Hidden beneath the new Academy of Sciences building, this California culinary oasis offers simplicity and sophistication
The basement restaurant is an odd duck odder still if the basement is in a museum in a relatively remote park. Yes, my 16-ton hints do pertain to the Moss Room, the venture orchestrated by Loretta Keller and Charles Phan that opened last fall in a subterranean sector of the new Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park.
A word, if I may, about that building, which faces its nemesis, the DeYoung Museum, across the concourse the way Minas Tirith faced Minas Morgul in The Lord of the Rings: one fair, the other sordid. The Academy of Sciences building is, for me, the far superior design because it subtly but unmistakably refers to its predecessor and because, with its expanses of glass and filaments of steel, it sits in its sylvan setting far more lightly. It does not imperially impose itself on its surroundings. Also, it has the Moss Room.
Strange to say, but the restaurants the Moss Room most resembles are both downtown, where the Academy should have been moved. One is Shanghai 1930, a similarly elegant basement, like a lavish bunker. The other is Bix, above ground but with underwaterish light and a bold staircase. At Bix, the staircase rises to a mezzanine; at the Moss Room, it descends from a cafeteria to the subterranean sanctum and adjoins a channel-like aquarium and a wall garden.
These design details suggest the restaurant's commitment to sustainability, and as weary as sometimes one grows in using that word, it's probably worth repeating with respect to a place that is inside a science museum in the middle of a large urban park. If any restaurant should be attentive to food's ecological dimension, it should be the Moss Room. And it is, with the passion extending all the way to the wine list, which is organized under the rubrics "organic," "biodynamic," and "sustainable."
The Moss Room's look doesn't suggest its kinship to Keller's other restaurants, Bizou and Coco500. The former was like the best restaurant in a quaint Provençal town, while the latter offers a slightly deracinated spareness meant to appeal to urban youth. The food, though, is another matter. Keller has long been a leading exponent of a cooking style I associate closely with Zuni Café: the cuisine of Italy and the south of France, fluffed and freshened. We could call this style "rustic" or "lusty," to use two clichés much favored in a certain cliché-choked competing venue but let's not. How about "lustic"? Or perhaps "lustique"?
Because the Moss Room, despite being below the water line, is a more elegant venue than either Bizou or Coco500 a carpeted hush, dim lighting, high ceilings, the zen spectacle of drifting aquarium fish and herbs growing from the wall above them there is a certain tension about the food. Should it be elegant or lustic? Can it be both? When you try to be both, you risk being neither.
The small plates reflect a certain restlessness. They range from a humble plate of hummus and pita bread ($10) glistening like naan embellished with roasted red-pepper and manouri cheese, to the more elaborate batter-fried squash blossoms ($9) zipped up with goat cheese, mint, and roasted-garlic aioli.
A bowl of corn chowder ($8) did strike me as quite Kelleresque. The corn came from Brentwood, and the chowder was made with chicken and shrimp stocks, along with bits of bacon for deeper flavor. Summer corn is famously sweet, of course, and shrimp stock can intensify this effect. So can under-salting. Luckily, fate provided us a small bowl of sea salt.
Equally Kelleresque was a bowl of squid-ink spaghetti ($12) tossed with a meaty mix of squid and sun-dried tomatoes sharpened with chili flakes and what the menu called "herbs." This dish was visually striking, with the zinfandel-colored strings of pasta looking like a clump of kelp, and its flavors glowed with a steady dark heat.
I caught a milder wave of the same effect with the local albacore ($26), a pair of seared chunks looking like roulades embedded on a textured carpet of roasted eggplant shreds and tomato quarters, with a pale green purée of summer squash piped around the perimeter. Albacore is wildly underrated and is worth searching out.
As for salmon: I like it but don't love it, and when our server explained that the wild Alaskan version ($23) consisted not of a filet but of flaked flesh tossed with English-pea cavatelli and a north African blend of radish, mint, and preserved lemon, I silently cheered. Salmon can be overbearing and rich, but here the kitchen induced it to cooperate with its platemates.
Speaking of platemates: Greg's cookie plate ($9) offers a petit-fours-like array of tiny treats. It's ideal for sharing, and you get lots of bites with not much heft. For the heft-minded: a roasted-peach tart ($9), accompanied by a lump of crème fraîche custard and grainy peach sorbet. Close your eyes and think of the Stairmaster.
•<\!s>Le boo-boo: In a recent piece about Bistro St. Germain (July 22) I described Paris' Faubourg St. Germain as being on the Right Bank of the Seine. Well, no, it's actually on the Left Bank. *
THE MOSS ROOM
Mon.Tues., 11 a.m.2:30 p.m.;
Wed.Sun., 11 a.m.10 p.m.
55 Music Concourse (in the California Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park), SF
Wine and beer