Cow Hollow's a sunny stretch of real estate between the flats of the Marina and the hills of Pacific Heights that allegedly got its name from the bovines that grazed there a century or so ago. Union Street, the neighborhood's Via Veneto, is a trim, gingerbread amalgam of the homey (Cow Hollow Shoe Repair), the trendy (Georgiou), the chainy (Starbucks), and the just plain unique (Carol Doda's Champagne and Lace Lingerie Boutique). There isn't exactly a surfeit of taco joints, but there is the Bus Stop, a friendly, century-old neighborhood saloon with two dozen draft beers, a pool table, a hundred CDs on the jukebox, and eight TVs, all of them tuned to the same sporting event. It's a fine place for a Bloody Mary, carefully handcrafted ingredient by ingredient with plenty of horseradish, just the way I like it.
After the Bloody Mary I was hungry, so I continued up Union, past Perry's and Betelnut and La Nouvelle Pâtisserie, to Fillmore, the northernmost, bay-breezed stretch of Fillmore, where the neighborhood ambience continues unabated: Real Foods, the Balboa Cafe, PlumpJack Wines. The latter two establishments are owned and operated by Gavin Newsom and Bill Getty, the pair behind the PlumpJack Cafe, my luncheon destination of choice. (The name comes from an opera penned by Bill's father, Gordon, the billionaire composer.) The cafe has overhauled its menu since new chef Keith Luce arrived last summer with his 1998 James Beard Rising Star Chef Award and extensive experience in the kitchens of New York's Le Cirque, Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, and other culinary hot spots. (He also oversees foodly matters at the Balboa, as well as the PlumpJacks on Pierce Street and at Squaw Valley.) The new menu, dedicated as before to the seasonal cycle as well as the establishment's acclaimed wine cellar, features wonderfully satisfying tastes and textures that are complex without being inaccessible.
These are served up in a smallish, happy, yet well-heeled setting in which intricately curved bronze light fixtures emerge from a background of light grays and golds, sparked with shafts of multicolored blossoms and tiny pails of greenery on every table. Wine -- the restaurant's connecting theme -- is a visual motif glimpsed in handsome racks against two walls, and mesh screens contribute a gauzy effect for daytime's eastern exposure. Here I enjoyed a jewel of a lunching experience the likes of which I haven't known since my last visit to Italy.
It began with a Caesar salad ($6) I ordered with some trepidation. I had my first Caesar in Guadalajara in 1966 and have eaten bushels of the stuff since then, ignoring such embellishments as grilled chicken breast and deep-fried calamari and searching out the real article, finding bliss at Alfred's and Marin Joe's and a few other places along the way. (I even made a pilgrimage a few years back to Cesar's in Tijuana, the birthplace of the noble dish.) My problem with the salad recently has been this: If you're going to take out the eggs and the anchovies, why call it a Caesar at all? Why not call it the Food Cop Special and be done with it? Luckily, the PlumpJack version is terrific and unfettered. The crunchy romaine isn't hinted or touched with garlic and Parmesan; it's drenched in it, and in egg and olive oil and anchovies too. The result is spiky and pungent.
Next came a thick fillet of seared tuna ($15), smoky brown on the outside, cool, creamy, and blood red within, served on a bed of al dente flageolet beans with earthy, deep green Swiss chard and tiny red tomatoes bursting with juice and sweetness -- a dazzling still life to boot -- the whole jazzed with a spicy lobster bordelaise. The meal concluded with a dry, bland hazelnut soufflé ($7) redeemed by an accompanying scoop of chocolate ice cream set on a bed of crushed hazelnut brittle, and tea ($1.75) served loose-leaf style in a small, heavy iron pot with cubes of white and Demerara sugar in a copper wire basket. Service was impeccable throughout.
On another occasion I sampled the dinner menu with two colleagues. At night the restaurant's illumination is kept to a minimum -- a pool of light here, an indirect candle flame there -- creating a more romantic, if equally convivial, atmosphere. We began with a bruschetta ($8.50) that exemplifies Luce's adventurous nature -- its confluence of grilled treviso, white bean purée, and arugula leaves made for a multitextural, bracingly satisfying nosh. Mâche and shaved fennel starred in a salad ($7) artfully arranged around the flavors of golden beets, grapefruit, candied walnuts, and a milky ricotta. And an unlikely marriage of fresh crab meat and marinated ahi ($14) succeeded on the strength of its disparate though briny flavors and the underlying oomph of endive and lemon.
The risotto ($12), which changes on a daily basis, was creamy and bland with only the occasional onion and pea shoot to give it a hint of flavor, but the roasted chicken ($18) was as light and moist as it's supposed to be but seldom is; a sparkling trinity of flavors -- tangerine, olive, braised endive -- gave a lively edge to the crisp-skinned fowl and its bed of supple polenta. Especially hearty was the cassoulet ($21) of duckling confit, Toulouse sausages, and lots of slow-roasted garlic, an earthy, rich, deeply flavored example of the genre.
Since two of the diners hate bananas but love ice cream, we ordered the banana split ($6) with the bananas on the side. The production values were impressive: Not only was the banana glazed to a hot and sugary turn, but the ice cream was studded with rich chunks of chocolate brownie, doused in pineapple-caramel sauce and hot fudge, and topped with a few brandied cherries. (Yes, I liked it.) The crème brûlée ($6) was standard except for its (admittedly tasty) gimmick -- an infusion of bergamot-rich Earl Grey tea. And the chocolate cake ($7), rich and fudgy, featured highlights of ginger and the juicy foil of zinfandel-poached pears on the side.
PlumpJack's exhaustive, eclectic wine list is known for its surprising affordability -- all selections are priced at retail, resulting in levies considerably below the norm. There's a wide variety of California vintages, reflecting the establishment's locally geared nature, from Jory's 1998 La Nina cab rose ($15) to Domaine Carneros' Le Rêve sparkling wine ($49), with PlumpJack's own 1998 Reserve chardonnay available at $32. The by-the-glass selections -- an impressive 28 ($5-12.50) -- are also available by the half-glass.