You can't find a sweeter setting in San Francisco than the one enjoyed by La Terrasse. Tucked away in a modest-looking tile-roofed building in the Presidio, the glassed-in terrace for which the restaurant is named has a truly glorious view of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, glimpses of which can also be had from the interior. La Terrasse is just about evenly divided in area between inside and out.
The terrace seats 50 on French wicker chairs at wooden tables under bright-red umbrellas advertising Belgian beer Chimay. The inside, which has a lodgelike feel with its wrought-iron chandelier, natural stone, and rough-hewn wood, accommodates about the same number on wooden chairs at zinc tables (linens are added at dinner).
When La Terrasse opened in 2006, it offered multicourse, elaborate prix-fixe dinners of classical French haute cuisine that seemed at odds with the decor and didn't draw crowds to its somewhat quirky location after dark. Today it offers a much simpler à la carte menu (the same at lunch and dinner) of French specialties both classic and modern. On Sunday, when dinner is not served, there's a special brunch menu that adds dishes such as eggs benedict, a wild-mushroom omelet, and a potato-and-egg torte to a shortened version of the regular offerings.
The terrace setting couldn't have been more perfect for lunch after a recent excursion to the Women Impressionists show at the nearby and also French-inspired Legion of Honor — the bright umbrellas and woven chairs could have sprung directly from one of the colorful canvases of Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt. We were happy to slide into one of the numerous adjacent parking spaces, a rare delight in San Francisco. The compact all-day menu offers eight dishes listed under Hors D'Oeuvres and Soups, five Salades, nine Entrées, four wood oven pizzas, and four Garnitures, aka vegetable sides. We wished there were some simple, classically French baguette sandwiches, or any sandwiches other than the hamburger, available at lunch. (There is a croque madame offered at brunch.)
We dined slightly eccentrically on three rather extravagant hors d'oeuvres, starting with scallops and sweetbreads and continuing to a shared plate of foie gras. The sea scallops in truffle vinaigrette ($16) were three plump beauties, only a tiny bit overcooked for our taste under their beautiful seared golden crust, set on a vinaigrette whose truffles were insufficient to be seen or tasted, with a thatch of mâche (lamb's lettuce) serving as decoration and offering a textural and bitter flavor contrast to the suave and sweet scallops. It was much more successful than the sweetbreads aux morilles ($17). The chunks of sweetbreads were, again, overcooked — much more glaringly than the scallops, with some morsels rather blackened — in a rich and tasty demiglace, with some delicious whole morel mushrooms, and, again, a handful of mâche. I sipped a Golden Gate ($10) in honor of the beautiful orange structure in the distance, set against the bright blue sky: Champagne, brandy, Cointreau, and fresh orange and lemon juice, served in a champagne flute.
The star of the meal was the huge thick disc of foie gras torchon ($18), perched on a round of lightly toasted brioche, accompanied by several more slices of brioche, several perfect raspberries perched alongside a slick of raspberry sauce, and the by-now-inevitable clump of mâche, which this time seemed to benefit from a light coating of oniony dressing. The foie gras was deliriously rich and unctuous, so good that I found myself wanting to order a second portion directly upon finishing it. The bright, sweet raspberries and the crunchy, pungent leaves provided the perfect foil to its deep flavor and lush creamy texture. It was the kind of dish that would draw you back.
We shared a vanilla millefeuille ($7), many layers of fragile pastry oozing sweet thick crème patissière — we would have liked a touch more of the pastry cream — and really excellent coffee ($2). More hits than misses, we thought, and left feeling even happier than when we'd sat down, high praise for any restaurant.
Beautiful weather drew us back to La Terrasse for a Saturday lunch. There was no problem getting seated when we arrived just around noon, but the place soon filled up. We enjoyed seeing several families with small children, for whom the kitchen split dishes.
We chose an indoor table with a great view of the open kitchen and the flickering flames of the wood oven. I was surprised our server had only a vague idea of what came on the charcuterie platter ($18), and it would have been better if she hadn't mused aloud, "They used to put foie gras on it, but not anymore," since it was only by a great force of will that I wasn't ordering the foie gras again. In the event, it had slices of salami, smoked duck, a piece of duck salami, a bit of pork pâté, and a chunk of duck rillettes hidden under a clump of, yes, mâche, garnished with olives and cornichons. We've been spoiled in San Francisco lately by fabulous charcuterie assortments at Bar Tartine, Perbacco, Ducca, and Bar Bambino, among others — there's been a real revival of the art — and La Terrasse's rather pedestrian version paled in comparison. The soup of the day, cream of carrot ($8), was too creamy and buttery for its orderer, who wanted the brighter flavor of fresh juice, but the others at table enjoyed it. And the escargots in garlic butter ($14) seduced their first-time taster entirely, who sopped up the sauce with chunks of La Terrasse's good bread.
The generous, salty, tasty steak frites ($26) came with a silver pail full of excellent freshly made french fries. It was a classy presentation we also saw adorning the plates of thick hamburgers ($12, or $14 with Gruyère or Roquefort). We enjoyed dipping the frites into the lavishly tarragoned sauce béarnaise. The nicely cooked, flaky halibut ($19), similarly generous in portion and salt, was perched atop a lovely, simple, buttery sauté of fresh white corn helped along by tiny cubes of bacon. The smoked salmon pizza (also available at brunch, $14), decorated with squiggles of crème fraîche and black crunchy beads of tobiko caviar, came hot and crisp from the wood oven. We overheard raves about the moules frites ($14), the bacony salade Lyonnaise with a poached egg perched on top ($12), and a salad of greens completely hidden by slices of smoked salmon ($14).
The dessert list, alas, seems to be a better read than it is to eat. The lemon mascarpone tart ($7) wasn't very lemony, the strawberry sorbet ($7) also seemed insufficiently fruity, and the brioche pain perdu ($7) was pretty much a disaster: a soggy, lukewarm slice of raisin bread, neither crisp without nor custardy within, that gave you no idea of why anybody would ever enjoy eating French toast.
But even after the disappointing desserts, we still left La Terrasse happier than when we arrived. On a clear day, there are few places more delightful to relax and enjoy the matchless San Francisco view over a classic steak frites or a lush serving of foie gras.