In the event, I'd be dining out on Easter anyway, it being the only evening during a week-long stay in the Bay Area that my friend Anne and her daughter Nora could arrange a meal with Gary, Cathy, and their son Greg. And me, although I was leaving the choice of restaurant up to Gary, an uncharacteristic pleasure. He's often e-mailed me with news of enticing places that I don't get around to trying right away because, I remind him, I write for a paper with "S.F." in the name.
But we got a distress call early on Sunday from Gary: Every place he'd tried was either closed or already fully booked. Did I have any ideas? I did, and they were all in San Francisco. And that's how the six of us ended up on Nob Hill on Easter Sunday.
Anne and Nora didn't know how lucky we were to find a parking place just a couple of blocks away. As we walked down Jackson in the rain, I was thrilled to see Rue Saint Jacques (its name an aural pun) emerge from the mist like a Parisian mirage. Everything about the place, its big windows glowing softly through the gray fog, seemed Gallic, right down to the placard on the sidewalk advertising a three-course prix fixe for, mirabile dictu, $25.
Inside, the big room felt both sophisticated and rustic, its rough stucco walls painted a peachy beige, hung with big mirrors and a few pieces of indistinct art. More distinctive was the pitched beamed ceiling and the wine cave visible through glass in the rear wall. The soundtrack was a mix tape of wispy French techno and Edith Piaf. We were seated at a large rectangular table in the middle of the room; there were couples ensconced at tables for two along the black banquette that lines the long wall, and families scattered about.
I was surprised at the number of dishes on the one-page menu: 16 appetizers and more than a dozen main courses. We also got a sheet with the nightly specials: two additional starters and two more main courses. I relaxed: Even though I always choose last, after my guests, there were so many dishes that aroused my interest that I had no fear I wouldn't be able to suit my hunger. Cathy selected first, in honor of her birthday, which was that night, though it had been celebrated en famille in Napa the night before. I was a little worried that my goddaughter Nora, who'd been eating a vegan diet for Lent, would have to settle for one of only two dishes labeled "vegetarian" on the menu mushroom risotto and sautéed barley with seasonal vegetables which seemed too similar to me to make for an enticing choice. (There were several salads, but most came with flesh of some kind: beets with anchovies, mâche with Serrano ham.) But when we learned that the soup of the day was cream of potato and leek, her choice was made. The dairy sent up an alarm in my mind, but on Easter she was allowed, it appeared, to reintroduce the forbidden ingredients.
The only thing wrong with the potato and leek soup, according to Nora, was that it was too rich; I thought it was just pure-cream deliciousness, though it improved with a sprinkle of salt. My favorite starters were indeed the richest, and all from the school of charcuterie: an impeccable foie gras terrine, a thick slice sided with a couple of preserved kumquats, sweet and sharp, intended to cut the fattiness but inadequate to the task; a more decadent foie gras en brioche, a special that night, the same pâte baked in buttery bread; and a somewhat lighter rabbit terrine, an even more generous slice than the foie gras, slightly rough-textured (sophisticated yet rustic, like the room) and served with a pile of cornichons. Almost as rich was the risotto of Point Reyes oysters, big mollusks (I thought they'd be smaller) whose flavor and texture I found overwhelming; they were easier to take in the bright-tasting, oddly named frisee of oyster seviche, which turned out to be a frisee salad dressed with the vinaigrette that cooks the oysters in seviche. I would also have been happy to try the braised escargots with Catalan sausage, the tartare of filet mignon, the unusual brandade of scallops, but six starters was plenty.
I liked the main courses even more: a chunk of nicely roasted, firm monkfish in a red wine sauce called a port beurre rouge; halibut, similarly roasted, in tomato garlic sauce with sautéed fennel; a shapely round of the rarely seen crabe Parmentier, another nightly special, layers of mashed potatoes, sauteed spring vegetables, and Dungeness crab flakes, gratineed with cheese ("Something like a shepherd's pie made with crab," I explained to its teenage orderer). I was pleased that I could still taste the crab in the cheesy forkful I tried. My favorites were the barely solidified soft lumps of veal cheeks cooked en casserole with aromatic diced vegetables, served on a pillowy bed of mashed potatoes, and the cassoulet, served in a cast-iron skillet placed upon two bricks set down right on the snowy tablecloth. The pan was filled to the brim with toothy white beans, the duck confit, lamb confit, chunks of sausages, and boudin blanc mentioned on the menu, and an extra treat, a flat slice of bacon draped over the whole, blessing the dish with an extra melting fillip of pork fat. Yum. There was more than enough for two people. Only the sautéed barley, with artichokes, mushrooms, and fennel, got a "bland" assessment from one taster, though Nora was OK with it. The kitchen had gone a little artichoke-nutty: Nearly every dish (save the charcuterie, the soup, and the cassoulet) was garnished with them, but 'tis the season, and they were so carefully trimmed and so delightful to the taste that I was happy to see them. (Our server lamented the fact that nobody in the room ordered the confit of rabbit in black olive sauce, despite the holiday but didn't our rabbit terrine count?)
Dessert wasn't up to the standard of the first two courses. Oddly, in a place unafraid of richness, the ile flottant (egg white meringue) came on a thin strawberry soup rather than the customary crème anglaise; the tarte tatin was mushy and overcooked; the warm chocolate cake a touch dry and a little boring. An unusual-sounding mocha and kumquat napoleon was heavy, candylike, dullish. I found myself wishing I'd gone for the cheese plate, which that night was Petit Basque, Camembert, Roquefort, and St. Andre. But we exited, well fed, into the cool night, fresh-smelling after the rain, delighted by our French meal and jolted by the passing Hyde Street cable car back to San Francisco. Two saints on one holy night.