Street Smart

All roads lead to Boulevard

Boulevard is the sleek name of Nancy Oakes' restaurant in the Auddifred Building at the head of Mission Street (surely not the boulevard in question), but a more descriptive one might be Plaza, or even Piazza. Boulevard has become the Rome of the city's restaurants; all social and cultural roads lead there. It's like a town square, with dreamy light fixtures that resemble glowing eggplants, lots of warm, dark, brasserie-style wood, and food that pretty much defines the best contemporary American cooking.

Between courses at lunch, while the Boss responded to one of the innumerable pages that punctuate his already overscheduled life, I listened as two voluble editors seated at the table behind me evaluated various magazines for which they plainly did not work. (One of the magazines — which? — was rather grudgingly described as “estimable.”) Trooping by, meanwhile, was a quartet of somber-faced young men in identical dark blue suits who looked a little too old to be Mormon missionaries and whose leather satchels suggested the practice of law. Toward the front of the restaurant, several generations of family clustered at one of the round tables, listening as the patriarch held forth (on testamentary matters?) while dabbing a white napkin at his mouth.

I liked the mix of business people, cultural figures, tourists, and clans. I liked the food even more, its confident meshing of the deeply traditional (mashed potatoes) with the smoothly innovative (soft-shell crab Asian style).

A fennel-leek soup ($5.25), for instance, could easily have been hijacked by either of its strong-willed main ingredients, but each spoke only in a suggestive whisper, a shadowbox of onions and licorice in a sea of tongue-coating creaminess. (I asked our server if the soup had been thickened with pureed potatoes, and he said, shatteringly, “No, just cream and butter.” Oh.)

The soup needed no salt, and neither did the rock-shrimp-and-corn fritters ($8.25). These had been given a good airy rising before being dispatched to the deep fryer, which gave them an attractive bronze color and a delicate crispness. The master's touch was the roasted-red-pepper coulis napped around the fritters — thick and intensely concentrated with the flavor of peppers, like chic ketchup.

Were F. Scott Fitzgerald a food critic these days, he would have dourly commented on there being no second courses in American meals. So much of the genius in modern cooking seems to lie in the first courses, to the woe of those that follow. It's a measure of Boulevard's excellence that, fine as the first courses were, the main courses were as good if not better.

An Asian treatment (of vegetable slaw, crispy rice noodles, and a slightly sweet sesame-ginger sauce) beautifully suited the faint marine sweetness of soft-shell crab ($12.95). The crab itself had been lightly battered and fried, leaving it both crunchy and juicy. I thought it was out of season, but our server, after consulting with the kitchen, reported that soft-shell crab is available fresh for about six months of the year, the harvesting waters moving progressively farther south from Maryland (in early spring) to the Gulf Coast (late in the summer).

The lightness of the crab made an appealing contrast with the shameless caloric heft of the potato-white truffle ravioli, a luxuriantly fat pillow reclining in the middle of the plate, surrounded by a creamy vermouth-thyme sauce (the herb's flavor pronounced) and scattered with slices of fava beans and chanterelle mushrooms.

That dish put to rest my final flickers of interest in dessert, but the insatiable Boss, after some hemming and hawing, settled on an angel food cake ($5.25), garnished with several scoops of lemon-ginger sorbet. He quickly dismissed the sorbet as “bitter”; I couldn't quite decide: I liked its boldness and the harmonious clarity of its two flavors, but it did have a harsh aftertaste.

The dinner menu offered, irresistibly, a risotto ($10.75), pooled with a caramel-colored chicken jus and a handful of crimini mushrooms stuffed with St. Andre cheese. The latter were a nice touch, but the dish would have been fine without them; the rice was flawlessly creamy, and the chicken reduction provided all the taste necessary. By contrast, the sticky Thai prawns ($10.75) were a little disappointing; we liked the sweet-hot citrus-chili glaze, but the shrimp themselves were rubbery.

Main courses, again, did not disappoint. The grilled veal T-bone ($26.50) was cooked rare, as ordered, and served with a pile of mashed potatoes from which jutted a crispy potato wafer. Little strips of crisped prosciutto adorned the potatoes, while the meat bore a nifty embellishment of crimini slices and a sprig of feltlike tarragon leaves, which gave a distinctive licorice odor when bruised. On the side: a pile of simply sauteed spinach.

My piece of grilled swordfish ($23.25) was almost an afterthought to its bed of heirloom tomatoes — red, gold, cherry, purple, green — which I was still eating long after the fish had disappeared. (The Meyer lemon vinaigrette, though, was too energetically cloying for me; a splash of good olive oil would have given the fruit enough of an accent.) The haricots verts had been steamed until they were just crisp-tender, and the herbed potato fritters, cut in cross-hatch and sensationally crispy, occasioned several cross-table raids by the Boss.

Boulevard's desserts have always been visual extravaganzas. The fig and blackberry tartlet ($6.50) arrived under a trellis of dark chocolate filaments and was filled with, besides the fruit, chocolate ganache (mostly at the bottom) and an aromatic peppermint custard. And the apple Napoleon ($6.50) was like a slice of tarte tatin in the shape of a box, with an accompanying scoop of caramel ice cream.

I can't think of a restaurant in the city I like more than Boulevard. Whenever visitors ask me where they should go for the real local thing, or friends celebrating a special occasion want a recommendation, it's the name that springs immediately to mind. Like all top-drawer eateries, it's pricey, but it's also the sort of place that makes you feel it's been money well spent.

Boulevard, at 1 Mission, serves lunch weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and a bistro menu from 2:30 to 5:15 p.m. It's open for dinner every night from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Call 543-6084.

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