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OPUS

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My mother subscribed to a particular old-fashioned fantasy of wealth: hotel living. Entertainment ran cheap in our family, and fancy nights out inevitably meant dining during a holiday buffet special in one of San Francisco's nicer hotels where, dressed up awkwardly, we would descend on the Fairmount or the Palace like top-hatted swells. We would use the marble restrooms, wander through empty shopping arcades, ride the elevators up and down, and lounge on the lobby's fine furniture. Beside all the watermelon and salami I could eat, the price of our buffet granted us temporary run of the hotel. We weren't squatters; we were Vanderbilts for a night.

I'd forgotten those vicarious thrills until I strolled into the restored Renaissance Fulton Hotel Downtown. Here I was again -- surrounded by plush furniture, marble and Cultural District hotshots -- remembering what fun it was to dine at a fancy hotel. My spine straightened with the right to be there as I traversed the sumptuous lobby towards my dinner engagement at Opus. With its dark wood, flattering lighting, frosted glass panels and a scheme of burgundy, dusty blue and gold, Opus' interior epitomizes posh hotel dining. I was thrilled to be seated in an upholstered banquette, a power nook overlooking a large party of non-interlopers who obligingly spoke loudly about European hotels, golf clubs and vacation property.

The atmosphere was enjoyable, the service constant (albeit chatty -- since when do waiters have to be your best pal: "Do you know what I like &"?). Already this new restaurant has delightful quirks: Rather than butter, the assorted breads came with a kalamata olive-anchovy-pimento relish and garlic hummus. The food was good and artfully presented, but at these prices, I wish it could have been zestier, more forceful, with more "wow" factor.

The Roasted Butternut Squash and Toasted Pistachio Bisque ($5-$6) topped with turmeric and nutmeg cream was pleasingly thick, like a milkshake. Nice and squashy, but the other advertised flavors were too subtle or too skillfully integrated to be easily detected. The yellow and green ailio drizzles -- a white wine saffron and a garlic chive -- atop the meal-sized Crispy Calamari ($8) had vigor, but the breading was standard and plenty fried, making this offering a high-class cousin to any other fried seafood-nugget dish. The Caprese salad ($8) proffered grilled Portobello and very generous slabs of fresh mozzarella -- again, enough to share -- with perky baby greens. When the season offers fresh tomatoes, this side dish will be perfect.

I ordered the lively sounding Marinated Lime Rosemary Chicken; it takes a deft hand to make chicken zing. The chicken was moist and most definitely grilled, but there was little evidence of lime or rosemary. For extra flavor, I resorted to shredding some the rosemary garnish stuck in the roasted garlic mashed potatoes (now, these jumped up and shouted, "butter and garlic"). The chicken's shoulder socket and wing bone were still attached, and while I like that juicy extra-skin meat, I didn't want to gnaw a bone -- not during my fantasy dinner. For $17, it can arrive boneless.

The house specialty -- the Gorgonzola Filet Mignon ($29) -- was a flavor-riot. The sharp broiled cheese, the juicy earthiness of the meat, the licorice-y tang of the sweet port wine demi-glace were bold, daring and packed a real punch to the taste buds. The plate also included a half-fist of roasted garlic, which my companion pried apart and ate -- garnish or not.

Still playing Queen for a Day, I amused myself by ordering the royally named Marquise au Chocolat ($7) -- a chocolate ganache with rum sauce and chocolate genoise, or as the waiter perhaps inadvertently declared it, "Death by chocolate." I lived to tell of this dark cylinder sitting in a grid of white and dark sauces, a chocolate silo covered in a thin layer of super-rich chocolate, topped by an antenna of chocolate candy leaf and two visiting hazelnuts, harboring sweet milk chocolate cake within. As it vanished off the plate, it signaled not my earthly demise, but the close of my classy night out. The food, the lobby, the doorman all behind me now, I waited with residual dignity in the cold for the bus home, my hotel-living fantasy over. **1/2

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