King of the Hill

Perfecting the art of everyday cooking at Garibaldi Cafe

The worst thing about Garibaldi Cafe, on the northern shoulders of Potrero Hill, is its entryway. It's like a coat closet with a menu posted opposite the door. To the right, a bar; to the left, through curtains, the dining room. Escaping into either is like exiting an overcrowded elevator into breathable freedom.

The cramped entryway does a small but noticeable disservice to a restaurant that in every other way defines the top-drawer neighborhood cafe. In the last few years the neighborhoods have hugely benefited from the surfeit of gastronomic talent in this city, and places flung far from culinary ground zero downtown (including Firefly, Avenue 9, and Socca, among others) have made themselves simultaneously neighborhood spots and destinations.

Garibaldi is as good as any of them, though it's already 10 years old, and its neighborhood is distinctly shy of chic. There's no view, except of the baseball diamond across the street. The heart of the residential area is up the hill a few blocks, and most of the buildings immediately surrounding the restaurant are low warehouses. During the day the area is lively with trucks and bustle and young design professionals lining up for lunch at Garibaldi's take-away window, but in the evenings the neighborhood is much nearer to being deserted. That makes Garibaldi Cafe something of an oasis.

The restaurant advertises its menu as "California-Mediterranean," but it struck me more as a kind of high-end home cooking, with the sorts of dishes an ambitious and reasonably proficient home chef might undertake for a dinner party. The flavors are big, the ethnic mixing and matching eclectic, the presentations modest (no fried dorsal fin rising like a sail above a plate of petrale sole, as at Hawthorne Lane). It's the sort of menu that will satisfy a wide range of tastes and moods; it's comfortable and durable rather than dazzling.

Dinner chef Jorge Cortes, for instance, gave a smart Asian twist to an old Spanish favorite, a first course of sauteed Blue Lake beans. They were seared with big, meaty chunks of pancetta, then dressed with a blend of oyster and hot-chili sauces. The result was a smoldering heartiness, with the lightly caramelized skins of the beans subtly deepening the flavor.

We were less impressed with the pizza ($6.95), whose crust was thick and underbaked. ("It's like it was frozen," my friend complained.) But the combination of toppings -- smoked chicken, tomato, basil, and mozzarella: a kind of mega-Margherita -- was just complex enough to achieve a balance without becoming diffuse.

By 8 o'clock on a midweek evening the dining room was almost full, and our server seemed to be responsible for every table. But the fragrant fresh bread kept coming, and water glasses were constantly refilled.

Main courses were preceded by cups of stewlike minestrone accented with plenty of grated cheese, for a final whetting of the appetite. (And for those of you who, like me, sometimes wonder whether reservations mean anything at all, Garibaldi Cafe actually puts little placards marked "reserved" on tables set aside by arrangement. A small but tangible sign that the place takes reservations seriously.)

The tandoori lamb tenderloins ($17.95) were perfect -- strips of buttery meat marinated in yogurt and spices, charcoal-grilled and served with a faintly licoricelike tarragon sauce. But the grilled swordfish ($16.95), while skillfully cooked inside its crust of chopped rosemary, suffered from a lemon-caper sauce made far too salty by an overabundance of capers.

The mound of herbed mashed potatoes on the side, meanwhile (along with a saute of carrots, spinach, and mushrooms), was a marked improvement on the usual blob of undifferentiated off-whiteness that's been showing up on far too many plates lately. The herbs gave the potatoes a bit of a bouquet and, more important, made them look interesting enough for me to ask our harried server what was in them.

At lunch, the noontime sun gave life to a series of campy decoupages that ran along one wall, and warmth to the dining room as a whole. My college chum and I talked about the symphony strike and other crises in arts management while fortifying ourselves with bowls of chef David Wees' onion soup ($3.50). The potage's deep, dark sweetness was nicely framed by a generous grating of Asiago cheese on top, but the bread rounds bobbing in the broth were too large to eat gracefully. I could not break mine into pieces with the edge of my spoon, and the shape of the bowl (not to mention the constraints of table manners) made it impossible to go in with a butter knife.

The day's pasta, conchiglie ($8.95), was tossed with tomato sauce, fennel sausage, and Gorgonzola -- the last a high-potency item. Even so, the dish needed a tweak of salt for focus.

The blackened snapper on sourdough ($8.95) was expertly charred, but the real treat was the Creole mustard, which left a pleasant tang in the mouth.

The herbed roasted potatoes on the side were as good a potato dish as I've had in a long time; though a low roasting temperature had kept them from crisping up, they were well-seasoned and beautifully tender.

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