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The Country at Steak 

Meat therapy at the best little steakhouse in San Francisco

Wednesday, Dec 29 2004
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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?"

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.)

We're still working on the popovers when C&L's bread tray arrives -- sourdough, spice-dusted flatbread, and lovely tender corn bread, with containers of garlicky herb butter, barbecue butter, and quince jam -- followed by our starters: a mixed green salad surrounded by marble-size Dungeness crab cakes and mussels in a "cioppino" vinaigrette, which includes the tiniest, most perfect dice of tomato I've ever seen, provenance San Francisco; New Orleans' crayfish salad; and the aforementioned Cuban napoleon. My mother loves her baby crab cakes; I think the subtle flavor of the crayfish is overwhelmed by its rémoulade sauce and the bitter radicchio leaves that cradle them. I am also somewhat underwhelmed by the grilled Cuban sandwich wedges (I'm not sure why they call it a napoleon, because it appears to be a small version of the classic pork-and-ham medianoche), which is accompanied by a terrific marinated pepper salad. It just doesn't seem like an appetizer to me, especially when you're going to follow it with a 10-ounce steak. (My father wisely has two of the four wedges wrapped up to go.)

Of the eight steaks on offer, four are sirloins, one is a fillet, one is a flank steak, one a rib-eye, and there's a seared ahi tuna steak (Seattle!) for noncarnivores who are willing to watch as others devour their meat. And I do mean devour: One bite for each of us of our respective steaks, and we are in meat heaven. I don't remember when my mother has last enjoyed a piece of meat so much. "It tastes like steak used to taste, but doesn't anymore," she says of her beautifully pan-roasted sirloin with a perfect, but almost superfluous, béarnaise sauce that tastes just like what it is -- egg yolks, butter, and tarragon. We are all in love with this meat, from Painted Hills Natural Beef in Fossil, Ore. When my mother shares her pleasure with our waiter, he tells us that a representative of Painted Hills did a presentation for the staff saying that true cornfed beef like theirs is harder and harder to find, and that many cows are fed on a diet of beet mash and other root mash, which is tasteless and watery, resulting in flat-tasting meat.

My father's Denver rib-eye, mildly spicy from a coffee dry rub, comes with bull's-eye toast with a miniature fried egg and a pitcher of campfire bean sauce. My San Francisco petite fillet (6 ounces) is tucked into a hollowed-out slice of sourdough that is pleasingly imbued with the meat's juices, and arrives with an (again nearly superfluous) pitcher of fresh herb vinaigrette. (My only quibble with the affable, knowledgeable service comes when we have to stop a peevish server from dumping the sauces all over our meat.) This fillet is silkily tender and unusually full-flavored. It's hitting me right where my meat hunger lives, and doing me a lot of good.

We scarcely need the sides we've ordered, but they're all flawless: a cone of thin herb-dusted pommes frites with a black pepper mayonnaise, "mini" twice-baked potatoes rich with crème fraîche, grilled baby bok choy in a garlic vinaigrette, and the softest creamed spinach imaginable, with a whiff of nutmeg and a sprinkling of Parmesan. I am much more impressed with these dishes than our starters, and suggest that, for the second meal here we are already plotting, we skip first courses in favor of more vegetables. "But we didn't try the oyster pie," my mom objects. I am, however, intrigued, if not inflamed, by the thought of cheddar grits with Vidalia onion bouillon, a sweet potato gratin with ginger and pecan praline, glazed carrots in lemon cream, and a wild mushroom fricassee with sage and brown butter. (Once again I think that a steakhouse is the best place to take a vegetarian.)

Chef Peter Zoole is determined to kill us with pleasure. Even though we wrap up almost half of each of our steaks, our capacities are not equal to the task. When our waiter delivers the two desserts we have restricted ourselves to -- bananas Foster and Key lime pie -- he asks if he can bring us anything else, and I say, defeated, "A larger appetite?" I manage one puffy beignet and a taste of the excellent house-made vanilla and banana ice creams and rum caramel sauce that comprise the New Orleans sweet, and a bite of the superb Key lime pie, for once made with real, fragrant Key limes.

C&L is not cheap: A full five-course feast runs $54 per person, and supplements for larger steaks (a 10-ounce fillet, 16-ounce sirloin, or 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye) are $10 to $15. (And the wine list is pricey as hell.) But in truth those are gentle-for-steakhouse prices, especially in a place that delivers such superb meat, such succulent sides. I could eat here again, tomorrow.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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