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By Anna Roth
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By Alex Hochman
By Anna Roth
The plan was for my brother to meet me at a movie and then we'd have dinner after. I'd seen everything he wanted to see - Frida, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Talk to Her, Gangs of New York - and, though I was a little embarrassed at the considerably less classy nature of the choice I offered him - The Hunted or Tears of the Sun - he seemed remarkably amenable to either, considering that this was somewhat in the nature of a birthday celebration, and the birthday was his.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
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Grilled lamb skewers $6
Chestnut ravioli $12
Veal saltimbocca $15.50
Lamb sirloin $16.75
Open for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., and Sunday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Open for brunch Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Noise level: moderate to high
What I actually wanted to see was All the Real Girls, which had disappeared from its San Francisco screen with what seemed like lightning speed. (Yet another example of a film wildly hyped at Sundance that fails to find its audience. Or its audience, me in this instance, fails to find it.) It was still playing at an art house in Mill Valley, very convenient for my Sonoma County-based brother, but for the first time in my life I felt reluctant to cross a bridge, and it wasn't because of the extra five bucks it would add to the price of a movie ticket.
It was because at some vaguely indeterminate time on that afternoon (and there was some confusion in my mind as to exactly when, confusion that I was not particularly interested in clearing up), a cowboyish ultimatum ("48 hours to get the hell out of Dodge!") was due to expire. And I was pretty sure that bombs would be dropping soon after.
Though I've always been quite fond of bridges - looking at them from afar or looking far off while crossing them - it didn't seem like the day to add a couple of extra bridge trips into the equation. "It's OK. I like Tommy Lee Jones. I like Benicio Del Toro," my brother said when I apologized for my timidity.
The dull, Rambo-esque The Hunted, pitting a newly pacifistic one-time instructor in efficient killing against his all-too-talented ex-student, seemed all too appropriate for the day we were watching it. "It didn't have even one memorable line," I complained as we were leaving, "not even as good as Tommy Lee Jones' line in The Fugitive, when Harrison Ford tells him he's innocent, and Jones says, 'I don't care.'" "That was really about his delivery," my brother pointed out, as we sprinted toward his car in a sudden downpour.
After the movie, we had an hour to drive across town to the Last Supper Club, where the woman who'd taken my reservation had balked at my 7:15 request ("We don't do quarter-hours") but said they wouldn't give our table away for 15 minutes after the 7 o'clock she put down for us. It seemed like more than enough time, but as we got closer to our destination, it became clear that Something Was Going On, something that was creating a Weekend-like traffic jam, and we abandoned the car (well, we parked it first) and dashed the last half-dozen blocks to the place, getting there drenched but just under the wire.
We were shown to a tiny wooden deuce in the corner, where two walls of windows overlook Valencia and 23rd streets. A law has been passed that, when mentioning the Last Supper Club verbally or in print, an allusion must be made to the fact that, when the place was known as Radio Valencia, a firetruck drove through these very windows. This knowledge did nothing to improve my mood.
Nor did the information that the bombing I'd feared had indeed begun, about 45 minutes before we sat down. We dove into a soft, well-priced bottle of Valpolicella from a large and largely reasonable list, and overordered: starters of grilled lamb skewers with a salad of fennel and mint, a bowl of polenta with Taleggio, and chestnut ravioli with a pheasant ragu to share, followed by entrees of veal saltimbocca and grilled lamb sirloin.
My brother was surprised by my happy surprise with our first courses: I liked the creamy polenta dotted with pungent cheese and the fresh taste of the herb salad under the mildly gamy grilled meat. He was more critical, especially of the bland salad dressing, but "You don't understand," I said, "I'm already having a much better meal than I did the first time I came here." That meal was about six weeks earlier, when the place had been open a month or so. At that time I was more impressed with the gentle prices than with the (mostly forgettable) food: slightly lumpy fontina cheese fondue, undercooked orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage, dull grilled chicken with warm bread salad (seemingly inspired by the famous Zuni combination, but not inspired enough). And I had been puzzled by the tiny tables, as well as by the rationale behind the place's name: Depending on where you put the stress on the phrase, it could reference a "supper club" (not by the evidence of the décor, nor the lack of entertainment), da Vinci (there's a big church sign across the way), or the meal a condemned man gets to order before he's executed.
