just what I needed

Since I moved out of my apartment in Portland, I've been craving things I could count on. An apartment. A job. Things like that. I'm finally begining to carve out a routine here, but in the meantime, have lost my will to cook or to seek out anything culinarily fun. I've spent too many nights watching "CSI: Wherever" over a bowl of pasta with scallops and peas (my go-to easy dish). So today, buoyed by a freshly-cashed first paycheck and armed with new issues of Gourmet, Saveur and Food & Wine, I decided to kick off my gastronomic life here.

Being the one of the few nicer restaurants in SOMA, coco 500 is bustling. There is table after table of executive lunches and casual candidate get-to-know-yous. I wouldn't be surprised if most of the checks are paid with corporate credit cards. All these business happenings leave the heavy wood bar blissfully empty. I pluck Gourmet from my bag and select a stool. In a minute I'm drinking fresh spring water and surveying the menu. There's a paparadelle with pork sugo, olives and pine nuts, the inevitable wedge salad (though this one is freshened with pickled onions), and a roasted lamb tartine on levain with watercress that all catch my eye. I wait for the specials though, wanting to survey all my options before I make a choice.

Then I hear it. Local fresh sardines with a meyer lemon vinegarette and a side salad of arugula and frisee. "It's really good," the server says, "but it won't be enough for you." She points me toward the 'small starts' section of the menu. The coco500 mole "taco" (their quotes, not mine) gives me pause, and I ask about it. Before she can finish the phrase "slow-cooked beef cheeks," I tell her I'm in. Beef cheeks, after all, are my most favorite cut of meat.

I order up a prickly pear soda from the no-alchohol section (though I have little to do, I still have to go back to work), and crack open the Gourmet.

I turn the page to the first main article, which details a fish restaurant in Tulsa, OK. The pic shows a deep-fried flounder with a nice side of hush puppies. "That looks good," says Peggy, my server. "It does. The hushpuppies too," I respond.

"Oh," she offers, "there's a place in Berkeley that does some great hushpuppies. tiny place. Someone's name. A few stools and that's it. But really good."

And with that, we were off. I, of course, mention the hush puppies at Screen Door in Portland, about the food there all sustainable and organic, which then prompts Peggy to tell me that she had moved here from Portland too. The magazine stays open to that page for rest of the meal.

The "tacos" come (quotes mine this time). Lined up on a long black plate are five tortilla chips, each one with a perfect little mound of savory, collagen-rich braised beef cheek topped with a dollop of avocado salsa and a cilantro leaf. These are good, rich, satisfyingly crunchy and meaty at the same time. Big little bites.

Peggy hasn't just moved from Portland, she had worked in Portland. In food. At some of the best places there were. She helped open Zefiro, wrote the tome that is the saucebox cocktail menu- a legacy that looms large to this day. I offer her Portland food gossip in exchange for the inside scoop on where to buy produce, the wine shops to hit and shopping districts I seem to have overlooked. It's the kind of conversation that moves into its own tangents, that when you reach the end of that tangential stretch, you quickly walk your way back to the origin, eager to complete the thought.

The salad comes next. Three meaty sardines glassy-eyed and firm, peering up at me from their bed of fresh frisee and arugula. They are really, really good. Salty, substantial (for a little fish) and satisfying. I usually hate frisee. It bugs me. Gets caught in my throat. But this is good. Leafy, sweet. All in all a really good dish. Only the heads and tails remainon the plate.

I keep my Portland restaurant recommendations to a minumum, really putting all my weight behind Le Pigeon. "Really," I offer. "Gabe's the one who got me into beef cheeks." She explains that when she visits, her friends cook. "Well then, go for the dessert. Apricot cornbread, with maple ice cream and, " I pause for impact, "bacon."

Her eyes light up. "That's my kind of place."

coco 500, with its freshness, ease and seasonable sensability is my kind of place. I'll be back. I'll be back soon. I'm glad to have found such a perfect way to officially kick-off my San Francisco gastronomic adventures. More to come. I promise.