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A Grown-Up Restaurant 

Sophisticated and delicious fare in a chic city setting

Wednesday, Jan 12 2005
It was eerie, the other morning, waking up to news of Susan Sontag's death, when I had had a gastronomic memory of her only the night before, sitting alongside the exposed-brick wall in Oola, South of Market, which reminded me of one of my favorite restaurants in New York, Miss Ruby's, in Chelsea. It seemed that every time I ate dinner there in the late '80s, the unmistakable, unmissable Sontag was dining there, too (it wasn't far from her house), often with Lucinda Childs, the dancer. I loved Miss Ruby's down-home yet sophisticated American cooking, her wonderful fried chicken, ham, gumbo, and corn bread. In the spring, there would be shad roe, fiddlehead ferns, raspberry pie. "What a wonderful place to have as your neighborhood restaurant," I'd think enviously, even though Miss Ruby's was just a brisk walk from my own apartment. Sontag's leonine head, with its trademark quiff of white, would be bent over her food: I knew she took her food as seriously as she did literature, music, art, movies, and politics ("A writer is someone interested in everything," she once wrote), because of a friend's anecdote.

David had met Nicole Stephane, the actress and producer, at a dinner party in Paris, and when she heard he would soon return to New York, she enlisted his aid in delivering a collection of treats to Sontag: pâtés, cheeses, a special kind of smoked salmon. It was quite a motley assembly of fragile and aromatic bundles, but David accepted because Sontag was one of his idols. He fantasized that, overcome with gratitude, she'd invite him in for tea (maybe even sharing some of the miniature macaroons he'd brought her from Ladurée) and, as so many others had, succumb to his charms, and they'd become fast friends.

This charming fantasy carried him through the unpleasant reality of finding room in his overstuffed luggage for the last-minute arrivals, lugging the delicacies, convincing a wary customs inspector that they were merely foodstuffs and not illegal in themselves (well, maybe some of them were, but it was a more innocent time), using them as a clever cloak to obscure more nefarious items. ("I'd never had a more thorough search of my baggage," David sighed -- and his difficult travel stories were legion.)

But he showed up on Sontag's doorstep with all the comestibles intact, and laid them out proudly on a long library table (what other kind would she have?). Whereupon the grande dame checked them against a list Stephane had sent her and turned icy.

It seemed that a little can of special potted meat was missing, an expensive little can. Despite David's protestations that he'd faithfully delivered all he'd been entrusted to bring, he was not only not offered the cup of tea he'd imagined, but was also summarily shown the door. "I should have asked her to give me back the flowers I'd brought," he said, only mock-bitterly, pleased to have a personal story about the goddess, even if a less than perfect one.

If we'd been eating dinner at Oola that night instead of the night before, I would have told my friends this story, and we would have stopped addressing ourselves to our delicious meal for a moment and lifted a glass to Sontag and her varied appetites. Oola is a much more soigné room than the one that housed the late-lamented Miss Ruby's; the exposed brick here looms two stories over high-backed booths upholstered in green velvet and polished dark-wood tables, while lengths of coppery gauze, draped over pipes, flutter above them. A classic long bar, backed by a glamorous array of glittering bottles, runs the length of the long room, opposite the booths and a few tables tucked in the back at cozy banquettes.

On my first visit, Suzanne and Peter, up from Pasadena, and I were seated at one of those pleasant tables in the back. The menu was compact (10 starters, seven mains) but alluring. Suzanne, who doesn't eat red meat, was briefly attracted to the oysters (Oola had two kinds that night, Kumamoto and Miyagi), but remembered that she and Peter were planning a dinner the next evening at Oakland's Pearl Oyster Bar, so decided to start with the mushroom tart and go on to the sea bass. Peter usually avoids red meat, too, but occasionally goes nuts and surprises me, as he did by zeroing in on the foie gras (which I'd smugly assumed I could order) and following it with a burger ("I have one biannually," he said, "but I forget if that means two a year or one every other year"), an "all natural Creekstone Farms hamburger," in fact. I was a little under the weather and opted for the soothing appeal of the soup du jour (or nuit, as Oola serves dinner only) -- broccoli-cheese -- and linguine with clams.

