When you name your restaurant 6 Degrees, you’re surely thinking big. After all, “six degrees of separation” — as in the theory proposed by Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy and one of the themes driving John Guare’s play by the same name — is the romantic, improbable-but-somewhat-tested notion that you can trace a connection between any two people through five or fewer acquaintances. (We used to play a gossip game like that in college, but it involved smaller numbers and a more prurient sort of link.)
By calling yourself 6 Degrees, you’re announcing to the neighborhood that you want to become a community touchstone, a place where minds and martini glasses meet harmoniously over food originating from all over the world.
Noble, Kauffman, you’re thinking, but how’s the booze?
I believe I enjoyed mine. In my five years as the Express food critic, I’ve visited this address four times: first as the Aegean Grill, then Il Porcino, then Albany Bistro. I’ve had some memorable food at 1403 Solano Avenue, good and bad, but the prowess of the chefs hasn’t influenced their success so much as the room itself. As owner after owner has discovered, 1403 is a hard space to maintain because it’s so big, which can make an empty room appear desolate and a full one overcrowded.
But with a neat trick, Bebe Bertolet and Massimo Brofferio, the owners of the three-month-old 6 Degrees, have recast the room and perhaps their fortunes. Keeping the burgundy carpet, cherrywood-finish tables and chairs, and gridlike wall sconces, they simply coated the room in new paint — kidney-bean red with a few chocolaty accents. Bathed in deep reds, you feel as if you’re floating in the bottom of a Syrah bottle, which, as anyone who’s attempted the feat knows, can be a very pleasant feeling. Six Degrees grows more and more attractive as the sun sinks. When the ambient light is at its lowest, every candle counts and the bright white napkins and plates appear to glow. Also smartly, the staff closes off half the room behind sheer curtains on slow nights, keeping existing customers from feeling as if they’re dining in an airplane hangar.
Diners enter into the restaurant’s lounge area, with banquette seating, cocktail tables, and full bar. One step (or ramp) separates them from the raised dining area. With a house drinks menu and a plethora of small plates, 6 Degrees is aiming to challenge the über-popular Fonda, stumbling distance down Solano, for mixological supremacy. I can’t say they’ll become cock of the walk, but the newcomer makes for a decent, lower-priced alternative. First off, everyone who works there is nice — howdy-neighbor nice, and do you want to try some of tonight’s special cocktail nice. But because it recently dawned on me that I far prefer “competent” to “nice,” I’d hasten to add that the waiters at 6 Degrees back up their good will with solid service. The servers are conscious of when stuff should materialize and disappear, so you don’t have to be.
One of 6 Degrees’ initial selling points was that it hired the Albany Bistro’s cooks and waiters to keep the regulars coming back. Brofferio, who has cooked under celebs Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower and has overseen Hilton restaurants in Asia, also kept some of former chef King Wong’s signature Asian-Californian dishes, such as the pistachio-crusted lamb, bringing more Italian and Mediterranean influences into the cultural mix. Wong was a master food stylist, who could prop and garnish with aplomb. His successor has adopted his flair and his sleek china.
Roughly fifteen menu items serve as cocktail snacks, appetizers, or parts of a tapas-style meal. These proved to be the kitchen’s strength. We inhaled chewy country-style bread with a thyme-infused olive oil until the excellent french fries arrived, accented with chopped garlic and herbs, and then we really went to town. The slices of deep-red seared ahi propped around an arugula-orange salad were beautiful, as was the ball of crisp sweet-potato threads balanced on top. Had it contained the wasabi sauce the menu advertised, we’d have enjoyed the dish much more. It was a good night for the deep fryer. The thin breadcrumb coating on the risotto balls shattered at the touch, and we pulled apart the creamy saffron-scented rice to get to the melted mozzarella and prosciutto at the core. I had my doubts about deep-fried avocado slices, which Brofferio calls “green goddess avocado,” but once I swept on through the surrounding drizzle of mustard aioli and bit into its papery shell, the avocado tasted like a vegetal foie gras.
The problem was that the entrées didn’t follow up on the promise. Most were gorgeous, with flourishing crisps and tendrils and contrasting colors, but none fully came together. An asparagus and black-trumpet risotto was barely seasoned. A grilled pork chop tasted both old and overcooked. And a special penne with boar sausage and tomatoes was unfinishable: overcooked sausage, overcooked pasta, and not enough of anything else to make up for it.
So on visit two, I stuck to the small plates, ordering a strong pink Cosmo for insurance. Not that it was necessary. Slices of sautéed prosciutto were draped over crisp broccoli rabe, the cured pork blunting its bitterness. Someone else must have been working the Frialator, because a bowl of calamari had fried past tender to tough and a Mediterranean spring roll with olives, greens, and machaca cheese had good flavors that were overwhelmed by the oil that seeped through the wrapper. But a pear, walnut, and goat-cheese salad was light and smart, and the scallops — four big ones, lined up on a skinny rectangle of a plate painted with swirls of infused oils and blood-orange reduction — delighted us. Each scallop was capped with a delicate but not retiring cucumber salsa, a bit of crunch and acidity to complement their buttery flesh. That night the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and for $20 a person: It was a fine evening for snacks and drinks. Had I not been driving we might have ordered another round of both.
Will you meet Nelson Mandela or the best pork chop of your life at 6 Degrees? Unlikely. Think smaller — maybe your local city council member and a mojito with some fries and scallops — and all you hope to encounter may come to you.