Beyond Asian Fusion or [Asian Cuisine Stretches Forward]

Pan-Asian cuisine often seems like just another tired Californian trend, like California rolls, sun-dried tomato and wheatgrass wraps and avocado as a pizza topping -- the food is adequate, but leaves your tastebuds yearning for more. Enter Loongbar, a culinary and sensory experience that will surpass your expectations of Asian food.

Perhaps you are in San Francisco for a long weekend. Maybe you are celebrating the end of a successful contract negotiation; maybe you want a memorable place to take your special someone. The Loongbar, located in the heart of San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square, attracts an urbane, sophisticated crowd. Listen to the live jazz piano, and enjoy the theatrical lighting and efficient, professional service in the airy 11,000 square foot loft. Chef and owner Mark Miller held the space for three years while he searched for the perfect Loongbar "experience."

Patrons enter the restaurant from the mezzanine level, passing underneath an etched glass dragon (Loong means "dragon" in Chinese). Directly ahead is a soaring "moon gate" leading to a grand stairway that descends into the main dining area. Linger on the mezzanine and enjoy a drink at the metallic red-and-black bar or sit at one of the Chinese glass tables that surround the grand piano.

The menu is divided into three elements -- sea (fish), sky (fowl), and earth (beef, pork, lamb and rabbit). Each entree and appetizer has a suggested wine, and most are available by the glass or the bottle. Specialty drinks include the Jade Empress - Vodka and Midori and of course, the Mai Tai.

The Loongbar dinnerware embodies the flavor of Chinese antiques, giving the food a rarefied appearance. It looks almost too good to eat. Starting dishes include asparagus with yuzu and ikura (salmon roe)($5.95), Malaysian curried noodle soup with prawn and quail egg ($4.75 ), and sizzling rice crepe with shrimp tamarind black pepper sauce ($6.25).

For entrees, we tried the Japanese seafood bento crab with avocado, oyster with yuzu, octopus with shiso scallop with miso salmon with Meyer lemon was beautifully presented in a black lacquer box ($14.95). The food was all wonderful, but we especially recommend the Kasu roasted sea bass, the "inside out" squab platter and the green tea pagoda made with white chocolate ice cream.

By the end of our visit, the Loongbar had convinced us to forget our preconceptions about Pan-Asian cuisine. Enter the dragon!

Ghirardelli Square (Beach and Polk), 415/771-6800

Reported by Richard Fairfield, Written by Theresa Loong (no relation!).