Eating out more and enjoying it less, facing too many near-identical exorbitant California-Mediterranean-Asian menus, too many culinary palaces where the decor outshone the food, I'd started to wonder -- was my palate growing flaccid, or were the flavors merely pallid? The question was answered by a couple of meals at Alta Plaza, where a few weeks ago, Amey Shaw, the executive chef for the last four years, became a part-owner.
Shaw emerged like a culinary whirlwind in the summer of '86, when she followed Mark Miller as chef at Berkeley's near-legendary Fourth Street Grill. Arriving from the Claremont's Cal-classic hotel kitchen, she finally had an arena where she could let 'er rip, and she immediately stamped her own image on the Grill with an audacious series of "Chino-Latino" weekend dinners. The term originated in Manhattan, where Chinese-ethnic Cuban fare was enjoying a momentary vogue. Making no attempt to replicate that cuisine, Shaw cooked her own piquant fantasies of what Chino-Latino ought to be -- wild, spicy inventions like deep-fried "Oaxaca Wontons" and "Hot and Sour Roasted Tomatillo-Chile Soup." Even today, I remember her fruity-fiery mole sauce -- but also her weeknight seafood risotto, wherein the power punch came from fresh basil rather than hot chile.
Shaw's odyssey then traversed several other now-vanished eateries -- most notably Bentley's, where she turned out some sublimely spicy Louisiana-style seafood along with tamer (but very tasty) fish dishes. In October 1994, she landed at Alta Plaza. Under her leadership, the restaurant has won a fervent neighborhood following, even if it remains something of a secret to the city at large.
Failing at first to spot the restaurant door some 30 feet uphill on Fillmore, TJ and I entered through the bar, where a live jazz combo plays on weeknights to a spirited young post-work crowd of various genders. The several small dining rooms are layered along a short flight of stairs, with the jazz remaining audible but the chatter growing muted and the crowd growing a little older and gayer as you ascend. Our moods brightened when, along with hot sourdough rolls and warm butter, a server brought iced lemon-water without our even having to ask, much less fight off the usual nudges toward pricey San Pellegrino. The menu, we found, is printed daily, with nine appetizers and nine main courses changing slightly to reflect the day's (and the season's) best available produce and seafood. "I start out talking with George, my man from Summer Fog Farms out in the Richmond District -- we get all our produce from there, it's all organic and marvelous-tasting," Shaw told me, pausing to chat during one of her regular strolls through the dining room. "Today, George told me he'd just harvested sorrel -- a great match for lamb -- so I decided to do the lamb chops with a sorrel sauce. Eventually I hope to use only naturally raised meats and poultry, too -- the flavor is so much better."
We began with some sweet little Wellfleet oysters ($1.90 each) accompanied by a champagne-black pepper mignonette that was light and tangy, rather than overwhelmingly tart -- the first good mignonette I've had in a year or so. Meanwhile, I sipped a splurgy glass of the "featured wine," the big-legged, tropical-flowery 1996 Solitude chardonnay ($9) from Napa's Sangiacomo Vineyard. Ten other wines are available by the glass ($5-10) from a multipage all-California list, with bottles ranging from the low 20s to 10 times that for rare vintages.
At the first bite of white corn salad ($7.25), the movie switched to Technicolor. Elaborating the classic Tex-Mex elotes (corn with lime and chile powder), Shaw played off the sugariness of a modern "supersweet" variety by bathing the kernels in a lime vinaigrette blended with mild ancho chile and torn basil leaves, adding a tingle of fire with strips of roasted pasillas, furnishing puffs of calm with bits of feta and crunch from fried tortilla strips, and then a reprise of sweet-and-tart with ripe toybox tomatoes. "Ah, Amey still cooks like Amey -- such big, bright, exuberant flavors!" I said with relief.
Meanwhile, a generous cylinder of yellowfin tuna tartare ($9) exhibited a subtler piquancy, turning sashimi into a song and dance act. Under a scattering of crunchy black nori strips and black sesame seeds, cubes of superb deep red tuna topped julienned carrot and cucumber, lightly "pickled" in mirin, a sweet Japanese rice wine. Alongside were squiggles of wasabi to add to taste, and sliced jicama and cucumber as palate-cleansers.
After Shaw's mention of the lamb, I had to try it: Double-cut Atkins Ranch rib chops ($22.50) marinated in olive oil and a host of spices (including juniper berries and coriander seed) were grilled crusty on the surface and rare (as ordered) inside. They were so tender, so bursting with juice and flavor, I actually groaned out loud at the first bite, barely restraining myself from going the whole Meg Ryan -- the chops ranked with my lifetime top three lamb dishes.
The pureed sorrel sauce was deliciously sour and fresh, while two fresh black figs, stuffed with ground walnuts, lent a sweet alternation, along with a salty-sweet daub of tomato tapenade. (I pretty much ignored their bland plate-buddy, a heap of Israeli couscous.) Liver-lover TJ zoomed in on the Bradley Ranch organic calf liver ($14.75), a big hunk grilled fast enough to char the outside while leaving the interior rosy and melty in the middle. If you like liver, it was great liver. With it was a sweet-smoky onion confit mixed with diced applewood-smoked bacon and a splash of Jack Daniel's reduced to a caramel. "It's delicious," said TJ. "There's no alcohol, just flavor -- it tastes like a whiskey drum." Accompanying were leaves of exquisitely young spinach and a pile of diced fried Yukon gold potatoes mirroring the meat's crisp-moist textures.
We concluded with pastry chef Alicia Costelloe's dessert sampler ($10) -- a combination of cookies, candies, sorbet, and a small ramekin of chocolate pot de creme (the suave French model that gave birth to America's gross packaged chocolate puddings). The pudding was subtle and quiet, the mango sorbet (cupped in a fragile, tulip-shaped cookie shell) was shiveringly intense, and most other items featured milk chocolate, which I confess I don't care for.
Our second visit, at the height of last week's heat wave, wasn't quite as fantastic: Shaw had the evening off, the toilers in the small, hot kitchen were exhausted, and as much as they didn't want to cook, we didn't want to eat. Our Caesar salad ($8) was off-balance that night, with a sharp, mustardy undertone, too much Parmesan, and slightly tough romaine from the middle layer of leaves.
However, falling-off-the-bone teriyaki-roasted lamb riblets ($7) were complemented by the sweet, winy caramel undertones in the dark sauce, a honey-mustard dip, and a few bold leaves of braised escarole. Main courses, too, were evenly split. The roasted duck "ravioli" ($16) had a single large sheet of firm basil-spiked pasta draped over a brothy melange of skinless duck, golden chanterelle mushrooms, lightly cooked tomatoes, and greenery. Aside from the irresistible chanterelles, the combination reminded me too much of my own "creative" ploys to use up leftover duck. Whether it was the weather or the concept, it lacked some indefinable zest -- and definably lacked salt.
So did the evening's gulf prawn risotto ($18), but a shot from the shaker on the table brought it to life as an interestingly weird cross-cultural farrago, with powerfully pungent Moroccan-style preserved lemon mingling with Italianate rice, pine nuts, escarole, and shallots. We concluded our heat-wave meal with a homey, lovable fresh pineapple upside-down cake with coconut ice cream ($6).
There was nothing cheap in any of the ingredients, nothing shoddy in the cooking, and prices were almost shockingly moderate given the quality, not to mention the dramatic intensity of the flavor combinations. "You know, you told me that Alta Plaza has all these devoted 'regulars' who keep coming back over and over," said TJ. "I can see why. It's the food.