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Middle East–ward the course of empire takes its way these days — a sorrowful and futile operation that does at least confer onto some of us the benefit of being able to look the other way without feeling quite the same pangs of dread. At the edge of the city, the rays of the westering sun glint on the churning waters of the Pacific, most eminent of gray eminences, and if the Pacific has now become mare nostrum, as strongly implied by the president's recent creation of a "national monument" along a sprinkling of lonely islands halfway to Japan, it also seems quite ... pacific, at least as considered through the soaring windows of the refurbished and expanded Cliff House by people who have decided to enjoy the view and their dinner and forget about the wacky North Koreans and their missiles for a while.
The Cliff House has stood since the Civil War at what is, more or less, the city's westernmost point, a rocky promontory wearing slippers of sea foam. The building has been rebuilt and tinkered with several times over the years, but the most recent redo (completed in 2004) is perhaps the most aesthetically radical; its major feature is the Sutro Wing, an addition to the north side of the original building and the home of Sutro's, grandest of the Cliff House's restaurants. The most striking physical aspect of Sutro's is its vertical spaciousness, the multistory vault of air that opens over the dining room floor. There are also shiplike railings and other maritime details, while the room's western and northern walls consist largely of glass, lightly clad with louvered blinds that can be adjusted to manage the sunlight. For there are those magical moments, yes, when the fog remains offshore, a line at the horizon like a threatening but for the moment thwarted army, and the summer sun actually shines at the coast, long into evening.
Opinion divided at our table (in the dining room's northwest corner and commanding vistas in two directions) as to whether the basic look was more Miami or Malibu. I thought the latter, but my sense might have been affected by glancing at chef Patrick Clark's menu, which is a California-cuisine document ("California coastal" seems to be the house term) in both its around-the-world-in-80-days mélange of influences and its emphasis on local, seasonal, organic, and sustainable ingredients, the now-familiar mantra that until recently wasn't much chanted at the Cliff House.
The latter makes the place worthy of serious consideration by locals, while the former is a kind of culinary broadband for tourists, the offering of a little something for every taste. How about Southern? Clark sets out a fine gumbo ($10.75), a thick, smoky-brown broth studded with bits of full-throated andouille sausage and lapping a lone Dungeness crab fritter that resembles a giant gold nugget. For those not in a bayou mood, there is a decent papaya-shrimp salad ($11.75) or perhaps a plate of falafel ($18.75) with warm pita triangles, tahini sauce, and tzatziki (with cucumber chunks instead of the more usual gratings). I love falafel, but it can get pretty ordinary, indifferent preparation resulting in hardened projectiles suitable for loading into muskets. Clark's falafel, on the other hand, is a world removed from musketry, consisting of a set of delicately crusted spheres that seem light enough to float into the ether overhead.
Back on planet Earth, a kurobuta pork shank ($26.75) struck me as caveman food: a fist-size club of bone and glazed meat — magnificently tender, it must be said, if enough to satisfy two consequential appetites — served with shreds of braised cabbage, applesauce, and a lovely squash risotto. A soup of asparagus and corn ($8.50), elegantly puréed and drizzled with chili oil, was like the passing of the seasonal torch from spring to summer and clearly a pitch to local sensibility, which possibly was stunned by the giant porcine shank. And one of Clark's most successful cross-cultural innovations must be his Thai-style bouillabaisse ($26.95), a collection of clams, scallops, large prawns, and large pieces of Dungeness crab still in the shell — all this looks like a seafood junkyard — swimming in a coconut–red curry broth that replaces, rather spectacularly, the traditional fumet (an herb- and saffron-infused seafood stock) and provides a blast of chili heat one does not typically associate with tourist spots.
Given the scale of the portions — of course I am thinking of the lethal-weapon shank, but nothing else is small either, just as at Starbucks the smallest size is "medium" — dessert is for the hardy few. I did enjoy my stolen samples of banana cheesecake ($9), though the roasted banana was tough. Aficionados of postprandial liqueurs, on the other hand, won't be disappointed; the wealth of possibilities here includes the usual cognacs and ports but also several Armagnacs, beginning with an entry-level pour at an affordable $9. The cordial was of a caramel color deeper than the typical cognac's and of a surprising, rustic fieriness reminiscent of, but distinct from, that of Calvados.
I do have a few complaints. The sun, if any, can be nearly blinding at certain times of the day. The noise level is at the high end of acceptable, in part because of a live jazz quartet that sometimes plays in the lounge on the mezzanine. And the service, while friendly and knowledgeable, can be a little sluggish if the restaurant is full, as it often seems to be. Tourists or locals? Both, no doubt. SFBG
Lunch: Mon.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.–3 p.m.
Dinner: nightly, 5–9:30 p.m.
1090 Point Lobos, SF