Galileo 101, like all heavenly bodies, is ever in transit -- and has been since it first entered our solar system. When new, it offered "avant-garde Italian" food that has gradually evolved into adventurous Euro-Cal cuisine, its dishes influenced by modern French cooking with a few Pacific Rim touches. A "wine tower" in the bar (complete with "wine angels" in harnesses) subsequently became a rum tower and is now turning into a tequila tower (sans angel).
And (as Galileo said), it still moves. A few weeks before we arrived, the restaurant's long-time top toque departed and was replaced with Joe Craig, who was chef de cuisine for the previous nine months. (Earlier, he was chef de cuisine under Scott Halverson at Chive, which received four stars in this paper during that period.) The change was a surprise to us, but hey, Joe -- way to go! At two dinners (sampling some 16 dishes), I encountered no flops, no serious flaws, not even minor inconsistencies. Everything we ate was highly enjoyable, and several dishes were no less than splendid.
At the base of the soaring Harbor Club, the restaurant is handsome, offering good things to look at from every angle. You enter via a wraparound patio dining area (named "Pluto," since it's "out there") with firepit tables, some facing the convention center across the street and others next to a grassy mini-park. You pass through the "Earth Bar," which was populated on a weekend evening by young corporate types (men in Polos and Dockers, women ranging from the preppy Ts and sneaks of moon-goddess Artemis to the high-glam date duds of would-be Venuses). In the "Jupiter Dining Room," the decor is deliciously astronomical, with overhead lights shaped like half-moons, well-padded matte silver steel-backed chairs with a 1950s-style oval hole in the back (very NY-MOMA Design Collection), and an open kitchen along one side of the room. On the walls are portraits of Galileo, the inventor of the telescope. Hung on a silvery mesh curtain behind the banquettes is a framed gallery of the scientist's engravings, enlarged and richly colored-in, showing what he saw on our moon and the other planets with his 20x telescope. (The brief captions reveal why Galileo's observations so upset the papal worldview of his time.)
Dinner begins with slices of crusty rustic bread and coral-colored butter, whipped with roasted sweet chilies and sugar. The fall menu is well adapted to the season, with autumnal flavors of game, premium meats, wild mushrooms, and clean, honest sauces based on reduced meat stocks.
The soup du jour at our first visit was an earthy, comforting butternut squash puree with greens floating subsurface to offset the squash's sweetness, and, center stage, a "chorizo fritter" made of the mild Spanish (not spicy Mexican) version of the sausage. In the wild mushroom duck confit tart, a filling of moist duck shreds, dressed with a veal reduction, mingled with fresh wild mushrooms (shiitake, cremini, enoki) to spill from a buttery puff pastry shell. The combination proved a happy one, intensifying the "ducky" flavor of the fowl.
The savory veal reduction sauce makes a clever reappearance where you'd least expect it, as a glaze under large, plump, sweet scallops, cooked tender, uncommonly paired with osso buco (veal shank) shreds mixed with baby arugula and chive oil. It's a wonderfully eccentric version of surf and turf.
A wild boar tamale is loaded with finely chopped braised meat, but the meat doesn't taste very wild. "It's like regular pork," said my friend Cheryl. In fact, I doubt that it's true boar: Some years ago, while writing a meat and game cookbook, I discovered that most "boar" available commercially in the U.S. is feral pig, descended from escaped ridgeback hogs that the pioneers brought to the New World. Furthermore, most of the current supply is farm raised, so the ridgebacks have come full circle -- they're back in the pen again, presumably with some extra running-around room. (The advantage of farm-raised "boar" is that truly wild pigs and boars are prone to trichinosis and so must be cooked to death for safe eating.) Whatever the meat's actual ancestry, the dish redeems itself with a lively chile guajillo sauce and a charming little salad of fresh nopalito strips, good tomato, and onion. Thin streaks of lime-flavored cream sauce decorate the plate and are worth dipping into.
Another November evening, when the temperature had returned to steaming Indian summer, my partner and I were drawn to lighter beginnings. Scottish salmon, house-cured to tender gravlax in vanilla vodka, was the bashful star of a salad, hiding under a heap of baby arugula dotted with tiny beets in a light, balanced dressing of orange and yuzu. Rare seared ahi has become a ubiquitous starter, and Galileo, too, offers it. Here the cubes are garnished (per the menu) with "tropic fruit, avocado mousse, papaya coconut sauce." All were present and accounted for, but in miniature. We found puffs of the mousse, squiggles of the delicious sauce, plus a tiny, welcome pile of unadvertised green tobiko (flying fish roe). The fruits consisted of apple slices, baby kiwis, and -- ta-dah! -- a single fresh rambutan (a luscious, funny-looking fruit from Southeast Asia with a flavor something like a lychee) capped with its own Phyllis Diller wig of wild, red-headed peel. I'm not sure the dish is worth $15, even with a rambutan, but the flavors were fine -- we just wanted more of the garnishes.
We had to wrestle with our eco-consciousness when we saw Chilean sea bass on the menu -- our gang of four that evening (Sam, Cheryl, my partner, and I) have been trying to boycott it until stocks are fully recovered. This fish, which lives to age 40 and takes ten years to mature enough to reproduce, is still endangered, although the rampant poaching for the American market has abated somewhat. What made us ignore our consciences was its escort, a bed of "Okinawan purple potatoes." These were, as I'd hoped, Hawaiian ubi -- big, knobbly Hawaiian yams with sweet and slightly glutinous deep-purple flesh. Vacationing at a rent-a-house in Kailua, my housemates and I constantly threw them on the barbie. ("Haoles don't like those," the supermarket checker told me, but these haoles sure did.) This is the first time I've seen this much-missed veggie at a mainland restaurant, and it's still delicious -- here pureed with butter to serve as a dais for the fish. The bass was tender, moist, flaky, surrounded by a blood-orange coulis that lent a subtle note of sweetness. This is one Patagonian toothfish that did not die in vain.