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Upscale Down-Home 

Wednesday, Jul 21 1999
The Blue Plate
3218 Mission (between 29th and Valencia streets), 282-6777. Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 or 11 p.m. Parking: difficult. Muni: 14, 49, 67. Noise level: pleasant.

The other night I prowled the Mission with a dyed-in-the-wool curmudgeon (if such an adjective can describe a mid-30s magazine writer with half his life ahead of him) and another scribe who, due to her early-30s status, hasn't yet turned her back on the world and all its glittering promise.

"When I moved here 10 years ago I knew I was part of the vanguard," the curmudgeon said with the sort of resignation usually reserved for speaking of Henry Ford, Edward Teller, and other destroyers of worlds. He lives now among the Biffs and Tammys of Russian Hill, haunted by the pan dulce of a decade ago, returning now and then to his old stomping grounds in search of the good smells and flavors and finding, instead -- Biff and Tammy. Tonight we are his guests.

The stretch of the Mission we happened to be prowling -- the outer reaches, down toward Bernal Heights -- is still relatively gentrification-free, with lots of families and honest saloons and fragrant tamale joints sprinkled here and there. So gentrification-free, in fact, that there are still remnants of the neighborhood's long-ago Irish heritage. The very Celtic Dovre Club, which relocated south one step ahead of the SUV-propelled hordes, sits now at 26th and Valencia like a relic from some archaeological dig's more subterranean levels. It's a fine place to relax, shoot some stick, and sip a drink in absolute, poseur-free comfort.

Our culinary goal for the evening, a few blocks away, was the Blue Plate, an establishment nicely symbolic of the Mission's creeping whatchamacallit. In a block as cheery as any East Berlin housing development nestles this cutting-edge temple to mizuma, fenugreek, and grilled duck staffed by an ensemble of blooming, eager young hipsters. And despite its place in the Mission's evolving millennial makeup, the food is good -- really good.

The decor bears the homey outlook of its previous tenant: a family-style Mexican restaurant with memories for the curmudgeon. A tiny, shadowy, lived-in front room is sprinkled with candlelit tables and a friendly counter where you can jaw with the convivial staffpersons while you eat. Out in back, a veranda overlooks a small courtyard where diners will be able to sup alfresco once an in-the-works cleanup project is completed. Off to the side of the patio, an unprepossessing smoker does things to the evening's carnivore-friendly specialties.

The Blue Plate opened a couple of months ago under chef-owners Ian Wolff and Cory Obenour, whose culinary creations might best be described as down-home cooking jazzed for upscale urban consumption. (Shortly after we walked in, an unseen DJ sized up our demographic and slipped Ella Fitzgerald into the stereo, much to the curmudgeon's distress: "The yuppie's soundtrack," he muttered.)

The menu both reflects the chefs' respect for seasonal produce and a playful sense of adventure and reads like the punch line to a joke about the excesses of California cuisine: flatiron steak with huckleberry potato salad ($14), mussels in pernod with grapefruit and fennel ($7), lamb stew with Israeli couscous and chiogga beets ($10), bay scallop ceviche with banana chipotle creme fra”che ($6).

Naturally, we dove right in.
One of the very best things about summertime, along with corn on the cob, is the noble, sweet, juicy peach (particularly peeled and eaten raw with whipped cream in a brittle pie crust, but that's just me). The Blue Plate grills the fruit and stars it in a summertime version of the holy salad trinity (fruit, cheese, and nuts), adding to the overall pleasure by casting creamy-pungent Gorgonzola in the cheese role and roasted pecans as the nuts, and supporting the production with a healthy cushion of feathery mizuma, the delicate Japanese green ($6). Perhaps the mizuma was too delicate; an extra jolt of vinaigrette would have been nice.

Another starter, polenta ($6), is an excellent accompaniment to the salad: deep, earthy, crusty, studded with thick chunks of smoked bacon, its salty-smoky essence freshened with hits of wild arugula and a salsa made from sweet toy box tomatoes. The smoker out back conjures up a third starter, capon ($7). How this big-breasted rooster made it onto the appetizer menu is beyond me; suffice it to say the result is dry and overcooked and barely tasting of smoke, let alone poultry. Even the raspberries, hazelnuts, and manzanillo olive oil sharing the platter can't inspire flavor out of these tedious slabs of meat.

A delicate local fish called fan tail ($13), served fresh and moist in a crunchy coriander crust with a tasty saffron-orange sauce, makes for a pleasant entree, but it and its accompaniment, piping-hot potato-herb fritters, aren't up to the giddy standards of the other dishes. The grilled duck breast ($14), for instance, overcomes its bland, overly chewy nature with copious amounts of the fowl's finest attribute -- rich, decadent, smoky fat -- and its partner in crime, a dazzling platter of sauteed chard with currants and bittersweet fenugreek and spices redolent of some fragrant bazaar on the shores of the Ganges.

Best of all, though, is the restaurant's most straightforward leap into down-home cooking: a big ol' pork chop ($12). The Blue Plate imports its chops from the Niman Ranch in West Marin, and, as our server put it, "With meat this good all you have to do is cook it." It is indeed a great piece of meat, and the kitchen knows just how to raise it to the highest succulence level allowable by law. The chop comes with absolutely complementary baby red mustard greens and apricots en moscato (OK, so the dish isn't completely straightforward), but the element that ties the whole dish together is its pillowy bed of white and yellow hominy, a mild, comforting foil to the chop's rich power.

Dessert time: The fruit crisp ($4) is difficult to eat -- there are lots of little chunks of fruit and berries and a sort of granola thing on top -- but when you finally maneuver the proper amount of fruit and granola onto your fork and get a dollop of sweet whipped cream on top (very important; the fruit's unsweetened) and pop the whole shebang into your mouth, it's worth it. The chocolate cake ($4) is good, even great, without quibbles -- fudgy, with a thick, dense frosting. "I like it when the cake's really rich and the frosting's really fudgy and it's all so rich you can't tell where the frosting stops and the cake starts and it all sort of melts in your mouth," said the non-curmudgeon, rapidly.

Anyone who knows me knows I'll have no truck with bananas, so when it comes to banana cream pie ($4) we have to take the word of my fellow diners. The non-curmudgeon, who loves pie with a fervor usually reserved for revival meetings and Star Trek conventions, weighed her extensive research in the field and declared the pie "sweet, comforting, rich in ripe banana flavor, with an excellent unsweetened crust that contrasted nicely with the filling."

The curmudgeon gets the last word, of course: the unspoken noise of mastication. He peered out the window at the run-down cantina across the street and at the pierced noses at the next table and continued to chew. It was the quietude of a contented man eating good pie, too busy for talking, momentarily seduced.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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