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Women seem to love the place -- if you want to scope babes, Spoon is for you.

Wednesday, Jan 23 2002
"Spoon" sounded like a cool name for a restaurant. It's one of those simple, familiar words that resonate across our great language. The basic meaning refers to the gentlest of eating utensils, meant to cradle such comforting foods as soup, porridge, and ice cream. The word is also part of many sayings. You can be born with a silver spoon in your mouth, measure out your life with a coffee spoon, be spoon-fed, or count your spoons after a visit by a person you don't trust. According to the nursery rhyme, the dish ran away with the spoon -- a strange, vaguely kinky image. People play the spoons, hang spoons from their noses, and enjoy the heat of other human beings via the cozy position known as "spooning."

Thus, Spoon had a mark in its favor before I ate there. Then again, I haven't had the best experiences with its chef, Erik Hopfinger. When I reviewed his work a year and a half ago at Butterfly, the food was overpriced and occasionally sloppy, and the style of cooking -- Pacific Rim fusion -- seemed gimmicky compared with the homier, more soulful dishes other new restaurants were knocking out at the time. Now at Spoon, Hopfinger has abandoned the mu shu taco in favor of a promising Cal-American menu that runs from pizzas, salads, and pastas to well-conceived, higher-end appetizers and entrees. The menu reads wonderfully, the portions are gargantuan, and Spoon is capable of putting out a fine meal; unfortunately, à la Hopfinger's stint at Butterfly, the new operation is sloppy.

Spoon is located in a tiny storefront space on the Russian Hill stretch of Polk Street. It's a cute little setup: Step past a heavy curtain and you'll find golden, glowing hues, pots of fresh grass at every table, and a soul-heavy soundtrack that could have been pulled straight from the latest episode of Ally McBeal. Women seem to love the place -- so if you want to scope babes, Spoon is for you. In fact, Spoon is doing such good business that, during a recent dinner visit, the host seemed entirely overwhelmed. My friend Petra and I had a reservation, but he had no free tables, so he asked if we'd like to come back later (not really). He then sent us to the bar, where we sat for 20 minutes. When a two-top opened up, we asked if we could have it, but he shook his head no, seeming annoyed by the request. We asked for the still-empty table again five minutes later, and this time he seated us. Needless to say, it made a terrible first impression.

Spoon has no liquor license, which is a shame, because the 38-bottle wine list ($16-45, to be revamped next month) is one of the worst I've ever seen. I could buy many of the brands at my corner liquor store. A half-bottle of Meridian chardonnay tasted grassy and flat. A mango sake cocktail was syrupy and sweet. Perhaps beer (six on tap) would have been the best way to go. In what is often a bad sign, the menu contained a number of misspellings (all but "shitake" have since been corrected). Even the prices have gone up since I first visited (they're current here).

To say Spoon will fill you up is an understatement. We started with an assortment of oven-warmed breads and a side of lightly spiced, entirely addictive Spanish almonds -- so much food from the get-go that it nearly spoiled our appetites. Beyond that, many dishes looked great on paper but fell victim to small, irksome glitches. For example, an appetizer of grilled spot prawns -- smoky, pancetta-wrapped morsels stuffed with radicchio and basil -- came with a grainy, undercooked truffled white bean ragout. A second starter, the Tokyo tartare, was the lone Butterfly-style holdout. From a distance it looked like a nacho plate, and if you ask me, it should remain at a distance. Wonton chips blanketed with green onions and wasabi aioli surrounded a heap of minced ahi doused with fiery sriracha chile sauce. The only flavors that came through were wasabi and sriracha (cheap condiments, really) -- a blunt-force treatment akin to slathering lobster with mustard and ketchup.

Our lone salad, on the other hand, was spectacular. Mixed greens, impeccably dressed with a soft, subtle white balsamic/walnut oil vinaigrette, were served with thin-sliced pear overlaid with rich manchego cheese, the whole tossed with shredded pear and manchego so that we got a taste of this fine combination with every bite. The crisp thin-crust pizzas were also fabulous, and make for an excellent light meal at the bar. A rock shrimp and roasted pepper version came with a zippy pesto topped with fontina and asiago cheeses -- a sophisticated pie reminiscent of the bar menu at Hawthorne Lane. If you're looking for something different, try the Waldorf pizza with arugula, candied pecans, pears, and blue cheese, a seemingly odd combination of pungent cheese and sweet toasted nuts that worked better than I thought it would.

Five pastas include the "mack" (daddy?) and cheese -- a perfectly satisfying mix of tender macaroni baked with creamy cheddar, a crunchy crumb topping, and optional (but worthwhile for a buck extra) chunks of ham. The ravioli of the day consisted of cocktail napkin-size bundles stuffed with crab and buttery lobster, served in a tangy saffron-tomato sauce. If you think I was kidding about Spoon ladling out the grub, know that the ravioli came with a trio of hulking, succulent prawns. And if you think I was kidding about the rough edges, keep in mind that the pasta was also supposed to come with a crab cake, which in our case had been forgotten.

Spoon also offers a half-dozen entrees, beautifully plated in a towering architectural style. Cylinders of juicy king salmon grilled in chardonnay leaves -- the ultimate California-style dolma -- came served with a heap of lip-smackingly good braised greens and roasted red potatoes. Grilled beef tenderloin wasn't quite as tasty. Though the meat was blessedly tender and accompanied by smoky grilled asparagus and garlic mashed potatoes, the dish was finished with so much blue cheese sauce that we had to fight the stuff off.

Desserts were pricey compared to similar restaurants, but they were also surprisingly elaborate. Spoon's molten-center chocolate cake wasn't as decadently gooey as some versions I've had, but was still a fine pastry; it came with a piquant raspberry sauce, a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a handful of exquisitely etched chocolates. The spiced apple cider was a conceptual dazzler, though in practice it didn't work. Our server presented us with a large bowl containing grape-size nubbins of McIntosh and a cylinder of apple compote topped with a microthin wafer that, in turn, bore tiny, adorable scoopettes of cinnamon-caramel ice cream. He then poured cider into the bowl from an iron teakettle, which would have engulfed the table in a cloud of fragrant steam had the cider still been hot. When I ordered the dish, however, it took so long to arrive that the liquid had become tepid -- like my overall impression of Spoon. I'd recommend the place, with reservations: After all, it doesn't matter how well a menu reads if the kitchen keeps forking things up.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin


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