The first thing I noticed about JT's, the clubby new bistro that adjoins Stars, was owner Jeremiah Tower himself — in his chef's apron — working the room. He stopped briefly at our table to dispense a few bits of lore about the space JT's now occupies, at 555 Golden Gate. The site was the original home of Stars Cafe, until that restaurant moved around the corner to become bigger, brassier, and more expensive. The vacated premises, meanwhile, became StarBake, under the direction of then-pastry chef Emily Lucchetti.
When Lucchetti left, Tower remade the long, narrow room into a plush, intimate setting that in almost every way is the opposite of big, open, noisy, conspicuous Stars. JT's is a world apart, in a different, softer mood; it's a place to sink into comfortably and wait for the sensational food to start happening.
We nearly couldn't find JT's. The old street entrance has been sealed off, and the restaurant shares a doorway (and coat check) with Stars. There is an unmarked left turn that leads down a short corridor to the new dining room, but even the look of utter confusion on our faces did not attract the attention of the staff. Finally we drifted on our own to JT's (This would never happen in an international airport terminal, I thought to myself severely, dubious people being allowed to meander about), where the maitre d' quickly took our coats and seated us.
That was the low point of the evening, and if it was momentarily awkward, it also reinforced our sense that JT's means to give a special experience. The place isn't there to be stumbled across; it must be found, and it repays the effort.
The menu is entirely prix fixe — two courses for $48 ($52 on weekends), or a five-course tasting menu for $55 ($65 on weekends) — and it changes weekly. Unlike Chez Panisse, whose nightly menu is set, JT's presents a limited list of choices for each of the three principal courses. There is something whimsical, almost meaningless, about offering choices — a bow to diners' sense of entitlement? — because everything is magnificent. JT's offers the sort of cooking that chefs are always preaching about: the best ingredients, simply and elegantly prepared, with the occasional flourish. Very Chez Panisse (where Tower served as chef in the early 1970s).
While we sat, regarding the Stellar Cigar Society (a glass-enclosed cigar-smoking room on the mezzanine), the hors d'oeuvre course, a slice of toasted savory brioche topped with truffled scrambled egg and a dollop of briny black caviar, swiftly appeared. It was just a nibble of finger food, but it was enough to announce the rich simplicity of the kitchen's intentions — and the importance of truffles and caviar to the week's menu.
Those two rarefied condiments also figured in two of our first courses. The smoked char (a salmonlike fish) was served with roasted potatoes and scattered with both black and reddish caviar. And the black-truffle custard was a dense, soufflelike disk topped with a layer of truffles and surrounded by small golden coins of tender sunchoke (“also known as Jerusalem artichoke,” our server told us). The toasted brioche also returned, in the warm foie gras sandwich — a dish whose modest size kept it from being overpoweringly heavy.
Main courses followed a pleasant interval. The striped sea bass, mild and tender, was served whole, on an elongated platter that barely seemed big enough. It was dressed with a blood-orange sauce, which, apart from its dramatic ruby color, gave the fish a pleasantly sharp citrus-raspberry tang.
Saddle of rabbit was mainly white meat, just cooked through and nicely juicy. It was surrounded by a ragout of fava beans, corn, and a handful of asparagus slivers awash in a veal-pheasant reduction — an uncomplicated but stylishly hearty sauce for a winter dish.
The braised lamb shank was served with two stubby lengths of cannelloni: one stuffed with a parsnip purŽe whose flavor my friend described (charitably, I thought) as “grassy”; the other was full of fragrant diced mushrooms (much preferable). The meat itself was gorgeously tender, nearly flaking off the bone like good pastry.
Only two courses to go! I thought hopefully to myself. No wonder JT's is calm and comfortable; eating all those courses — appreciating them, for they're meant to be appreciated — requires proper concentration, and that means periods of rest in between. JT's is a powerfully sensual experience that takes time to digest.
The salad course consisted of a disc of warm brie nestled in a bed of red oak leaf greens and topped with a pile of thin, ribbonlike pommes frites that were a little difficult to eat but tasty enough to justify the bother. The salad was a nice pause, full of color and texture but not too demanding.
Dessert: last of the choices. JT's pithivier was a small round tart filled with creamy cheese; it was surrounded by slices of stunningly flavorful pears and a champagne sauce that gave a bit of needed sweetness. There was something lavish but still slightly stern about the pithivier; I thought it would resemble a cheesecake, but the tart itself wasn't at all sweet.
The triple chocolate mousse was sweet, with three shades of cloud-light mousse (dark, light, white) stuffed into a chocolate boat. Around the edge of the plate: port-soaked Rainier cherries, sweet and darkly suggestive at the same time.
The best dessert of the lot was also the most unassuming: Meyer lemon sorbet with huckleberry sauce and (star-shaped) pistachio cookies. The sorbet powerfully concentrated the lemon flavor (which in the Meyer has orange overtones) while the sauce added a startling splash of purple.
On the way out, I glanced in the mirror on the other side of the room, which gave me a peek into the kitchen. There stood Tower (still in his apron) talking to one of his underlings. Did I see him actually cook something himself? No, but he might well have. Meanwhile, he's there, watching, schmoozing, keeping an eye out. Sign of a great chef. JT's is already celestial, and despite the price, it's actually a deal.
JT's Bistro, 555 Golden Gate, S.F., 861-7827. Tues-Sat 6-9:30 p.m.