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RESTAURANTS : ON THE ROX : At Hans Rockenwagner's Newest Restaurant, More Can Be Too Much

July 11, 1993|Ruth Reichl

Rox is like a big, friendly puppy that keeps jumping up to show its affection. It's all so pleasant that you're surprised when it knocks you down.

The Rox experience starts out slowly. You wander lazily down a path, past a deep-turquoise swimming pool, through banks of plants. Flowers sway gently overhead. But once you get inside the door, there's a burst of friendly activity.

People sit at the bar, chatting in the dim light of this casual room. A woman walks past, the baby in her arms mesmerized by the multicolored-glass light fixtures floating from the ceiling. Older men stroll by in jeans, staring with deep appreciation at all the pretty young waitresses. In the booths along the wall, women of a certain age lean together, their hats bumping as they whisper conspiratorially. The service is good, and the room has a happy buzz.

And why not? Everybody has great expectations: Rox has an excellent pedigree. Sired by Bill Kimpton, who almost single-handedly made the words San Francisco hotel synonymous with good food (think Masa's, Postrio, Kuleto's), it also has chef Hans Rockenwagner to boast about.

Rockenwagner started small eight years ago in Venice; at 24, he opened a restaurant with only 12 tables. But it was an ambitious restaurant that turned out wonderful food, and Rockenwagner made a name for himself. He moved on and now has three restaurants and a bakery and is accustomed to having people throw around words like courageous and genius when they talk about him.

This is probably why he has the audacity to serve dishes such as sauteed foie gras atop a pear tart. When it is sitting before you, you can't help but wish Rockenwagner had been a little less brave; if there is a sillier dish than this one, I haven't found it.

Foie gras is a very good thing. Left to its own devices, it tastes too good to be true. It is wonderful made into pate and cut into slices. Sliced and sauteed, it is even more wonderful; add it to almost anything and you have a better dish. Marc Meneau of L'Esperance in Vezelay, France, serves foie gras with lentils. Alain Ducasse of Le Louis XIV in Monte Carlo serves it with peaches. Wolfgang Puck serves it with pineapple at Chinois on Main in Santa Monica. None of them goes wrong. But when Hans Rockenwagner plops sauteed slices of foie gras onto pieces of pear-topped puff pastry, surrounds this creation with pomegranate glaze and--wait, we're not done yet--tops the whole thing with fried onion rings, something is seriously wrong. The poor foie gras is suffocated. Did Rockenwagner actually try this dish? Did he like it?

Maybe. For Rockenwagner, a once sensible chef, now seems compelled to gild every lily, as if no food would taste good if just left to its own devices. Caesar salad comes surrounded by a Berlin Wall of Parmesan cheese that has been cooked in the manner of the Italian frico. "Break it up," the waitress says encouragingly as she sets the dish before you. Seared prawns come with their heads hanging over a corral of fried potatoes, looking longingly into a meadow of something Rockenwagner calls "corn-potato risotto." The risotto tastes like creamed corn--it is wonderful--but both times I had the dish the potatoes tasted as if they had been deep-fried days ago. And both times, the potatoes were still partly raw.

There is a lot of fried food on this menu; one night every single dish we ordered came with a little fried treat on the plate. House-smoked salmon was draped across a big heap of arugula; the fish was sliced so thin you could see the greens through the fish. And there, on top, was a little crown of corn fritters. "Charcuterie of the sea" was a pretty plate with tuna tartare, a single shrimp and one fried oyster in cilantro cream. Sesame tuna--rare fish wrapped in a crust made of alternating strips of black and white sesame seeds--came sitting on a basket of fried potatoes. Scallops were embalmed in a fat crust of fried potatoes.

There are safe havens, such as the Sally Fama salad--a seriously sensible combination of mixed greens with avocado and tomatoes that tastes refreshingly American, like something your mother would have made. Or the little stack of ribs with its tricolor potato salad. Nice grilled lamb chops that come on a bed of moussaka (here interpreted as a mash of eggplant with some feta cheese, a black olive sauce and a few bits of kataif , a kind of shredded wheat). The jerk pork tenderloin with coconut curry rice and tropical fruit salsa sounds strange and exotic, but it's simple and delicious. And in spite of its odd description, veal chop with shrimp bearnaise is actually wonderful.

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