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South Pacific Trip 

Wednesday, Apr 5 2000
There are certain species of San Francisco restaurant that come and go and rise and fall and expand and contract but never quite go away: sushi bars, Russian delis, Basque hotels, Parisian bistros, dim sum houses, tandoori joints, Irish pubs, antipasti bars, Korean barbecues, taquerias, tapas bars, and like that. But there are other, more precisely calibrated entries in the local restaurant scene that have snuggled into their own particular parameters over decades of evolution. There's the darkly paneled, brass coat-hooked fish house, where tuxedoed waiters snap off the daily specials with no wasted effort, and simply grilled sand dabs are the pièce de résistance. There's the elegant Chinatown restaurant -- a place of red velvet wallpaper, crisp white tablecloths, Shirley Temples for the kids, and an unyielding menu of wonton soup, chicken chow mein, and fortune cookies. There's the newly remodeled place with a view, where management tries to overcome the stigma of a million-dollar panorama with a freshly recruited, CIA-trained chef and the operative words are "fusion," "Pacific Rim," and "Mediterranean."

And there's the elegantly goofy Polynesian restaurant.

The elegantly goofy Polynesian restaurant combines culinary exotica, Financial District opulence, and multihued cocktails with a show-biz acumen born of Paul Gauguin and National Geographic. The food -- a mulligatawny of Indian curries, Chinese barbecue, and coconut milk, with a soupçon of California Dungeness thrown in -- is usually secondary to the colonial atmosphere and rum-based concoctions with their dazzlingly sculpted swizzle sticks and Gilligan's Island monikers. The model for this subgenre was and is Trader Vic's (with Skipper Kent's, the Tonga Room, and other wannabes trailing in its seafaring wake), but the tradition continues at Le Colonial, Shanghai 1930, and, now, Ponzu.

All three restaurants acknowledge the culinary sophistication of the modern diner by bringing the authenticity of lemongrass and the steam basket to menus previously dominated by Bongo Bongo Soup and canned sauerkraut, but Ponzu is the best of them because it embraces to an unprecedented degree the fun-loving goofiness quotient of the classic model. The place, which opened in January, has (to paraphrase Raymond Chandler) more curves than a scenic railway, from the undulating vestibule to the long wooden bar to the red-velvet banquettes to the walls themselves; it's like some precocious offspring of Farallon and the Cypress Club. Peach-colored draperies complement the prevalent red velvet, the massive, curry-colored pillars, and the intricately patterned red-gold carpets and headrolls. The aforementioned bar is backed by three towering aquariums lively with colorful tropical fish and vertically aspiring flora, while Halloween-orange lamps, emerging at intervals, illuminate your drink of choice.

Exotic cocktails are a primary litmus test at this particular breed of restaurant, and Ponzu passes with flying umbrellas. Chief among the drinks is the Flaming Buddha ($9), in which a miniature you-know-what is drenched in booze and set afire -- troubling imagery to those of us raised in the era of self-immolating monks, but dazzling nonetheless -- after which you stick a straw in the Buddha's navel and suck up the rum-fruit juice concoction concealed within. Not as attention-grabbing (but tastier) is the Yuzu ($7), a sweet-savory combination of vodka, yuzu juice, and pickled ginger, shaken and served in a very hip cobalt blue-bottomed martini glass. The Ponzu Mary ($7.50) adds wasabi, soy sauce, and a hint of sake to the classic pick-me-up, with gratifying results. And the Key Lime Pie ($7.50) is as creamy, spiky, and bittersweet as the genuine article, with a jolt of vodka thrown in for good measure.

The show-bizzery continues with the opening of the menu (two stiff planks enclosing parchment, incidentally). There's "Bang-Bang" chicken salad ($8), "hacked" lemongrass chicken ($12), steak "with things Korean" ($15), and "Green Monster" noodles ($5.75). Such culinary cuteness usually foreshadows an evening of tedious food, but chef John Beardsley has the wit to introduce Ponzu's lively nature into his creations without succumbing to gimmickry or glop. Setting it apart from many an Asian restaurant, Ponzu's flavors -- predominantly citrus and spice -- are kept clean and distinct, and the cream and crunch of disparate textures interact rather than collide. The strudellike roti ($5), for instance, is an airy, cloudlike reinterpretation of the Indian breadstuff, served with pots of sweet mango-papaya chutney, bitter pickled lime, and an array of festive spices that, in their myriad combinations, provide an invigorating introduction to your meal.

At each table is an iron stand holding the three dipping sauces you can use to complement your food: a salty, toasted five-spice mixture, a citrusy soy sauce (from which the restaurant gets its name), and a hot-to-steaming jalapeño purée sweetened with orange. There's also usually an introductory, complimentary amuse-bouche, which one recent night was edamame, pickled cucumber, and braised Napa cabbage. We followed these up with a series of easy-to-share snacks and family-style platters.

The spring rolls ($9.50), served cool, get their own dipping sauce, a tamarind-edged variety that interacts beautifully with the dish's green mango and crab meat. The beef carpaccio ($9) is tastily individualized with the flavors of peanut, peppermint, and cucumber. Despite their heavy, ponderous nature, the Thai chicken wings stuffed with shrimp ($7) have a wonderfully peppery caramel coating. The barbecued Mongolian lamb ($14) is nicely complemented with a chili-infused jam and a restorative cilantro salad. A stir-fry of scallops and duck meat ($16) doesn't quite come off, despite a spiky black bean sauce, but the Evil Jungle Prince ($5.50) is a creamy, soothing amalgam of coconut milk, lemongrass, sweet basil, and a jungle of vegetables, including a variety of cucumber that absorbs the dish's flavors and snaps them back at you.

One of the two best dishes on the menu is a chicken curry ($13) that's unlike any in my experience: The flavors are vivid, with the starring crispy-moist chicken fillets interacting with supple dates, crunchy almonds, and the barely sweet bite of pickled green peaches. The other terrific dish is the coconut cream puffs ($5.50), a knockout of a dessert in which the crisp, cookielike puffs are stuffed with an unsweetened cream studded with coconut shards and served with two last dipping sauces: a dense, almost fudgy bittersweet chocolate and a caramel rich with butter and sugar.

The wine list, full of vintages chosen to match the sweet-hot flavors on the menu, is supplemented with a wide array of premium sakes and draught beers. The location, Taylor and O'Farrell, is adjacent to the striking Serrano Hotel, its recently refurbished Old World elegance perhaps symbolic of an encroaching Tenderloin retrofit. But the mood -- elegant, exotic, adventurous, and tasty -- is in the best, most time-honored San Francisco tradition

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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