Four Restaurants, Four Wine Lists, and Cheating Death on the Golden Gate Bridge … on a Bike

By Don Holton ©
Contributing Writer

Flying to San Francisco brings the most pleasant anticipation: you sense that – if you’ve planned things right – unique food and wine experiences may await you.

So it was with our recent trip there. No Napa/Sonoma wine cruising. This time, the city only. We stayed near Union Square for five days and struck it rich in and around this commercial and tourist part of town.

Jardiniere, photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

Jardiniere, photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

Our restaurant finds were Jardiniere, Gitane, Albona Ristorante, and an Italian surprise in our hotel, Kuleto’s.

Jardiniere (French/American). A 10-minute taxi ride just west of the Civic Center lands you at the classical front of a landmark building. Inside, a spectacular bar with a two-story oval atrium rises to the main dining room on the second floor. The wine list: a diverse mix of Old World and New, organized by Wine Director Eugenio Jardim. Strong French representation: red and whites from Burgundy and Bordeaux, six Chablis, 14 choices from Meursault and Corton. Wines from Italy, Spain, Portugal, and up and down the West Coast. The list hits a satisfying note: six “Villages” wines, obviously Jardim’s picks for taste and affordability, including Olivier Leflaive, Bourgogne “Les Setilles” 2005 for $65. And down the list, look, there they were — my measure of a thoughtful Euro carte – 14 choices from Alsace and Germany, two categories often ignored by unfounded fears of “sweetness.”

The food? Excellent. My wife, Valerie, and I shared a mixed greens and citrus salad (these days, restaurants rarely deny a request to “split”, except a snobby waiter last week in Scottsdale; times are tough, reservations easy, don’t you find?), then lamp chops, filet mignon, both very nice. Dessert: Banana Cream Pie – good to very good, but needs more cream filling. Choose from an a la carte menu or a tasting menu at $125. Check out the new Monday night fixed price menu for $45, including wine pairings; given the quality here, a real value.

Our wine choice: from a list deep in California blends, pinots and cabs (up to Screaming Eagle, 2004, $1800), we sought a name unknown to Sam’s or Binny’s. The winner: Kathryn Kennedy Meritage “Lateral,” Santa Cruz, 2005, a smooth cab/merlot blend that’s just the kind of small lot discovery you hope for – light, layered, different. Sorry, their ’06 is sold out at the vineyard, making our dinner all the more special. Look for their next release. Wine List: 19/20. Food: 17/20. Service: 19/20. The Feeling: organized, a clear zeal for the grape, food worthy.

Image courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

Jardiniere, photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

Gitane (Franco/Iberian, etc). How could you resist a restaurant that describes itself as: “modern, funky, and artistically bold … drawing inspiration from Spain, France, and Portugal … exotic tastes and sensations with sherries, cavas, madieras, hand-crafted cocktails and small-estate wines … interior decors from Mr. Important Design (really), vibes from Euro-themed 50s, Hippie-Driven 60s and Big Bling 70s … artwork from Turkey and the UK, Goya-esque photography.”

Well, of course, you’ve got to try such a place! And it’s only a few blocks walk east of Union Square, downhill on Sutter and a left on Claude Lane (trust me, this is an alley with its own street sign). But maybe SF is a place where you can sit at one of four outside tables, under heat lamps and an awning — in an alley — and think it’s cool. But inside? There’s the cool. The place feels like an exotic private club. Warm greeting, nice people, small dark entry area, but peek around the corner – a colorful, hip, but low-keyed bar scene, high ceilings, giant bulbous chandeliers, two-story high draperies, soft lights, tapestries. Best yet, walking by, and no one looks over his or her shoulder to check you out. But maybe you want that.

Most at the bar are dining “a la placemat.” The bar is full, but it’s … quiet. A smooth and orderly beat going on here, at least at 8 o’clock.

Our table, like most, was up the stairs. Breathless at the top, ah, this is cool too: weathered brick walls, covered with glass, bricks flooded with light (shining up from lights in the floorboards, whoa), a moody/mysterious room, enameled black tables, effective use of mirrors to enlarge the space, red/orange light shades. But where are we? This could be that hidden gem down the hill from the Alhambra or somewhere in the back streets of Alfama. Cue the Fado and the handkerchiefs.

Ever had a Pimm’s Cup? It’s a cocktail for old guys like me. I used to knock them down in London just to feel that Park Lane thing, but there it was on Gitane’s drink menu, bringing back memories of Robert Morley in “Halfway Up A Tree” at the Strand. I ordered one, and the result was a soft sweetness, mildly herbal, refreshing — Pimm’s Cup No. 1, with assorted berries and ginger beer on the rocks. Could have had one of 20 sherries or other inventive cocktails from the list, but we went to the wines.

Photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

Gitane, photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

The list is straightforward, 31 whites on the left – Spain, Portugal and France. On the right, 34 reds from those three countries. Great balance all around, tilted toward Spain – Riojas, Alicante, Priorate from Castilla y Leon, North-Central, Catalonia, and one from Mallorca. From Portugal, Vinho Verde, the national jug wine, and some familiar friends from France – Corbieres (Domaine St. Eugenie, Languedoc), and Coteaux du Languedoc, Mas Julien. One in four wines is available by the glass, some in half-bottle carafes. Not a huge list, but one that forms a clear link with the restaurant’s theme and cuisine. I also like how Gitane chose French wines produced from regions that nestle close on the map to the Pyrennes.

OMG, given all this, what must the food be like? The menu has three parts: appetizers (did not say tapas), entrees and sides. We liked Piquillo ($13), peppers stuffed with fresh crab salad. Bastilla is one dish that competently showcases the restaurant’s diverse cultural intent — a sweet and savory pastry with duck, chicken, raisins, almonds, Moroccan spices and orange gastrique. A pop-in-your-mouth winner.

My half-order of Ribs ($12, $23 full) featured natural pork, soy glazed, with parsnip puree and Brussels sprouts (please cook a little longer to release the bitterness or douse them with balsamic vinegar). Rich molasses-type sauce on the ribs, very meaty. Valerie’s Sea Bass ($23) was not distinguished, but it was her fault, as she was influenced by the asparagus.

We recommend Gitane, a great concept, its multi-national theme creatively integrated, from wine, to spirits, to food and décor. Wine List: 17/20. Food: 17/20. Service: 18/20. The Feeling: fun, funky in a friendly and textured environment, with memorable spicy hits.

Next up… more food and terror!

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