Mel Hollen's Bar & Fine Dining, a two-month-old steakhouse in North Beach, is like an expat hangout for homesick out-of-towners who miss the minimal vegetation of their youth. The house cuisine is a sort of prairie response to Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, in which the tastes and textures of local ingredients are neither brought to fruition nor carefully showcased, but rather smothered with enough dressings and seasonings to confound the expectant palate. Fresh seasonal produce is at best a rumored presence here. Even the physical menu feels vaguely displaced, with its plasticized pages and tourist-brochure guide to Coit Tower and the cable cars.
Mel Hollen is a Dallas restaurateur best known for the Victoria Station steakhouse chain that flourished a couple of decades ago. There was one up at Larkspur Landing where we used to go and revel in the surprisingly good food and bordello ambience, drawn by radio ads starring the sonorous Johnny Cash. The Station was a foreign addendum to San Francisco's long and honored tradition of exemplary steakhouses -- Grison's and Alfred's and Joe's and Harris' among them -- which had dark mahogany and icy martinis and thick fillets the equal of any in Chicago. At such venerable old places, singular red meat nestled next to bountiful salads and al dente veggies that encapsulated California cuisine a generation or two ahead of schedule. While a few more good steakhouses like those would be welcome as an antidote to all of our encroaching mizuna, Hollen's new place is not yet among them.
The restaurant occupies an enviable location at the southwest corner of Washington Square, former home of the lamentably defunct Little City Antipasti Bar. The atmosphere is clubby, friendly, smoothly masculine (there's bay rum and lilac vegetal aftershave in the men's room), and impressively decorated with some amazing sports and movie memorabilia. Hollen's partner is longtime Cowboys and Broncos star Craig Morton (the two were roommates at Cal back in the '60s), and in addition to the Gene Autry-Lone Ranger six-guns there are jerseys, footballs, and autographed baseballs as far as the eye can see. Morton is behind the bar most every day shaking up Rob Roys and whiskey sours and chatting up the citizenry. We had an Ultimate Martini (kinda watery but pretty good for a vodka martini) and a very good house Manhattan prepared with Woodford bourbon and Noilly Prat vermouth.
To start things off we sampled Mel's Famous Crab Claws, a pricey appetizer at $19. A large platter of briny exoskeleton came blanketed with a thick sauce of butter, garlic, Parmesan, and white wine, and when we persevered long enough to succeed at scraping off the goop and extracting the crabmeat, we were rewarded with a few shards of tough, stringy, over-the-hill crustacean. Next up: California artichoke hearts, three thick ovals at $3 per. Here, lemon juice and bread crumbs joined the garlic and Parmesan in a conspiracy to cover up the flavor of California's noblest vegetable. A better bet was the chopped tomato salad -- a mound of vine-ripened tomatoes, onions, and garlic -- but again the tomato was tarted up with what seemed like a half pound of overwhelming blue cheese. To top it off, the whole thing was served chilled, not the best setting for the simple, sun-kissed love apple. Things improved when we ventured southeast for the NFL chili, a thick and satisfying (if surprisingly tame) example of the genre. It was especially tasty with the cheese bread, a simple snack of fluffy white bread blanketed with melted cheddar -- an honestly delicious remembrance of childhood.
A steakhouse is only as good as the cholesterol it proffers, and despite the USDA Prime Black Angus qualifications of the red meat at Mel Hollen's, his beef doesn't approach the mood-altering transcendence available at Harris', the House of Prime Rib, and other local venues. The dry-aged New York was nearly an inch thick, crosshatched with grill marks, and embedded with cracked peppercorns, but it was tough and chewy and nearly bereft of flavor. The pepper steak was tender enough, but the oddly sweet cognac sauce that encompassed it masked whatever flavor it might have had. We also tried the baby-back ribs, a dish that over the years has brought me more physical pleasure than any other I can recall (outside of peanut butter and chocolate ice cream), but Hollen's rendition was barely serviceable: lean, mild, and unassuming. The sautéed petrale sole doré wasn't bad -- steamy on the inside and crunchy on the outside, with a fresh, if unexciting, taste throughout.
The best dessert on the menu was the strawberries Romanoff, a big goblet of surprisingly sweet, juicy berries combined with thick whipped cream and a hint of citrus. The cheesecake, on the other hand, was thoroughly Sara Lee, which is a fine supermarket option but isn't worth the $6.75 stipend demanded here. The white chocolate bread pudding was decidedly disappointing, like a half-loaf of Wonder bread soaked in bourbon, but the crème brûlée à la Vincent Price, despite its sinister moniker, was smooth, rich, and velvety.
Out on Union Street after our meal, I could see the spires of St. Peter and Paul across Washington Square, hear the clatter and clang of the Powell Street cable car, and smell the distant aroma of peppers and eggplant frying in a skillet with olive oil, garlic, and maybe just a hint of fresh basil. It's nice to go traveling, but it's so much nicer coming home.