The American Way

At Sinclair's Petit Cafe, up-to-date food in fin de siecle surroundings

Stepping into Sinclair's Petit Cafe is like entering the lobby of a quaint pension in a provincial European city. High west windows capture the late-afternoon light, and the oak-plank floors are dark with years of use. The walls hold yellowed photographs, and there are built-in bookshelves lined with a set of the California Appellate Reports, among other volumes. (For a little light reading while awaiting a table?) Apart from the law books, it's the sort of setting in which one imagines Freud taking his morning kaffee mit schlag with the morning paper on Vienna's Ringstrasse a century ago.

The food is another matter -- "hearty American," as our server described it to us at dinner. These days that could mean almost anything, and, at Sinclair's, it does: The menu runs from Midwestern comfort (meatloaf) to French with a slyly tropical spin (crispy duck leg with mango-apricot relish) to purest Californian (barbecued salmon). The unifying element is big taste. Chef Mark Sinclair's dishes aren't shy about declaring themselves, and what they sometimes sacrifice in subtlety they make up with vivaciousness. It's cooking in primary colors.

The Insider and I, though lacking a reservation, were seated immediately. (No need to peruse the Appellate Reports.) As the evening deepened, the Russian Hill locals began to drift in: a couple of young adults with a visiting parent or two; a mid-40s couple deeply engaged in conversation even as the maitre d' led them to a table in the other dining room (there are two); a professorial-looking man with his family. Most of them seemed relaxed, suggesting that they had not run the neighborhood's fearsome parking gauntlet. Sinclair's is a restaurant best walked to, or reached by Muni.

And if walking works up the appetite, so much the better: The big taste of Sinclair's food is matched by the healthy size of the portions. The focaccia crostini ($3.95), for instance, consisted of half a dozen thick spears of bread topped with aged blue brie and marinated red-cherry tomato halves. The bread had the distinctive chewiness of focaccia within its crispy gold mantle, and the potentially overwhelming richness of the cheese was cut by the tomatoes' acid.

More rich cheese -- this time goat -- adorned the grilled portobello mushroom ($4.25) like frosting. Prosciutto and roasted garlic added sophisticated grace notes, but the main event was the pairing of cheese and mushroom, an explosion of earthiness. We agreed that, good as the dish was, it would have been at least as good with less cheese; chevre's strong flavor can overpower everything around it. In the culinary universe, it's a doomsday machine.

The day's soup, black bean ($3.50), strongly resembled a runny vegetarian chili. It didn't need salt, and it was handsomely presented with lines of piped sour cream looping around a nucleus of diced tomatoes -- an edible model of an atom.

Sinclair's dinner menu speaks of first and second courses rather than starters or appetizers and main dishes -- and with reason. The first courses were so substantial that we began to fear we'd enjoyed them too much. But the second courses were healthy rather than massive.

The salmon ($10.75) featured a medium-size fillet of fish that had been given a bright-red barbecue glaze (peppery but not hot) and grilled. The rest of the plate was appealingly simple: a bed of white rice, a ring of pale yellow wax beans, and -- because it's summer elsewhere if not in the city -- a tangy corn salad.

The linguine ($9.75) -- a macaroni rather than noodle version -- had been tossed with prawns, chubby snap peas, and a light tomato cream, but the dominant flavor was tasso. That's the spicy hamlike product made from pork shoulder rather than leg; it's like poor man's Cajun prosciutto -- not as subtle, not as tender, but capable of electrifying a dish that might otherwise be bland. (Locally, Aidells Sausage Co. makes tasso and sells it at the Ferry Plaza farmers market Saturday mornings.) The tasso-heavy linguine tasted very much like jambalaya, served with pasta instead of rice.

Sinclair's is attractive enough in the evening -- busy without being noisy -- but the space shows to best advantage in daylight, when all that old wood seems to glow, and the talk around the oak-topped bistro tables sounds quietly brilliant. The weekend brunch is a casual affair; the staff takes orders at the counter and brings the food to the table when it's ready.

Brunch in this country means omelets, and, Sinclair's being a true American cafe, that was the day's special ($8.25). It was stuffed to bursting (like a burrito) with rock shrimp, organic tomatoes, and a mix of jack and cheddar cheeses that melted into a kind of tasty lava in which the other ingredients were sensuously embedded. The eggs themselves were cooked perfectly: thatched with bronze on the outside, still slightly runny within. The roasted potatoes on the side were well browned, but they needed salt. Elsewhere on the plate: a colorful and coolingly sweet array of strawberries, honeydew melon slices, and a chunk of pineapple.

The Carnivore chose the vegetarian lasagna ($6.75) with some skepticism, but he plowed through it with great satisfaction. The key with lasagna seems to be bulk: If the slab is big and cheesy enough, people will be happy no matter what else is inside. In Sinclair's case, the other ingredients included mushrooms, zucchini, and tomato, with a mix of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses. Starching up such a plate with potatoes would have been overkill; instead, there was the same little medley of fruit that accompanied the omelet.

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