The ghouls, witches, and spun-cotton spiders' webs remain, but modern-day Halloween has shed itself of fear of death and the harshness of winter. October 31 has metamorphosed into a joyous celebration of transformation -- the changing of seasons, the mutability of character. And it's amazing what hidden personalities come out when the mask goes on. Just ask anyone who's done drag -- the demure data-entry clerk becomes a brassy chanteuse in spangles and heels, the tattooed activist a sleazy pomaded Lothario. Is what emerges play or real? Sometimes the transformed can barely say.
In celebration of transformations, I recently visited a restaurant that has shed its skin and grown a brighter one. Three months ago, Christopher Cheung of Christopher's Café (not Christopher's Nothing Fancy Café, which he sold long ago) shut down his popular restaurant on Solano Avenue and reopened in Rockridge as Marica Seafood Restaurant, ostensibly because the rent was too high on Solano. Cheung lost a few seats but gained a new focus: seafood.
Though the space has shrunk, Cheung kept the same playfully industrial feel -- the exposed brick walls along one side, colorful pastel hues along the other side. Small alcoves are framed with theatrical swags of cloth. A hint of the sea emerges from the clusters of green blown-glass lamps hanging from the ceiling like kelp; a watery blue stained-glass column hides the entrance to the kitchen.
I was not a fan of the old Christopher's. Liked the space, loved the service, didn't like the food. But the metamorphosis into Marica (named after a Roman water nymph) has brought out more of the chef's strengths. Cheung's dishes seem more focused, less likely to spin off into a hodgepodge of conflicting flavors. He has also toned down the global exploration while retaining a penchant for Asian elements.
The flavor combinations on the plates have gained subtlety, too. For example, our baby spinach salad with red and gold beets and crunchy caramelized pecans was dressed in a faintly sweet, almost imperceptible vinaigrette whose acidity made the flavors of the vegetables pop out. In one nightly special, the anise flavor of pernod merged with white wine, shallots, and saffron into a rich, complex broth bathing a handful of mussels. One of the successes imported from the last restaurant was a whole-leaf Caesar salad tossed with a dressing more like a creamy, eggy vinaigrette than a mayonnaise. I could actually taste the crisp green Romaine leaves underneath the zippy coating, whose anchovy and garlic flavors were present but held in check.
A few duds are left, and they can show up in usually safe choices, like fried calamari. We received a bowl of rings lightly tossed in nothing but a little rice flour. A quick frying had left the flesh tenderish, but the grainy coating didn't completely protect it, so we missed the play of crisp batter against sweet, melting cephalopod inside. The anemic aioli served alongside didn't put any guilt back into the guilty pleasure of eating fried food. My dining companions and I were excited about the abalone and scallop cake with chive butter, beurre blanc, and crème fraîche, until we found the small flat breaded patty -- succulent and mild -- overwhelmed by three fatty, dull sauces.
Cheung's menu, which changes every three weeks, is focused not just on seafood but on seasonal produce. The root vegetables and strongly flavored greens of late fall and winter bring a set of interesting culinary challenges to Marica, since many of them don't readily combine with most seafood. But Cheung gamely gives it a go.
Two successes: a thick slice of juicy pan-roasted sea bass, brown around the rim and tender from the center to the edges, rested on a velvety carrot-parsnip puree. The pairing succeeded because both elements were seasoned correctly. In the best dish of the night, huge prawns, butterflied and tossed in a Parmesan-parsley coating, were sautéed and then nestled into butternut-squash polenta, their tails pointing at one another. The squash had been pureed into the buttery polenta, and its sugars melded into that of the cornmeal, complementing the natural sweetness of the prawns.
Clams must have been scarce on the day we dined, because salmon and prawns -- both moist and meaty -- replaced them on the linguine with melting oven-roasted tomatoes. A more assertive sauce than a mild butter-stock emulsion would have made the dish satisfying. Like all the other entrées we tried, though, the fish was cooked perfectly. The side vegetables that accompanied them were more problematic. Cheung exercises a Chinese sensibility with his vegetables, barely blanching them until they're bright and crisp. In my opinion there's no better way to prepare asparagus and snap peas, two of the veggies on the plate, but the small treasure mound of root-vegetable jewels -- mainly carrots and turnips cut into diamonds -- needed more roasting to bring out their succulence.
The Chinese treatment worked for the most spectacular dish on the menu, lobster cooked two ways. The kitchen first chops up a whole lobster, coats it with flour and five-spice powder, and quickly deep-fries it. Then the fried lobster is stir-fried with garlic, ginger, lime juice, and jalapeño. A soy-based sauce enriched by the lobster liquor became a potent dip for the moist meat. Though I knew the crispy noodle cake on the side held no nutritional value, I couldn't stop soaking it in the sauce and eating it. Cheung also lets a simple soy-citrus sauce complement slices of seared ahi tuna, crusted in wasabi and sesame. The tuna tops a mound of forgettable standard-issue mashed potatoes, with a tangle of sautéed peppers and onions on the side.
Desserts are homey and pleasant. Cheung has kept the evanescent chocolate soufflé (baked to order) that I remember fondly from my visit to Christopher's. A two-inch-deep crème brûlée, speckled with vanilla pods, had good flavor on the eggier end of the custard spectrum. The caramel on our upside-down pineapple cake didn't permeate as far into the dense spice cake beneath it as I'd have liked, but the cake tasted freshly baked.
Thankfully, the waitstaff from Christopher's moved with Cheung to the new location. Our server kept a respectful distance, but closely monitored the table to anticipate our needs and paced the meal perfectly. By my second visit the waiter recognized me from the last time, made sure that I knew that he remembered me, and handed my companions and me mailing-list cards to fill out. Cheung owes much of the success of Christopher's to his ability to build a strong base of regulars, who have followed the Pied Piper of Solano Avenue out to Marica. May every transformation this Halloween be so fortuitous.
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