By Kathryn Bennett –
AH! Three consecutive dinners (Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights) in the downtown heart of the Golden Gate city. We were there for an academic conference by day and culinary adventures by night. My husband and I commenced with a cozy late-night meal at La Folie on unassuming Polk Street near Russian Hill. This is a lovingly-run restaurant that consistently gets high marks from the local press for its contemporary French cuisine featuring Bay Area produce.
The evening began auspiciously when our server (an elegant young woman) returned to our table after her initial greeting and presented a small bowl draped in a white linen napkin in which lay three huge and plump white truffles; she confided with undisguised pleasure they had been flown in from Italy that morning. After offering us the chance to inhale as much as we liked, she asked if we would like some of this preciousness shaved onto our entrée? With two nights of dining ahead and at $100 per truffle serving, we had to say reluctantly, “non merci.”
But the truffle fragrance lingered until the first course arrived — a visual knockout of sautéed Burgundy escargots served inside a large bone set vertically on the plate with a pale green garlicky foam of bone marrow gratin at the base. A rosy red lobster tail set atop lobster and mushroom risotto followed, and then came the best cheese course we have had on this side of the Atlantic — a California and French selection including one lovely blue cheese from the Auvergne, a Vermont-like region of France we had recently visited and where we had sampled many of the rich and mellow cow cheeses for which it is famous. Perfectly prepared fruit compotes and razor-thin pain, toasted, we learned, between two plates of silicone, made each savory bite intense.
“The Sunset” was a warm bittersweet chocolate fondant that melted creamily on the palette with a long finish like a great wine. La Folieis a classic but joyful establishment, confidently serene. Tall mirrors and equally tall russet curtains in heavy silk cloak the walls, cocooning diners and transporting them to a terribly chic Paris two or four decades gone by – almost but not quite self-consciously retro. Our gracious
sommelier, George Passot, who directed us to an excellent but not overly expensive Pinot, mentioned, in reply to our many questions, that he was the chef’s brother, coming from France some 20 years ago to join Roland Passot and his wife Jamie in their now Michelin-starred restaurant, founded in 1988. We felt happy and fortunate to be in their capable hands all evening, staying until we were clearly the only guests still there. As he and our sever walked us to the door, we apologized to M. Passot for lingering; his gentle reply was offered with a warm smile, “Each night, there is always someone who is the last to leave.”
Night Two brought us to the Embarcadero and the water’s edge at the end of Mission Street. Here, despite the drizzle outside, where we were swept up into the exuberant dazzle of one of SF’s most popular dining spots, Boulevard. There we encountered the brilliant restaurant design of Pat Kuleto — about whom we were to learn even more on our third and most sublime night, at Farallon. But back to Boulevard.
Housed in an 1880s building that survived both the earthquake of 1906 and subsequent fires (the proprietors bribed the would-be demolition crew with booze), it is now a super-stylish Belle Époque brasserie with buzz and tempered glamour that locals as well as out-of-towners go for. This evening, against all reasonable odds, we were yet again seduced by lobster as our main course – poached in butter and presented over a snappy black risotto and garnished with delicately delicious mussel beignets and an assortment of other sea morsels.
First course was fresh beet and avocado salad with roasted hazelnut and truffle relish, and an order of pan-seared sea scallops, a Boulevard signature dish. We topped off by splitting a sticky toffee sundae. The champagne we had chosen was only so-so (and not one recommended by our server), but then again, we had decided not to break the bank. The entire repas was selected in lighthearted collaboration with our personable and bright server, who we could not resist complimenting whole-heartedly upon leaving. He told us he had been there for six years – and hoped to be there forever.
As a place, Boulevard is one long and expansive room cleverly broken up by a maze of small aisles and alcoves, and sinuous Art Nouveau iron railings. The mostly small and intimate tables are set in crisp white linens, paralleling a long, suitably decadent bar, and a back wall completely opened up by a massive window offering a dazzling view of the lit-up SF Bay Bridge across the water. It’s hard to come out of Boulevard without feeling lit up yourself, thanks to Mr. Kuleto and the restaurant’s co-founder Nancy Oakes, who was named Best Chef in California by the James Beard Foundation in 2010 — a stunning achievement.
The final night of our trifecta was a magical, almost dizzying feast at the lavishly gorgeous also-Pat-Kuleto-designed, Farallon. Its website aptly describes it as “a resemblance of a beautiful underwater fantasy…” And so it is.
Amazing lighting fixtures in the shape of huge, creamy-white jelly fish set against a cobalt blue ceiling float over you upon entering, softly illuminating the space and leading you from one area of this expansive establishment to the next. Great illuminated pillars of more hand-blown glass in underwatery magic usher you further on. Once seated in one of several plush dining areas, we gazed above to see extraordinary faded mosaic murals of fleshy nymphs and gods set off by massive low Romanesque arches.
We learned from our server – who like his two predecessors offered consistent attentiveness wrapped in subdued happy pride – that the ceiling was a 1920s creation that formerly crowned the swimming pool of the Elk’s Club Lodge. He brought us the original book of the Elk’s Lodge history so we could compare the décor then and now. Somehow,
the design-visionary Pat Kuleto put in a floor and that turned the upper story of the massive pool space into an intriguing and fantastically glamorous environments for dining. (The lower floor is still apparently a swimming pool used by the Elks.)
Needless to say, Farallon is the place to enjoy seafood, and we splurged by ordering the Fruits de Mer Grand Platter to start. (For those who know their oysters, you can also order fresh oysters a la cart, choosing them individually from a half-dozen prime locations around the world.) Choosing the rest of the meal, with such an embarrassment of riches, was going to be tough. But we were rescued from having to agonize over selections by the fine coincidence that the restaurant was offering that night a tasting menu of four courses paired with California Pinot wines, ranging from white to rosé to red.
In all, three nights of exceptionally fine eating really didn’t break the bank. While these restaurants were, one might say, safe choices and not especially adventurous or avant-garde, we definitely experienced what culinary San Francisco has to offer – wondrous food, great California wine, superb service and divine decor. What a joy!