Eat global, meet locals
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Someone says the word global and quick! what's the first association that occurs to you? Warming? Expect a congratulatory phone call from Al Gore. I like Gore and wish he'd managed to become president, but he won't be calling me, because I would shout out knives! in response to global. Global knives, beloved of sushi chefs, are those ultrasharp Japanese knives made from ceramic material.
There's no sushi on the menu at Café Andrée, though executive chef Evan Crandall describes his new menu as global. On the other hand, there is tempura but I am getting ahead of myself. The restaurant might deal in a world's worth of food, but its aesthetic tone is low-key Euro; it looks like a bistro that's somehow been engulfed by a London men's club. (Actually, it's part of the Hotel Rex, a Joie de Vivre concern.) An entire wall is given over to a set of framed drawings that amount to a kind of study, while atop a tall wooden breakfront at the rear of a dining room perches a globe. There is a reddish bordello glow to the small space that faintly insinuates we're not seeing the whole picture; does the breakfront peel away to reveal a secret staircase?
An issue haunting the diner in any hotel restaurant is the suspicion that the surrounding tables are filled with travelers, tourists, and other itinerants, people too tired, busy, or anxious to get out there and see the city and mingle with the locals. These people prize convenience and often have the expense account funds to pay for it, and hotel restaurants are generally obliging on both counts. On the other hand, more than a few hotel restaurants are worthy in their own right; some of San Francisco's best restaurants are to be found in hotels. The question, then, is whether Café Andrée is a nicely tricked-out expense account joint or a bona fide interesting restaurant or, possibly, both.
The prices, certainly, are worthy of the Union Square neighborhood. Many first courses cost well into the teens, while main courses cluster in the mid- to upper 20s. For those kind of bucks, we expect some serious bang, and lo! Café Andrée delivers it. Crandall's food is simply splendid: innovative but not sloppy or overwrought, carefully plated, and attentively served. By the time you've finished, you really don't care anymore whether the people at the next table are from Tulsa or Aberdeen or Mint Hill, and from the satisfied looks on their faces, they don't care where you're from either.
Let's start with some bread, slices of sweet baguette, still warm and presented with a tray of butter and salt granules in their respective chambers. I liked the flexibility here, though the butter was too chilled to handle gracefully. It would have been clever to use the bread to mop up some soup or sauce instead of trying to spread it with uncooperative butter, but the soup we'd had our eye on, a Cajun crab chowder, had sold out. Apparently the pent-up demand for crab around here is considerable. So, no sopping.
I could not regard a roasted beet salad ($10) as proper restitution, even if enlivened with a Mediterranean mélange of fennel shavings, toasted pine nuts, and a vinaigrette lumpy with goat cheese, but the beet connoisseur loved it. And halfway around the world we went the other way for crab, not in chowder but in a panfried cake ($14), with shrimp: a single entity looking like a gilded Easter egg, riding on a magic carpet of Thai cucumber salad (thin pickled slices, perfumed with Kaffir lime essence), with a sweep of red curry aioli arcing across the plate as if from a painter's brush.
A fillet of black cod ($25) was coated with a caramelized persimmon glaze, and while I'm not wild about persimmons, I liked the glaze. It flattered the fish the way the right clothes can help somebody skinny look more substantial. The bed of lacinato kale and maitake mushrooms was both visually interesting and tasty, but the most arresting characters on the plate were the pair of butternut squash tempura, tabs of orange flesh battered and flash-fried. "They're sweet!" cried my tablemate, a noted dessert maven, but they weren't that sweet and also retained a savory richness.
And speaking of savory richness: we come now to the mushroom ravioli ($22), the free-form kind, like a trio of round sandwiches built with disks of spinach pasta and filled with a dice of sautéed wild mushrooms lifted to the sublime by the earthy breath of black truffles and an impressive, buttery wash of what the menu card calls "mushroom consommé." Here at last we had a liquid worthy of being sopped up with the fine bread, but the fine bread was long gone by then.
Bread pudding is an exercise in both frugality and expansiveness, so why not make one tres lechesstyle ($8), with an angel foodlike cake soaked in various forms of milk? For additional interest, sauce it with dulce de leche (sugar caramelized in milk) and toss a few tapioca pearls in there. The result was sweet but not cloying, substantial but not heavy, and wet but not soggy. Our knives went right through it, and they weren't even Globals. *
Breakfast: Mon.Fri., 710:30 a.m. Brunch: Sat.Sun., 7:30 a.m.1:30 p.m. Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11:30 a.m.2 p.m. Dinner: Mon.Thurs. and Sun., 5:3010 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 5:3010:30 p.m.
Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter, SF
Beer and wine