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The House

Wednesday, Sep 12 2001
Grant Avenue stretches all the way from Market Street and the Financial District to Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf, but it's at its most distinctive in the dozen or so blocks from the Stockton Tunnel to the base of Telegraph Hill. This strip of San Francisco's oldest thoroughfare perfectly exemplifies its binary nature. From Clay to Broadway, Grant is purest Chinatown in all its tchotchke-laden glory -- claustrophobia, cobblestones, chicken feet, and all. North of Broadway, Grant becomes what Kerouac called "The Street," an equally narrow stretch of coffeehouses, blues bars, and Italo-beatnik iconography. By day, Chinatown Grant hustles and bustles with commerce and photo ops; at night the action shifts across Broadway to the otherwise somnolent saloons and pizza parlors of North Beach Grant. For over a hundred years Broadway was the firewall between these two distinct cultures, and it was a mere hundred feet north of Broadway that the House opened its doors eight years ago.

The House wasn't the first non-Italian restaurant on North Beach Grant -- La Bodega's paella and Cafe Jacqueline's soufflés have been around for decades -- but it certainly provided a groundbreaking alternative to the Street's prevailing focaccia and cappuccino. Its proprietors, chef Larry Tse and manager Angela Tse, grew up not far from the Grant/Broadway axis among the fresh seafood and seasonal produce of Chinatown. After absorbing the possibilities of the culinary melting pot all around them, they opened the House just on the other side of Broadway to showcase Larry's "evolutionary Asian-American food," his own brand of fusion in which fresh, simple food out of the American tradition gets skillfully jazzed up with Asian accents, resulting in a delicate yet satisfying whole. The equation was so successful that they opened a second, grander House at Ninth and Irving in the Sunset, where Larry currently spends most of his time.

The original House continues to serve up dishes that are often memorable, although a few lifeless misfires happen now and then, particularly when the unwary diner strays from the menu's seafood offerings. Tucked among the Barbary Coast-era watering holes and venerable coffeehouses of Upper Grant, its cool, contemporary look is as much of a neighborhood anomaly as its food. Simple blond wood tables, stone floors, and spare pastel walls decorated here and there with arty black-and-white photographs exemplify the minimalist, noodle-house look. Nevertheless it's an undeniably homey place, with a friendly staff and a welcoming mom-and-pop ambience. This hospitality was especially evident on a late summer's afternoon, when a scattering of regulars occupied the half-empty room and the Street was as balmy and lazy as a New Orleans courtyard.

Lunch began with a house starter of lightly vinegared cucumbers tossed with sesame seeds and garlic -- a brisk alternative to the ubiquitous sourdough and a fine lead-in to the establishment's best "small dish," deep-fried salmon roll. Thick-cut fillets of the moist pink fish came enclosed in seaweed and in a light, crisp won-ton wrapping, deep fried so that every bite released steam, crunch, and briny sweetness. Dipped into an accompanying wasabi-laced mustard sauce, the snack took on a whole new dimension. The Caesar salad was a lackluster, why-bother-when-you-can-go-to-Alfred's-for-the-real- deal rendition, but it was redeemed by what at first appeared to be the same old croutons -- in reality cloudlike puffs of wok-seared bay scallops.

The best luncheon entree was both the simplest and the most striking: the unagi and avocado sandwich. Soy-glazed, lightly grilled chunks of eel paired with creamy slices of avocado rested between slabs of grilled sourdough, with fresh lettuce and juicy tomato thrown in for contrast. It was the perfect piquant snack. Four huge, smoky-sweet grilled prawns were nearly as good, given an understated jolt by a hint of curry and a coulis of black pepper. Together with glistening green beans and rich mashed potatoes, the dish demonstrated the kitchen's skillful aplomb with fresh produce and seafood. Lunch concluded with the sorbet of the day, green apple -- barely sweetened and pulpy as homemade applesauce, it was paired with two crisp, butter- rich coconut cookies, providing a subtle, palate-cleansing finish to our meal.

At night the House takes on some of the noisy élan of its nocturnal neighbors up the street, packing hungry diners into its close-quartered 40-odd seats. The dinner menu is a bit more upscale than the luncheon version, offering, for instance, a small dish of dark-red tuna tartare served atop black and beige triangles of fried nori. Although it was a very attractive dish, it was bland and skimpy alongside, say, the alpha version available at Luna Park. Another starter, the chicken-shiitake dumplings, was unexciting in both flavor and texture, with a side of Asian slaw adding an unpleasant sweet-and-sour accent. But the crab cakes were light and greaseless, with plenty of moist, rich crabmeat within and a pleasantly spiky (and unexpected) addendum of tender rice noodles alongside.

Noodles figured in one of the dinner menu's entrees as well, but there they were heavy, starchy, and barely redeemed by a minimal wasabi dressing and tasty (if overly fatty) shreds of Niman Ranch pork. The plate cried out for greenery and a bit of crunch. A preponderance of fat and gristle also undermined the prime Angus rib eye with garlic-red pepper butter: It was tasty, sure, but cut too thin and served much rarer than we requested. The vegetables were the platter's stars, in this case more of those mashed potatoes and a fragrant, silky mess of deep-green Chinese broccoli. We were back on firm ground when we opted for seafood, specifically the grilled Chilean sea bass. Light and tender, it had a subtle flavor that was enlivened rather than overwhelmed by a sauce aromatic with garlic, ginger, and soy; steamed rice and crisp green long beans provided support and contrast.

Desserts were uniformly stellar. The Scharffen Berger chocolate truffle cake was tops: a dense, creamy, intensely cocoa-y assemblage of endorphins topped off with praline-ribboned whipped cream and a jazzy espresso anglaise. The apple crumb pie, by contrast, was homey, comfy, and unthreatening, with its buttery crust, soft bits of apple, and meltingly good vanilla ice cream. That day's sorbet du jour, pear, was as chunky and refreshing as the other day's green apple, and appeared with two slender, delicate apricot-almond biscotti. You can also get a sack of House-made Chinese almond cookies to go; they're crisper and more delicate than anything you'll find farther south on Grant.

The reasonably priced wine list features 34 vintages selected to complement the kitchen's Asian-accented dishes -- crisp whites, spicy reds, and sweet Rieslings, most of them low-alcohol Euros from France, Italy, Germany, and Austria. Nine are available by the glass, five by the half-bottle. In addition, the House offers three sakes, nine well-selected beers (the Steelhead extra pale ale is especially sparkly alongside the food), five dessert wines, and 10 disparate Chinese teas ranging from ti kwan yin ("complements spicy and heavier foods") to pu erh ("aids digestion"). The slightly floral chrysanthemum herbal is a fine midmeal accompaniment. The eclectic beverage selection is one of the House's most apropos offerings. What better way to straddle the Broadway citadel than with an aperitif of prosecco di valdobbiadene and a digestif of lapsang souchon tea bracketing a meal of cross-cultural flavors?

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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