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San Francisco: Bistros and Brasseries

Great food and wine in more casual surroundings

Harvey Steiman
Posted: June 25, 2002

 
San Franciscans who hanker for Paris find it at Jeanty at Jack's
 
 
  Inside San Francisco
Take it from a local: The best restaurants in San Francisco aren't all trendy, expensive or near your downtown hotel
 
 
  Bistros and Brasseries:  
 
  Absinthe  
 
  Bacar  
 
  Boulevard  
 
  Clementine  
 
  Eos  
 
  Jeanty at Jack's  
 
  Rubicon  
 
  Zuni Café  
 
 

Absinthe
398 Hayes St.
Telephone (415) 551-1590
Open Lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $20 to $26 Award of Excellence

Imagine the perfect brasserie. It's lively, even a little boisterous, its tables spilling out the door onto the sidewalk. The food is classic, executed well, with a few surprises. It should have lots of fun wines and an imposing bar, which should serve unique drinks. Absinthe does all that, and it looks right, too, as if it was transplanted into San Francisco from the south of France around 1900. In the shadow of the Performing Arts Center, it draws a varied crowd.

The menu centers on French standards done well -- deep, rich coq au vin or cassoulet made with duck confit and housemade sausage, for example. It also uses traditional elements in startling original creations, like a thin-crusted pizza topped with confit of fingerling potatoes, sliced coddled eggs and salsa verde. The raw oysters are worth ordering, and the assorted seafood platter adds clams, shrimp, prawns, crab and more. It beats what the fancy downtown seafood restaurants do.

The bar features mixed drinks cadged from cocktail recipe books, mostly from the 1930s. A favorite is the "Ginger Rogers," a sort of mojito with ginger syrup.

The broad, eclectic wine list has options you would expect at a brasserie in France -- bottlings from Sancerre, the Rhône, Alsace -- but it also scours the globe for equivalent delights. Absinthe shares ownership with Amphora, the wine shop next door, which explains the remarkable breadth. We drank Onix 2000, an inexpensive Grenache-based Priorat red that puts a lot of Côtes du Rhônes to shame.

Bacar
448 Brannan St.
Telephone (415) 904-4100
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, daily (open late)
Cost Entrées $16 to $38

Though parts of South of Market feel desolate since the dot-com bust, Bacar livens up this block. Nicely situated halfway between Pacific Bell Park, where the San Francisco Giants play baseball, and the main courthouse, the converted steel beam and brick warehouse can be noisy when full. A jazz trio plays evenings in the bar. Even without the music, though, there's plenty to enjoy -- on the plate and in the glass.

Bacar, Latin for wineglass, is a witty name when you consider that this place offers more than 200 wines by the glass. Actually, it's better than that. You can get a small pour for $3 to $11, a standard pour for $6 to $22 and carafes come in two sizes. The eclectic wine roster has 1,000 listings.

Arnold Eric Wong updates French brasserie food, sometimes adding an Asian touch as in his masterpiece, wok-roasted PEI mussels. Blasted by the high heat of a wok, which gives them an ineffable smokiness, the mollusks are then bathed in white wine, chilies and garlic. Hot smoked black cod contrasts with sweet pea shoots in another signature appetizer, and the fish special is always worth ordering; on one visit, it was a juicy grilled mahi mahi with a drizzle of mint oil adding the perfect spark to couscous laced with dried fruit.

Boulevard
1 Mission St.
Telephone (415) 543-6084
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $27 to $33
Award of Excellence

With the Bay Bridge soaring right outside the window and the restored tower of the Ferry Building gleaming across the street, designer Pat Kuleto and chef Nancy Oakes have created a landmark of their own in the lovingly preserved Art Nouveau Audiffred Building. The back dining area, closest to the picture windows, is prime real estate, but the front area has comfortable, oval booths -- ringside seats for the culinary action in the open kitchen.

