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Eat: The Dorian 

Wednesday, Oct 14 2015
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There isn't much eating in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel about aesthetics and moral turpitude. As his portrait ages in the attic, a dissipated Dorian smokes a lot and takes a fair amount of opiates, and he attends a party where he gets thirstier with every glass of Champagne he drinks. But, oddly, his overindulgence doesn't extend to food.

So you shouldn't read too much of Dorian Gray into The Dorian, whose tagline is "Whiskey + Martinis + Provisions." A project by the team behind Palm House, The Dorian is only lightly influenced by turn-of-the-last-century London — which is probably for the best, considering the majority of Londoners were scraping by on things like boiled cabbage, flour soup, and braxy (mutton that died of an inflammatory disease and was thus heavily discounted). From dollar-oyster happy hour to seasonal flatbreads, The Dorian has both feet in 21st-century San Francisco — and, as with nearby beer palace Belga, which opened earlier this year, it might change your feelings about the Marina.

Still, there is a bit of Angophilia, especially with the drinks: The cocktails were strong, in every sense of the word. An elegant, spruced-up Gibson ($13) was garnished with a pickled onion the color of yellowfin tuna steak and the texture of a bell pepper, while salted pistachio and orange marmalade made the Alibi ($12) stand out from all the other bourbon-and-bitters drinks out there. I couldn't taste any tobacco tincture in the Portrait ($12), but the smoked maple was there, and the black walnut in the Clockwork ($12) was smart. Aesthetically, the bar is the better half, with weathered books, vintage portraits of eccentric looking people, and lots of right angles. (The hotel-like dining room is all over the map, with intentionally mismatched tables, a big chandelier, and a green, tufted settee for four.)

Under the food column, there is a lot to like. The butterbean hummus ($12) was nice and spicy, much thicker than the average, and with finely chopped Castelvetrano olives. It sounds so ordinary, being only hummus and all, but it was conspicuously excellent. Sprinkled with hazelnuts and pomegranate seeds, the Brussels sprouts ($10.50) were intensely good. Vinegar and smoky bacon might be my all-time favorite combination of flavors. I realize it's not the most innovative way to serve Brussels sprouts, but The Dorian was wise enough not to mess with perfection.

With its quasi-obligatory quail egg and a judicious use of horseradish and capers, the steak tartare ($15) was equally delicious. Because the sourdough that came with it was a little tough, we asked for more of the pitas that came with the hummus, and all was well. Although it contained more pomegranate seeds, Humboldt Fog goat cheese, Marcona almonds, and one of the most aesthetically pleasing vegetables on earth — watermelon radishes — the fall salad ($14) was too sweet. The dressing would have worked better on a radicchio or another bitter green, but on ordinary lettuce it needed more acidity.

And we were a little perplexed by the mussels ($15), which came in a creamy, wine-heavy sauce in lieu of a broth; it worked better with the accompanying fries than with the mussels themselves. It was hard to discern the Andouille sausage, too. As with the salad that could have been more tart, these needed a zing of pepper to hold back the sweetness. The roast chicken (with blue hubbard squash, kale, and quince, $19.50) was much better, in spite of — or maybe because of — a turn towards the Late Victorian baroque. I almost hate to say it, but at first glance, the puffed rice atop the chicken looked kind of like maggots. It wasn't a turn-off — it made us laugh, in fact. But it was impossible not to notice.

Served under a silver cloche and presented with a flourish — from not one but two servers, as if it were the head of John the Baptist — the Royal Dorian is too theatrical not to be tongue-in-cheek. Just who the joke is on was not altogether clear, though. In the black withered thing that passes for my soul, I want to regard a $40 hamburger with Dungeness crab and black truffles as a harbinger of the apocalypse, but all the same, it's fun to be seduced by gaudy excesses. Whether you roll your eyes or not, it's a very tasty burger — even if divvying up a meat patty on a bun takes the idea of shared plates to a ridiculous extreme. It's so rich that the idea of one person finishing the entire thing sounds next to impossible, yet leaving it half-eaten would be like elbowing a Jeroboam of Veuve Cliquot off the rail of your yacht. Oh, and the French fries come in a glazed ceramic vessel in the shape of a fast-food fries container. Witty, sure, but the Royal Dorian mixes its message a bit: Is it fabulous or juvenile?

We finished things off in true Bradley Ogden style, with a butterscotch pudding and ice cream in a half-pint glass ($11). It sounds as quaint as a 19th-century church picnic compared to that burger, but thematically, it was of a piece with what the Dorian is going for. Although it was the only dessert option available — more are coming, as is brunch — that wasn't the real reason we had to order it. As Oscar Wilde wrote, "The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it."

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

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Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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