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I lived for two years in an apartment at the corner of Jackson and Taylor, right next door (incidentally) to Jack Lemmon's apartment building in Days of Wine and Roses and two blocks north of Steve McQueen's digs in Bullitt. The intersection is one of those borderline urban nooks that can't choose its own neighborhood allegiance. According to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, I was in Chinatown. According to the United States Postal Service, I was in North Beach. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, I was on Nob Hill. According to the name of my corner grocery store, I was on Russian Hill.
The locale was a good opportunity to explore any innate leanings toward split personality; when people asked me where I lived, my answer depended on my mood and the person asking the question. If I was feeling well-heeled, I'd say Nob Hill. I knew deep down that I wasn't on Rus- sian Hill, so I never said Russian Hill. Since the only businesses in my block were a Chinese restaurant and a Chinese laundry, and since I used to relax on the living room sofa on Sunday afternoons and hear the Chinese opera and smell the sesame oil wafting up the air shaft, and since my friend Mush christened the place on moving-in day by looking out the window and muttering, "It's Chinatown, Jake," I usually said Chinatown. But if I was feeling bohemian and existential, or at least as existential as I ever get, I'd say North Beach.
Nine blocks north on Taylor, where it crosses Columbus, you're still not in the real North Beach; you've more or less overshot it. This is more SFAI Canyon, or Tower Records Gulch -- or maybe Bimbo's Valley -- just as my old neighborhood might best have been delineated as the Place Where the Cable Car Got Blown Up in The Rock Heights. Like Taylor and Jackson, Taylor and Columbus resists compartmentalization. It's a little bit Fisherman's Wharf and a little bit Cannery, with an overlay of off-the-beaten-track quietude and enough of the Beach to lend dash and color and good taste to the mix.
As such it is the ideal setting for Zax, a singular little restaurant on a fringe of its own. Zax is all of a piece, a minimalist work of art. Too often a restaurant's menu and décor and ambience are disparate fragments of a disjointed whole in which overamped Gipsy Kings attack the murmured somnolence of champagne and quail, and low-rent nightspots serve up overarching platters of mizuma and ahi. At Zax, all of the elements coalesce in stylish harmony. Everything about the place is tasty, deceptively simple, relaxed, and hip: the friendly dimensions, the welcoming counter-bar, the comfortable banquettes, the photographs on the wall, the dedication to good and imaginatively prepared food that is evident from first bite to last.
I always feel like a slob when I have a cocktail before dinner -- hard liquor deadens the taste buds -- so it's nice to sup at a place at which the only pre-prandial refreshment comes in the form of the aperitif, as God and Brillat-Savarin intended. Zax has my two favorites -- amontillado and Lillet -- and I settled on the latter, its cool, crisp, near-sweetness offering a nice accompaniment to the menu-perusing.
It didn't take me long to decide. Zax's menu changes each month to take advantage of the Bay Area's stellar seasonal produce, and each menu is made up of six starters and six entrees, a selection reassuring in its restrained dimensions: The wit and intelligence dedicated to these dozen creations must be concentrated indeed. At a place like Zax, to paraphrase the old realtor's saying, the three prime factors are ingredients, ingredients, ingredients.
Here, the individual flavors and textures of our finest foodstuffs are celebrated (not covered up) in an array of delectable combinations. Take the salad lyonnaise ($8), a culinary surprise package of a starter -- dig into a bouquet of mustardy, sparkling-fresh frisée and you'll find meaty chunks of sweet-smoky bacon, thick croutons, and three rich, earthy duck livers hot from the skillet, with a perfectly poached egg perched on top. Or the restaurant's signature dish, the deliciously pungent, crunchy-on-the-outside, airy-within goat cheese soufflé ($7.50), baked twice to give it its particular crisp quality and accompanied by a zippy salad of apple, celery, fennel, and cider. A little zip would've been welcome in the leek-potato-watercress soup ($5.75), but its creamy warmth is an ideal restorative this time of year.
Seasonal produce and other specialties are reflected in the entree selections as well, where such hearty fare as wild mushroom-Swiss chard risotto ($16), braised lamb shank with olives, artichokes, and polenta ($18), and top sirloin with potato-Gorgonzola gratin and escarole ($19.75) help you face the long nights around the solstice. The unassuming nature of petrale sole ($18.25), perfectly, delicately prepared here, is complemented and enlivened by a lemon beurre blanc zesty with capers, bracingly fresh spinach, and my finest encounter with mashed potatoes since Oct. 17, 1998. The pheasant ($19.50) is another study in contrasts: The tender meat is wrapped in prosciutto and cooked until the latter's rich, saline essence informs the fowl's delicate nature. Grilled sweet red onions, bitter dandelion greens, and earthy Yellow Finn potatoes add further intriguing notes.
The five-item dessert list ranges from the simple (sorbet with biscotti, $6) to the grand (caramelized banana cream tart with chocolate sauce, $6). We opted for a couple in between. The apple galette ($6) looks as good as it tastes, a striking, wonderfully fragrant amalgam of buttery pastry, tart apples, and marvelous caramel ice cream melting on top. Equally impressive, and even tastier, is the chocolate brownie sundae ($6), a towering creation that stars a thick, fudgy brownie, toasted walnuts, and espresso ice cream with a nice caffeine edge to it.
The wine list reflects the establishment's intelligence and joie de vivre as well. The selection is thoughtful and eclectic -- mostly featuring local stars, but with several fine French vintages and a smattering from New Zealand, Argentina, and Italy -- including such treasures as Lis Neris- Pecorari's pinot grigio ($29), Spottswoode's sauvignon blanc ($36), Flowers' pinot noir ($64), Bonny Doon's Cigare Volant ($22/$44), and Chateau de Pibarnon's Bandol ($38). The eight-item by-the-glass list is direct and to the point, with a taste of something or other to go with just about anything you could order, and there are eight top-shelf beers (including light, rich Chimay Ale at $5).
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