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[whitespace] Ariel Window Seating: Well-lit and sparingly decorated, the dining room of Ariel makes an elegant understatement.

Christopher Gardner

East meets West meets North meets South at Menlo Park's magical, polyethnic Ariel

By Andrew X. Pham

FUSION CUISINE is like an interracial marriage: it can be fragmented, schizophrenic, a vast contrast both internally and externally, challenging our universal perceptions. But once in a rare while, it can be a seamless union that makes one wonder, hasn't it always been this way? And that's the thing about Ariel--there is no seam to this place, no discernible joinery. Each dish is one uniform movement from the tone to the color to the texture. The food speaks with a single, harmonious intent.

Visually, one can almost tell the character of each dish by its presentation. For instance, the togorashi beef ($11) has an earthy, firm impression. There are no splashes of unnecessary color to detract from the full red flavor of the steak, rubbed in Japanese hot spice. Beneath the meat is a bed of cold soba (buckwheat noodles), the color of rain-moistened hay. And to the side of this coupling is a somber pyre of black beans mossed over with a lively tomatillo sauce. With ingredients from three different countries, we have a perfect essay of flavor, wholly unique.

Splashes of red provoke thoughts of fire and Polynesian sunsets in a salmon entree ($12), dry-grilled and laid atop, of all things, a cushion of Chinese chow fun. A wedge of charcoal-scarred pineapple provides a bold accent. On top of everything sits a regal headdress of leeks. The flavors hint of brown sugar, tomatoes and twilight spices.

Underneath it all, there remains a vague familiarity about the dishes, something masked in distant memory. When we approached owner Ruth Ling with this quandary, she smiled, explaining, "We get that a lot from customers. People say, 'It's like something my mother used to make.' " But that "something" lingers on the tip of the tongue, unnamable.

Ling bought the quiet bistro space--formerly La Luna--and changed very little of the previous decor and dishware. The dining room is an elegant understatement, with bold color taking precedence over detail. Shades of a New England October wash over the walls and ceiling.

Upon being seated at a linen-swaddled table, one is greeted with seasoned focaccia and herb-peppered butter, a smart choice for this small establishment. Due to focaccia's natural oils, the bread can be reheated without embarrassment, yet we noted no dearth of freshness in the loaf. The spices remain shy, raising the eyebrows a touch but never upstaging the focaccia's integrity. It is a magical basket of bread, always replenished just before it is depleted.

Accompanying lunch entrees is the Ariel salad, a nice addition to a simple noontime menu that offers no appetizers. For dinner, the salad is offered as a stand-alone dish ($7). Wrapping the mouth about this concoction jump-starts an instant voyage around the globe. Sheets of red romaine leaflets lodge downy herb clippings, raisins, pinenuts and crisp Asian bean sprouts, a playful alternative to the mundane alfalfa sprouts usually accompanying western-style dinner salads. Tossed in a unifying honey balsamic vinaigrette, the salad tickles the senses, a perfect unaffected blend, never jarring.

In addition to the daily pasta specials ($8), Ariel offers a gorgeous vegetarian specialty: the tomato tower and asparagus salad with lemon-thyme vinaigrette. It is a impressive creation, a veritable leaning tower of Pisa with bounteous vegetable pizzazz. Some of the most popular dinner entrees are marinated tofu in rice paper with roasted peppers ($15); a creative rendition of the usual French salmon and potatoes involving potato-wrapped Chilean sea bass served with mixed bean cake and candied lemon tamari mojo ($18); and a wildly varied plate including oven-roasted pork chop, stuffed eggplant, pad thai and apple mascarpone won ton ($16). On the tamer side, Ariel dishes up entrees which are strictly Western: for instance, the seared capon breast brushed with a faintly sweet port wine reduction and accompanied by Yukon hash ($10).

One of our favorite desserts was ice cream with fried banana layered between shingles of sweet filo ($6). We also enjoyed the crème brûlée ($6), a straightforward custard fit to be paired with fresh brewed coffee ($1.50).

When East meets West meets South meets North, something new is born. Six months into its infancy, Ariel already shows signs of maturing into a local polyethnic child prodigy.

Cuisine: Pan-global fusion
Ambiance: Cozily chic and informal
Menu: Starters $7-$12; lunch entrees $8-$12, dinner entrees $15-$20
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-2pm; dinner Mon.-Sat. 5:30-10pm
Address: 1137 Chestnut St., Menlo Park
Phone: 650/322-7388
Extras: Delivery service available

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From the October 8-14, 1998 issue of Metro.

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