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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.
San Francisco, CA 94109
Beef bourguignonne $17
Grilled rib-eye $28
Carrot cake $6.50
Cheese $5 each, $18 for four
Open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m., and Sunday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Monday.
Parking: difficult on street; parking lot at corner of Polk and Pacific, two blocks away
Muni: 12, 19
Noise level: moderate
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.
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