Decor provides the wit, food brings the cheer -- this Asian spot near Park Presidio is worth seeking out
DINE It's a competitive era in restaurant light fixtures, and this must be in part because light fixtures are one of the few levers designers can push to create a flourish. As with men's clothing (blue suit, gray suit, white shirt, blue shirt, brown shoes, black shoes?), restaurant design is largely a function of restraints and requirements, with few chances to have a bit of fun. Light fixtures, like neckties, offer a chance to add some pizzazz and style while also being useful.
Of all the amusing and witty light fixtures I've seen in the past few years, none compare with those at Morph, a pan-Asian spot that opened about a year ago in the outer Richmond. Dangling from long cords under a high ceiling is a line of what look a lot like iPhones, each with a glowing screen that displays a skeletal image of ... a light bulb.
The restaurant's other design cues are similarly up-to-date and clever (Chef/owner, Thiti Tanrapan, is also an architect). High on the rear wall hang several flat panels displaying electronic art, along with an innovative calendar that gives the exact date and time, down to the second, in shifting red words. Other walls are lined with patterns of wafer-like tiles that resemble bits of a Roman ruin reimagined as computer animation. There is an elegant chill to this look, as to a well-made martini; it's fun without quite being friendly.
Luckily, the food provides considerable cheer. The menu seems to have accepted suggestions from wide swaths of east and south Asia, but its heart lies somewhere along the Bay of Bengal. To emphasize this point, a pair of lovely coconut-milk curries, yellow and green, pop up here and there, in full-fledge main dishes (with salmon, chicken, and tofu) and as dipping sauces for paratha ($6). The yellow is the sweeter and milder-tempered of the two, while the green packs more of a salty heat kick.
Hand rolls are something you often see in sushi bars, but here ($7 for three) the colorful cones (of soy sheets, pink, yellow, and green) enclose cubes of pork, along with beets, carrots, lettuce, mint, egg, and tamarind sauce. They're like reinvented spring rolls.
Although I've long maintained that lobster is overrated and crab gives better value (and might even be preferable), I think soft-shell crab is as overrated in its way as lobster. And it isn't local, being mainly a product of the Atlantic and gulf coasts. Still, it can be good, especially when, as here ($10), it was given a tempura batter and deep-fried so that, like a french fry, it was golden-crisp on the outside and meltingly tender within. The accompanying salad turned out to be far livelier than it appeared at first glance; beneath a bale of spring mix, we found a colorful trove of cashews, avocado chunks, and a dice of mango and red beets with a spicy vinaigrette. I wished that a little more of that vinaigrette had penetrated to this complex substratum.
A salad called 2-NA ($10) — a vanity license plate name — brought together slats of yellowfin and albacore tuna and arranged them into a disk, like a napoleon except with lateral rather than vertical layers. Eating it was a little like peeling a flattened onion. The dish's most distinctive supplementary flavor came from rice powder, though there was also fresh mint and a lemon dressing.
Among the larger dishes, one we found especially arresting was the crispy fried rainbow trout ($16), a whole fish split open, lightly crusted, and filled like a piñata with scallops, prawns, and calamari. I hadn't eaten anything like this since working my way through a plate of acqua pazza at the Beverly Hills Spago at least a decade ago. Morph's version was far tastier at a fraction of the price. A whole fish often presents a small-bone problem, but here we turned up just a few splinters. To one side of the fish sat a puck of coconut-fried rice, while underneath it lay a heap of baby spinach leaves dressed with a lime vinaigrette.
The dessert menu is less distinctive, though a construction like hazelnut mousse ($6) sandwiched between rounds of chocolate sponge cake didn't need to be a novelty to be satisfying. And, in a subtle way, struck me as a near relation, of tiramisù, the alcoholic Italian warhorse. There was no detectable alcohol in either the mousse or the sponge cake, and the dessert was the better for it.
Morph sits in the middle of a busy, cluttered block of Geary Street just west of Park Presidio, which means you might have to do some light searching for it. But once inside, you can safely set your watch.
Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.
Lunch: Fri.–Sun., 11:30 a.m.–4 p.m.
5344 Geary, SF
Beer and wine
Can get noisy