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Imaginative Fare

[whitespace] Oodles Oodles of Food: There's a tasting menu at Oodles where seven courses are $38, or $56 with accompanying beverages.

David Fortin

Oodles is full of surprises

By Paul Adams

Light from the neon sign cuts through the Nob Hill evening fog. "Oodles," it reads. Oodles: [Colloq.] a great amount, very many. But what exactly are we being promised here?

Bamboo, blond wood and fronds perpetuate a sorely missed fern-bar aesthetic. Maybe cum Pier One: the glassware, chopsticks, etc. are blocky and orange or green. Each setting has (a) two forks, (b) pretty plastic chopsticks, (c) a knife and (d) a spoon that, wait, has a little notch in the right side of the bowl. Presumably, it will be necessary for the eating of some specialized type of food. Quirky. Some of the chairs are tall, nice bentwood ones, and some look like they were bought used--low and somewhat dingy. But all in all, the restaurant is airy, clean, well-shaped and pleasant.

Rolls (not steamed rolls) are brought in a bamboo steamer. They are good, each the size of a golf ball, doughy, faintly spicy, hard to leave alone. Because the steamer has a lid, the waiter can't tell when the rolls are all gone and thus keeps asking if he needs to bring more.

The wine list is handsome, medium-sized, medium-priced, well-selected, but this appears to be an Asian-esque restaurant, guessing by the menu, so let's get sake. (Plus Details says sake's cool.) They have five sakes, one served hot. Mmm, Momokawa Pearl. Pungent, milky, unfiltered, refreshing. Served as is traditional in a masu (box) but not (as is traditional) poured until overflowing. There are also house specialty cocktails, including one with sake and umeboshi. The waiter brings a third steamer of rolls.

The menu is long and difficult. It seeks to question classical notions of "courses," or maybe they just forgot to print section headings. At any rate, it is in five sections, the first two looking appetizer-priced; the second two, more entree-priced; and the third consisting of a single salad--totaling maybe 30 dishes. Everything seems equally complex, from the "curry-cured salmon with cucumber, cauliflower and potato salad and minted yogurt" to the "miso-marinated skate wing with crispy calamari, sweet corn and arugula." There is also a tasting menu. Seven courses for $38, or $56 with accompanying beverages. Actually a very good deal, but seven courses sounds like a lot. Includes rabbit, beef cheeks and two desserts.

The mixed-greens salad is a delicious success, standing head and shoulders above the majority of its peers, with Asian pears and surprising little goat-cheese dumplings in a vaguely sesame/horseradish-tinged dressing. Leaves you wanting more, which frankly most salads don't. The curry-cured salmon, on the other hand, is a bit of a disappointment. Reread the description of the dish above and jot down what you expect it to be, then come back and I'll tell you what it actually looks like. OK. It's an igloo of very fresh raw salmon slices, delicately redolent of curry, laid over a mound of uncooked diced white vegetables bound with yogurt. Roe on top, cucumber platform below. Not bad but not really good either.

Quail and cassoulet (a single dish) comes with tart umeboshi sauce. The cassoulet is strongly flavored; every mouthful is an experience. The skate wing is also intense, with a very nice scalloplike chewy consistency. (Historical note: faux scallops are made by unscrupulous fishmongers by punching circles out of skate.) It came with corn, as everything does this summer, sort of gratuitously. The foie gras is possibly a little grainy, but the vinegar shallots accompanying it make for one of the most exciting treatments of this liver to date.

For the vegetarian, Oodles has a tofu and vegetable napoleon. The ingredients are top-grade, and the combination of textures is exciting, but the delicious turmeric-based curry sauce is not quite sufficient to cover the blandness of the tofu and eggplant. Or rather, when every bite must be dipped into the pool of sauce to make it flavorful, the overall effect becomes a little monotonous. The garnish of (pea?) sprouts was excellently refreshing, though. Roast chicken breast has a sweet glaze with only a hint of the ginger the menu claims. It is served on a bed of delicious aromatic greens and a soft rice cake.

Note, by the way, that few of these dishes can be completely or comfortably eaten with chopsticks. Perhaps the sticks are more iconic than functional in this restaurant. The waiter is doting but unsure of himself. When he comes by every few minutes to ask how everything is, it seems he's actually asking how we like him. He was probably dismayed by the initial lukewarm reaction to the salmon igloo. Still no call for the arcane spoon.

And now it's gone, replaced by a notchless dessert spoon, heralding--you guessed it--dessert. There is crème brûlée, of course, of the coconut-tapioca variety, served with cherries, mangoes, lime. Dark-rum-infused pineapple with lemon-ginger sorbet. Banana lumpia with ice cream. An assorted Asian sweets platter. Bread pudding. Fruit salad in coconut jelly. And get this: grilled Teleme in grape leaves, with grilled bread, dried fruit and halvah. Goodbye, Far East.

The lumpia is delicious, although not subtle: two little fried ones and a mound of macadamia ice cream. The pineapple is a challenge--its superstrong flavor is offset but not calmed by the also strong but delicious and keen sorbet. The brûlée is excellent and a bit al dente but not tremendously different. The coconut jelly is gentle and calming after a big meal. No attempt was made to tackle the grilled cheese: it sounded like it would not do the job required of a dessert.

Although Oodles' focus is not entirely clear, the dishes are unusual and very well-made, the ingredients the best and the menu full of surprises. There are strong strains of Southeast Asia and of France, underlying currents of Japan, China and the U.S. and tinges of the Middle East, among others. And because the fusing elements are unwilling or at least startled to be fused, the restaurant will pick up a following of those who like imaginative and occasionally challenging food.

Oodles, 909 Bush; 415/928-1888

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From the August 24-September 6, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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