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Carta Blanche

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Bayou Blues: Carta's July menu rejoices in the old-fashioned good taste of the American South.

With the world at its disposal, Carta moves closer to home

By Michael Stabile

San franciscan menus rotate. It's one of those immutable municipal laws that distinguishes the local, the homegrown and the Californian from the imported, the generic and the mass-produced. One can get a Moon Over My Hammy any day of the year at Denny's, and Pasta Pomodoro will never deny you a marinara sauce, even in the tomato-barren month of December, but no self-respecting local eatery dares serve squash soup in spring or asparagus in August. So menus rotate--sometimes daily, sometimes weekly and most frequently by season--all while remaining within the narrow culinary niche by which they distinguish themselves.

Carta, in true got-to-be-original San Francisco tradition, took it upon itself to reinvent the notion of seasonal menus. Instead of setting back its culinary clock every so often, the kitchen of Carta picks up and moves to another whole hemisphere each month. After previous stints in Guam, Morocco and Spain, Carta settles this July onto the languorous porch of the American South. Spanish moss and the mighty Mississippi, succotash and jambalaya, cayenne and Coca-Cola, Tom and Huck. It may seem odd to conjure such a swollen and burning landscape in the midst of this city's bracing fog barricades--our summer is much closer to a deep freeze than a deep fry.

But all degrees of separation melt at the sip of a mint julep and different latitudes merge on the rim of the highball glass. In addition to a decent selection of wine and beer, Carta provides the discerning diner with a classic American cocktail menu--creamy brandy Alexanders, muddled mint juleps, perfect Manhattans and double-sized martinis. Sipping the Colonel's cocktails while perusing the small plates and starters may inspire lassitude and longing for a world gone with the wind, but unfortunately there is a little too much time at Carta for such sleepy reminiscence. The intervals between cordials and courses stretches out a touch longer than desired, and the jarring pangs of hunger jolt one out of reverie in demand for service.

Luckily, the attendant meal is worth the jet-lagged delivery. Cajun "popcorn" ($8) made of deep-fried and breaded crayfish tails is sweet and succulent, with much more tender texture than its bastardized shrimp cousin most frequently found at Popeye's and Red Lobster. Crayfish may still seem cuisine bourgeoise in the haute associated with lobster, but Carta's preparation doesn't miss a beat. My arteries groaned at the sight of the accompanying remoulade, but my stomach snatched it up before I could protest.

Similarly, I attempted to order a salad of seasonal greens and some pickled oysters, but my lips--independent of health concerns--conspired with my larynx to shape a throaty and guttural request for hushpuppies ($7) and baked baby ribs ($8). I clearly had no control over the matter. Both were excellent, if incredibly filling--the crisp hushpuppies of cornmeal and andouille sausage were accented with fresh corn and sweet peppers; the baby back ribs accompanied by a delightfully moist jalepeño-cheddar corn bread and braised greens.

The lull between the small plates and the entrees was a welcome respite for my overtaxed digestive system, giving me time to sip an appropriately fruity and peppery Cline Syrah especially chosen to accent the flavors of the American South. The large plates arrived in due time--pork chops with souffléed sweet potatoes ($16) and buttermilk-marinated catfish ($16)--Southern staples updated and notched up, which couldn't quite live up to the standard set by the small plates.

Although the souffléed sweet potatoes were light and sweet, and the hoppin' John and smothered okra that supported the catfish were rich and savory, the actual entrees themselves were off ever so slightly. When one is offered such a spice- and sauce-packed regional cuisine, it is unfortunate if the second course is not as unhealthfully decadent as the first.

Still, not everyone is young and blessed with a high (if slowly dropping) metabolism, and one must make concessions. But to fatten up the meal just a notch would be best--one can always think about it tomorrow, because it is after all another day. And with God as my witness, I'd never go hungry again.

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From the July 5, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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