Small plate, big taste

Marina bistro San Francisco

Marina bistro fuses French, Asian techniques.

An alien, dropped onto Chestnut Street, would beam back to the mothership that young earthlings subsist on something called small plates and drink liquids at places called wine bars. The Marina must be ground zero on the planet for these trends; and nowhere, in San Francisco at least, have they been embraced with more enthusiasm.

Lüx is the second small-plate restaurant in the Marina opened by beloved local chef Luke Sung. His first, the groundbreaking Isa at 3324 Steiner St., is a small bistro with most of its seating on an outdoor back patio enclosed by a canvas tent with gas heaters. There, the small plates are French — foie gras with sauteed fruits; tiny, juicy lambchops; seabass wrapped in golden potato slices with capery brown butter sauce; sauteed shrimp in lobster reduction.

At his inventive new place, Lüx, he turns toward Asia. He still uses French techniques to achieve his signature depth and body, but when it comes to ideas at Lüx, Sung goes wild. You never know what you might encounter on a single plate.

Several of his little plates have already attained cult status. I would not eat at Lüx without having his white miso glazed butterfish (black cod) ($13) — pearly inside, glazed out, with a luscious, fatty texture set off by a sweet and salty Japanse broth, tiny pea sprouts, thick chewy udon noodles and big squares of tempura-fried seaweed. Its deep, white bowl becomes a playground of textures, unified by intense, if traditional, Japanese flavors.

From an entirely different culinary world comes a crisp, thin goat cheese pancake ($8) — really a quesadilla — topped with marinated beets and radishes and drizzled with creme fraiche. The earthiness of the beets somehow tangos with the gentle mustiness of the goat cheese. Like the Japanese fish dish, the pancake had internal logic, except that it comes from a different culinary universe.

One night, fried hama hama oysters ($9), were draped in a smoldering hot, sambal-infused aioli, and perched atop squares of the creamiest polenta. We were instructed to eat oyster and polenta in one bite. The two creamy textures played off each other, united by the assertive flavor of the a chile-infused Indonesian sauce. I found the combination addictive.

Everyone loves pork ribs, and Sung’s version ($12 for three meaty ones) get a brown sugar rub infused with no less than twelve aromatic spices including star anise, fennel, coriander, chiles, cloves and cinnamon. The ribs are cooked very slowly and basted often so the meat stays moist and tender without falling off the bone. The one idea I didn’t understand was the barely cooked ragout of sweet corn and sweet 100 tomatoes beneath the ribs. They seemed unrelated.

You can get your daily hit of green vegetables with steamed organic sugar pea leaves ($6) with chewy stems, richly dressed in chicken stock, soy sauce, butter and garlic. Sung likes the combination of butter, ginger and soy sauce, and I do too.

The must-have dessert at Lüx is baked-to-order individual bittersweet chocolate cake ($6.50); oozing molten chocolate when you cut into it that blends into barely whipped cream.

The particular genius behind Sung’s approach to the small-plate experience is in the dishes’ construction. He builds them as three or four complete bites — like four oysters on four squares of polenta, with the right amount of sauce and cilantro leaf garnish on each. So not only can the oysters easily be shared, each bite represents the fully realized dish.

At Lüx, patrons get to sit inside. The room radiates a seductive red glow, a color scheme picked up by tiled floors and ceiling. A long bar stretches along one side of the room, with little tables and a banquette along the other. Though the decor of Lüx suggests a French bistro, you are transported to Sung country. Wolfgang Puck created Franco-Asian fusion at Chinoise 20 years ago. Sung takes up the banner and carries it deeper into the East.


Located at 2263 Chestnut St., San Francisco (between Pierce and Scott). Call (415) 567-2998. Open Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.


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