*THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED*
Well, the monsoon-like rains certainly prepped me for my Asian whirlwind tour at ~(415) ASIAN RESTAURANT & LOUNGE~. It's the latest incarnation in the former space of Sydney's and Sydney's Home in the JCC. The JCC is not the first place I'd look for a hip pan-Asian restaurant, but Laurel Heights fillies and G Bar patrons from across the street seem to be quite pleased with it. Two of the owners (John Hurley and Justin Hafen) also developed G Bar together, so no wonder. For those of you into these things, Hurley and Hafen also started the Home concept on Market St., and they own and operate Garibaldi's just around the corner on Presidio and on College Ave. in the 510, in addition to the neighboring California Street Delicatessen and Café (also in the JCC). I don't know if they are going to take over Ella's next, because that's about all that's left in that intersection. Anyway.
The space is pretty spiffy, courtesy of designer/co-owner Shirley Robinson, and has a bar/lounge area and two levels for dining. The prime seating downstairs is in one of the oversize booths (who doesn't love booths—it's primal, I swear) but they really call for more than two folks in them, so don't get your heart set on a booth if you're just a deuce. Upstairs is actually more of a mezzanine, destined to become a prime spot for Pac Heights bachelorette dinners.
The somewhat clubby-chic Asian Moderne décor is quite pleasing: deep orange walls that match the color of the menu, oversize lampshades suspended overhead, Asian architectural motifs in ebonized wood on the backs of the chairs or the hidden entrance to the facilities, and my personal favorite, the hand-painted tiger-skin patterned floors. Rawr.
When our server approached the table, dressed in the (415) uniform of a black top with classic Asian frog closures and matching black pants, I wasn't sure if he was going to ask me what I'd like to drink, or tell me my masseuse is ready to see me. The almost meditative string-plucky music would lead me to believe it's time for my massage. But no, the drink menu says it's time for a cocktail, boozily beckoning with names like M. Butterfly, the Lotus, and the Art of War (all $9). Hi-yah! Sake lovers will be fired up on the tour de force that consulting sake sommelier, Beau Timken of True Sake, has put together—there are 13 varieties of premium sakes available, from nine different prefectures, with premium hot sakes from Japan. Kanpai. Wine sommelier Nicole Burke, a rising star at 31, has also done a bang-up job assembling and grouping an approachable wine list to partner with the extensive menu, with many available by the glass. It's a fun read.
When you crack that dinner menu open, be prepared to be overwhelmed. It's almost like walking up to the Cowgirl Creamery counter when you're hungry—where do you start? Executive chef John Beardsley (of Ponzu, Betelnut, Le Colonial, Azie) is going to seriously globetrot your tastebuds. You'll find Chinese, Thai, Southeast Asian, Japanese, and even some Indian dishes. Tapas, small plates, large plates, satays, sushi… it goes on. Tell yourself, "Focus, must stay focused."
We started with the tapa of Golden Pineapple and Thai Chile Salt ($5)—you spritz the chunks of pineapple with lime and then sprinkle or roll them into the spicy salt—a total flavor extravaganza. I recommend keeping this dish on your table as a palate cleanser between courses. We also got a second tapa of "Beef from Heaven," which was like Thai street food from heaven: bite-size and nicely chewy pieces of steak with that pleasing tang of fish sauce, paired with green apple. Actually, both dishes felt very "street," and authentic. (You can get two tapas for $9.)
We couldn't deny our curiosity about the Shanghai scallion bread ($9) with "strange flavor" eggplant. What turned up was a cross between Jabba the Hut meets an "Awesome Blossom"—those deep-fried onions from some hellish place like Chili's. It was a mass of scallion-studded batter that bordered on a nightmare to eat—it was flaky-messy, oily, and too overtly bad for you. The top half of it was slightly burnt, and the other half was a doughy mass. But you know, some people will totally love it, because that's how people are. I would have preferred some sticky rice instead for the otherwise tasty dipping sauce of (unexpectedly cool) and "strange flavor" eggplant (with ginger, sesame oil and seeds, garlic, soy sugar, and rice wine vinegar). What's strange about it is these two were hanging out together. It was like a bad couple, a la Britney and Kevin. Divorce would serve them well.
Next up was the roasted duck salad ($11.50), with flavorful pieces of duck that weren't fatty (for a change), tossed with Thai basil, cabbage, ginger, mango and other salad-y ingredients. The Thai basil would benefit from being shredded, since it's rather potent as a whole leaf. Otherwise, I really dug this refreshing salad, although it tended toward the sweet, especially with the mango. Which is actually where most of the meal went from this point on: into candy-slut land, as I like to call it. How sweeeeeeet.
The sushi is courtesy of sushi chef Akira Yoshizumi, who is obviously having fun with the rolls. He had to be clever as well since the restaurant needed to be kosher-compliant, which means no shellfish and no fish without scales. So your California roll will actually be made with kanikama (a crab substitute, this one made of cod) instead of crab, and things like unagi will be amiss. Not a big deal—there's so much on the menu you really can't miss anything. We tried the big eye roll ($12.50), which came with kanikama, gobo (burdock root), and cucumber wrapped in seared yellowtail. Here's where the candy slut came out: it was topped with sweet miso, which the heatless jalapeños on top were no match for. Sweet miso, 1. Jalapeños, 0.
We also tried the signature (415) roll ($12) which fell into the camp of what I refer to as cheap thrills sushi—you know the type: indulgent, covered in tempura, and drizzled in some special sauce. It was totally good (kanikama, spicy tuna, avocado and shiso), but definitely would get you a reputation if you hung out with it too much. One small and not-so-stellar detail: the roll was noticeably cut unevenly. Huh. Dollops of sriracha on the plate were a nice hit of heat to cut a swath through the sweet. (Yes, I just rhymed.)
Next to arrive was the hacked ginger chicken ($16.95), which looked like a grilled chicken hiding in a field. It was topped with chopped greenage and the pomelo, which brought great flavor, but someone showed the chicken no mercy on the grill—it was totally overdone. Hacked, for real. The citrus and ginger flavor was so good I could almost forgive the dry chicken, but not quite. I'd totally order it again, hoping that it was cooked properly next time.
And then, the titleholder in Sweet Fest 2006: the miso-glazed black cod ($22). Cooked perfectly, silky, succulent, and yes, sweet. I was getting tired of it after three bites. The bed of sliced cucumber tried to balance the dish, but it was no match. The candy cod prevailed.
You'd think after al this sweetness I wouldn't want dessert, but you don't know me very well, do you? The profiteroles with green tea ice cream were initially deemed too hard, but once the ice cream melted into them, it worked. The green tea ice cream was surprisingly un-chalky. I forgot to ask where they get it, because it was right-on. My pal had the passion fruit tart, which was, surprise, really sweet with its shortbread crust and dollop of sweet cream on top.
So, the wrap-up. In the end, I love my Asian food at hole-in-the-wall places, forcing me to go to Larkin Street for some pho, and sit under bad fluorescent lighting for my beef salad. But I think a lot of people will like this place, because there's a melee of dishes to choose from, it's food that's fun to eat with friends, and the space is visually pleasing. Oh, and one big thing I don't get at my noodle joints are servers who can and will explain every component in a dish. The servers at (415) are well versed in the menu, which is nice to see.
One thing to note: while there is validated parking for diners after 5pm, you have to be outta there by 10pm or the JCC garage attendants will tow your Beemer. Don't forget.
(415) Asian Restaurant & Lounge
415 Presidio Ave.
Cross: California St.
San Francisco, CA 94117
Bar & Sushi Bar open Thu-Sat until 1am
Small plates $9.50-$14