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High Attitude 

Tasting the good and the bad of Paris at South Park Cafe

Wednesday, Jan 1 1997
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The South Park Cafe could easily be mistaken for a smart Paris spot, except for the lack of cigarette smoke: That's pure California. There is, through the glass doors and across a narrow lane, South Park itself, a kind of secret village green typical enough in European cities but too rare in our own. And there are the park's deciduous trees, which, with their foliage yellowing and thinning at the end of autumn, give a sense of continental season not easily found in a city filled with palms and eucalyptus. While the lane that encloses the park like a big roundabout is almost always choked with cars, the park itself encourages a lazy pedestrianism and casual sociability that flows into the cafe, as if the boundary between outside and inside is vague and not too important.

Snotty service is one of the dark arts -- adroitly and most famously practiced in Paris (though the snideness of Parisian waiters is chronically overstated), and just as adroitly, if less famously, practiced at the South Park Cafe. The Memoirist was, in his cuttingly soft-voiced way, put out at a recent lunch by our waiter, a dashing young Frenchman who could scarcely be bothered to slap down flatware at our sidewalk table but didn't restrain himself from fawning at the two attractive young women seated nearby. I too thought he was pretty bad (we had to ask several times for water, and he told me he would bring a fork for my dessert but apparently forgot, leaving me with an inadequate spoon), but while he generally treated us as if we were a tolerable nuisance, he never crossed the line into real snippiness.

On the whole, I prefer brusqueness to phony good cheer; if a waiter is going to give mediocre or lousy service, the least he can do is -- as ours did -- make himself scarce and not interfere with the meal. And in an oddly satisfying way, he was authentic, like the food. A bowl of soupe au pistou ($4) was choked with white beans, carrots, squash, scallions, and elbow macaroni and vividly scented with basil and garlic; it needed a bit of salt but was otherwise gratifying.

And the baked goat cheese salad ($5) presented a handsome disc of soft, savory cheese on a bed of frisee well-dressed with vinaigrette. Goat cheese salad appears on a lot of Mediterranean menus these days, and the only characteristic that distinguishes one from another is the quality of the cheese. South Park's was high-quality -- creamy with a noticeable but not overpowering sharpness. On a day that, like so many days in San Francisco, looked milder than it was, the combination of richness and oven warmth was fortifying. (Even if the sun is shining, it's hard not to be chilled by the sight of bare branches and a carpet of yellow leaves on the park lawn.)

After a burst of frenzied low comedy (our waiter appeared to inquire whether the busboy had served our main courses, which, not surprisingly, he hadn't), the main dishes arrived. The Memoirist was initially skeptical of his salade frisee ($6.50), a bed of pale, frayed greens liberally topped with sauteed chicken livers and bacon vinaigrette -- on the theory that such a breathlessly distracted server was incapable of bringing worthy food -- but the livers and dressing melted together into a smooth pungency we both approved of. I detest liver (unresolved childhood conflict), but chicken liver is mild enough to seduce the naysayer without losing its special edge.

A grilled salmon fillet ($10.50) was sauced with a tangy mix of citrus and tarragon and served on a mound of lovely mashed potatoes. The accompanying medley of julienned carrots and green beans was colorful but wintry enough to remind me how unwarm it was on the sidewalk.

Our waiter described the beurre noisette tarte ($4) as a "raspberry tart," but there were only a few raspberries in it. Mostly it was a mysterious and spongy disk, like a clafouti. The lemon tarte ($3.50) was vastly better -- a good crisp shell of scalloped pastry filled with a creamy lemon custard that ran slowly, like thick molasses.

At dinner the service was relaxed and professional, the crowd a little older and less Web-heady than the noontime bunch, the food even slightly better than at midday. The wild-mushroom feuillete ($6.50) assembled sliced, sauted fungus with a buttery sauce under a square cap of croissantlike pastry.

The roast leg of lamb ($13.50), served medium rare, was mild-flavored despite liberal amounts of thyme, and the sliced boulangere potatoes, while creamy and attractive-looking, were dull with undersalting.

But the roast pork tenderloin ($13.50), while overcooked for my taste, still showed a faint glow of pink, and its ingenious sauce combined lemon, caraway, and garlic into a masterpiece of mixed signals: one moment bright and summery, the next a whisper of fresh rye bread. The rest of the plate -- mashed potatoes, green beans, marinated red cabbage -- was more traditional but handled with a light touch, the vinegar in the cabbage in particular bringing a welcome zing.

Profiteroles ($5.50) -- the little balls of pastry stuffed with this or that -- generally don't appeal to me, because the pastry is so often tough. But South Park's other pastries had been exemplary, and the profiteroles were, too: tender and flaky, stuffed with faintly orangy Grand Marnier ice cream and napped with chocolate sauce. They reminded me how good a simple dessert can be if carefully and properly prepared, and of how many bad, tough, stale, tasteless profiteroles there are bouncing around out there, giving the dish a bad name.

South Park Cafe is bustlingly full most of the time, which says something about the ambience (small enough to be intimate, large enough not to seem cramped), the food (well-conceived, fairly priced, and deftly executed), and the service, which even at its worst was more amusing than offensive. But that's a close call, when there shouldn't be a call at all.

South Park Cafe, at 108 South Park, is open daily save Sunday from 7:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. Lunch service begins at 11:30 a.m. and continues until 3 p.m.; dinner starts at 5 p.m. and runs until 10 p.m. Call 495-7275.

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Paul Reidinger

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