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Monday, August 29, 2005

On the Cutting Edge: Two New Restaurants Offer Something Different

San Francisco is a pretty adventurous town when it comes to dining, so it's not uncommon for restaurateurs and chefs to introduce new concepts, techniques, or cuisines into the local market and for Bay Area diners to embrace them.   Every so often, however, a restaurant comes along that significantly pushes or obliterates existing boundaries, offering up something that has previously gone unseen in the city.   This is one of those times, with not just one but two novel restaurants making their debuts this fall.

The first is Medicine, a Japanese vegetarian restaurant that opened August 10 in the Crocker Galleria at 161 Sutter Street.   Medicine features a modernized version of Shojin cooking, the 500-year old cuisine of Zen Buddhist temples and monasteries that excludes dairy, meat, fish, and – interestingly – onions, scallions, garlic, leeks and shallots.   The restaurant's name comes from an old Zen belief, namely that "food should be taken simply as medicine for the health of the body."

The menu consists of five different "sets," each of which is a combination comprised of a distinct main dish coupled with soup, tofu, and/or pickled vegetables.   Various side dishes are also available, as are several sakes.   Medicine's dining room is comprised entirely of long communal tables – apparently to mimic the setting in which Buddhist monks typically eat.   The restaurant serves lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, and lunch only on Saturday.   Reservations are not accepted, and a 17% gratuity is automatically added to every bill.

There is one other aspect of Medicine that is particularly distinctive, and that is the institutional vision that is set forth prominently on its website.   Here are some of the pertinent quotes:

"The core-value of Medicine is maitri – or 'loving-kindness' – which we define as a will to extend ourselves for the growth and well-being of those around us.   Loving-kindness is a will that arises inevitably from the most basic realizations of our existence:   that no matter how we may appear on the outside – whatever our backgrounds, endowments, beliefs or behaviors – we are all essentially human at heart, sharing the same joys and sorrows, the same feelings of confusion and awe in our lives – and that in a profound sense, we are all a part of each other.

Our Mission:   Within the context of a rational and well-run business, to cultivate a diverse community that inspires its members to become deeper, better people through an ethic of ego-less service to others, based on the Buddhist idea of maitri, or loving-kindness."

I admire the restaurant's ambitious mission statement and even concur in the stated sentiments, but how Medicine plans to facilitate these goals – and what the relationship is between them and Shojin cuisine – remain entirely unclear to me.   Furthermore, while I cannot yet comment on the quality of the food coming out of the Medicine kitchen, I will say this:   the manner in which the restaurant is marketing and positioning itself seems likely to guarantee a real uphill battle for the establishment.   Thinking of food "simply as medicine" may make perfect sense for monks who are striving to lead an ascetic lifestyle, but it's hardly a view that diners looking for a nice meal out are readily going to adopt.   And why in the world go with a restaurant name that instantly turns people off, rather than a name more in line with the owners' personal philosophy such as, oh I don't know, maybe Maitri?!
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There's more...
Next up is Supperclub, currently scheduled to open its doors on September 20 at 657 Harrison Street.   The original Supperclub was launched in Amsterdam in the early 1990's, and it was so successful that it eventually spawned a second location in Rome.   The property about to open here represents the restaurant's first venture into the United States, and it certainly promises to be unique if nothing else.   Take a look at this description from the Supperclub website:

"You enter supperclub san francisco through an understated door on Harrison street and are greeted by an outrageous hostess with leopard-painted eyes.   After a drink in the cheekily swank Bar Rouge, the hostess takes you to your 'bed.'   You find yourself lounging comfortably against pillows, sipping coolly from your favorite drink.   After several sumptuous, surprisingly delicious courses served by a friendly and unusual wait staff, your bellies are content but not stuffed . . . one in your party is getting a Thai massage, another has glitter dragonflies painted on her temples.   As the DJ changes the melody, some eyes lift to see an aerial dancer covered in seaweed hanging from a ring in the center of the room."

