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Gentle Ribbing 

A carnivorous odyssey around the Bay Area pinpoints three very different meats

Wednesday, Oct 12 2005
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There are few things I like to do more at table than pick up a meaty bone and gnaw at it. It's an atavistic pleasure right up there with slurping oysters from the shell and eating corn on the cob with the butter running down your arms to the elbow. (If you play your cards right, you can do all three at the same meal. Hot fun in the summertime!)

Recently I was able to satisfy my carnivorous urges at three wildly different places around the bay. It was Friday, the day for lunch with Dad; we usually choose from the innumerable restaurants near where he works, in Oakland or Berkeley, but he had the day off, so we decided to travel farther afield. I felt like barbecue. More specifically, I felt like Bo's Barbecue. I wanted some pork ribs cooked by a Mississippi-trained chef whose last name is McSwine (strange but true). I was glad that we weren't under any time constraints, because my memories of Bo's were of standing in an interminable line in a tiny ex-fast-food parlor while Bo took orders, filled orders, made change, and occasionally came out from behind the counter to pour you a glass of wine on the house, to sweeten the wait. There were a couple of tables inside, a couple of tables outside. Most people got their stuff to go, fleeing the premises with aromatic packages borne away like coffers of jewels.

I nearly drove right past the place, which is unrecognizable as the Bo's of visits gone by. It's been remodeled into what amounts to a palace: not just a huge, airy room, with lots of tables (and space for the live music that Bo's now features almost every night), but also a huge, airy deck, with even more tables. There was a short line, but it moved along so briskly that we barely had time to grab a drink from the well-stocked refrigerator, featuring a lot of exotic beer and some unusual sodas. I must remember, however, never again to get a Stewart's Key lime soda, a sickly sweet, unlimelike (much less Key lime-like) drink that I've somehow been fooled by twice. Then we were at the counter, ordering a brisket plate and one full of ribs (with the juicier long ends rather than the less fatty short ones -- who eats barbecue in order to avoid grease?). After getting a numbered plaque, we moved outside to a cool, shady table under a tree. We were sad that there was no barbecued chicken available (late delivery of the birds -- they would be ready in an hour or so), because I thought I'd send one home to Mom so she wouldn't have to cook dinner. But the rapid arrival of our well-filled plates made us so happy that the missing chicken was forgotten.

Bo (who was nowhere to be seen this afternoon) concentrates on his meats, made with Niman Ranch beef and pork: His sides are limited to an excellent potato salad, a simple green salad made with organic greens and dressed with a sweetish vinaigrette, a chunk of corn on the cob, and a hunk of Acme sourdough. His still-moist, thick-sliced brisket had a reddish spice-rubbed edge; his meaty, smoky, utterly divine pork ribs didn't need any sauce, as far as I was concerned, but I dipped into it a little. It was sweetish, too, with a distinct whiff of cumin. I wished that the corn were bigger -- I'm a three-cob girl, myself -- but I was having a fine meal, here in the sweet Contra Costa County air.

A few weeks later, Mary calls from L.A.: She's planning her annual all-girl weekend in a friend's Napa house and wants to schedule Sunday brunch or lunch ("Plus a little shopping?") with me on the way back to the airport. I think immediately of the wonderful Irish brunch at O'Reilly's Holy Grail, but they're flying out of Oakland, and it's one of those weekends when there are so many festivals and events in San Francisco, not to mention the ongoing delightful freeway construction, that dire warnings about driving in and out of the city are posted. I ask if an egg-free menu is permissible and, when told yes, tell Mary to meet me at Café Rouge, one of my very favorite restaurants. Café Rouge is an epicure's delight: great oysters, great charcuterie, great meat -- in fact, it has an on-site butcher shop, featuring its own dry-aged steaks, pâtés, and cured meats, including 17 varieties of sausage. One of my favorite solitary suppers involves ordering an inch of Rouge's salt-cured foie gras, another inch of the duck liver mousse, and taking both home to enjoy with a good baguette.

