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Heart's Desiree 

Finding comfort in a lovingly prepared ham-and-cheese sandwich

Wednesday, Jun 29 2005
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I think a clarification is in order. For a decade or so restaurants have been bandying about the term "comfort food" as if it's an all-purpose, stick-to-your-ribs salve, the sure-fire dining cure for everything from homesickness and PMS to biological cravings and broken hearts.

I object not so much to the title, but the qualifications. I mean, who died and made meatloaf and macaroni and cheese the spokesmodels for edible solace? Remember: What brings comfort to some may cause an epic case of the logys and a guilt-ridden scramble to the nearest Overeaters Anonymous meeting in others.

So the clarification I have in mind is perhaps reclassifying comfort food as "go-to" food -- as in, the dish that you must have on any given day when the fog closes in, when your dog pees on the rug, when your mom forgets to call you on your birthday, or when you get a street-cleaning ticket while trying to flag down the meter maid who gave you an expired-tag citation.

For me, a few weeks ago, that dish was Anne Gingrass' hot-pressed St. George cheese and honey-roasted ham sandwich, with a side of fava bean potato salad and a tall glass of strawberry lemonade, consumed in the corner princess-throne banquette at Desiree (39 Mesa, Suite 108, Presidio, 561-2336, www.desireecafe.com).

This perfect hidey-hole of a cafe inside the S.F. Film Centre building is like running home to your mom's warm kitchen after getting picked last for kickball -- but only if your mom was a fabulous chef who could turn a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich into a savory slice of something just short of sublime.

Gingrass, who has manned the stoves at several of the West Coast's flashiest restaurants (Spago, Postrio, Hawthorne Lane), settled into this quiet nook a few years ago with the idea of taking her life down a notch. She traded in late nights, a kitchen staff, and industrial stoves for a toaster and a hot plate, and began serving breakfast and lunch on weekdays.

Her lunch menu is a study in seasonal simplicity: a puréed garlic and potato soup that tastes like early summer, tousled salads that look as if someone just made a mad dash out back to pick the ingredients from the garden, and simple sandwiches in which farm-fresh produce such as plump-as-a-baby's-bottom heirloom tomatoes elevates the ordinary to the extraordinary.

The cheese and a healthy shmeer of nose-tingling Dijon mustard are the linchpins of my go-to sandwich. Cowgirl Creamery's St. George cheese is like an English cheddar, but not as sharp or waxy, and when pressed, it breaks down into a creamy morass that's luscious and almost brielike. The hot press is also left on long enough to give the bread a dark, crunchy shell, and the potato salad with fava beans is mild, not too salty, and mixed in an herby mayonnaise, then laid to rest on a bed of contrasting tangy balsamic greens. (Note of consolation to those who must get their go-to food to go: Gingrass' legendary box lunches come with a petite bag of exquisite house-made cookies.)

My meal is finished off with a tiny dot of a flawless meringue that leaves me with a sense of wistfulness. It seems impossible that anything this sweet, intimate, and homey could last very long in San Francisco, and indeed, with the imminent opening of the Lucas Digital Arts Center, it's inevitable that the hordes will descend on dear Desiree, leaving me to find comfort in the arms of a meatloaf.

About The Author

Bonnie Wach

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