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A Taste for the Diner Things: Black Cat is at its best when it keeps it simple.

Black Cat's multidirectional menu leaves diners clawing for more

By Michael Stabile

Fusion just ain't what it used to be, if we think of the haute, arty, imposing combinations that dotted the San Francisco pan-Asian landscape from Betelnut to Waterfront. Fusion in the early '90s was akin to sushi in the early '80s: dishes featured tempting if obscure combinations of Chinese, Thai, French and Californian, a taste for which separated the city mouse from the country mouse.

By the mid-'90s, no fusion restaurant worth its MSG dared omit something like a Mongolian fish "taco" or a wasabi-marinated duck pizza a la Wolfgang Puck. Don't even get me started on the indignities foisted upon the heirloom tomato harvest a few years back. Unfortunately, fusion cuisine tended (and, to some degree, still heavily tends) to be Mulan-inspired nonsense that, while often delicious, was more frequently pointless. Art for art's sake. Fusion for fusion's sake.

Black Cat, restaurateur Reed Hearon's newest North Beach venture, offers rhyme and reason for its home-style take on post-fusion cuisine. It would be a shame, the menu implies, to locate a restaurant in North Beach and not draw from the disparate influences that shape the area's population and culture. Of course, there is the obvious historical Italian presence, and that of ever-encroaching Chinatown. Hearon adds to the mix the creativity of California and the abundance of Fisherman's Wharf, which while a chintz-a-thon of tourism, still supplies the freshest and best seafood to the city. And then he serves it in a diner.

Open until 2am and located across the street from a video store proffering "European-style" amateur porn, Black Cat more than earns its street cred. Perhaps it has taken its cue from nearby Enrico's and ceded haute to humility in response to the not-quite-rarefied air of Broadway east of Columbus Avenue.

The menu is too far-reaching to draw any general conclusions. It incorporates courses of Chinese noodles next to foie gras and mussels, so I settled for once on what I wanted to eat, rather than what I thought one should eat. (This is the beauty of anything diner-esque: one feels no pressure to partake of barbecued geoduck clams or blood sausage with asparagus coulis--delightful things, to be sure, but too energetic for my overtaxed palate.)

So I cut to the chase, splitting a tuna au poivre topped with foie gras and a rare and tender slab of steak. I've heard negative comments since on more creative dishes, but I was happy as a Muscovy duck to have my hunk of ahi flanked by the most butterlicious green beans ever created on one side and, on the other, by French fries worthy of the coveted Stabile In-N-Out Burger Seal of Approval. It was fatty and caloric, sure (even the healthy tuna had a glorified slice of goose lard on top of it), but was classy enough that I didn't mind ordering a ridiculously decadent half-carafe of Burgundy to accompany it.

There were plenty of other options--wok-seared scallops with a soy ginger something something, various takes on traditional Chinese dishes and an occasional lapse into Hearon's Ligurian Italy--but I was so enthralled by the idea of steak flanked by (again) green beans and French fries that I only wanted more redundant deliciousness.

Diners are my absolute favorite place to eat, and had Black Cat served a patty melt or a California burger, I probably would have forsaken any attempt at reflecting on quality and scarfed it down like gravy and mashed potatoes. (I'm from New Jersey--what can I say? Diners were my life growing up.)

So despite its middling to steep prices, and the unfortunate location of a pretentious jazz lounge below the dining room (part of the North Beach restaurant experience, I'm afraid), Black Cat is, at its best, simple and mildly comfort-fused. Sometimes it's too tiring to ooooh and ahhhh over each tower of creativity. Sometimes a guy just wants to eat.

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From the June 21, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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