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Irony Overload 

Attempted cleverness overwhelms the cocktails and food at Lime

Wednesday, Nov 24 2004
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Warm pink light spills onto the sidewalk from Lime, a self-described restaurant-lounge (I would reverse the order) that opened on Market Street in midsummer. The aggressively retro-moderne décor is all pink and blinding white and chrome -- not a whisper of lime green to be seen -- and there's only one mention of the citrus as an ingredient on the small-plates menu (kaffir lime oil with the beef tartare), so I guess the puckery name is a reference to the many limes squeezed for Lime's signature drinks, including Key lime martinis and Caipirinhas.

Or not. The place is drenched in irony, from its carefully selected, relentlessly eclectic, relentlessly loud DJ sets, wherein techno rubs shoulders with Dean Martin, to its trendy grazing menu, on which deviled eggs ("like mom made") share space with the aforementioned beef tartare (with Thai red curry, the kaffir lime oil, and sesame crackers, like Mom probably didn't make). Both those dishes wound up on our table, set into a cozy alcove just past the long white bar, on my first visit, with Peter and Anita. The five overstuffed eggs, on a slender rectangular plate dusted with chopped chives and smoked paprika (more of which should have found their way into the creamy yolks), came out swiftly from the kitchen, well-timed to consume with our drinks: too-tall, too-soda'd Mojitos (I learned that there is no compelling reason to flavor a Mojito with coconut; the classic version was much better) and a lovely spicy ginger martini, that night's drink special. The next two dishes to come were vegetables, both specials, ordered when we were told the kitchen was out of the zucchini frites we wanted: terrific Brussels sprouts with chunks of bacon and lots of garlic, and melting lumps of squash sweetened with maple syrup. They were both delicious, but I would have preferred to see them arrive on the table with the meat dishes (we'd also ordered beef short ribs in red wine sauce), to relieve the entrees', uh, meatiness. The tartare was tangy, the rich chunks of short ribs sided with crisp, nicely acidic cabbage slaw.

Instead we interspersed the meat with a bit of fish. Peter and Anita were inflamed by my tales of recent oyster bar orgies, so we were saddened to hear that oysters weren't available that night. But our server announced, midmeal, that the shellfish had indeed arrived. The small Kumamotos were noticeably inferior to the bivalves I had been supping on, but hey, they were still oysters, and since they came four to a $7 plate, we ended up ordering a second round. The "BBQ salmon" -- carefully cooked fish under a slick of sweet sauce and perched on a fresh corn-and-tomato relish -- reminded me that there's a real chef at Lime (Sharon Ardiana, the Web site tells me), but I couldn't help feeling that this environment was not the best showcase for her skills. For me, it was difficult not only to talk here (continual club problem: Do you pitch your voice under the din or over it? I detected both methods being tried within earshot of our table), but also to savor the food.

Early on in our evening, the booming bass nearly sent Anita out onto the sidewalk for a breath of fresh quiet, until the soundtrack miraculously switched to -- "Is that Cat Stevens?" I asked. "Yeah," Peter said, "being refused entry was a good career move." The kinder and gentler playlist enabled us to consider dessert: not the poundcake with peaches or the trio of pots de crème promised on the menu, alas (I was looking forward to the butterscotch version), but silly little lollipops made of cheesecake enrobed in dark and white chocolate and an adequate crème brûlée. We'd eaten some nice things, but having spent about $50 each (including tax, tip, three cocktails, and a $24 bottle of Firestone Gewürztraminer; the dishes, priced seemingly gently between $5 and $10 each, add up quickly, especially in the two to three plates per person that servers advise you to order), I was rather underwhelmed by the total experience.

As we walked out by the tricky lenticular tables placed opposite the bar at a narrow banquette, I noticed tiny TV monitors set just above the eating shelf of the sushi-style white marble bar. "Oh look," I said, "they're playing one of those aquarium videos." "Mer," Peter said gently, "it's Finding Nemo."

