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Epic Dining Midsummer 2003

Habana, MC2, Rex Cafe

Newcomer Habana has settled nicely into the San Francisco dining scene, MC2 recently underwent an identity redesign, and the fellows who run Rex Cafe introduced a new menu. We thought we should check it all out:

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Habana
After opening to great reviews and lots of business, Habana is doing well serving upscale Cuban-inspired cuisine and lethal Mojitos on the Van Ness Corridor corner once occupied by Rocco's. While the usual crowd of elder locals still frequents restaurateur Sam Duvall's pet concept (Duvall channels Hemingway from top to bottom), a fresh crowd has poured in to sample the lush, wrought iron-laden environs, the quite delicious food, and the well-executed cocktails. Mid-twenties girls in stilettos fork into perfectly seasoned calamari ($9) fried with bay scallops, green beans and onions, while Pac Heights matrons in Ross Dress-For-Less prints gab over tuna, scallop and shrimp ceviches ($8-$9 each) that range from so-so to soulful.

My lady firefighter friend and I loved the guava-glazed BBQ ribs ($18) in particular, which pair magnificently with the aged rum cocktails and comfy chairs at Habana. While the much-touted Ropa Nueva ($19), a glossy, marinated skirt steak, was fairly stellar, the accompanying shredded beef ragout left something to be desired. The kicky Caesar ($7), with chipotle dressing and not-too-fishy boquerones, was well-balanced and frankly, absolutely perfect.

After a glorious coconut flan ($7), we enjoyed some strong Cuban coffee and a couple of fyne olde rums of the uncommon variety, took a tour of the multitudinous wall tchotchkes with the gregarious Mr. Duvall, and decided that we'd have to return with a group of 6-8 to enjoy the VIP table with its fantasy canopy and prime front and center spot. Habana may be yet another pricey watering hole with a hip concept and good food, but hey, it works, we like it, and so do the good-time foodie friends I know who've gone there.

Habana
2080 Van Ness Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94109
415.441.2822
Van Ness Corridor
Nuevo Latino Cuisine
$$$
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MC2
Feeling a little bit citified, a particularly urbane friend of mine and I decided to investigate the hubbub over MC2's new menu format and pricing. Chic, sleek, and a touch "last week," MC2 combines the comforting minimalism of the dot com days with a refreshing dose of lavish, over-the-top concept and cuisine that puts the "major market" feeling in your Left Coast evening. With GM Brian Howard's ultra-professional, friendly guidance, we sampled Chef Todd Davies' gorgeous menu, including a sophisticated, crispy-thin tarte flambee ($8), a welcoming asian pear and gorgonzola souffle ($10), and a just-right plate of house-smoked salmon with cornmeal-scallion madeleines, trout caviar and horseradish creme fraiche ($12).

Davies worked at the Lark Creek Inn and Flying Saucer (R.I.P.), and it shows. MC2 promotes a dear little "design-your-own-menu" concept, which at first made us wary of small portions and high prices, but the place really romanced us with high design, ambient lighting, and great dishes like seared halibut cheeks with chive mashed potatoes and chardonnay butter ($13 for a small plate, $23 for a large plate), grilled rack of lamb with favas ($16 or $28), and roasted squab with a spinach-mushroom tart and dried fig vinaigrette ($14, $25). A 5-course Chef's tasting menu is promoted heavily, and at $65 ($95 with paired wines), it is reasonable for this caliber cuisine.

With DJ nights, bartending contests and the like, MC2 looks to keep a young outlook, while its dinner atmosphere and menu caters to the upscale lawyer with a yen for Scandinavian-meets-SOMA-loft style. A three-course, $20.03 prix-fixe lunch lures local designers, and cocktails like the Manhattan Project and The Cosmos bring in the highbrow drinkers. All in all, a great place to get your city on in style. We like!

MC2
470 Pacific Avenue @ Montgomery
San Francisco, CA 94133
415.956.0666
Historic District
Californian-French Cuisine
$$$
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Rex Cafe
My fun-loving, radio industry friend and I had heard that Rex Cafe was a great place to have cocktails and calamari after work, should we find ourselves up on Polk Street looking for an easy, breezy sit-down with good preppy people-watching. This, we've now confirmed, is true; the cafe's open-front architecture does lend a somewhat New Orleans feel to the place, and the clientele is, indeed, preppy. What we didn't know is that Rex's owners, Bob and Danielle, offer a full menu of American comfort food with a French flourish, some of which is very successful, and some of which is fair to middling. While the gratineed artichoke was a tad bland, we rightly enjoyed a zesty grilled shrimp appetizer. Similarly, as the pork chop entree did not stun, the scallops in another dish were cooked perfectly! Word on the street is that the Yankee pot roast is a perennial favorite, and the pile of steaming mussels delivered to a table of young bucks looked like a bowlful of good times. On a Mojito kick, we tried Rex's and found them to be truly outstanding. Our server was a total doll, we ran into a couple of people we knew, and all in all, we had a nice time. The reason to go? Versatility. You can eat cheap and easy, or you can linger over a fancy meal--it's up to you.

Rex Cafe
2323 Polk St. @ Green
San Francisco, CA 94109
415.441.2244
Russian Hill
Californian Cuisine
$$