By Omar Mamoon
By Kate Williams
By Pete Kane
By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
In Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, Holly Golightly says, "I simply trained myself to like older men, and it was the smartest thing I ever did." I don't think I trained myself to like the holidays, exactly; I think I was predisposed. Childhood memories of a big fragrant tree heavy with ornaments (The Night the Cats Toppled the Tree looms as large in the collective family memory as The Night the Bed Fell does in James Thurber's), unable to conceal the many colorfully wrapped packages tucked under its branches, inured me against the cyclical cynicism that enveloped many of my peers. (As Peter said as he greeted me before a dazzling home-cooked banquet for 30 featuring roast suckling pig, turkey confit, and prime rib: "Merry Fucking Christmas.") So to enjoy the holidays is not a smart decision on my part, just a lucky one, especially as Christmas decorations and sales seem to begin earlier and earlier these days.
I like rituals. I like shopping, especially when there's an excuse for it. It seems that for every few perfect presents I find for others, I also run across an item that has my name written all over it. ('Tis better to give and receive.) I gain similar benefits from holiday restaurant meals. When I wrote about the best dishes I'd consumed in 2006, I didn't mention the succulent peat-smoked pork shank served with champ (mashed potatoes mixed with chard and onions) at O'Reilly's Holy Grail, a singularly festive setting with its massive stained-glass windows and cheerily tinkling live piano playing, and the iconic Venetian meal at cozy Da Flora, sweet potato gnocchi sauced with cream and bacon, followed by sautéed chicken livers washed down with a good Italian red inside its wine-tinted walls.
Another exquisite holiday meal at a place I'd eaten at before reminded me that in 2006 I'd only devoted 150 words to Cav Wine Bar, mentioned as one of San Francisco's best wine bars in our annual Best of S.F. issue. My dinner there with Ruth and Sharon (in town from Los Angeles for a little shopping, a little museum-going, a little walking around town) was so delightful that I understood why the full name of the place is Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin
Charcuterie $7 for one, $15 sampling of all three
Ricotta fritters $10
Pork tagine $18
Pimenton-spiced shrimp $18
Poached egg on polenta $12
Cheeses 3 for $16, 5 for $27, platter for $95
Coconut pot de crème $7
It's not a white-tablecloth place: The tables are metal, reminiscent of the classic zinc bartops of Paris, and as you enter from Market Street, you can see only a couple of them. The first zig-zag of the vaguely lightning-shaped space contains a long bar and a couple of tables set against the rear wall; as you walk past the bar, a long, thin dining room is revealed, with a black-upholstered banquette against one wall, studded with tables.
It was a rainy night, and I was uncharacteristically late. But when I entered the place in a tizzy, Ruth and Sharon were blissfully calm, ensconced at the bar sipping a seductive glass of vintage port (a 1980 Grahams) and a wonderful spicy Côte de Brouilly (a 2005 Domaine de la Voute des Crozes), chosen with the able help of the barman, who had skillfully elicited their preferences. I gasped only a tiny bit when it was revealed at the end of the meal that the port was $18 a glass. Sharon had liked it so much that she had another glass for dessert. I tried the least expensive port on the list, myself a 1986 Smith Woodhouse Colheita Tawny and was completely happy: It went wonderfully well with our cheeses and sweets. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
In no time we were whisked away to a comfy table in the back, ready to study the menu. It looks something like a term paper: stiff red three-hole-punched paper covers, bound with metal binder rings. The first section devotes 2 1/2 pages to food. There's a page of savory dishes, divided this night into a box up top entitled Tartare Trio, beef, mushroom, and hamachi, available singly or as a sampling of all three, followed by a listing entitled Bites, six wildly different dishes including marinated olives; Brussels sprouts with bacon, whole grain mustard, and cider; and a baby beet salad with grapefruit, jicama, and avocado puree. At first I assumed this was the vegetarian section, until I spied pancetta in one dish of the six, and saw parsnip agnolotti with chestnut brown butter, truffle honey, and beet greens in the next grouping, called Plates, six "main courses" including a fondue served with walnut bread, house-smoked sausage, and assorted crudités and a grilled venison chop. Then there's a box offering house-made charcuterie, again three different kinds, available singly or as a sampler of all three; an antipasto platter of meats, cheeses, and vegetables; and a house-cured salumi platter.
On the other side of the page, 14 cheeses: Choose three, five, or a cheese platter. And opposite that, under "Sweets," four desserts.
Beverages get two sections: six pages for wines by the glass (and beer, cider, soda, French press coffee, and tea by the pot), and 25 for wine by the bottle an eclectic and far-ranging accumulation that includes Greece, South Africa, New Zealand, Turkey, and Chile, as well as the more expected France, Italy, Germany, and the U.S. The wines by the glass (43 the night we dined) are given poetic and evocative descriptions; not so the bottles, though the servers are happy to discuss possibilities with you. That night we felt like running barefoot through the glasses list (available by the 2 1/2-ounce taste or a 5-ounce glass), trying an Alsatian Gewurztraminer (1999 Rieflé Côte de Rouffach), a Spanish sparkling wine (2002 Juvé y Camps Cava Brut Naturel), and an Italian red from Puglia (2000 Cantina Sociale di Copertina Società Cooperativa Agricola Copertino Riserva).