighborhood than dot-com. Prices have always been reasonable, the food solid rather than showy (with emphases on organic and sustainable agricultural products), the wine list succinct. If Alice Waters had opened a sleeked-up diner near the foot of Bernal Hill, it would have looked a lot like Blue Plate.

But it probably wouldn't have had Blue Plate's Manhattan-like energy, the choreographed chaos of the staff hurrying about their business. The space is small to begin with, and it seems even smaller because it always seems to be filling up. We sat one night at the counter (since all diners, regardless of sleekness, must have a counter) and watched salads being put together, focaccia being pulled from the oven and sliced, diced vegetables being sautéed, wine being poured, and bills being added up, all within about three feet of us. From time to time we were gently jostled, as new arrivals claimed reserved tables and armfuls of food and drink made their way here and there, but the temper of the place remained friendly and civil. So perhaps it's not so Manhattan-like after all.

It is hard to imagine that even such a gastronomic eminence as Alice Waters could find much to fault about Obenour's cooking. We couldn't find anything, really. I think I would have preferred a dash more salt in the penne ($13), to bring out the wintry flavors of its wood-smoked mozzarella, roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (nearly sausagelike in their meatiness), and cippolini onions. But I just added it myself. And the mix of grilled cauliflower, roasted onion, and baby rainbow greens beneath slices of coriander-crusted lamb ($8) were pretty well eclipsed by the richness of the meat – a stronger comment on the meat than the vegetables.

If you doubt that a quick turn on the grill can do wonders for otherwise timid vegetables, the grilled hearts of romaine ($8), with smoked bacon, shavings of Parmesan cheese, cherry tomatoes, and plenty of avocado slices, will make you a believer. The grilling softens the lettuce and gives it a smoky tang – a strong complement to the bacon, a potent contrast with the acid of the tomatoes and the butteriness of the avocado. And ... it's simple, the way the best cooking so often is.

Blue Plate is often described as serving "comfort" food, but the standards are made with care and with little twists that make them memorable. Macaroni and cheese ($5) made with drunken Spanish goat cheese becomes a delicacy. Flatbread ($6) with oregano and coins of Molinari pepperoni is lifted above mere little-pizzahood by fontina cheese. And Monterey Bay squid ($6), with Meyer lemon and parsley, is grilled instead of battered and deep-fried – a considerable savings in calories, a subtler texture, and an emphasis on the taste of the squid instead of on the breading and oil.

A few dishes did strike us as downright Chez Panisse-ish. A plate of scallops grilled on rosemary skewers ($9), with fennel, sections of blood orange, and basil, was a Waters-like combination of simplicity and elegance. So was a salad of arugula and Page mandarin oranges ($6) – pepper and acid matched up with the salty bite of feta cheese and the irreducible fineness of pignoli. And a big filet of pan-roasted bluenose sea bass ($17) surfed atop a lively Mediterranean mélange of artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, tomatoes, tarragon, and butterball potatoes – perhaps not quite a Chez Panisse combination, but certainly worthy.

Amid the hubbub (heaven for someone like me, who likes to watch restaurants actually functioning), Blue Plate still manages to strike those little grace notes that linger in the memory. There is the focaccia, with its crisp golden crust. There is the water, provided in glass milk jugs so you are not always trying to get someone's attention for a refill. And $6 will buy you a postprandial glass of Banyuls, a fine dessert wine from the French Mediterranean coast near Perpignan. FYI, it's a red dessert wine. Not white. Nor blue.

Blue Plate. 3218 Mission (at 28th St.), S.F. (415) 282-6777. Dinner: Mon.-Thurs., 6-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 6-10:30 p.m. Beer and wine. American Express, MasterCard, Visa. Loud. Wheelchair accessible.