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On the Right Track 

Red Herring Restaurant and Bait Bar

Wednesday, Dec 8 1999
After five years in San Francisco, my friend Dana is leaving -- a sad thing, for sure, but there it is. You could say our paths crossed a few times during that period: I was the first person she laid eyes on the night she arrived in the city (she was staying with my roommate); later, she became my girlfriend; still later, we moved in together -- a union that, I like to think, led to some of her best times in the city (and, she has assured me, some of the very worst). After we broke up, when things had settled a bit, we grew even closer. It wasn't an everyday kinship, but still, we each knew the other was only a local phone call and a cab ride away.

Now Dana's heading east to try her luck in an apple much bigger than this one. She will leave one car poorer, two cats richer, and five years older. To save on rent, she will stay with me during her final weeks, just as she did when she first arrived. Assuming she can cadge a ride to the airport, I will be the last person she sees before leaving, and this whole chapter of her life will have a nice symmetry to it, as though things were meant to turn out as they did.

As heir apparent to whatever furniture and kitchenware Dana leaves behind (my favorite part of the deal), I figured it would be remiss of me not to commemorate her departure with one last meal. Which led us to Red Herring, the newest addition to tony Steuart Street.

Red Herring evolved out of the former Bistro Roti. In its dining room, dark wood and brick reminiscent of the old city meet the chichi lighting of the newer, more expensive San Francisco, just as the talents of much-lauded chef James Ormsby meet the countless, ocean-spawned delicacies known to the hungry under the simple term "seafood."

Like Bistro Roti before it, Red Herring leans toward upscale, drawing the most discriminating of diners -- not self-styled gourmets, nor, God forbid, food critics, but well-connected restaurant people, who eat out for free, or close to free (it's called a "comp," and yes, they tip), just about every night. Dana fit the bill, having worked at a number of swank restaurants over the past five years; her friend Tabitha is a manager at a well-known North Beach eatery, and both graduated from a prestigious culinary institute. To sample the wine list we invited James, a former assistant sommelier.

We began with alcohol, a contributing factor in at least 30 dozen of the best evenings of my life. With more than 100 wines at his disposal, James opted for variety with a Riesling flight from the Herring's global sampler ($9), which featured half-glasses of the following: 1) a Smith Madrone, Napa Valley (reminiscent of white peaches, or perhaps honeysuckle); 2) a Leeuwin Estate, Australia (far too muted and unassertive, like the kid in school who knew the answer to every question but was too shy to raise his hand); and 3) a Weingut Carp-Schreiber, Germany (spicy, complex, fruity, traditional, certainly the best of the three).

I, on the other hand, chose an Absolut Mandrin and tonic ($6), which hinted of ... hmm, I'd have to say orange, although it had a certain tonic quality to it as well.

For appetizers, we began with a half-dozen Sinku oysters on the half-shell ($10.50) over crushed ice, which were accompanied by slices of lemon, a sassy champagne mignonette, and an unfortunate ketchuplike cocktail sauce that needed something -- anything! -- to make it spring to life.

On first taste, I feared that the pumpkin soup with toasted pumpkin seeds ($5) would also leave us wanting. However, the purée lingered subtly on the palate; one of those clever soups that makes you think it's not going to do it, and then, before you know it, it's done. The spicy Maine crab and cucumber salad in crispy cones ($10.50) had the opposite effect. Topped with a sprinkling of tobiko, the cones were as good as food gets on the first bite, but needed more zest to satisfy all the way through. And while James was quite fond of the fresh Florida shrimp tamale with ancho chile masa and Scharffen Berger mole ($8), we were all dazzled by the Amalfi white anchovies on tomato bruschetta ($6.50), which was sprinkled with a vinaigrette so piquant it could have stirred the taste buds of the dead.

The dedicated oenophile will find Red Herring a sample-friendly destination. The wine list features some 20 vintages by the glass -- and, for those not ready for such a commitment, by the half-glass -- allowing James to create a flight of his own. Moving on to reds, he chose a Langlois Chinon ($3.75), which had a full body, perhaps a voluptuous body, but by no means a bodacious body (I was worried about that); an inky, South African Delheim Pinotage ($4), which proved burly in a lean way, ferocious yet not overly aggressive, earthy but pleasantly refined; and a far more gentle Villa Guilia Chianti, Tuscany ($2.75), a smooth, soft, almost romantic third leg of the flight.

Like the wine list, Red Herring's entrees span the globe, with mixed, but for the most part pleasurable, results. The tuna "steak au poivre" ($19.25) with garlic mashed potatoes and cognac peppercorn sauce was a bit of a letdown, since the coarse-ground pepper that coated the meat also overwhelmed it. We could have been eating peppered anything. Better was the grilled jumbo shrimp and braised oxtail ($18.25) -- huge, lobsterlike shrimp and tender, fatty oxtail served with a smoky, almost gamy, sauce diable.

And better still were the India-inspired entrees. The grilled, tamarind-glazed salmon ($17.50) with pumpkin curry was spectacular, the salmon cooked so that just a glimmer of rawness remained. Better still -- in fact, just about perfect -- was the tandoori snapper ($20), a whole fish served with tomato rajma curry and an enthralling banana rajita. Everything about this dish impressed: the color scheme (bright red to orange to mild, milky yellow), the fish itself (so tender that, with a little skilled utensil work, the skeleton peeled off without so much as a whimper), and, more than anything, the two side dishes, the curry sweet but not overly spicy, the rajita so poignant, so soothing, so ... screw it, so fucking good I just don't know what else to add.

At this point, we were all quite full. And a bit tipsy, given the repeated toasts to Dana's departure, which were spoiled only by her protests that she wouldn't be leaving for another month (please, we urged her, let us grieve). For dessert, we chose the eminently shareable Battle Chocolate ($7) -- a magnificent Scharffen Berger brownie topped with vanilla ice cream (which won on three of four score cards), an El Rey milk chocolate frozen soufflé (which won on the fourth), and a far-too-innocent Valrhona devil's food cake, which didn't even make the weigh-in. And, for the coup de grâce, we ordered a pair of cheap dates (49 cents each) -- dates wrapped in crispy chocolate phyllo dough, served piping hot from the oven.

And then, sadly, it came to an end, and Dana was one dinner closer to being gone. As we headed our separate ways, James and I vowed to dine together again, that I might take advantage of his intimate knowledge of the grape and correspondingly colorful use of verbiage. Which got me thinking about how funny life can be: For example, Steuart Street lost Bistro Roti, but gained the impressive Red Herring. I, on the other hand, will soon lose a very lovely and charming former girlfriend, but can at least drown my sorrows in high style with an equally charming -- though not quite so pretty -- former assistant sommelier.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin


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