A few weeks ago, my father and I emerged from the Civic Center BART station, on our way to Davies Hall for a San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra matinee, and were greeted by the tail end of the St. Patrick's Day Parade. We grabbed a sidewalk table outside Gyro King, shared an appetizer plate covered with bright, fresh Turkish dips and salads, and watched dancing tots in wigs of tight ringlets, marching bands, and sellers of a variety of "Kiss Me I'm Irish" goods pass by. "The last time we saw the parade, it was during the opening of the Asian Art Museum," Dad reminisced. "Yeah," I said, "year before last, and we saw most of it from upstairs, framed by the museum windows. We had Korean food after."
When I met my friend Ed, in town for a few days, for dinner, it turned out that he had watched the St. Pat's Parade, too, but at its South of Market beginning. And, while we had enjoyed a wonderful concert of Respighi, Bernstein, and Schumann afterward, Ed left to find that his rental car had been broken into, and spent the rest of the day exchanging it for a new one and mourning the loss of his Palm Pilot, the one thing of value in the vehicle (and probably worth about $10 on the street). He was only slightly cheered by the fact that he'd left his laptop in his hotel room "even though I thought I ought to bring it along with me so I could do some work in a cafe afterwards."
He was seriously in need of a good dinner and a little coddling. I was cheered to find Jack Falstaff, the latest offering from the PlumpJack group, an oasis of nicely lit luxury and calm in its gentrified but still dark-and-gritty-at-night corner of town. We were led to a snug table for two at a banquette against the rear wall, with green curtains hanging at its side that could have been drawn, I suppose, to shelter us from the cold, cruel world. Golden wood ceilings and clever green Ultrasuede panels upholstering the walls (and slipcovering the aluminum chairs) were thoughtful noise-deadeners as well as sleek decorative touches. (On this Sunday night the place was only about a third full, and quiet already.)
We were handed an intriguing list headed "Jack's Snacks," a long inventory of what looked to be unusual little house-made cocktail nibbles, each priced at $2. I was dying to try the serrano ham chips and the spicy, crispy sage leaves, but we weren't going to order drinks, so we switched our attention to the even more intriguing dinner menu, divided into two sections, nine Intros and seven Entrees, as well as four vegetables cataloged under Farmers' Market Vegetables and six additional dishes under Potatoes, Grains, and Legumes.
This list of dishes, with descriptions of just about everything that would show up on the plate, complete with provenances, was immediately appealing to me. I knew that chef James Ormsby is proud of his organic ingredients and slow-food methods, but what I read spoke just to my hunger: hunger for the seasons, hunger for comfort, hunger for what tastes good. There were lots of things I wanted to eat right away: a soup made from fresh peas, a duck liver flan, and smoked quail, to name just three from among the starters. But I found the pork belly irresistible, and was happy I did: It came in a big sturdy square, looking far too large to be an appetizer, in a sea of lentils, and it was so delicious that I ate up every bite. (When I'm saddened at the disappearance of foie gras from menus, I comfort myself with the increasing popularity of the meaty yet fatty, almost equally decadent pork belly.)
Ed was attracted to the salads, and I nudged him toward one of arugula and grilled Hawaiian blue prawns that looked more complicated than the compositions featuring spring lettuces or romaine hearts (even tricked out as the romaine was with hearts of palm, ruby grapefruit, avocado, spiced pumpkin seeds, queso fresco, and a citrus vinaigrette). It turned out to be a hot salad, the arugula sautéed and topped with the lightly cooked, soft, slightly smoky shrimp, amped up with artichokes, green garlic, and bits of Meyer lemon.
With the main courses, I had a philosophic revelation; just as modern art is often not about beauty, modern food is often about something other than merely taste. Sometimes a dish can be about texture, unusual ingredients, an unfamiliar cuisine, or even its purported results -- as in the yucky-tasting puréed and juiced wheatgrass concoctions we've all gamely tossed back in pursuit of health. But the fare at Jack Falstaff seemed to be just about being delicious. Certainly the sweet wild salmon in tart sorrel sauce was as good as that dish can be (especially with the addition of a salad of fiddlehead ferns, asparagus, salsify, and black chanterelles), as were the slices of Ed's slow-roasted Niman Ranch pork shoulder, exquisitely sided with chopped Savoy cabbage braised in champagne and an onion compote with Granny Smith apples and guanciale (pig cheek), with a bit of house-made grain mustard. I had gone a little nuts and ordered three side dishes: The sweet potatoes mashed with lime and butter and the baby beets were pleasing, but the organic corn spoon bread was a little dry and underseasoned.
