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Fairies and Food

Fairy Scene: Queen Tatiana graces the wall mural at Oberon.

Oberon: A mid-block drama on Lombard

By Steve Bjerklie

It's an odd space: three white rooms, each full of tables, jutting over and around each other like trapezoids in a game of Blockhead. It's an odd location, too. Even in a city where neighborhoods weave into each other driveway by driveway, calling the block of Lombard between Van Ness and Franklin the "foot of Russian Hill," as does Oberon, the restaurant at 1450 Lombard, is stretching things (try "outer pasture of Cow Hollow").

Yes, "Oberon" as in Oberon, king of the fairies in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Ramming home the point, a life-size mural of Oberon and his queen, Titania, by Steve Pan (lord, Steve Pan) hangs heavily over the bar downstairs. The name, which one could expect to find on a salad house in Mill Valley, certainly creates expectations of its own. You mean now there's fairy food? It's so hard to keep up.

The owners and chef create expectations as well. One partner, Zoran Matulic, was previously installed at Postrio and Wolfgang Puck's Cafe; another, Ingrid Summerfield, also manages the Maxwell Hotel. Ron Hartman comes from the Coconut Grove Supper Club. And the chef, Chris Lee, comes by way of Venticello Ristorante and Campton Place. Not only that, but Oberon's location was previously occupied for 25 years by Gelco's, a beloved Yugoslavian restaurant.

So what kind of food comes from a mix of Shakespeare, celebrity and Marshal Tito? I know, "Mediterranean" was on the tip of your lips. For Mediterranean it is. To be fair, Lee calls it "southern European," but a menu of lamb, rabbit and meze does not bring to mind Madrid. Instead, Lee has created a personal take on the cuisines at the edges of the Mediterranean: a bit of Moroccan here, some Greek there, Algerian in the chicken breast, Italian in the pastas, of course. The net effect is like most combo plates: good and filling but not great and memorable.

The meze appetizer, a combo plate of its own, brings together several different textures and flavors within a more or less Greek theme. A trio of shrimp was tender and succulent, the couscous somewhat dry and crumbly, and a small serving of mini-lentils contrasted by emphasizing a firm texture. A tomato preparation with peppers, best eaten on bread rounds, was the best thing on the plate, though people who enjoy olives more than I do might think the same about the small selection of designer olives gracing the platter. This is an ideal appetizer for two, even though the price goes up a couple of bucks for each extra person served. The range of tastes and mouth-feels will stimulate agreement or argument, depending on your companion and mood.

The polenta appetizer satisfied more completely than the meze plate. This is polenta in a goopy style, served in a shallot-veal broth and topped with wild and domestic mushrooms. The mustiness of the mushrooms is nicely offset by the meaty flavor of the broth; the polenta itself is more or less a mild background flavor. Lovers of Italian-style polenta might be put off by polenta-in-a-bowl, but keep an open mind: I enjoyed this dish more with each spoonful.

A special of farfalle pasta with braised lamb from the entrée menu again brought together contrasting and complementing textures. The rabbit's tenderness was pleasing against the perfect al dente firmness of the pasta. But a salty broth/gravy overwhelmed the plate like too many drums in an orchestra; the entrée flattened beneath the onslaught.

The pan-roasted salmon entrée, served on a bed of artichoke, potato and carrot in a lemon and oregano nage, had similar problems. The potatoes and carrots were both overdone, and the grassy broth was bland and oily. The salmon itself was fine, if a little overdone at the tips and underdone in the center. But "fine" isn't good enough for salmon in this town, where we're locked in battle with Seattle and Los Angeles for bragging rights to the best-served salmon on the West Coast. In these parts, salmon's got to rock.

Lee seems to sense some of the inadequacies of the menu himself. He recently dropped a lamb pappardelle from the dinner menu in favor of an open-faced ravioli-with-rabbit entrée, which sounds enticing, and replaced the penne nicoise with lamb shank. Some thought has gone into the wine list as well. While not comprehensive, it provides an adequate selection of whites and reds from Italy, France, Spain and California's Napa, Sonoma and Central Coast regions so diners can choose an appropriate wine to complement a food choice from the eclectic menu. With the salmon, my companion and I quite enjoyed a Stonestreet chardonnay, fairly priced at $32. We did not so much enjoy a Barton & Guestier sauterne with a créme brûlée from the dessert menu; the wine was musty.

Some of the disappointments in our meal were offset by the charm of our waitperson, who was attentive and pleasant without being cloying and phony. In a mark of real professionalism, she waited until invited to join a few moments of our conversation.

A classical guitarist strums downstairs in the bar. On occasion he came upstairs and asked for requests. Few can name anything from the European guitar repertoire outside of "Satisfaction" and "Day Tripper," so the hapless musician was forced to play the adagio from the Concerto de Aranjuez over and over.

With two appetizers, two entrées, dessert, champagne cocktails, a bottle of wine with the entrées and sauternes with dessert, the total came to $135 with tip.

Oberon Restaurant & Bar,1450 Lombard St. (415-885-6555) Sun.through Thu. 5:30pm-10:00pm (bar open until midnight), Fri. and Sat. 5:30pm-11:00pm (bar open until midnight). Reservations suggested. Moderately expensive. Major CCs.

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From the September 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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