25 Lusk

Serving artful plates in an environment that encourages diners to loosen the tie

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Oregon steelhead with lobster beignets, Dungeness crab, and citrus fennel at Lusk 25

paulr@sfbg.com

DINE If you don't know where Lusk Street is or have never even heard of it, please take a number and step to the back of the line. The name isn't a joke, although it does sound as if the words "lust" and "luxe" collided on some drunken voluptuary's lips. The street itself (right off Townsend between Third and Fourth streets) isn't even a street, exactly; more like an alley. In an odd way it reminded me of Downing Street, in Whitehall, central London (home of the PM): a stub of pavement with no through traffic, lots of shiny black cars, and a strong sense of occasion. The occasion here would be the new restaurant 25 Lusk, whose big white neon signage glows brightly into the night. Nothing like it at Number 10.

Not since the advent of Bix, more than 20 years ago, has a restaurant brought such panache to an urban alley. And the resemblances run deeper: both restaurants have a strong vertical dimension inside: Bix its aerie-like mezzanine and soaring ceiling, 25 Lusk its main dining floor floating over a lounge that feels like a cross between Studio 54 and a ski lodge. (The building was once a meat-packing plant.) And both seem to attract high rollers. Indeed, my mole assured me that 25 Lusk was full of VC (venture capitalists) having expensive bottles of wine decanted while they sat around discussing what to do with the pots of money he's sure they've been sitting on for the past three years.

I didn't notice any obvious VC. The crowd reminded me of Boulevard's, maybe slightly younger and hipper — except for the downstairs lounge, which was raucous with a definite whiff of pick-up scene with people laughing too loud and the odd shriek). All this is as it should be, because the restaurant is in the middle of a rising neighborhood, run by an in-their-prime duo (Chad Bourdon and Matthew Dolan) who are taking their first crack at running their own place on a theory of "approachable fine dining" — nice phrase, with an implicit condemnation of the other, stuffy kind.

Dolan's food conforms to the familiar tropes of "seasonally driven" and "new American," but mostly it struck me as intensely plated, meaning, a good deal of thought and energy got spent on presenting things. One advantage of this, apart from the aesthetic pleasure, is transparency: you can see everything. The disadvantage is that dishes are apt to be deconstructed to a greater or lesser degree, which can leave the bringing-together of flavors and effects in the diner's hands.

The Sonoma foie gras torchon ($16), for instance, looked like a contemporary art display, with its block of paté, heap of spiced peanuts, stack of toast squares, scattering of roasted grapes, and dramatic smear of blueberry banyuls sauce across a quarter of the rectangular white plate. But ... how to eat it gracefully? The toasts were of little use; they were like people who couldn't bend their knees. The asparagus terrine ($14) too, was underconstructed, with a stack of beet-cured gravlax slices sitting at the side of the plate like gawkers.

Potato gnocchi ($14), nicely browned cylinders about the size of thumbnails, were a little easier to handle. They came in a shallow dish and were bolstered by braised, boneless short rib, which (with manchego cheese shavings) provided a nice glueyness. You do need binders for this kind of style. The grilled prawns ($26) — four sizable prawns neatly lined up like soldiers being reviewed — benefited from a berm of carrot puree as well as a thick bed of fabulously fragrant Japanese pepper grits, like lemony polenta.

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