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Chez What? 

A timid kitchen is the drawback at this off-the-beaten-track French restaurant

Wednesday, Nov 15 2006
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It happens at every party I've ever been to in any city I've ever lived in or visited. As soon as I answer "I'm a restaurant critic" to the inevitable "And what do you do?" question, I get a rapid-fire interrogation about local places — "What do you think of X, Y, and Z?" — that includes, in fact usually commences with, that supremely unanswerable query, "What's your favorite restaurant?"

In San Francisco, however, this most food-obsessed of towns, the restaurant conversation occurs as a matter of course, all over the room, no revelation of profession needed. As the Internet has taught us, the old saw "Everyone has two professions, their own and show business" can also be applied to that of food critic.

Bloggers can go on, at sometimes amazing length, about their experiences, but reader-contributed reviews to the popular city Web sites are usually of bite-sized proportions. At Chowhound.com, even essays of quite reasonable length used to be flagged, apologetically, "long post." Cocktail-party restaurant chat tends to be even briefer, of the thumbs-up/thumbs-down persuasion that I call "instant opinion": "Oh, you love it? I hated it!" That's only useful when you know something about the taste of the person.

When a friend told me he loved Chez Spencer, I was at a party in his house, surrounded by evidence of his exquisite taste: quaffing an expertly prepared, delicious cocktail served in a beautiful vintage etched-crystal glass in his ready-for-the-shelter-magazine-photographers apartment on Nob Hill, with sweeping views of the San Francisco skyline. The hors d'oeuvres were excellent, the company interesting; I already knew I valued his opinion on movies and television. So of course we made a date for dinner at Chez Spencer.

The rather grungy block of 14th Street it's on gives no indication that an ambitious French restaurant would flourish there. Chez Spencer is tucked away behind a massive metal gate. I'd arrived quite early, so I caught just a glimpse of what looked like an enchanted garden in the dusk before I trotted off around the corner to Rainbow Grocery. I scored a beautiful bargain of Brillat Savarin cheese, along with a stinky Rouge et Noir Schloss, a chunk of Neal's Yard Wensleydale, an Acme baguette, and a box of mixed Black Mission and Brown Turkey figs, returning to Chez Spencer in an excellent mood.

Beyond the tiny fragrant garden I found a heated and tented garden, lit by flickering candles on the white-linened tables. It looked entirely pleasant, but once I entered the soaring space of Chez Spencer, I hoped we would be sitting inside. I was still early enough to be led to the bar just inside the door. The special cocktail menu was long (14 drinks) and enticing, and I sipped an extraordinarily good Sazerac Old-Fashioned, adorned with three skewered preserved cherries of excellent quality (in addition to the ones that had been muddled with orange in the drink). I was dazzled by the big room, especially the impressive, massive curved beams overhead. When I asked what the building had been before, the bartender responded casually, "Everything from a bakery to a dot-com." As it turns out, the bakery was the original incarnation of Citizen Cake, but the structure apparently originated as a garage. I was reminded of a sentence of English writer Alan Bennett's: "It passes one of the tests of a congenial interior, that you feel you would like the food that is cooked there."

When my three friends arrived, we were led to a banquette that backed up against the large open kitchen; there's a smaller glass-enclosed kitchen next to the bar that features a wood-burning oven. From our perch I could see a chef prepping a pan of carefully trimmed artichoke hearts, which the menu told me would be turned into the classic French barigoule, to accompany a roasted rack of lamb.

The menu is fairly compact: seventeen dishes printed on one page, divided into three unlabeled sections, the first being five soups and salads, then five starters of fish and flesh, followed by seven main courses. There's a seven-course tasting menu, also. Small as it was, it was larded with luxury signifiers (foie gras, champagne, oysters, three mentions of truffles) and, most exciting, it was French. À la Lyonnaise, sauce verte, Provençal, sauce Béarnaise: These are words with an almost erotic import for me.

Four of the five more elaborate first courses were claimed by my companions (one of whom was dining on two starters), so I selected from the soup-or-salad section, choosing what they called "bouillabaisse" soup over roasted cauliflower with toasted sunflower seeds and curry oil. The soup came to the table not quite hot enough, but worse, not quite flavorful enough, either, without the garlicky, bold snap that I expect from a classic French soupe de poissons. It tasted like a mildly fishy tomato soup.

This oddly muted impression continued when I tried the other starters. Not only did I find the other dishes bland and recessive, but they all shared a rather soft texture: the poached oyster covered with a champagne sauce on a bit of spinach mousse, the nuggets of veal sweetbreads that I wished had a crisper outside, the suave foie gras torchon that didn't have quite the whiff of liver that I expected. The flavors seemed so elusive — even the truffle in the vinaigrette on the mâche that came with the sweetbreads — that I immediately assumed my taste buds had suddenly had a nervous breakdown.

Actually, it was me having a nervous breakdown as I tried to conceal from my friends that I was dismayed, not wanting to dampen their enjoyment. I preferred the cocktails (especially a rose-flavored martini named for Josephine Baker) to the food. Things perked up a little with the main courses, but only a bit. Again, I found the flavors weak, the textures soft; the simple dishes (sautéed, grilled, or roasted meat or shellfish, with sauces mounted from pan juices) featured best-quality ingredients, carefully cooked, but in the end the results were a little dull.

I liked best the pan-seared venison tenderloin with something called Jabron potato (which turned out to be a rich potato gratin) and a mild juniper berry-peppercorn jus. The sweet scallops with hearts of palm and sauce verte were OK, but I didn't understand why the wood-roasted duck breast came with cool corn crêpes, which didn't seem to combine with its raspberry jus and fat raspberries. The only jolt of real flavor I had all evening came from the sliced morels that came with my wood-grilled flat-iron steak, in a bit of buttery cream sauce, letting me know that the taste buds were still working. (Neither the steak nor the duck captured much smoky flavor.) It seemed to me, thinking back to our starters, that the fact that the garnish on the fish soup had been the milder garlic aioli rather than the spicy, peppery rouille was an indication of the timidity of the kitchen.

The desserts were pretty much a disaster: a coconut pot de crème with the taste and texture of whipped cream, run-of-the-mill warm chocolate pudding cake, warm apple crêpes (it was one crêpe, and it was cold), a hazelnut "parfait" oddly encased in thick pastry.

Even though it had taken a couple of tries to get our reservation, my friends were amazed that the room was completely full at an early hour. So was I.

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