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Beginnings and Endings 


Wednesday, May 23 2001
For several years I indulged in a hobby both personally enriching and fiscally exorbitant: the creation of elaborate, sit-down ethnic meals. I had gotten hold of the Time-Life Foods of the World series of cookbooks, 27 volumes of national/regional cookery with splendid photography and text by the likes of Waverly Root and M.F.K. Fisher, and like some fanatic angler or sky diver or stamp collector, I became obsessed with the notion of cooking a long and many-coursed meal based on each and every one of the volumes.

Every dinner had to be (had to be!) as authentic as possible, which meant shopping forays to Russian delicatessens, Indian supermarkets, and globally inclined liquor stores. I combed secondhand record stores and library CD racks for appropriate aural accents -- Hanunóo Music From the Philippines, say, or Let's Be Merry in Salzburg. The cooking process -- a methodical, time-consuming weekend of sushi rolling, samosa wrapping, or tapas collating -- was inevitably chaotic. But the results were usually commendable.

Except for the main dishes. It might've been that I used up all my wits and prowess on the starters and the desserts (my favorite aspects of a meal) and was dreading the prospect of tackling another elaborate course. Or it might've been that I was unwilling to get experimental on the most expensive part of the menu.

A lot of the restaurants I've been visiting lately have the same problem: terrific beginnings and memorable endings and a whole lotta nothing in between. Pinocchio is a case in point. After you settle into the restaurant's handsome surroundings and sip at a glass of Valpolicella or a freshly shaken cocktail, the appetizers arrive on small, square platters garlanded with flowers, aromatic with unexpected spices. After the first bite of some entirely new and complex flavor sensation, you are seduced. Then the equally attractive but culinarily shallow entrees arrive, and you find yourself confused and deflated, pondering the meaning of it all. Then the desserts turn up like the cavalry, rich with chocolate and butter and gustatory wit, and after a final sip and nibble you stroll out into the night, satisfied anew.

The restaurant's situated in the classic Columbus Avenue flatiron that once housed Tavolino and still boasts such signature North Beach touches as tile floors, carved woodwork, vintage photographs of Roma and Napoli, and floor-to-ceiling windows offering prime glimpses of the passing parade. (Sidewalk tables out front offer more interactive contemplation.) Terra-cotta accents and arched, vaulted ceilings enhance the inevitable Mediterranean mise en scène, and next to the open kitchen and its bushels of fresh greens and iced platters of fish there's a handsome marble-topped bar where you can sit and sip and pretend you're on the Piazza San Marco. It's the perfect place, in other words, for a bittersweet negroni, which you can get tarted up with flavored vodka but which is at its best the old-fashioned way, with just sweet vermouth tempering the Campari and a dollop of gin contributing its juniper jolt.

This attractive yet predictable setting has been infused with flavors and aromas wildly distinct from the neighborhood's usual gnocchi-driven fare. For instance, they serve a plate of thinly sliced smoked trout dressed with a blood-orange vinaigrette and shavings of bittersweet fennel and sour apple. The dish's confluence of citric smokiness and understated pungency results in a fresh, light antipasto with an unexpected afterbite. Or take the brandade, a purée of salt cod, oil, and garlic folded into mashed Peruvian purple potatoes. The saltiness of the fish and the earthiness of the spuds are an ideal match of elemental flavors, dazzlingly presented on soft flatbread sprinkled with a bouquet of spring blossoms (watercress, borage, and Johnny-jump-ups). Another appetizer is equally comforting -- a creamy, rich polenta with plenty of body and a complex substratum of flavors, among them fenugreek, truffle oil, and a jus of wild game. A ragout of wild mushrooms gives the dish contrasting heft. The grilled octopus is simplicity itself -- baby polpetto broiled to the smoky stage and served on a bed of feathery frisée. Nothing more is needed: This mollusk is a bit on the chewy side but is perfectly cooked and has the smoky succulence of good tandoori.

These edgy appetizers raised the possibility of a continuously inventive dining experience. Instead, when entree time rolled around we got three pastel shades of gnocchi -- they call them "gnocchetti" -- that were perfectly lovely in appearance and texture but had no particular taste (they're made of red beets, spinach, and saffron, but only the latter flavor asserted itself). The accompanying lemon-butter sauce and a half-dozen plump prawns provide a bit of oomph. But the farfalle (bow-tie pasta) is something you or I would cook at home after a day at the office -- a bowl of forgettable al dente noodles doused in what's advertised as oven-roasted tomatoes and caramelized onions but tastes like your everyday spaghetti sauce. Even the addition of squidlike cuttlefish can't liven things up. The entree's not bad, but it's not worth 14 smackers either.

The braised Sonoma rabbit is served two ways: as a juicy joint of coniglio and in drier form as sliced fillets. In both cases the slow-roasted shallots and garlic cloves and the bed of creamy polenta steal the show. The specialty of the house is the whole roasted fish of the day (black bass in our case). It's baked in a 500-degree oven to sear it, and the result is ceremoniously boned and filleted at tableside. In the end you're left with a really succulent platter of fish (and, despite the best efforts of the server, several tiny bones), but in terms of taste it gets most of its charge from the marvelous caper/lemon/olive oil sauce poured over it at the last minute. The accompanying spinach is unexciting and a bit gritty and the potatoes are dry and overroasted.

But the desserts are just about as dazzling and exotically toothsome as the openers. The granita, which changes with the seasons, is a big, beautiful snowball layered (in our case) with a compote of blood oranges, flavored throughout with sparkling wine from the Old Country, and scattered (for good measure) with fresh rose petals. It's a sweet, refreshing confection and the best example of the genre this side of Angelo Brocato's in New Orleans. The biscotti platter isn't as successful -- the cookies themselves are dry, even for biscotti -- but it comes with a tiny example of the house's sublime tiramisu: creamy, boozy, and jazzy all at once. The panna cotta ("cooked cream" to the uninitiated) is terrific: denser than your typical high-end custard and with a brisk citrus-almond subtext reminiscent of marzipan. The candied almonds sprinkled on top add crunch to the otherwise suave texture. Best of all is the crème brûlée trio, three miniature chocolate-edged versions including one in fluffy white and another in rich dark. The outstanding one, though, is the one in the middle: a jet-black crème infused with sage. You wouldn't believe how well the combination works: The dessert has the earthy, herbal quality of a sweet tapenade, and the sage underscores the chocolate in the same suggestive way that chocolate warms up a good mole sauce. The perfect complement is a large, fanlike cracker of black chocolate studded with minced olive: Like the sage crème and the trout with fennel and the brandade with Johnny-jump-ups, it's innovative, it's unexpected, it's delicious, and it works. Now about that farfalle ....

Italian reds dominate the rather pricey hundred-item wine list. (Two-thirds of the bottles are over $40.) There are several treasures available to go with your meal -- the 1997 Sagrantino Caprai out of Umbria, for instance -- and the whites include Friuli's autumn-crisp Livon Braide pinot grigio. Chauvinists can content themselves with one of the cellar's 30 California offerings, and the cash-conscious can choose from 18 half-bottles and 13 wines by the glass.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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