The Country at Steak

Meat therapy at the best little steakhouse in San Francisco

After a lingering look back over some of the highlights of what I've eaten in 2004, I am lost in admiration for my colleague, Jonathan Kauffman of the East Bay Express, who writes an annual paean to his 10 favorite dishes of the past year (which I often see magneted on the refrigerator of friends in both San Francisco and the East Bay). I don't know how he refines his list so well; I try to be rigorous and end up with, oh, 40 dishes that I would urge people to try. (And that's being slightly conservative.)

Meals at Aqua (shellfish consommé, foie gras tasting, lobster pot pie), Tartare (tuna foie gras melt, creamed corn with habaneros, pistachio soufflé), and Frisson (bone marrow with caviar, cornmeal-crusted foie gras, corn-brioche pudding with truffle oil) could nearly fill out the top 10 on their own. (It seems I like foie gras. And corn.)

I have a demented fantasy of leading hungry hordes on an impossible progressive meal, starting with a comparison of different styles of clam chowder at the Hog Island Oyster Co. and Swan Oyster Depot, with a side of Kokkari's crunchy fried smelts and garlicky tzatziki, pausing for Mijita's albondigas soup, continuing on to the polenta soufflé and pao di queijo (Brazilian cheese biscuits) at Mangarosa, followed by A16's squash sformato and braised dandelion greens with tuna conserva, razor clams, potatoes, and cauliflower; 1550 Hyde's stinging nettle and ricotta gnocchi; Quince's impossibly delicate tajarin pasta, shining with butter; and the Slanted Door's cellophane noodles with Dungeness crab. Then we'd move on to "main courses" of China Village's Sichuan-style boiled beef and cabbage, Cortez's lamb crusted with dates and mint, Town Hall's roasted duck with wild rice and gingersnap gravy, Mi Lindo Yucatan's cochinita pibil and frijol con puerco, 500 Jackson's fried seafood platter with a tartar sauce heady with fresh dill, the kalua pig from Tita's Hale'aina, Café Maritime's salmon and mussels in tangerine vinaigrette, Emporio Rulli's quail in chickpea purée, DAIMO's steamed lobster with sticky rice, Bocadillos' fried pig's trotter patty, Oz's tuna carpaccio with spicy sauce, with sides of the Helmand's kaddo (pumpkin with yogurt sauce) and gulpea (sautéed cauliflower), Greens' cheese-and-chilied potato cakes, and Lime's Brussels sprouts with garlic and bacon. For dessert, the Slanted Door's Thai basil panna cotta in mango soup and tiny, soft, sweet mung bean dumplings in a strong hot ginger broth, and the rich, gooey ice cream and noodle confection called falooda from Bombay Ice Cream and Chaat, washed down with sips of Cortez's homemade milky vanilla liqueur. And me standing over the diners like a mad Mary Poppins, making sure they taste everything, crooning, "Isn't that good?"

Meat Me: C&L's subdued décor doesn't 
require much attention, but its tricky menus 
do.
Anthony Pidgeon
Meat Me: C&L's subdued décor doesn't require much attention, but its tricky menus do.

Details

Popovers $4

Fillet in sourdough $30

Sirloin with béarnaise $30

Pommes frites $4

Twice-baked potatoes $4

Creamed spinach $4

Bananas Foster $8

771-5400

Open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. Closed Monday.

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: valet, $8

Muni: 1, 27

Noise level: low to moderate

1250 Jones (at Clay)

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I love all this rich and exotic food. But when I think about everything I've consumed in the past year, a familiar sensation comes over me: I want a steak. I need a steak -- a simple, chewy, fibrous, juicy hunk of meat, with that unmistakable, slightly mineral tang of really good beef. I want a great classic steakhouse meal: a slab of meat, charred rare, with a baked potato and creamed spinach, washed down with a big red wine.

This meal is not as easy to come by as I wish. San Francisco, oddly, is not a great steakhouse town, unlike so many other American cities (I'm thinking of New York, Chicago, Kansas City, even Los Angeles).

But recently a new steakhouse has opened, called C&L -- the C for Charles Condy (the Charles of Charles Nob Hill, the restaurant he formerly ran in the same space) and the L for Laurent Manrique (Condy's chef and colleague at Aqua). The restaurant is a somewhat eccentric layout of three small rooms on the ground floor of a '20s-era apartment house called the Clay-Jones, with a beautiful little art deco lobby. My parents and I are led to the third room, my favorite of the three (the front one seems somewhat cramped; the middle one's tables share the space with a bar), and tucked into a snug, dark-wood table in a corner banquette. The subdued décor (dark paneling below ocher-painted, rust-stenciled walls hung with discreet prints) doesn't require much attention, which is good, because the rather tricky menus do. "Inspired by Charles Condy and Laurent Manrique's travels ... [it] pays culinary tribute to cities throughout the U.S.," the carte states, which means that there are five courses (starter, steak, side dish, vegetable, and dessert), each suggested by eight cities (San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, New Orleans, Seattle, Chicago, Miami, Denver). For example, Miami, which I've never really thought of as a steakhouse town, offers a grilled Cuban sandwich napoleon; an achiote-marinated flank steak wrapped in a banana leaf with pineapple relish; yucca fries; baby bananas; and Key lime pie. You can mix and match among cities as you please, and, as each course is priced separately, you can eat as many or as few as you choose.

We begin, however, with a dish not ascribed to any city in particular -- popovers, two big, shiny, airy beauties, with the unconventional accompaniments of one strip of perfectly fried bacon for each of us and a little bowl of what the waiter calls a "tartare sauce Gribiche." (What makes it a Gribiche, apparently, is that it's full of chopped hard-boiled egg. Anyway, it's luscious.)

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