By Molly Gore
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Lou Bustamante
By Pete Kane
By Ashley Goldsmith
By Pete Kane
By John Birdsall
When a mutual acquaintance suggested at the last minute that I might like to meet with Amanda Hesser during her already-crowded book tour swing through San Francisco promoting Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover's Courtship, With Recipes (W.W. Norton, $23.95), I had only two thoughts, in quick succession: "Yes!," because I am a huge fan of her work, and "Where should we eat?" A full-scale lunch or dinner was out of the question (Hesser's meals had long been booked with family and friends), but there was time for a quick bite before her reading on Monday at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books.
My first thought was Zuni, because a few crisp, salty oysters are always welcome, but Zuni is inconveniently closed on Monday. My second choice, Jardinière, a dinner-only place (inconvenient when I selfishly wish it was open for lunch or wonder what sort of food Traci Des Jardins would offer for brunch), opens at 5, so that's when I booked us a table.
But then I remembered that I hadn't eaten at Jardinière since last July (a singularly memorable meal, featuring foie gras two ways, sweetbreads, beef cheeks with truffled risotto, and freshly made doughnuts sided with a compote of cherries and peaches), and that there was a new chef de cuisine, Robbie Lewis, listed on the menu. I called and made a reservation for my father and me on Saturday. Jardinière is breathtakingly convenient for the opera and the symphony, both a block away, and the only time available on short notice for a Saturday night was 9 p.m. The place was buzzing, upstairs and down. I was tempted by everything on the two-page menu, one devoted to the evening's specials, and the other featuring the dishes of the season (which also evolve over time according to what's available and the mood of the chef). My father was more decisive: He wanted duck liver mousse, followed by a rib-eye steak, medium rare. After much waffling (cream of potato and green garlic soup with watercress purée? Le Puy lentil and smoked bacon soup with watercress purée? duck breast with Pixie tangerines, roasted turnips, and Savoy spinach?), I chose duck confit to start, followed by king salmon with morels, asparagus, ramps, and crème fraîche, and snuck in a second course of potato gnocchi with braised rabbit, nettles, and Parmesan to share.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin
Duck confit $15
Salad of radish, fennel, and fava beans $14
Meyer Ranch rib-eye $35
King salmon with ramps $30
Cheese plate $12
Whiskey flight $14
Open for dinner Sunday through Wednesday from 5 to 10:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 5 to 11:30 p.m.
Parking: valet $10, otherwise difficult
Noise level: moderate
It was another miraculous meal. When my father chose the duck liver mousse, I had said, "Really? You can have the foie gras terrine -- or the seared foie gras," which sounded amazing, with its caramelized rhubarb and gingered baklava accompaniments. But he stood firm, and I was glad he had: We polished off the seriously suave mousse, so smooth and chilly that it crackled as it melted on the tongue, and every caper berry and tiny olive and house-made pickle, until there wasn't even a suspicion of the dish left (well, just a few olive stones and caper stems). I had never had duck confit with candied kumquats, Medjool dates, and pistachios before, and it was a genius combination: the rich, melting duck braced by the snap of the citrus (itself altered by its sugary crust), the faintly musky dates, the salty, crunchy nuts. The gnocchi, while perfect in texture, seemed less well served by its faintly bitter nettles and mild rabbit, though my dad felt that it suffered slightly only in relation to the superb starters.
I had ordered the salmon mostly because I'd read a piece about ramps that made me remember their seductive slipperiness, their faintly rank combination of onion and garlic, their brief appearance in the spring; and indeed they are lovely to eat, alone or with the oily pink fish and the meaty mushrooms. The thick chunks of red-and-black steak, sided with creamed morels, asparagus, and nicely chunky crushed (not mashed!) potatoes anointed with chives, delighted my father: "This is the best meal I've had with you so far." "Dad!" I cried. "You've said that at least twice recently." But he stuck to his guns, especially after a cheese plate that featured several varieties we'd never had before, including Abbaye de Belloc, a raw sheep's milk cheese from France; Bingham Hill blue from Colorado; and a perfectly ripened triple-cream cow's milk cheese, Mt. Tam, from Point Reyes' own Cowgirl Creamery.
"Yes," I thought, "it would be good enough for Amanda." As I wait for her outside the restaurant, I am surprised to notice for the first time a block of ancient carved stone inset above the entrance that reads "Entrez au Jardin." How perfect a greeting for a writer whose first book, The Cook and the Gardener: A Year of Recipes and Writings From the French Countryside (W.W. Norton, $32.50), had recounted her relationship with Monsieur Milbert, who tilled the kitchen garden of the château in Burgundy where she cooked for a year.
But I'd read the book some time after its initial publication in 1999. I'd picked it up because I was so dazzled by the palate demonstrated in Hesser's columns for the New York Times, and the thoughtful, thorough, intelligent way she dissected taste and texture. I cite one tiny example, from May 2000, about grains of paradise, a kind of peppery spice: "I had no idea what to do with the tiny round grains, brown as nutmeg. ... I put a few between my teeth and crunched. They cracked like coriander, releasing a billowing aroma, and then a slowly intensifying heat, like pepper. The taste changed by the second. The heat lingered. But the spice was pleasantly tempered, ripe with flavors reminiscent of jasmine, hazelnut, butter and citrus, and with the kind of oiliness you get from nuts." Whoa! (It's no wonder that grains of paradise show up in one of the first recipes in the book, a dish of green beans with walnut oil, though they're described in less lyrical -- yet still seductive -- words: "The small seeds have a heat that resembles that of black pepper, but with a little nuttiness and a hint of citrus.")