By Molly Gore
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Lou Bustamante
By Pete Kane
By Ashley Goldsmith
By Pete Kane
By John Birdsall
I didn't hit town quite like the confused character played by Frank Sinatra in On the Town, who gets into Betty Garrett's taxi and asks her to take him to see the Hippodrome, the Floradora Girls, and "the city's highest spot, the Woolworth Tower." Garrett replies that the Hippodrome was torn down a dozen years ago, the Floradora Girls folded up 40 years ago, and there's this new building called the Empire State. (Besides, where she really wants to take him is her place. Which is why the song is called "Come Up to My Place.")
So I didn't try to visit the vanished Dine (though I look forward to tasting Julia McClaskey's signature pot roast at Julia) or JohnFrank (now Home) or Carta (now Paisley's). (Or Ernie's or the Blue Fox, for that matter.) But when Cathy and Jay and I walked past Gordon's House of Fine Eats on the way to our car after a disappointing dinner at a nearby restaurant, I couldn't resist stopping in and checking it out. I'd already read that chef Gordon Drysdale was leaving his namesake restaurant, but the future of the place hadn't yet been announced. And after I looked at the winter menu I was seduced. It had been a while since I'd seen such an immediately appealing spread: Despite the fact that I'd just had a meal (or maybe because), things that I wanted to eat -- crispy artichoke fritters, a rustic tart of beets and cheese, cornflake fried chicken, barbecued short ribs, mmm, a French butter pear pizza with sweet garlic, local Camembert, and thyme -- leapt out at me. Cathy, who'd eaten there a number of times, pointed out her favorite dish: warm Brussels sprouts salad with bacon, egg, and onion. We made a reservation for a few days hence.
I took a menu home with me; further perusal revealed that I wanted to try virtually everything listed. Cathy and Jay had to reschedule, so it was Adam, Janice, and Chester who accompanied me to dinner. Adam had dined there alone, at the height of the dot-com epoch, when the restaurant's Media Gulch location often sported lines out the door. In those days the menu was divided into five sections ("healthful," "comfort," "local favorites," "luxury," and "international"); like several other S.F. places, Gordon's simplified its menu (into two sections, "downhome" and "uptown") and reduced its prices in 2002. Except for four main courses (of a dozen) and one starter, everything cost under $13.75.
Oakland, CA 94607
Region: Jack London Square
Smoked chicken and vegetable barley soup $6.50/lunch, $6.75/dinner
Portobello mushroom sandwich $7.95
Achiote roasted half-chicken $15.75
Grilled pork tenderloin $15.50
Prime flat-iron steak $17.95
Panna cotta $5.95
Restaurant open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner Monday through Wednesday from 5 to 8 p.m. (last reservation) and Thursday and Friday from 5 to 9 p.m. (last reservation)
Bar open for snacks Monday through Friday from 3 to 5 p.m.
Closed Saturday and Sunday
Reservations accepted for parties of two or more
Parking: Verbena validates after 5 for the City Center Garage at 11th and Clay streets, easy at other times
Noise level: moderate
We had what I considered an astonishingly good meal. The appetizers ranged from very good (a wedge of iceberg lettuce with creamy blue cheese, the "straightforward" pepperoni pizza on an excellent chewy crust, steamed mussels in a tangy broth) to very very good indeed (a potato and leek soup dusted with aromatic grated black truffles, that delicious and original Brussels sprouts salad). And the main courses were even better: tender barbecued short ribs with meat slipping right off the bones, plus creamy mashed potatoes and a sharply dressed coleslaw; satisfying fried chicken with a perfect flaky biscuit anointed with honey butter (so good I was tempted to request a second for dessert); a special of silky pork osso buco; and my plate of lamb two ways, little grilled rib chops and a lovely chunk of braised lamb shank, excitingly paired with crispy eggplant and a relish of cucumbers in yogurt.
But during this delicious orgy we learned, from a neighborhood couple sitting next to us and tucking in to salmon and a big, beautiful steak, that Gordon's was going to close on the 18th of January.
I found this news so depressing that it was all I could do to finish my fair share of the heap of half a dozen freshly made doughnuts (including a huge funnel cake and little star-shaped bitter orange doughnuts) we ordered for dessert. We also got a passion fruit meringue tart that was so much better in every way than the sad, thick-crusted, ersatz key lime tart my mother had ordered at lunch that day that I felt obliged to drive the remaining third of it to her afterward, just so she could enjoy its delicate crust, sharp, sweet, citrusy filling, and exquisite meringue.
When I reported on the meal and Gordon's imminent closing to Cathy, she reminded me that months before we had had a light lunch at downtown Oakland's Verbena, which acknowledged Gordon's as its inspiration when it opened back in late 2001. (I remembered how sad she was that day to find that they offered the signature Brussels sprouts salad only at dinner.) Both places are part of the Real Restaurants group of more than a dozen establishments, including such eateries as the Fog City Diner, Bix, and Tra Vigne.
So I suggested Verbena as the site for an upcoming big family dinner, when my father couldn't get a reservation at two of his East Bay favorites, Citron and Jojo's. Verbena is on the ground floor of an office skyscraper, in an area of Oakland that's rather cheerless and deserted at night, but several other parties had managed to find their way there that evening. My rather demanding companions were more than pleasantly surprised by our meal: General acclaim was heard for the faintly sweet cauliflower soup perked up by its truffled croutons, the crispy fried calamari served with a spicy roasted-pepper romesco sauce, and the beautifully trimmed House of Fine Eats-style artichoke fritters with tart lemon aioli. I thought that the crepe wrapped around the rich, house-made duck confit was way too thick, but its orderer was well pleased. And the Brussels sprouts salad, with caramelized onion, nice little lardons of smoky bacon, and still-warm chunks of hard-boiled egg mixed with the pulled-apart tiny cabbages, was the hit of the table.