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Mission Steak-Out

With a hint of an Argentinean accent, big and beefy Lolinda enters the fray.

 Lolinda's New York steak.

Ten thousand years from now, when urban archaeologists start searching for the origins of gentrified life in the Mission district, they’d be wise to commence digging on Valencia Street, the Olduvai Gorge of the neighborhood and the birthplace of its self-conscious cool. But to fully understand the Mission’s evolution, they’ll also want to turn earth on Mission Street itself, where scruffy-chic fashions have begun to spread.

Among the artifacts those scientists might excavate is the blueprint for the upcoming revival of the New Mission Theater, a currently defunct art deco landmark between 21st and 22nd streets. But deeper carbon dating is also sure to point to Foreign Cinema (the real OG) and Commonwealth restaurant, not to mention Mission Chinese Food, a creature of such populist high fashion that it’s spawned an offspring on the Lower East Side of New York City.

As if these clues are not enough, we have the growing footprint of Adriano Paganini. The man behind Beretta, Delarosa, and Starbelly, Paganini is not a culinary hipster by definition—his focus isn’t fetishistic farm-to-table sourcing—but he seems to have a handle on what today’s market wants. Most people, it turns out, aren’t seeking transcendence in the form of sustenance, but they are fond of cocktails.

Understand that, and you understand Paganini’s new restaurant, Lolinda, which occupies the outsize space that last housed Medjool. The host of the restaurant greets you like a concierge, in a hallway pulsing with clubby music, and at first, you worry that Lolinda will resemble the restaurant it succeeded—a place so cheesy that it could have been conceived by Aziz Ansari’s character in Parks and Recreation. Step farther inside, though, and you’re relieved: You haven’t booked a table in a cliché after all.

Although the large room is movie-theater dark, you can make out handsome details: brown tufted leather booths, large wagonwheel light fixtures, and a brick-backed bar stocked with glowing bottles. A mezzanine, perfect for parties, holds more people, and by next year, the roof deck will be open. But for now you sit downstairs, where Ferdinand-like bulls stare out from a striking black-and-white mural on the opposing wall.

A keen observer might start to suspect that the restaurant serves beef. Lolinda is, in fact, a California homage to an Argentinean steakhouse. Chef Alejandro Morgan’s menu is designed to share, which makes the modestly priced restaurant even more affordable—and absolves you of blame if you don’t clear your plate.

Whether you will is hard for me to forecast: My own experience was mixed. On my first visit, I picked at an empanada filled with flavorless chicken and pushed away a hangar steak, skewered with onions and zucchini, that had very little to it despite its vinegary anticucho marinade. Then there was the disappointment of the pulpy pulpo, delivered with white beans, frisée, and salsa verde. Few things are worse than a mushy cephalopod.

Upon my hesitant return, though, everything had improved—so much so that I might have sworn that I’d shown up at a different place. Out came halibut ceviche, fresh and acid-dashed, with sweet potato and aji amarillo set in opposition and a knobby corn fritter; a charred artichoke cleaved in half, its smoky sweetness offset by lemon aioli; and an Argentinean staple called choripán, a chorizo and red onion sandwich with chimichurri sauce on a crusty baguette.

This time around, the unpretentious food asked for respect, and I sensed myself warming to the restaurant’s festive spirit, bad tunes and bombshell acoustics aside. It probably helped that I was seated in a luxe booth suited to a capo. And I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I’d primed myself with a cocktail called Mi Amaro, made of tequila, amaro, vermouth, and a splash of elderflower liqueur.

Whatever the reason, Lolinda began to seem like a smartly rendered package, the cacophony and the communal dishes pitched to a good-time-having market whose foremost concern isn’t whether the beef is grass-fed (Lolinda buys it from Painted Hills, Snake River Farms, and Nature’s Source). The service, too, was fitting: friendly enough, yet so far from fawning as to verge on distracted—which, in fact, worked to our advantage: When a grilled New York steak that we hadn’t ordered showed up, bathed in butter and served with chimichurri, toast, and a charred tomato, we embraced it. It was the evening’s finest cut of meat.

By dessert, I’d downed my second drink, and my initial distaste for the restaurant bordered on fondness. The flan was satisfying, and the lemon cake was like a gourmet Twinkie. Never mind that the accompanying grilled plums were mealy, as you might expect in late September. Ten thousand years from now, fall may wind up being the height of stone fruit season. But in 2012, such matters aren’t Lolinda’s concern.

The Ticket
A recommended dinner for two people (before tax and tip).

Two Mi Amaro cocktails ........................$20
Charred artichoke ..................................$6
Ceviche mixto .......................................$13
Choripán ...............................................$10
Chicken a la vara ................................ $12
New York steak ....................................$28
Flan .........................................................$8
Total ......................................................$97

 

LOLINDA, 2518 Mission St. (at 21st St.), 415-550-6970