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Bland Ambition

Minimalist design with minimal innovation

By Michael Stabile

It's a bold move, in the post-futuristic, post-millennial cultural climate, to call one's restaurant Neo. Neo. Neo. Neo. The name roams through my head like a lost prefix. Neo-what? Neolithic, Neoplasty, Neoplasm. Mentioning the restaurant in conversation requires mentioning Neo twice, because the first time you say it, listeners hang on for the grammatical finale, only to find that it's not there at all. Just Neo. Oh.

It's rather appropriate that the all-white, minimalist restaurant Neo should take the place of the now-extinct Moa Room, whose leitmotif was a resurrection of the past--a reverie for a long-gone bird. So the Moa Room has gone to the culinary afterlife and what has replaced it is heaven. Not literally, of course, and not even as a metaphor, but because billowy white curtains guard a bright expanse glowing with an absence of color. Appropriately for a heaven-cum-mess-hall, the room is noisy and overpopulated. And people keep streaming in. No Exit meets Dante's Inferno.

The problem with white, as it is with clothes, is that spots show up in sharp relief. (A woman's turquoise pashmina shawl kept my eye wandering as if it were lazy.) Such it was with the appetizers. The duck rillette--a sort of coarse country pâté--had the unfortunate consistency of canned tunafish (and not even the fancy white albacore kind) and tasted like a Dr. Moreau attempt at fusion cuisine: a duckfish pâté! Gnocchi, mashed in a way a bit too much like Butter Buds, floated in a pool of what I can only compare to warm Thousand Island dressing. I hate to be mean, but this is culinary toughlove for the 21st century.

Entrees (and subsequent trips back) revealed a quieter approach to the subject at hand. The roasted country chicken was both crisp enough and delicate enough to earn it a puff pastry-like simile (though it, too, rested in gravy and that damnable Butter Bud-like mush). The steelhead salmon was a bit dry and the country mushroom soup a bit too earthy, but both easily edible. The only breakthrough dish was a plate of steamed P.E.I. mussels with chorizo. While chorizo does have a certain 'mystery meat' quality, especially when served without a sausage casing, as it was here, the match was a palate-pleasing and textural treat. Unfortunately, the dish hung out with the wrong crowd.

But why waste words on food when there are semantics to discuss? I'm still really mystified by the use of the term Neo. I began thinking about that episode of The Flintstones where they end up on The Jetsons and are forced to eat pills instead of food. "A steak in a pill?" Fred exclaims. "Get me outta here!" If this restaurant were truly "neo," I'd expect a little more innovation. I'd go back to the last century for foie gras and truffles, but I'd go only back to Neo if they were serving pills.

Neo, 1007 Guerrero; 415.643.3119.

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From the February 7, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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