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A Temple to High Living 

Elisabeth Daniel

Wednesday, Dec 13 2000
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Elisabeth Daniel belongs to the grand old San Francisco tradition of elegantly presented, nouveau riche excess that dates back to the opening of the Palace Hotel 130 years ago. The city has lived up to that dizzying standard of silver-boom opulence ever since, celebrating its periodic booms and busts with a succession of restaurants appropriate to the Metropolis of the Pacific Coast, the Wall Street of the West, the Most Pleasure-Loving City on the Western Continent, and, most recently, Dot-Com Central. The nicknames have faded -- the latter one doing so as we speak -- but the restaurants, or their descendants, live on. These aren't the venerable old Yugoslavian fish houses like Jack's, Sam's, and Tadich's; they aren't the dim sum joints, the family-style trattorias, or the California hotbeds of such star chefs as Waters, Tower, and company. They're places like Ernie's and the Blue Fox and La Bourgogne and Amelio's -- places with captains, maitre d's, and sommeliers, crystal, silver, and 12-pound menus, the sort of places at which you dine before the opera or the senior prom or on your 25th anniversary. The food is inevitably rich, succulent, and thoroughly Euro; the stipend, hefty indeed.

The tradition's new wave has produced a few stellar examples in the past year or so, Gary Danko and the Fifth Floor most prominently, with Elisabeth Daniel entering the scene this past summer. There are differences and similarities among the three that help define them. Like Gary Danko, Elisabeth Daniel lacks an interior aesthetic worthy of its lofty ambitions. (The Fifth Floor, on the other hand, may be the most attractive dining spot in the city.) Like the Fifth Floor, Elisabeth Daniel creates feathery delicacies that don't quite deliver the subtle potency that makes Gary Danko's cooking satisfying on both a gustatory and an ethereal level. But Elisabeth Daniel also lacks the precious self-satisfaction of, say, the French Laundry, another California temple to multiple courses and high living; its food, while not as celestial as the Yountville variety, is in certain substantial ways more gratifying to the belly.

Located among the brick-lined, pre-quake antiquities of the Jackson Square area, Elisabeth Daniel rests close to the one-time location of Ernie's (the exemplar of the species) and just a couple minutes' walk from San Francisco's foremost shrine to the martini, Bix, where we began our culinary tribute to the San Francisco high life. Drinks consumed, we strolled out onto Gold Street and down Montgomery to our destination, which is nestled into a quiet Washington Street cranny in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid. As noted, the interior is plain (but not unattractive), a bright expanse of blues and grays only occasionally highlighted by sconce and mirror. The 16 luxuriously appointed tables are looked after attentively by an impeccable staff of professionals, and after your first amuse-bouche (there are two of these free tidbit starters) you'll begin to feel like a vacationing movie star, or maybe William Randolph Hearst.

In this setting, chef Daniel Patterson and his partner and wife Elisabeth Ramsey (hence the name) serve six sublime courses of prix fixe delicacies over the course of a languid, pleasurable evening. The two honed their talents during five years at the sumptuous French restaurant Babette's up in Sonoma, then headed south when their lease ran out. Their new urban surroundings fit the elegant cuisine and service like a cashmere glove.

Each course offers three dishes to choose from, at least one of them vegetarian; all are presented like culinary crown jewels on striking chinaware or under gleaming porcelain domes in modest portions. The selections change with the seasons, and on the late-November evening of our visit the meal begins with a salad of roasted beets, fresh ginger, fried leeks, and fennel pollen (a new one on me); the earthy, subtle sweetness of the beets and ginger creates a marvelous foil for the crunchy, spiky leeks, and the suggestion of pungent fennel brings it all together. Another marvelous meal-opener is the bowl of sweet, barely briny oysters poached in a creamy beurre blanc and sprinkled with crunchy hits of osetra caviar. What's not to like?

The second course is the finest of the evening. The sweetbread ravioli is Patterson's signature dish and is the one item that's always on the menu. For cause: The pillowy pasta, which encloses a dreamy amalgam of sweetbreads and pâté, is submerged in an opulent sauce of white wine, butter, and black truffle, a combination at once complex and richly satisfying. Even better is the foie gras, an amazingly delicate rendition that dissolves sweetly, if too rapidly, on the tongue. It is served with a sweet yet tart cranberry coulis, bits of poached pear, and four slender slices of a creamy pâté de foie gras.

Patterson's couscous is the most wonderfully tender I've tasted -- it's rolled by hand, a time-consuming process -- but despite the presence of preserved-lemon jus, green olive oil, and a fine selection of al dente winter vegetables, the overall effect is bland. Another third-course option, the striped bass, is light, lovely, and fragrant with pearl onions and wild mushrooms, but after the first two courses it tastes a bit perfunctory (it is merely delicious).

The fourth-course items also pale next to their predecessors, although both are admirably executed. The roasted quail comes stuffed with a rather dense crepinette (a flat sausage) that's rescued from the rudimentary by the bird's slightly smoky flesh and its vibrant bed of baby turnips and black kale. And the seared venison chop, while impressively fork-tender, is smeared with an overwhelming and bitter chocolate/red wine sauce. The butternut squash purée underpinning it is a plush, autumnal dream, however.

Fortunately, the two dessert courses reaffirm the restaurant's high culinary credentials. Cheeses include an eye-opening Ubriaco served with a light frisée-almond salad and a subtly spiced red-wine jelly, and a pungent Valencay presented atop a cushion of sparkly upland cress. Course six features a rich, delicate custard touched with the flavors of orange and cardamom and drizzled with a lively prune-Armagnac compote and a sweet, sparkly broth of Comice pear essence served with dollops of huckleberry gelato and a feathery vanilla-bean yogurt. As if that weren't enough, the check arrives with a plate of tiny, beautifully crafted shortbread biscuits and chocolate and caramel candies.

Sommelier William Putman's wine list is surprisingly reasonable -- the markup, on the average, is only about double the vintages' wholesale value -- especially considering the list's boutique leanings and Gallic thrust. (A five-course wine-pairing program is available to accompany your meal if you'd like to taste an appropriate selection from the restaurant's cellar.) The list includes 14 wines by the glass and a couple dozen dessert wines.

You can also stop in for an elaborate three- or five-course meal at lunchtime, when a selection of the evening's seasonal specialties is offered for a lesser stipend, but this isn't the sort of place to dash in between business meetings, scarf some grub, and dash out again. Like the time-honored European model, it's a place to savor exemplary food with the lingering appreciation it deserves. Out on the edge of the continent we've been doing the same thing for over a century. After all, what finer method exists to celebrate the California Zephyr, or the new ballpark, or Christmastime in San Francisco?

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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