Yes, as hard as it is to imagine, diners will eat their meals on a large shared bed – of standard length, but enormous width – rather than at tables.   And as they sit there trying to get comfortable with eating in a semi-supine position, their senses will be overwhelmed with "drag queens with Victorian bouffants, circus-style aerial dancers, contortionists, and visual artists creating new works."

The open kitchen will be led by Executive Chef Jerry McGinnis, who will offer only two choices on the prix fixe Latin-Asian fusion menu – vegetarian or non-vegetarian.   After making that selection, diners will receive five "light" courses of the chef's choosing, reportedly for $60 per person.   The restaurant will be closed every Monday, and it will have only one dinner seating on the remaining evenings – 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday, and 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.   The bar and lounge will be open Tuesday through Sunday from 6:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m.

My first reaction upon hearing about Supperclub was that it sounds like it has the potential to be more gimmick than substance.   It's true that the Amsterdam and Rome locations have been quite successful, and that San Francisco is one of the 2-3 cities in this country in which the concept could theoretically work.   But the long-term viability of Bay Area restaurants is almost always determined by the quality of the food more than anything else, so it's critical that McGinnis be able to keep diners coming back long after the initial novelty of the place has worn off.   And in that regard, the price point at which Supperclub has positioned itself is notable.   A $60 prix fixe menu that is mandatory for everybody means a per person tab of at least $90 when drinks, tax and tip are considered – a bit steep for younger diners who might naturally be attracted to the concept of the restaurant.   Meanwhile, older and more affluent diners would probably pick a quiet evening enjoying a three-course dinner at La Folie ($60), Manresa ($63), The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton ($68), or Fleur de Lys ($70) before they would enlist for a night of massages and contortionists on a communal mattress.   So, is there enough of a demographic in the middle that can be kept interested, such that Supperclub can be sustained for the long haul?   We will soon find out.

Whatever ultimately happens with Medicine and Supperclub, I give both establishments a lot of credit for taking big risks and moving well beyond the ordinary.   It is only through efforts like these that our restaurant scene continues to reinvent itself over time and remains perpetually vibrant.


Anonymous Catherine said...

I gotta admit, I'm not particularly interested in restaurants as "concepts" and would be really surprised if Supperclub succeeds. However, Medicine just might -- their high-falootin' principles aside -- if the food is good.

August 29, 2005 3:50 PM  
Blogger NS said...

Catherine: I agree - I don't typically go to a restaurant to be "entertained," and I'm usually suspicious of places with a gimmick because so many of them use it to mask mediocre food. That said, I must confess that a few places -- such as Asia SF -- have actually managed to win me over, with food that has been unexpectedly good.

The fact remains, however, that one needs to be in a certain frame of mind to deliberately pick Asia SF over, say, La Folie, and it's a frame of mind in which I do not find myself very often. That is a problem that Supperclub may face as well, particularly given the competition at its price point.

August 29, 2005 5:53 PM  
Anonymous Tana said...

I'm not likely to choose a scene like this, which seems based on a very superficial concept, but I'm sure the See-and-Be-Seens will flock there in droves.

Psssst. tag, you're it.

August 30, 2005 4:40 PM  
Anonymous RK said...

Maybe if Supperclub somehow taps into the Cirque du Soleil demographic...

August 31, 2005 7:19 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Tana: I think you're right that Supperclub will draw the "see and be seen" crowd, but I wonder if that alone can really sustain a restaurant over the long term. It's not impossible, I suppose, given how long Asia de Cuba has managed to last with overpriced and mediocre food... Thanks for the tag - I need to collect my thoughts, but I will post something eventually!

RK: It's funny that you should mention Cirque du Soleil - that was exactly the image that came to my mind when I first heard about Supperclub. Although, I suspect that the restaurant may be more "out there" than Cirque. I read a description of a scene from the Amsterdam location in which a performer was wrapped in duct tape, given a knife, and suspended from the ceiling, and she then spent the entire evening cutting herself free!

August 31, 2005 7:54 AM  

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