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City of Light 

The loveliness of Paris evoked in a Cal-Med restaurant-cum-wine bar

Wednesday, Apr 7 2004
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"I feel like we're in Paris," my father says happily as we settle into a window alcove in the front room of 1550 Hyde. "It feels echt San Francisco to me," I say, referring not only to the cable car line just outside, but also to the characteristic way both Hyde and California slope down (which is why cable cars climb halfway to the stars) and to the fog gently rolling in. "But I know what you mean."

What contributes to this Paris illusion is the wine-red velvet curtain hanging in the doorway (a witty allusion to the wine bar part of the restaurant as well as a cozy way to eliminate drafts), the creamy-white antique marble tabletops, the chic but casual arrangement of flowers on top of the small bar, and the presence of both sidewalk tables and strolling passers-by.

But the concise menu -- seven starters, eight mains -- is pure California, with a Mediterranean bent (allusions to Morocco, Tuscany, and France), and reflects the seasonal style de rigueur at chef Peter Erickson's former kitchens (including Bizou and Chez Panisse). (Partner Kent Liggett runs the house and is in charge of the ever-expanding wine list.) When I first dined at 1550, a month earlier, I was a trifle dismayed that the starters included four green salads (farm lettuces with fines herbes and Banyuls vinaigrette; arugula with Meyer lemon vinaigrette, pecorino, and almonds; watercress with cucumber, avocado, and walnuts with cumin vinaigrette; butterleaf lettuce with bacon, eggs, croutons, and mustard vinaigrette), which seemed unbalanced even if you wanted to demonstrate just how different salads can be. (Especially when one of the three other starters was also lettuce-based: grilled radicchio wrapped in prosciutto.) That night the best appetizer was the wild stinging nettle and ricotta gnocchi, plump quenelle-shaped dumplings colored a verdant springy green, floating in a golden pool of French butter (as the menu had it) and sprinkled with mild, crunchy pine nuts: light yet satisfying. Peter enjoyed his radicchio, served with a dab of silky basil aioli, but I found that the heat intensified the green's bitterness. Anita's watercress salad was very good, though we couldn't detect much cumin in the dressing, and I, as usual, wanted more avocado.

Tonight there are three salads and four other possibilities -- a simple shift that makes the list seem much more expansive and interesting. It's a family meal, with my parents, sister Marilyn, and nephew Michael, and we fall into the old family dynamic of gastronomic competitiveness: It's not only necessary that we enjoy all the dishes, but also that the one we each order must be our personal favorite among them. This works out quite satisfyingly with the appetizers: My father is convinced that his hearty ribolita, a Tuscan soup of white beans and bread (here enhanced with sweet tomato, black cabbage, and olive oil), is the best dish on the table, while Michael votes for his tender links and tendrils of Monterey Bay squid baked with Meyer lemon and fresh rosemary, on a bed of ruccola to add texture, with a final benediction of crunchy bread crumbs. My mother, who can rarely resist gnocchi, is enthralled with hers, a rerun of the dish I so enjoyed previously, while Marilyn can't stop praising the perfect balance of her simple arugula salad, sprinkled with a few toasted almonds and some shards of Pecorino Romano. I'm the only one who drops out of the competition, finding the prosciutto de Parma wrapped around my asparagus too chewy, too salty, and pretty much superfluous; I'd prefer just plain asparagus (and more of it) to enjoy with 1550's good aioli. Having tasted everybody else's choice, my two favorites are the squid and the ribolita, the latter so good that I suggest ordering a second bowl "for the table" (meaning, mainly, me).

But I'm ignored by the clan, which is too busy exclaiming with pleasure over the food (and this is a tough crowd) to worry about me. My family's contentment increases with the main courses. (As did mine at my earlier meal: I have a particularly rosy memory of the beef bourguignonne made with tasty Niman Ranch beef that Peter ordered, exactly what I would have done that chilly night if my reviewing creed didn't require me to let my guest choose first. It was a perfect, satisfying, textbook bourguignonne, the stew's dark sauce enriched with lardons of bacon, mushrooms, and soft, sweet pearl onions, the whole served over wide noodles.)

