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A New Agenda

Christopher Gardner

Splash of Sophistication: Chef Christian Raia brings tasty New California cuisine to South First.

An old brick Victorian gleams with new life, subtly sleek decor and a stylish menu as Agenda joins the South First revival

By Christina Waters

Agenda is especially appealing at twilight, when the lowering light outside the tall windows plays counterpoint to the glow of the spotlighting. The new restaurant not only adds another splash of sophistication to the emerging South First Street landscape, but represents a handsome renovation of the turn-of-the-century landmark that once showcased beer and loud bands as Marsugi's.

Equipped with its own adult entertainment area on the top floor--bar, couches and pool tables--Agenda is determined to be taken seriously, dinner-wise. And from what we've seen, it's well on its way to achieving that goal.

Munching some tasty herb focaccia dipped into an outrageously intense olive-laced olive oil, we surveyed the menu and found it solidly in the New California comfort camp--pastas strewn here and there, designer pizzas, lots of creative vegetable offerings, and at least one entree from each of the major meat groups. Our young waiter skillfully juggled charm and timing, going the extra distance in finding out about specials and ingredients. A bottle of the house cabernet sauvignon--a Chateau Souverain Sonoma ($20)--was to be our liquid companion that evening; filled with velvety cherry tones, it was an excellent choice. Agenda's brief wine list boasts a well-rounded selection of California labels in the medium price range, yet is unaccountably weak in local wineries, lists only a single zinfandel and is peppered with unintentionally funny typos.

From our window table we could admire the earthy Tuscan-toned wall treatment behind the graceful hardwood bar. A length of banquette seating anchors the moody expanse of brick, crowned by a dramatic angel sculpture. Hardwood floors gleam, echoed by lots of white linens--it's all undeniably smart without shouting its hipness.

What followed was a procession of very attractive dishes, each showing off sound kitchen craft and a devotion to high-quality ingredients.

My companion Lanni, a notoriously discerning--let's make that "picky"--restaurant-goer, was enchanted with an appetizer of house-smoked salmon ($6.50), filleted into a vertical slab that flaked nicely into forkfuls. The salmon was accompanied by an upbeat grouping of flavors and textures--giant capers complete with stems were gathered near snowy squiggles of dill-enhanced crème fraîche. A nest of peppery arugula was punctuated by slices of lemon and tomato. In the center was what the house showcased as a capellini cake--great idea, a tangle of quickly fried angel hair pasta. Alas, it was overly firm and tasteless. I say "alas" because this cake showed up again later on, with the same results.

Another opening dish of grilled portobello mushroom ($6.50) was as good as the salmon. Slices of succulently grilled mushroom slices radiated from a central "bouquet" of long-stemmed enoki mushrooms, minced tomato and onions, and a single bold sprig of Italian parsley. Between each portobello slice were interspersed moist cubes of herb-inflected polenta.

For main courses we'd chosen the special jambalaya-style linguine ($13.50) and a signature dish of grilled vegetables ($10.50) from the regular menu. Both were handsomely presented--one a generous portion of saffron and sassafras-spiced pasta abundantly studded with prawns, smoky bits of andouille and Italian sausages, bay shrimp, yellow and red bell peppers. Each bite brought together all the tomato-infused elements in a delightfully fiery balance--quite a dish.

The platter of marinated, grilled vegetables was rustically gorgeous--with lengths of eggplant and asparagus, crimini mushrooms, and red bell peppers topped with excellent feta cheese, all joined by another of those underwhelming capellini cakes. Ignoring the pasta, we enjoyed the springtime flavors of the grilled vegetables, heightened only by a bit of olive oil and alternating bites of the salty cheese.

As much as the well-made, very good-looking food, we liked just being in Agenda's smart, low-key dining room, where the South First Street action is clearly visible, both outside and in. Welcome to the neighborhood.

Address: 399 S. First St., San Jose
Phone: 408/287-3991
Cuisine: '90s
Entrees: moderate ($8-$16.50)
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10pm, Friday-Saturday, 5pm-midnight.

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From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of Metro

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