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Class Act 

Falling in love again with Rubicon, still at the top of its game after a decade

Wednesday, Jun 8 2005
Some tastes are acquired, but sometimes we fall in love immediately. Such was the case for me with the writing of Geoff Dyer, the music of Elvis Costello, the plays and movies of David Mamet, the musicals of Stephen Sondheim, the cooking of Tom Colicchio -- to name just a few that spring to mind. Once the die was cast, I would follow these artists wherever they chose to go, whether Dyer wrote about D.H. Lawrence, jazz, or yoga; whether Costello performed with the Attractions or the Brodsky Quartet; whether Mamet covered gangster con men, Secret Service con men, or Hollywood con men. And in the dicey and expensive realm of keeping up with culture, my affinity for these artists cuts the odds: Buying a ticket (in the form of a book or a meal) to their world is almost a sure thing. I don't have to wait for the paperback or the DVD; investing whatever it costs translates to pure pleasure, and then some. I can feel my world expanding as I get a glimpse into theirs.

Such was the case many years ago when I first heard a concert performance by William Bolcom and Joan Morris. I knew vaguely that Bolcom was a composer of classical music, but I bought a ticket because I love American popular music, and a friend had played for me his first joint album with Morris, After the Ball, subtitled A Treasury of Turn-of-the-Century Popular Songs. I was immediately entranced by their classy double act: He played the piano, immaculately attired in a dinner jacket, and she swept onto the stage in a strapless ball gown that, as I remember it, matched her red hair. There was witty patter, at the same time educational and charming, between the heartfelt performances of the songs, drawn from many decades and styles. It was the kind of evening that sends you out into the night air tingling with delight; life seems to hold more possibilities than it did before.

I know I sound a little goofy, but that's what falling in love does to you, whether it's with art or an egg salad sandwich. After that first concert, I knew that Bolcom and Morris were a guaranteed good time, whether I spent money on one of their many albums, devoted to the music of Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, or others much more obscure; books (Bolcom wrote, among others, Reminiscing With Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, with Robert Kimball, as part of his fascination with and reinvigoration of ragtime); or concert tickets.

If I'd been more fanatical -- or just wealthier -- I could (and would) have traveled all over the world to see premieres and concerts of Bolcom's numerous classical compositions, from chamber music to song cycles to symphonies, including several operas. So when I found out that Bolcom and Morris were doing a series of three free lecture-concerts at UC Berkeley, during his tenure as visiting professor, I was there for every one, feeling privileged. So privileged, in fact, that after yet another free concert by the duo, in the dazzling new SOMA space of the Piedmont Piano Co., I asked them out to dinner. It seemed the least I could do.

We agreed upon a night, and I drove up into the Oakland hills to pick them up at their temporary abode, the house of a well-known Bay Area harpsichordist. The living room was dominated by his gleaming black-and-gold instrument, its maker's name and location and its manufacture date emblazoned in red on a gilt background above the keyboard: John Philips Berkeley 1997. Resting casually on it was an original score by Couperin, dated 1717. "Signed by the author," Bolcom said, equally casually, and sat down and played a movement. "Sight reading!" he said triumphantly as he stood up.

I hadn't even had a glass of wine yet, and I was already flushed and a little unsteady. I was thinking about wine, however, because we were heading to Rubicon, for many years one of my two or three favorite San Francisco restaurants, which I hadn't visited in a long time. The sole local eatery of famed, flamboyant New York restaurateur Drew Nieporent, Rubicon was one of the first wine-driven restaurants, with a book-length wine list exquisitely delineating the attractions of 1,700 or so vintages, under the stewardship of Larry Stone, one of the most honored sommeliers in the business. (I noted, as we drove across the bay, that I knew Stone's name and that Traci Des Jardins had been Rubicon's celebrated opening chef, but not who Rubicon's current chef was.)

We find a parking place a block away, one of the pleasures of the Financial District after dark, and walk to the restaurant, an erstwhile firehouse with a discreet entrance. I love the way Rubicon looks: exposed brick walls, snowy white napery, comfy classic bentwood chairs, and an explosion of glass art from the dean of American glass blowers, Dale Chihuly, like Bolcom a Seattle native. (Morris is from Portland; she met and married Bolcom in New York City.) We're early for our 8 p.m. reservation and linger at the pleasant downstairs curved bar, Bolcom sipping a glass of 2003 Stolpman syrah from the Santa Ynez Valley, chosen from a collection of bottles clustered at one end, me enjoying a glass of 2003 Lois Grüner veltliner off the by-the-glass list, and Morris having a shot of Fernet-Branca on the rocks, to settle the aftereffects of a dodgy shrimp consumed earlier.

