Even on a warm, lazy Sunday evening, Infusion seemed full of latent energy, like a sports car idling at a red light. Although the restaurant wasn't very busy (less than half full, in fact), it still seemed to be vibrating slightly with the last echoes of a stylishly brash weekend crowd. The restaurant offers (along with the fruit-infused vodka martinis from which it takes its name) live acoustic music nightly and during Sunday brunch; it promises spectacle -- always a draw to the young and the restless.
We arrived as the last of the day's sunlight was flowing through the west windows, giving a buttery glow to Infusion's polished, honey-colored woodwork, including the booth toward the back we persuaded the maitre d' to give us.
The restaurant's space has a familiar loftlike openness arrayed with a constellation of spot lighting (and speakers), but all the wood softens and warms the restaurant's hipness, as do the pastels on the concrete walls. The scheme is both homey and industrial, an attractive blend of sleek and rich, like a Jaguar. Too many places in the city use modishly industrial decors that are forbiddingly chilly: All that chrome and concrete and harsh lighting can make a room seem drafty, even when it isn't. Infusion's designers have solved this problem.
The kitchen describes its food as "new American," which doesn't begin to suggest the tastiness of many of the dishes. In true California style, the menu reaches unself-consciously across ethnic and national borders, particularly toward Asia and the Southwest. Ginger and jalapeno peppers figure prominently in the cooking. Infusion's food isn't shy.
Our bright-faced server spoke imperfect English, and there was a brief, awkward exchange before we established that one of the evening's first-course specials was a plate of duck won tons ($5.50) with a spicy dipping sauce. (My tablemates, apparently unwilling to risk being skewered in print as foolish choosers of unworthy dishes, entrusted me with ordering everything, even going so far as to push their menus in my direction, along with urgently whispered suggestions about what I should get for them.)
The won tons -- a clutch of deep-fried triangles, each stuffed with a bit of dark, shredded duck meat -- arrived swiftly; maybe too swiftly. The distinctive gaminess of the meat disappeared in the preparation, and the plate itself was unappealingly Spartan: A bed of mixed baby greens, or just a sprig or two of chives, would have considerably enlivened the presentation. But the dipping liquor -- a base of soy sauce spiked with ginger and hot chilies -- brought the won tons to fiery life, like setting a match to a pile of dry brush.
A little more subtle were the Cuban-style guava empanadas ($5.75) served with a slice of brie cheese that looked like a premature dessert. The tenor of the dish was subtly sweet, from the deep-fried pastry to the tropical sensuality of the guava inside. The cheese added a nice creamy bite. But this plate, too, was barren: white and pale yellow cheese and pale gold pillows on a piece of unadorned white crockery. A strawberry coulis would have been nice, with the right mix of sweet and sour.
The breaded calamari ($4.95) were a little tough for my taste, but the jalapeno aioli had just the right kick of heat. There is something excessive about dipping deep-fried foods in mayonnaise -- something we would never think of doing with French fries, for instance. The calamari would have benefited as much, if not more, from a jalapeno-citrus combination, whose bright astringency would have added punch while cutting the lingering oiliness from the roof of one's mouth.
The day's soup was an excellent New England clam chowder ($2.50 for a cup). It was thicker and smoother than the usual versions (no big chunks of potato drifting around like ice floes), and it also included a good helping of minced red peppers, which contributed welcome color -- a subtle but indispensable detail in stimulating the appetite (and a sharp contrast to the visual bleakness of several of the other first courses).
One of my tablemates was -- is? -- on a diet, and these days dieters turn often to pasta, a fatty food of old. The linguine with grilled chicken ($10.25) was laced with chunks of crimini mushrooms, zucchini, and onion in a sauce of roasted red-bell pepper and black-pepper vinaigrette. It sounded like the most powerfully tasty offering on the menu, but it turned out to be about the least; among other things, it lacked grievously for salt.
The Cajun-seasoned vegetables over fusilli bucati corti ($9.95) were better, although I thought the spicy seasonings clashed with the dry Monterey Jack and cream sauce. Dry Jack has something of the concentrated, slightly woody flavor of Parmesan cheese: It is strong and distinctive enough to carry a dish, and it doesn't need raucous help. The vegetables in this dish vary seasonally; Infusion's early spring bundle included zucchini, green beans, carrots, onions, and several colors of bell pepper.
The blackened sea bass ($13.25) was beautifully cooked, with a tasty, crisp char outside and moist, tender flesh within. The bed of rice was a little underdone but aflame with the sweet pungency of ginger, and on the side was a pile of braised chard that resembled slices of roasted pepper.
The Dieter, sated with pasta (and a beer), passed on dessert. Perhaps he had a premonition about the apple-ginger cake ($5.50), which was dry and a little too chilled for its flavors to develop properly; it tasted stale to me, like Christmas leftovers. But the burnt-orange cream ($5), a creme brulee infused with orange and coffee liqueurs, was sensational -- creamy and slyly spicy under a perfectly brittle shell of caramelized sugar. (The Dieter gazed at the ramekin covetously, but his willpower met the challenge, as did mine.)
By the time we left, the buzz had built up noticeably, and Infusion's glow was spilling into the indigo evening as if from a porch lamp. Even on a Sunday night, some people need a little spectacle and friendly noise along with a square meal.
Infusion, 555 Second St., S.F., 543-2282. Tues-Sun 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
The review of Infusion (Eat, May 1) did not mention that the restaurant serves its main menu Fridays and Saturdays till midnight; it also serves a late-night menu Tuesdays-Thursdays till midnight, Friday and Saturday till 1 a.m.