moss.jpgIf there’s a common thread to the Moss Room Restaurant experience, it’s a bit of bewilderment. As in most folks not being able to find it. Perhaps not so surprising considering that it’s inside the newly revamped Academy of Sciences — forcing diners into a bit of theorizing, searching and group investigation before discovery.  Even if it is only to find their dinner.

There are no big signs or clear external indications of the subterranean lair that seats only about 75 beneath the museum. The best bet is to simply follow your nose around the side of the building, past the red plastic chairs in the cafeteria and along the moss-covered staircase leading downward.

The fork-11: If you follow the SF food scene, you’ll know that the eatery is a collaboration between The Slanted Door’s Charles Phan and Coco500’s Loretta Keller, both of whom are chef-lebrities in their own right.

And though it may have been tres trendy to force a Franken-menu of
their respective cuisines (Vietnamese and Cal-Mediterranean), the
partners opted instead to focus on sustainable foods that highlight
Keller’s talents with Chef Justin Simoneaux (formerly of Coco500) at the helm.

What to order: The menu is brief, with a strong focus on
seafood. Because the duo are committed to using line-caught,
ecologically-harvested foods, expect to see ingredients change up
frequently. Best appetizer bets: Grilled squid with jalapeno pesto and chickpeas ($11) or salt cod fritters with peppers and lemon aioli ($9). The pork terrine
($11) brought over from Coco500 was a huge disappointment, served too
cold to be very enjoyable to eat. (Think cold bacon grease.)
Where things get really interesting are with entrees: A perfectly poached line-caught black cod blanketed by its own crisp skin, Himalayan truffles and wild mushrooms ($26) or rich Kobe beef with charmoula,
a Moroccan marinade ($25). What could be a spice-rack gone wrong in
less adept hands becomes a rich, perfumed, exotic experience. Other
dishes pasta with duck, pork loin and a whole baked fish.

The wine list features a handful of organic and sustainable wines,
along with a healthy number of wines by the glass. Californian and
European wines are fairly equally represented, but what’s even more
fascinating are a number of beers and ales and specialty cocktails
featuring artisan distilleries (and made with no more than three

Pace yourself to include dessert. Though ice cream always seems a cop-out to me, pastry chef Rachel Leising’s Cookies and Cream is a scoop of fresh mint leaf ice cream with chocolate cookies. The tarte Tatin is a personal-sized pastry with Calvados ice cream. But tops is the vacherin, a meringue with creme anglaise, chocolate sauce and coffee gelato.

Worth the drive: What could easily seem a bit hokey with all its
earnestness about sustainability and artisan foods has serious cred
with so many solid cooks in the kitchen. There are still some staff
kinks to work out (there were a few long waits) and the menu doesn’t
have the broadest appeal. But what works well works REALLY well.
Prices are reasonable, considering the quality and location, but not
cheap. There aren’t any views and the minimal decor can feel a bit
stark. But like so many destination restaurants, dinner at The Moss
Room Restaurant is a singular event that will give you plenty of
mileage around the water cooler.

Provided you can find the place.

The Moss Room Restaurant at the California Academy of Science, dinner
daily from 5:30pm to 10pm, 415.876.6121. 55 Music Concourse Dr., Golden
Gate Park, San Francisco.

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