Friday, January 25, 2013

A Trip to France without Leaving the Bay

Within a short walk of each other in San Francisco are two short lanes that will transport you out of the nearby flash of Union Square or the Financial District into intimate city neighborhoods that could be in any large city on earth, but particularly European.  Claude Lane and Belden Place are short alleyways filled with outdoor seating for some fun, delicious restaurants.  While the city has great restaurants on almost every block, I continually find myself drawn to these two locations.  On a Saturday night of a recent holiday weekend we had a romantic French evening at Cafe Claude on Claude Lane.

We made a reservation for 7:30 and arrived to find the place filled and lively.  It was quite small and clearly popular.  We had not been seated for more than a minute before the Belinda Blair’s jazz performance started.  This set a great mood for the place.  We started with drinks.  My wife tried a Hummingbird, a drink featuring St. Germain.  This was refreshing, crisp and delicious.  Every drink I have had in recent years featuring this elderflower liquor has been a delight.  I was taken by Café Claude’s list of absinthes and pastis.  I had not had pastis in a couple years so I selected a Ricard.  This was served perfectly over ice with a small side pitcher of ice cold water.  If you haven’t tried absinthe or pastis, please do so.  If you like black licorice or anise, you will love these.  But read up on preparation; they are louching drinks and need some cold water added.  We let the music and drinks transport to Paris and settled in.  We let our server know we were here for a leisurely evening and would be ordering slowly, and she kindly accommodated our pace.

When we did get around to ordering some food, we opted to start with the assiette de pates, featuring three pates – a duck liver mousse, a rustique with pork, herbs and bacon, and a campagne with pork, red wine and black pepper.   Served with some toasted bread and gherkins, these were each excellent.  The mousse was delicate, and I wish I had more…lots more of this.  I could eat it in mass quantities, not that it would be healthy for anyone!  The campagne was smooth and rich, while the rustique was coarser and lighter.      

Moving on to entrees we added a bottle of wine.  We went with a Pineau d’Aunis and Malbec blend, the 2010 Francois Chidaine Touraine, and it proved a great compliment to our two plats.  One of them was a sautéed gnocchi with butternut squash, sage, chestnuts, maitake mushrooms, Brussel sprouts, and pumpkin puree.  This tasted like a cool fall day.  The gnocchi were perfectly cooked.  Searing them over high heat eliminated the sticky, heaviness that gnocchi can so often have.  The flavors of fall vegetables, mushrooms and sage were delightful.  The other plat was wonderful dish of lentils topped by two duck legs confit, with frisee and a bright, perfectly cooked hard-boiled egg.  The lentils had a summery, citrusy flavor that balanced the rich fattiness of the duck.  These two entrees were excellent cool weather meals, served in proper proportion and priced quite reasonably.  I would return to have either of these.  However, I confess to having a craving for their steak tartare and some pommes frites. 

Happy, content and comfortable, we opted against dessert, though I did note that in proper French form they feature a cheese plate for dessert.  As the evening wore on, the noise level lessened some, making conversation easier.  Service was efficient and the setting…small, intimate and filled with jazz was excellent.   We would return, particularly for a night with some live music.  And if you want to mix up your evening with Spanish flavors to go with your French, or an after-dinner drink, try Gitane just across the alley. 

So drop on by Claude Lane for a trip to Europe.         
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