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2001: A Food Odyssey 


Wednesday, Jan 17 2001
Bacar isn't just a restaurant; it's an extravaganza, an eagerly awaited, two-years-in-the-making culinary spectacular with a big budget, an all-star cast, mezzanine seating, and multiple subplots. Like some unholy gustatory alliance of Kubrick and DeMille, it absorbs all that came before it, reconfigures the molecules, and serves up the results on a shiny new platter, gremolata intact. It hums; it has buzz; it intends to alter the nature of restaurantgoing itself. Now, after many a fit and start, it is open for the business of wining and dining -- all three carefully polished, adroitly choreographed floors of it. Ladies and gentlemen, our feature is about to begin.

Bacar is the brainchild of co-owners Arnold Wong, Debbie Zachareas, and David O'Malley, who undertook nothing less than to create the quintessential San Francisco restaurant of the new millennium: a place of wide-ranging choices in food, drink, and ambience, a place where one could celebrate a 25th wedding anniversary or drop by for a burger 'round midnight, a place as appropriate to a post-Pac Bell nosh as a pre-theater supper, a place as eclectic and as tasty as the city itself. Think Trader Vic's, Stars, LuLu, and the Old Spaghetti Factory all rolled into one -- but with a forward-looking prospect. If anyone could pull it off, it was this trio: General Manager O'Malley is a Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant veteran (Kimpton being a classy boutique version of Hilton), and Chef Wong and Wine Director Zachareas made their reputations at Eos, one of San Francisco's half-dozen best restaurants. Itching to open their own place, they shot for the moon, securing a trendy SOMA address, employing architect James Zack to carve a dramatic three-tiered setting out of its shell, then pooling and coalescing grandiloquent schemes and notions.

Like any harried megaproduction with high potential, the place was late -- Christmastime 1999 was the earliest of its couple dozen missed wrap dates -- and over budget (to the tune of about a million bucks). The accumulated problems were prodigious. Potential Asian investors were scared off by the "444" in the restaurant's original address (in some cultures it's a very unlucky number) -- in fact, Zachareas paid $17 at the city building inspector's office for the privilege of officially changing the number to "448 Brannan." The building's duct system ruled out the installation of dumbwaiters, so staffers would have to personally schlep china and glassware up and down two flights of stairs, requiring a higher-than-usual breakage budget. A subterranean lake situated right under the restaurant necessitated unexpected seismic retrofitting. Finally, there was only intermittent power and phone service right up until the restaurant's December opening, a date so publicly uncertain that employees placed calls hither and yon to assure potential diners that Bacar was indeed up, running, serving, and pouring.

Indeed it is: During two recent visits, the place was already packed to the rafters with gabbing, sipping diners. (If you have trouble making a reservation, remember that 100 of the venue's 250 seats are set aside for drop-in business.) Bacar is located amid the dot-coms and refurbished warehouses a couple of blocks north of China Basin; its home is a 19th-century brick warehouse that once served as the offices of architect Lawrence Halprin. A curved entranceway paved in green glass leads into a foyer, from which you can either ascend to a dusky, low-ceilinged dining room or descend to an attractive wine cellar/salon with a small bar, walls of bottles, bleached-wood accouterments, and big, comfortable armchairs. Unfortunately, on the middle level the main dining room's towering ceilings, bright lighting, hardwood floors, and gleaming open kitchen create a somewhat institutional ambience: Though it's not necessarily ideal for that aforementioned anniversary (especially at these prices), it's still appropriate enough the rest of the time.

Despite (or because of) all of the high expectations, several menu items need re-evaluation. At Eos, Wong created masterpieces of sublime cross-cultural invention -- his tea-smoked salmon with mashed yucca and taro root is an unforgettable pleasure -- but Bacar's menu is dotted with interesting failures. In spite of its potential, the "everything" flatbread just sits there, a stale hunk of cardboard surrounded by extraneous elements that never pull together in any specific direction -- caramelized onions, tender strips of sweet pepper, and a creamy, pungent slab of brie. Similarly, the pizza is flat, thin, and dry, with only a few measly spears of asparagus, strips of serrano ham, and shards of manchego cheese applied in an attempt to rescue it from oblivion. The bouillabaisse never comes together, either -- the flavors in the broth conflict with one another, the aioli barely hints at garlic, and the prawns, mussels, and clams have no particular taste to them. Gnocchi constructed out of roasted kabocha squash is heavy and mundane. Though the side dish of baby root vegetables sounds delicious, the turnips, carrots, and Brussels sprouts in question are difficult to eat, arriving just this side of raw.

