My aversion to the cybernetic lifestyle goes beyond the sociopolitical, however. The only dot-com party I've attended involved a lot of those speeches in which the phrase "record number of hits to our Web site" is greeted by wild applause at the same time the drink tickets are drying up. And recently, when a friend was extolling the wonders of ordering books online, having groceries delivered online, sending flowers online -- "You never have to leave the house at all!" -- I thought, Jeez, is this guy's house that nice, to give up the pleasures of strolling through the neighborhood, selecting a perfectly ripe pear, browsing a bookstore, chatting with the corner grocer, entering the bloodstream of daily life?
With these Luddite leanings confessed, I headed upriver into dot-com country (South Beach, to be specific), where the microchip is the source of all inspiration, real and amorphous. The neighborhood's changed since Jack Kerouac wrote about "the switching moves of boxcars" at Third and Townsend; the SP Depot and the thrumming locomotives en route to San Jose's "verdurous fields of prune and juice joy" are no more. Now there are junior executives on their way, not from Sutter and Montgomery to the train station and the 5:42, but to lofts and warehouses rewired for the brain cancer age. Seeing the proliferation of cell phones I was reminded of the first time I saw someone (besides James T. Kirk) jabbering into one out on the street; I thought, Oh boy, another crackpot, and kept my distance until I saw the little black gizmo I had heretofore only witnessed in the restaurants of Rome. Now, of course, they're as common a sight as Cosmos and Lemon Drops on a girls' night out, or high-buttoned shirts and Oxfords at a Microsoft mixer, prevalent aspects of the heart of darkness I was currently piercing. I was, as usual, looking for something to eat.
Paragon is the perfect restaurant for the neighborhood: It's shiny, loud, and aesthetically techno, with food that sounds good, looks even better, and has all the soulful depth of an interoffice e-mail. On a recent evening, Artist "Y" was at the three-deep bar sipping a Mandrin Mango ($7), a really delicious zingy-sweet concoction of mandarin-orange vodka, fresh lime juice, mango purée, and cointreau, served in a chilled martini glass. "Right here, right now, anything involving mandarin vodka is in," she shouted above the din.
Things have changed for "Y" since our last encounter: She now owns several shares of start-up stock that rises with all the inevitability of Wonder Bread. Surveying the encroaching Tommy Hilfiger all about me, I ordered a drink myself: the Caipirinha Carnival ($7), in which lime juice and ice modulates Ypioca Cachaca, a Brazilian sugarcane liquor that could levitate a rhinoceros. I liked it. In fact many of Paragon's impeccably prepared cocktails (many based on an impressive arsenal of 50 vodkas from around the world) have that experimental edge so endemic to modern imbibing, which explains, perhaps, why the bar is so perpetually packed and the dining area isn't.
Like the Paragons in Burlingame, Portland, and Seattle, the SOMA version serves what it calls American brasserie food -- high-end French-casual dishes with more localized tastes and traditions woven in: salt cod-clam chowder ($6); spinach salad with duck confit ($9.50); steak tartare with hearts of palm ($11); coq au vin with pearl onions and bacon ($17); gnocchi with fava beans and sage butter ($15); sirloin burger with Gruyere on an English muffin ($12); steak frites with béarnaise ($14). But not much of the menu is above the perfunctory; most of the food tastes like something you yourself could throw together in your home kitchen, and as some anonymous sage once remarked, "If I'd wanted home cooking I would've stayed home." Especially, one might add, at these prices.
The fritto misto ($9) is a good case in point. Like the rest of the restaurant, it looks terrific: a bouquet of seafood and vegetables encased in tempuralike cumulonimbi of heat and air, served in a little silver pail. But the batter is overly salty and heavier than it appears, and oftentimes there's no seafood or vegetable inside the batter anyway, just fat and flour. The roasted beet-endive salad ($8) is better, but that's all there is to it: a dozen cubes of roasted beet and some endive, with a few walnuts scattered here and there and a glob of goat cheese in the middle; no spark, no excitement. The Caesar salad ($7.50), though, has a nice sharp edge to it, and in lieu of the usual croutons it features slices of brioche with supple white anchovies baked inside, an inspired twist.
Paragon has a menu of daily specials: pot roast ($17) on Sunday, sole ($16) on Tuesday, etc. -- and on Friday it's cognac-roasted Maine lobster ($30). The dish sounds tantalizing, and much of it is, indeed, wonderful, with the sweet-creamy meat enhanced by the simple richness of brandy, but some of the meat can be tough and overly pungent. Another entree, the garlic-studded lamb shank ($17), is as handsome and as pallid as the fritto misto, just a hunk of overcooked meat with no discernible hint of garlic and a bed of tough white beans and watery Swiss chard beneath. And the house-made garlic sausage ($16), dense with filler instead of flavor, is served over bland, oily strands of linguini and the occasional shelled Manila clam, complete with grit.
The 56-item wine list ($21-75 per bottle) is mostly French- and California-oriented, with 18 wines by the glass ($5.50-12.50) and an appreciable markup throughout.
Dessert is the best part of the Paragon experience: The strawberry napoleon ($6) is like a really terrific It's It, with crisply fried pastry dough enclosing a sandwich of strawberry and vanilla ice creams and fresh strawberry purée. The wonderfully rich crème brûlée ($7) takes the inevitable standard and infuses it with new life, offering it parfait-style in a tall glass in alternate layers with big, juicy, delicious blueberries.
By this time Artist "Y" had switched from Mandrin Mangos to Lemon Drops and was gazing happily out the window at the Second Street asphalt. Across the way, at MoMo's, crew-cut Dockers-wearers were exchanging exultant high-fives, neither knowing nor caring that the gesture was invented by the Los Angeles Dodgers infield. Out at a sidewalk table a team of architects pored over the blueprint of one new monolith or another, while nearby a white-collar warrior described his latest conquest to a table of fellow dot-combatants aglow with EMF emissions.
Me, I'll take a bottle of port and three Hershey's bars on Mount Tamalpais at dusk.