Thus, I wasn't exactly jumping for joy when I learned that I'd be reviewing Union Street's Merenda. I knew nothing about the place, so I pictured the typical (at least in my experience) Cow Hollow scene: a horrendous din, angry yuppies who can't believe they have to wait 10 minutes for a table, and bleached-blond hoochie mamas being ogled by former frat boys and/or sleazy old rich men reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt. I could go on, but my point is that Merenda is the last place I expected to discover on Union -- an oasis of civility in San Francisco's little L.A. You'll find no pickup scenes or bathroom coke-sniffers here, but rather a cozy, 30-seat trattoria/wine bar dedicated to the joys of prix fixe dining and the pleasures of the grape.
My friend Michelle and I could tell things would be different here the second we stepped through the door, when Raney Luce, who owns the place along with her husband, Chef Keith, greeted us with a smile. A glass-enclosed takeout display offers fresh pastas, grilled tuna steaks, biscotti, cipollini onions, and niçoise salads. Diva-driven jazz wafts from the sound system. Deep-red walls set with mirrors add an illusion of space to the relatively tight quarters. Votive candles and a tremendous brick column give Merenda a rustic, homey feel. As for the clientele: That night, they seemed a well-behaved, sophisticated bunch. Though I didn't check IDs, I'm pretty sure that, at 31, I was the youngest customer in the place.
In other words, Merenda is a date/ foodie/catching-up-with-old-friends kind of establishment. The Provençal-Italian menu hasn't yet achieved its full potential, but Mr. Luce's successes are so stunning that I'd dine here again in a Marina District minute. The prix fixe menu offers a good deal of flexibility. First you decide if you want two, three, or four courses (appetizers, pastas, entrees, and desserts), then choose from among four or five dishes in each category. We opted for the full deal, which is definitely suited to heavy eaters. Michelle finished about half of her food, while I put away all four of my courses plus two of hers (producing a distinct, if slightly uncomfortable, fullness).
We began with an amuse-bouche (a freebie) of marinated olives accented with garlic and rosemary and as much fluffy, house-made focaccia as we cared to eat. The wine list is fairly brief (just under 50 wines by the bottle, 18 of them available by the glass), but the American, French, and Italian vintages are well chosen and the by-the-glass selections affordably priced. We dedicated our evening to red wines. My first choice, a Praxis pinot noir from the Central Coast, was a soft, fruity sip. Michelle likes the big reds, so she opted for the Devois des Agneaux syrah, which, oddly, arrived chilled. I hope this is not a new trend, since the wine tasted ruthlessly tannic at first. Fortunately, it released deep, dusky chocolate and tobacco notes once it warmed.
In a way, the wines set the tone for the meal. Most of the dishes I ordered were flawless, while Michelle's choices often spoke of a kitchen that had taken one step too many. My appetizer -- mild, creamy duckling liver pâté over crostini, served with an assortment of marinated mushrooms -- left us with the impression that we were in the hands of a master. Michelle's, sardines baked in a tomato fondue, was a mess. A heap of chunky tomato sauce laced with Meyer lemon (a tart-on-tart combination that simply didn't work) concealed slender, pungent fish whose bones were difficult to remove amid the blanket of sauce. All told, the dish was far too labor-intensive, especially given that the payoff was almost nil.
The hit-and-miss trend continued with our second course, but the extremes were less pronounced. My casonsei alla Bergamasca was one of the finest pasta dishes I've ever had. Imagine firm, toothsome bundles stuffed with nuggets of sweet Italian sausage, each topped with a bit of chewy pancetta, then bathed with brown butter laced with crispy sage leaves. The risotto, a lemon-shellfish version, was decent, but suffered once again from overkill. Its seafood (shrimp, mussels, and cockles) was moist and tender, but the lemon overwhelmed the dish and made it hard to taste anything else.
With entrees on the way, we paid another visit to the wine list. Michelle's Canyon Wind cabernet (from Colorado, of all places) was a robust, full-flavored red that arrived at perfect room temperature. My choice, the Giovanni Corino Dolcetto d'Alba, was so velvety smooth it was like breathing in cool, dry evening wind. With that, I turned to an entree of prosciutto-wrapped medallions of lamb. The somewhat salty prosciutto seemed unnecessary, but the lamb was flavorful and juicy, and the sides -- earthy French lentils and sweet, crunchy turnips -- were superb. Michelle ordered the special of the day, a marvelous collage of rare-in-the-middle tuna steaks, zesty pesto aioli, slender French beans, and a roasted tomato stuffed with mushrooms. Each entree came with a separate, choose-your-own side, a melting butternut squash with currants for me and, for Michelle, a buttery whipped potato purée.
For dessert, Michelle's profiteroles came dripping with a rich chocolate sauce but also drowned with ice cream. Though I'm rarely one to object to any amount of ice cream, the abundance here made it hard to appreciate the otherwise wonderfully textured pastry. My fig cake, on the other hand, was a study in restraint: a dense, luscious slice of heaven with slivers of fig, a puff of whipped cream, and dabs of slightly sweet red wine syrup. A pair of Italian nougat candies accompanied the check -- a nice touch. Despite the misfires, Merenda is clearly willing to go the extra mile for its customers. With a little more refinement, it could blossom into one of the best restaurants to open in San Francisco this year.