Luce made a low-key entrance into San Francisco, with no publicity. Since his arrival, he has quietly been at work upgrading the menus and kitchen staff at PlumpJack Cafe and Balboa Cafe in San Francisco and the PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn in the Sierra Nevada ski country.
"It was embarrassing to leave Aspen after only one year," said Luce, 30, who was wooed away from Spruce in 1998 after making it one of Chicago's premier restaurants. "But it was difficult to be creative, because the people who go [to the hotel] didn't want to be challenged with their food. That's fair. It just wasn't a good fit for me.
"My wife and I have been trying to get to the Bay Area and the California wine country for eight years," he said, "but you can't say no to the White House, and things were going so well in Chicago."
PlumpJack Cafe could best be described as a California bistro. Owned by Gavin Newsome and Bill Getty, who started with a wine shop just down the street, the 49-seat restaurant has one of the great short (less than 150 choices) Award of Excellence-winning wine lists, featuring some of the hottest wines at a few dollars over retail price. The restaurant attracted a hip clientele, but the kitchen had slipped a bit since chef Maria Helm left in 1998. Luce was hired to improve the food.
PlumpJack's restaurants are considerably less elaborate than the others where Luce has worked. Before Spruce, he worked in the kitchens of the Rainbow Room and Le Cirque in New York, Louis XV in Monaco and Pierre Gagnaire in France.
"It is casual," he said. "My opinion is that casual food is where haute cuisine comes from, and food has soul even if it isn't processed to the nth degree."
Luce's new menu at PlumpJack Cafe includes fresh Monterey calamari with summer ratatouille and oil-cured olives; a short rib sandwich in lahvosh with mint; and a salad of limestone lettuce, melon, filet beans and San Daniele prosciutto.
Luce noted that PlumpJack's next restaurant will take the wine bar to a new level. The as-yet-unnamed spot -- at the former Pierce Street Annex, less than a block from PlumpJack Cafe in San Francisco's Cow Hollow district -- will build its menu around a strong wine and Champagne program.
"We'll do a lot of small dishes geared toward different varietals, and the dishes on the menu will be listed under headings of wine types," he said. "There will be headings like 'high-acid whites,' 'old world whites' and 'reds that don't make your cheeks stick to your teeth.'"
"It's a treat for a chef to be involved with a group that really cares about wine," Luce commented. "They not only have a wine shop, they have a winery [also called PlumpJack] in Napa Valley. And down the road, I'm hoping we can do a higher-end restaurant, too."
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