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Intergalactic Planetary 

Wednesday, Mar 8 2000
One of the most memorable episodes from the Superman comic books I devoured as a kid was when a troupe of touring spacemen set up a sort of extraterrestrial circus just outside Metropolis and invited the local Earthlings to stop by for a little three-ring fun, Martian style. It wasn't the blue flesh and antennaed bovines of the sideshows that beguiled me. It was the food the aliens served up to Clark Kent and Lois Lane, like popcorn the size of basketballs and hot dogs that smelled so good you didn't bother to eat them, because the mere aroma satisfied you straight down to your belly. This was a far more attractive culinary prospect than the stuff the aliens were eating on Star Trek every week: what appeared to be styrofoam meatballs in primary colors, with the occasional Vulcan pilaf thrown in for roughage.

Until an alien restaurateur drops by our little blue planet long enough to serve up his extraterrestrial specialties, or until we've mastered intergalactic travel well enough to taste what's cooking just to the left of Orion's Belt, we're pretty well stuck with the food we have here on planet Earth. And, to understate it, that's good enough for me. What a smorgasbord we have to choose from as it is: corn bread and artichokes and Roquefort cheese, baklava, guacamole, sourdough waffles and potato salad, gravlax and pesto and sate ajam, blackberry pie, clotted cream and fresh peach daiquiris, clam chowder and tandoori chicken and barbecued ribs, bastilla, turkey mole, gazpacho, Linzer torte, steak tartare and blini, tempura and steamed duck, Cornish pasties and red beans and rice -- and that's just the stuff I like.

A good place to sample the food of our planet is the Rooster, a hip little hideaway in what the cartographers are calling Valencia Gulch. Its cuisine cannot (will not!) be pigeonholed by country of origin or continental region. The menu, which changes weekly, plucks culinary influences from all the far-flung and diverse corners of the globe -- a little lemongrass here, a little parmigiano there -- and arranges them in dishes that subtly surpass the sum of their parts.

The setting is a multicultural statement of its own. It's one block and several light-years from Mission Street, on the stretch of Valencia that encompasses taco joints and storefront churches as well as a half-dozen black and red velvet bars, the Elbo Room, La Rondalla, Herbivore, We Be Sushi, and other hipster enclaves. The place looks like it's closed for business; go in anyway. Push past the heavy draperies in the doorway and behold a small, dimly lit room decorated in late Victorian hippie: wrought-iron chandeliers of various sizes dripping with faux crystal, gilt-framed mirrors hanging comfortably above eye level, Rorschach-ian paintings reminiscent of Jackson Pollock, salmon-hued walls inscribed with East Indian swirls and flourishes, a simple wooden bar for contrast, the occasional candle for illumination, and blue-violet curtains edged in gold to keep the hustle-bustle of 22nd and Valencia discretely veiled. It's like a Tim Burton rendering of a dining room designed by Charles Addams, and witty and welcoming for all that.

Unlike the décor, which smacks you in the face until you get used to it, the depth and the complexity of the food sneaks up on you and before you know it you've enjoyed a marvelous and satisfying meal. The "Country Cooking From Around the World" presented by owners Shaw-Na Lee and Jean-Paul Billault and chef Stephen Ganner is a gestalt of disparate elements -- smooth, pungent, rich, savory -- in which no one flavor overwhelms another, but all contribute to the dish's ultimate essence. The finnan haddie salad ($6.50) is a good case in point. I plowed into this platter of fish and greens unimpressed by the shredded lettuce and chunks of meaty haddock; halfway through the plate I was looking forward to every next bite. It has a sparkle that takes you by surprise, a nice spiky buttermilk dressing studded with pickled red onions and fried capers. The steamed mussels ($6.95), on the other hand, are immediately delicious: a big bowl of hot mollusks simmering in a broth spicy and aromatic with coconut, curry, lemongrass, ginger, and other Southeast Asian flavors. Only the fingerling potatoes ($6.95) were lacking in spirit; the lox, sour cream, caviar, and chives couldn't overcome the oversized, ponderous spuds.

The portobello sticks have the same sneaky succulence as the haddock salad; you see these biscotti look-alikes and expect a dried-out exercise in pretension. But then you bite into a stick, and there's all the juicy-meaty-prime-ribby essence of the noble mushroom, with a nice outer crunch for texture. The portobello sticks emerge horizontally from a silky celeriac purée with the taste -- and a bit of the bite -- of horseradish, which serves as a foil for beef short ribs ($17) as moist and crumbly as a really good brisket, braised in a sweet-smoky barbecue sauce. A citrusy confit of baby spinach is the finishing touch to this dazzling dish. The paella ($14.95), while lively in flavor, isn't quite as successful in adding up to a splendent whole, although there's a plenitude of clams and mussels and the chorizo is good and spicy. But the roasted mahi-mahi ($16) melts in your mouth, while its plattermates, puréed potatoes ribboned with salt cod, crunchy fried leeks, bracingly fresh snap peas, and a curry-charged beurre blanc, add supporting notes of such complexity, it's astounding that they not only work together but work together so well.

Subtlety returns at dessert time in the form of bread pudding ($6); you dig in and think to yourself, "Well, this is just a bowl of bread and butter." Then it goes to work on you: the undercurrent of rum, the brûléelike silkiness of the cream, the tangy blueberry ice cream melting on top. The lemon tart ($6), while unexciting, does sport a dollop of sharp crème fraîche to lend it piquancy. And the dark chocolate ooze ($6.50), prepared with Valrhona's best, is moist cake on the outside, oozy indeed within, with an accompanying scoop of gelato ribboned with chunks of Heath bar and flavored with banana in so subtle a fashion that even an anti-banana zealot like myself could halfway enjoy it.

To go with the panglobal food there's music that might, in the course of a meal, flit from Indian tabla to Greek bouzouki to Gypsy fiddling to Benny Goodman & His Orchestra. The wine list is equally polynational: champagnes from France, merlots from Sonoma, Riojas from Spain, cabs from Australia, pinot noirs from South Africa, Chiantis from Italy, sauvignon blancs from New Zealand, rieslings from Germany and Austria, tawnies from Portugal, even pear cider from Eric Bordelet's 300-year-old Gallic orchards. And the highly informed, very attentive service is -- yes -- out of this world. Behold a small room decorated in late

About The Author

Matthew Stafford


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