Recently my yen for specific dishes led me to two appealing, eccentric San Francisco restaurants. I'd long wanted to visit Café Jacqueline on upper Grant, famous for its soufflé, a classic, classy, puffy dish made with eggs and skill that has largely disappeared from today's menus. It was once a signifier of a certain ambition -- almost every French or Continental restaurant offered a chocolate or Grand Marnier soufflé for dessert, with the request that you ordered it at the same time as the rest of your dinner. I still remember the haughtiness with which the maitre d' at Ondine, a fancy, long-gone eatery in Sausalito, assured my aunt that, of course, we would have soufflés for dessert at the end of the dinner he was choosing for us: "They were ordered the minute you walked in the door, Madame." And they were the best thing about the meal that followed (which began with quenelles, another labor-intensive item that is difficult to find today). That first sweet, hot, evanescent Grand Marnier soufflé marked me for life.
Many years later, I was taken to dinner at New York City's Café Nicholson, decades after its famous chef Edna Lewis had decamped. (I was lucky enough, later, to taste her she-crab soup and spoon bread at Gage and Tollner, at a table lit by flickering gas lamps, in Brooklyn. But that's another story.) There, an oddly assorted group of us were served a set meal in a slightly musty room, filled with marble mantels and gilt mirrors and haunted by the shades of Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando. What I remember best about the repast is that it began with tiny individual cheese soufflés and ended with similarly sized chocolate soufflés.
That seemed strange at the time, but now here I was, happily sitting at a table with my mother in a fresh, simple, charming room with pale green wainscoting, planning to dine on one soufflé to start and another to finish, this time with nothing in between. Café Jacqueline's menu offers a few starters with which to while away the 45 minutes to an hour that it will take before your entree arrives -- a soup du jour, a classic French onion soup, a number of salads (butter lettuce, cucumber, watercress, tomato and herb, Belgian endives with Roquefort, spinach with bacon and pine nuts, spinach with goat cheese), escargots, and beluga caviar (the last two "when available") -- but we didn't want to dull our appetite or our anticipation for the main event.
Or perhaps I should say Maine event, because when my mother saw lobster at the end of the list of 18 entree soufflé options (which started with Gruyère, continued through a dozen different vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, and leek, and finished with prosciutto and mushrooms, salmon and asparagus, and fruits de mer), that was what we were having. A large family at the adjoining table was volubly enjoying its meal: big plates heaped with salad, followed by a number of appetizing-looking vegetable variations.
Our lobster dish was beautiful, rising a couple of inches above its straight-sided container, and crowned with a circlet of paper-thin slices of lemon. I was surprised at its whiteness when it was spooned onto our plates: I'd been taught to make a stock from the lobster shells when you made a lobster soufflé, which tints the resulting béchamel and the beaten egg whites you blended with it a faint pink. Not so here -- there were little shreds of lobster meat suspended throughout, but before you tasted them, you tasted cheese, tarragon, and a little bit of garlic. It wasn't the lush, fin de siècle lobster rout we expected, and for $50 we'd expected lush. We didn't finish it. We were disappointed.
But the Grand Marnier soufflé that followed was perfect, a fragrant, eggy masterpiece that floated onto our plates and down our throats. We had absolutely no problem finishing every morsel, and we wished there were more.
Another day, another hunger satisfied, this time when Peter and I went to the Matterhorn Swiss Restaurant, in a building on Van Ness whose bland facade hides another charming room -- almost entirely paneled in light wood and lined with carved booths -- that could be in one of the Swiss mountain villages whose pictures line the walls. The menu includes a page of Swiss specialties such as schnitzel with rösti potatoes, but we were there for fondue (as was, it seemed, everyone around us; the restaurant was full by 7 on this midweek night). Another page features cheese fondues, nine versions plus raclette, melted cheese served with pickles and boiled potatoes, here termed a "lazy" fondue. We were sorely tempted by "The Oh la la," aka fondue Normandie, a blend of French raclette and Camembert, and "The Healthy One," fondue aux herbes, a mixture of Swiss cheeses with organic herbs, but since it was our first visit, we tried "The Original," fondue Valaisanne, made with Swiss Emmental and Gruyère. First we got a good mixed green salad (included with your fondue) in a vinaigrette, flecked with minced hard-boiled egg. We'd also ordered a plate of Swiss charcuterie: two kinds of air-dried beef, a mild smoked ham, and a slightly peppery salami, garnished with cornichons and pickled onions. The fondue, served in a pottery dish set on a Sterno-fired stand, was properly cheesy, sharpened with a bit of kirsch, and fun to dip into with chunks of unusually good baguette. (Peter would have liked a touch more garlic.) I would happily return and try another of the cheesy fondues -- or maybe the fondue Bourguignonne, for which you dip chunks of beef into boiling oil and then into a variety of sauces and garnishes, as a festive table of five was doing next to us. With enough people and enough residual hunger, we could have finished by spearing chunks of fruit and cake to dunk into chocolate fondue. I felt lucky to be in a restaurant that felt so sincere and sure of what it was doing.
I told Peter about my meal at Café Jacqueline and my desire to try it again. It was, after all, the only place I'd even seen a main-course soufflé offered in San Francisco, and I remembered only two or three dessert varieties over the last few years -- notably a lovely little pistachio number at Tartare, with two sauces, nectarine and lemon. He remembered Jacqueline with pleasure and hadn't been there in years, so he joined me there for supper. As we waited on the sidewalk for our table to be set, the couple who had just vacated it staggered out in a state of bliss. "I've always wanted to go here," the girl told us, "and now I have. We had a mushroom, basil, and leek soufflé that was so good ..." that words failed her. "The place hasn't changed at all," Peter said. We were seated in the back, near a fabulous, sinuous lamp with shades made from sea urchins, a fantasy that would have been right at home at Café Nicholson.
We considered leek, and broccoli, and asparagus, but chose something less common: fresh white corn, ginger, and garlic. Again the dish came to the table looking like an illustration in a cookbook, steaming and puffed, spooned onto our plates with a browned crust and snowy insides. The hint of ginger and garlic set off the sweetness of the corn kernels that studded it. It was exceedingly airy, yet satisfying and filling.
But not so filling that we didn't look forward to the fresh strawberry soufflé that followed, pale pink with puréed berries, scented with kirsch and covered with sliced ripe berries with surprising depth of flavor. "She found good strawberries," I said. "Did I ever tell you about the time --"
"-- that you ate your way through an entire basket of strawberries meant for a picnic?" Peter finished. I apparently had told him the story. "A picnic for about 20 people!" I said. "They were so perfumed, so sweet, I couldn't help myself. It was in Cologne, in a courtyard, while waiting for the others to arrive. I wonder if I'll ever taste berries that good again."
When Peter returned from going through the kitchen to visit the bathroom, he urged me to make the same trip, if only to see the painted folk-art egg that sat wittily atop dozens of eggs in a huge wooden bowl. I liked seeing the crates of vegetables and strawberries that lined the bright, clean room, and the white-haired Jacqueline herself, master soufflé chef. It's her skill that turns a few eggs, a lot of air, and some berries into a dish that a roomful of people is happy to pay $35 for.