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Reality Dines 

Wednesday, Jul 7 1999
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According to Henri Bergson, the philosopher after whose catch phrase the restaurant and wine bar Elan Vital is named, reality cannot be accurately described or symbolized; it must be experienced firsthand, and its nature intuited.

This tends to put the restaurant reviewer, who relies on description, in a bad spot.

It is, however, an excellent outlook for the chef, whose work, unlike that of most other artists, is not typically a representation of any kind -- each dish is directly and completely apprehensible by its audience. Thus we can imagine that Bergson would consider dining to be the aesthetic activity that brings one closest to absolute truth. This is not meant to imply that Elan Vital is a restaurant for the effete seeker of truth: The hearty portions here will stick to the ribs of even the most eternal knowers.

Elan Vital is located in a picturesque region of Russian Hill, down the slope from Union Street and a bit more freewheeling than that area's restaurants. It's one of San Francisco's rising tide of small chef-owned restaurants, places where you never need fear that the food -- which can best be described as imaginative California-style Mediterranean -- is being neglected at the expense of other aspects of the business. The atmosphere is upscale but laid back, the menu's small and seasonal, and there's a good selection of familiar wines from the higher end of the price spectrum. Unfortunately, some of them, particularly the by-the-glass options, suffer a markup as high as 500 percent.

The bread salad ($7) is an excellent place to start your meal. It's a sizable portion, whose deeply flavorful toasted garlicky bread has none of the sogginess that can be the downfall of similar panzanellas. The dish is also well-stocked with mixed lettuces, pungent olives, caperberries, onions, miniature eggs, and cubes of a smooth cheese that resembles unsalty ricotta salata. The other salad option (also $7) consists of cold potato slices and asparagus spears, dressed with (for once) an abundance of truffle oil, and buried in a mound of greens. There are also two soups for $6: a rich, garlic-imbued chowder densely populated with corn and bacon, and a vaguely similar pea puree rife with pan-cetta. Both soups are lent too much salt by their respective cured meat components.

The small assortment of other appetizers includes a lobe of foie gras with a citrus gastrique, mussels in a subtle pastis broth, an eggy goat-cheese tart that would make a good breakfast item, and a baked wedge of brie. This last comes lavishly melted and surrounded by a rich and sweetly appley Calvados reduction, with rounds of cooked apple and a tartly dressed bundle of frisee by way of contrast ($8). It's a luxurious dish, and filling for an appetizer -- best to share.

Entrees vary with some frequency. One tremendous winner is the beef tenderloin ($20). It is sliced into medallions and served atop a lattice of thick, chewy frites in a thin tomato coulis. The meat has a wondrously sapid, peppery crust, while inside it's deep red and meltingly tender. This restaurant knows its way around beef, that's for sure. Not quite as perfect, but still delicious, is a smallish slab of Hawaiian sea bass topped with tapenade in a buttery sauce ($23). The fish is denser and less delightfully flaky than the more popular (and now woefully overfished) Chilean sea bass, but it's got the same slight sweetness, mild flavor, and gentle resiliency.

Vegetarians may enjoy the artichoke stuffed with tomatoey risotto and served in a ragout of vegetables ($15). The ragout is tremendously flavorful, sweet with tomato, carrots, fava beans, peas, and so forth, but the artichoke itself tastes fat-free in the worst sense of the term -- it's bland and on the dry side, although it hints intriguingly of bergamot, as though it had been steamed in Earl Grey tea.

The dessert assortment is an interesting one. The creme brulee ($6) is quite an unusual specimen, very firm and matte, with none of the lush gelatinous springiness one expects. It almost feathers when you scoop it, like smooth ice milk. A frozen souffle of mascarpone ($7) has an enchantingly light texture, but the flavor's perhaps too subtle: It tastes more of generic dairy than of anything else, although the accompanying strips of mint and strawberries lend it some character.

The dessert not to miss is the cherry tartlet ($7), which is sour in a way that West Coast cherries rarely allow, and comes with a giant scoop of white chocolate gelato strewn with nuts and white chocolate chunks. It's a lovely summery study in flavor contrast. The portion, though quite large, is nearly impossible to abandon halfway through -- or to share.

The service is knowledgeable, but can be a bit desultory, Mediterranean-style -- any checking up on the diners is done wordlessly, and there are ample digestive lacunae between courses. The food, though, is vibrant, inspired, and well-executed, with only a couple of missed notes. And the outdoor tables are an excellent place to intuit the duration of reality.

Elan Vital
1556 Hyde (at Pacific), 929-7309. Open Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Reservations recommended but not crucial. Parking: average difficulty. Muni: Hyde Street cable car, 12, 27, 83. Sound level: quiet.

About The Author

Paul Adams

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