Our starters were rich, rich, rich. The broccoli was just a happy echo in my cream-colored, cheesy soup. The two suave, thick rounds of foie gras cooked à la torchon were dramatically and beautifully accompanied, on a stark rectangular white platter, by a heap of garnetlike brandied cherries and a coral-colored slab of persimmon, both fruits glowing like stained glass, plus two tiny stacks of toast rounds and a drizzle of vanilla oil. Chanterelle and blue oyster mushrooms were heaped atop herbed goat cheese and caramelized onions on a puff pastry base, with a bit of fragrant truffled honey. Suzanne and Peter asked for a salad, to offset all of this delicious but unctuous fare, and the mixed greens we got reminded me of one of the best salads I'd ever had, just-picked herbs and little lettuces from a backyard plot at a long-gone restaurant called Shakers in Portland, Ore., knowingly and lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice.

Peter had gone all-out with his burger -- it comes with lettuce, tomato, red onion, and a choice of cheese for $10, but you can add bacon for $1, avocado for $1, and truffle cheese for $2, and he did. It looked as big as the sun. A bite convinced me that it was a burger to return for. I'd pointed out to Suzanne that her blue-nose sea bass came with the same mushrooms as the tart, but that sounded fine to her; in the event, she found the thick cream sauce they arrived in a little overpowering for the delicate, lightly pan-seared fish. My linguine was topped with a baker's dozen of sweet clams in the shell, in a bit of white wine broth, with the usual garlic assisted by several whole, bright scarlet De Arbol chilies, lemongrass, basil, and spinach. The bartender's work did not live up to the Frank Sinatra quote on the specialty cocktails list, the one about pitying the nondrinker because "When he wakes up, that's as good as he's going to feel all day." Our day was not appreciably improved by the oddly unsweet Mojito and flat-tasting watermelon Cosmopolitan we tried. We much preferred our cosmopolitan desserts: a chocolate croissant bread pudding with brandied cherries and crème fraîche and a witty apple crisp "hot pocket," with Calvados crème anglaise, maple-caramel ice cream, and granola-walnut crumble (yum).

I returned for dinner with Anita and her two houseguests, Joe back in town from Wellesley, Mass., and Amy up from Los Angeles, confident that we were going to have an excellent meal, and we did. We started by sharing a sublime Caesar salad, a stack of crisp romaine leaves drenched with a brave dressing sharp with anchovies and salty with Parmesan, topped with silky white anchovies and oily croutons. (Joe said it rivaled his favorite Caesar, at Zuni.) Among our four starters and four entrees I could find only one flaw: The daily changing seafood chowder (ours was tomato-based, with salmon and halibut chunks) was a bit pallid and needed salt under its puff-pastry cap. But the velvety-thin slices of seared ahi tuna came with a bright-tasting vinaigrette full of chopped parsley, cilantro, and garlic sparked with orange and lime juices and lots of adorable tiny fingerling potato chips; and the lush soft meat of the baby-back ribs, not just glazed but deeply imbued with cilantro, ginger, and soy, fell right off the bones and was well-complemented by its crisp cabbage-apple slaw. Joe moaned with pleasure at every taste of his decadent, luxurious ravioli, the fresh pasta stuffed with a smooth paste of chicken and foie gras, drenched with a pearly truffle sauce, and topped with a few truffle slices.

Joe was moaning quite a lot, actually. Most of chef Ola Fendert's (late of the dependable mussel house Plouf and the excellent Baraka) main courses -- including the bass we'd had and that night's salmon, steak, and chicken -- pair simply seared or roasted flesh atop carefully cooked and well-thought-out vegetable accompaniments. The wild salmon was roasted under a layer of bread crumbs and came served on top of a lovely tomato-bell pepper stew, the best soffrito imaginable; the sliced grilled sirloin, in a bit of red wine-sage gravy, came with tiny french fries dusted with Parmesan and drizzled with truffle oil. And we finished off every frite. The juicy flattened chicken (cooked "under a brick") was perched on equally juicy fennel confit, and was redolent of sherry, lemon, and rosemary.

As if to prove that wasn't all he could do, Fendert served the fat, crusted two-rib lamb rack that Joe ordered with a side of heady, long-cooked lamb daube, with a brunoise of vegetables enlivened with whole white beans and bacon, awakening dreams of other stews we might find as the seasonal and largely organic menu evolves.

We finished, happily, with Joe exclaiming with pleasure over his apple crisp; Amy equally beguiled by her sugar-crusted, caramelized fresh pears happily mated with an extravagant chunk of superb Roquefort; Anita only slightly perplexed by a dish described as banana Oreo crepes that looked like a plate of chocolate California Roll sushi; and me defeated by the overwhelming richness of a dense cream cheese crème caramel resting on a round of chopped coconut. Its promised accompaniment of an almond macaroon was nowhere to be seen. Maybe Sontag was enjoying it.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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