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Room With a View 

Food? What food? We're distracted by the beauty of San Francisco from on high.

Wednesday, Sep 14 2005
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There are so many ways to discover the city, from the prosaic to the poetic. Exploring a city through its restaurants, as pragmatic as that may seem, inevitably draws in other elements: history, architecture, sociology. In every city I've lived in, I've acquired a 5-foot shelf whose contents range from the expected and useful (every local restaurant guidebook ever published, regardless of date) to the somewhat less so (am I ever really going to read anything by San Francisco's own Gertrude Atherton?).

I love the extra sensation when you're watching a locally set movie and a frisson runs through the audience when it recognizes its own landmarks. So when I read that Nathaniel Rich would be showing film clips and reading from his just-published San Francisco Noir: The City in Film Noir From 1940 to the Present at the San Francisco Public Library, I showed up in search of cheap thrills as well as another book to add to the 5-foot shelf.

It was a delicious evening, on a properly rainy and foggy night, replete with a dozen or so clips that were both familiar (The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo, Dirty Harry) and not (Race Street, Chinatown at Midnight, The Raging Tide, all three of which were added to my considerably overburdened TiVo wish list when I got home). Flipping through the compact little tome, I found two Fisherman's Wharf restaurants referenced for Nora Prentiss, Lou's Pier 47 and Pompei's Grotto, and proposed an evening at one or even both to Rich, who promptly countered with a preference for Julius' Castle, included in his essay about The House on Telegraph Hill.

I hesitated. Certainly I've been aware of Julius' Castle for as long as I've been aware that there was such a thing as restaurants. The curious, rickety-looking wooden structure, with its round crenelated turret, has never really seemed like a castle to me (perhaps because few castles are either shingle-style or have their names painted on their side in enormous letters). It was built in 1922 by an Italian immigrant, clings to Telegraph Hill, and looms over the eastern edge of the city, but never has been celebrated for its cuisine. (Which is a nice way of saying that the words "tourist trap" flashed neonlike through my brain.)

But Fisherman's Wharf is not known as an outpost of la gourmandise, either, so when Rich said that neither of those restaurants had actually appeared in Nora Prentiss, I agreed to his choice. I felt a trifle snookered later, when I was reading the book, came to The House on Telegraph Hill, and read "The house ... did not exist ... [but] was superimposed photographically on an actual site ... [whose] actual building is Julius' Castle." How, I wondered, did that make it a more legitimate choice than the other nonsettings?

Still, I'd always loved the family story about the dinner my father had at Julius' Castle in the '50s, with his old friend Harry Benjamin, and Benjamin's friend Alfred Kinsey, who had amused them all by posing a set of queries to my father. No, not the more-than-500-item sexual history (which would have been administered in a rather more private and clinical setting than a restaurant), but 50 questions that he used to determine the suitability of a prospective staff member of his institute.

When he was done, he complimented my father on his responses. "You got every answer right," he said, "except for one." "And which one was that?" my father wanted to know. "The last one," Kinsey said, "when I asked you if you'd be willing to move to Bloomington, Indiana."

As you drive up to the Castle's cul-de-sac, you pass the beautifully preserved Art Moderne Malloch Apartments (1360 Montgomery), where Lauren Bacall fell in love with Humphrey Bogart, once he'd been surgically altered to look like Humphrey Bogart, in Dark Passage, another entry in Rich's smart and well-written book.

I was the first to arrive, and was stashed in Julius' ground-floor lounge, a dark, wood-paneled, and viewless space, with a carved bar on one side and a wall of wine shelved behind grates on the other. "Why," I asked, "is there a framed cover of A Man Called Spade over the host stand?" (Spade, of course, was incarnated by Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. I was going a little noir crazy.)

"They have a meal here in it," the maitre d' replied, pointing out Julius' Castle in the photocopied text. "What do they eat?" I asked, eagerly, hoping for a tip. "All it mentions is coffee," was the sad reply.

Just then Rich materialized and we were led upstairs to a series of rooms (remodeled in 2003, in undistinguished Victorian style), which were bright (at 7:30 on a long summer night) and -- well, what's the opposite of viewless? The view was so overpowering, so panoramic, so bright blue and full of sea and Golden Gate and Alcatraz and Bay Bridge you couldn't look at anything else. (Cue the music.)

One side of the building is mostly windows, and they all have tables clinging to them like limpets. The window tables were occupied, so we were given a table in the second rank, close to the center of the room; it was big enough for four, but skewed on an angle and set for two, catty-corner for the best possible views.

