Almost Home

Stepping into Cafe Maisonnette on a blustery, autumnal evening is like going to a friend's house for dinner. Even the word “maisonnette” implies a homey smallness, and the restaurant speaks in uniformly intimate tones, from its low number of tables (including one in a cozy nook at the back) to its elegantly spare menu.

We took the table in the nook — a space so snug as to leave no choice but to lean over the table, as if state secrets were being whispered. It felt like Valentine's Day; the only detail missing was a red rose in a lead crystal vase in the middle of the table.

Cafe Maisonnette has been around for more than 30 years — which makes it a kind of Methuselah among San Francisco restaurants. From the outside, the place looks like nothing: storefront windows, a plainly lettered menu, a weatherworn old sign without a single length of neon. It could be a laundromat. You could easily walk right by it on your way along a quiet block of Eighth Avenue between Geary and Clement, the big, bright streets where the action is. There would be no reason to suppose the food is as good as it is.

But the food is memorable, and it proves (again) that little restaurants with their dedicated staffs can do it just as memorably as the marquee places, with their hundreds of seats and NASDAQ-savvy investors. Cafe Maisonnette has fewer than a dozen tables, but each one counts, and when our waiter offered me a splash of wine to try with a dish, I felt certain that he was not going to have to enter his enthusiastic generosity as some special code on a computer that tracked every aspect of the restaurant's operations.

Back in our nook, we waited only a few moments for warm sourdough bread with sweet butter to reach the table, along with glasses of ice water. It was the sort of chilly evening that asks for soup, and that day's soup — roasted corn and spinach ($3.75) — managed simultaneously to be summery and wintry. The roasted corn gave the soup a rich, almost gravylike color, and the spinach added a certain gravity, but the basic taste of the dish was a muted sweetness. Like tomatoes, corn means summer, and its taste, clear even in a stylish soup, evokes a thousand memories of eating it off the cob on a warm summer evening in the back yard, with burgers sizzling on the grill.

One first course — a duck-leg confit on a bed of mesclun lettuce, with raspberry vinaigrette ($5.75) — came from the daily specials board. The duck's skin was well-crisped, but the meat underneath was moist and tender enough to separate from the skin with just a fork. Duck's distinctive flavor — a combination of chicken's mild agreeability with a dusting of dark gaminess — can stand alone, but in this dish the raspberry vinaigrette brought a sharp fruitiness, spicy but not sweet, that cut the richness of the meat.

Our other starter, ravioli in a vegetable consomme ($5, from the regular menu), was overwhelmed by its brie stuffing. The broth itself was insipid and needed salt, and the other ingredients — pine nuts, tomatoes, a clove of garlic — were like staccato effects that would burst with a moment of flavor but did not seem to contribute to the concert of the dish.

“I'm stuffed,” my friend said, before the main courses arrived. We glanced up at the dessert board with a mixture of longing and dread: Might we burst before getting that far? Would we have to settle for coffee and a mint?

A neighbor who had originally recommended the restaurant had told me that when she frequented Cafe Maisonnette in the early 1960s, the star of the menu had been rack of lamb. It's still on the menu (at $17, the most expensive item), and it arrived medium-rare, as requested. On the plate around it lay a medley of lightly sauteed summer vegetables, including cubes of squash, baby carrots, and a slice of apple. There was also an extraordinarily tasty potato pancake, whose secret ingredient, according to our server, was caramelized onions (which also lent a deep brandy color).

The lamb was nearly like butter. It had been lightly crusted with bread crumbs, and it was served with a sauce of red wine and mustard whose seriousness was freshened by mint. (When I first tried the sauce I felt the disorientation of tasting something familiar without being able to identify it; I'd never had mint in a red-wine sauce before, and it wasn't an herb that sprang instantly to mind. I had to consult the menu to figure out what it was.)

Sea scallops ($13.50) were seared to a brown crust on the outside while remaining creamy inside. Like so many kinds of seafood, scallops can turn rubbery if they're overcooked, but the kitchen handled them perfectly. They, too, came with the vegetable medley and wondrous potato pancake, and a tomato-basil vinaigrette that seemed like a relish. The vinaigrette balanced the sweetness of the almost golf-ball-sized scallops.

Sometimes dessert is worth suffering for. I'd already had plenty to eat, but after discussing the desserts we knew there was no turning back. The lighter of the two most desirable choices was a raspberry tart ($4.50), which was distinguished by the curing of the fruit in sugar. It is lovely to serve things in their natural state when possible, but the truth is that berries can often be too tart. These were not; the curing brought out the fruit's deep flavor. The fluted pastry was crisp and flaky, and the dollop of whipped cream on the side was not so big as to muffle the main event.

The chocolate truffle torte ($4.50) was like a big piece of fudge in the shape of a pie slice. The taste of chocolate was pure, strong, mind-filling, and the creamy texture was surely the result of ingredients we were better off not knowing about. Around the slice of torte was a pool of creme anglaise — sweet, delicate, slightly thick, offering a subtle contrast to the bruisingly satisfying slice of torte.

As we were leaving, a party of four arrived, and our server greeted them with a smile and a handshake. They had been there before, and he remembered them as they remembered him. That's Cafe Maisonnette: the kind of place that won't forget you any more than you'll forget it.

Cafe Maisonnette, 315 Eighth Ave., S.F., 387-7992. Tues-Sat 5:30-10 p.m.; Sun 5:30-9:30 p.m.

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