It looks like spring has finally sprung in Northern California — or at least it has in the Duboce Triangle, where an evening stroll to the crossroads of the F and the J does not require a jacket and the Upper Market palm trees don't look quite so outlandish. On one recent evening we celebrated the fragrant pleasures of the equinox (and an under-the-wire mailing of the old 1040) at Johnfrank, a restaurant that celebrates the seasons in its own gustatory way. Executive Chef Lance Dean Velasquez, whose earlier credits include the Ritz-Carlton under Gary Danko, Campton Place under Jan Birnbaum, and solitary stardom at Moose's and Mendocino's Heritage House, takes superior seasonal ingredients — spring greens, asparagus, salmon, rhubarb — and lets their flavors shine against an array of tastes and textures. The results are occasionally off-kilter but most often impressive.
Johnfrank was opened a year and a half ago by longtime friends and local restaurateurs John Hurley and Frank Everett (hence the name). The first view of the place is uninspiring — low-slung and rust-colored, it looks from the outside like an upscale Lyon's (perhaps reminiscent of the building's previous life as a Boston Market). The inside is pleasantly Bauhaus, however, with clean lines, single-species floral arrangements, and sleek, metallic accents. The bar features an attractively backlit wine library and several comfy stools where you can sit and sip one of the specialty cocktails — perhaps the Island Breeze, a bracing yet unaccountably creamy martini glass of chilled, pineapple-infused vodka. Johnfrank also offers upscale bar snacks — butternut squash tempura with tangelo dipping sauce and like that — and a happy hour that begins an hour before the restaurant opens. The dining room itself features nice, big, family-style tables and good neighborhood vibes despite the starched napkins and delicate glassware — a comfortable place to hang out and enjoy a meal.
Which is exactly what we did. Johnfrank's produce-friendly attitude is exemplified in its beautifully composed salad of pink chiogga beets, brightly flavored ricotta, toasted pistachios (for crunch), and a bouquet of Full Belly Farms greens lightly dressed with a garlicky vinaigrette. Another salad is considerably more hearty: Its star attraction is barely grilled flank steak, blood-red and succulent, distracted somewhat by chunks of overly pungent blue cheese but nicely cradled in a bed of endive and red peppers. The gnocchi is the establishment's finest starter. A pillowy exemplar of Italian comfort food, the potato dumplings are delicately flavored with a Reggiano-infused cream sauce, while bright green peas and smoky shards of serrano ham add complementary textural accents. And the smoked salmon rillettes, chopped, puréed, and molded though they are, retain the fish's buttery, briny nature and arrive pleasantly proffered with wedges of walnut-bread toast and a light, lovely celery root salad.
At first glance the entrees look like a lineup of venerable American classics — pot roast, sirloin steak, etc. — but Velasquez respects the dishes' intrinsic flavors while introducing those early 21st-century touches that separate the farm from the city and the billfold from the expense account. The Atlantic salmon (available in the three-course prix fixe menu) is marvelous — grilled just enough to give it a moist, flaky texture, it's complemented by a bright, chunky pesto of arugula and parsley that gives the plate a vivid Mediterranean aspect. A red pepper-onion compote rich with olive oil supports the earthy theme (although the accompanying garbanzos are a questionable choice). Equally outstanding is the pork chop, a fine example of the kitchen's knowledgeable way with superior ingredients. Admirably thick and flavored with fat, the chop is juicy throughout, with a faint citrusy edge to it. Nestled against it is a hillock of tender, herb-ribboned spaetzle and silky butternut squash. (An overly boozy compote of dried fruit, unceremoniously strewn atop the chop, can be easily ignored.)
The seafood stew, a local variation on bouillabaisse, is notable mostly for the succulence of its mussels; its clams, prawns, and scallops are rubbery, and a garlicky rouille infiltrates the saffron-rich broth to the point of astringency. The country chicken is a bountiful treat, though. The surprisingly delicate bird — just a bit bigger than a Cornish game hen — is roasted until its skin is a crisply toasted amber and its flesh is absolutely succulent. Underneath, a bed of bright-hued mustard greens absorbs the chicken's rich drippings. A drizzle of mustard-seed sauce circles the platter, and a mold of cool, freshly rolled couscous pulls the whole dish together.
Pastry chef Claire Legas' dessert menu maintains the entrees' homespun-hipster attitude: Angel food cake comes decorated with macadamia brittle, gingersnaps adorn Meyer lemon sorbet, and banana cake shares a platter with peanut butter mousse. But as the rhubarb tartlet deliciously demonstrates, sometimes the old-fashioned way is the best. The tangy leafstalk's nickname, pie plant, bespeaks its favored setting — a rite of American springtime that is here given its due. The dish features rhubarb stewed until tender and almost sweet, set into a flaky crust, scattered with enough crumble to give it buttery substance, and — the unifying touch — topped with a scoopful of richly textured ice cream flavored with enough black currant tea to bring out the rhubarb's feral taste. Its presentation is positively feng shui — the small circle of tartlet occupies one corner of a rectangular platter, while three diagonal lines of citrus reduction grace its center.
Another American custom, the big plate of cookies, isn't as successful. The lime bar is a wonderfully tangy variation on the crunchy lemon bar, and the shortbread is a dense slab of sugar, butter, and flour, but the rest — a limp oatmeal-raisin cookie, a perfunctory snickerdoodle, a gummy date pinwheel, an overly sweet chocolate chip cookie — are no match for the oven-baked memories of childhood. At least two other desserts — both textural variations on a lactic theme — are worth enjoying, however. The honey mousse is so light it's practically ethereal, with a bare hint of the hive and an accompanying coulis that's apricot in all its summery essence. The dish's minimalist op-art presentation contrasts nicely with the Vegas extravagance of the passion fruit semifreddo, in which an alp of icy fruit rests on a coaster of coconut dacquoise (meringue disks) in a pool of mango coulis, a flute of spun sugar sprouting from the whole. The flute is overly chewy and the coulis is more sweet than musky, but the hefty, coconut-infused dacquoise makes a fine setting for the bracing semifreddo.
The impressive wine list appears just about as domestic as the menu. Its 141 selections include vintages from Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa as well as France, Italy, Spain, and Germany, but the cellar sinks most of its roots in American soil — Northern California to be specific. There are several treasures available — the Franus 1997 cab, the Truchard 1998 merlot — and nearly half the bottles cost less than $35. You can also get six wines by the half-bottle, 17 by the glass, and 15 by the half-glass, a good option for the cellar-grazer. Service is unobtrusive and well informed, and despite the moderne trappings the food is heartily apportioned. The crowning touch is the panorama out the wide streetside windows: the streetcars, the storefronts, and the strolling inhabitants of a beautiful city enjoying its springtime.