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When I dined with Franklin and Shelby, we preferred small-plate appetizers such as the crispy shrimp sheathed in sweet potato and served with a wildly sweet pear sauce, and the wonderful soft spring rolls, stuffed nearly to the bursting point with noodles, asparagus and splinters of carrots, cucumbers, cilantro and basil.
Because I'd raved about Barkley's Szechwan sirloin chili ("Expedition to Chili," December 28), Franklin and Shelby both ordered bowls of the meaty stew spiced with black peppercorns, cumin, anise and jalapeño. Franklin, who had thought I was dragging him to a sushi restaurant, was delighted to discover that he could order steak and burgers here. In the latter category, Nara serves up a soy burger; a signature burger made with pork, sirloin and ground chuck; and a terrific Kobe burger topped with chopped wild mushrooms and an addictive onion marmalade that Barkley makes himself, simmering the onions in brown sugar and Kirin beer.
Despite the steaks, burgers and barbecued pulled pork (which sounded a lot better than it tasted, though the mango chili barbecue sauce was nice), Nara is, I suppose, a sushi restaurant. The sushi menu isn't elaborate: a dozen sashimi choices, seven rolls and a couple of daily specials. The spider roll I ordered one night was made with chewy, tasteless softshell crab but it sure looked pretty, as do most of the dishes at Nara, where all that style extends right down to the artistically arranged plates.
It wasn't surprising, then, that desserts were more pretty than substantial. Franklin liked the ginger-pear cheesecake, but there wasn't enough to share. Shelby was almost too intimidated to touch the three dainty Christopher Elbow chocolates laid out like tiny dark gems on a white porcelain platter. "The presentation's incredible if you're, like, a doll," Shelby said. "But all this for three chocolates? And I'm sorry, they're not that great."
But, honey, they looked fabulous, and isn't that what counts?
When I returned on a busy Saturday night with Bob and Jerry, Nara's dining room was packed with young, attractive diners enjoying themselves at top volume. "Is it always this noisy?" asked Jerry (who had to repeat the question twice before I heard what he was saying).
Our server that night was the charismatic Eric, a former model, former Café Trocodero waiter and one of the few staffers who didn't handle water glasses by the rim or call you "Bud" in a butch growl. Not that waiter-ogling Jerry would have minded being called Bud, Mr. Robato or anything else.
"Everyone working here is so attractive," Jerry said before turning his attention to the slices of lightly seared ruby ahi tuna that I'd ordered as an appetizer. He eyed the plate nervously. Raw meat tuna, at least isn't really Jerry's thing, but he bravely dipped a tuna slice into the swath of chili-sesame rub and nibbled on it. "It's very good," he said. Bob and I thought it was superb.
I decided to eat lightly that night and supped elegantly on a bowl of gingery broth filled with firm pork meatballs and egg noodles, a comforting choice for a cold night. Jerry chose the chili, and Bob settled on a couple of spring rolls, but they were more interested in people-watching than eating. When Adams made his customary appearance at the table, introducing himself to us while staring into the distance, Bob thought he was rude. I interpreted his behavior as performance art.