Other dishes are perfectly agreeable and nutritious, but they aren't worth the enveloping hoopla or the rather steep prices. The fried skate reflects the kitchen's occasional tendency toward oil and salt, but at least it's crisp where it ought to be and tender where it ought to be. The half-chicken confit is also agreeably moist, but neither it nor its side dish, a cannellini ragout, is particularly memorable. The mesquite-grilled rib eye is as good as a Niman Ranch steak should be, but there's a sameness to it that's matched by its accompaniment -- bland, inoffensive mashed potatoes.

Then there are the dishes that make you think Bacar might, indeed, be the real deal.

The smoked sturgeon is so good you'll never settle for lox again: a thick slab of firm, smoky fish cooked to falling-apart, feathery succulence within, then impeccably accented with a bundle of citrus-edged watercress. Another sterling appetizer is the platter of tiny sardines and anchovies, fried and served up hot and crisp. The sensational smoked wild boar sausage has all the deep, feral flavor of its unfortunate namesake, and is unaccountably sweet and juicy to boot. There's nothing more buttery, melt-in-the-mouth, falling-off-the-bone soft than Bacar's stellar osso bucco, a sublime hunk of protein perfectly complemented by a creamy risotto subtly flavored with apple. The mushroom pot pie is enclosed in a rich, flaky crust, and when you lift off its lid a wonderful, oniony, mushroomy blast of steam alerts you to the delights forthcoming. And although the aforementioned kabocha gnocchi is heavy and lifeless, another variety edged in pumpkin is out of this world: pillowy and blissfully spicy.

One of the best things about Eos -- and one that has translated to Bacar -- is the way the desserts arrive on a big, beautifully arranged platter, all the better for communal munching. In fact, at Bacar they'll even spell "Happy Birthday" in chocolate calligraphy across the gleaming white china if you so desire. The dessert list changes often, but our choices included a soft-on-the-inside, crumbly-on-the-outside apple galette; an endorphin-raising flourless chocolate torte; and the sort of ice cream one equates with freshly picked berries, hand cranking, and a gallon or two of butterfat. We also enjoyed a perfectly ripe wedge of pungent Saint Agur cheese that was especially dreamy in concordance with a glass of earthy Graham's Malvedos port. Even given all this goodness, another dessert was more or less doomed from the beginning: tangerine-saffron risotto pudding. Alternately gelatinous and tough, sweet and bland, it was unsuccessful at every level.

Given its strong ties to Eos, a place renowned for its thoroughgoing devotion to exemplary wines both acclaimed and unfamiliar, Bacar's list is predictably deep and impressive. ("Bacar" is Latin for "wine goblet.") Wine Director/co-owner Zachareas employed her considerable acumen in putting together a thousand-item cellar, from which a staggering 100 offerings are available by the glass. (The glasses come in a myriad of sizes, which allows you to taste in small quantities a variety of wines over the course of a meal without getting sloshed.) The list is not only wide ranging -- its 28 pages are helpfully divided into categories like "Southern Hemisphere Sauvignon Blanc" and "New World Riesling and Gewürztraminer" -- but it also features vintages from several little-known vineyards and an amazing selection of burgundies. Plus, you'll find reasonable prices (approximately a 100 percent markup on most, compared to triple retail at many places). Luna's crisp 1999 pinot grigio out of the Napa Valley is especially conducive to sipping, noshing, and fostering congenial chat.

Of course, sipping, noshing, and fostering congenial chat are the goals of every good restaurant, Bacar included. Fortunately, Bacar is open until 1 in the morning, a rarity in San Francisco and a boon to the eclectics who populate it. (There are also plans afoot to open at 11:30 a.m. weekdays and to keep serving nonstop until closing time.) One last thumbs-up: The staff is friendly, cheerful, and well informed, a remarkable feat in such a young operation. The millennium's only just started. Stay tuned.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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