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Mixed Blessing 


Wednesday, Nov 14 2001
People think it must be easy being a food critic: You just eat, drink, jot down an opinion, and send your employer the bill, right? Though that is the gist of it (praise the Lord), the job has its challenges -- especially in the writing. After a while, you run out of food-related anecdotes. It's hard not to fall into a standardized format, but then you risk getting stuck in a rut. Around the 80th review, you grow tired of the same old adjectives (one of my greatest disappointments with the English language is that there's no good synonym for "crisp"). I try to keep things fresh, but who knows? After a few more years, my prose may be as fungal as that of Chronicle Food Editor Michael Bauer, who has used the laziest descriptive of all ("delicious") nearly once a week for the past three years.

What can be even more challenging is the final pronouncement. I try to boil it down to one question: Given the abundance of choices in this city, would I spend my own money to eat at the restaurant again? Often, the answer is obvious ("Already have," "I'd rather eat a boot"). At other times, I wrestle with it, as I did after a recent visit to 16th Street's Andalu. Though the name implies Spanish fare, Andalu serves international tapas, from Vietnamese spring rolls to chicken yakitori to steak frites to seared scallops with truffled leeks. Certainly, mixing and matching is nothing new, but I had to wonder whether the diversity would confuse the palate -- and whether the kitchen would be able to execute so many different cuisines.

The answer begins with a little bit of personal information. In addition to my regular interests (food, drink, sleep) I like to play football on Saturdays. After one game, I stopped at the old Maya Taqueria for a burrito. Unfortunately, the burrito sucked, so I wished ill on the place, and though I don't want to overestimate my powers, Maya did close a few months later, clearing the way for Andalu to rise in its stead.

A few weeks ago, flanked by my friends David, Elsbeth, and Petra, I strolled into Andalu and beheld one of the finest redecorating jobs I've ever seen. The new space is deliciously cool, a happening kind of spot. The ceiling is painted to look like a summer sky, clouds and all. Brown velvet drapes and tall windows add an elegant, supper-clubbish feel. Seating runs from bar-style tables with high stools to more traditional, feet-on-the-floor arrangements. The mezzanine looked gorgeous, the soundtrack included rap and acid jazz, and our waiter won us over from the get-go with a casual chattiness.

At a distance, the wine list seemed a simple, one-page document, but the print was dense and occupied both sides. Nine nations are represented via 62 full bottles, 37 half bottles, 42 wines by the glass, and an experiment-friendly 11 flights of three vintages each. We opted for sangria, which seemed better suited to our larger party. The red port sangria was a divine ambrosia redolent of honey, and though I was dubious of the white sangria (which is often too sweet), it, too, was superb, with a sharp, invigorating citrus edge.

After settling the drinks, we got down to the eats. Among the smaller plates, a selection of marinated olives was quite large for the price, but it needed more seasoning to come off as anything more than a dish of olives. Similarly, the spicy cashews tasted like cashews, which I like, but if a restaurant bills them as "spicy" it needs to deliver at least an undertone of fire.

The menu's scope expands with larger tapas. Curly polenta fries were hulking, awesome things -- a crackling, golden outer layer gave way to a rich, semimolten center, and the fries took wonderfully to a zesty tomato sauce. Following them was a fine example of new-school sushi-making -- a tempura'd sushi roll whose whisper-light skin enveloped a luxurious core of avocado and crab. I often make Vietnamese spring rolls at home and love to experiment, so I was jazzed about Andalu's version, which combined the standard lettuce/rice vermicelli filling with crunchy asparagus, red bell pepper, and a clever, subtle accent of sriracha chile sauce.

Ahi tartare tacos (talk about fusion) were cute little things; we'll call them taquettes. The shell -- made of thin-shaved, deep-fried potato -- was so delicate it shattered like spun sugar; inside, cool tuna met the bright, tropical flavors of mango, chile, and lime. Grilled Monterey sardines have now joined the seviche sampler at Alma as the dishes that haunt me when I'm alone late at night. The juicy, pungent flesh peeled off the bones with little more than an insinuation of effort, and played wonderfully off an Italian-style salsa verde (parsley, olive oil, and garlic). Skate wing, the main element of our next plate, fell apart in moist, luscious shreds; it came with silky mashed potatoes and brown butter touched with lemon. Had we stopped there, my recommendation would have been thunderous. Sadly, we didn't.

Though the scalloped potatoes served with our suckling pig were blissfully creamy, the pork didn't take well to an overly tart balsamic sauce, and the portion -- a few thin shavings of loin and a single, tiny rib -- was abysmal for nine bucks. Then came the mushroom potpie, which was, to say the least, nondelicious. The mushrooms were tough, and what appeared to be a flour-and-water crust lacked any trace of the fat that makes pie crust rich and flaky. This version broke off in huge, claylike chunks that tasted like a 10-year-old's first attempt at making pizza dough. At that moment, the U.S. was airdropping better food on Afghanistan.

The experience continued to deflate with dessert. Slices of persimmon poached in prosecco could have been cooked in anything; they were so bland that we barely finished half an order. Everyone loved the intensely chocolaty Castilian cocoa that came with an order of doughnut holes, but the holes themselves -- about which I'd heard good things -- were leaden, awful lumps. Was the pastry chef out sick?

It was hard to make sense of it all. Should a few, unforgivable misfires overshadow an otherwise fine meal? People, there's no excuse for bad pastry, and unless you hear otherwise from a reliable source you should avoid any baked goods at Andalu like grim death. But would I go back? After all, the prices are right, the dishes go surprisingly well together, and the sangria just plain kicks ass. So, out of a possible total of one, I'm giving one thumb up. Make sure you try the sardines.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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