Town and Out

One exceptional meal is overshadowed by two subsequent setbacks

The room is bright and inviting; my dad agrees that it feels as if we're on the East Coast. "Would you think I was crazy," he says, when I ask him what he wants to eat, smug in my self-assurance that he'll choose the short ribs, "if I got the triple-decker sandwich?" "Well, yeah," I say, looking at its description: "Town Hall triple decker with pastrami, corned beef, and turkey." "This isn't a deli," I say. "Hell, this isn't a deli town. Are you fantasizing that they make their own corned beef and pastrami?" But I relent, because my philosophy is if it's on the menu, it's worth ordering. I compromise by asking him to split the wild mushroom lasagna, a main course, with me as a starter. And I get the muffuletta panini.

Today my "it's on the menu" philosophy proves disastrous. All three dishes are staggeringly disappointing, especially given the triumph of my first meal at Town Hall. The huge chunk of lasagna is a gloppy, gluey mess; inside it I find pale enoki mushrooms and one lone chewy chanterelle. We each take one bite and stop right there. My father's sandwich is boring, with dull meats that taste commercially prepared. My muffuletta is a travesty, which I should have known, because when I ask our waitress, "Why is it $10 with watercress salad, $13 with salami?," she tells me that the basic muffuletta is vegetarian, which would have them rolling in the aisles back in New Orleans. In the event, the clumsy combination of chopped olive salad, chunks of salami, and focaccia is a salt lick.

We're too dispirited to order dessert. The place seems oppressively noisy. And when the check comes back for my signature, it's morphed somehow from $60 or so to $285.44. "Nice try," I say lightly to the mortified waitress, who brings us a corrected check. I don't think my parents are going to have dinner here anytime soon.

Town Hall's décor feels like New England, 
but its menu has a whiff of New Orleans.
Anthony Pidgeon
Town Hall's décor feels like New England, but its menu has a whiff of New Orleans.

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Charcuterie plate $13

Smoked salmon $13

Roasted quail $19

Slow-roasted duck $21

Smashed potato gratin $4

Butterscotch and chocolate pot de crème $7

Pumpkin bread pudding $7

908-3900

Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner daily from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: difficult at lunch, easy at dinner

Muni: 10, 76

Noise level: high

342 Howard (at Fremont)

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Nor do I; I let a month go by before I return for dinner with my friend Jeremy, visiting from Baltimore. We're given a table for two, stuck somewhat unfortunately by the ramp that leads to a service area and the bathrooms, but with two advantages: It's a trifle quieter back there, and we're under an enthralling, huge artwork made of sewn-together old photographic visiting cards, a piece I hadn't appreciated when I was seated across the room. I feel a trifle cautious tonight, but I'm soothed by our excellent Sazeracs and good first courses of creamy parsnip soup and a rich dish of a poached egg on Smithfield ham cheese toast under floods of jalapeño cream. It feels as if I'm eating brunch, but I like it.

I'm tempted by a trio of rabbit (roasted loin, saddle wrapped in bacon, braised leg) with polenta and chanterelles that seems to have replaced the quail on the menu, but as I've yet to taste any seafood, I consult the waiter, who steers me away from the cioppino toward the halibut or the cedar-planked salmon. I choose the pan-roasted halibut, which comes woefully overcooked -- dry all the way through -- under a prettily golden crust, rendering its accouterments of cubed Brabant potatoes, haricot verts, and lemon pecan butter somewhat beside the point. Jeremy's rib-eye is, similarly, more medium than the medium rare requested, and entirely juiceless. The creamed leeks and rather indeterminate sauce (described as brown butter garlic, but elusive in flavor) quickly render its crispy potatoes less than crispy. I expect better for $26.

As we order our desserts ("San Francisco's best cup of hot chocolate," purportedly made from an absurd number of different chocolates -- I'm told "seven or eight" -- and a mixture of cream and milk, which proves rather thin in the cup, and a silly, dull assortment of cookie bars and a tiny homemade whoopie pie), I see a table for six near us being reset for two. I glance up as two tall, attractive men are led there: It's my friends Jeffrey and David! They're in the city on a quick trip, and they had to come back to the restaurant where we shared such a memorable dinner.

When the check arrives (happily, error-free), Jeremy and I make a quick exit.

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