Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dish on Dining: Roe

SOMA Lounge Attempts to Redefine Asian Fusion
651 Howard St. (at Hawthorne Lane), San Francisco
SOMA District
PH: 415.227.0288
Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5–11 p.m.; late night dining: Fri.–Sat., 11 p.m.–1 a.m.
Major credit cards, reservations accepted

The 3-year-old Roe Restaurant and Lounge closed earlier this year for renovations, and it reopened with a new chef who had just returned from three months of working at El Bulli —the highly regarded Spanish restaurant of culinary maestro Ferran Adrià.

With that background, I was as pumped to try out the new Roe as the pulsating dance music that’s generated nightly by a DJ at the lounge upstairs.

So when my friend Angel from Chicago came into town for a family wedding, we met at the Powell Street station on a Friday night and walked (with luggage in hand) a few blocks to Roe. The restaurant is situated near a strip of Howard Street that’s like a mini club scene: The W Hotel is at the corner, Thirsty Bear is right next door and some kind of gentlemen’s club with an intimidating bouncer is across the street.

Now, I have to explain that I’ve never been to Roe so I can’t compare the renovated Roe with its previous incarnation. (From what I can tell from old reviews, the old Roe was a bit glam with gold lamé drapes and the food focused on sophisticated Southeast Asian cuisine, primarily Burmese. The restaurant’s owner, music promoter Ben Chu, is part of the family behind Nan Yang Burmese restaurant in Oakland.)

When Angel and I entered the dining room, it definitely had a club feel with its dark lighting and sparkling bar area. But it wasn’t boisterously loud like other SOMA restaurants. In fact, I felt like the spacious room of exposed red brick could have packed a few more tables. Instead, it offered a fine-dining atmosphere perfect for special occasions. (The lighting also made it difficult to take many photos of the decor and the food. It wasn’t until near the end of our meal when the restaurant had almost emptied that I felt brave enough to turn on my flash.)

We slipped into a booth near the sparsely decorated back area and ordered a couple of the specialty Asian-inspired drinks (think lychee, lemongrass and passion fruit) from the bar. Our waiter came and introduced himself and thus began our relationship for the night. I say relationship because the waiter, while professional and friendly, was extremely chatty about the food. You’d think as a food blogger I’d appreciate that. But on a Friday night after a few drinks, all I wanted to do was eat and not listen to the waiter go into every detail about the wonderful duck or amazingly popular hamachi.

After the waiter’s presentation, the kitchen brought out a grounded duck meatball as an amuse bouche. It was nice, with a light soy glaze, but I always find it hard to eat a meatball in just one bite.

The menu by chef Alvin San was split into first and second courses. (The first courses ranged in price from $7 to $14 and second courses went for $17 to $25.) San supposedly revamped the menu to emphasize California cuisine with an Asian flair, but you could tell from some of the Mediterranean ingredients (i.e., couscous, Spanish chorizo) he injected into the dishes that he was influenced from his time in Spain.

I initially had my eye on the Lollipop Scallops with prosciutto but passed when I found out the scallops were deep-fried. (Again, not a fan of fried foods.) I also was tempted by the glazed duck breast because I always order duck when it’s on the menu—unless it’s duck confit. This breast was prepared confit-style (braised in its own fat).

I settled on the seared rare hamachi ($14) as a starter and the Amsterdam lamb chop as my main course. Angel chose to start with the curry duck napoleon and the Tai Snapper for his main.

When our dishes arrived, I thought we went back in time to the ‘90s when restaurants were serving dishes on super large plates and the food tucked off to the side. Both of our starters came in large white plates with the accompanying sauce painted on the bottom half of the plate.

Angel’s curry duck was tender, but lacked any oomph IMHO. My hamachi came with an avocado cream and basil pesto, sat on French lentils and bits of Spanish chorizo and was topped with micro greens. I thought the hamachi was fresh and lightly seared, but didn’t like the contrasting texture of the pillowy soft raw fish and the harsh lentils.

Side note: With our dinner, Angel ordered a glass of Chardonnay that the waiter was pushing (he had offered tasting samples for both of us without us even asking) and I had a glass of Zinfandel from the California coast. Both were nice medium-body wine that didn’t overpower our dinner.

Our main courses arrived later, again on large white plates with the accompanying sauce creating a design on the bottom. (Is this the only thing Chef San picked up from his time at El Bulli? Plating?) Angel’s Tai Snapper (a white fish) had a nice golden brown crust to it and was perfectly moist. My lamb chops, cut French style like lollipops, was the highlight of dinner.

I can’t say I can remember any of the added flavors or accompaniments that came with my lamb (the menu said something about pomegranates and I'm pretty sure there were some fava beans). But I do remember—and probably will always remember—the incredibly perfect execution of the meat by the chef. The lamb was tender but not rear. It was soft but not chewy. The meat kept its shape on the bone, but I didn’t have any problems getting it off with each bite. There were just a few pieces of chops, and I literally picked up each one like a drumstick and ravaged every morsel of meat off the bone. And I rarely eat with my fingers! But I wanted—no, I needed—to get every bit of this lamb.

While you’d think I would sing more high praises on this lamb dish, I can’t because the rest of the dish didn’t seem to raise the well-executed meat to any new heights. The other ingredients were good on their own, but didn’t seem to meld nicely with the perfect lamb meat. And that was the trend of our dinner, in my eyes. All the ingredients were top-notch and prepared expertly by the kitchen, but the vision behind the combination of these ingredients was a bit off. They neither sang together nor played off each other in a successful way.

Each of us ended our meals by ordering the same dessert—a green tea and Coke ice cream float. After listening to our waiter briefly describe the ice cream as an inside-out sandwich (OK, I admit, I cut him off and told him the dessert sounded excellent without him fully explaining the last 5 minutes of his description), I had thought this might be where Chef San introduces some molecular gastronomy that he might have learned in Spain.

Our dessert arrived and as we bit into the ice cream portion made with green tea and a gummy substance holding it all together with the cookie shell in the center, Angel and I looked at each other and said “mochi ice cream.” That’s right, it tasted simply like the craze a few years back of ice cream wrapped by the pounded and steamed sticky rice treat in Japan known as mochi. While it was good, it wasn’t exactly innovative. The accompanying ice cream float was refreshing, but also failed to sparkle with new techniques.

As we left, a DJ appeared downstairs ready to pump up the volume for late night diners while music was already going upstairs at the lounge (you have to go to the upstairs lounge and dance floor to use the restrooms).

Maybe I had too many expectations of Chef San and the new Roe. Who knows, maybe with time the chef will experiment more and have more successes with the combination of flavors. For now, Roe is a delightful restaurant with professional and welcoming service and a menu that’s satisfyingly familiar.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (sophisticated but safe)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Roe in San Francisco

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