An array of intriguing small plates from around the world -- but the riff is match, not mix
DINE You walk into a restaurant that offers "global tapas," and you see a sushi chef standing behind a sushi bar, like an extra player who's been thrown into some mammoth baseball trade to sweeten the deal, a utility infielder or the fabled "player to be named later." Apart from this apparent anomaly, the restaurant is good-looking, with a long screen of dark wooden louvers to separate the bar from the dining room, halogen lamps like dangling stars, and plenty of green paint. The place is called Art/S, and the worst criticism that can be made of the physical layout is that the large front windows are filled with Lombard Street traffic.
A few years ago, an excellent restaurant called Sangha, in the Glen Park Village, offered a menu that mingled nuevo Latino and Japanese elements with surprising success (although it didn't save it from closing late last spring). Still, the Sangha run suggested that Japanese cuisine was not necessarily insular and could sometimes be mixed and matched with other cuisines.
At Art/S, the riff is match, not mix. There is no overt cross-cultural pollination; the two-sided menu card offers a California hodgepodge, with Iberian and Mexican touches, on its front face, while the Japanese items are to be found on the other side. The twain do not meet. Over the head of the sushi chef is a long chalkboard — a kind of scoreboard for the food-involved — listing delicacies such as paella negra (made with squid-ink rice), but he can't see it.
Paella is one of the few full-sized plates. Most of the dishes are smaller, though large enough to be shareable, and they range in tone from classic bar food to exercises in sophistication that would play well in the temples of haute cuisine downtown. We were especially impressed, in the latter vein, by the yellowtail crudo ($9), which arranged flaps of fish in the shallow wells of a long, narrow porcelain tray, thatched them with shredded radish and slices of jalapeño pepper, and gently doused them with a tart truffle ponzu sauce.
The bar-food angle is well-served by such shamelessly fatty crowd-pleasers as cheese croquette ($9), a blend of white cheddar and mozzarella cheeses like molten lava in a crust of fried breading and served with a ramekin of balsamic vinaigrette, as dark and viscous as used motor oil and quite tasty, though superfluous. Another small plate with similar visceral appeal is the Cali chili-fried potato ($5), spears of Yukon Gold sprinkled with chili flakes and presented with an addictive caesar aioli.
The Iberian-tinged dishes, interestingly, caused some division of opinion. The pintxos chorizo ($7) sounded Spanish, even Basque ("pintxos" is the Basque equivalent of "tapas"), but the chorizo lengths in question were Mexican, made from fresh pork, with plenty of garlic and chile. (Spanish chorizo is air-cured, like prosciutto, and typically seasoned with smoked paprika.) Atop each sausage cylinder, a tab of sweet potato had been fastened with a toothpick, and I wasn't sure why. The tabs were as pale as Monterey Jack cheese and didn't add much flavor or texture — not that Mexican chorizo needs help in the flavor department.
The Galicia octopus ($9), an earthenware crock filled with octopus and potato chunks in a spicy dark tomato-based sauce, also left a hung jury. The sauce had the faintly bitter bite of smoked paprika, which perhaps is an acquired taste, and I long ago acquired it; I thought it made a handsome contrast with the faint sweetness of the octopus. Others disagreed. Further objections were raised (rather spuriously, I thought) against the potatoes. They weren't exactly necessary, but they did add some ballast to the dish. On the other hand, everyone like the spiced chicken tacos ($6 for two), which were made with proper corn tortillas and enlivened with blue cheese.
Fish: several varieties are offered as "sizzling" plates, among them an excellent mahi-mahi filet ($10), dense, meaty, and juicy atop a jumble of bean sprouts, green peas, yellow zucchini, goji berries, and Meyer lemon in a garlic sauce. For unsizzling, flip the menu card and find an extensive list of nigiri, sashimi, and rolls, including spicy tuna — the "ultimate" ($7.50) — and Cancun ($9), with smoked albacore, roasted jalapeño peppers, avocado, and spicy radish. The Cancun struck me as a Californication (a quite nice one, though), while the former strongly appealed to a member of our party who'd never eaten a sushi-style dish before: an already small world growing a little smaller.
ART/S GLOBAL TAPAS
Dinner: Sun.–Wed., 5:30-10 p.m.; Thurs.–Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.
2353 Lombard, SF