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Finding the Holy Grail... excellent (very long)

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Finding the Holy Grail... excellent (very long)

Joan Kureczka | Jul 9, 2005 01:04 PM

We'd been intrigued to see what O'Reilly's was building over in the old Maye's Oyster House space on Polk Street, so when we heard they were open and that there was seafood among other things, we decided to check it out.

Wow.

First the space. This is quite the place, with the theme set by spectacular Pre-Raphaelite stained glass from an old Irish church set in newer, celtic-themed framing that tends to light up the space. The front part of the large interior is a lively, pubbish bar area with a good sized bar and a number of stand-up tables, as well as a gas fireplace.

This is separated by elegant wood framing and stained glass from the dining room, which is another thing altogether -- a beautiful, more formal room with a reproduction French unicorn tapestry on one wall echoed by tapestry-covered chairs. Curved banquettes (left from the Maye's days) line the walls and tables within the room are linen covered and well spaced, and each set with a red rose.

Now to the food. While the menu is not yet up on their website, the text referred to oysters and seafood, as well as "Northern European" cooking and their own smokehouse. Well, fine Modern British cooking has come to San Francisco -- not that different from what we are used to as California cuisine, but with a slightly different palate of flavors and ingredients.

We began the meal with two starters. One -- chosen based on the strong recommendation of our waiter -- turned out to be a tie (with the Fleur de Lys about 5 years ago) for the best crabcakes I've ever eaten. These were all fresh Dungeness crab with a crunchy crust and lemony (or maybe lemon thyme) bite. They were served with a good peppery-tomatoey sauce on the side -- sort of a romesco but without the almonds -- and some frisee. The other starter was an excellent beet and citrus salad with a small amount of goat cheese and candied walnuts.

For the main course I had a generous portion of wild California salmon that was served with a wonderful sauce flavored with bacon and toasted hazelnuts. (Very Modern British based on things I've eaten in London and Glasgow) This was served with a side of roasted purple and white fingerlings, tossed with some shaved parmesan. Jesse had an excellent halibut with a light seasoning of butter,lemon and capers, served with garlic-sauteed spinach and good mashed potatos.

The wine list was interesting, with a few more Alsatian whites and Oregon pinot gris than one usually sees... including a big rich version of the latter as one of the house wines. The service we experienced was superb -- our waiter was friendly but extremely professional and knew the wine list well, as well as the dishes. It was really a wonderful meal.

Other items on the menu included a good selection of oysters, house-smoked trout and other seafood appetizers and additional fish and meat mains. No pub food in sight in the evening, but the lunch menu offers a more typical range including shepherd's pie and fish and chips.

The one jarring note was the piano during the dinner. Normally I enjoy music during dinner, but the piano-bar sort of repetoire that ranged from jazz standards (fine as background) to obnoxious 70's pop and music-hall Irish pieces lent a somewhat schizophrenic atmosphere as we tended to play "Name that tune" through the evening. The manager says they plan to offer jazz and blues, as well as traditional Irish sessions, so reconciling the music program, the lively bar scene and the fine dining restaurant may be a challenge.

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