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U Street

Cow Hollow's New Star

A Cow Hollow newcomer, U Street single-handedly adds a splash of trendy down-tempo charm to Union Street. Fitting seamlessly into the scene, the restaurant features über-popular small plates along with ambient beats. From gourmet comfort food to Asian fusion to Mediterranean and more, the California cuisine menu has a little something for every taste bud. It's no surprise that high-fashion neighborhood hipsters flock here for a night out.

Open since December in what was previously Morpho Sushi, the 42-seat restaurant is nicely spread out. Wooden stairs lead up to a front porch with a bistro table for dining but not drinking. The most stunning aspect of the space is its retractable glass roof, which far outdoes the run-of-the-mill high ceilings you might come across in other restaurants. Although the exposed kitchen takes up a major part of the dining area, it does not overwhelm. Instead, it blends with the banquette seating and marble-top tables that line the wall, and a sizeable window nook, perfect for large group gatherings.

Towards the back, you'll see a neon "lounge" sign. Follow it and you'll find yourself at the bar, where buzz-inducing specialty cocktails like the mojito martini, pineapple margarita, and creamy cosmo are crafted. The Cosmo ($8), made of Nigori sake, peach schnapps, pomegranate juice, and fresh lime, is lethally tasty. (Remember to slowly sip whichever elixir you choose.) The back room is also where live DJs spin and diners congregate après dinner.

The front room, however, is where the creations of up-and-coming executive chef Michael Schley are conceived. Schley has worked at some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area like the French Laundry and PlumpJack Café, and now he's setting out to carve his own niche. One of his signature dishes, which happens to be among his self-proclaimed favorites, is the mini caviar shooters ($14). Each shooter, topped with crème fraiche and caviar), is like the black-tie version of a good old-fashioned baked potato with sour cream.

Upon first glance at the menu, you'll notice key words like "mini" and "petite" cluing you into what to expect, portion-wise. But what the food lacks in serving sizes, it makes up for in flavor. We started with the petit tuna tartar cones ($14), which consisted of five mini egg roll wrapper cones filled with fresh tuna. Following this we sampled the warm goat cheese salad ($10), which, relative to everything we ordered, was the biggest portion of the night. Two golf-ball sized chunks of fried goat cheese sat atop frisee and watercress with red beets, kumquats and pistachio vinaigrette.

Torn between the pork filet mignon and Kobe beef, both considered the chef's specialties, we decided to keep things on the lighter side. First, we opted for the pan-seared Alaskan king salmon ($15) with asparagus and hazelnut risotto. The small piece of salmon rested on the risotto, which was crunchier than it was creamy. Next, we ordered the Asian-influenced miso-steamed halibut ($14). Although a bit salty, the shitake mushrooms were aromatic and the halibut was cooked just right.

Breaking away from seafood, we selected the Sonoma duck leg confit ($15), but the sides stole the show. Schley's parsnip puree would make any anti-parsnip diner reconsider their stance, but it was the Fuji apple and almond salad that were truly exceptional. Under the soft mood lighting, most people would expect matchstick fries; but upon first bite, it's the tangy zing of crisp apple and citrus vinaigrette that make for a happy surprise.

At last, it was time for dessert. There's something about a warm, chocolatey cake to end a meal, and Schley's molten Valrhona chocolate cake did not let us down. Perfectly oozy on the inside yet firm and a bit crunchy on the outside, the textures melded perfectly and were enhanced by the fresh vanilla bean ice cream ($8).

While the food portions may be small, the pours are generous and, better still, the wines are well priced. There are 25 wines by the bottle and 12 by the glass and most, if not all, are from California. The North Coast Pinot Noir ($9/glass) and the Clay Station Viognier from Lodi ($8) were notable.

On the weekend, they serve a hearty brunch. Items like: vanilla bean rice pudding "risotto", steak and eggs benedict, and blue cheese and egg frittata prove to be a good way to start off a weekend. A brunch, dinner, and DJ hang out rolled into one -- there are so many layers to this restaurant that one visit won't be enough. And when you're there, remember to look up -- chances are that the roof will be open, framing the glow of a sunny day or starry night.

Cow Hollow
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