I enjoy the matching process, especially when all the planets align and we have a good time as well as a good meal. It's even more fun when the task is reversed, when it's the people or the occasion that demands a meal, and I get to choose a place carefully calibrated to suit the event and flatter my friends' tastes.
Most recently the opportunity arose when my friends Liz Stromme and Philippe Garnier came to town, for readings at Black Oak Books and City Lights to coincide with the publication of Liz's new novel, Joe's Word (City Lights, $11.95), a delightful and subversive noir set in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. This called for a celebration, but where? Liz is an avid gardener who writes about horticulture for fancy magazines and also, more personally, online (undergroundgardener.com), so I thought first of Greens and other market-driven places, including Woodward's Garden, not just for the name but because I knew Liz would appreciate its newly-liberated-from-concrete-overpasses urban location -- her own garden lies just steps from the flow of insistent traffic on Sunset Boulevard.
But then I remembered how we'd met -- after seeing each other repeatedly at various film venues all over town, museums and festivals and revival houses. The perfect place popped into my mind: Foreign Cinema, a kind of urban garden itself, where dinner-and-a-movie has been conflated in high style since 1999.
Was it only four years ago when I first visited Foreign Cinema? It seems much longer; I have a blurry memory of a smoky, boozy evening, surrounded by noisy revelers who seemed even then to be dancing on the edge of a precipice. It felt very '80s, like the bad old masters-of-the-universe days in New York. And the movie projected on the wall high above our heads -- was it Antonioni, or is that too perfect? -- mattered even less than it would on an airplane. As an unregenerate cinephile, I felt obscurely annoyed. (The very Frenchy bistro-type food didn't seem to matter much, either.)
But a few months ago a couple of friends had taken me out (for a change!), to Foreign Cinema, one of their favorite places, and it proved to be distinctly new-and-improved. It was a dulcet summer evening, and although I looked askance at a huge table set up for a banquet running along one side of the patio, remembering the din of my previous dinner, it turned out to be just the touch to bring the difference from those days into focus. It was a special dinner arranged for other restaurant workers to enjoy a festive meal en famille, passing around heaping platters and many bottles of wine, and it added a lovely cinematic feeling to the evening, like a French fête champêtre, as Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast flickered above us. Gayle Pirie and John Clark, the married chefs now in charge of the kitchen, are veterans of Chez Panisse and Zuni, and their eclectic food was among the best I'd eaten since moving to the Bay Area.
I was excited about eating there again. Entering the place, down a long concrete corridor from a grungy Mission block, I feel a little like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Tonight we're sitting inside, in a room that seems like a rustic country inn despite its soaring ceiling and concrete floors. I can see Miyazaki's brilliant, ghostly Spirited Away, something of an Alice story itself, being projected outside.
The menu is unusually seductive: I want to eat everything on it. And we do our best. From the dazzling array of oysters (15 varieties on offer, from waters as close as Point Reyes, as distant as New Zealand) we choose two from Tomales Bay, Hog Island and Kumamato, because Philippe expresses a preference for small, plump oysters. (We get a dozen, so that there'll be a few left for him.) The table is also decorated with a beautiful salad of pears, figs, fennel, radicchio, and shavings of a mild cheese called Ouray, touched with a dressing cunningly called "cider essence"; a plate of sautéed peppers entwined with sardines cured in-house and anchovies; and another of perfectly fried Hama Hama oysters (I wish there were more than three), and a heap of calamari, with a dish of tomato vinaigrette that I find a little flat. When I request a bit of aioli, which I remember with pleasure from my earlier dinner (served with a steamed Dungeness crab, also remembered with pleasure), the garlicky mayonnaise arrives with alacrity. It all goes smoothly with the 2001 Domaine de la Tourmaline Muscadet we've chosen, from the part of the wine list called "interesting whites."
We move from what they call Premieres to Features: a surprisingly thick chunk of local skate, meaty and unlike any skate any of us have had before, and not under the usual mantle of beurre noir, either, but sided with baby spinach that really tastes young, and lovely little cinnamon cap mushrooms, which I've only had once before. Liz has surprised Philippe by ordering the mixed grill ("I need my strength," she says, anticipating the upcoming readings); he's further surprised when she very cheerfully eats her way through it. He's ordered pasta, in expectation of spearing quite a bit of meat from her plate, but all he gets is a taste of the superb rare duck breast, the smoky, meaty grilled quail, the long, thin, meltingly soft chicken sausage, the succulent meats set off by a crunchy, bitter salad of chicory and sour cherries and a crostini spread with a suave foie gras pâté. Bo, their San Francisco host, announces that he's a pescetarian and orders the peppers and the skate, but he's the kind of pescetarian I like: He wants a taste of both the pâté and my grilled peppered rib-eye, a massive marbled masterpiece that's happily big enough so that I can share it with Philippe. He adores his Catalonian cappellini, an unusual dish ("I've never had anything like it in Catalonia," he says): The thin pasta, cooked way past al dente, is intriguingly entwined with similarly soft vegetables, tomatoes, pioppini mushrooms, and broccoli rabe, and scented with saffron and cumin. I've recklessly chosen an unfamiliar red, the 1998 Clos de La Truffiere, from the "interesting reds" list, and although it's not quite as earthy as our server thought, it's highly drinkable.
I have an even stronger reaction to the dessert menu than I did to the dinner one: It is with a sense of loss that I forgo the crepes with caramelized apples, caramel ice cream, and apple cider syrup (hey! it's fall!), or the ginger cake with crème anglaise and citrus essence, for the gateau au chocolat with Amareno cherries and whipped cream, despite the fact that I also get to taste the suave and subtle chocolate pot de crème, and the "Last Chance" peach tart (hey! it's fall!), with mascarpone and grape essence (from the apparently essence-mad kitchen -- did I mention there was Meyer lemon essence in the skate dish? -- but why quibble, I think, when the essential is that it's all delicious). I'm glad I ordered the three granitas "for the table": The deep-purple one made from Concord grapes is stunning, and the true-flavored honeydew melon and interesting peony grape ones are almost as good. We also try, from a choice of four thoughtfully chosen cheese plates, one featuring two goat cheeses, a semihard Catalonian called Garroxta and our local soft, ashy Humboldt Fog, served with a bit of fig jam.
It's a voluptuous, happy meal, one that would feel celebratory even if we weren't celebrating. (The one flaw is that a woman celebrating a little too hard at a birthday dinner set up right in the middle of the room has a disconcerting habit of cupping her hands around her mouth and emitting loud hooting, barking noises -- often. The waitstaff roll their eyes when she does so, but nobody seems to know how to ask her to stop.) Oh, OK, there's another flaw. Even without the barks, it's very noisy inside. It may be the noisiest restaurant I've ever fallen in love with.
Tonight, I've capitulated: Foreign Cinema seems to me a witty and irresistible combination of two of my favorite things.