Given our mood and the ever-increasing phalanxes of motorcycle cops that swept by our corner - first 10, then 20, then too many to count - it felt like we were sharing the last supper before the Apocalypse. It was a nice, warm place to have it in, too: every table full, with people crowding in around the bar and by the door, awaiting their crack at the Italianate menu. There was a feeling of determined gaiety in the air, reminiscent of London during the Blitz, even though the bombs that were dropping were nowhere near us. I admired the assortment of antique light fixtures above us as we enjoyed the very tasty, very tender chestnut ravioli, which didn't really need its carefully prepared sauce of minuscule diced vegetables and soft shredded pheasant.
That was the high point of our meal. The saltimbocca, though prettily impressed with curls of prosciutto and sage leaves, tasted rawly of the flour in which it had been dredged. Every component of my plate - nicely rare lamb sirloin, olive-fig tapenade, undercooked white beans, and braised spring greens - had been separately salted, so that the combination became, inadvertently, a salt lick. We lingered over dessert, but espresso over ice cream is, well, espresso over ice cream, and I like my zabaglione served warm and thick and redolent of Marsala, not cold, thin, and weak. "Jeez," I said to my brother, "a bad movie, a mediocre meal, and war breaks out!"
I think this was my last supper at the Last Supper Club, but it's wildly popular already (the main complaint I've heard from its fans is that you have to wait even when you have reservations), so I don't think I'll be missed.
The next day I wake up to "WAR" in type that fills half a newspaper front page - and two war-related phone calls. My goddaughter Anna, a freshman at Berkeley, has just been arrested for sitting in at Sproul Plaza. (She's upset: The arrests were sexist, she says, as the girls were only cited for obstruction, while the boys also got resisting arrest, "and I was resisting just as much as they were!") Meanwhile, my friend Jack wants me to find another place for our dinner tonight, not where I've booked (unhappily close to Civic Center), but somewhere within walking distance of his office, because protesters have shut down streets all over the city.
I choose Fringale, and not just because it's a couple of blocks away from where he works, but because in this ridiculous day of Freedom Fries (shades of Liberty Cabbage, once - and again - sauerkraut), I'm perfectly happy to throw a little business at the French.
I emerge from BART to find Market Street, yes, shut down, full of people, cops, and news trucks, with hastily printed signs apologizing for the sudden closure of Old Navy, the UCSF bookstore, the UCSF downtown campus, everything. As I walk down Fourth Street, a pair of excited young girls, one with her lower face obscured by a bandanna - half yashmak, half Jesse James - excitedly ask, "Where is the Bay Bridge?" "You're headed in the right direction," I say, as I amble along under buzzing helicopters.
Assembled at the base of the freeway exit on Fourth and Bryant is the largest number of motorcycle cops I've seen since, well, yesterday. They're quite solicitous of me as I pick my way through them ("Be careful!").
Across the street in front of the Hotel Utah, helpful onlookers Brian and Christine tell me that half a dozen or so bicyclists rode up the onramp in a vain attempt to close the bridge, and this is the impressive response.
It quickly becomes apparent that this is not a night when we're eating for pleasure: Jack and I search the menu for food that will offer the least resistance. We're really not hungry. When Jack chooses steamed salmon (steamed salmon!), and I order two cold appetizers instead of confronting pork tenderloin confit or rack of lamb or even roasted quail stuffed with apple and rice in foie gras sauce (which right now sounds marvelous), I realize we don't even have the strength to chew.
Awe, shocks. I'll return to Fringale in peacetime.
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