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Delectable Downtown Dining

It's hard to dine at Masa's without having high expectations. Masa's has been one of the top restaurants in San Francisco almost since it opened. The latest in a series of head chefs since Masa Kobayashi himself, Gregory Short, sous chef at French Laundry for several years, has stepped in as of 2005. Like Thomas Keller, Short shares a sense of whimsy and great respect for quality, seasonal ingredients.

The interior of the restaurant is gorgeously appointed in chocolate brown, luxurious and contemporary but also comfortable, which complements the refined and smooth service. The mostly European décor with Asian touches is matched with the cuisine. As at the French Laundry, the multi-course options are customized to give each diner a unique set of courses. The six-course menu ($90 per person) recently featured an amuse bouche of a perfect, tiny morsel of Japanese mackerel (saba) with a soy glaze perched on a bit of seaweed salad. The fresh clean taste flavors were at once rich and delicate, a perfect bite to whet one's appetite.

Asian touches are still in evidence in a smattering of dishes at Masa's, as they have been since the beginning. An Ahi Tuna Sashimi with Yuzu Wasabi and Cucumbers was refreshing, but it's mostly the European dishes that truly stand out.

One of the highlights was the White Corn Agnolotti with Mascarpone: fresh white corn and parmesan accented with summer truffles and truffle oil, which was decadent and luxurious in its textures. The flavors of sweet corn and the earthy truffles epitomize summer.

The skill of the chef in handling game was evident in the Duck Breast with Red Top Nectarines, Confit Cippolini, Rocolla and Roasted Duck Jus. The balance of flavors -- sweet, salty, and even the sour, sometimes hard to describe umami, was in play here. The best dish of the evening might have been the squab, which was served with roasted salsify, "mousse de foie" confit leg, and squab jus.

The most cutting-edge dish was the lamb belly served over a risotto cake, tenderloin and slice of lamb "bacon" with a drizzle of curry oil. Like a symphony, this offering had soft textures and tones in the belly, and an accent crunch in the bacon with woodsy tones of chanterelle mushroom and fennel. The tenderloin easily could have stood on its own, perfectly cooked and simply seasoned. The rest of the elements were unusual and luxurious, but not compelling on their own.

A dessert should comfort or surprise, and Masa's version of bubble tea did both. The cool green tea and shiso ice along with familiar pearl tapioca was a most elegant interpretation of this item.

All in all, Masa's is a first rate restaurant that doesn't disappoint, an excellent choice for celebrating a special occasion or entertaining clients. The perfection of the even the most mundane details (such as the amazing bread) will make any meal here memorable.

French/Mediterranean Cuisine