A couple of weeks later I found myself grazing through the trends at the San Francisco Restaurant Show, a somewhat smaller and more subdued trade fair than I was anticipating. I can still remember the scales falling from my eyes, years ago, at the first such shindig I attended, an endless show at the Javits Center in New York, where I realized that the infinite stream of fried mozzarella sticks and popcorn shrimp and mozzarella poppers finding their greasy way onto restaurant plates probably issued forth from a factory thousands of miles from the unsuspecting diners. Actually, new fashions in food were thin on the floor at the Moscone Center: I'd come expecting to find frozen bite-size sformato ("The new quiche from Italy!") and bottled yuzu juice ("The new citrus from Asia!") and low-carb everything. But the only trend that was immediately obvious was the chocolate fountain, a waterfall of chocolate sauce into which you thrust skewered fruit or marshmallows, a catering favorite that first appeared at weddings (where fingers, hands, and whole arms get shoved into the dark, thin brew as alcohol consumption increases, not quite fulfilling a brochure's promise of "bringing a touch of elegance and distinctiveness to any event"). Three different purveyors of this item were carefully separated, one per aisle. I thoughtfully coated a marshmallow with sauce for Joyce, only to find out that she doesn't like marshmallows, so I began my revels with this not particularly interesting bite, which further endeared itself to me by dribbling down the front of my jacket (and my chin, as Joyce eventually pointed out).

Maybe San Francisco is too sophisticated a restaurant scene for the more down-market fried stuff. I saw just one manufacturer of chicken wings ("fully cooked for maximum operator convenience"), and fairly straightforward ones at that (well, the company did offer a style called Zippity Doo-Wa Ditties®). But on the whole I was beguiled -- by tofu cheesecake from Azuma Foods (in green tea, red bean, and, yes, yuzu flavors); Girard's dazzling array of dressings, including a mint, lime, and lemongrass vinaigrette; and especially the succulent grilled beef and pork, simply seasoned with salt and pepper, served at the Sterling Silver Premium Meat booth. Joyce was amused that the women working the liquor booths were not only uniformly young and cute but also snugly attired and flaunting cleavage.

When I return to Lime with Lessley and Caius, we note that the scoop-necked top of our cute young waitress expertly frames not cleavage, but her unusual miniature horseshoe tattoos, one below each clavicle. We discuss, inevitably, the décor: Caius thinks that the slightly elevated back room of the place, where we're tucked into a corner, should have shag carpet. I reference both the inevitable Korova Milk Bar, from A Clockwork Orange, and the equally inescapable The Tenth Victim, not just for its sets but also for Ursula Andress' miniskirts and go-go boots (as seen here on servers), when I realize what the mirrors and hanging globe lights really remind me of: the kind of redo on Trading Spaces that leaves its homeowners in tears.

When Lessley reads the menu, she votes for ordering "white-trash food," by which she means deviled eggs ("I make better ones," she says, missing more deviltry -- vinegar or mustard -- in the stuffing), tiny white-cheddar grilled-cheese sandwich triangles with a cup of tomato soup dipping sauce, pork quesadillas, and miniburgers. I throw in the ricotta gnocchi, filet mignon, and lamb chops. And we get zucchini frites.

The gooey pork quesadilla doesn't work for me. The ricotta gnocchi are pretty wonderful: Their texture is perfect -- pillowy, satiny, soft -- and I like the generous topping of sautéed white corn and shiitake mushrooms. Strips of cool rare filet mignon are set on bright salsa verde and a tomato-y sauce, and three slightly overcooked lamb chops, coated in Moroccan spices (yes, cumin), are propped up against a cone of dry couscous studded with currants. This stuff feels too fancy for our needs. And when Lessley asks what a dish on the table next to us is, and I say, "It's Lime's hand-held version of Caesar salad, but with Bibb lettuce cups instead of romaine spears," she says, "That's just wrong."

But I love the adorable dollhouse sandwiches -- fragile constructs with melting cheese between crisp fried bread that even has the crusts cut off -- and the plump, juicy baby cheeseburgers, with more white cheddar and "special sauce" on puffy little buns. I also like the thin strands of zucchini, coated in a light buttermilk batter and sided with a slurry of basil aioli. These three items are exactly right, I think, to order after a round or two of cocktails: salty and tasty bites that would take the edge off your hunger and lead you on to another drink.

As we fork our way, quickly, through a silky bittersweet flourless chocolate cake, the best version I've had of that now-fashionable-for-decades dessert in a long time, Lessley and Caius confer about the music, currently featuring Mick Jagger, after the Divinyls singing "I Touch Myself." "We agreed that Sting would send us out the door," Lessley says. I object: "I have a soft spot for 'Every Breath You Take.' It was a break-up song for me one year; I remember listening to it on repeat during a coast-to-coast plane ride, and crying."

When this proves to be the very next song we hear, we are not even surprised, but take it as a sign: our exit music. As we pass the video screens, we see they are displaying Dead Poets Society, which is so ironic I don't even get it.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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