The four women are already seated at a big table, with white paper over white linen, when I get to the restaurant, and they've ordered a charcuterie plate (pâté de campagne, rabbit terrine, that silky duck liver mousse, with gherkins, olives, and big caperberries) and a bottle of Friulian pinot grigio to share. These are serious eaters: They flew up from Southern California on Friday and had lunch that day at Chez Panisse and dinner at the French Laundry. They choose from all over the menu: oysters (half Kumamoto, half Humboldt), roasted salmon, a big salad with chunks of watermelon and feta cheese, a pasta with pancetta and greens, an unusually good classic chicken salad sandwich. But I knew what I was going to have without even looking at the menu: Café Rouge's spareribs, simple grilled Niman Ranch pork, once again so good on their own that I mostly ignore the savory, smoky sauce underneath. They're served with a mountain of tiny, thin-crisp, entirely irresistible frites (enough for all of us) and a smaller heap of vinegary fresh-cut coleslaw. The girls want to try gelato from the Sketch parlor across the street instead of dessert, but the warm peach tart I get at Rouge is so good we finish it in five forkfuls.

The following week I'm stunned when two red-blooded he-men pals of mine turn down an offer of prime rib and baked potatoes in favor of more concerted drinking in a bar. Twenty-four hours later, I'm sitting alone in the House of Prime Rib, and am grateful that they declined the invitation, because I realize that the menu here is honed to such a degree that everybody gets the exact same meal: prime rib (available in four different cuts, ranging from the City Cut, "for those with a lighter appetite," at $29.85, to the King Henry VIII Cut, "for king-size appetites," at $34.45) and salad, mashed, or baked potato, Yorkshire pudding, creamed spinach, and horseradish sauce (all included in the dinner price). There's also a nightly fresh fish, for the pescatarians dragged along by their carnivorous friends. I'm here on a dinner break on a day stuffed with culture, between a matinee of the extraordinary The Overcoat at ACT, a play without words like a newly discovered expressionist silent-film masterpiece, and the opening night of Peter Sellars and John Adams' Dr. Atomic at the Opera House just a few blocks away from the House of Prime Rib, which seems to be the busiest restaurant in San Francisco on this Saturday evening. The two dining rooms are fully booked and buzzing with happy, hungry folk, celebrating birthdays and knocking back cocktails brought to the table in little shakers holding a drink and a half and digging into plates heaped high with competently prepared food.

I choose a Manhattan (in homage to the Project). My cheerful server promises to have me out in time for the curtain. There's plenty of theater here, too, from the way he pours the sweet neon dressing over his shoulder into the salad bowl spinning several feet below to the massive silver cart manned by the chef-hatted carver. I think the waiter has sprinkled a little too much seasoned salt on the salad, but I eat my way through most of it, intrigued by the julienned beets and shredded hard-boiled egg, and I also eat probably too much of the warm, round loaf of French bread, which comes with lots of good butter.

I've chosen the standard, thick House of Prime Rib Cut, rare: a 2-inch slab of beef, still attached to the massive rib it grew on. My server obligingly dusts chopped chives and bacon bits on my mashed potatoes. I love the creamed spinach, the airy Yorkshire pudding (not cooked in the beef drippings, alas, but there's plenty of salty jus on my plate that the wedges obligingly sop up), and the three different horseradish sauces that are spooned on a side plate in great gouts: the stinging, sinus-clearing classic; one blended with whipped cream that tastes almost like dessert; and another tinted pink with Tabasco sauce.

I'm tucked in a corner table, under a lot of faintly English memorabilia that includes enough hardcover books that I don't feel out of place reading "The Overcoat" in a volume of Gogol short stories I picked up in the dazzling new Cody's Books off Union Square. There's plenty to read on the menu, too, titled "The Story of Our Beef," in punchy paragraphs endearingly and eccentrically capitalized: "Our Chef ... judges for Quality, for Perfection in Firmness, Texture, Color, and the Presence of Flecks of White Fat in the Red Lean." I have no complaints about any of the components of this ritual meal, including the little silver pot of coffee, holding three cups, that I finish with, while the busboy expertly packs up the remnants in two bright-red plastic bags. There's a lot of meat that I'm looking forward to chewing off the bone in the privacy of my own cave.

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Meredith Brody

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