"Oh, no, we didn't order the mastodon!" we moaned, eying the plate-spanning veal steak descending before us. "Well, Rick doesn't want anyone going away hungry," the waitress laughed. Last winter, after sampling some of Hawaiian-born chef/owner Rick Oku's tasty island specialties (from the regular menu, since I keep missing "luau night" the first Monday of each month), we vowed to return and explore the Italian-influenced "San Francisco comfort food" that's the core of his restaurant's cuisine. We'd been having a rough week and needed some comfort, so the time was right. Right, too, was our companion, Robert. Several years' residence in Rome has given him a fine palate, considerable expertise in Italian food, and best of all, an intake capacity exceeding that of ordinary mortals.
If the portions befit a luxury cruise-ship, the dining room looks like a millionaire's yare yacht, with a shipshape bar, dark-wood wainscotting, and brass "portholes." The atmosphere is relaxed (the perpetual Hawaiian music contributes, no doubt) and patron styles include young workmen's gimme-caps, retiree-whatever, and glass-ceiling-flailers' frazzled office-chic. The lighting's a bit romantic for reading, but it pays to pay attention to the fine print. First, there's the motto: "Your favorite foods cooked with care." Then, under the "Casting Off" menu heading (meaning, appetizers), it says "portions serve two people."
In fact, our bucket of mussels ($7) would serve most couples as a main course, even if the "bucket" is merely a soup tureen. The tender mussel meats were strikingly sweet-flavored in a light bordelaise sauce honeyed by the bivalve juices and a little minced garlic. The fried calamari "a la North Beach" ($8) had a mass of meaty whole squid-bodies and tentacle hunks served sizzling hot, cloaked in a simple, pleasantly greasy batter (until it cooled, when it turned just greasy). We couldn't really detect the wasabi in the accompanying wasabi tartar sauce, but the overall flavor was clean and fresh, with mayo that tasted house-made, and crisp, minced pickles. (Everything I dislike about ordinary tartar sauce -- stale mayo, all-pervasive soggy pickle -- was absent.) "How did those primitive Tartars come up with something like this?" Robert wondered. "It was a lucky accident," I ventured. "Once upon a time some Tartar filled his saddlebag with oil, egg yolk, lemon juice, and pickles, and then galloped across the steppes. By nightfall, all that shaking had coalesced it into this sauce." To go with everything, we had some garlic cheese bread ($3.25) -- two hunklets of halved sourdough French, toasted and topped with a slick of good-quality melted mozzarella. Robert was pleased by its resemblance to the cheese-topped focaccia that he used to snack on in Rome.
Entrees at Rick's follow obscure schedules of specials, so you could easily eat there monthly with never a repeated dish. Every Monday features a bargain-priced extravaganza -- luau, barbecue, roast turkey, and so forth -- and the month's first Tuesday is meatloaf night. Our Thursday night, the specials included that legendary meatloaf -- alas, gone an hour before we arrived. Perusing the "Jurassic Classics," we considered "Rick's world-famous pot roast," which he cooked in a '91-'94 stint at the Gold Spike in North Beach. But a woman nearby was tackling some grainy brown slabs resembling my Aunt Irma's world-famous pot roast, which she cooked in Brooklyn and I've always hated, so we didn't order it. Instead, a frequent special of garlic-herb roast chicken ($11.50) was fully half a big bird, with mainly moist, flavorful meat and semicrisp savory skin. Robert's lamb shank ($13) literally fell off its mighty bone, in a rich meaty broth to which a few carrot pieces lent sweetness. "This is like something I'd cook myself -- it's done right, braised long enough," he pronounced. "Come to think of it, it's better than mine. I'm not organized enough to start cooking by 10 in the morning." In fact, all these dishes tasted like home cooking done a little better than most of us can manage. TJ's handsome veal T-bone ($19) was tender, too, flavored by the center bone and the accompanying smother of meaty mushrooms and brown gravy. The meat, however, seemed to be ordinary formula-fed veal, pale-flavored by nature (compared to, say, the livelier-tasting free-range veal I've eaten at Boulevard).
Entrees come with mixed vegetables, an ever-changing seasonal array in which the constant is lusciously sweet glazed carrot, contrasting with the sterner surrounding crucifers or greens. With non-pasta entrees, you can choose from several starches. The mashed-potato option provided a slightly lean, workmanly version, free of weird trendy ingredients. Robert's double-baked potato ($2.50) had creamy flesh mingling with bacon crumbs and minced scallion.
A terse dessert assortment always includes a classic tapioca pudding ($4) for those who like it -- authentically slow-cooked, lightly drizzled with raspberry syrup. "Making tapioca is an art," said tapioca-fan TJ. "The little globules have to be just one step firmer than jello, and melt against your tongue. This is the best I've had since I don't remember when." Rick's great haupia (coconut pudding) wasn't among the night's specials, so we tried a big bad apple crisp ($5) with some strange-flavored pome variety under a leaden oaty topping.
TJ and I returned a few days later for a Monday "crawfish night" extravaganza ($17 for soup, salad, entree, and ice cream or tapioca). The soup ($2) was an uncreamed puree of gingered carrot, earthy and intense. The Caesar salad ($5.75), with anchovy and shredded Parmesan both in the dressing and on top, was plenty tasty, if non-purist. A midden of mudbugs, cooked in a mild, non-Creole "boil," came with one ramekin containing clarified butter, another holding a vibrant cayenne-laced rouille (spicy aioli) lightened with tart yogurt. TJ was nibbling Caribbean snapper ($10.50). The fish was cooked to mainstream tastes (all but the center just a bit firmer than I like), but thanks to fresh lime juice swathing sweet, ripe, diced tomatoes and a strew of capers, the sauce actually tasted like a fish dish I ate in Tobago.
Rick's mainly California wine list is more than adequate, and includes featured "wines of the week" available reasonably by the glass (typically $4.50-7). Cocktails cost even less, and at our earlier dinner I craved a fake-festive potion to erase my neighbors' all-day yellathon from my eardrums. The mai tai ($4.25) proved the best I've ever tasted, with a well-balanced flavor and a dangerously delicious rum float on top. At our return visit, TJ had been up since 5 a.m. to perform emergency surgery on a friend's computer; facing a sleepy, surly partner, I ordered another mai tai, but a different bartender mixed a merely normal version. Our young, busy waitress, sneaking up from behind with the bread basket, overheard my grumbles and insisted on returning the cocktail to the bar for revisions (namely, adding a rum float).
This still failed to re-create the previous perfect potion. While serving our entrees, the waitress noticed the drink's near-virginal condition. "You just hate it, don't you?" she asked in the dulcet tone of everyone's ideal mom. "Let me bring you something else." The margarita that replaced it was just swell. Soon after, the nearby couple finished their crawfish, and Rick himself emerged from the kitchen to deliver a candlelit slice of chocolate cake and drolly lay a lei around the neck of the birthday boy. The thing about Rick's is, it doesn't just serve comfort food. It gives comfort.