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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."
San Francisco, CA 94118
Region: Richmond (Inner)
Baked gnocchi $17
Crab pastina $18
Potato-crusted monkfish $20
Pomegranate-glazed duck $22
Blackberry sorbet $5
Open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Parking: fairly easy
Muni: 1, 4
Noise level: low
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.
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