Wherever you sit, expect the eclectic American food to grab your attention. French, Asian and Latin-American cuisines seem to inspire Oakes about equally. Calamari is crusted in cornmeal and served with a lively tomatillo salsa cooled with creamy avocado aioli. Perfectly cooked, juicy black sea bass rests in a sauce that is essentially a rich clam chowder. Rice pudding comes with green tea ice cream and a surprisingly compatible mango-shiso salad.

On a recent visit, the kitchen executed these complex dishes flawlessly, but the service bumped along, at times rushing us, at other times disappearing for a few minutes too long. We salved our frustrations with a few more sips of Billecart-Salmon Champagne Brut Rosé NV, one of four sparkling wines on a by-the-glass list that is overflowing with great choices such as Mart&iactue;n Códax Albariño 2000 and Rocche di Manzone Barolo 1993. The 350-bottle list is similarly eclectic, and reasonable in price.

Clementine
126 Clement St.
Telephone (415) 387-0408
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $15 to $18

Every neighborhood, even a few in Paris, wishes it had a bistro like this one. It charms, with potted trees and ivy gracing its entrance and aromatic tarragon in its steamed mussels. Chef and owner Didier Labbé's food is fresh and stylish. With an eclectic and well-priced 100-label wine list (lots of Côtes du Rhône and California wines under $30) and friendly and knowledgeable service, this rates as one of the best restaurant bargains in the whole city. The same restaurant downtown would cost 50 percent more. It's worth the taxi ride to the Richmond district.

Labbé once was sous-chef at Arpège, in Paris. If his confit of duck on lentils isn't quite as intense as some other renditions, the salad with lardons served with it strikes a familiar chord for anyone who has dined in France. Roast squab redolent of Middle Eastern spices on porcini mushrooms is even better. An artichoke heart makes a marvelous salad with perfectly cooked Chinese long beans and a balsamic reduction, and those mussels with tarragon in Noilly Prat are definitely habit-forming. Anyone who loves bread pudding will adore the creamy-centered, crisp-surfaced pain perdu (French toast) served with hazelnut ice cream for dessert.

Eos
901 Cole St.
Telephone (415) 566-3063
Open Dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $19 to $24

If Clementine is the ideal neighborhood French bistro, Eos is the Asian- fusion equivalent. Chef Arnold Eric Wong, who also heads the kitchen at Bacar, first proved how beautifully he could meld Eastern and Western ideas when this deliciously casual hangout opened in Cole Valley in 1995. Wraparound picture windows look out on streetcars rumbling past and a parade of locals that never stops. Inside, the granite-top tables, warm woods and theatrical lighting surround an exhibition kitchen that turns out some great stuff.

Wong tea-smokes a duck breast meltingly tender and serves it with mashed Yukon gold potatoes, the sort of thing your grandma might have served if she were trained in both Chinese and French cooking. Seared day-boat scallops artfully float in a lighter-than-air carrot nage tinged with ginger and basil. Thai basil in the vinaigrette gives a slight Asian accent to a Mediterranean salad with feta and persimmons. The 400-wine list, shared with Eos' wine bar next door and compiled by wine director Darin Snow, brims with cool choices, from Alban Estate Viognier 2000 from California to Torbreck Shiraz 1998 from Australia. The by-the-glass list can keep an enophile happy for hours. We drank glasses of Talai-Berri Getariako Txakolina 2000 from Spain, Leeuwin Riesling 2000 from Australia, and a half-bottle of Ch‰teau Simard St.-Emilion 1989, sensational with the duck.

Jeanty at Jack's
615 Sacramento St.
Telephone (415) 693-0941
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $16 to $28

Jack's, a registered landmark, dates from 1864. This Financial District establishment is famous in San Francisco lore for its upstairs private dining rooms, once a brothel and in later years the scene of secret dalliances. Owned by a series of Frenchmen, it was always known for good food, especially its mammoth mutton chops.

