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Secret Garden 

Intriguing Italian food in a delightful setting tucked away in a mysterious hidden courtyard

Wednesday, Mar 9 2005
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Carl, one of my favorite gastronomes, is back in town, and it's clear when he phones to set up a dinner date that he's in an Italian mood: "Have you already written about Quince? Or Incanto?" Yes, I say, and they're two of my favorite places; he's setting a high bar. But a few days before Carl's call, Peter had reported on a restaurant he'd visited with Anita and her Aunt Yvonne. The three of them have been eating their way around San Francisco for years in a happy familial ritual, never dining in the same spot twice. Sometimes Peter asks me for an idea for their excursions; often I get a pithy next-day account of the meal. They'd eaten, he told me, at Sociale, a little Italian place, and been charmed by it: "We loved the mushroom lasagna," he said, "and the gnocchi."

When I call to make a reservation, I'm told that the only space available for that night is outside in the courtyard, under the heat lamps. When I hesitate, the reservationist says, cheerily, that on Valentine's Day, "when it poured, we served 50 people out there." (I refrain from saying that on Valentine's Day, when I wouldn't be caught dead in a restaurant, beggars can't be choosers.) But I bite. He also mentions that the place can't be seen from the street: "It's down sort of a little alley, in the middle of the block."

This end of Sacramento, in an area I've heard called Presidio Heights, feels intimate and livable, in a Jane Jacobs/ mixed-use way; it's lined with one- and two-story buildings, a blend of posh retail and modest-looking (but no longer modestly priced) dwellings. When I walk down the narrow, slanted lane at 3665, I'm a little uneasy: The tiny shops on either side seem a bit shabby and jerry-built. There's a burst of harsh white light from a hairdressing salon; inside they're still hard at work.

But when I finish my journey of a few steps, I feel like I've left San Francisco behind. Sociale appears like Grandmother's cottage in the woods, spilling warm golden light from its welcoming doors and windows, with neatly arrayed, white-linened tables set out under the trees in a flowered courtyard. Carl is already there, sitting inside at the tiny bar tucked in a corner, nursing a glass of Vermintino. We're led outside to our table, under a red-and-white-striped awning that seems to be holding its own against the elements. It's not pouring tonight, but there is a steady light rain, resulting in a carefully engineered runoff from the awning into the planted border next to us, which sounds almost like a babbling brook, adding to the feeling that we're somewhere else. Carl gets a couple of drips, so we move the table an inch or so, a bit tricky on the bricks.

We're handed a two-page menu of starters, headed Cominciare (helpfully translated as "to commence"), pastas (Continuare, "to continue"), main courses (Concentrare, "to concentrate"), and side dishes and beverages (Complimentare, "to complement"), but before we spend much time studying it, we glance at the separate narrow sheet titled Febbraio Tasting Menu. We're both immediately taken by the fact that it's four courses, with two choices for each, and only $35 -- which seems even more amazing when I note that starters on the regular menu run from $5.50 to $10, pastas from $12 to $18, and main courses from $16 to $24. With only a brief, wistful glance at the alluring pancetta-wrapped quince and crab pastina ("Dungeness crab with acini di pepe pasta, fava beans and cauliflower in a tomato broth") I might have ordered, we both decide to try the tasting menu.

We tell the server that we'll try one of everything, and order a bottle of Acorn Dolcetto from the Russian River Valley, a soft, fruity red that I figure will go with every dish. We start with an impeccable asparagus salad, the carefully cooked spears on a bed of mâche tossed with a light truffle-oil vinaigrette (which could have used a drop or two more of truffle oil to set off the asparagus' mild earthiness), and a lovely salad that Sociale chooses to call Gorgonzola Caesar, though as soon as I see that candied walnuts and currants are in the ingredient list, I wonder why the restaurant feels obliged to mention Caesar. It's a wonderful salad anyway, with chopped romaine and radicchio set off by the crunchy nuts, chewy berries, and creamy cheese, in a sharp dressing.

The clever server has so entered into the spirit of our little feast that she splits up the next course, a choice of oysters or pasta, so we are now having a five-course meal. First she brings the oysters, two plump Blue Points dressed with a few beads of American sturgeon caviar and a whisper of shallot mignonette, neither of which obscures the essential tang of the shellfish. Then we share the house-made pasta, called sausage casonsei, homey, raviolilike crescents firmly stuffed with sausage in a mild sauce of puréed red bell peppers. I could eat several more of them.