But that was the only disappointment in a meal that finished triumphantly with a dense flourless chocolate cake gilded with caramelized strawberries and vanilla bean gelato and a plate covered with a dazzling assortment of five different tiny and refreshing citrus confections.
When I returned a month later for dinner with my parents and their friend Mary, on a Monday night, we were led through a fully booked, packed, and buzzing room to a table for four. Mary said hello, as we sat down, to an acquaintance sitting next to us at the corner table. It was only later, while we were studying the menus (largely changed from my previous visit), that I realized the acquaintance was Willie Brown.
Three of our four starters reinforced my "delicious" theory: "crudo" of Hawaiian ahi, the fashionable sashimilike dish, anointing the rosy soft slices of raw fish with chili-spiked olive oil, almond slivers, and fresh rosemary; another version of the twice-cooked pork belly, even fattier and more succulent than the first, and sided by a strange-sounding but beautifully balanced salad of frisée with tiny julienne of strawberry and rhubarb in balsamic vinegar and crunchy pistachios; and three big seared sea scallops, fractionally overcooked for my taste, around an unusual salad of briny hijiki seaweed and fresh edamame, under a "white soy cloud," a light whipped dressing. The flavor of the shaky duck liver flan that my father ordered was obscured by a too-sweet liquefied topping of quince confit, and he compared it, unfavorably, with similar preparations at Bay Wolf and Jardinière.
But our main courses were incomparable: Everybody was happy. Perhaps my favorite dish was Mary's delicate pan-roasted Alaskan halibut, white as could be, topped with equally snowy doll-sized bay scallops in a green garlic glaze, atop sautéed peas and pea shoots in a light saffron aioli and sided with a prettily molded English pea flan. It looked like spring on a plate. But I was also very happy with the slow-roasted collops of leg of lamb topped with a lavender and mint gremolata, the natural lamb juices moistening the braised Italian butter beans entwined with strands of lacinato kale and fennel, and the hefty rare rib-eye steak topped with a black chanterelle sauce and crispy shallots accompanied by a raft of seared asparagus. As had the former mayor, I'd ordered the Southern fried chicken, which came on an exotically shaped long dish with three pieces of nicely crusted chicken deployed on hillocks of buttermilk mashed potatoes, the leg dramatically rising up vertically, in a lake of very salty onion gravy spiked with sherry and black pepper. The unusual Australian cabernet sauvignon called Cover Drive, a steal at $34 (we'd tried the unknown bottle because Jack Falstaff has such an interesting list), magically accommodated these disparate dishes.
As we feasted, an exquisitely tailored and coiffed Gavin Newsom (one of PlumpJack's founders, now emeritus) swooped in and joined Brown at his table. "He's luminous," my smitten mother observed, as we tried to appear as though we were neither goggling nor eavesdropping, while doing both. Jolly master-of-the-universe bantering did not distract us from our desserts, the Mango Tango, featuring miniature versions of frozen mango soufflé, a mango pie with vanilla gelato, and a tiny glass of barely sweet mango lassi; the citrus plate, now reduced to a trio (a tangelo parfait, a Meyer lemon soufflé cake, and a two-layered ruby red grapefruit panna cotta, marred by a touch too much gelatin); and the local artisan cheese plate that my father and I shared, small cuts of three Cowgirl Creamery offerings, a goat cheese from Redwood Hill Farms, and blues from Rouge et Noir and the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co., with currants, nuts, and nutted whole-grain bread. (I would have liked the option of a plainer bread, too, but none was available: I was offered excellent but heavily seeded flatbread.)
By the time we left, Newsom had rejoined his party, a large table near the front of the restaurant. "Quite an occasion," I observed to the hostess, as we waited for our coats. She volunteered that Willie Brown was a regular, and had even been there for his birthday. But she clammed up when I expressed an interest in what Gavin Newsom had ordered for dinner.
Anyway, I'm sure it was delicious.