A wealth of possible combinations and sophisticated treatments
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It was déjà vu all over again when we stepped into Bistro 9 on a mild October evening.
"So when did you take over from Park Chow?" I asked our server. There was no doubt in my mind that Bistro 9 was the successor to that long-running Inner Sunset sanctum of casual comfort food. The heated sidewalk loge, the long bar, the warmth of brick and wood, the garden in the rear it was all just as I remembered from my last visit to Park Chow. Bill Clinton was still president then, so this would have been sometime in the previous millennium, and memory does have its sell-by dates.
"Oh, Park Chow's still there," she said brightly. "It's just a few doors that way, toward Irving." She motioned, and I nodded, feeling the same confusion Captain Kirk must have felt in "The Mark of Gideon," when, unbeknownst to him, he was beamed onto a fake Enterprise. Later, after we'd paid and left, we strolled briefly along the block, just to make sure, and there indeed was Park Chow, with crowds milling outside and in. Heated loge set with tables at the sidewalk, warm yellow light pooling in the dim interior.
The sense of parallel universes is strong, then, if subtly skewed at points. The restaurants share a layout, look, and crowd young, UCSF-ish, collegiate and postcollegiate but they part company, congenially enough, in the matter of food. Park Chow tilts toward the Italian, whereas Bistro 9 (which opened late in the summer and is a sibling of the Citrus Club) finds its bliss farther east, in the methods and flavors of the Middle East. Here you will find kebab-style skewers to rival those at Asqew Grill along with moussaka, couscous, and zataar flat bread. And if these fragrant whiffs of Turkey, Morocco, and Arabia don't appeal, there are such standbys as pizza, burgers, rotisserie chicken or beef (from the splendid machine that stands at the heart of the exhibition kitchen), and even Provençal rack of lamb.
In this landscape of gastronomic peaks and valleys, there is a great deal of earthy satisfaction to be had in the folds of the second (although the rack of lamb is something of a deal at $19.50). Skewers are cookout food, party food but Bistro 9 offers them in a wealth of possible combinations and sophisticated treatments. There are cubes of souvlaki-style lamb (wonderfully garlicky marinade, slightly tough meat), chicken breast perfumed with mint and cumin, shrimp and scallops with bell peppers, and spicy summer sausage. The last looked benign enough, with a pale color suggestive of veal and a smooth texture that reminded my companion of hot dogs. (I like hot dogs; he, being from Germany, regards them as overprocessed and aberrant.) But spicy meant spicy, as in "nearly incendiary." We both liked that.
Skewer plates ($7.50 for one skewer, $10.50 for two, and so on) include, besides a bed of wonderfully plumped rice grains, a choice of side dishes. These were superior, except for tabbouleh, a cracked wheat salad that was fine but not memorable. Greek salad, on the other hand a jumble of tomato quarters, cucumber wedges, olives, onions, and feta cheese crumblings in a lemony vinaigrette carried an enchantment of fresh mint, while grilled artichokes had a lovely lemon breath and were surprisingly tender, if not quite in season. Grilled corn, late in what has been a fine season, was still summertime sweet and dripping with melted butter. And the macaroni and cheese (you can get it separately, for $5.50) was just stupendously good, best in show in a field that's grown quite impressive in the past few years. The kitchen uses cheddar, jack, and Gruyère, hardly an unknown combination in today's world of mac-and-cheese connoisseurship, but the result is a creaminess and intense depth of flavor that leaves one longing for more, even though the serving crock is not small.
The Bistro 9 burger ($8, plus another buck for cheese) is made from Niman Ranch beef, which manages to remain tasty and juicy even when slightly overcooked. I'd ordered mine medium rare, which maybe is such a common expression that it no longer registers in the awareness of busy servers. Medium well isn't ruinous for a burger, just faintly disappointing. A nice pillowy bun helped soften the letdown, as did a stack of fresh french fries, some with bits of skin still attached.
A word on the soups: try them. (All right, two words.) The signature soup is a hearty lentil ($4.50 for a cup), semipureed and sweetened by a raft of caramelized onions. A sometime offering is red bean with vegetable (also $4.50 for a cup), a full puree the color of tomato soup, decorated with pipings of crème fraîche and summoning the spirits of both minestrone and chili. It's like a blind date for soup that works out.
For dessert, how about a shameless wallow in the brownie sundae ($6.50), several scoops of ice cream plopped over warm, chocolate chipstudded brownies, with a heavy lacquering of hot fudge sauce? It's plenty for two and then some. The only issue is likely to be in agreeing on what kind of ice cream you want, since you get a choice. I demurred in the selection and heard, from across the table, chocolate being chosen. Chocolate ice cream with chocolate chocolate-chip brownies and chocolate sauce? And how about a tube of Clearasil on the side?
Still, we left happy. We even waved at the Park Chow people before slipping off into the night. *
Daily, 11 a.m.10 p.m.
1224 Ninth Ave., SF
Beer and wine
Comfortable noise level