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Floats Like a Paperweight 

Butterfly Mission Jazz

Wednesday, Sep 13 2000
This summer, I had an experience that made me wonder if reviewing restaurants was hampering my ability to enjoy life. The time: a frigid afternoon in early July. The place: a good friend's wedding. The vibe: quite festive -- after all, it was a wedding, and some 200 concerned souls had come to dance, drink, huddle against the cold, and wish our host and hostess the very best future imaginable. The experience: perhaps halfway through dinner, I looked around to make sure no one was listening, then turned to my friend Michelle and whispered, "You know, this dill sauce lacks complexity."

Of course, I never would have made such a comment if one of the caterers hadn't insisted I take some dill sauce with my salmon. After all, the rest of the food was good, and the sauce wasn't bad -- it's just that, by insisting, the caterer had raised my expectations, which were dashed when the sauce didn't contain enough feathery, lingering anethum graveolens. It's not like the sauce spoiled the occasion, but still, it made me wonder: Had I somehow become too finicky, too discriminating, too precious, God forbid? I gave the matter some thought, then decided that, no, I hadn't, and what's more, my opinion of that dill sauce (which lacked complexity) remains unchanged to this day.

But then, an opinion (a belief or judgment that is held firmly but cannot be proved) is just that. We all have them, and we all take them with us when we step out to eat, along with our expectations, which tend to be quite high in San Francisco. After all, once the prices get up there -- especially once the prices get up there -- mere nourishment isn't enough. We expect to be dazzled, seduced, challenged, and thrilled; we want innovation and cleverness, or, barring that, flawlessly executed classics created with ingredients at their prime. Fortunately, the city is bursting with establishments that provide these things, which is good news for those of us who pay the checks, but sometimes bad news for those who collect them, because the bar is high, the competition unforgiving, and when a restaurant doesn't deliver what we hoped for, we become disgruntled, and move on to one that does.

I mention these things because they help me explain how a dozen people I know have eaten at Butterfly and not one has come away happy. I myself have eaten there twice -- once during Butterfly's first couple of weeks, then again for this review -- and while things improved somewhat between the first visit and the second (the koi pond, for example, has become a lot less murky) and nothing I tried was entirely bad, I have yet to find anything on the dinner menu that truly shines.

The place is attractive, but not gorgeous, a warehouse-looking space marked by exposed brick and wood rafters, a brightly lit bar and a darkish dining room separated from one another by a stylish glass partition. In a sense, it's a see-and-be-seen kind of establishment, with a young, pretty, professional crowd and music ranging from a DJ spinning house, jazz, and Latin to live jazz bands. The intoxication potential is there -- some 80 wines by the bottle, 19 by the glass, three sakes (not listed on the menu), and a full bar -- but it's nothing remarkable. The service is prompt and well-paced, and the idea -- late-night, tapas-style Pacific Rim dining -- just might be unique enough to sustain a successful venture, but the food, unfortunately, is mediocre at best. Many dishes are overpriced, some are poorly prepared, and nothing on the dinner menu is worth returning for on its own.

Ironically, the cheapest dishes are some of the most worthwhile. An arugula and frisée salad offered a nice blend of fresh greens, silky-sweet grilled white peaches, crunchy, candied macadamia nuts, and a light balsamic vinaigrette, and the grilled poussin (chicken, for non-Francophones, which is not explained on the menu) provided decent eating for the price -- tender chicken sat atop a huge pile of garlic mashed potatoes laced with al dente asparagus.

Meanwhile, the sake-soaked salt-and-pepper prawns in the shell were achingly crisp, if a bit small, but marred by an accompanying lemon-plum sauce that tasted fresh out of the bottle. The grilled baby octopus salad hit all the right notes except one: Crisp, pleasantly bitter frisée (a hit) met juicy, lightly sweet Asian pears (another hit), then mingled with a tangy ginger-soy vinaigrette (bravo!) and crisp little devilfish that tasted overwhelmingly of butane (not good).

The greatest disappointment was the seared dayboat scallops, which made me think of another new place that has live music -- Spear Street's Cosmopolitan Cafe. At Cosmo, you can get an amazing pan-roasted chicken with a heap of sautéed chard and three crisp, summer squash pancakes for $15 -- easily a meal in itself. At Butterfly, for a dollar less you get this: a light, worthwhile house-made kimchi, a delightfully creamy wasabi aioli, and three tiny, quarter-sized scallops -- a meager snack at best.

Two large plates treated us somewhat better. We liked the mahi-mahi and lobster mu shu fish tacos. The tacos themselves were grilled to a pleasant crispness, although I did detect a hint of butane once again; the accompanying heirloom tomato salsa proved adequate, abundant chunks of avocado showed a rare generosity, and the wasabi crème fraîche exuded a nice blend of heat and silkiness. Still, no one was raving, nor did we rave about the surf-and-turf salad -- two smallish, dryish Thai river lobsters, juicy, tangy, thin-sliced skirt steak, pickled ginger no different than you'd find at any sushi house, and tough, dry, visibly undercooked (read: not clear) cellophane noodles that should have never made it out of the kitchen.

Predictably, our hopes were low going into dessert. We ordered only one -- the crème brûlée sampler -- which, to everyone's surprise, proved as clever as anything you can find in this city. We got six mini crème brûlées, five with perfect, caramelized tops, the sixth crowned with a flaming, liquor-soaked fig, which made for a delightful little game. Each of us got to taste all six, and while I can't say for certain what the flavors were, our guesses ran as follows: pineapple cheesecake, silky vanilla, luscious mango, piquant raspberry, boozy fig, and, my favorite, exquisitely tangy apricot. Finally, a reason to come back, grab a table, and listen to some live jazz.

Still, I'd eat dinner elsewhere first, because it's just too easy to do better.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin


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