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Glamorous Neighborhood Haunt With Food To Match

At the turn of the century, Chef Ben de Vries did a fine job of opening Andalu, the Cal-Northwest tapas hall in the Mission District. The food was comforting yet inventive, and priced in the mid-range. We liked it. We're pleased to report that Luella, his latest venture as of 2004, is an excellent extension of de Vries' culinary sensibilities, at a higher price point -- and thanks to its Russian Hill location -- a higher altitude to boot.

The atmosphere is part swank lounge, part mod living room. The space, designed by Shawn E. Hall Designs, is all soft pea green and blonde wood; a bar of this same blonde wood with small table lamps lines one wall. A three-quarter-circle booth in, yes, pea green sits at the end of the bar. The walls match this same soft, somehow comforting shade and while quite bare are not ominous or off-putting. Every detail is stunningly eye-catching, from the asymmetrical mirrors in the hallway to the very 70s squares-within-ovals in the bathroom. The flower arrangements are sparse and assertive with aggressive colors and awkward flowers. It makes you feel glamorous just by association. A glass of Abbazia di Novacella kerner and Elena Walch pinot bianco and we were off to a wonderful start.

Our meal began with mussels in Pernod broth ($9); succulent with a hint of anise that makes the dish. Be sure you have plenty of bread to sop up the sauce. Along with the mussels we enjoyed the fluffiest brandade ($8) I've ever had. It was like a salt cod soufflé and apparently only makes an occasional appearance on the menu. If you have the good fortune to be offered this delicacy -- order it.

From there we moved on to a pan roasted sole ($19) with chard and caramelized onions. The dish was surprisingly rich for such a delicate fish, but it worked. Along with the sole we enjoyed perfectly seared scallops ($21) with light-as-air mashed potatoes. The dish was finished with a gremolata and brown butter sauce that heightened the flavor of everything. There was a bright citrus accent to the whole dish that seemed to come from a synergy of all the ingredients.

Assorted veggie sides ($5), which were somehow both rich and healthy tasting at the same time, completed the meal. Brussels sprouts were roasted to a sweet caramelized perfection and chard was sautéed with chili flakes and fried garlic slices topped with goat cheese -- earthy, decadent and zesty!

We finished with the citrus carpaccio ($7): light, but oh so satisfying. A stunning plate with fanned slices of lime, grapefruit, navel, Valencia, and blood oranges, all topped with delicate scoops of grapefruit and blood orange granitas and mint.

The wine list is short and sweet, focused to pair with the Mediterranean-influenced cuisine. It's a fairly balanced mix of California, France, Italy and Spain with a larger than normal selection of half bottles.

The service is friendly and top-notch while not being obtrusive. Our waiter had suggestions for every question and my dining companion threw a quite a few his way. The whole staff bustled with gracious efficiency: every trip to the bathroom resulted in a folded napkin; every empty glass was cleared within minutes. Foodies will appreciate the relaxed yet successful attention to culinary detail, and urbanites will enjoy the modern, sophisticated décor. Great for a date or a nice dinner with friends.

Mediterranean-inspired California Cuisine
Russian Hill