I sat in a glassy alcove at the jazz-steeped Cafe Chaise, waving at people who trundled by on the Hyde Street cable car. It would have been humane to wave them into the restaurant rather than letting them continue on to the wharf for the finest in tourist dining, but after a while I turned away, bewitched by the sultry music coming from the sound system. Between our table and the kitchen rose a Plexiglas half-wall on which the nightly specials had been listed in differ–ent colors of fluorescent marker. Thus must the TelePrompTer have appeared to Ronald Reagan, I thought: bright, changeable words in big letters.
The alcove seats are the most conspicuous in a J-shaped dining space that seems larger than it is. On the right is a deep dining room, joined by the window tables to a shallower room on the left. One advantage of sitting in the window is that late arrivals to your table can find you. Another is the chance to observe the street traffic. Cafe Chaise, on the northwest slope of Russian Hill, belongs to a real neighborhood; it's the sort of place that could easily become a hangout for the khaki classes who live nearby and can walk there.
While a friend and I were listening to great sax riffs and waiting for the balance of our group to show up, we watched the cafe slowly fill with what looked like a caucus of young Stanford alumni. The Friday night crowd was mostly young and preppy-chic, with a button-down at every table; they were working their way through an imaginative but not far-out menu that gives a Pan-Mediterranean spin to a base of solid French-California cooking.
The day's soup was red kuri squash ($4.50) — thick and creamy, the color of pumpkin. Such is the power of suggestion that I thought I tasted curry in the soup, but the waitress assured me that kuri was simply the name of the squash. After that, I tasted mainly a nuttiness, made more pungent by the ample sliced onions. The soup needed quite a lot of salt.
So did the lamb tortellini in broth ($5), homemade pillows of delicate sponginess stuffed with minced lamb and pine nuts. The vegetable broth was a rich brandy color, but it seemed not to have been salted at all by the kitchen. Tasting it was like standing in a darkened room full of beautiful objects: I knew they were there, but I could not perceive them. Just a quarter-teaspoon of salt was enough to illuminate the broth's complex flavors. The meat stuffing, on the other hand, was perfectly seasoned.
(A few days later, I asked a food-pro friend of mine why so many restaurants serve so much food that's either under- or unsalted. He suggested that because many diners now live in fear of salt, kitchens leave the salting to those at the table. Certainly there are people who, for dietetic reasons, must watch their salt intake. But why must chefs presume everyone is worrying about salt — especially when everyone isn't, and the dishes that result are tasteless? Let the fearful ask for their saltless food, in the same way that people ask for oily salad dressing on the side.)
The rest of our party eventually popped in. They were the only people who didn't look like they'd just done a shoot for J. Crew. (The maitre d' eyed us speculatively; did he think we'd stepped off the cable car by accident?) More first courses arrived, including an overpriced Caesar salad ($6.50) — a pile of romaine lettuce, a neatly arranged line of crisp garlic-bread discs, and a sprinkling of “Argentinian” Parmesan cheese. The cheese and the vinaigrette gave the lettuce a nice tang, but eating the salad was like opening a big box on Christmas morning and finding it stuffed with shredded paper. There was no there there. It's not as if romaine lettuce is a scarce delicacy: Lately a whole head has been going for 49 cents.
Service, meanwhile, was attentive but unobtrusive: water glasses regularly refilled (without our asking), plates cleared, dishes served at well-timed intervals. The main courses all arrived within moments of each other, on properly hot plates.
Couscous ($12) dries out easily, and Cafe Chaise's was dry, as if they made it beforehand and reheated it, or kept it warm. But the grilled lamb brochettes, rubbed with cumin and served rare, were fragrant and juicy, and the winter vegetables, including carrots, beets, and especially grilled fennel, brought color, texture, and a deep rooty flavor to the dish.
The same vegetable medley figured in the seafood risotto ($14), a dish that otherwise had a distinctively Spanish accent. The seafood included salmon, monkfish, and fresh Gulf shrimp, but what I noticed most was the slight crackle of garlic — and saffron? — in the tomato broth. The rice was cooked nicely al dente and had not turned gummy, but it was underseasoned.
The plate that seemed to have the fewest Mediterranean echoes was the ahi tuna ($14.50). The fish was grilled to a lovely medium rare and served with steamed Blue Lake beans and slices of potato. These side items were to have been rescued from blandness by a promising haba–ero-citrus vinaigrette, but I detected neither fire nor sweetness. (The haba–ero is supposed to be one of the world's hottest chiles. I have miscalculated with it and nearly scorched myself, so the kitchen's prudence was probably warranted.)
One stunning dessert among several fine ones: the mocha pot de creme ($4.50), a modest ramekin filled with a celestial chocolate-coffee custard that wasn't too sweet. It was just as good, if not as big, as a similar invention I'd had at Forty-Two Degrees; we demolished the first and immediately ordered another. Just to leave no doubt about the scope of our indulgence, the kitchen finished the dish with a hefty dollop of whipped cream.
As we left, a cable car rumbled by, with hungry-looking people dangling from it. I waved encouragingly — Come on in! — but the car disappeared before I could add the necessary caveat: Bring your own salt.
Cafe Chaise, 1556 Hyde, S.F., 775-5556. Mon-Thurs 6-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat 6-11 p.m.