Puff pieces

Souffle. The word itself is so luxurious — as compared to, say, oatcake. Souffle. Say it. Roll it around in your mouth. So French in that slightly naughty, indulgent way.

So, feeling un peu decadent — dare I take a puff of black tobacco? — we headed for Cafe Jacqueline, that North Beach shrine for soufflŽ lovers, where owner/chef Jacqueline Margulis has personally whipped up every soufflŽ that has come out of the kitchen over the last 16 years.

Now understand, I had some history with the place. My last visit, almost 10 years ago, was with a man who ordered a chocolate souffle to share, smiled wickedly and drew a line down the middle with his spoon. I leapt right in, tunneling straight to the still slightly gooey interior. Souffles continue cooking after coming out of the oven, and if, like me, you love that initial creamy hit, you can't waste time.

I surfaced to find my companion pecking around the edge in what seemed like slow motion. It was then I realized he was serious about that line. Needless to say, we didn't last.

A decade later, Cafe Jacqueline looks exactly the same. Lace curtains at the window, red roses at each table, beautiful candelabra. And lovers. Lots of them, cooing at each other over this most sensuous food.

Actually, it helps to be in love at this restaurant, because it takes a long time to get those lovingly, individually prepared souffles. Our dinner clocked in at just under three hours. And as we were most definitely not in love (just two girls out dishing the dirt), it was a bit much. We knew things were running thin when we started in on our mothers.

And those puffed-up little beauties are not cheap. Entree soufflŽs, which serve two, start at $20 for plain gruyere, go up a few dollars for additions such as spinach, mushrooms, garlic or leeks, and reach $25 for asparagus or prosciutto and mushroom. The two special souffles at our visit, salmon and lobster, ran $30 and $50 respectively. I asked the waiter to repeat the price of the lobster souffle because it seemed so, so … incroyable.

Dessert souffles (the menu says they serve two to four; I say two) are $25 for chocolate or Grand Marnier, $30 for fresh fruit. Mon dieu!

That said, these souffles are definitive. Light and airy, they're gorgeous to behold, the perfectly browned tops riding the white ramekins like jaunty berets. They inspire the kind of sounds all those lovers undoubtedly made immediately upon returning home.

The salmon special (I couldn't go for the lobster — $50 was a psychological barrier) contained large pieces of salmon and tiny tender asparagus, surrounded by a dreamy cloud of egg and cheese.

And the peach we had for dessert (returning to the chocolate would have been just too painful) was a work of art. Topped by a circle of fresh peach slices (in the middle of the winter yet) and a rim of powdered sugar (just sweet enough), it was, again, heaven in the mouth.

After polishing off the last of the peach (to be honest, scraping the side of the ramekin with our spoons), my friend was so bold as to suggest that a two-soufflŽ dinner was a bit … redundant.

Later, as we cruised up and down the hills of North Beach to walk off the meal (hah!), I conceded she was right. Especially when I looked down and noticed egg yolk oozing out from under my fingernails. I kept seeing images of those awful egg council posters, the ones with the eggs behind bars telling us four times a week is okay, thinking, Let's see, if I don't have another egg till 1997 I'll probably be just fine.

So here's a constructive suggestion about how to have your souffle and keep your arteries intact. Start your dinner at Cafe Jacqueline with homemade soup –the leek with creme fraeche ($4.50) was perfect — or a salad. Even simple butter lettuce is delicious, because Jacqueline uses high-quality olive oil. Then, if you choose an entree souffle, skip the dessert.

Or, and this is my preference, have a heartier salad, spinach with bacon and pine nuts ($7.50), for example, and head straight for the chocolate souffle.

On the libation side, Jacqueline has a nice selection of California and European wines and champagnes. A Kir Royale (champagne with creme de cassis) is a lovely, celebratory way to start your evening. Equally sophisticated and guaranteed to put you in that Continental frame of mind would be a Lilet or Dubonnet cocktail.

And one more suggestion. Visit Cafe Jacqueline with someone you love, or even someone you're thinking about loving. The way he or she approaches that chocolate souffle will tell you volumes.

Cafe Jacqueline, 1454 Grant, S.F., 981-5565. Open Wed-Sun 5:30-11:30 pm.

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