Town and Out

One exceptional meal is overshadowed by two subsequent setbacks

I'm thrilled when I walk into Town Hall, a little early for my dinner with David and Jeffrey, friends in town for a few days from New York. Everything about the place seems warm, welcoming, well-thought-out, from the tony little plaza out front to the golden light spilling out into the street. I was intrigued by the glimpses of multibulbed ceiling light fixtures I'd spied through the tall windows of the venerable old brick building at the corner of Howard and Fremont, as I easily found parking on a nighttime-deserted street.

Later I learn that the structure was built shortly after the 1906 earthquake, as the Marine Electrical Building, where ships' engines were built. There's still a faintly nautical, though glamorous, feeling to the long, lofty room: The pale walls, beaded wainscoting, and interesting mix of art (edgy modern paintings mixed with vaguely ancestral-looking portraits) somehow make me feel like I'm in New England. Maybe it's the exposed brick, or the stacks of old books behind the long sideboard where the hostess greets you. I perch at the bar and spy one of my favorite cocktails, the Sazerac, a bourbon-and-Herbsaint specialty of New Orleans, on the list. At Town Hall it's expertly made, not too sweet, and I bring it to the big communal table tucked into an alcove near the door when David and Jeffrey show up, also early. There's a corner free for us, but it's not long before we're led past the immaculate, gleaming stainless-steel open kitchen to a table under the windows.

I get a whiff of New Orleans from the menu, too, not overt but as understated as the New England feel of the décor. There's smoked chicken gumbo ya ya and peanut tasso-crusted pork chop and Herbsaint in the dressing for the spinach salad with cornmeal fried oysters. Though the requisite grilled chicken and grilled Niman rib-eye show up, the list also includes a number of interesting, less frequently seen dishes among nine starters and eight main courses. (Even the chicken has been temptingly tweaked with caramelized shallot mashed potatoes, banger sausage, and mustard herb jus, the steak with hash browns, creamed leeks, and brown butter garlic sauce.)

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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We start with a charcuterie platter, a warm frisée salad, and smoked salmon. All three are beautifully plated, with thoughtful extras. The good mortadella and rough salami on the platter are thickly cut, and they're joined by a chunky chopped liver and a crock of whole-grain mustard. The salad is flecked with bits of Smithfield ham instead of the expected bacon, and there's a touch of cider in its vinaigrette (I do wish the poached egg was warm instead of cold). The smoked salmon, drizzled with lemon oil, comes with a seductive avocado mousse.

I'm excited; this food seems urbane and assured as well as tasty. I'm even happier with our main courses. The two plump, moist roasted quail come with homey corn-bread stuffing, braised mustard greens, and (another New Orleans touch) a little heap of shrimp bordelaise -- a lovely contrast of flavor and texture. The soft flesh of the slow-roasted duck has taken on a chocolaty quality, perfectly sided with toothy toasted wild rice crunchy with pecans and chewy with dates, napped with a bit of mildly spiced gingersnap gravy. I'm only disappointed in the dry, juiceless pork chop under its savory peanut and tasso crust, but I blame today's pig, bred to be fatless, and still enjoy its sides of a celery root purée sweetened and lightened with apples, and buttered winter vegetables that include parsnips and carrots. We also get a "smashed fingerling potato gratin" that is one of the most delicious and richest versions of mashed potatoes I've ever had, and tiny sticks of jalapeño corn bread, served still hot in their own little baking mold.

Our luck holds with dessert, which continues what I see as Town Hall's signature cuisine: classics rethought, slightly refined, and carefully prepared. There's a warm pumpkin bread pudding, soft and custardy, with brandied buttermilk caramel, and a buttery warm pineapple upside-down cake a la mode. I'm most taken with the suave butterscotch and chocolate pot de crème, with a surprising layer of buttercrunch candy in its depths.

We've had an almost flawless meal. The only stumble comes with the check, presented slightly preciously in an old book, which mysteriously has an extra, unordered bottle of wine on it, swiftly removed by our server. I'm so pleased with our dinner -- Town Hall seems like the best new restaurant I've been to in some time -- that I immediately think of treating my parents to a meal there.

But I decide that it would be cruel to take them and not let my mother order the quail and my father the duck that I know would strike their fancy, and nudging them instead toward the chicken, steak, and seafood I haven't yet tried. The midday menu has some interesting things on it -- I note a dish of braised short ribs that seems right up my dad's alley -- so I content myself with inviting him to lunch when I call to urge them to check out the duck and quail for dinner on their own.

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.

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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