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Wednesday, Jul 26 2000
South Beach, as a concept, was unknown to me until I was invited to the grand opening of a restaurant -- the Barking Dog? the Braying Mule? -- at the corner of Brannan and the Embarcadero 10 or 12 years ago. Pac Bell Park wasn't even a gleam in the contractor's retina back then, and the nearest palm tree was somewhere in Crissy Field. But nearby Rincon Annex had just gotten its zillion-dollar makeover, the dusty old warehouses were being gentrified into a new and less unkempt corporate frontier, and shady little South Park was sprouting restaurants redolent of Meyer lemons and Chilean sea bass. Hipness is a largely manufactured concept best spawned in as low-rent a setting as possible, and this unassuming pocket of picturesque phantoms nestled between SOMA, China Basin, and the bay was ripe with possibilities. Even on evening strolls through the district's then-empty streets and up a ghostly Embarcadero that had so long ago thrummed with longshoremen, there was an unquestionable hum to the ozone. The moon-glistening water and arching bridgework didn't hurt any.

Now all roads lead to South Beach and its well-wired, streetcar-limned universe, even if it lacks the century or so of domestic tradition claimed by its Italianate namesake to the north. This prime waterfront property is burbling with froufrou and high spirits. And on the exact spot where the Chirping Wombat introduced at least one person to the potentialities south and east of the Ferry Building, LiveFire caters to the neighborhood's white-collared masses with grilled ahi, portobello mushrooms, and other nourishment endemic to the species.

The best way to get there is to walk down the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building and soak in the briny ambience that for almost a decade now has been gloriously bereft of monolithic freeway. Unfortunately, the ship traffic that created so much of San Francisco's bustling, cosmopolitan character has departed as well, but there are informative public artworks placed along the thoroughfare that pay tribute to the southern waterfront's bygone shipwrights, bridge-builders, and dockworkers. In late afternoon, just after the midsummer fog breaks but before the sun drops below the downtown skyscrapers, strollers and roller skaters and Giants-capped couples headed for a night game create a pleasant mosaic of urban humanity.

You can continue to savor the ambience from a seat in LiveFire's bar, which has the best waterfront views in the restaurant. There's a menu featuring salads, sandwiches, pizzettas, and other nibbles that's available all day long, while the bar back is lined with vats of vodka absorbing such vegetable matter as pineapple, vanilla bean, and three varieties of pepper, the building blocks of several house cocktails. I tried the LiveFire Martini, a concoction of pineapple- and three-berry-infused vodkas that tasted exactly like Hawaiian Punch. Nevertheless, the bar's a friendly spot abuzz with Jeff Kent stat chat where, despite the prevalence of such intoxicants, the guy on the next stool is likely to be sipping a scotch and soda.

The relaxed feeling carries over into the dining areas. Although it looks like another upscale bastion of California cuisinery, with its stone and sheet metal accents and open kitchen, LiveFire is too much of a ballpark-oriented eatery to preclude windbreaker-attired fans and happy, banner-sprouting families. (You don't see too many kids in highchairs at Lapis up the street.) The place is a variation on those Hayes Valley venues that fill up an hour or so before the ballet or the opera; at LiveFire, the staff determines if you're going to the game and, if you are, gets you your order with alacrity; if you aren't, you've got the place to yourself after 7 o'clock.

The menu, which initially featured several oblique hints of the transglobal, has evolved since the restaurant's grand opening a couple of months ago, with salmon yakitori skewers and star fruit cannoli giving way to house-made potato chips and lemon chiffon cake. (You can even get a hot dog at the bar.) Chef/ owner Fred Halpert, whose other restaurants include Brava Terrace in St. Helena and another LiveFire in Yountville, brought the potato chip idea from his casual Wine Country eateries into this more urban setting, and the chips are indeed the perfect ballpark snack, San Francisco style: Hot from the kitchen and bursting with honest- to-God potato flavor, they're strewn with a chunky (but not too garlicky) pesto sauce and chunks of good, pungent Danish blue cheese. (I never said the chips were healthy.) But the now-departed salmon skewers usurped by the chips were tasty as well, moist and smoky from the wood-burning cooking source that gives the restaurant its name and with a memorable cucumber-pickled ginger salad as its spiky foil. Apparently, they may make the occasional menu reappearance.

There are four pizzettas available from the wood-burning oven. They're overlaid with pecorino, white truffle oil, goat cheese, and suchlike; the Golden Gate tops its soft, warm crust with a rich yet invigorating array of provolone, fresh young garlic, sweet-smoky pancetta, and bittersweet grilled radicchio. The whole roasted tai snapper, juicy and delicate, is jazzed up with sweet, silky caramelized tomatoes and a bright vermouth reduction, although we were disappointed that the fish wasn't "boned tableside,"as promised in the menu.

But it's with the red meat dishes that the kitchen's live-fire acumen comes to the fore. The grilled filet mignon is tender, buttery, and deeply flavorful, running with juicy essence, culinarily enhanced with grilled shiitake, oyster, and field mushrooms and, soaking it all in, a pile of creamy mashed potatoes ribboned with earthy celery root. The braised short ribs made me very happy: The meat, richly informed by the dish's Chianti-reduction sauce, falls off the bone in great, deep-pink, satisfyingly fat-ribboned chunks while pungent braised cabbage, perfectly bright-tender carrots, and splendidly absorbent potato dumplings offer varying aspects and contrasts.

The streusel mango crisp made for a rather unsatisfying dessert: bland, lukewarm, and barely emboldened by the macadamia brittle ice cream resting on top. But the profiteroles are not only nice and phyllolike in texture, their hot-fudge sauce is dark and dreamy and the house-made caramel ice cream contained within is as dense and buttery as a good gelato.

The hundred-item wine list features several interesting selections from around the world, including 20 by the taste or glass, from St. Supery's sauvignon blanc to Louis Roederer's 1994 Cristal champagne, with Halpert's Napa Valley neighbors most prominently represented. After dinner you can compare a selection of three ports, sherries, or dessert wines of your choice in 1-ounce samples, a fine and interesting concept. Or on that special occasion, order up a snifter of de Fussigny Tres Vielle cognac for $60. It might not go with your hot dog, but the bay is looking mighty pretty.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford


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