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: The hostess walks the room at Sausalito's newest restaurant, Antidote. -->

Antidote is a deconstructionist experiment of surrealist food--the best plate of dada you'll ever eat

By Heather Irwin

Little beads of sweat collect on our foreheads. Neither of us has a clue how to decipher the menu in front of us, even after our waiter offers to translate. "Like a Sardine Next to Nice and Matisse" reads the third course. I'm playing it off like I know exactly what that is, but I'm clueless. The Boy is pretty convinced he'll be allergic to it, whatever it is. The schpritzing increases as we simultaneously realize we're not leaving here for anywhere under $250. So much for that weekend getaway to Reno. This is serious eating.

As I gently mop my brow, I realize that I'm girlishly glowing, because I'm within spitting distance of Eric Torralba. The Provence-born chef is the former cuisinier of Domaine Chandon, devotee of deconstructionist cuisine and student of transcendent, Wonka-esque concoctions featuring test tubes, powder and droppers invented by Spanish super-chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli. Yes, I'm gushing. This is the grand foodie science experiment of a lifetime! So, we'll eat McDonald's for a few months as I pay off the credit card. The Boy winces.

Antidote, which opened in Sausalito in early July, is Torralba's "sens a la vie." In my crappy high school French, I think that amounts to his "meaning of life." As co-owner and chef, Torralba has finally been able to break loose from all constraints and present a Dali-esque eating experience incorporating art, food and mad science. Being hailed by some as the new French Laundry, Antidote is nothing at all like Thomas Keller's Yountville dining mecca, aside from both chefs' insane obsession with culinary perfection. Plus, you can still get reservations at Antidote without seriously injuring your dialing finger.

Housed in the former Valhalla restaurant, the interior of Antidote has been minimally refurbished. Aside from the amazing view of the bay, the big boxy atmosphere disappointingly doesn't reflect the intense creativity and amusement of the menu. Cozy booths facing the windows are certainly romantic until you have slid in and out of them several times, gracelessly taking the tablecloth and napkins with you.

Ambiance aside, we're still stumped by the menu. Fortunately, the chef expects and welcomes confusion. That's part of the thrill of it all. Says one early Antidote diner on her blog, "I've eaten in Sausalito many times but have never had my socks blown off. Antidote is trying hard to not only knock my socks off, but make them into puppets for a little sketch." Exactly.

Obtuse references to Nietzsche and Madonna songs pepper the menu. Our waiter offers, again, to help explain things. But his explanations serve only to confound us more, so we go straight to the chef's tasting menu ($75 each), a sampling in nine courses, with a wine pairing flight ($30). With most standalone entrées costing $25 to $30 and wine prices (there are no by-the-glass wines on the menu) starting at $45 and jumping steeply, it seems both a good value and a smart way to get a whole lot of food and wine--or at least a whole lot of courses.

Our meal starts with a complementary glass of Chandon bubbly and an amuse-bouche of brioche topped with crème fraîche, which we evidently ignore too long while pondering the menu and apparently don't eat at the optimal temperature, according to our slightly peeved waiter. Dear Julia, the pressure.

Antidote delights in turning odd edibles head over snout into strange surrealistic creations. Think Escher for the taste buds.

Our first course is titled "Apple Caviar the Other Way Around." The reference is to the Spanish deconstructionist restaurant El Bulli, famous for squirting puréed apple emulsion out of syringes into calcium chloride. The reaction forms little balls of mock caviar. No, I'm not kidding. Our dish at Antidote, however, is simply a medium-sized raw oyster atop a small brioche with a smattering of caviar--the fish kind rather than the apple kind. A dropper of blue vodka is inserted into the oyster to "cleanse the palate" after eating the oyster.

We nervously squeeze the blue liquid into our mouths feeling like we might suddenly start to shrink--or grow. We're not sure about this rabbit hole we've fallen into. Served on a blue glass platter, the dish also features an apple and lemon fruit emulsion (think concentrated sorbet) paired with a crisp, appley Clos Lapeyre Sec 2002.

The chef comes out for a visit during this first course, but speaks only to the Boy, who couldn't care less. I'm crushed.

