Man With a Plan
Gene Tang -- the owner, floor manager and master sommelier of 1515 -- knows how to work a room. One minute, he's on the stairs, smiling all the way back to his eyeteeth and greeting the point man for a group of eight just making their way up from the bar; the next, he's on the far end of the elegant, second-floor dining room with a wine bottle laid over his arm, presenting it for the inspection of four very fit, very blond, very professional young women who all lean in, squint and purse their lips in that way that screams, "I know nothing about wine, but if I try to look intensely interested, maybe no one will notice."
Gene notices, I'm sure of that, but Gene doesn't care. When they all lean back, look at each other and nod in consensus, he just hits them with that thousand-watt grin and compliments them on their astute choice. Does it matter that he's sold them a sharp, heavy Cabernet to go with their mixed greens and strawberry salad? Not a bit. The point is, those four women feel with-it and welcome; they feel as though they've made a wise and educated selection. The point is, the house gets to tack a bottle of wine onto their bill. The point is, Gene knows how to work a room.
He's like a wind-up food-service action figure: Turn the key, set him down in the middle of a packed house, and watch him go. He glides around the tables, sharply dressed in classic black-on-black with a walkie-talkie on his belt and eyes like a sniper -- focused, attentive and slightly predatory. Blink, and he's at the service station, head down, hissing at one of his servers with a hand clamped tightly on his shoulder. Blink, and he's behind you, snapping pictures of the blue-haired birthday party and chatting up the ladies out for a night on the town. Blink, and he's clearing a table, plates balanced up his arm. Blink, and he's glad-handing his way around a table of local VIPs, starting an infectious round of applause that ripples through the room -- even though half the people (myself included) have no idea what they're clapping for.
Blink, and he's at your table, thanking you for coming, making sure everything is okay, giving you the high-beam smile and a handshake and a "Hi, how ya doin'?"
Blink, and he's gone.
Finally, you can concentrate on your meal. But the buzz doesn't leave the room when Gene does, because no matter how electric he might be, his wattage fades compared with the star power of the food coming out of the kitchen.
1515 has a revamped menu (it's no longer Pacific Rim, not even new American, but a kind of nouveau French classicist with a worldly sense of style) and a line now firmly in the hands of executive chef Olav Peterson (formerly of Bella Ristorante and Cafe Giovanni, which two decades ago occupied this same century-old space at 1515 Market Street) and sous chef Ben Alandt (an art-school grad who earned his chops at the Hilltop and Rialto cafes). Their work is so impressive that Gene's flesh-pressing routine becomes a pleasant sideshow to the main event taking place at every table and on every plate.
Chicken is a throw-away dish at nearly every fine-dining restaurant: It's generally the simplest to prepare, almost always the cheapest entree offered, and -- like a New York strip or a simple pasta with red sauce -- it's the thing you keep on the menu for people who are afraid to eat anything else. But at 1515, the humble, oft-abused bird is lavished with the sort of attention usually reserved for a centerpiece dish. Beginning with a deep spice rub of cloves and chile worked so thoroughly into the meat that the warm, wintery flavors fill, rather than simply top, the bone-in chicken leg, the kitchen then presents it on a soft Arborio-rice cake dusted with mellow turmeric and smeared with a wonderful sweet-potato purée. Add to this a smooth, perfectly balanced broth of coconut milk and cilantro -- its sweetness playing off the warm weight of the turmeric and clove -- and a gaufrette of fried plantain, and what you have is exactly the kind of architectural food that I'd normally hate. But such care was given to every element of its construction, and the components worked so well together, that I dug into it wide-eyed and stripped of all my usual prejudice. I loved every bite.
Believe it or not, the chicken was still the cheapest and simplest entree on the dinner menu. For globe-trotting complexity, look to the Colorado rack of lamb, served with an Argentine chimichurri (a thick herb sauce made with olive oil, vinegar, onions, garlic and all the pepper you can lay your hands on), candied yams and a cold vegetable ceviche. For class, there's the tarragon grilled salmon presented with a simple chilled parsley jus, and for pure American appetites, a blackened ribeye of buffalo. But my stand-out favorite -- the one dish that stood me up, shook me around and spoke straight to that dim little part of my brain that recognizes instinctively a kitchen's most pure expression of itself -- was the special on a recent Monday night: a seared duck breast served over potato gnocchi with a golden-raisin reduction.
Some chefs today are afraid of blood. What with all the e. Coli scares and articles in major magazines telling us that we have to order everything we eat blackened until the plate it's served on looks more appetizing, many of my brothers and sisters in white have backed off from preparations or sauces that require a rare meat to properly mount them or bring out their strongest flavors. But while you do need to be careful how you order in many places, that's not true everywhere. And definitely not here.
At 1515, the boys in the back are not afraid. It was the bloody-rare presentation of that duck that made it such a knockout; the combination of the duck's own juices with the honey-sweet essence of the golden raisin sauce that gave it depth and a weighty tang. This was a sauce with muscle, with the legs of a marathon runner, and it lent to the duck layers of flavor that gave the sensation of wholeness and a well-rounded body. And even if the potato gnocchi weren't perfect (and they weren't: a little mushy, and way too heavy on the herbs), I can forgive that, because this duck will hang with me a long time as proof positive that these chefs have the guts to actually cook -- to experiment, to play, and to do so without fear. It makes me feel good to know that not everyone is giving in to the fussy tastes of the craven gastrological milksops; it gives me faith to know that there are still some chefs out there who aren't afraid of a little blood.
That said, not everything coming out of 1515's kitchen was as inspirational. The seared Sonoma foie gras on the appetizer menu arrived at the table runny, had been less than expertly veined, and was seared past the point of caramelization. Still, it was plated over dried apple slices and served with a nice, tart apple-balsamic reduction that would have made for a fantastic combination had the liver been handled a bit more carefully. In general, lunch stood a couple of steps below the heights achieved at dinner, and although the 1515 burger is one monster sandwich -- served with real smoked bacon, Roquefort cheese and good sautéed mushrooms on top of a half-pound of ground beef cooked as I'd ordered to a perfect medium rare -- the signature fried potato salad just didn't do it for me. The greens were wilted, the potatoes too dry and the dressing simply not strong enough to hold its own against all that starch.
Also, I could swear the ahi tuna niçoise was actually made with the smaller bonito or skipjack tuna, and not yellowfin. The thick, smooth texture of sashimi-grade ahi wasn't there, and neither was the characteristic deep-red coloring. It was a decent salad -- a good starter, or filling enough for a light lunch -- but if it was ahi tuna being used (and Gene assured me that it was), then it was certainly from a lower-grade fish, possibly a tail cut, or just something else altogether. Ben and Olav, I owe you guys a couple of beers if I'm wrong on this. In fact, I owe you guys a couple of beers, anyway, because your kitchen is striving for greatness and recognizes that it is the food that matters -- first, last and forever.
The best restaurateurs understand this, and so the best restaurants accept that everything else is a stage on which great things are set. No floor man, however talented, can resuscitate a dinner crowd stunned lifeless by a dull menu, weak flavors or a poor presentation. But when a kitchen is firing on all cylinders, as 1515's is now, sending out plates that knock people back in their seats and make the ladies swoon, nothing else matters.
The kitchen should steal the show every night of the week. Ask Gene. That's something he knows.
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