Market-driven, fresh, and local. We've all read or heard those words so often in regards to San Francisco restaurants that your eyes may roll back in your head when you come across them yet again. But the words have real meaning when applied to Bar Jules, a six-month-old eatery at the westernmost edge of the chic three-block-long Hayes Valley shopping strip.
Bar Jules' brief menu changes nightly, inspired by, yes, what's fresh and local and in the markets. It's chalked on two blackboards and posted on brown paper in the window on Bar Jules' otherwise signless facade. It also helpfully appears on a virtual blackboard on its Web site, which was especially essential in its first weeks when diners were greeted with only a couple of choices each of starters, mains, and desserts. If you weren't in the mood for sand dabs or oxtail, it was best to come another night.
Nowadays there's more on the board. On our two visits, we were offered a soup, a salad, three dishes that could serve as starters or light main courses, two mains, an off-the-menu vegetarian plate, and two desserts. Only one of the dishes was repeated on the second visit: a flourless chocolate cake, the River Café Chocolate Nemesis. What was repeated was chef Jessica Boncutter's culinary style: excellent ingredients carefully combined, lightly cooked, and shining (both literally and figuratively) with flavor.
The literal shine comes from what seems to be her favorite ingredient, good olive oil, which arrived gleaming and greeny-gold on a plate to be sopped up with wonderful rustic bread and glistened on many of the dishes that followed.
If your particular band of foodies likes going out in large groups, each ordering something different and tasting from each other's plates, Bar Jules might not be quite the ticket. Then again, it might make a pleasant change to be able to eat everything you chose all yourself. On our first visit, a group of six women next to us had four orders of wood-grilled yellowfin tuna, colorfully garnished with yellow tomatoes, pale-green cucumbers, dark-green French beans, and gray-green olives; a plate of lamb; and a vegetarian stew of artichoke hearts, green beans, potatoes, chickpeas, and Romesco sauce. Each woman ate her own dish, and everybody cleaned their plates.
We tried what the board called wild fennel soup with ricotta ($8). It was a clear vegetable broth so dense with chunked, almost-translucent fennel that it seemed like a stew. The mild curds of ricotta were spread on two little crostini plopped atop the brew. A second bowl we saw served later was much more brothy, with fewer fennel chunks. The slightly sweet, vaguely anise-scented soup was a pleasant if somewhat recessive way to begin our dinner.
Much more exciting and assertive (and startlingly generous) was the dish called house-cured boquerones with avocado and grilled bread ($12). Two huge pieces of bread overhung the plate, covered with gouges of luscious ripe avocado, themselves draped with the silvery anchovies, peppery leaves of arugula tucked in here and there, the whole glimmering with olive oil. The tender, meaty little fish were among the best I've tasted.
We went on to a Hoffman Farm quail ($13), served proudly upright on a bed of watercress, looking like a proud Thanksgiving turkey, but whose scale was given away by the plump roasted cherries tucked around it. We'd been warned when we ordered it as a second course that it was a single bird, but it was plenty. The quail was moist, pink, and good; a simple dish. We were less impressed with the Sonoma leg of lamb ($26): The chewy slices, daringly rare, betrayed little snappy lamb flavor and were dull, paired with a slightly undercooked potato-and-spring-onion gratin and olive-oil-drizzled arugula. Prettier on the plate — rosy pink, pale creamy yellow, dark green — than in the mouth.
Dessert was also a little uneven: we much preferred the River Café Chocolate Nemesis ($7), the apotheosis of the flourless chocolate cake, to the summer berry tart with vanilla whipped cream ($8), especially when the berries proved to be only strawberries and raspberries, and not especially stellar ones at that.
Still, we'd had an entirely pleasant evening enhanced with a few eclectic glasses chosen from Bar Jules' brief — perhaps ten choices — chalkboard wine list, all available by the glass or the bottle. And the simple but colorful room — with walls painted in soothing yet vibrant blue and green, a long wooden banquette on a paneled wall, Gallic wicker chairs, and stools at the tall ten-seat counter facing the open kitchen —embraced its forty or so happy, chattering inhabitants, who completely filled the room within an hour or so of its six o'clock opening.
Bar Jules doesn't take reservations, so we arrived early, again, for our second meal. Among three of us we managed to order everything on the menu save the soup (tonight: carrot and spring onion, another shining brothy brew with floating vegetables, glimpsed on another table), and salad (Little Gem lettuces with beets and pistachios, a generous heap again spied on the neighboring table).
This night, everything we had was delightful. It wasn't only delicious and vibrating with freshness, but also clearly the product of a true style, an animating intelligence in the kitchen that knows what it likes. It's almost like eating in somebody's home, made even homier when you learn the eponymous Jules is Boncutter's basset hound. Boncutter, a veteran of London's famed River Café, San Francisco's Zuni Cafe, and the open-kitchen, counter-service Hog Island Oyster Co., likes simple food, whose few ingredients taste of themselves and are equal in importance.
We started with a bowl heaped with Tomales Bay mussels ($12), in a rich, oily broth flavored with oregano, lemon, and garlic. At first I thought the smoky flavor came from the oregano, but no, the mussels were started on the wood grill, an extra step that made them soar miles above the usual steamed version. We also shared a panzanella ($12), chunks of grilled bread combined with Early Girl tomatoes, cucumbers, and more of those wonderful house-cured boquerones.
We'd intended for the plate of rosy slices of Parma prosciutto, topped with four quarters of grilled white peach ($14), to arrive with the two mains we'd ordered, but our astute server served it as a separate course, which worked perfectly. I was surprised that the kitchen was more generous with the ham than the peach: A couple more quarters would not have been amiss.
But nothing was wrong with the two mains. The perfectly cooked wood-grilled swordfish ($25) was heaped with a sauce of crushed olives and sided with roasted halved German butterball potatoes and French green beans. Even better was the succulent long strip of shortribs ($24), braised in red wine and topped with a fresh garlicky salsa verde dense with parsley and capers, and with gigantic fat, creamy white beans and sweet whole baby carrots so tender they legitimately could be said to melt in the mouth. It didn't seem the right summer dish for the end of a sunny June day until we tasted it, and then we forgot everything but how wonderful it was.
Equally as wonderful was the extraordinary nectarine tart ($8): thin slices of fragrant fruit laid upon a layer of astonishingly white, thick yet light pastry cream, on a fragile pastry. It used to be whispered that the River Café had knowingly printed a clumsy recipe for its Chocolate Nemesis cake in order to confound home chefs. Boncutter knows its secret. But we were more interested in the secret of her pastry cream.