Lighting a candle to the new jazz club's intimate vibe and Cal-Ital menu
Coda is just the sort of stylish urban vault where you'd expect to find votive candles flickering on every table, but you don't. It's the visual equivalent of a promising dish that's lacking a final dash of some seasoning. The space has the look of a sound stage exposed-brick walls, concrete floors, a large dining area uncluttered by pillars and while there is something exciting about the vastness, vast spaces also fill up easily with darkness. And while darkness can be exciting and even beautiful, it's more beautiful when punctuated and shaped by light.
The Coda space was home most recently to Levende Lounge which looked pretty much the same and before that, Butterfly, whose layout was different and whose tables were each finished with a candle, so that, on entering, you gazed upon a flickering sea of candlelight. Candlelight is wonderfully softening, like a dab of foamed milk atop a demitasse of strong, dark espresso. Shafts of red halogen light, such as shine on one of Coda's brick walls, are arresting but don't cast the same limbic spell.
Onward. The space is comfortable enough without candles. The tables, in particular, are nicely spaced, with plenty of breathing room between them. This gives an appealing sense of insulation from other tables and the conversations going on at them (nota bene, eavesdroppers). The overall noise level is also surprisingly moderate, at least when live music isn't being played. But Coda, in addition to being a good restaurant, is also a live-music venue, with performances every night of the week, beginning at 9 p.m. weekday evenings, 10 p.m. Saturdays, and 8 p.m. Sundays. If it's just food you seek, plan accordingly.
Simple seekers after food won't be disappointed. Coda's menu has been put together by Chris Pastena, who is one of the local masters of Cal-Ital cooking and had a hand in the revival of Bruno's a few years back. Pastena's Coda menu divides its offerings according to their nature rather than along the formal lines of a dinner service, so instead of first, main, and side courses, you have soups and salads, starches and grains, vegetables, and flesh. This sort of arrangement is conducive to nibbling; it also helps gently remind us that we should mind our starch intake.
Having said that, I must say that one of the best items on the menu, pastena in brodo ($6.25), smuggles starch to the table under cover of soup. Pastena, in addition to being the chef's surname, is a small, star-shaped pasta, and it is usually spelled "pastina" but that would wreck the joke. The pasta is a bit player, anyway, since the real star is the golden brodo, chicken broth stoutly fortified with truffle oil and grated parmesan cheese. The broth could have stood alone, like a brilliant (or consummate) consommé.
As a loather of brussels sprouts in childhood, I am perhaps perversely drawn to them now. They are a real test of vegetable cookery: can the bitterness be drawn away and the texture softened without losing the essential character of the vegetable? Coda's kitchen makes a lovely salad out of the little cabbages; they are coarsely shredded, dressed with a vinaigrette of sherry and toasted garlic, tossed with bacon and goat cheese, and topped with a poached egg. I didn't like the egg, which introduced a gooiness I found unsettling, but the rest was fabulous. You could easily re-spin these flavors into a fine pizza.
Another potentially difficult member of the cruciferous family, cavolo nero, or black kale ($4) is simply braised here (in what? we couldn't tell, but maybe just olive oil) to a tender crispness that reminded me of the flash-fried arugula leaves I had years ago at Abiquiu near Union Square. The bane of kale cookery is toughness, so if your kale turns out tender as here you have succeeded.The lone small dish we found underpowered was a bowl of Israeli couscous ($4.25) tossed with what appeared to be mainly a dice of carrots and zucchini. It lacked a unifying flavor or theme and would probably work best as a side dish to one of the formidable plates of flesh, say.
Among the most interesting of these was the coffee-crusted pork loin ($16): four slices of medium-rare meat bathing in a shallow pool of (Jameson) whiskey-cream sauce. The coffee rub and cream sauce combined to produce a latte effect beguiling in its own right and also a welcome change from the usual cliched accompaniments of apples, cherries, and so forth. Less impressive, though still quite good, was a grilled ribeye steak ($24.50), nestled on a mat of watercress. The meat had a good smoky flavor and was nicely rare, but it was a little fattier than ideal.
Of an ideal fattiness was the honey-lavender panna cotta, like a tasty, creamy cloud that had been captured in a martini glass. At $5.50, it has to be the best buy on the dessert menu. And a deal is always music to some ears.
Dinner: Tues.Sun., 5:30-10 p.m.
1710 Mission, SF
(415) 551-CODA (2632)