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Gender Con-'fusion'

[whitespace] asia sf Cal-Asian Cuisine: asia sf refuses to set aside food in favor of spectacle; while being entertained, delicious food is served tapas style--the sure ruin of a discreet waistline.

David Fortin

asia sf's ladies-in-waiting dish out Cal-Asian cuisine with relish

By Michael Stabile

Perhaps it was because I was in the midst of nibbling the smoked salmon and wasabi crème fraîche flat bread that I didn't notice the lights dim around the bar or the sudden cessation of the patrons' din. By the time I did look up, our waitress had scaled the back bar and was peeking out impishly from behind a square column.

Ducking back, she extended one leg and then the other to the strains of Eartha Kitt's rendition of "Hey, Big Spender," her lips expanded and contracted to shape the required "Purrrrrrr!"

The "ladies" of asia sf bill themselves as gender illusionists, and owner, hostess and entrepreneur Skip Young is adamant that the show not be confused with drag. "Drag," Young maintains, "is a parody of women. This is a celebration of them." All paeans aside, these waitstaff-cum-performers do set aside the bitchiness and attitude of drag in favor of pleasantness and accommodation. Yet they are not Holly Hobbies either; these women have poise and personality. Somewhere between Stepford and Wigstock lies the province of asia sf.

Entering asia sf is a nearly cinematographic event. One can imagine an opening sequence in which the camera pans the restaurant's drab Soviet-era facade before sweeping aside the luxe curtains and revealing a showplace that, although dark and intimate, radiates warmth and color. The walls glow in slow but pulsing hues, like a bipolar mood ring: navy to green to teal to amber to maroon to indigo. Each cycle imparts subtle changes in the atmosphere, alternately highlighting and contrasting dresses and makeup. "We want the effect to be magical," Young explains. Indeed, in this jaded age, making gender ambiguity notable again does require some sleight of hand; from CK One and Be fragrances to The RuPaul Show on cable, the oversaturation of gender play has made it as banal an act as Hanson.

Unlike similar but unrelated restaurants such as Lucky Chang in New York, asia sf refuses to set aside food in favor of spectacle. The Cal-Asian cuisine is served tapas style, encouraging the buffet variety grazing that is the sure ruin of a discreet waistline. The pan-fried shitake potstickers ($5.75) are a clever start, a convenient sensory U-turn between one's initial cocktail and the sake or wine to follow. There was enough oil to soothe my bourbon-numbed tongue and a cleansing ginger broth to revitalize it for the rapid-fire arrival of the additional small plates. The overwhelming dill in the grilled flat bread ($7.50) furthers this transition, though I, challenging the evident influence of Wolfgang Puck, oppose the warmth of the smoked salmon on this pizzette.

Both the teriyaki ahi burger ($9.25) and the lemongrass-soy beef burger ($7) showcase the possibilities for an honest and relaxed fusion cuisine. The former is served with a biting and crisp cabbage slaw that reminds you that looking westward from the California coast means focusing, paradoxically, on the Far East. Its pairing with the delicate ahi recalls both seaside beach towns and cherry-blossomed picnics. Despite a name reminiscent of a Denny's blue plate, the asia-dilla ($6.75) manages to makeover this Mex-American standard by enlivening a determined jack cheese with tea-smoked duck and pairing both with a giddy sun-dried cherry crème fraîche.

The wine list is impressive, with informed boutique and continental selections, but I didn't find that I trusted most of them to go with the disparate influences of the East. I would have supposed that there might have been a preponderance of crisp rieslings or spiced gewürtztraminers, but instead I found many of the varietals popular at less challenging Bay Area establishments: Pinot noirs and merlots, some dry rosés and a few chardonnays. All savvy choices individually, but not necessarily ones that will marry well with either lemongrass or chiles. The sakes were sadly underrepresented as well; asia sf might take a hint from Sushigroove or Betelnut and employ a few of the newly popular premium and unfiltered rice wines.

Dessert, encompassing brûlée, beignet and ice cream cones, is, if not exactly revolutionary, then at least entertaining. A couple to my left insisted I try one of the three miniature cones they had ordered (they, too, had overindulged). The cashmere comfort of chocolate with dried cherries echoed the preceding meal nicely, though I was a bit taken aback when my neighbor laughingly told me that he had mail-ordered his wife. With a demure "tee-hee-hee," she gave me an ambiguous wink but refused to give up her cone.

My tempura-battered mango, however crisp and floral, was a bit too much for my stomach to handle after such an ambitious meal. My one suggestion for asia sf is to offer a lighter end, something that rejuvenates one's palate as the girls do the eyes. Litchi-lemon sorbet, perhaps, or a ginger fruit salad.

Certainly beyond dinner theater, and more intrepid than Planet Hollywood, asia sf nips and tucks the caricature of drag, transforming the now cliché disguise into carnival. The result is neither mainstream nor curious, but it is spectacle in its finest sense. Though one will still find the requisite businessmen expecting a Sally Bowles to slink in with a sultry "Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome," asia sf was never meant to be a seedy dive for the slumming cigar smokers.

Gender illusion, like any other magic, requires a suspension of disbelief on the part of the observer. One can not enjoy the show, or the meal, if one insists on relegating the performers or the food to the realm of the exotic. At asia sf, genders are fused as seamlessly as are the cuisines, reminding the diner that we, too, are part of this shrewd mix.

asia sf, 201 Ninth St. (at Howard), Wednesday-Sunday; 415/255-2742.

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From the September 7-20, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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