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Until We Eat Again 

Cafe Monk

Wednesday, Oct 4 2000
My friend Barrie is moving from San Francisco to Covina. Yes, that's an utterly incredible statement, and about as easy for me to swallow as a fist-sized lump of coal, because Covina is somewhere east of Los Angeles, and a long, long way from here.

She didn't make this decision lightly, of course, because Barrie loves San Francisco as much as anyone I know, but her room has been rented and there's no turning back, which made me realize some truths: that loved ones should be cherished, that self-deception takes its toll, that the more you have the more you stand to lose, and, Lord help me, that my dear friend Barrie -- who was my girlfriend for a year and a half and one of the best, most trustworthy, and irreplaceable friends I've ever had -- is moving. To Covina, a town that is home to Bluesapalooza and the NHRA Thunderfest, and the former bearer of the motto "A mile square and all there."

Granted, this may have something to do with her new sweetie, who lives in Covina, but still, I didn't believe it, because I always figured that, like me, Barrie would remain in San Francisco until today's young captains of industry are sporting dot-combovers and the city's 14 hills have eroded to 13 nubs and a small mound. I mean, sure, I too have trekked to some pretty strange places in the name of passion -- Stockholm, Hanover, the Hague, Walnut Creek -- but I always came back. And Covina? Permanently? She would have given me million-to-one odds on that a year ago. Such is the power of love.

Of course, I wasn't about to let Barrie skip town without a final meal, which is how we ended up at Fourth Street's Cafe Monk. The first thing we noticed was the sign out front, which looks a bit like a gigantic round of steel-encased cheese, a throbbing, ceaselessly rotating beacon that ushered us into a narrow hallway that, in turn, led to a funky, intimate, warehouse-looking space. The hostess appeared quite happy to see us (a good sign), and in fact just about everything about Cafe Monk was promising, from the diner-style open kitchen to the gorgeous circular bar to the oval-shaped booth at the center of the restaurant. Industrial-style track lights seemed to hover in midair, like falling stars, and soft jazz floated through the atmosphere as a single, orbicular light eased its way from red to green to the warm, luxurious blue of a summer sky over Covina. Portraits of various monks lined the walls -- Edward Hieronymus Monk, Maximum Monk, Baby Betty Monk, while to my left was a painting of a gigantic, lime-green dog. In other words, it's an eclectic space, and worked just fine for us.

We began with two glasses of crisp, piquant Jacquesson rose brut champagne, that I might toast the departure of this dear, dear friend. I hardly knew where to start, actually, and so, I toasted everything, from the good times we've had to the good times we'll have again when Barrie visits to the good times she's sure to have in December at the Covina Christmas Parade. I toasted the new job she hopes to find, and, since Barrie hopes to do good deeds, I toasted them as well. I toasted San Francisco, which will surely welcome her back if she so chooses, then toasted my couch, where she's welcome to crash, then toasted Barrie herself, because she's a sweetheart and an adventurer if ever there was one. Then we toasted the good people at Jacquesson et Fils, for producing such a marvelously toast-worthy brut, and, finally, we toasted the truly cavernous champagne flutes at Cafe Monk, without which so many toasts would not have been possible.

With that, we began our final meal together as fellow residents of San Francisco. Our three appetizers might best be described as California-style Italian dishes with the occasional nod to France, and all three combined ingredients at their prime with a light touch on the seasonings to admirable effect. The sweet corn soup tasted exactly like corn on the cob -- light, wholesome, summery, perfect -- a lively, unassuming chowder anchored by a pocket of tender Dungeness crab. Likewise, the spinach salad showed an appreciation for the goodness of natural foods. Fresh, crisp spinach played off thin-sliced roasted peppers, bits of mild, licoricey fennel, and a slice of cool, luscious mozzarella, the whole underscored by a delicate lemon vinaigrette and a mild, fruity raspberry coulis.

My favorite, though, was a heaping bowl of steamed mussels in an intriguing, anise-tasting pernod broth, which proved as subtle and seductive as any doe-eyed Covinian. At first, I wasn't sold on the broth, and focused on the tender, juicy, perfectly cooked mussels, then turned to the garden of crisp shallots lurking at the bottom of the bowl. But as I ate the shallots, something strange began to happen: I spooned some broth, then spooned some more, and, though I still wasn't sure if I liked it or not, I couldn't stop, either. Even Barrie, who despises mussels for some reason, joined in. We crunched a few shallots, spooned more broth, and dipped some bread, then sat back, contemplated the broth for a moment, and continued -- the undeniable sign of success.

Unfortunately, things slid a bit from there. We waited at least 20 minutes for our entrees, and though our waiter kept assuring us we hadn't been forgotten, it seemed odd the kitchen would fall behind when the place was only half full. Still, we made the best of it -- Barrie enjoyed a glass of crisp, dewy Au Bon Climat pinot blanc, while I suffered though a terrible Edmeades pinot noir with undertones of must and burnt hair. That was a bummer, and while things improved somewhat when our entrees finally arrived, it was hard not to feel that they should have been less expensive, more skillfully prepared, or, ideally, both.

This isn't to say that anything was bad, but that when you hit the $15 to $22 range in San Francisco, a lot of places do better. The pan-roasted salmon was the best of the three -- a good, crisp slab of salmon over Japanese eggplant, zucchini, and onions -- but the accompanying caper vinaigrette proved far too light to take the salmon to the next level. Likewise, the roasted half chicken with Yukon Gold potatoes was bathed in a watery kalamata olive vinaigrette, and though the potatoes were divine, the chicken itself was greasy and not particularly crisp. A pan-seared Niman Ranch rib eye ought to have succeeded splendidly -- tender, savory beef was topped with a dab of creamy peara sauce that allowed the flavor of the meat to shine through -- but the steak was undercooked and accompanied by a side of greasy-looking, unforgivably limp fries.

We got our hopes back up in time for dessert, then watched them deflate as we tried a dryish, uninspired chocolate espresso torte with vanilla bean gelato, followed by fresh raspberries and blueberries served with crisp, chewy Florentine cookies and a flavorless Grand Marnier crème anglaise. Again, we could have done worse, but could have done a lot better, too, and as we left I attempted to send Barrie off with a more exquisite final taste of San Francisco: a garden-fresh wasabi Bloody Mary at Azie. Sadly, she wasn't in the mood for a Bloody Mary. Nor was I, now that I think about it. I guess I was just trying to stave off the inevitable -- the moment when we said goodbye.

That's the part I hate, and if I were to describe the feeling I'd liken it to having a piece torn from my soul, because while I've said my share of goodbyes over the years and will surely say more, I doubt I'll ever get used to it.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin


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