Pres A Vi
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As a fellow traveler of the Luddites, I am obliged to treat the phrase "digital arts" as in the Letterman Digital Arts Center, in the Presidio with some skepticism. Of course I have a cell phone and a computer, a pair of digital apparatuses, and I do regard them as essential to life as we know it as essential tools. Tools are servants, and although they are not devoid of value, their value is in their usefulness. Whatever value art has, it isn't usefulness.
"Digital arts" might be considered an oxymoron in some quarters. The classic example of an oxymoron Herb Caen's phrase was "self-canceling phrase" is "military intelligence." On the slightly more ornate side, we now have "Operation Iraqi Freedom." Interestingly, the word oxymoron includes the word moron. As for digital arts: I have an impression of busy-bee activity in the PixarToy Story school, the use of computers to make more vivid monsters or car crashes or intergalactic Armageddon or other of those visual splendors from which, with the atrophy of plot and character, so much of contemporary cinema is constructed.
But ... I might as well be trying to rescue the word hopefully, and that would be a waste of time, especially since there is, in one of the LDA buildings, a brand-new and fabulous restaurant and wine bar, Pres a Vi, that cries out to be described. The restaurant occupies a long, L-shaped space on the ground level of Building D (an unfortunate designation more appropriate to a prison). Part of Pres a Vi's ceiling consists of wine-barrel ribs, giving one the sense of looking up at a segment of the world's longest reinforced straw, while its eastern wall consists almost entirely of window glass. Through the dinnertime panes glows the pink specter of the Palace of Fine Arts, afloat on evening's ink as if in a dream, and proof that not all great views in this city must involve bay or bridge.
Chef Kelly Degala's menu is "global" and is oriented toward smaller plates, and the question presented is whether this diversity is polymathic or dilettantish. I incline toward the first view, since almost all the dishes are rendered with style and verve. But you can order yourself into incoherence, no question, and the little plates from around the world can start piling up as if at some buffet at an Intercontinental hotel: ravioli here, lumpia there, a hit of Thai papaya salad, some potatoes roasted Spanish-style.
If Degala is a culinary globalist, his heart is clearly in the Pacific. He has spent a lot of time in Hawaii, and his cooking reflects the islands' mix of tropical and Asian influences. He is also attentive to Filipino cuisine, which doesn't get much attention in the Bay Area despite a large Filipino population. His lumpia ($10 for four bite-size pieces) are exemplary: rolled cilantro crepes (somewhere between taquitos and flautas in size, and not much cilantro flavor, in case you are passionate either way) filled with rock shrimp and served with a spicy peanut dressing. He also offers a version of another Filipino dish, prawn adobo ($12), with the peeled shrimp braised in a slightly sweet soy-vinegar bath and presented on a pad of electrifyingly tasty fried jasmine rice.
Europhiles will not starve. A set of ravioli ($12), like sand dollars, are filled with duck meat and goat cheese before being gently inundated with an earthy (and gorgeously smooth with a smoothness only butter can provide) wild-mushroom sauce. The kitchen had run out of croquettes on one visit, so we jumped to plan B: jo-jos ($6), a good-size bowl of Kennebec potato wedges roasted with shreds of Serrano ham and topped with romesco, which looked like melted Velveeta (for a potato-nachos effect) and carried a slightly-too-harsh charge of smoked paprika.
Degala even manages a nod in the direction of California whimsy. How about a club sandwich ($13) on brioche, with Dungeness crab salad instead of roast turkey? (And plenty of crisp bacon!) If it's not quite as fancy as Postrio's lobster version, it's at least as good. In a similar vein, there's an ahi tuna melt ($8), the cooked fish here mashed up with red bell pepper dice and bits of cornichon into a kind of salad.
A few of the dishes seem to hold dual citizenship. An example: lobster bisque ($4), rich and creamy, spiked with brandy, topped with crème fraîche and minced chives, and served in a tall shot glass, like a miniature cappuccino. French? New Englander? Excellent, certainly. No aura of vague cosmopolitanism, on the other hand, surrounds the duck buns ($12). Here we have a classic Chinese treat: shreds of poultry, slow-cooked to moist tenderness, set between halves of little steamed buns, like tiny duck burgers. Versions of this dish aren't hard to find on menus around town, but Degala's duck, moist and rich and with unmistakable five-spice breath, is superlative.
Although the restaurant opened shortly after Thanksgiving, service is already at a high level, with bread and water flowing liberally and the staff knowledgeable about specials and shortages. Timing from the kitchen can be a little erratic, though, and this matters more than it might at some other place because dinners tend to be improvised arabesques rather than the more usual first coursemain coursedessert ballet. You can never be quite sure which dish will show up next, but that's not such a high price to pay when it could be coming from any place in the world. *
PRES A VI
Mon.Thurs. and Sun., 11:30 a.m.9 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 11:30 a.m.10 p.m.
1 Letterman Dr., Bldg. D, Ste. 150, SF