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Eating Big Bird 

Wednesday, Feb 24 1999
1457 18th St. (at Connecticut), 648-9999. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner daily 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations recommended; call two days ahead for parties smaller than four. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: on-street, downhill from the restaurant. Muni: 22 Fillmore. Sound level: moderately noisy.

205 Oak (at Gough), 621-4819. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner daily 5 to 9:45 p.m. Reservations recommended; call two days ahead for parties smaller than four. Not wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult daytimes, street parking possible most evenings (or try the large lots west of the Opera House). Muni: short walk from all Metro lines (Van Ness station), all Haight and Van Ness lines, F Market, 21 Hayes, 26 Valencia. Sound level: medium.

The idea of eating ostrich has always piqued my curiosity. It's ultralean, dark red meat, ranch-raised in Texas, closer in flavor to beef or buffalo than to poultry. Tuning in to the Bay Cafe cooking show one Sunday, I caught Ping Sung, chef/owner of Eliza's, hammering the big bird's meat. I've sampled little scraps of ostrich at food shows, but here was a chance to try a whole portion in a Hunanese stir-fry. We promptly headed for Eliza's Potrero Hill branch, where Ping Sung presides.

My friends on Potrero Hill rave about Eliza's $5 lunches (soup and a veggie-rich stir-fry over rice) and jam the joint at dinner. Perched atop the hill, the restaurant is distinguished for its neo-deco decor and its Californiafied Mandarin-Hunanese cooking, which incorporates such fashionable ingredients as chanterelle and portobello mushrooms, fresh basil, and mango, as well as ostrich. It's not fusion per se, but a smart update of 1950s Chinese-American restaurant food, adapted for the sophisticated tastes of the '90s.

Eliza's interior is plastic and proud of it, with multicolored blimp-sculptures hanging overhead, a large semiabstract stained-glass jungle scene lighted from within, and a similar insert bulging from the small semicircular bar with its retro chrome-legged barstools. (The huge tropical indoor plants are not plastic.)

At each place setting is a laminated orange card of specials and a paper menu with standard Chinese restaurant dishes listed in the side columns, flanking a center column of house specials (Hunan lamb, Shanghai chicken, et al.). As we pored over the documents, we poured ourselves tea, which proved abominable -- made from a single tea bag holding leaves of no distinction, it remained tasteless no matter how long it steeped. Fortunately, a decent little wine list offers affordable glasses and bottles, though it's heavily biased toward chardonnays. Spicy food demands something fruitier, so we chose the sole Gewurztraminer, a '97 DeLoach ($18), which proved a good match.

We launched into a combination plate of tidbits from the appetizer menu ($6.75 serves two), accompanied by ramekins of standard Chinese-restaurant condiments. But we struggled with the slick red-lacquered chopsticks. They'd make nice hair ornaments, but for eating, give me plain wood any day. Reverting to forks, we tasted: vegetarian egg rolls that serendipitously substituted lettuce for the usual cabbage, but whose flavors were bland. "Crabmeat Rangoon," one of "Trader Vic" Bergeron's faux-tropique inventions, had melty cream cheese and whispers of crab and mango in deep-fried wonton skins. Pot stickers featured the usual filling in unusually delicate shells, best sauced from the miniteapots of soy sauce and rice vinegar in the corner of the table. "Drums of heaven" were deep-fried battered chicken-wing drummettes with the aroma of Chinese five-spice seasoning.

Eliza's renowned matchstick-cut celery salad ($3.50) was original and interesting, with little batons of house-pickled ginger. Sizzling rice soup ($6.50/$8.50) didn't sizzle -- the rice cake was too pale and tepid for such dramatics -- but the salty broth contained a cornucopia of tender scallops, shrimps, fresh water chestnuts, and enoki and cremini mushrooms.

At last it was ostrich time. Eliza's offers the meat prepared with either Chinese garlic chives or mango ($10), and we opted for the latter -- but we'd forgotten a vital proviso. At the bottom of the menu it says, "Please tell us how hot and spicy." Hunanese food needs hot pepper to brighten the heavy sauces, but we'd neglected to specify, so the kitchen defaulted to mild.

Pounded to a cube-steak texture and "velveted" by a cornstarch marinade, small squares of the meat were bathed in a typically dark, thick sauce enlivened with diced mango.

A special of chanterelles with shrimp ($10) had ample crisp veggies (green beans, red pepper) stir-fried along with the precious mushrooms in a light, pleasant sauce. Hunan pork ($7.50), sauced much as the ostrich was, included firm-tender cucumber batons. Sunflower chicken ($8) was the fowl version of a house special, sunflower beef. Skip the bird, take the beast; the presentation was pretty, but the sour sauce overpowered the diced chicken breast, and the sunflower seeds mentioned in old reviews were absent.

The next night, we tried the Oak Street branch, which has been operating for about 11 years; the larger, fancier Potrero outpost opened about six years ago. (A third branch at Broderick and California is in the works.) The head chefs are brothers, working separately but sharing: The day begins, said a waiter (himself a brother-in-law to the Sungs), with each kitchen making a set of sauces in sufficient quantity for both locations, and exchanging them in time for dinner.

At Potrero, we had to wait for our reserved table; on Oak, equally thronged, our table was waiting for us. The narrow room boasts its share of Miami deco artworks, neon sculptures, and goofy hanging lamps; a long mirrored wall lends some sense of spaciousness. At both branches, a battalion of servers deliver, refill, and clear as needed whenever they pass; at lunch they're actively trying to turn the tables, but at dinner they don't mean to rush you, they're merely efficient.

Prices run a buck cheaper than up the hill, portions are a little larger, and the specials menu is shorter and less luxurious. When we reprised the appetizer plate ($6), we found the egg rolls better -- a touch of sesame oil made a world of difference. The pot stickers were identical, the "heavenly" drummettes a tad overcooked, the Crabmeat Rangoon even cheesier. The celery salad ($2.75) was brighter-flavored, and the tasty broth of the wonton soup ($5.75/$7.50) was less salty. Thin wonton wrappers, pregnant with a gingery, meaty stuffing, floated amid nearly the same profusion of ingredients as the Potrero branch's sizzling rice soup.

Ostrich wasn't on the printed specials list, but our waiter offered it aloud. We chose the garlic-chive version, remembering to specify "pretty spicy" -- 7 1/2 on a scale of 10 -- and that's just what we got. The same heavy, suave sauce benefited here from a slew of crisp, tasty chopped garlic chives (which are subtler than garlic and stronger than chives), along with dried hontaka chilies that radiated heat and savor. Spicy eggplant ($8.15) was sweet, lush, and piquant, with plump shrimp, large, pungent basil leaves, and slices of mild winter jalapenos.

But China prawns ($8.50) with snow peas and (invisible) pine nuts managed to be both fiery and dull, the prawns' orange-white sauce tasting of nothing more than stock, chili paste, and cornstarch. And I should have known better than to order "House Special duck" ($8.25), since it's the lone quacker on the menu. Amid stir-fried veggies and a cornstarchy sauce, the poultry slices were dry-textured, with a reheated flavor suggesting store-bought roast duck. (The leftovers were better, after absorbing the sauce overnight.)

Neither branch of the restaurant offers dessert, but you get fortune cookies with your bill. Eliza's popularity is easy to understand: It offers good-looking settings for comfortable Chinese food overlaid with Cal-cuisine gourmet fillips.

About The Author

Naomi Wise

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