But the mutton chops are gone and the trysters have moved on. This is now the place city folks come to enjoy the food of Philippe Jeanty, whose tiny Yountville bistro draws a devoted food-and-wine crowd in Napa Valley. The unabashedly French bistro menu here, an expanded version of the Yountville card, offers steamed mussels studded with bay leaves in a big ceramic bowl. Crisp frites overflow a paper cone held vertical by a stainless steel spiral. Jeanty's bouillabaisse limits itself to monkfish and clams, but the broth and rouille are intensely flavorful. His blanquette uses veal shanks instead of cubed veal with a melt-in-your-mouth result.

The wine list offers about 150 choices, mostly California bottlings such as current vintages of Del Dotto Merlot, Biale Zinfandel and Paul Hobbs Chardonnay. It's also dotted with shrewd choices from France -- from Sylvain Bailly Quincy 2000 to Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet 1999, the latter a bargain at $300.

Rubicon
558 Sacramento St.
Telephone (415) 434-4100
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $22 to $31
Grand Award

The food has always earned high ratings at this two-story Financial District fixture, a partnership of New York restaurateur Drew Nieporent and film notables Robert De Niro, Robin Williams and Francis Ford Coppola (who makes a wine called Rubicon at his Napa Valley winery). But for wine lovers, the draw has been Larry Stone, one of America's top sommeliers.

Most nights Stone, looking elfish in his trademark bow tie, roams the restaurant, with its exposed brick walls and wooden booths, helping diners navigate the 1,600-wine list. The selection favors California, Rhône and Burgundy (there's a whole page of Henri Jayer and Em-manuel Rouget), but it offers treasures from virtually every wine region. To balance the skew toward high-ticket wines, Stone points with pride to the "Forty Under $45" page, with outstanding values such as Umani Ronchi Rosso Conero San Lorenzo 1998 from Marche, or Danjean-Berthoux Givry 2000, rich enough to be confused with Gevrey.

Chef Dennis Leary finds exquisite balance of textures, flavors and temperatures, floating raw scallops over a pastel green puree of parsley and fennel, topping that with caviar, tiny shoestring potatoes and bergamot orange sorbet. Squab in date and foie gras sauce is another triumph, the bird sweet not gamy, the texture silky. Even if the short ribs could have been more tender, and a squash appetizer better presented as a side dish, the bittersweet chocolate soufflé, with a whiff of hazelnuts, finally rights the ship.

Zuni Café
1658 Market St.
Telephone (415) 552-2522
Open Lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $24 to $30

Like the historic streetcars that growl past on their way downtown, this quirky triangular place on outer Market Street has been around longer than its trendier competition. The restaurant keeps people coming with soulful fresh food and a Mediterranean sensibility. A brick oven serves as the focal point -- baking bread, roasting meat and generally perfuming the air. It's like a grand old bistro somewhere in rural France, only better, because the kitchen's sensibilities are broader.

Chef and owner Judy Rodgers favors flavor over fancy presentation, as evidenced by her bone-warming midwinter soup of farro, which seems to be the grain of the moment, spiked with black cabbage and dried porcini. Guests with hearty appetites love the thick, juicy-sweet, smoky pork chops, on our visit served with mashed sweet potatoes and bright green Brussels sprouts. Perfectly grilled bluenose bass with creamy, oversized Peruvian beans, arugula and Champagne vinaigrette is a marvel of finely etched flavors and textures. Cloud-light ricotta gnocchi are accompained by crunchy, vibrant spinach and pistachios.

Zuni has a great raw bar, which focuses on plump Western oysters. Our request for a selection yielded tangy Fanny Bays, salty Sinku Bays and vaguely fruity Cortes Islands, all from British Columbia. Few choices on the 200-wine list top $50, and the bottlings include trendy Merlots, lesser-known Bordeaux, and even more Pinot Noirs, Burgundies and Rhône-style wines. We chose Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre 2000 ($28) with the oysters and Qupé Syrah Central Coast 2000 ($25) with the main dishes. We couldn't have done better if we'd paid a great deal more.

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