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A Diamond in the Rough

RNM Chef Justine Miner, who's had stints at The Globe, Café Kati, Postrio and Dine (which she helped open as sous chef), finally struck out on her own in 2002. Named in honor of her father, RNM opened in August in the spot where Pasta Pomodoro sputtered and died. The still-grungy Lower Haight had always been a favorite hangout of Miner's, so it seemed only natural to make it her home.

In less than a year, Miner and her team of four have settled right in, gaining notice from critics and crowds alike with richly flavored creations bearing a strong Italian influence with a pinch of French thrown in. The restaurant's stylish, dark wood interior includes a swanky tiled bar, mood lighting, and a wild, antler-like tangle of a chandelier hanging from the lofty ceiling.

Miner gains inspiration from seasonal items, rotating new combinations onto her menu at a fairly brisk pace. (In our second and third visits over the past few months, at least a quarter of the menu had changed). A welcome addition to the line-up is a succulent roasted half chicken, stuffed with a scoop of fragrant orzo on a bed of spinach in a subtly sweet lemon herb jus ($13). The also new grilled skirt steak ($16), moist and tender though it was, could've called for a tad more seasoning, even as the accompanying Nicoise olive tapenade curled the tongue with its sour-y tartness.

Seafood is a sure thing at RNM. The grilled Arctic char special was superb -- a flaky, tender chunk of mild white fish sitting atop a fluffy cloud of buttery garlic potato puree with a delicate sprinkling of sweet peas. Parsnip puree, caramelized endive and a chanterelle mushroom ragout create a medley of flavors that round out the sweet and savory found in each bite of the day boat scallops encrusted with porcini mushrooms ($16).

Be sure to start with the Dungeness crab and avocado salad with Meyer lemon ($11). Not a huge helping, but so fragrant and well balanced with a hint of tarragon, diced cucumbers and shallots, and a zigzag of fromage blanc. In fact, none of the plates are very big (the words, "small plates," reside on top of the menu), so do get an appetizer besides a main dish when you go.

No worries though. The half-dozen appetizers we sampled were all deelish. Particular faves include the charcuterie plate ($11), with the house-made pate and tuna Nicoise the highlights, and the prosciutto di Parma ($9), with parmigiano reggiano shavings and roasted baby fennel drizzled in balsamic vinegar.

Don't leave before trying the springy bread pudding, which is melt-in-your-mouth, oh-so good. (We ordered a second helping; it was that addictive). If dessert isn't your thing, then a fine glass of port will do the job. RNM has several to choose from. It's also got a full-fledged bar, so fancy cocktails can be had as soon as you walk in the door.

For the most part, the servers are warm and attentive, although our last visit was met with uneven service. Nevertheless, RNM is worth a visit. Bring a date. Bring your friends. Settle into the couches in the small, steamy loft upstairs. Or sit at a proper table and tuck into food made with flair and a lot of finesse.