Chard Into Memory

Food for when you're in danger of becoming a hopeless pessimist

Am I the only one who thinks this country needs a massive dose of ginkgo biloba? First we bomb the crap out of Iraq on the hunt for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Then we have a Senior Moment and suddenly we're bombing the crap out of Iraq for freedom and democracy. Now the Iraqis have had an election, and apparently half the United States feels really good that we bombed the crap out of Iraq and killed a hundred thousand people, because the cause (what was the cause again?) was, um, completely righteous, and because otherwise, the terrorists win. It reminds me of that joke about the girl who kills her parents and then throws herself on the mercy of the court because she's an orphan.

By now you're probably thinking that I should be calling QVC for those Mega Memory tapes because I've forgotten that I'm supposed to be writing about food, not politics. Keep your pants on. I'm getting to it.

My memory -- not to mention the duration of my grudges -- is long, you see. Over the years dishes have left their mark deep in my culinary soul, never to be erased or confused with Johnny-come-lately smoke-and-mirrors razzle-dazzle. I have not forgotten, nor shall I ever forget, my first taste of Redwood Hill Farm Bucheret cheese. I will, to the end of my days, recall my first roast chicken at Zuni Cafe. I still mourn the loss of the avgolemono soup at the late Stoyanof's and the transcendent creamed spinach from the long-gone Orchard-In. I admit I have sometimes sought solace in the arms of substitute dishes, only to end up singing the regretful Joe Jackson lament, "Won't you be my Number 2?" and parting ways.

But life is funny. Just when you're in danger of becoming a hopeless pessimist, along comes Barbara Boxer, or Swiss chard and Gruyère gratin at L'Osteria del Forno (519 Columbus, 982-1124).

For 14 years, two no-nonsense Italian ladies have kept this closet-size restaurant at the top of its game by turning out a few simple, consistently fabulous dishes -- all cooked, amazingly, in their brick oven. Their milk-braised pork roast is legendary in North Beach circles, as are their focaccine (sandwiches on focaccia), but it's the daily specials that have lured me back. Each day, the well-worn chalkboard announces a soup, an appetizer (such as heavenly asparagus wrapped in speck), a ravioli, a roast, and a baked gratin. Two weeks ago, this column would have been about their roasted cauliflower gratin. But then along came the Swiss chard -- and I knew that somewhere the angel of Orchard-In's creamed spinach was getting his wings.

It begins with the actual dish itself, a modest demicrock that is neither skimpy nor overwhelming, filled so the gratin rises in a perfect mound just above the rim. Large polka dots of brown bubbly Gruyère canvas the top, with small cuts of green chard leaf and white stem peeking out from beneath. A dig or two with your fork reveals a welcome surprise: glorious chunks of soft-baked egg woven into a creamy, cheesy white sauce and seasoned with just enough salt and pepper that you think about adding more, then decide against it. Best of all, the gratin is served with a small basket of golden, house-baked focaccia fingers -- perfect for sopping up the last bits of sauce at the bottom.

No, I will never forget the Orchard-In's spinach, but at least now I have hope ... hope that someday I'll find the avgolemono soup that will fill Stoyanof's empty bowl. And that's something. Without it, my friends, the terrorists win.

 
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