Nowadays the Sunset is a considerably livelier place, with streets and buildings and fire hydrants and everything. One pundit friend even calls it "the great unrecognized San Francisco neighborhood, waiting to be discovered." The Sunset is where newcomers -- the lifeblood of any evolving city -- flock for relatively affordable rentals. Showtime's The Chris Isaak Show showcases the area on a weekly basis, another indicator of the district's attempts to boost its hepness quotient. In addition to Le Video and Stern Grove and the Amazon Tavern and the N Judah and the sparkling Pacific, the Sunset offers some exemplary food choices: the pizza at Arizmendi Bakery, the string bean tempura at House, the Chinese tamales at Just Won Ton -- and many of the East-West creations served at Lotus, which opened at 21st and Noriega this past autumn.
Lotus' press release describes its culinary personality as "a South of Market dining experience [in] the Sunset," presumably more of a reference to the chili lime aioli served with the crab rolls than to the solidly respectable, black lipstick-free setting. The restaurant's physical resemblance to a Nixon-era Denny's is striking; its elegantly hip droplighting is the only hint of Fourth & Folsom in a sea of fake rock, shuttered windows, and nondescript décor. The platters, however, are purest SOMA. Chef Aaron Hooper arranges herbal bouquets, fanciful dipping sauces, kaleidoscopic fruits, and fanned carbohydrates from the Mediterranean basin and the American heartland into lovely and often delicious culinary still lifes jazzed up with the flavors of the Pacific Rim -- which, after all, is less than two miles up Noriega.
A fine choice to kick off a meal at Lotus is the spinach salad, in which buttery strips of grilled beef add smoky flavor and a robust texture to a bowl of pungent, simply dressed greens. Chilled sections of mandarin orange add an unexpected and entirely simpatico dimension. The arugula ravioli is another outstanding small plate. Pockets of al dente pasta come stuffed with tart goat cheese and just enough pear essence to add a hint of sweetness, while toasted pine nuts drenched in brown butter add a pleasant crunch. Two other appetizers fare less well. The coconut-crusted calamari looks great -- a dozen golden puffs of squid and tempura clustered around a saucer of Indonesian mint sauce with a spray of fried beet threads across the top -- but it's on the tough side and doesn't taste of coconut (or of anything in particular), and the sauce is just as unimpressive. The crab rolls are equally attractive (the crab meat is wrapped in a nimbus of fried batter, to gorgeous effect) and equally desultory in every other regard (the texture is gooey, the flavor absent, and the accompanying chili lime aioli surprisingly bland).
Three of the entrees are meals in themselves, complete with starches and vegetables as well as meat, fish, or fowl. The other 11 are meant to be components of a family-style feast that might also include a selection of sides and accompaniments (green beans with prosciutto, grilled broccoli with cherry tomatoes, crispy tofu with scallions, etc.). The Chilean sea bass, one of the complete meals, is perfectly moist and tender inside and crisp (if a bit salty) around the edges. Unfortunately, the addition of garlic mashed potatoes and a rich saffron sauce makes the dish ultimately overcomplicated. The Sitchimi duck breast, one of the family-style offerings, is by contrast simple and terrific: nothing but thick slices of rare, juicy duck edged with its own tasty fat. (The accompanying honey mustard sauce is easily ignored.) A similar plate, the pork loin, is a disappointment; its few meager slices of dry pork have none of the onion, adobo, or tamarind flavoring promised on the menu. But the pan-seared scallops are a luscious delight. Sweet and firm, they're served over a crisp potato pancake spiced with roasted red pepper and topped with a sauce infused with the essence of shiitake mushroom. The delicate flavor of the scallops combined with the bite of the pepper and the creaminess of the sauce results in a complex, well-balanced treat.
To accompany our selections we ordered the tempura asparagus, an abundant platter of surprisingly sweet, fresh asparagus enclosed in clouds of heat, batter, and oil. The dish comes with the same overly sweet honey mustard that accompanies the duck. Another side, the grilled okra, is probably as good as okra is ever going to get: This rendition isn't as slimy as I usually find the vegetable to be, and it has a nice, smoky, lemon-garlic flavor. Despite the inevitable stringy texture it goes down quite pleasantly. The garlic mashed potatoes are a beautifully constructed hillock of bland, lukewarm empty calories, but the roasted garlic noodles are irresistible -- rich, dense, and greasy, with a wonderful, intense garlic flavor. They're a satisfyingly primal experience.
Among the desserts, the chocolate cake is dry and pedestrian, but the frosting between the layers is dense and fudgy. The Banana Ecstasy, a confluence of mango, ice cream, and mashed banana, has a pleasant enough flavor (burnt caramel, mostly), but the mango is a distant, unripe relation to the soft, luscious ambrosia we know and love, and the presentation is unappealing, like a big bowl of tepid gruel. The best dessert is the crème brûlée, which despite a rather soupy texture is addictive, and features a nice, brittle burnt-sugar bonnet.
The wine list is modest. There are nine reasonably priced selections by the bottle, including the 2000 Rosemount shiraz out of Australia ($19), plus eight California vintages ranging from Bogle's 2000 chardonnay ($18) to Turnbull's 1998 cab ($50). Five of them are also available by the glass, for $5 to $7 apiece. Lotus also offers two sparkling wines, five beers, and both Nantucket lemonade and Thomas Kemper root beer for the teetotalers. Or you can head up Noriega half a block to the aforementioned Amazon Tavern and sip a more potent libation at the long, weather-beaten bar while Chinese disco pours out of the jukebox and the regulars shoot a little stick and philosophize into their bourbon. It ain't SOMA, but the sand dunes these days are positively nonexistent.