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A friend from LA said, upon stepping into Lettüs Café Organic, "I feel like I'm back in LA. On Rodeo Drive somewhere." Ah, Rodeo Drive, home of the Polo Store, haunt of Nancy Reagan. Lettüs isn't quite the kind of place where you'd expect to see Mrs. R. — she seems more like the Spago Beverly Hills type — but the Rodeo vibe was palpable and even I caught it, though Lettüs's Marina environs, its urban density of souls, have always seemed more Chicago than LA to me, more Lincoln Park. Of course, I once lived in Chicago; I have never lived in LA but have been to Rodeo Drive.
"Everything is good for you, and expensive," my LA friend continued, apropos the LA-ish menu at Lettüs. Ah, I thought, we could be talking about the Newsroom Café, that West Hollywood haunt (on Robertson, near Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, nowhere near Rodeo Drive but just across the street from the Ivy) of alfalfa sprouts, fat-free yogurt smoothies, and youthful pretenders to movie stardom, everybody wearing their fancy sunglasses inside — which of course is not necessary at Lettüs.
The good-for-you part I could accept, for Lettüs, as its full name suggests, deals almost exclusively in organic food and relies as much as possible on local produce. The pricey part, on the other hand, I balked at; Lettüs isn't exactly cheap, but it isn't expensive, either, for what you get, with only a handful of items costing more than $10. Plus, you are afforded an opportunity to ponder the umlaut, a flourish that puts one in mind of, perhaps, a Swedish delicacy like pancakes with lingonberry sauce, though the menu is devoid of Scandinavian influence (except for smoked salmon); most of the culinary cues are either Medi-Cal or East Asian, which leaves one with a general impression that an outpost of Chow has collided with one of the ZAO noodle bars.
The most Scandinavian element of Lettüs (other than the umlaut) is probably the interior design, walls and ceiling of slatted, pale wood, with interstitial bars of fluorescent lighting and sleek, spare furniture. There is a certain saunalike feel to the look, or perhaps it is vaguely Japanese. Either way, it manages to be both rustic and urban, cool and warm, an appealing casual-sophisticated setting for the casually sophisticated food of executive chef Sascha Weiss. (His partners in the endeavor are Matthew Guelke and Mark Lewis; the restaurant opened near the end of last year.)
If Weiss's food has a theme, it might be "when worlds collide": chipotle-scented black bean soup ($4) with avocado salsa on the one hand and, on the other, mango chicken or tofu lettuce cups ($8) — shredded napa cabbage, a Thai-ish blend of ginger, cilantro, basil, and sweet-hot chili-tamarind sauce, and either baked tofu or grilled chicken bundled in swaddlings of Bibb lettuce for easy finger feeding. And if you have a third hand, how about some bruschetta ($5), points of grilled levain topped with white butter beans, roast garlic, cherry tomatoes, and basil?
Bigger dishes are available, of course, from various sorts of panini and open-faced sandwiches — including an entrant of grilled chicken breast ($9.50) with marinated peppers and pesto quite as potent as anything you'd get at Chow — to noodlier choices. Here we have a pasta ($8), fusilli sauced with arugula, sun-dried tomatoes, broccoli, and chickpeas, with a layer of olive slivers and gratings of parmesan cheese on top, a concoction surprisingly hearty despite the absence of animal flesh. There is also a plate of brightly acidic soba noodles ($7) — warm or cold, your call — tossed with julienne zucchini, carrot, and red bell pepper and a lime-sesame vinaigrette dotted with sesame seeds.
But in the main, the happiest course is probably to nosh. Most of the food lends itself to splitting and sharing, in particular the spring rolls ($6), rice-paper wraps stuffed with rice noodles, carrots, and lettuce, sliced into bite-size cylinders, and presented with dipping sauces of spicy peanut and sweet chili. Only slightly more cumbersome to divvy up is a salad of avocado and grapefruit ($7.50) nested in a carpet of peppery-nutty arugula and dressed with a grapefruit-juice vinaigrette; this is about as simple as it gets, and about as good, with butteriness, fruit, bite, and nose brought into a powerful harmony.
Given the confident eclecticism of the savory dishes, the desserts are surprisingly flat-footed. A pair of hazelnut shortbreads ($1) dipped in dark chocolate were not dipped in dark chocolate but presented to us naked. They were fine, crisp yet tender of crumb, but I felt obliged to ask after the missing chocolate. "We don't have those today," our hapless server reported. Coffee cake ($4), meanwhile, was on the dry side despite an interspersion of blackberries and a streusel topping. Only the chocolate mousse cake ($5), served on a plate piped with raspberry sauce, was "dense" and "rich" as promised by the menu card — moist, too, they could honorably have added.
A word on the table service, which is of the semi variety: You order at the counter, are issued a placard with a number, seat yourself (displaying numbered placard), and wait for the food to start arriving. The system is fairly efficient, though cafeteria-esque, and the placards aren't the usual cheap plastic numbers but cast steel, with numbers handsomely embossed in gold. Nancy Reagan might not buy them if she saw them in a window on Rodeo Drive, but she would at least look. SFBG
Lettüs Café Organic
Mon.–Fri., 7:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m.; Sat.–Sun., 8 a.m.–10:30 p.m.
3352 Steiner, SF
Beer and wine