In case you're wondering, Hawthorne Lane helped put South of Market on the national culinary radar and proved itself long, long ago. Between the years 2000 and 2001 it fell but one spot, to No. 8, on the Zagat Survey's list of the most popular Bay Area restaurants, having edged out owner David Gingrass' former employer, Postrio, but having been edged by Farallon and newcomer Gary Danko. Of course, a lot has happened in SOMA during that same 12 months (now that the word "Internet" has become a bit less palatable to the average investor), and perhaps even darker days lie ahead. Still, this is America: You can feel the expense accounts powering Hawthorne Lane, and that, friends, is unlikely to change.
The best thing I have to say about Hawthorne Lane is that, when the kitchen is on (which it almost always is), a discreet creativity and rigorous technique strike so cleanly that some dishes just about bring us to our knees. The worst thing I can say is that the experience left us slightly cold, which is a bit more difficult to explain. It's not that the place is without personality: For example, when I called to reserve a table (under an assumed last name), the reservationist engaged me in a friendly discussion about how true Gregs, like me, end their name with only one "g," while those other Greggs might as well be Craigs given their misspelling of an otherwise fine and noble moniker. Nor is the place immune to the occasional miscue: I began with an undeniably exquisite Citron Dragon (Absolut Citron, lemon juice, soda, and a kiss of Midori), while my friend Amy started with the worst kir we'd ever tasted. The use of cassis was a bit miserly, and the wine was warm and tasted flat, like something poured from a box. We shared this concern with our waitress, who explained that the wine was actually a fine chardonnay (albeit a warm one) before removing the offending libation.
Thankfully, that drink was the only true thud, and after perusing the predictably extensive wine list we came away with a Caymus Conundrum '99, a spicy, gorgeously complex blend of chardonnay, Sèmillon, viognier, and sauvignon blanc rendered pleasantly fruity via a dose of sweet muscat. Then came the bread, which put most other restaurants to shame. Sometimes you get one or two varieties, sometimes three, but it's been awhile since I received a full half-dozen -- and I wish it would happen more often. After all, how can a meal go wrong when it starts with chive biscuits that melt into a fine, rich powder, a dark, dense, chewy-crusted olive bread, whole wheat sourdough, whole wheat dinner rolls, whisper-light Staffordshire rolls (a pretzellike white roll topped with kosher salt), and shattering, sesame-dusted Parmesan crackers spiked with a dash of cayenne pepper? Perhaps it can't, and ours didn't: Executive Chef Bridget Batson is knocking out a carefully nuanced, occasionally cosmic brand of California fare that easily places Hawthorne Lane among the top restaurants in the (arguably) greatest food city on Earth.
The offerings seem to want to intrigue, to stimulate the intellect as well as the palate. As our waitress explained before we ordered it, our baked semolina gnocchi wouldn't be gnocchi in the traditional, dumplings-with-sauce sense of the word, but rather a single, lightly browned gnoccho set in a superbly delicate Parmesan broth laced with butternut squash, celery, fried sage, and bits of tomato. Nor was our beet carpaccio a classic carpaccio (normally raw beef); instead, it was paper-thin slices of roasted beet drizzled with white truffle--infused olive oil, then topped with edible violas, firm, savory Sottocenere cheese, lamb's lettuce, and shaved black truffles. Like the gnoccho, it was a sophisticated nosh -- clean, subtle, tinged ever so lightly with trufflistic electricity -- and it was presented as beautifully as a starlet on Oscar night. And, as with the gnoccho, though we adored it and found no flaws, somehow we weren't entirely seduced.
Meanwhile, the house-smoked sturgeon delivered exactly what we expected: rich, almost bacon-tasting sheets of pale, savory flesh set over potato pancakes dabbed with crème fraîche and tarragon, served with thin-sliced discs of baked pancetta and bits of chewy, sweet sun-dried tomato. That one transported us to the realm of all-encompassing deliciousness, while our two entrees fell just short of that same level. A thick medallion of pan-roasted salmon glimmered with hints of silky rawness, playing off a somewhat less exciting red curry sauce and a salad of ginger and crunchy green papaya laced with mint and basil, then wrapped in spongy coconut-milk crepes. The steamed green onion buns that came with our second entree were, as is customary in dim sum houses, a bit rubbery; unlike traditional dim sum, we found no tasty nubbin of pork inside, but rather a bundle of mizuma (a Japanese green). The result felt like an experiment that hadn't quite succeeded, while the main element of the plate -- Chinese-style roasted duck -- reached the apex of possible accomplishment. Its skin crackled on contact, giving way to a semimolten layer of fat and blessedly moist, savory meat that simply had to take a dip in a lightly sweet blood orange-licorice sauce.
Had we been dining in a universe of free food and limitless appetites, we might have ordered the entire dessert menu (a chocolate mousse trio, a pear Napoleon, and a warm chocolate cake with hazelnut ice cream and praline sauce, among other things). But since we weren't, we selected two treats, beginning with a slightly soggy puff pastry anchored by a slice of banana, served with peanut crunch ice cream and decadent banana caramel topped with crushed peanuts -- essentially a two-ingredients-served-two-ways concoction that I'm sure Elvis would have loved. The second dessert -- frozen mascarpone brûlée -- consisted of a disc of delicate, creamy cheese covered by the standard caramelized skin, yielding a dish that combined the pleasures of panna cotta, tiramisu, and crème brûlée with an electric passion-fruit coulis and mound of diced pineapple.
When our check came with a pair of luscious, nut-crusted truffles, it was impossible not to feel I should write all sorts of wonderful things about Hawthorne Lane. Still, two things were bothering me -- the austerity and the kir. So I went back a few nights later, sat at the bar, and enjoyed a far superior kir made with clean, crisp, thoroughly chilled chardonnay (the cassis was still a bit light, but then I suppose that's a matter of taste). As for the austerity, it's still there, but it's subtle (and far less apparent at the bar, where I met a nice woman who'd come to steal menu ideas for some sort of art function she was hosting). A lighter, more affordable bar menu offered a crisp, thin-crust, rock shrimp-broccoli rabe-pesto-ricotta pizza to go with the free olives, salami, and bread sticks.
Was that a nice touch? You bet. And by the way, happy hour lasts two hours and starts at 4 p.m.