Tallula

I want to love Tallula, I really do. I tremendously enjoyed the Indian Fusion cuisine at Tabla in New York City a few years ago. There were familiar Indian ingredients and flavors, but the food was fresh and light. It was exotic and exciting and delicious and I couldn't get enough. I hoped Tallula would be like that. Tallula's setting is even cooler than Tabla's

massive split-level space by some measure: the restaurant is hidden away behind a crumbling brick staircase and an entryway canopied by umbrellas of various shapes and sizes, without much of a sign, in an old Victorian in the Castro. In the lounge just down the stairs from the hostess stand there is a couch, a few stools at the bar, and a lackluster brown baby grand surrounded by more stools where the unlucky without reservatons or the too-cool sip sake cocktails and wine with their food. Old Indian movies featuring surprisingly unattractive actors play against the crumpled curtains that mostly hide the street below. More couches are tucked into the upper lounge balcony. Exploring deeper, the house feels like a maze of Escher stairwells with a few tables hidden away in soft rosy light on landings and little rooms.On our most recent visit, we not only got a couch in the pleasantly busy but not too crowded lounge without a reservation on a Friday night, but the food was quite good too. It was different and bold. And it actually tasted good. I had a Bentley (a cucumber-infused sake cocktail) that was perfect after a day of wine tastings with friends in Napa. We moved on to the paneer tart with fresh figs and a few leaves of arugula with a tangy dressing (the best dish of the night) and the restaurant review darling lobster and pea dhosa, a fine dish, though the flavors didn't come together as well as they could have and the lobster was a bit tough. For entrees, I followed the waiter's recommendation of a spiced sole with a cauliflower gratin (I would have enjoyed the intense cauliflower flavor even more had I not so recently overdosed on the cauliflower and saffron soup I concocted as part of my vegetable kick while Oren was in Switzerland). Oren had a spicy, slow-roased buffalo dish that he enjoyed. Altogether a skillfully-prepared, well-spiced, fresh and interesting meal. So what, you ask, is there to complain about?The problem is that, given everything positive I can say about the setting and the food and the very pleasant staff, I don't have any strong desire to go back. (When I really like a place, neither flooding nor calories nor budget nor bulls in the street will keep me away for long.) It took me more than a year after my first visit to even give it this second shot. The first time, I went with two girlfriends a few months after Tallula opened. We sat at a quiet little table up a few flights of stairs. We tried lots of things. We drank sake cocktails. We had a very nice time. We all thought the food was good. And still, none of us had been back since. Then it came out highly recommended in a recent discussion of romantic restaurants on the Yahoo! Travel San Francisco Message Board. Still, it took discovering an hour-plus wait at Burma Superstar and strike-outs at a few other places before we headed back to Tallula. On this visit, after so much time, in different company, in a different part of the restaurant, with an entirely different selection of dishes, my impression was entirely unchanged: it's good, and it might be exactly what you're looking for, but I just can't bring myself to love it.Please, go ahead, try it. It deserves that. Tell me I'm wrong and have judged it prematurely:Tallula4230 18th StreetSan Francisco, CA 94114415.437.6722(The logo image above is from Tallula's website.)