Is it a lounge? Or is it a restaurant? Most places would suffer from an identity crisis on par with Nicole Richie trying to balance the two concepts (it's hard enough to even do one thing well) but ~LEVENDE LOUNGE~ manages to pull off the combo. It's one of those places I could consider hitting if it was midweek and some of my peeps were visiting from L.A. and I wanted somewhere upbeat but chill enough to hang out, throw back some dranks, and graze through the menu without having to think about things too much or totally ouch the wallet. It would be on-point for a birthday (although I seem to recall something tricky if you have ten or more people), a coworker dinner, or ladies night.
Executive chef Jamie Lauren departed in January of 2006 (she's now busy working on getting Prana ready to launch), and Arren Caccamo took her place, who hails from Oola, Baraka, and Chez Papa. He's shifted and tweaked the menu to make it his own, which is an eclectic international small plates menu that's built for sharing. Unless you're a vegetarian, which means you would be mostly relegated to one salad (the other two contain anchovy or chorizo), a couple sides, or the cheese fondue. (See, I look out for you non-carnivores!)
My dining partner and I found the pan-roasted scallop cakes ($11) too gluey and heavily breaded, but the rosy blood orange and fennel beurre blanc the cakes were resting on was delish. The bluenose bass ceviche ($14) wins for the most creative and kooky presentation I've seen in some time: the bowl of ceviche rests on the table with smoke pouring and swirling out like a mysterious volcano or exotic tiki drink (it has dry ice underneath). Just call it the voodoo doctor. Actually, I'd say it was more of a veggie salad than a ceviche (or a voodoo doctor)—it was rather laden with yellow tomatoes and bell pepper instead of fish, but at least it had a nice kick.
Now, I was a little wary of the famous lamb burgers ($12) that have been on the menu since day one. I remembered my last tour with them, because those delicious little buggers tragically stayed with me all night. Later that evening at a bar, I was afraid to open my mouth after a swig of my usual Jack and Coke in case I'd emit the most petite of burps and essentially unload the equivalent of lambie aromatic napalm on anyone within a 20-foot radius. Not so hot to dine on before a big night out, especially if you want to make some new friends, let alone keep the ones you have. On a date? Forget it—he's gonna be making out with the bartender or the chick at the end of the bar before the night is up—and you're going home with an empty tin of Altoids. (Or maybe a weird Mentos character.) The very charming server assured me the burp-factor had been addressed in the recipe (glad I wasn't the only one), and I gotta say, the lamb burgers and I were cool. They played nice, all night. So order them. Great flavor like I remember, totally juicy, and they're partnered with onion chutney, cumin yogurt, and house-made pickled cukes. You get three, so count your blessings.
Caccamo was previously at Oola, so you know he knows his ribs. Levende's baby-back ribs ($14) are straight up wicked. They're the kind that really bring out the animal in you. Rawr. (Maybe the voodoo doctor has something to do with this?) The ribs come with a candied mandarin, OJ, sesame seed, and ginger sticky glaze (if my notes serve me correctly). But I'm not gonna divulge why these ribs are so ridiculously mouth melting and addictive. Okay, actually, I will—you should know. First, they're braised for almost three hours, and then they're lightly floured and then fried. I KNOW. As the swoosh sez, just do it. They're worth the extra hour on the Stairmaster. The ribs come under a thicket of enoki mushrooms and daikon sprouts (with some edamame sprinkled on the plate) if you want some greenery to somewhat counteract the meat-fest. Your table will cast the thicket aside and attack the ribs like hyenas on a fallen wildebeest, I swear.
I found the grilled ono skewers ($18) a little dry and spendy to boot—they came with a zippy ratatouille that had some ginger going on instead of rosemary, and… actually, truth be told, there were just too many flavors on the plate—I didn't know where to sign on. Ultimately I said oh no on the ono. I also wasn't ready to go to bed with the side of grilled asparagus ($7), which is the third time I have seen asparagus with blue cheese and balsamic in recent months. I dunno, but that combo really doesn't rock me. (Is it just me? It's entirely possible.) The asparagus, however, were perfectly cooked—just the right amount of snap. They would be beautiful with just the balsamic, really. No need to gild the lily.
Bargain (and angioplasty) seekers, take note: the side of mac and cheese ($7) is a downright huge and bubbling mass of smoked gouda, jack, and cheddar cheese, with a sage béchamel. Oh, and applewood smoked bacon. It's merciless in its riches. Slide on in.
As if that cheese (and bacon) finale wasn't enough, let's waddle over to dessert, shall we? There are five other selections available, but the only one you really need to know about is the chilled peanut butter mousse ($7), served in a martini glass, layered with crumbled Oreo cookie. It's fluffy, it's light, it's freaking scrumptious. An adult Reese's, without the waxy chocolate. I would totally dump a martini out of my glass to make room for this dessert. (No, actually I would just down the martini very very quickly—sorry, lost myself for a second there.)
Like I said, I would happily dine at Levende midweek—it has a nice downtempo vibe overall, but come Friday, say 10pm, the hormone bomb goes off and wham, you suddenly have a scene of hets paying up the $10-$15 cover and swarming the place for some house beats and horny fraternizing. Saturday too. (Actually, they have some good acts that spin on Thursday nights as well.) Don't get me wrong, I love me some house (like Victor Duplaix coming up on the 15th) but the weekend scene is just not my personal velocity.
The space is industrial meets West Elm: sleek, spacious, loungey and inoffensive, with vaulted ceilings, exposed beams, and easy communal seating, plus cool art and dim sexy lighting at the tables. The space has one of the most ingenious features I've ever encountered: when it's time to pull a Clark Kent and transform from restaurant into lounge, the wood tables are actually adjustable, so they are lowered to a more appropriate cocktailing height. Muy clever. The servers are all quite nice, and they do a good job managing the small plates format, which is always a little extra work.
The cocktails are inventive and nicely crafted, and the wine list has some interesting selections thanks to Nicole Burke (the consulting somm who did a bang-up job on the list at (415) Asian Restaurant & Lounge). Speaking of wine, in honor of Levende's second anniversary, they are offering 50% off all their wines on Tuesday nights. That 2004 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir just went from $60 to $30, cheers.
* Update since my review: *
I have learned that both the scallop cakes and Ono have been removed from the menu, and the vegetarian options have been expanded.
1710 Mission St.
Cross: Duboce St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Small plates $11-$19
Bar: Tue-Sat 5pm-2am