It's a bit of a surprise to find this PlaySkool-esque aesthetic on the loose in tranquil Noe Valley. The neighborhood feels detached from the rest of the city, more residential and remote, an ambience created, perhaps, by the encompassing hills and the neighborhoods just on the other side of them: equally homey places like Glen Park and Bernal Heights. The bucolic atmosphere has historic precedent: The district was ranchland for sheep and cattle a hundred-odd years ago. It was granted to a justice of the peace by the name of José de Jesus Noe, who in turn sold bits and pieces of his land to some of the Russian, German, Scandinavian, Irish, and Italian immigrants who came here in the wake of the Gold Rush.
It's still a family-friendly part of town, with that signal icon of the gentrification ethos, the coffeehouse, the neighborhood's prime proliferator. The often-balmy temperatures encourage people outdoors; on a typical weekend afternoon 24th Street is clogged with java fiends and perambulators in search of the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore, or the 24th Street Cheese Company, or the Noe Valley Bakery, whose exemplary breadstuffs are finally making their way into grocery stores beyond the local acreage. There's Firefly too, and Hamano, plus a handful of Irish pubs and ethnic restaurants and Speckmann's, a culinary reminder of the neighborhood's Teutonic heritage.
And now there's Cafe J, which opened for dinner just this year after several seasons in the brunch-and-latte biz. To that end owners Eric and Linnea Alexanderson brought in Executive Chef Eliscio Soto, former Plouf head chef and Fringale sous-chef, to introduce the tastes and textures of Provence into the evening hours. Since these neighborhood eateries are oftentimes modest in both concept and execution, Cafe J's second surprise is that Soto's creations are often impressive, even exemplary.
Example: the black bean soup. Most black bean soups are rough and lusty and powerful with onion and spice; Soto's is a refined, silky interpretation with an undertone of citrus and so much creamy texture it appears more brown bean than black. Plump, sweet, barely briny mussels are steamed and served three ways at Cafe J; the Basque version features an invigorating broth fragrant with onions, garlic, and sweet and hot peppers, and is thoroughly spoon-worthy. The cherry tomato salad serves up red, orange, and yellow varieties so sweetened by the Indian summer sun they taste like juicy little bits of candy; an excellent champagne-powered vinaigrette adds bite and sparkle, and a generous amount of goat cheese melts into the whole.
Goat cheese, incidentally, stars in several of Cafe J's dishes (our waiter assured us that the cheese was from France and, hence, "real"; so much for Laura Chenel), least successfully in the goat cheese croquettes. Dense über-cigars of intense, unadulterated chèvre are fried in an undistinguished batter; the result is a big cool log o' cheese that gives no sign of melting in the near future. A sprightly frisée salad helps matters somewhat.
Soto's Provençal proclivities come to the fore with his bourride, a hearty lobster broth ribboned with fresh flavors and textures: salmon, prawns, potatoes, carrots, and celery root. Two half-foot croutons spread with a garlicky rouille make dunking a pleasure. The fork-tender pork tenderloin, meanwhile, is surprisingly delicate in flavor, its simple virtues complemented by the supple sweetness of roasted fennel, caramelized onions, and baked apples, with a shot of mustard for tang.
The ratatouille, on the other hand, is a goofy, starchy misfire. The Provençal vegetable stew of the title is, traditionally, a well-seasoned confluence of Mediterranean flavors like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant; they're here as well, but not in abundance, serving only as the chapeau on a parfait of OK mashed potatoes and -- I kid you not -- warm capellini. The red snapper tower, though, is a delight from top to bottom: the tender fillet first with its nice salty aftercrunch; then a pungent layer of braised cabbage, and another of sautéed spinach; and finally a cushion of puréed purple Peruvian potatoes, a robust underpinning that's as delicious as it is alliterative.
The desserts are a largely undistinguished and culinarily monolithic lot. The chocolate mousse is tall and girthful and dense, chalky, tough to the knife, and more or less flavor-free. The caramelized tarte Tatin is similarly forgettable, overcooked mushy apples and all. The crème brûlée is pretty good, but nothing to warrant the extra cholesterol. And the goat cheese brûlée is a misnomer -- it's baked, not browned -- but the result, Cafe J's ubiquitous real goat cheese in lightweight quasi-cheesecake form, served in a bowl, is, at least, conceptually interesting.
The wine list is brief yet thoughtfully conceived with a preponderance of French and California vintages. The five whites include Edna Valley's 1998 chardonnay; among the eight reds are Chinon's 1997 cabernet franc from the Loire Valley and Eschol Ranch's 1997 Napa cab. All wines are available by the glass.
Live jazz is offered Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday nights: A pleasant and convivial concept, but the good sounds can make conversation difficult. The back patio is a pleasant refuge, with brick walkways, a flowering garden, and flags of every colorful description enhancing the venue's -- and Noe Valley's -- lovely, sheltering climate.