We were handed big menus, which when opened were oddly sheathed in plastic, like grandmothers' furniture. The food descriptions sounded a trifle labored, modish but slightly off, and the listing of multiple ingredients created dissonances that didn't always make sense: grilled quail marinated in five spices with mango, raspberry, mint salad, and curry oil? Hmmm.

Rich endeared himself to me by choosing the starter that I was looking at myself, the grilled lemon-peppered lobster tail with a jicama and ruby grapefruit salad, topped with ginger oil -- there was a list that increased your appetite rather than confusing it. It also pleased me that he didn't seem to be intimidated by price: It was the second-highest-priced first course, after a caviar-and-pecan-potato-cake offering at $40 (there were several soups and salads under $12, but most of the left page clocked in around the mid-teens). I ordered the seared foie gras. There were framed awards for the extensive and pricey wine list, but I went for a modest bottle of Kendall-Jackson Riesling.

The slice of foie gras was nicely cooked, though it was set on a hard crouton that seemed nothing like the "French toast" of the dish's description. I ignored it. The slick of rhubarb jam alongside was tart and sweet, a nice foil to the soft, rich liver, but what was this dense, chalky rosette, and why was it there? It tasted like cream cheese, and it took me a while to remember that the menu described it as a goat cheese mousse. I ignored it also. Rich's grilled lobster and slawlike salad were pleasant, if not stunning.

As a member in poor standing of the Writer's Guild of America, I chided Rich for not mentioning the scriptwriters' names in his book, when the movie listings included directors, actors, production entities, even cinematographers. He agreed, mentioning only that the cameramen were a late addition. We were attacking our main courses now, and he was eating every morsel of his pan-roasted sturgeon, an oily fish that I love, and its numerous accompaniments of slightly crunchy beluga lentils, saffron pearl pasta, and ratatouille, garnished with cilantro, a Chilean grape relish, and brisk lime oil. The couple of bites that I tasted, as well as those I took of my own dish, squab with currant-laden saffron rice, greens, and wild mushrooms, were not compelling. The meal wasn't insulting -- I got the feeling that there was a certain level of sincerity in the kitchen -- but, well, the food was certainly not going to distract you from the main event, which was unfolding before our dazzled eyes. Our dinner had proceeded at a stately pace, for which I was happy, guaranteeing us a view that evolved from sunny brilliance through gorgeous sunset into velvety night, set with jeweled artificial light. It was San Francisco at its best. The quintet clustered around the prime table directly in front of us was so overcome that a couple of its members regularly broke into song: Alas, what they warbled, over and over again, was, "Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat."

Our own treats (a wine-poached pear and phyllo-wrapped bananas with peanut butter gelato) served as backdrop to lingering conversation, which covered popular culture (I had no idea that Full House was set in San Francisco until I read San Francisco Noir) and literature as well as movies. Rich was moving to New York to begin work as an editor at the Paris Review, so it was a farewell dinner. As we left, I was drawn, inexorably, to the windows: I thought we were getting the full experience of the place, but no, I realized, if we'd been seated there, right up against them, I would have been more distracted, even mesmerized by the view. No wonder Alice B. Toklas said, "I like a view, but I like to sit with my back to it." I wondered why the restaurant, which used to serve lunch and weekend brunch, didn't anymore. It seemed like the perfect setting, and the bar menu was dense with cocktails to drink in along with the panorama.

And that would be the end of my little adventure with Julius' Castle, an experience I was glad to have, and one I would recommend to the curious, more for the view than for the food; I found the fare fussier than it needed to be, betraying an unfulfilled ambition. But I was told that Julius' was instituting a new menu and a new chef mere days after this piece would have run, so I waited a month and took my father to dinner there, this time scoring a window table by the simple method of showing up at 5:15, 45 minutes before any other customers did. The menu looked much as it had at my first meal, though there were some different dishes. Certainly the style of cooking was exactly the same; my father even chose the same seared foie gras dish I had, with the not-very-goaty cheese mousse, though he liked it more than I did, followed by rack of lamb. I had a lobster and crab salad duo, the lobster better than the crab, both topped with an avocado "mousse" that was way less tasty than plain sliced avocado would have been, followed by a steak. The kitchen sweetly sent out a complimentary chocolate cake with a candle on it, for my father's birthday, a fact I had mentioned when trying to book a window table (unsuccessfully), even though I'd asked them not to celebrate (he dislikes birthday demonstrations). The view, which my father feared would be fog-obscured on this August evening, was indeed uniquely beautiful. "Do you have any memory of what you ate here with Harry and Kinsey?" I asked. "Oh," he said, "I ate at Julius' Castle a couple of times with Harry, but the Kinsey dinner wasn't here. It was at El Prado, on Union Square, which doesn't exist anymore."

Snookered again.

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Meredith Brody

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