The last couple of spins taken on the restaurant roulette wheel had resulted in a loss, so I found myself craving a good meal even more than usual as we drove towards Palmetto on a dark and chilly night. It had housed Café de Paris L'Entrecôte and more recently was the Union Street branch of Market Street's Home. Now, after a stylish and sleek yet rather characterless remodel, Home's owners had installed talented itinerant chef Andy Kitko — late of local hot spots Bar Tartine, Gary Danko, and Aqua — to preside over a menu of contemporary Mediterranean cuisine.
Palmetto's Web site promises “a culinary journey with tastes from Southern France, Spain, Southern Italy, and Northern Africa (Morocco and Algeria).” We decline the first two tables offered to us — the little glass box that sits on the sidewalk is not only empty but cold, and there are laborers working outside; the four-top in the back room, the last of four linked spaces (the place is much bigger than it appears from the street), is just a few feet from the pass-through to the semi-open kitchen. We're happy where we end up, sitting on the thinly cushioned banquette along the back wall with a nice view of the polished wood floor and tables, warmly lit by yellow glass pendant lights. I surprise myself by ordering a hot buttered rum from the specialty cocktail list (I told you it was a dark and chilly night). There's an interesting 48-bottle wine list, easily contained on the reverse of the one-page menu, from which my father chooses a glass of Dolcetto d'Alba. The eclectic menu offers many temptations; in fact, there's nothing among the nine starters, four pastas, one targeted vegetarian dish (a chickpea stew with artichokes, kale, and quinoa), six fish and meat mains, and four vegetable sides that doesn't hold a real element of allure. Well, maybe not the marinated olives or the Niman Ranch hamburger.
After some familial horse-trading, we come up with our order (eschewing the classic Spanish shrimp with garlic for the equally classic Greek lamb meatballs, choosing zucchini blossoms stuffed with crab instead of Sicilian squid stew), when the recital of the night's specials blows our carefully constructed plan out of the water. When we hear about the roasted blue-foot chicken served for two, my mother and I abandon our roasted chicken Basquaise and bacon-wrapped pork loin without a backward glance. (Well, I do miss the idea of the loin's accompanying Brussels sprouts, roasted cipollini onions, and salsify, a fall vegetable trifecta if there ever was one).
The blue-foot chicken is a true free-range bird, the American equivalent of France's famous bleu de Bresse bird. I've never seen one on a San Francisco menu. First, however, is the chef's offering of an espresso cup of rich butternut squash soup perfumed with a dot of bright orange pumpkin-seed oil, and then our starters. The zucchini blossoms stuffed with a rich mixture of Dungeness crab and ricotta are poised like three fat pyramids on swirls of red roasted tomato vinaigrette and bright green pesto, adorned with long strips of unusually supple and tasty grilled zucchini. The creamy wild mushroom soup, freighted with croutons, garlic chives, and a fabulous tangle of roasted oyster, cremini, and shimeji mushrooms, is what I always wish mushroom soup will be and very rarely is: It's divine. I'm less in love with my lamb meatballs; they're tender, but I wish the accompanying cucumber-yogurt tzatziki were much more garlicky.
The whole chicken, its blue clawlike feet still attached, is brought to the table in a copper pan for us to admire. I also like the whole head of garlic, but the server warns us it's for presentation purposes only. The carefully carved bird (chunks of white meat and a whole leg and thigh each) comes plated atop lightly smashed frisée and Jerusalem artichokes that taste like the offspring of baby potatoes mated with artichokes, soaking up the chicken juices, with a heap of sautéed chanterelle mushrooms alongside. The two wings are served in their own little bowl. The chicken has firm, moist flesh under lovely buttery crisp skin, and tastes like chicken should, but very rarely does. We don't pick up any whiff of the black truffle butter we were told it was anointed with, but no matter. It's a wonderful bird. My father is also very happy with his sliced hanger steak, the rare meat dark purple with crisp black edges, atop watercress-potato purée with glazed carrots and bordelaise sauce. The crisp, thin frites we order come wrapped in paper in a tall glass, with ketchup and lovely housemade cumin aioli.
We're so contentedly full that we choose only one dessert from an intriguing list of six that includes quince financier with Gorgonzola dolce, and gateau basque with apricot confit and coffee ice cream: the Greek galaktoboureko, a simple cake of firm custard layered with phyllo pastry. Here we get two elegant cigar-shaped pastries whose impossibly thin phyllo encases lemon-infused, ever-so-slightly-grainy semolina, scattered with tangelo sections, tangelo peel confit, and pomegranate seeds in a light, fragrant lavender syrup.
We exit, more than content with our dinner, big winners this evening at restaurant roulette. I'm looking forward to my next meal here, especially after taking a look at the enticing brunch menu (avocado and basil omelet with bacon and Brie; chicken hash; and crispy polenta with poached eggs, piperade, and chorizo are just a few of its many temptations). But that meal turns out to be lunch with my hungry friends Mel and Skip, up from Los Angeles for their annual orgy at the Pinot Fest held at Farallon. Among us we manage to try much of the rather brief lunch menu, mostly soups, salads, and sandwiches (especially since Palmetto has dropped the house-made pastas and daily fish special still promised on its Web site). The boys start well with dishes that could easily be light lunches on their own: a lovely salade niçoise featuring tuna cured in-house in good oil, and house-cured salmon atop a potato cake more mashed than crispy, adorned with watercress, frisée, fennel, pickled beets, and crème fraîche. We're all beguiled by my minestrone, filled with lightly cooked vegetables, a bit of pasta, and fat, creamy borlotti beans.
We go on to quite good if not amazing sandwiches: a rather less robust than anticipated roasted garlic chicken sausage with kale and mustard on country bread, and an open-face grilled flatiron steak sandwich somewhat undone by its bed of strong-flavored mushroom duxelles and red wine jus. My grilled Niman Ranch hamburger is perfectly fine, on a sweet, soft brioche bun, with very good house-pickled cucumber chips, carrots, fennel, and cauliflower. My friends, who followed Pinot Fest by drinking their way through the Anderson Valley, are very pleased with the three wines they sample here, especially the Hope & Grace Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands. I enjoy a glass of fruity French Chidaine Clos Habert Chenin Blanc.
I'm surprised that the lunch dessert offerings are limited to a sorbet assortment (today passionfruit, lemon, and a gelato-like coconut-mint) and a mousselike chocolate pot de crème. It's true that we won bigger on dinner, but we're willing to place bets on all future meals.