California Dreaming

Hawthorne Lane

There's a subtle austerity in the air at Hawthorne Lane. A quiet, self-assured, practiced brand of elegance greets you in the tony courtyard and greets you again as you step through the door and behold deep, circular booths and an elliptical cherry wood bar polished so smooth the wood glides under your fingertips. Continue a bit farther, noting the light splashed onto tastefully restrained prints, the aquarium where live prawns dance through a gauze of luminous bubbles, the vases filled with parrot tulips and willowy forsythia spread as wide and fine and beautiful as an angel's wings. Here, jackets are appropriate (but not required) and corkage is $20.

In case you're wondering, Hawthorne Lane helped put South of Market on the national culinary radar and proved itself long, long ago. Between the years 2000 and 2001 it fell but one spot, to No. 8, on the Zagat Survey's list of the most popular Bay Area restaurants, having edged out owner David Gingrass' former employer, Postrio, but having been edged by Farallon and newcomer Gary Danko. Of course, a lot has happened in SOMA during that same 12 months (now that the word "Internet" has become a bit less palatable to the average investor), and perhaps even darker days lie ahead. Still, this is America: You can feel the expense accounts powering Hawthorne Lane, and that, friends, is unlikely to change.

The best thing I have to say about Hawthorne Lane is that, when the kitchen is on (which it almost always is), a discreet creativity and rigorous technique strike so cleanly that some dishes just about bring us to our knees. The worst thing I can say is that the experience left us slightly cold, which is a bit more difficult to explain. It's not that the place is without personality: For example, when I called to reserve a table (under an assumed last name), the reservationist engaged me in a friendly discussion about how true Gregs, like me, end their name with only one "g," while those other Greggs might as well be Craigs given their misspelling of an otherwise fine and noble moniker. Nor is the place immune to the occasional miscue: I began with an undeniably exquisite Citron Dragon (Absolut Citron, lemon juice, soda, and a kiss of Midori), while my friend Amy started with the worst kir we'd ever tasted. The use of cassis was a bit miserly, and the wine was warm and tasted flat, like something poured from a box. We shared this concern with our waitress, who explained that the wine was actually a fine chardonnay (albeit a warm one) before removing the offending libation.

Deep-pocket Food: Hawthorne Lane's tony courtyard leads to the elegant, austere dining room.
Deep-pocket Food: Hawthorne Lane's tony courtyard leads to the elegant, austere dining room.

Details

777-9779. Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner every night from 5:30 to 10 p.m. (10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: valet for $8, otherwise moderately difficult. Muni: 12, 76. Noise level: moderate.

Citron Dragon $7.50
Baked semolina gnocchi $12
Roasted beet carpaccio $15
House-smoked sturgeon $14
Pan-roasted salmon $25.50
Chinese-style roasted duck $26
Frozen mascarpone brûlée $7.50

22 Hawthorne (at Howard)

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Thankfully, that drink was the only true thud, and after perusing the predictably extensive wine list we came away with a Caymus Conundrum '99, a spicy, gorgeously complex blend of chardonnay, Sèmillon, viognier, and sauvignon blanc rendered pleasantly fruity via a dose of sweet muscat. Then came the bread, which put most other restaurants to shame. Sometimes you get one or two varieties, sometimes three, but it's been awhile since I received a full half-dozen -- and I wish it would happen more often. After all, how can a meal go wrong when it starts with chive biscuits that melt into a fine, rich powder, a dark, dense, chewy-crusted olive bread, whole wheat sourdough, whole wheat dinner rolls, whisper-light Staffordshire rolls (a pretzellike white roll topped with kosher salt), and shattering, sesame-dusted Parmesan crackers spiked with a dash of cayenne pepper? Perhaps it can't, and ours didn't: Executive Chef Bridget Batson is knocking out a carefully nuanced, occasionally cosmic brand of California fare that easily places Hawthorne Lane among the top restaurants in the (arguably) greatest food city on Earth.

The offerings seem to want to intrigue, to stimulate the intellect as well as the palate. As our waitress explained before we ordered it, our baked semolina gnocchi wouldn't be gnocchi in the traditional, dumplings-with-sauce sense of the word, but rather a single, lightly browned gnoccho set in a superbly delicate Parmesan broth laced with butternut squash, celery, fried sage, and bits of tomato. Nor was our beet carpaccio a classic carpaccio (normally raw beef); instead, it was paper-thin slices of roasted beet drizzled with white truffle--infused olive oil, then topped with edible violas, firm, savory Sottocenere cheese, lamb's lettuce, and shaved black truffles. Like the gnoccho, it was a sophisticated nosh -- clean, subtle, tinged ever so lightly with trufflistic electricity -- and it was presented as beautifully as a starlet on Oscar night. And, as with the gnoccho, though we adored it and found no flaws, somehow we weren't entirely seduced.

Meanwhile, the house-smoked sturgeon delivered exactly what we expected: rich, almost bacon-tasting sheets of pale, savory flesh set over potato pancakes dabbed with crème fraîche and tarragon, served with thin-sliced discs of baked pancetta and bits of chewy, sweet sun-dried tomato. That one transported us to the realm of all-encompassing deliciousness, while our two entrees fell just short of that same level. A thick medallion of pan-roasted salmon glimmered with hints of silky rawness, playing off a somewhat less exciting red curry sauce and a salad of ginger and crunchy green papaya laced with mint and basil, then wrapped in spongy coconut-milk crepes. The steamed green onion buns that came with our second entree were, as is customary in dim sum houses, a bit rubbery; unlike traditional dim sum, we found no tasty nubbin of pork inside, but rather a bundle of mizuma (a Japanese green). The result felt like an experiment that hadn't quite succeeded, while the main element of the plate -- Chinese-style roasted duck -- reached the apex of possible accomplishment. Its skin crackled on contact, giving way to a semimolten layer of fat and blessedly moist, savory meat that simply had to take a dip in a lightly sweet blood orange-licorice sauce.

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