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Mixed Greens 

Wednesday, Feb 23 2000
You don't usually see come-ons as sleek and downtown as Nasturtium when you're out in the Richmond trolling for draft Guinness and piroshki. After all, its setting is a neighborhood of one-family delicatessens, two-screen movie theaters, and three-story apartment buildings, a polyglot of urban suburbia. (Back in the days when the city and county of San Francisco were separate entities, Divisadero was the boundary between the two, and heading out to the avenues was, literally, an out-of-town trip.) Golden Gate Park and the Presidio are persistent pastoral presences, a dozen blocks to the west is where the babushki set congregate for cabbage rolls and black bread, and a block to the north is the liveliest stretch of Clement, with its unbroken string of butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers, and publicans.

When you hit Nasturtium's golden awning you duck off the concrete girth of Geary -- itself an extension of the downtown hustle-bustle -- and find yourself in an intimate little cocktail lounge, a cool, elegant hideaway of deep pastels, handblown glassworks, and a wood-and-granite bar behind which glistens as fine a selection of vodkas and boutique bourbons as can be found west of Van Ness Avenue. This being an oppidan outpost not unlike the Raffles bar in Singapore, you order a Cosmo (or whatever it is the trendy are currently imbibing in the pleasure pits of the Mission) and, after a proper interlude, head into the dining room.

Italianate light fixtures, tall French doors, and rich draperies lend the room warmth and elegance. The menu, proffered by professional yet affable waitstaff, features seared foie gras with a grappa reduction and house-made brioche ($10.50), roasted chicken with white cheddar-jalapeño polenta ($11), roasted rack of lamb with grilled vegetables and Israeli couscous ($17.95), and other equally contempo meditations on American cookery. Chef Michael Hart is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy and a veteran of Zingari, Roti, and Masons. It's almost as if you'd never left the 700 block of Sutter Street.

The nasturtium flower is notable for its flamboyant (and palate-peppery) blossoms, and red/orange/yellow petals accent many plates already aglitter with vertical vegetables and pools of emerald herb reductions. But the nasturtium is, after all, only a flower, with plenty of visual fireworks but not much in the way of culinary-nutritional depth, and many of the dishes featured on its namesake's menu follow its shallow lead.

For starters, the vegetarian cassoulet ($6.50), an appetizer-sized casserole of braised seasonal vegetables, is burdened with an overly generous and starchy gratin and a lukewarm filling reminiscent of Campbell's soup. The wild mushroom terrine ($7.95) is similarly ponderous, with little of the signature ingredient's earthy essence discernible amid the thyme and arugula. The quail salad ($7.95), however, resonates with crisp, smoky flavors -- peppery watercress, nutty-chewy wild rice, a vinaigrette jazzed with pomegranate seeds, the seared, delicate bird itself. And the ahi tuna tartare ($8.95) is as delicious as it is gorgeous: a huge martini glass filled with cubed, raw, juicy ahi dressed with a spicy habanero-infused oil, and spiked with half-foot-tall spears of basil-rich crostini, like so many swizzle sticks.

Among the entrees, the rabbit cooked two ways ($14.95) is another tasty treat: The braised leg is dark and meaty; the sautéed loin is delicate, tender, and slightly smoky. Taken together with its accompaniment of crunchy haricots vert and crisp fingerling potatoes, the results are exemplary. But the lobster ravioli ($14.50) is more ravioli than lobster, with big, cumbersome pockets of pasta enclosing a cursory blend of lobster meat, wild mushrooms, and goat cheese. The pork tenderloin ($13.50), marinated in molasses, is dry and overdone, with a side of mashed potatoes studded with apple chunks offering only occasional respite. And the salmon ($13.50), seared in the pan and served with sautéed frisée and a lifeless roasted-pepper salsa, is encumbered with a thick, tedious coriander crust.

But there's always the wine list. It's entirely Californian (with a few trendy Oregonians sprinkled here and there, as well as a couple of French champagnes), and the markup is not unreasonable. Among the more notable selections: Grgich Hills' 1997 sauvignon blanc ($29); Bonny Doon's 1997 gewürztraminer ($19); Sleepy Hollow's 1997 chardonnay ($58); Saintsbury's 1998 pinot noir ($36.50); Greenood Ridge's 1996 merlot ($37); Elyse's 1996 zin ($37); Rabbit Ridge's 1996 montepiano ($21); and Coppola's Black Label claret ($32). Among the by-the-glass selections are Preston's sauvignon blanc ($4.50), Byington's chardonnay ($5.50), and Secret House's pinot noir ($5). Dessert wines available by the glass include Smith Woodhouse's 1986 port ($6) and St. Supery's 1998 moscato ($4).

Desserts are considerably more satisfying than their predecessors on the menu. There's the cranberry tart ($5.50), a notable showcase in which the tangy fruit is studded with crunchy walnuts and dolloped with a cranberry-infused caramel sauce, the whole set in a rich and buttery crust. The chocolate semifreddo ($5.50), ribboned with nougat and an espresso-hyped caramel sauce, is cool, creamy, and simply delicious. Best of all, the Chocolate Explosion ($5.50) is a big, beautiful blast of spongy mousse with a scoop of creamy gelato tamping the fuse. But the butter pear crisp ($5.50) is all too representative of Nasturtium's intermittent neutrality: too much overly sweet, underly ripe pear, not enough crisp to bring the dish together, no spark to raise the whole above the level of the ordinary.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford


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