While a building would have to be 1,000 feet higher to claim the title today, in the 19th-century, the tallest building west of the Mississippi River was the Montgomery Block. At only four stories tall — and built in 1853 on a redwood foundation — it was known as a hotbed of bohemian and literary culture in what quickly became the Barbary Coast. Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and others all passed through, and it was the rare building to survive the 1906 quake and fire. It lasted all the way until the 1950s, in fact — only to be demolished and replaced by the Transamerica Pyramid.
Nearly every trace of that era has been supplanted by high-rises, of course. But while the redwood forest behind the skyscraper and adjacent Mark Twain Alley are lovely places to ramble or eat lunch, the neighborhood has cried out for something with a metaphorical umbilical cord to connect it. Something with a little more hedonistic heft than a mechanical bull and a less deadly serious approach than unsmiling ballet-style table service.
That place is Verjus. Michael and Lindsay Tusk (of Quince and Cotogna) have brought their immense wine knowledge and cellar to bear on a (mostly) French-Spanish menu of mid-range victories, and the result is intellectual without becoming pompous or mannered. It’s not just fun to eat here; it’s exciting. If you feel stumped by which natural and relatively obscure wine might go with gravlax and/or a plate of anchovies, you will probably delight a server who will offer you half-pours of a Muscadet and a Herve Villemade Sauvignon Blanc with enough residual sugars in it to stand up against salty fish prepared with red and green salsas.
There are a couple of confusing design elements. First, I never know which door I’m supposed to walk into and at what time of day, or if I’m supposed to wait there at the threshold or immediately approach one of the two counters. The only food menu is printed on the wall, theater-marquee style, while wines by the bottle are attached to a clipboard and wines by the glass are wedged between the condiments. The “chef’s counter” is a glorified cleared-off zone near the restrooms with a minimum of interaction with the kitchen and an iffy view of that one food menu.
And just to get my biggest pet peeve off my chest, the napkins are that cheap, thin, useless kind that come in a tacky upright dispenser. (Cloth, please! Or, barring that, functional paper you don’t have to wad up.)
But across visits for lunch and dinner in the dining room and a late-afternoon wine-and-cheese excursion in, you begin to grasp the underlying mechanism: a steely joyousness, a cerebral sense of play. Verjus is best during the day, when it’s calm and the space — spaces, really — shine. You’re probably not going to encounter anyone headstrong enough to argue with an $85 corkage, either.
That high-gloss, deep-red ceilings really are a wonder, an antidote to all those hideous, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil-esque HVAC systems sprayed with flame retardant and left exposed. Undoubtedly, they add to the noise volume, but that’s OK. In the library-like wine shop half, which is no longer fully separated from the dining room, a table for two can be almost thrilling. A glass of elegant Pierre Baillette Coeur de l’Histoire Blanc de Blancs against a geometric slice of pâté rustique with some pickled vegetables and some Sofia — Cowgirl Creamery’s deliriously creamy chevre — feels unique, transporting, conspiratorial. However simple-sounding, a jar of duck liver mousse with toast points is right there behind it.
Dinner is ravishing, from plump, almost self-destructing boudin noir to a salad of peas, peapods, and pea greens. A morel ragout with plenty of favas and an egg yolk was buttery to the nth degree — while a lamb merguez couscous with whole carrots was the opposite of the blood sausage: thin, piquant, and snappy.
Pairing it with a sharp, unfiltered, almost bizarre non-vintage Calcarius orange wine from Puglia, you can snatch a glimpse of how the Tusks have wrested control and forced us to give in almost without even realizing it. From the menu to the no-reservations policy to the service, Verjus is top-down bohemia. You will have to experiment at least a little, and no you cannot have a whole roast chicken. Spoilsports might quibble about the slight lack of choices, and there is a paucity of sensuous reds by the glass, but if you give in and let Verjus be the boss, you’ll find the lack of safety novel and refreshing. This is the vibe, no doubt about it.
Verjus, 528 Washington St., 415-944-4600 or verjuscave.com