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Blues in the Night 

Wednesday, Jun 30 1999
687 McAllister (at Gough), 673-9353. Open Tuesday through Sunday 5 to 11 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Reservations advised for pre-performance dinners. Parking: valet and nearby lots $5, street impossible. Muni: 5 Fulton. Sound level: music is loud, forcing conversation to become louder.

Sometimes advertising really does work. As a big fan of Duke ("Mood Indigo") Ellington, I'd always meant to check out Indigo, just because of its name, and was finally bestirred by its ad in these pages promising a $42 prix fixe dinner (Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday), including all the wine you can drink. Shortly before this innovation, Indigo had won a Wine Spectator award for its witty, venturesome list, so I couldn't pass up the deal.

Indigo features some of the most slyly urbane decor in town. The creamy walls are draped with baroque fabric swags below the deep blue chandeliered and skylit ceiling, while a tinted, circular window in the back divider wall affords a dim blue view of a palmlike houseplant in the rear lounge area. The brighter bar area, in a contrasting Tuscan red, lets singleton diners view the open kitchen. Culturati coming in after performances may suffer some culture-shock blues, though: Contradicting the sophisticated Manhattan lounge look, retro-funk, disco, and house music played ever louder as the room slowly filled with ravenous refugees from the Gotterdammerung at the Opera House. Soon, everyone was conversing in shouts.

The cuisine is California-American, homey food with creative international flourishes and much emphasis on the wood-fired grill. After training back east at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), chef John Gilbert began his professional career at Brad Ogden's Lark Creek Inn, and his cooking is much in Ogden's mode. The menu includes suggestions for wines to match many of the dishes, highlighting the dozen-odd attractive choices available by the glass ($6-8). A food-only early bird special (5 to 7 p.m. nightly, $23), offers soup or salad and a limited choice of entrees and desserts. The $42 midweek prix fixe lets you choose any appetizer, regular entree, and dessert, plus any (or all) of the by-the-glass dinner wines.

Three of our quartet opted for the vinous prix fixe. The highlight of our appetizers was a silky heap of oak-smoked salmon on a darkly grilled brioche, with a vibrant mango salsa and a daub of chive creme fra”che ($8.50 a la carte). The suggested wine for the dish was the mouth-filling R.H. Phillips Viognier, a superb match.

Not nearly so thrilling was a mildly dressed salad of pea shoots, dried apricots, and slivered almonds -- pleasant enough, but hardly worth its a la carte price ($7.25). Asparagus gratin ($7.50) wasn't my idea of a gratin: A slightly overbaked pastry tulip lightly filled with asparagus and ham was desperately shy of the advertised cheese or any other source of needed moisture. And a pureed carrot-ginger soup ($5.50) arrived lukewarm, tasting strongly of carrots and faintly of curry powder.

Our entrees were more in tune with our expectations. A barbecued salmon fillet ($16) stunned me: The first bite mysteriously plunged my senses, in Proustian fashion, back to a childhood August on the wooded Maine coast. The fish was thinly glazed with a brick-red barbecue mop so subtle I couldn't identify it, and the fillet's thick, tender vermilion center, cooked barely a quarter past raw, exuded a briny fragrant juice like the shell-liquor of a just-opened oyster. The salmon sat on a pilaf of wild and tame rice topped with a fine thread of melted goat cheese. Arugula leaves around the edge, warmed by their nearness to the rice, radiated a forest-floor aroma.

A whole kettle's worth of roasted mussels ($14.50) were moist, succulent, and (miracle of miracles) 100 percent open, without a deadhead in the bunch. They sat atop their own broth, garnished with disks of good spicy andouille sausage. With this dish we enjoyed a Beringer Family Estates sauvignon blanc, whose clean, cool, mineral undertones lent it a surprising resemblance to a fine dry Graves.

A grilled pork tenderloin ($16), however, was a one-note composition, and the song it sang was the old postwar jive number "All That Meat and No Mashed Potatoes!" The oversized slab was pink inside and charred on the exterior, with a burned-wood flavor that I found slightly harsh. It needed a moist stuffing, a luxurious sauce, or a rich starch to relieve its dull fleshiness. Instead, all it got was a touch of vinaigrette and a discordant melange of asparagus, roasted tomatoes, and bland bread croutons (dust-dry, then turning soggy). Luckily, we'd ordered a side dish ($3) of cannellini beans with morel mushrooms, which filled the unmet need. We probably ought to have tried the Rabbit Ridge merlot with this, but were busy exploring whites to complement our seafood entrees.

The evening's special, and the highlight of our dinner, was ono, Hawaiian white tuna, which appeared on our bill as "Ohhh Noooo!" ($16.50). The lean, firm-fleshed fish rode in on a bed of lightly garlicky mashed potatoes. (Unfortunately, the fish kept on cooking atop the spuds, devolving into dryness even as we ate it.) The sweet-sour tang of grilled pineapple chunks harmonized with the tuna, and sliced cooked fennel added a subtle licorice counterpoint.

The prix fixe dinner doesn't include the after-dinner list of ports, sherries, essences, et al., so we made do with the whistle-clean Domaine St. Michelle bubbly with our desserts (all $6 a la carte). A "chocadero" cake was a tower of very sweet, very chocolatey flourless mousse cake, resembling a decadence pumped up on whipped cream steroids. Everybody else at my table loved it madly.

In a "Kentucky pecan pie," the nuts were numerous and unbroken, and the filling wasn't icky-sweet. Nonetheless, the pie played second fiddle to its accompanying scoop of intriguing Jack Daniel's-butter pecan ice cream -- though perhaps the menu is geographically a bit confused, as Jack Daniel's home is Tennessee, not Kentucky. Lavender creme brulee was too timid and sweet: Unlike the boldly flowered, definitive version at nearby Absinthe, the lavender flavor was subdued, and the burnt-sugar crust was thick enough to stick to your molars.

I enjoyed much of the food, but by dessert was fighting a noise-induced headache. Among the myriad of musical genres to draw from, I'd count remade '70s oldies, played really loudly, as a leading contender for the worst possible choice in a seemingly sophisticated dinner house. Would I return for an encore? Not until the ambient music matches the Indigo mood.

About The Author

Naomi Wise

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