(San Francisco, CA) After departing from Santa Rosa, we decide to stay a couple nights in san Francisco so we can be closer to the airport but also to spend some time in one of our favorite cities. Some might consider Union Square a bit touristy; we enjoy the convenience of having so many great restaurants, hotels and shopping hot spots within walking distance. Thanks to OpenTable.com, we are able to make 8p seating at Grand Cafe...
I am particularly fond of French food these days. Perhaps it's all that butter? Or the almost unnerving meditation on all things meat? Thus, as we walk through the bar (they call themselves a "Brasserie and Bar"), my excitement mounts. Will they offer straight-up French food or some kind of fusion menu? As you can tell from the video, I am feeling playful, even chatting up some pre-theater guests on their way out as we enter. The restaurant proper is enormous, with cathedral ceilings thirty-feet high and Art Deco design. Busy black-and-white uniformed servers zip to and fro, efficient and aloof. In the air, sizzling skin from some succulent beast. A champagne cork pops somewhere in the distance, resounding off the curved walls.
After a few elongated moments, we are met by a hostess who tells us she will be right back. She slips away, presumably to check our table. A minute later, a gentleman approaches, asks our name, then leads us to be seated, menus in hand. This awkward dance strikes me as odd, but I am in too good a mood to let it bother me. Clearly, the restaurant is adjusting to the theater crowd dissipation and the late-night diners (such as we are) wandering into the confusion.
A passing waiter notices our table. He speaks to another server. They seem to come to an agreement, then disappear to alert someone. Finally, our server arrives. He has a gash on his head, evidently from a late-night altercation with an inanimate object (as we find out later), but he is cordial, cool, and professional at the outset. He brings us sparkling water and takes our order.
Truth be told, I'm not terribly hungry despite the late hour. Our earlier lunch at The Girl and the Fig still stuck to my ribs. I figure I can muster up soup and an entree, but will skip apps or a dessert. Nevertheless, Juliet orders Artichaut Vapeur (steamed artichokes) and I bravely help her with a couple bites. The flavorful mustard vinagrette mediates the puckery flesh of the artichoke, but I'm not that impressed. I'm sort of off the artichoke bandwagon for now, until I experience another recipe.
My soup—the Soupe du Jour—arrives, piping hot and an unholy orange color in a deep bowl. Still tingling from my recent brush with the Tunisian Carrots at Willi's Wine Bar in Santa Rosa, I see if this carrot soup measures up. It does not. Although it is soothing and warm, the carrot flavor does not come through. It wants of salts or pepper or butter or all of the above. It's not bad, just not outstanding. As it turns out, none of that matters.
As loyal readers of HeFedSheFed.com will recall, I have a "thing" for cassoulet. I'm not sure, exactly, how to define my obsession with it. Ordinarily I would not eat the individual components of this dish. In fact, I studiously avoid those ingredients most of the time. But with cassoulet, I have a weird attraction to the whole of it...a kind of psycho-sexual love-disgust. Is that wrong?
Maybe, but I could not care less. Because in front of me is a fresh-out-of-the-oven crockery filled with Cassoulet Maison. The butter beans are plump, rising out of the thin sauce like stars in the firmament. In the middle, boudin blanc (bloodless cajun sausage), duck confit, lamb shoulder, garlic-pork sausage and smoked bacon. Meat, meat, meat, meat and meat. Quivering a little, I scoop a spoonful of flesh and beans, savoring the salty, earthy and herb-stewed mixture. The French pinot noir I asked him to pair goes nicely, but it definitely takes a backseat to the cassoulet. The heavens open. Angels sing. I pay no heed to Juliet, our server, or the other patrons. I am in my own little world.
When it is gone, I am done. Our waiter—convinced now that we are actually cool people who won't run off without paying the bill—loosens up and becomes almost too chatty. We finish our drinks. We slap down the credit card. Then we stroll out into San Francisco, full and happy and already thinking about the next adventure.
Our arrival is a bit awkward. The entrance leads to the bar, which is chaotic and noisy. The restaurant is up a few stairs and towards the back of the building, but there is no signage nor staff person to direct us. We find our way to the hostess stand and wait. And wait some more until the hostess returns to tell us she will be right with us, but she needs to "make sure your table is ready". This seems a little odd to me given that the restaurant has just gone through pre-theatre rush and is less than a quarter full. A few moments later a man steps up to the hostess stand and tells us to follow him. (Somehow in this process our OpenTable reservation does not get confirmed so when we return home we discover we are classified as “no shows” at Grand Cafe.)
Once seated, we wait more than a few minutes for water, which gives us time to look over the entire men. It is very French. After the second read-through, we still haven’t seen a busboy or server. Just a few more minutes pass and the busboy arrives to take our order for sparkling water. And it’s only seconds later when our waiter Greg arrives and explains the night's special to us. Greg is affable and answers our questions with confidence and efficiency. I suspect he stepped away to recover from a hectic pre-theatre rush and nobody bothered to tell him he had a new table. Greg does not strike me as a server who wants to keep a table waiting, ever.
I have been craving meat and opt for the lamb chops. Since Jeremy is ordering soup, I decide to go for the French onion soup and also ask for an order of the fried artichoke appetizers for us to start with. It being California in April, I assumed we'd be bombarded with artichokes, but this is the first time we've seen it on a menu out here before tonight. I order a glass of red to go with it all, but after all our indulgences of Sonoma, I can’t bear to learn about and analyze one more new wine and just ask Greg to pick a glass for me. (Am I really becoming jaded on red wine? In under a week?)
The artichokes are lightly battered in a lemony coating and flash fried. Served with lemon slices and crisp parsley, they are crispy, clean and bright tasting; however, as we drill down into the bowl, we find the artichokes becoming overly greasy. I'm not complaining that my fried food is slightly oily. Don't get me wrong, I expect a little sheen. But it's pooling at the bottom of the bowl and making the other bits and pieces soggy. Not so great.
The French onion soup saves the moment. It is slightly sweet with an intense onion taste. The broth is deep, dark and beefy with a delicious toasted baguette slice floating on top. (I like when the bread part of French onion soup is still crispy! You know it hasn’t been sitting under a heat lamp for hours.) The best part is the thick layer of Gruyere melted on top of it all. It arrives at the table looking like a small crock encased in melted cheese and it's only after I dive into the cheese that I uncover the wonderful toast, broth and onions.
I'm actually fairly full when the lamb chops arrive, Frenched of course. Two lovely meaty chops sit atop mixed veggies and a small side of sauteed mushrooms. I move the chops to dig into the mushrooms, then devour the broccoli...THEN move into the chops. The lamb is cooked perfectly medium-rare and the meat is rich and flavorful, without being gamey. I was recently told (in a lamb cooking class of all places) that when lamb is gamey it is because it is not fresh. The longer you let lamb sit, the gamier it gets. This lamb might have trotted in the back kitchen door moments ago because it tastes divine. My red meat craving is satiated.
I find myself too full for dessert, too full for espresso, even too full for a second glass of wine. (Huh?) The decor of Grand Cafe is not to be missed; it is very architecturally interesting. I spend much of the evnenng looking up at the tremendously high ceilings, columns and archways throughout. Despite the initial hiccup, the service was very thorough. The menu features a lot of fabulous French fare and the wine list is extensive. I am sure I will regret not delving in to the wine list deeper. Bon appetit!
© 2010 HeFedSheFed.com