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Orson

Where Dinner Becomes the Show

Upon entering Elizabeth Falkner’s new theater-scale SOMA address, you feel as much "on stage" as the local celeb chef/owner herself, with her easily recognizable platinum buzz cut. Named after the prominent American film auteur Orson Welles, Orson has been luring adventurous diners since its February 2008 opening, featuring an avant-garde menu full of boundary-pushing recipes -- from peppery chocolate pizza to maple-bacon ice cream.

At center stage is the often-crowded 30-seat, U-shaped, marble-topped bar, which, thanks to the generous happy hour ($5 cocktails on weekdays from 5pm to 7pm), is the main draw for local residents and workers. The dining room, dismissed as overly stark by detractors, extends toward the front of the former 1930s warehouse, while lounge space fills in around the bar and overflows upstairs.

Dishes that made the A-list on a recent visit: a grilled octopus salad with beef tendon and sprouted nuts ($11) proved an interesting “surf and turf” combination that worked well. The texture was outstanding, thanks to big crunch from the nuts, subtle bite from the tendon, and octopus' customary chewiness.

Although tartare is on every menu in the city (or so it seems), the hamachi tartare ($12) was fresh with creamy avocado, crisp radish and charred fish. The roasted pig ($21) was tender and crisp, and is quickly becoming a signature offering -- as is the house-made chicken-beer sausage ($18), served with pillows of gnocchi, nectarines, pistachio and frisée.

From the list of companions (all sides $7), the duck-fat fries -- also on the bar menu -- get extra points thanks to the browned butter béarnaise dip accompanying them. And a plate of summer beans — wax beans with almonds, shallots and chili — epitomized the freshness of the season.

The B-list cult classics won’t appeal to everyone but will definitely spark conversation and wake up listless palates. The infamous tempura egg with nori and fava beans ($10) -- a soft-boiled egg wrapped in a nori tempura batter and flash fried -- came swimming in a salty scallion bouillon, a boon for saltaholics at the table.

The second standout: chocolate pizza with piment d'espelette (a hot Basque paprika) and sea salt ($14), which was salty, spicy, sweet and savory, all at the same time. One of five more obviously savory wood-fired pizzas (like one with pork sausage, fig, crema, and arugula at $15), the chocolate pizza took a bit of warming up to; but in the end, our table finished every last crumb.

While the chocolate pizza makes for an interesting dessert in itself, the true dessert list shouldn’t be missed. With Citizen Cake as its sister restaurant -- and onetime Citizen Cake pastry sous chef Luis Villavelazquez manning the pastry station -- Orson’s dessert list is unsurprisingly inventive and extravagant. Entitled “naughty and nice,” the menu runs about 10 items deep, with an unprinted offering: the maple-bacon ice cream “pigwich” that was on the opening menu.

If in doubt, the safest order is the “Night Bites” ($15), a plate of tastes from the entire list. Otherwise, “A Quick Glance” ($10) features a rich olive oil cream over honey ice cream and perfectly ripe pluots.

The by-the-glass wine list is limited (four whites and three reds) so the cocktails ($12) can play the starring role. The “Lady From Shanghai” (gin, passion fruit, grapefruit, flower foam) is fast becoming mixologist Jackie Patterson’s signature. But we enjoyed the “Touch of Evil” (bourbon, mint, lemon, absinthe, strawberry, rhubarb syrup) for its minty freshness and potent bourbon kick.

The modern, dark-chocolate industrial décor, concepted by co-owner Sabrina Riddle, can feel both spacious and intimate, and the movie projected on the wall behind the bar makes the atmosphere feel bustling and fun -- the ideal setting for bringing a touch of drama to the dinner table.