Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Jazzy Flavors of Limon

524 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Chef Martin Castillo
Lunch and Dinner daily

Tried: August 2006

I was beginning to think that my bad restaurant streak was never going to end, and then I ended up at Limon. Limon is noisy and crowded for a reason. The food is plentiful, well-spiced, reasonably priced, and thoroughly satisfying. Add to that an extensive list of Spanish, Chilean, Argentinian, German, and Austrian wines, all well matched with the cuisine and most priced under $50 a bottle, and you end up with a great meal.

We started with the ceviche de pescado-- raw strips of fresh halibut marinated in lime juice to a pearly opaque color, served with a generous mound of large white kernels of Peruvian corn and a wedge of pale yellow yam, and topped with thin slices of pickled red onion. The corn kernels were pleasantly starchy, in constrast with the tart lime juice and seasoning on the fresh pieces of halibut, with the translucent pickled onions adding a nice piquant edge. The crisp and floral 2005 Albarino recommended by our server matched perfectly with the flavors of the ceviche dish. Our dinner was off to an excellent start.

The next dish, vieres con foie gras, was the favorite of the evening. Three circles of golden brown pan-seared scallops, with no trace of grit or sand, each about the size of a quarter in circumference and about a half-inch thick formed the foundation for a generous slice of foie gras, seared to perfection. The scallops had been cooked exactly right to the point that they yielded to the fork like a custard. The mild sweet and salty sea flavors of the scallops set off the rich, meaty, buttery flavor of the foie gras, each bringing out the best of the other. Eating this incarnation of scallops, I remembered how much I used to like them before they became hackneyed. The creamy yucca puree accented around the rim with a drizzle of thick, almost black fig reduction sauce was the perfect backdrop to this magnificent blend of flavors and textures.

We then moved on to the anticucho de res, marinated top sirloin grilled on skewers and served with roasted potatoes and Peruvian addresso sauce. The mild spice of the addresso sauce (made of tomatoes, white wine, garlic, butter, and red peppers) highlighted the flavors of the tender steak and the bits of tasty char on the outside. With a glass of racy rioja, it was beyond scrumptious.

Although still fairly tasty, the least successful among the dishes we tried was the crispy whole red snapper. The presentation, with the bone and head of the snapper deep-fried to form a "basket" holding the deep-fried snapper filet pieces, was impressive. However, the delicate flavor of the snapper got lost in the deep-fried batter, making it taste not much different from fish sticks. A small piece of fish I was able to pry away from the skeleton basket where the heavy batter had missed was significantly better. The rocoto curry sauce on the side would have been great for another dish, but it too was overpowering for the delicate fish. The coconut pieces in the slightly mushy rice were a bit too tough and chewy, creating a disquieting combination of textures. Given that everything else we tried were so spot on, the slight missteps in this dish seemed more glaring.

The evening ended on a high note, with the homemade sorbet/ice cream combination. The sweet and icy coconut sorbet complemented the tropical fruit flavors of the lucuma ice cream and cherimoya ice cream, as though this combination were always meant to be.

A note about service: Limon may be casual and crowded, but our server would have been equally at home in a four-star formal establishment. He took charge from the moment we sat down and handled all of our requests and needs flawlessly (as well as all of the surrounding tables on the mezzanine floor), from menu and wine recommendations, pacing, replacing plates and silverware for each course as though we were doing a chef's tasting menu, to even refolding napkins when a member of our party left the table to use the restroom.

Ah, it is nice to be back in the land of good food.

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