Well Seasoned


Living in the San Francisco Bay Area one finds oneself surrounded by wise guys from across the country whose favorite pastime is regional griping, especially about a) the local papers, b) the gargantuan, taste-free produce, and most especially c) the absence of that humid heat and blistering cold that not only add a little spice to any meteorological soiree but also, presumably, instill a sense of steely self-will obviously lacking in the lotus-eating natives, myself included.

Hell with 'em. Despite the fact that I'm published in a local rag, I haven't actually read anything beyond The Fusco Brothers in a decade or so, so I can't pontificate upon the journalistic situation. But I've tasted of the shad roe and the teensy strawberries and all of the other Right Coast emblems of culinary superiority, and by comparison our Dungeness crabs and Castroville artichokes leave them in the dust. And anyone who says that we Californians don't have ourselves any real weather is simply unable to comprehend the subtleties of our yearly cycle.

Take the past several weeks, for example. Every year there's a certain day, usually in mid-April, when spring has unmistakably sprung: Several months of rain have ended, the omnipotent gray has parted, sunlight sparkles on the sidewalks, and the air is fragrant with blossoms. Autumn arrives around here with equal clarity. Without warning the air acquires an unmistakable snap; the sunlight takes on a particular diffuse quality; the moon seems fuller and rounder and more mellow. We don't have the climatological fireworks of a New England forest in all its blazing, sap-rising glory, but at this time of the year the Californian nevertheless succumbs to thoughts of crackling firelight, warm, thick sweaters, and dark beer and pumpkins and fragrant bowls of soup.

Perlot, an elegantly cocoonish 3-month-old restaurant located in the old Hotel Majestic, is a splendid venue for the seasonally sensitive San Franciscan to satisfy his primordial autumnal cravings, subtle though they may be. Its comfortable ambience inspires long meals and ruminations out of the pre-Thanksgiving nip. The menu, which reflects the earthly cycle with conviction, is currently rife with wild game, mushrooms, and other mood-appropriate fare. And the welcome is illuminated by plentiful candlelight and the soft, embracing melodies of the jocular, pre-Hammerstein Richard Rodgers, creating a soothing oasis out of the encroaching gloom. When the air turned decisively crisp a few days short of Halloween, a troupe of scarf-toting locals who only a week earlier had strolled Sacramento Street in their shirt sleeves presented themselves at the restaurant's entrance, visions of hot toddies and blubber-producing proteins dancing in their heads.

Perlot is just off the lobby of the 98-year-old Majestic, a lovely landmark in a residential neighborhood that might best be described as Upper Hayes Valley, Lower Pacific Heights, and/or the Eastern Western Addition. In preparation for its centennial the hotel has undergone extensive renovations and refurbishment, including a spruce-up of the already eye-filling dining area, the longtime setting of Cafe Majestic. Frescoed, salmon-colored walls are accentuated with pale, green shutters, baseboards, and trim. A black baby grand rests centrally between dark wood cabinets filled floor-to-ceiling with wine racks and bottles. Chandeliers and sconces illuminate starched white tablecloths and gleaming silver, and the sweeping ceilings create a sense of unfettered space and venerable, turn-of-the-century elegance.

This past summer new General Manager Brooks Bayly hired chef Geoffrey Blythe of Jack's and MacArthur Park to introduce a contemporary Americana thrust into the restaurant's ornate Edwardian ambience. His is a menu well attuned to the seasons — August's opening selection was rife with tomatoes, peppers, and stone fruit, and the current incarnation features, among other early fall delicacies, a mosaic of foie gras and wild game with fig-muscat preserves, scallop gratin with gingered pumpkin custard, and cauliflower soufflé with rainbow chard. Highfalutin though the dishes sound, they're generously apportioned and full of rich, lusty flavors ideal to this time of year. The menu is exclusively prix fixe, in the form of either a three-course meal or a six-course tasting menu with accompanying wines.

We began with a distinctly American variation on that most modern of American cocktails, a fresh huckleberry Cosmopolitan. I'm not usually a fan of these Hawaiian Punch bastardizations of the noble martini, but this one had a nice, puckery astringency to it that made for a pleasant aperitif. We followed up with three starters of delicious individuality. A full-bodied chowder sweet with the wild-parsley flavor of celeriac featured a pleasantly contrasting smoky-salty undertone of puréed finnan haddie (smoked haddock), with a bouquet of sorrel and a spoonful of sevruga caviar floating on top. Equally rich was the sizable platter of bitter, tangy dandelion greens unexpectedly dressed in a pungent fondue of warm Gruyère accompanied by light, mousselike rillettes of wild game on toast rounds. Best of all was the spectacular assortment of smoked salmon in three varieties (your basic wonderfully supple lox, another spiced with turmeric, saffron, and other North African flavors, and a third with all the peppery body of a good pastrami) served with three complementary salads: a subtle lentil, a sweet tomato, and a spicy tabbouleh.

The minimal flavor of the roasted Maine cod, light and perfectly flaky in texture, was a good, straight-man contrast to its unusual and delicious sauce, a barely sweet glaze of lemon and vanilla bean, and its cushion, a dense, homey purée of potatoes. The ballottine, a boned pheasant stuffed with herbs and wild mushrooms, then rolled and served in slices, wasn't as successful: Its bland casing of pheasant meat couldn't tame the unpleasantly feral taste of its stuffing. But the wild flavors of the moist, supple sliced boar tenderloin, with its wild rice stuffing and tart, slowly roasted crab apple, were complex, powerful, and thoroughly adventuresome. As our table's resident poet put it, “I am boar, hear me roar.” This ain't no common pig meat, and all the better for it.

Dessert time. The wonderful mango napoleon is really more of a parfait of crisp, buttery madeleines, a panna cotta-esque custard with hints of cheese and citrus and the musky melon of the title. The poached pear is simplicity itself, accented with spears of candied ginger, fresh mint, and more of those tart little huckleberries — crisp autumn in a sweet, creamy package. And the chocolate cake, deep, earthy, and rich, is lifted to the stratosphere by a dreamy gilding of Armagnac-jazzed whipped cream. Add a handful of raspberries and all is right with the world.

The hundred-item wine list leans toward the upscale side and runs almost entirely Californian, with imports including 17 Bordeaux (including a 1970 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion representing the Old Country most forcibly at $710 per bottle) and a handful of émigrés from Chile and Italy. The list also presents 20 or so attractive options in the under-$30 category, including Saucelito Canyon's spicy 1995 zin, and St. Supéry's 1995 cab is an ideally deep, complex accompaniment to the establishment's autumnal fare. A dozen-plus vintages come by the glass, and good old Anchor Steam flows from the tap.

Afterward we retired to the bar, a warm, comfortable setting in pale greens and golds with a green marble counter and a huge, silver punch bowl brimming with multicolored vodka bottles. The bourbon toddies were comforting and almost as good as the house's special coffee, a warming and wondrous thing of espresso, Godiva liqueur, and Mexican élan, a cappuccino underpinned in velvet. Let the season commence.

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