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Ma Tante Sumi

continues to kick out fine fusion food

Ever wonder where fusion food got its start in San Francisco? It was most likely at Ma Tante Sumi, opened in 1985 by forward-thinking, Japanese-born proprietress Sumi Hirose. Her vision of marrying East with West has continued for 17 years with a line of chefs translating that vision into food that brings the best of each culture onto one plate.

Enter Chef Brenda Buenviaje (pronounced "bwen-vee-ah-hay"; and meaning "good journey" in Spanish). Formerly the executive chef at high-profile Oritalia, Buenviaje returned to the Bay Area last year, looking for a change of pace. (Motherhood will do that to you.) She found it at Ma Tante Sumi — a cozy neighborhood establishment seating no more than 44 diners at a time in its pinewood and floral-print interior, tucked up off the beaten path in the Castro.

Growing up Filipino-Creole, New Orleans native Buenviaje is right at home devising variations on this type of comfort food. And comfort food it is. Butter, cream and truffle oil add richness to many of her mouth-watering creations. This ain't no diet food. And that's what makes it so tasty.

What also makes Buenviaje's dishes so delightful — both to the palate and to the eye — are the balance and contrast achieved in flavor, color and texture. Especially appealing appetizers include the silky smooth ahi tartare ($8) dressed in sesame soy, resting atop a mound of diced avocado and sweet Maui onion, and accompanied by crispy wonton skins; and the Pacific oyster sushi rolls ($9), deep-fried oysters crowning four cucumber-nori rolls, each capped with a dollop of spicy remoulade.

Even the more "standard" starters of fried calamari ($8), baked brie salad ($7.50) and lobster crepe ($9) are subtly and skillfully accented with Asian ingredients — togarashi (Japanese red chile pepper), maitake mushrooms and sake to name a few.

Main courses range from the oh-so-tender veal cheeks bourguignonne ($16.50) with potato-leek dumplings, blue lake beans and crispy leeks to the gorgeous grilled ahi steak ($19.50), finished off with shiitake butter, then nestled on a plateful of heavenly goodness: truffled edamame puree framed by half-moons of yellow squash and whole edamame.

Other winners include the spicy tiger prawn stew ($18.50) — zesty and filling with its seafood medley and buttered egg noodle pillow plopped in the middle of the bowl — as well as the duck ($19.75) — pan-roasted breast, confit of leg and liver pate joined by a potato croquette and pea greens in an apple brandy jus.

The wine list comprising French and California labels is small but solid. We enjoyed the light and fruity Adelaida Schoolhouse 1997/98 Zinfandel ($28) and followed up with the more oaky Powers '98 Cabernet Sauvignon ($27).

And, finally, dessert. The Yuzu honey cheesecake ($6) or the Scharffen Berger dark chocolate soufflé ($6.75) would serve as the perfect ending to a meal that will have you and your friends rolling out the door -- and then coming back for more.