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Dining Out: San Francisco

Harvey Steiman
Posted: June 23, 2004

The menu changes daily at Quince, which serves a highly refined blend of Italian and French food.
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Michael and Lindsay Tusk were on vacation in Italy a few years ago when they discovered the wineglasses. At Bottega del Vino in Verona, they ordered 500 of them, hoping to use them in the restaurant they dreamed of opening someday. At the time, both were working in Bay-area restaurants: Michael was chef de cuisine for Paul Bertolli at Oliveto and Lindsay was working the floor for Nancy Oakes at Boulevard.

Today, the big handblown glasses of various shapes line the shelves at their 45-seat Quince in the San Francisco neighborhood of Pacific Heights. The restaurant, which opened in December, is housed in a onetime Victorian apothecary. Lindsay runs the dining room in a warmhearted, professional style, the casual setting perfect for Michael's personal blend of Italian and French food.

The cream-colored dining room, accented with drop moldings and four exquisite cream-colored Murano glass chandeliers, has been busy ever since it opened, and Lindsay puts those wineglasses to good use. The smart list of 200 selections favors food-friendly Italian and French wines, such as Château Canon Clos Canon 2000 ($60), and steers away from the obvious with California Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and Zinfandels-even a Graff Family Mourvèdre Chalone 2001 ($33). How about a glass of Nilo Bolognani Moscato Giallo 2002 from Alto Adige ($7), perfect with a garlicky soup?

Michael's menu follows the Italian pattern of antipasto, pasta and meat, but just calls them first courses, second courses, and so on. The entire menu changes daily, not just a dish or two. Some dishes seem too good to replace, but Quince's regular customers vouch for the chef's ability to keep them satisfied.

I, for one, will grumble if I can never again savor the pinpoint balance and subtle harmonies of Atlantic cod with vivid sautéed spinach and a sunny yellow Prosecco-grapefruit sauce, but petrale sole with roasted beets and Dungeness crab, on the next day's menu, looks just as tempting. Michael's style emphasizes earthy flavors in dishes of almost rustic simplicity, fashioned into eye-catching plates. The tang of wild arugula sets off the sweetness of white shrimp in a first-course salad.

From a tempting list of half-bottles, Domaine Les Pallières Gigondas 2000 ($25) partners well with both the cod and a homey plate of Roman-style oxtails. It's the sort of French-Italian détente Lindsay describes when she explains why they decided to name the restaurant after a tart tree-fruit. "It's common to both Italian and French cooking, so we don't have to be pigeonholed as one or the other," she says.

Smart but casual neighborhood spots with less elaborate fare have dominated recent restaurant openings in San Francisco. Rather than take on Gary Danko, Masa's or Fleur de Lys at the luxury game, the Tusks, and others like them, have opened casual chic restaurants that have the town buzzing. Two other recent hits come from chef Peter Erickson, recently of Universal Café, and brothers Mitchell and Steven Rosenthal, who still run the kitchen at Postrio for Wolfgang Puck.

Erickson's 1550 Hyde shoehorns about two dozen tables and a stand-up wine bar into a double storefront on the Hyde Street cable-car line. From his cramped kitchen, the chef issues high quality California cuisine with wine-friendly Italian and southern French leanings. The delicate sweetness of pea tendrils balances grease-free fried oysters that spurt their juices when bitten. A rabbit fricassee, falling from the bone, gets a welcome lift from balsamic vinegar.

Erickson's partner, Kent Liggett, presides over a list of some 125 wines. In addition to a few big-ticket Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons, such as Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 1999 ($120), there are plenty of Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and smart choices from Spain, Italy, the Rhône and Oregon. A fine example is Nora Albariño Rias Baixas 2002 ($28). Judging by the prices-most bottles sell for less than $50-and the program of tasting flights, Liggett wants to share his enthusiasm. On a recent visit, we could try three glasses of different producers' Pinot Noirs from Sleepy Hollow, a Santa Lucia Highlands vineyard, for $14.

The Rosenthals' cavernous Town Hall, on a quiet stretch of Howard Street, in the South of Market area, throws a nonstop party with great food. The restaurant occupies a two-story, freestanding brick building. An array of spectacular chandeliers rescued from a 1930s theater in New York's Spanish Harlem hangs from the ceiling, and the path to the dining room winds past a community table for drop-in customers, the open kitchen and a long, well-stocked bar. There's a lively vibe from the (mostly) young crowd. Many of them are digging into warm and crumbly jalapeño corn bread, a must order.

Mitchell, who once worked in New Orleans, and his brother stocked their winter menu with smoked chicken gumbo and barbecued shrimp. Creamy dayboat scallops sit atop andouille sausage jambalaya. They garnish an excellent tuna tartare with fried green tomato slices, an inspired idea. Slow-roasted duck is so tender it yields to the gentle nudge of a fork. This is first-rate cooking.

General manager and co-owner Doug Washington, formerly the manager at Postrio and Jardinière, had the service humming smoothly after only a couple of months. The 120-label-strong wine list, printed on the back of the menu, delivers satisfying choices at less than $50, such as Panther Creek Pinot Noir Winemaker's Cuvée 2001 from Oregon ($40) and Tablas Creek Côtes de Tablas 2001, a Rhône-style red from Paso Robles ($45).

San Francisco has always had casual neighborhood restaurants with better food and sharper wine selections than their open-collar looks would suggest. During the boom years of the late 1990s, the buzz was about the newest den of luxury, but now the sheer approachability of Town Hall and 1550 Hyde is back in style. The Tusks may have expected those big crystal glasses to end up in a grand restaurant. Today's diners are happier this way, and the tariff is a lot fairer, too.

1550 Hyde Café and Wine Bar
1550 Hyde St. (at Pacific)
Telephone (415) 775-1550
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $15-$25
Credit cards All major

1701 Octavia St. (at Bush)
Telephone (415) 775-8500
Open Dinner, nightly
Cost Entrées $18-$26
Credit cards All major

Town Hall
342 Howard St. (between Fremont and Beale streets)
Telephone (415) 908-3900
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, nightly
Cost Entrées $19-$26
Credit cards All major

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