Class Act

Falling in love again with Rubicon, still at the top of its game after a decade

I've asked for a quiet table, and we're led up the long staircase, away from the cozy downstairs booths, to the upstairs room, a fairly open expanse where we're placed dangerously close to a large table of businessmen in their shirt sleeves, happily near the end of their dinner. We consider, briefly, the five-course, $75 tasting menu, but abandon it when we see that all its dishes appear on the regular menu. Three courses apiece sound like plenty.

As we decide, we're brought a lovely amuse-bouche of tuna tartare, perfect with the dregs of my white wine. A lengthy but charming and reasonably down-to-earth consultation with a young sommelier results in a bottle of 2001 J. Wilkes pinot noir, carefully calibrated to our tastes, our orders, and our pocketbook (though at $84, it's still a bit above my usual self-imposed ceiling). It's delicious with our rich, luxurious first courses: a plate of duck charcuterie (house-made duck prosciutto and two kinds of duck liver pâté, smooth and coarse, garnished with toasted hazelnuts); a chunk of seared foie gras, along with a short-rib terrine incorporating pâté in its layers, garnished with tender baby white asparagus, a roasted pear, and biting horseradish; and my own choice, a lake of subtle caramelized garlic soup touched with Beerenauslese vinegar and containing a mountain of Dungeness crab flakes enlivened with a bit of prosciutto and fennel. I've eaten some very good food in my time -- and the urbane company and the velvet pinot help -- but I can't think of anywhere else on Earth I'd rather be at this moment. The foie gras plate especially shines in its assortment and balance: the shredded, resilient meat against the suave, custardy liver, the acidic touch of the asparagus as well as the sweeter fruit.

The main courses each have something in their descriptions that's a little unfamiliar to me. Along with the grilled John Dory's accompaniments of white asparagus, fava beans, and Meyer lemon is "cocoa cipollini," which turns out to be sliced cipollini onions dusted with slightly bitter cocoa powder before being grilled. The Niman Ranch pork tenderloin, with a chunk of fresh applewood-smoked pork belly, polenta, and rapini, has a "PX sauce," which works out as drippings deglazed with vinegar made from Pedro Ximenez sherry grapes, adding acidity and bite to the silky sauce. I choose the Liberty Farms duck breast, three massively meaty, rosy hunks, because it's duck, and though I note the springy accompaniments of wine-poached rhubarb, English peas, and lavender, I don't realize that it comes with its own chilly, smooth cut of foie gras until it appears on the plate. (Foie gras is always a welcome surprise.) We've ordered the vegetarian entree to share (Bolcom says a staple of his and Morris' Bay Area diet has been "choosing some unfamiliar vegetable at the Berkeley Bowl and sautéing it in oil and garlic"), and the tender white-bean ravioli are hidden under layers of sautéed spring onions, roasted baby artichokes, and maitake mushrooms, with a final benediction of pepita crumbs, made from spice bread. Everything on the beautifully plated dishes is edible, as proven by the nearly polished porcelain we send back to the kitchen. "You're clean-plate rangers!" I say inelegantly.

Drink It In: Rubicon was one of the first 
wine-driven restaurants.
James Sanders
Drink It In: Rubicon was one of the first wine-driven restaurants.

Details

Duck charcuterie $14

Seared foie gras $21

Pork tenderloin with polenta $31

Duck breast with rhubarb $32

Bleu de Basque and pear tartlet $10

Frozen milk chocolate mousse $10

2001 Kracher Eiswein $22/glass

434-4100

Open for lunch on Wednesday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: valet, $10

Muni: 1, 10, 15, 41

Noise level: low to moderate

558 Sacramento (at Sansome)

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Elegance returns with our desserts, little architectural masterpieces that seem quite the bargain at $10 each: a frozen milk chocolate mousse with rum-infused bananas and salted peanut toffee; "strawberries 'n' cream," which dresses its fresh strawberry sorbet with gingered tapioca and candied pistachios as well as the ingredients of its title; and the one I like best, some pungent bleu de Basque cheese sided with a poached pear tartlet, spiced fig compote, and (a new one on me) aged balsamic ice cream. It seems only right to order the recommended dessert wines: a 1999 Fonseca LBV port for the mousse, Blandy's Malmsey 15-year Madeira with the cheese, and our favorite, the syrupy 2001 Kracher Eiswein, suggested for the strawberry dish. It also seems only right, when we've drained our glasses, to order another tot of Eiswein to share for the road: Bolcom and Morris are off to New York City; Cambridge, Mass.; Chelsea, Mich.; and Everett, Wash., to name only a few destinations from the schedule on their shared Web site. I look longingly at the dates in June when Casino Paradise, a 1990 cabaret opera with libretto by longtime collaborator Arnold Weinstein, is to be performed in Zurich.

It's not likely that I'll be there. So I look again at the collaborators in my stunning meal at Rubicon: chef Stuart Brioza and pastry chef Nicole Krasinski. Their names are added to the shortlist of artists with whom I fell in love immediately. If someone offers to take me anywhere I'd like to eat in San Francisco, I have an answer ready.

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