My father's big, beautiful Niman Ranch rib-eye barely leaves room on the plate for a heap of crisp frites, a garnish of watercress, and a slick of chimichurri sauce (sharp garlic and parsley minced with olive oil). Michael inhales his wide, house-made pappardelle, topped with a rich duck sugo and more of the good Pecorino Romano featured here. Marilyn finds her local halibut a bit overcooked, but she enjoys its sides of graffiti cauliflower (an unusual sweet-tasting purple varietal), red creamer potatoes, and bright-green salsa verde (we amuse ourselves by discussing just what flags the varicolored plate reminds us of, deciding it could serve as the farmers' market flag -- red, green, white, and purple). My mother, who first thought she wanted the risotto until I pointed out that it was, in fact, fried risotto cakes (she was attracted by its spring-y ingredients: yellowfoot chanterelles and green garlic), has chosen the Sonoma rabbit Modenese, the carefully cooked (i.e., not dried out, an easy thing to do with such a lean meat), disjointed beast in a sauce of aged balsamic vinegar, tomatoes, and rosemary, with sturdy cabbage, on a heap of good polenta.

I am being punished for my greediness: Mindful of losing the delicious beef bourguignonne to Peter, I had steered my mother away from the Willis Ranch pork shoulder braised in milk with garlic that appealed to me, and toward the rabbit. (Wonderful understatement: I tell her, "No, I'm having what I want, for once," because she's my mom and I know I can get away with it.) Although we all love the crisp spaetzle that comes with the shoulder, I'm not the only one underwhelmed by the two thin, grayish slices of pork on the plate. "I expected big, thick chunks," my mother says to me, maybe rubbing it in just a tiny bit. It tastes better than it looks, but it's by no means the lush dish I was anticipating. Despite its pedigree, I wouldn't have been surprised to get this meat in a cafeteria. But it's the only misstep in an otherwise lovely evening. Marilyn, who owns a small vineyard in Paso Robles, is impressed with the different-shaped wineglasses we get (the place has five different kinds of pricey crystal to complement its ever-evolving wine list).

The table is covered with the to-me-entirely-beautiful landscape of a meal in progress when Greil and Jenny, friends from across the bay, walk in with guests from North Carolina. (It turns out that Greil and Jenny's daughter Emily, who is part of the party, lives in 1550's Russian Hill neighborhood.) It's their first visit, and I hastily recommend the ribolita and the squid. They're led into the second room, another cozy storefront glowing with candlelight.

There are five desserts, including a cheese plate, and five of us, which makes ordering all too easy. Every one is good -- no, make that very good: a dark Scharffen Berger bittersweet chocolate pot de crème served with shortbread cookies, a slightly grainy polenta-almond cake with red-wine-poached pears and drifts of soft whipped cream, an unusual maple syrup tart with nicely sour crème fraîche (something like a pecan pie without the pecans), and the biggest surprise, a carrot cake that I actually find delicious (unlike most I try), made with Chantenais carrots and pine nuts under the classic cream cheese frosting. The fifth dessert is a superbly assorted, thoughtful cheese plate: a sheep's milk from Portugal called serra de la Estrella, Rogue Creamery blue from Oregon, the famous local goat cheese with a line of ash called Humboldt Fog, and a creamy washed-rind cheese from France, fromager des Clarines, which looks a trifle small compared to the other portions. I request a little more, which arrives, and we're happy, because it's a luscious, pungent, perfectly ripe cheese.

My family is regarding me fondly. We've had a delightful time, with lots of affectionate, relaxed talk, and not just about the very good food. A few days later I find that Greil had a similar experience, when he e-mails: "We had a really good time at 1550. ... We're eager to go back, and not just because it's so close to Emily's apartment. ... I liked the thin, varyingly shaped wineglasses. ... I experimented by ordering the cheapest red wine on the wine list -- it was so good we ordered a second bottle. Found the squid salad imaginative, with the rough greens, the rabbit fine (to find rabbit is always delightful ...). Our friends loved the place, and for some reason, and the restaurant has to have some of the credit, everyone came away (after two and a half hours) exhilarated by the depth and intimacy and fun of the conversations we'd been having." I couldn't have said it better myself.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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