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Orson Not Well 

Ambitious, edgy California cuisine flirts with the future in uneven fashion.

Wednesday, Jul 23 2008

San Francisco hasn't seen a lot of the cutting-edge style of cooking called molecular gastronomy. It features deconstructed dishes (often with poetic or jokey names), ingredients combined in unexpected and sometimes startling ways, innovative cooking methods including "sous vide" (sealed in plastic and cooked slowly in a below-boiling water bath), and various chemical explorations — the whole served up all too often under a blanket of foam.

But in truth the world hasn't seen a whole lot of molecular gastronomy. There's Ferran Adria, the Spanish father of it all, and a scattering of acolytes around the world: Heston Blumenthal in England, Wylie Dufresne in New York, and Grant Achatz in Chicago. Nowhere on the menus of these guys (and they're all guys) does the phrase "molecular gastronomy" appear. It's a phrase invented by food scholars. But the influence of molecular gastronomy has touched many menus, and not just with foams and sous-vide cooking. Now it's even on the most recent season of Top Chef, as Richard Blais of Atlanta appeared with a suitcase full of modern tricks and made it all the way to the finale, only to come in second.

In San Francisco, Coi's Daniel Patterson stirred up a little trouble with a New York Times piece bemoaning the pervasive influence of Alice Waters and her ingredient-worshipping Chez Panisse over local restaurants, an influence that threatens to "smother stylistic diversity and extinguish the creativity that it originally sought to spark."

Stylistic diversity and creativity certainly inform the cooking at Orson, the newest restaurant from one of San Francisco's favorite chefs, Elizabeth Falkner, the spiky-haired blonde instantly recognizable from her appearances on Iron Chef America and as a guest judge on Top Chef. Her experiments at Citizen Cake, her popular Hayes Valley restaurant, are most evident on the pastry side of the menu: unusual flavorings and combinations of ingredients, in often surprisingly artful forms. (Falkner has a B.A. in fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute.)

When Orson first opened five months ago in the midst of SOMA clubland, its multi-paged, all-small-plates menu confused some people. The latest incarnation of Orson's menu reassuringly states that the food is "rooted in traditional California cuisine and flirts a bit with the future." The restaurant wants to have it both ways — classical East Bay ("local, organic, and sustainable") and innovative — using all the molecular tropes, like unexpected combinations and textures, sous-vide cooking, foams, and creative names. The Web site proclaims it "Edgy California Cuisine."

Nowadays, the menu is contained on a single page. Playing off the movie theme evident in its name, the headings are "shorts," for about a dozen small plates, and "premieres," for half a dozen main courses. A section of half a dozen pizzas is titled "from the wood-fired oven," and there are five different "companion" dishes. Four tasting menus are offered, requiring the participation of the entire table, at relatively gentle prices ranging from three courses for $55 to five for $70. Falkner's chief collaborator is chef de cuisine Ryan Farr, veteran of San Francisco's tony haute-cuisine outposts Charles Nob Hill and Fifth Floor. It is considerably less formal in the enormous ex-warehouse SOMA space that houses Orson, with its gray concrete walls, steel catwalk, and bare wood tables.

The dish descriptions — three or four ingredients — look new and exciting, challenging you to imagine their tastes. Grilled octopus salad, beef tendon, sprouted nuts? Sardines, butter beans, maitake mushrooms, kohlrabi?

Warned by our server that portions are on the small side, the three of us ordered four starters. The smoked tempura egg ($10) was delightful: Under a delicate tempura and nori batter, a magically still-runny yolk ran into a scallion broth jeweled with bright-green favas. The lengua (tongue) croquette ($7) was a bit stolid, dense, and one-note, perched on purslane leaves studded with fat fresh cherries; the combination seemed to need something more (a touch of acid?) to make it brighter. The wackiest dish was a satin-textured slick of mild-flavored Parmesan pudding ($6) with pepper jam and a "cocoa nib explosion," which turns out to contain a pop-rock-like ingredient that tingles in the mouth. The most traditional dish was the house-made charcuterie ($16), a beautifully arranged platter of intriguingly spiced rye salami, a duck-and-cherry terrine, strips of mildly curried lardo (pig fat) on grilled bread, and bresaola-like dried tri-tip, dotted with mustard and propped on pickled carrots and onions. And we didn't find the portions undersized.

We were somewhat distracted by the arty collage film projected on the back wall behind the huge U-shaped bar, partially obscured in the view from our suede banquette by the bar's huge white hanging light fixture. We made out jump-cut flashes of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, To Catch a Thief, The Party, The Avengers, and Sean Connery with a cat-stroking villain — was that from You Only Live Twice?

Since one of our three is a pescatarian, we looked harder at the hamachi collar for two ($32), prepared with fennel, yuzu, and togarishi, a Japanese multi-spice blend, than at the aged ancho-rubbed ribeye for two ($48), but decided to spread our dining dollars over two less pricey fish dishes and a meat dish: smoked trout ($18) and seared skate ($19), and the simply but irresistibly named roasted pig ($20). The rosy smoked salmon trout, cooked sous-vide, had a nice flavor but was disconcertingly soft, almost mushy, and was not particularly well served by its also too-soft succotashlike partner of white corn, bacon, and cubes of house-baked brioche. The seared skate was tasty, but was also on the mushy side, and save for a touch of watercress, would have been an all-white, all-rather-soft-textured dish, with its lovely baby turnips and boring batons of potato confit. The roasted pig paired an exciting fried patty of trotter and a chunk of pork belly with a witty ravioli full of broth that moistened some standard slices of loin, with a bit of welcome summer fruit and disappointing chunks of summer squash. We liked the well-tarragoned browned butter béarnaise that came with the duck fat French fries, but the fries themselves seemed, again, standard-issue and much less duck-fat-succulent than they should have been.

From the surprisingly brief wine list — 16 whites, seven reds — we enjoyed a very local, very jammy El Dorado County Westwood Syrah ($45).

The playful dessert list from Falkner's protégé Luis Villavelazquez is divided into naughty (one dark-colored trio of chocolate, blackberries, and black cardamom gelato called "vice city," for example) and nice ("sundae always comes too late," banana mousse, pecans, and chocolate croquettes). The dessert assortment called "night flight" ($15) was, after the smoked tempura egg, my favorite dish of the meal: four tiny temptations, including "New York, New York," cheesecake in the guise of whipped cream; a square of olive oil cake topped with a sliver of rhubarb and drizzled with a chartreuse reduction; a tiny chocolate log with brown butter ice cream; and the almost-shocking Pigwich, maple-bacon ice cream sandwiched between two crisp pizzelle cookies. The orderer of the nice "rosebud remastered" ($10) was disappointed by the egg-shaped rose crème brûlée sided by a dust of crushed pistachios mixed with saffron and crushed chili peppers and a tuft of tiny licorice greens, so we tried again with the fragrant "summer snow," ($10) a lychee soup bearing lemon verbena sorbet, sliced white peach, Hoegaarden beer white foam, and bright edible flowers. But she preferred her after-dinner quaff called "Purple Rain" ($10), crème de violette, absinthe, and sparkling wine, a creation of mixologist Jacqueline Patterson, who'd also provided us with a passion fruit–flavored "Lady from Shanghai" ($12) and a minted-rum "New Cuban" ($12) before dinner.

Of all we'd sampled, I only would have wanted to eat the tempura egg, the trotter patty, and the dessert sampler again. The ambitious menu reminded me a little of the film projected on the back wall: Yes, stylistically diverse and creative, but distracting and not cohesive, with too many unrelated bits and pieces, and ultimately rather unsatisfying.

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Meredith Brody

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