I've asked for a quiet table, and we're led up the long staircase, away from the cozy downstairs booths, to the upstairs room, a fairly open expanse where we're placed dangerously close to a large table of businessmen in their shirt sleeves, happily near the end of their dinner. We consider, briefly, the five-course, $75 tasting menu, but abandon it when we see that all its dishes appear on the regular menu. Three courses apiece sound like plenty.

As we decide, we're brought a lovely amuse-bouche of tuna tartare, perfect with the dregs of my white wine. A lengthy but charming and reasonably down-to-earth consultation with a young sommelier results in a bottle of 2001 J. Wilkes pinot noir, carefully calibrated to our tastes, our orders, and our pocketbook (though at $84, it's still a bit above my usual self-imposed ceiling). It's delicious with our rich, luxurious first courses: a plate of duck charcuterie (house-made duck prosciutto and two kinds of duck liver pâté, smooth and coarse, garnished with toasted hazelnuts); a chunk of seared foie gras, along with a short-rib terrine incorporating pâté in its layers, garnished with tender baby white asparagus, a roasted pear, and biting horseradish; and my own choice, a lake of subtle caramelized garlic soup touched with Beerenauslese vinegar and containing a mountain of Dungeness crab flakes enlivened with a bit of prosciutto and fennel. I've eaten some very good food in my time -- and the urbane company and the velvet pinot help -- but I can't think of anywhere else on Earth I'd rather be at this moment. The foie gras plate especially shines in its assortment and balance: the shredded, resilient meat against the suave, custardy liver, the acidic touch of the asparagus as well as the sweeter fruit.

The main courses each have something in their descriptions that's a little unfamiliar to me. Along with the grilled John Dory's accompaniments of white asparagus, fava beans, and Meyer lemon is "cocoa cipollini," which turns out to be sliced cipollini onions dusted with slightly bitter cocoa powder before being grilled. The Niman Ranch pork tenderloin, with a chunk of fresh applewood-smoked pork belly, polenta, and rapini, has a "PX sauce," which works out as drippings deglazed with vinegar made from Pedro Ximenez sherry grapes, adding acidity and bite to the silky sauce. I choose the Liberty Farms duck breast, three massively meaty, rosy hunks, because it's duck, and though I note the springy accompaniments of wine-poached rhubarb, English peas, and lavender, I don't realize that it comes with its own chilly, smooth cut of foie gras until it appears on the plate. (Foie gras is always a welcome surprise.) We've ordered the vegetarian entree to share (Bolcom says a staple of his and Morris' Bay Area diet has been "choosing some unfamiliar vegetable at the Berkeley Bowl and sautéing it in oil and garlic"), and the tender white-bean ravioli are hidden under layers of sautéed spring onions, roasted baby artichokes, and maitake mushrooms, with a final benediction of pepita crumbs, made from spice bread. Everything on the beautifully plated dishes is edible, as proven by the nearly polished porcelain we send back to the kitchen. "You're clean-plate rangers!" I say inelegantly.

Elegance returns with our desserts, little architectural masterpieces that seem quite the bargain at $10 each: a frozen milk chocolate mousse with rum-infused bananas and salted peanut toffee; "strawberries 'n' cream," which dresses its fresh strawberry sorbet with gingered tapioca and candied pistachios as well as the ingredients of its title; and the one I like best, some pungent bleu de Basque cheese sided with a poached pear tartlet, spiced fig compote, and (a new one on me) aged balsamic ice cream. It seems only right to order the recommended dessert wines: a 1999 Fonseca LBV port for the mousse, Blandy's Malmsey 15-year Madeira with the cheese, and our favorite, the syrupy 2001 Kracher Eiswein, suggested for the strawberry dish. It also seems only right, when we've drained our glasses, to order another tot of Eiswein to share for the road: Bolcom and Morris are off to New York City; Cambridge, Mass.; Chelsea, Mich.; and Everett, Wash., to name only a few destinations from the schedule on their shared Web site. I look longingly at the dates in June when Casino Paradise, a 1990 cabaret opera with libretto by longtime collaborator Arnold Weinstein, is to be performed in Zurich.

It's not likely that I'll be there. So I look again at the collaborators in my stunning meal at Rubicon: chef Stuart Brioza and pastry chef Nicole Krasinski. Their names are added to the shortlist of artists with whom I fell in love immediately. If someone offers to take me anywhere I'd like to eat in San Francisco, I have an answer ready.

About The Author

Meredith Brody


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