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Indigo

Indigo, if my memory of seventh grade science class serves me, is that elusive color in the spectrum half way between its neighboring colors, the standard classic blue and regal violet. Indigo, the restaurant, opened a few months ago on McAllister Street near San Francisco's Opera Plaza and serves an inspired mixture of past and present, East and West, familiarity and surprise -- it's as elusive as the hue its title suggests.

Owner Jeff Kanbar told me that he (along with Greg Medow and Ali Ghanbarian) decided to open Indigo during the Opera's off-season so that it would develop an identity separate from that of the Opera. With its high ceilings, spacious dining room, plush seating and plaster wall decorations, Indigo's space suggests it is from an older, more traditional age -- as if it were possible for a restaurant to have a well-defined lineage of blue blood. On the other hand, its open and visible kitchen and dramatically blue lit bar are an indication of the presence a newer, more daring spirit. Predictably, the convergence of these two moods produces varied results. At most times brilliant, Indigo is prone to the same problem its colorful relation presently has; it lacks any real sense of definition in a city known, not only for its innovation, but for its well formed identities.

Indigo describes its cuisine as "New American" that, like its somewhat more cosmopolitan cousin "Pan American," draws primarily from the cuisines of the Western Hemisphere. "New American" implies a certain reliance on comfort foods, and, in doing so, relies as much on substantive food as on innovative or experimental dishes. Like anything with the moniker "American," there is much room for interpretation as to what it signifies, and Indigo's range of entrees does little to define the restaurant's particular relationship with this broad-based cuisine. While there are the expected Californian sensibilities inherent in the preparation and ingredients (fresh local and organic produce, Asian and French influences), the menu also draws from Louisiana Creole, New England, and Caribbean. If this sounds a bit loose and somewhat confusing, it may be. While I'm all for America's melting pot metaphor, I'm not sure the comparison works so well with the stew pot. Although most of the selections were innovative without losing anchor in familiarity, to follow a California-French appetizer with a Southern barbecue entree served with an Asian-influenced side dish made me feel as though I'd landed in the middle of "New America" and been given no culinary map, let alone a destination.

I do not mean to suggest, however, that the food isn't wonderful at the level of individual dishes. In fact, it was often the opposite. The warm spinach salad with bing cherry-zinfandel vinaigrette was a nice start, pairing the sweet and slightly spiced dressing with a mild gorgonzola. The house cured gravlax salad served on toast was fantastic (albeit a bit difficult to eat). The Pacific Littleneck clams were fresh and delicious served in a parsley broth atop a creamy white corn risotto. The delicate flavor of the risotto did not override the rightful emphasis on the clams, instead, this Cajun tasso infused side worked with the broth to provide a perfect compliment to them. And the consistency of the risotto was near perfection. Perhaps one of Chef John Gilbert's best dishes is his seared king salmon with ratatouille-phyllo tartlette, tomato fondue and basil pesto. Despite the busy title, the full flavored salmon went nicely with its tomato based accompaniment. Remarkably, neither the ratatouille nor the tomato fondue melted the buttery phyllo, which retained its delicate crispness.

The wine list offered an impressive array of Californian boutique wines, most moderately priced and well thought out considering the variety of flavors in the menu. This is achieved by not only maintaining a good selection of classic Cabernets and Chardonnays, but also taking risks with the newer, lesser known varieties equally deserving recognition. I enjoyed the house recommended Robert Sinskey Aries Pinot Noir, which was both velvety and well-balanced with hints of blackberry.

I finished with the lavender brulee. Though I'm not usually a fan of floral infused dishes, this was a deserving exception. The lavender was subtle enough that it did not overpower the creme, yet it wasn't lost amidst the dessert's richness. It seemed, for an instant, that the indigo color of the walls and lights had dipped down and graced the dessert tray and my table, and for that moment, the allusive Indigo had found its own distinct voice.