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Fog City Diner

Wednesday, May 16 2001
Once upon a time, in the splendid but prehistorically chilly city of Chicago, three young foodies with potential and aspirations heeded California's siren song and headed west. After a brief stay at MacArthur Park they cashed in their marbles and opened a place of their own, a wine country roadhouse with a cutting-edge culinary sensibility. Mustards was the first Napa Valley restaurant to fill the void between the region's expensive French châteaux and its considerably lower-rent competitors, and it was so dramatically successful that it kicked off a gustatory renaissance that ran the length of Highway 29 and endures to this day.

Mustards was also the beginning of a culinary partnership that has peppered the Northern California landscape with one distinctive eatery after another: the Real Restaurants group. Its three founders -- Bill Higgins, Bill Upson, and culinary dynamo Cindy Pawlcyn -- followed their initial venture with one unique, location-specific restaurant after another: Bix, the Buckeye, Tra Vigne, Tomatina's, Betelnut, and Gordon's House of Fine Eats. Each venue was marked by a California-cuisine commitment to fresh ingredients and dynamic flavors; settings that accentuated the prevailing menu down to the doorknobs; upscale appointments and savvy service; and a tongue-in-cheek attitude that spilled over to the pictures on the walls, the signs on the restrooms, and the printed menus themselves. Taken together, it was a potent (and lucrative) formula indeed.

Perhaps the most successful result of the Real Restaurants recipe was the Fog City Diner, the trio's next venture after Mustards. It was the first eatery in the country to take that great American institution, the roadside diner, and luxe it up with an open kitchen, hip cocktails, a bill of fare redolent of Dijon and goat cheese, and a gleaming deco aesthetic seldom encountered along Route 66. Designer Pat Kuleto came up with the restaurant's dramatic look: a streamlined dining-car motif with a glittering chrome exterior, big comfy booths looking out on Battery Street, and an ambience reminiscent of the Twentieth Century Limited circa 1937. The kitchen produced burgers and pot roast, you betcha, but the former came dressed with homemade ketchup and the latter was accompanied by horseradish potato pancakes. Nowadays the upscale diner is a well-worn culinary archetype, but in 1985 the Fog City Diner set the standard.

It's still a lively and popular little icon, if a recent visit is any indication. Despite Pawlcyn's 8-month-old departure from its kitchens (and from the Real Restaurants fold in general), all of the classic ingredients remain in place: the trendily overhauled retro-fare (Szechuan pork chop with apple-peppercorn chutney, anyone?), the shareable "small plates" (a tapaslike innovation that helped put Pawlcyn on the map), the unmistakable whiff of show biz (nothing beats a counter seat for a little ringside leaping-flame open-kitchen action). The whimsical (and just this side of cutesy) menu still offers "Unintimidating Mixed Greens," "Whatever Nice Fish We Bought This Morning," and "Unusually Tall Boston Cream Pie." And the setting -- a silvery montage of stainless steel, polished brass, starched napkins, gleaming mahogany, glowing neon, and black leather upholstery -- is as irresistibly Thin Man as ever.

Fog City's wrapping has always been more impressive than its cuisine, however, and although it isn't difficult to enjoy a marvelous meal there, some of the dishes are unexciting or downright avoidable. The jalapeño corn "stix," for instance, are cold, dried out, and lifeless, and the accompanying dipping sauce -- a sweet, bland, bright-red concoction -- is no substitute for soft butter melting into a piping-hot corn muffin. The sourdough loaf with leek and basil butter isn't much better: just a hunk of so-so French bread with a redundant layer of oil. But the flatbread's a dream: crisp on the bottom and hot and bubbly with melting Asiago on top, with the sweet-smoky flavor of roasted garlic ribboned throughout. Another starter, the pumpkin-seed quesadilla, sounds good, but the advertised pumpkin-seed influence is either overly subtle or missing in action, resulting in a greasy nosh worthy of Taco Bell. The cream of cauliflower soup, on the other hand, is the epitome of comfort food exponentialized -- pure texture, warm and creamy and soothing, with a token hint of flavor sprinkled among the velvet.

Fog City's macaroni and cheese offers further dollops of culinary comfort. Like the soup it's a bit on the bland side, but the texture -- a warm blanket of oozing Gouda, sweet green peas, tender chunks of ham, and al dente noodles -- is still noteworthy. The roasted chicken breast is another inoffensive dish, but it's forgettable: A pool of tepid barbecue sauce surrounds the tender bird, accompanied by a mushy chile-cheddar potato cake. What raises the whole concoction several notches above the ordinary is a spicy, verdant garden of braised chard. Chicken is also featured in one of the restaurant's best dishes, chicken hash, the jazzy sort of reinvented standard for which the Diner is famous. A moist, crunchy confluence of dark meat, fried potato, and spice is set upon a bed of creamy, risottolike hominy grits, then dressed with a bracing tomato ragout and topped with sweet chunks of lobster meat. Somehow this potentially overwhelming combination of flavors and textures melts together into one splendid dish. Another fine menu item is the house cioppino: Its tomato base is like a chunky fresh-vegetable stew, a nice change from the usual puréed product, and the Dungeness is sweet and succulent, a delightful anomaly nowadays. Best of all, though, is the pot roast, the best pot roast anyone at my table had ever tasted. The tired phrase "you could cut it with a fork" doesn't do this slow-braised pièce de résistance justice: You could cut it with an infant's pinkie. As the beef melts in your mouth an occasional hint of sweet (yet still zesty) onion hits your taste buds, and all is well with the world.

The Boston cream pie is really good until you taste the other desserts, and then you realize it's nothing but a tall slab of spongecake with cream in the middle and chocolate sauce on top. How can something like that compare with the pear and walnut tart, a sweet/tart/moist/ crunchy confection in a buttery crust with a scoop of dreamy cinnamon ice cream melting on top? Or the s'more sundae, in which house-made marshmallows, flaky graham crackers, fudgy chocolate sauce, and vanilla ice cream interact in such a way as to make the sundae's consumption a proto-transcendent experience? Next to them the chocolate cake (dry, but with a good, thick frosting) and the crème brûlée (unexceptional, but its accompanying shortbread is buttery and excellent) are merely adequate, despite notable saving graces.

Fog City food -- eclectic tastes and textures that you pass around and share with your friends -- calls out for icy cocktails, draft beers, and glasses of wine, and the establishment offers plenty of each. The elegant, dramatically lit bar shakes up the usual suspects, the always dependable Anchor Steam is right there on tap, and the wines by the glass include a Kendall-Jackson zin that's fruity, robust, and perfect with the pot roast. Service is as friendly and as occasionally vague as the restaurant itself. Ella and the Duke drift among the open kitchen's leaping flames and the crystalline martinis, and the prevailing chatter and buzz could power PG&E for the next six months. Occasional culinary roadblocks notwithstanding, the Fog City Diner is still a good, freewheeling option on any given Saturday night.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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