When the main course arrives, I see why Sociale can charge $35 for its prix fixe: The grilled New York steak and (especially) the tiny piece of pan-seared Arctic char balanced atop a tower of lentils on shiitake and zucchini salad are almost dollhouse-size. The fish is beautifully cooked, with flaky flesh under its crisp skin, and after I taste its lentils and salad in a garlicky vinaigrette, I trade my sides for Carl's big square of potato and goat cheese torta and shredded red cabbage -- he's not a cheese guy. I like the steak's texture and taste, but, especially at that size, it should have been better trimmed: Fat adds flavor, but gristle is, well, gristly.

The fruit in the rhubarb upside-down cake oddly has none of the tartness I expect; the prevailing impression is of white chocolate, since the delicate cake comes with both white chocolate sauce and white chocolate gelato. It's pleasant enough, but I'm in love with the sfingi, freshly made beignetlike pastries drizzled with honey, sprinkled with chopped roasted pistachios, and served with a ball of vanilla gelato, a sweet finish to a charming meal. "I give it a solid B," Carl says, surprising me, because I don't like letter grades (or stars); every experience is different, and I've had a delightful evening.

When I call to thank Peter for the tip, we arrange to have dinner there ourselves. This time there's room inside, and Peter, Anita, and I are led to a table along the banquette, right next to the window overlooking the patio. I love the upholstery fabric, winsome little circus dogs balancing on balls embroidered on silky red-and-white stripes; it's such a whimsical choice that it reminds me of other signature restaurants' animal décor -- the zebras prancing on the bright red walls of Gino of Capri on New York's Upper East Side, the monkey wallpaper of the Monkey Bar in the Hotel Elysée in Midtown. Above the banquettes the walls are a pale butter yellow, hung with black-and-white vintage Italian photographs in severe black frames. We admire a leaded-glass light fixture, three rosy pomanders, and a sculptural dog nutcracker, given pride of place in an archway. "It feels like an Upper East Side place," I say to Anita, noting not only the décor but also the well-dressed, well-behaved clientele.

We order a lot of food. We love the salty fried olives stuffed with melting fontina on a generous bed of baby greens in a fruity, sweet dressing. And although the thin-sliced smoked tuna carpaccio has almost no taste, it comes with its own stellar salad of sturdy mâche with shreds of artichoke and slices of Tuscan melon (which I thought was underripe cantaloupe, but is surprisingly tasty) in a bright and mustardy dressing. Salads are respected here. I am not as beguiled by the pancetta-wrapped quince -- oddly, the fruit is almost as tasteless as the rhubarb at the previous meal, and I don't quite understand its pairing with chickpea purée and dots of balsamic vinegar.

But all three of our pastas are satisfying. We ordered linguini alla vongole, and I expected something slightly different than usual from the "in a spicy but smooth garlic sauce" description, yet when it arrives, it's the classic linguini in a white wine broth flecked with red chili flakes and full of lots of whole garlic cloves cooked to mild sweetness, with clams in the shell. The baked potato-and-ricotta gnocchi are small and silky and covered with a mantle of slightly smoky scamorza cheese studded with chunks of sausage and roasted tomato. As I eat the crab pastina jeweled with fresh, emerald green fava beans (Peter points out that the tiny pasta has a grainlike or couscous texture), I wish it had a little more crab and a lot more cauliflower, and I can't detect any of its advertised tomato broth, but I also notice that I can't stop eating it.

After the pastas, we share two well-conceived main courses, both lofty towers: potato-crusted, pan-seared monkfish on top of a celery root gratin, itself balanced on asparagus, and thick-sliced, medium-rare duck breast in a pomegranate-fig glaze atop a still-creamy-inside mashed potato cake called a polpette, with sliced, sautéed fennel tucked underneath. The firm monkfish cleverly counterfeits lobster; the pink duck tastes meaty. And their accompaniments are tasty and appropriate (though the herbed zabaglione on the monkfish is nearly invisible).

Once we've tried the chocolate cake (with whipped cream and raspberry coulis) and the pleasant, slightly salty goat-cheese cheesecake (in a cookie crust, with swirls of raspberry coulis and a few fresh raspberries), I find myself longing for another plate of sfingi (on the regular menu, they're paired with a miniature vanilla milkshake). But I do enjoy the tart, icy, house-made fresh blackberry sorbet, served with a hazelnut biscotto.

Maurice Chevalier once wrote in a restaurant's guest book that it was an "endroit de rêves" ("place of dreams"). It's the delightfully unsettling setting as much as the food that gives Sociale a dreamy quality, and that dreamy feeling continues as we walk down Sacramento, past treasure-filled antique shops, clothing boutiques whose windows are filled with stylish creations, and enough hairdressers to coif the entire city.

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Meredith Brody

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