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Walking the Beat 

At the Meetinghouse, the owner makes the rounds -- but leave your cell phone at home, please

Wednesday, May 8 1996
There were so many cellular telephones pressed against diners' ears at the Meetinghouse on a recent weekend evening that the dining room looked like the setting for a movie about Pacific Heights cybermonsters. To glance around the large, square, open room (surveillance aided by a belt of mirrors) was to see antennae jutting weirdly forth from necks and heads and expensive hairdos, as if half the people there were androids or space invaders.

Who was on the other end of the line? Steven Spielberg? Alan Greenspan? The nanny? The mother ship? If I were the owner of the Meetinghouse, I would have been simultaneously flattered at the size of the crowd (only two tables were available at 8 o'clock) and mortified by the casual rudeness of people conducting telephone conversations at the table. When it becomes socially acceptable to yammer into a cellular phone while putting one's feet on the table, there will be no further need for columns like this one.

The phones were doubly inappropriate because the look of the Meetinghouse is, unlike that of so many new places in the city these days, gloriously (pointedly?) untechnological. The dining room walls are lined with hundreds of tiny square drawers, each with its round green knob; it looks like a room in which a deranged wealthy aunt would stash her valuables and then forget exactly in which drawer she'd put them.

"It used to be a druggist's shop," our server explained as he led us to our table.

Other comfortably non-industrial, if not exactly pharmaceutical, details of the decor: ferns, wide-plank wood floors, an Impressionist-like paint scheme of cream with forest-green trim (including the wide pillars down the middle of the room). Add to these the roving presence of the chef and owner, Joanna Karlinsky, who worked the dining room like a French patron, making sure people were satisfied, taking the occasional order. She made the place seem familial.

The brief menu -- five each of first and main courses -- provided useful detail without lapsing into tiresome explication. The smoked-chicken turnover ($6), for instance, agreeably failed to specify if the poultry was organic or free-range, though presumably it was both. It certainly was good, combining with goat cheese and portobello mushrooms inside a buttery, burnished triangle of pastry.

The Meetinghouse pickled salmon ($8) was served on a plate garnished with beet and fennel salads, disks of crisp rye toast, and a ramekin filled with a yogurt-cucumber sauce powerfully scented with dill. The fish was moist and darkly tender (except for one stubbornly tough bit of tendon I gave up trying to eat), and the fennel salad had a nice licorice sparkle. The beet salad, on the other hand, while a pretty ruby color, was mushy and tasteless. Others who like beets more than I do might find the salad delectable; I think beets should be restricted to decorative duty.

The best first course was the plate of rock shrimp and scallion johnnycakes ($7) with sweet pepper relish and a pile of raw watercress. The johnnycakes, flecked with green and studded with big bits of shrimp, carried mostly the shrimp's sweet, simple taste. The relish consisted of a very fine julienne of various colors of pepper, dressed in a mild oil.

Gradually (because of my disapproving gaze? Or because the owner relentlessly circulated, a kind of Miss Manners walking her beat?) the cellular-phone antennae were stowed wherever very important people stow such items, and the dining room seemed to relax. We took note again of the smooth service, which had begun with the immediate serving of a basket of fresh, warm bread and continued with the swift clearing of plates and refilling of water glasses.

The grilled yellowfin tuna ($17) came medium rare: a wafer of pale pink sandwiched between creamy layers of well-cooked fish. I like tuna rare, but I deferred to the kitchen. Any grilled fish can wither and turn tough, but tuna holds up better than most to the dry heat, and this piece of fish remained moist and flaky-tender despite the doneness.

It rested on a bed of curried lentils (the chef that night had a light hand with the curry powder), braised spinach, and a Meyer lemon creme fraiche that looked like a low cloud over the dark sea of legumes and added a rich tartness to the mix. As a whole, the dish had a nice mix of lightness and smoke, but the small, dark green lentilles du Puy looked a little wintry; the plate would have looked more springlike with, say, the orange Indian variety.

My companion nearly declined to order the roasted Liberty duck breast ($17) because he didn't like the sound of the dried cherries in the ancho chili sauce. I issued my usual reassurance.

"The sauce will be fine," I said, because the sauce almost always is, no matter what they say they're putting in it. I liked the sound of chilis and dried cherries, which convey the cherry essence without the sweetness of the fresh fruit. In the end, he ended up ordering and loving it.

The meaty slices of breast were cooked nicely rare and tender, like good steak. The cornmeal fritters, which looked like deep-fried golf balls and had a thick crust, were decent if a little rich. The accompanying greens helped lighten up the plate.

Among the fanciful items on the dessert menu were two American stalwarts: a root beer float ($4.50) and a strawberry shortcake ($5.50), with house-made shortcake. Both were modestly perfect, and a reminder of a slightly simpler time, when restaurant owners still made a point of mingling with their patrons, and the cellular telephone hadn't yet elbowed its noxious way into the dinner hour.

The Meetinghouse, 1701 Octavia, S.F., 922-6733. Wed-Sun 5:30-9:30 p.m.

About The Author

Paul Reidinger


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