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Chef Mark Sullivan Spruces Up Pacific Heights 

Wednesday, Oct 10 2007
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Sometimes the heavens align, the restaurant gods smile, and a new place seemingly emerges without any visible growing pains. Such a place is Spruce, although its immediate neighbors on Sacramento have been viewing its growing pains for some time. What was long ago an auto body shop (and had more recently housed the eatery La Table and an antique shop side-by-side) has been transformed into one of the city's most chic and comfortable restaurants.

Its arrival in Pacific Heights had been highly anticipated by fans of its sibling, the Village Pub, in Woodside. And apparently Spruce has been besieged since its opening — for the first time in many years when I called for a dinner reservation a week in advance, I was offered only 5 or 9 p.m. Unlike the similar refrain heard almost reflexively in New York, it didn't feel like a ploy. I was cheerfully told that their dinners were almost fully booked a month in advance, but if a time more to my liking opened up, they'd call me back. I took 5 p.m. and crossed my fingers.

On the day of our reservation, after the restaurant called me to confirm, I was indeed called back a few minutes later and offered a cancellation spot at 6:30. Eager as I was to dine at Spruce, 5 p.m. feels like a nursery supper.

But Spruce looks nothing like a nursery. You enter through lacy iron gates onto a small patio. On your left is a small, shiny takeout shop with its own entrance, through which you can see glass cases filled with pastries and cheeses. Even more alluring is the small room on your right, fitted out like a luxurious living room with a fireplace and dark, comfy leather furniture set against creamy stone walls. Coffee-table books are carelessly yet artfully stacked here and there, in order that Spruce might call the little lounge, where it would be pleasant to linger with a drink, the Library.

The first impression of the big room is that it's dark, yet gleaming. The walls are a rich chocolate brown, the ceilings have been opened up to the rafters and seem impossibly high, and the furnishings are large and look almost as comfortable as they prove to be: huge chairs covered in expensive-looking caramel-colored faux ostrich leather, set around expansive tables cloaked in white linens. "It looks like Texas," I said to my friends, not meaning any disrespect: I meant the moneyed, outsize Texas of Edna Ferber's Giant. Anyway, we loved the room: the huge paintings, both black-and-white figural and colorful abstracts; the massive yet airy sculptural wooden divider and waiter's station separating the dining room from the bar; and most especially the carefully contrived Rembrandt-like lighting, individual spotlights cradling each table in a pool of golden light.

The concise two-page American menu, ten first courses on the left, nine main courses on the right, with terse yet intriguing lists of ingredients on one or two lines, offered much temptation. I couldn't quite imagine just how sweet corn and salt cod chowder with turmeric dates would taste, nor spearmint and harvest greens ravioli with citrus and parmesan. I was fascinated by both, but chef Mark Sullivan (now shared by the two restaurants) is famed for his house-made charcuterie at Woodside, and I had to have it. Covering a big white platter were a pot of duck liver mousse, coins of spicy soppressata, slightly grainy bologna dotted with horseradish crème fraiche thinned with buttermilk, cured beef tongue drizzled with a vinegary salsa verde, and the thinnest slices of fromage de tête imaginable. All of it was easy to love, especially the dark, very livery, almost liquid and earthy-tasting mousse. I was surprised by the burnt edges of the grilled bread that accompanied the lavish assortment, but they were easy to trim off. Still, that bread should never have been allowed to leave the kitchen.

I liked my friends' choices, too, especially the silvery whole sardines in a well-balanced agrodolce (sweet and sour) marinade, set on a warm slivered fennel salad and dusted with gremolata (minced parsley and lemon peel). Almost as good were the sophisticated seared sweetbreads wrapped in pancetta, served atop toothsome lentils and glazed apples. I wished I also could have tried the lush-sounding preserved foie gras with grape gelée and pickled grapes, or the raw and cooked zucchini with soft and dry ricotta.

But any first-course yearnings were erased by the arrival of our three superb main courses. Anita, the orderer of the tart sardines, had another exceptionally well-flavored dish: a crisp-skinned, juicy Moroccan chicken, imbued with cumin and turmeric, on a bed of summer vegetables (zucchini, onions, and peas) tangy with preserved lemon. Her husband, Peter, enjoyed a thick chunk of charred Berkshire pork tenderloin, smoky from the grill yet still moist within, paired with a rectangle of melting pork belly, and sided with an assortment of shelling beans. My slow-roasted beef short rib, bone removed, was a perfect rectangle of luscious shreds of fatty meat, barely held together, oddly sided with only two chunks of grilled peach and (not enough) horseradish sauce. I wished for some greens or mashed potatoes, but there were no vegetable sides on offer; the rich meat was delicious on its own, but I wanted another contrasting texture and flavor.

We washed everything down, happily, with an unusual and well-priced red wine from the Loire Valley, the 2005 Bourgueil "Cuvée Beauvais" (only $30) from a vast (1,000 bottles) and interesting list presided over by wine director Andrew Green.

From the six-item dessert list, we had chunks of slightly grainy semolina cake with peaches and ice cream, just-baked flaky palmiers redolent of good butter, and a delightful float of brandied cherries and vanilla ice cream in house-made cherry soda. Nearly everything about our meal at Spruce was flawless, and we felt cosseted and happy. "This is a real grown-up restaurant," I said, and by that I meant well thought-out and well run.

At lunch with Gwen, who is also struck by the extravagance of the place, it seems lighter as we spy a skylight above. We're given a large table at a long banquette, where I can see that the brown walls are actually covered with a rich, dark mohair fabric.

We started with a lovely, creamy white corn soup, wittily dotted with slightly bitter emerald-green sorrel, both fresh and pureed, and tiny pillows of golden potato gnocchi entwined with another bitter green, spigarello, the whole drenched in cream enlivened with lemon and dusted with parmesan. Gwen got a pound of plump, pale mussels in the shell, also drenched in garlicky cream with diced tomatoes, crowned with thin garlic toasts called crostones. I had beautifully cooked, sliced rare bavette steak on a warm bed of bulgur mixed with cucumbers and chunks of heirloom tomatoes. I sipped a glass of riesling (from fully five on offer, the best assortment by the glass I've seen).

We didn't really have room for the two-layered chocolate and caramel mousse cake we shared, but it allowed us to linger in the comfort of Spruce, over our coffees, for quite a while. We looked at the dinner menu; the beef short rib now came with carrots instead of peaches, and the chicken was simply roasted and no longer Moroccan. I hoped the Moroccan version would reappear.

As in many pricey New York City neighborhoods, the locals are getting something of a bargain at their new hangout. I remember seeing someone eating from a huge bowl of Caesar salad ($9). Tempting, but not as tempting as the boudin blanc with sauerkraut, or Spruce's much-talked-about burger that I hadn't tried. I could hardly wait.

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Meredith Brody

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