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Sated on Small Plates

Andalu has been serving "small plates" on the corner of 16th and Guerrero since 2001. If you came here when it opened, come back. The press of trend-following diners has retreated, freeing Andalu from long waits. Although, the crowd now has a mainstream feel, the restaurant feels extricated -- free to be exactly what it should be: a versatile neighborhood spot.

Andalu is a place to eat and drink well. Beyond that, make what you want of it. Like the Mission itself, Andalu's lofty space accommodates all types and purposes. Stop in for a half-hour after getting off BART to forget about work. Have a beer (there's a better selection here than at some of the neighboring bars) and Curly Polenta Fries with Spicy Tomato Vinaigrette ($6) or Turkey Lettuce Cups with Thai Basil and Pine nuts ($6). Or, be extravagant! Make reservations for six, stay until midnight, order several half bottles of wine and dozens of delicious small plates.

My companion and I took the middle ground, intending to see if we could sate two hearty appetites for under $80, and still have time to go out to a bar or two in this destination neighborhood. We called in the early evening and our last minute reservations were easily accommodated.

Andalu serves "international small plates," unified by abundant, but never cloying, flavor. We started with Ahi tartare tacos, specially priced at one dollar each, it being "Taco Tuesday," a weekly event. A small crisp potato taco shell held an almost liquid tartare flavored with chili, lime and mango. Although they tasted great, I recoiled slightly at the loose mushiness of the filling; after all, I'm used to fish tacos with crunchy cabbage and fried fish. Nonetheless, we quickly ate them all.

Next came the Crispy Mac and Cheese with Herb Tomato Vinaigrette ($5). What my companion remembered from a prior visit as dry and lackluster were now fantastically cheesy and crispy. Grilled Rainbow Trout with Meyer Lemon Caper Butter Sauce ($8) was also a pleasure. The Meyer lemon sauce not only flavored the fish, but perfumed the air around it.

The Coca-Cola Braised Short-ribs with White Bean Salad ($11) were tender, sweet and delicious. Grilled Asparagus with Lemon Oil ($4) was nicely cooked and made us feel healthy.

With dinner, I had the "Three Pinots" wine flight ($15). The Elk Cove Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley stood out. It was both spicy and fruity.

We concluded with a shared Dulce de Leche Sundae with Caramel-Bourbon Sauce, Macadamia Nuts, and Brandied Cherries ($7). I don't care about sundaes, and this was no exception, despite its fancy toppings. We intended to eat the trademark Donut Holes with Castillian Hot Cocoa ($7) as well, but were too full.

The delicious food gave no clue as to flux in the kitchen. Not too long ago, Marcella Lew (previously of Kokkari, MC2, and Hawthorne Lane) replaced Ben deVries as executive chef (he's moved on to Luella). As a result, there was a slight shift from comfort food towards Asian-influenced California cuisine, but the trademark dishes remained. Earlier this year, Alex Rodriguez took over the lead from Ms. Lew. As far as I could tell, the menu and cooking have remained consistent. It remains to be seen whether the high standards will be maintained.

As for our visit, we made our $80 budget, and got out with plenty of time to go to some bars. Sated, I went home. I'll visit the bars soon -- when I come back to Andalu for a beer and some donut holes.

International Small Plates
Mission District