Next, we're presented with "Asparagus 'Du Pourpe' Foie Gras Bonbons"--delectable white asparagus supporting a tiny piece of foie gras wrapped in edible sugar--kind of like the little rice candies you buy in Chinatown. The Boy is visibly shaken by this devilish merging of candy and liver. I pilfer his leftovers happily.

Madonna's "Like a Virgin" is echoing in my head as we're next presented with "Like a Sardine Next to Nice and Matisse." Neither of us are pickled fish fans, but we gut it down, more fascinated with the debut of an odd powder at the side of the plate. We can't place the taste, but we vow to investigate further should our waiter reappear. He seems to have grown tired of us. Maybe it was all that sweating.

We find our stride with the "Lollipop of Butternut Squash Velouté at the End." This turns out to be a bowl of butternut squash soup with a dollop of chestnut purée and the first of many "cookies" created by the chef to complement his dishes. Floating fetchingly in its small, squashy sea is a lacy Parmesan cookie that melts before us like one of Dali's watches.

We both are concerned about the implications of the next course, titled "Implosion of Lobster with Coral Risotto Chantilly." Implosion? Sounds messy. However, it turns out to be one of our favorite courses, with succulent, rosy coral risotto and delicate lobster claw meat. Arched over the top is a pink lobster roe cookie that tastes sweetly of the sea.

We beg for a break, but are denied reprieve until after our next course, "Viennoise of Seabass, the Only One . . . Badiane and Rosemary." The fish is pleasantly crusted with cheese and bread crumbs, but somewhat unexceptional compared to what we've eaten so far. The most exciting aspect of the course are micro-ravioli in cream. I lick the plate unobtrusively. It's that good.

Finally a break. We're beginning to feel that we're being a bit rushed through the whole thing. Having started at 8:45pm, it's only 9:30pm and we get the feeling the staff is ready to go home. We decide not to care and slow our pace.

As we return, two glasses of Cahors Chateau de la Coustarelle, an inexpensive Bordeaux, await us. The affordable $30 wine pairing features four generous glasses, meaning that Torralba's choices are somewhat limited, but, according to the sommelier, the selections are an homage to the chef's home region of France. However, all the wines (which retail for between $14 and $20 per bottle) complemented the food beautifully despite their modest price.

Our next course, the "Lamb Basil Powder with Olive Pappardelle and Girolles," was the most straightforward and easily one of the best. Cooked tenderly, the lamb is reverently placed atop a red-wine reduction with a single piece of olive pasta and a chanterelle mushroom.

I'm distracted by another appearance of the mysterious powder. Our wayward waiter informs us that the powders are not, in fact, for eating but provide an "essence" of the dish and a complementary aroma. I lick my finger anyway and taste the green powder on the side of the plate. Ick. He's right. Not for eating.

Our cheese course includes a small slice of Jean Grogne, a creamy brielike wedge complemented by lavender-infused honeycomb and fresh currant bread. Indeed.

Dessert fails to meet our expectations with "Calisson in Equilibrium Apricot Background." Though beautiful, the stacked spectacle was a train wreck of apricot cream, apricot paté de fruit and several rather impenetrable layers of chewy nougaty cookies. Even less appealing was a nutty, dry cone of pistachio encircled by a homemade marshmallow. I nearly choked on the aridness. Fortunately, a plate of petit fours soon erased that ugly memory with a tart passion-fruit sorbet, mini crème brûlée, house-made caramel and a chocolate truffle.

Was it worth it? All that trouble, all that time spent eating and all that money (the bill was $273 for the two of us)? Yes and no. I appreciate the challenges and triumphs of the kitchen and the ephemeral masterpiece that food can become. It was a rare opportunity--sweat and all--to experience something transcendent and decadent.

Then again, as I recount my dining experience for the fourth time, my son frantically does the math and exclaims, "That's like going to the International House of Pancakes"--his favorite restaurant--"22 times!" Seems food, like art, is all in the eye of the beholder.

Antidote, 201 Bridgeway, Sausalito. Open for dinner at 5:30pm, Tuesday-Sunday. 415.331.9463.

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From the August 18-24, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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