The Castro is mainly the home of home cooking that you have to pay for. Whenever I've made this observation in print, I've received charming letters from readers urging me to try Cafe Cuvee for more sophisticated cuisine in a low-key, hustle-free ambience. I finally took their advice -- and when I arrived at the site, the first thing I noticed was a pair of reviews from other newspapers posted low in the front window. I squatted down to read them. Both reviews began with the writer noting that she'd received charming letters from readers recommending Cafe Cuvee. Apparently, the cafe's friends include some busy letter-writing elves -- who now have a hat trick to their credit.
More attractive than the published praise was the motto printed on the menu: "Great food, no attitude." A glance at the interior immediately bore out at least the second part of the proclamation. I liked the sweet, clean, unpretentious look of the place -- two small, bright adjoining rooms, one mainly for lunch takeout, the other a simple little dining room with a half-dozen sturdy unclothed wooden tables. Our fellow diners that evening (mainly young couples) also looked sweet, clean, and unpretentious. To view a wider assortment of humanity, you have only to glance through the big front windows and watch the fashion parade at the triangular street corner.
Cafe Cuvee's menu changes monthly, following the season and chef/owner Anne O'Driscoll's creative inclinations. We began with the soup du jour ($4), a warm puree of watercress. It proved to be the only major misstep of our meal, the bitter cress dominating all other flavors. This sulfurous greenery also decorated every other plate but dessert -- but then, nobody expects you to eat garnish.
Vastly more satisfying was a warm phyllo napoleon of chevre and basil ($6.50), a spill of melted, lightly herbed mild goat cheese between two crisp, ethereally thin phyllo rectangles, which were drizzled with a delicious, near-sweet balsamic vinegar glaze. Alongside was a small mound of fine-chopped tomato and black olive salad, a spirited contrast to the cheese.
The best starter we tried was a salad of market lettuces with fresh figs ($6). Our dining companion let forth such a groan of joy at the first bite that diners at other tables twisted their necks to see what he'd ordered, and smiled like co-conspirators. The sliced figs lent their sweetness to a mild dijon vinaigrette, mingling with rich blue cheese and crunchy candied pecans atop the tender greens.
In a brief gap between courses, we debated whether the warm, house-baked bread was good-but-strange or just strange. The nearly saltless white loaf had a texture like corn bread -- dense, a little tough, with a flavor hinting at baking powder. We'd arrived very early (after a movie matinee) and now the house was filling up. One waiter had cheerfully been handling the three occupied tables, but when those numbers doubled, the young, redheaded chef herself emerged from the kitchen to greet and serve.
The most exciting of our entrees consisted of stuffed roasted chiles ($13). A chartreuse-colored pair of peppers were filled with barley, wild mushrooms, and a modicum of corn. Under the mild-flavored chiles was a thick, complex red sauce that, like a good date, was a little sweet and a little spicy. Crackly hulled pumpkin seeds were scattered on top. The dish reminded me of the best productions of full-time vegetarian restaurants: The chewy textures were so engaging, I forgot I don't like barley.
Sauteed pork medallions ($13.50) arrived in a plum sauce, the juicy cooked fruit pieces imbued with the flavor of fresh ginger. Defying the current trend to macho grilled meat-slabs, the pork arrived in thin, tender slices, lightly crusted from the heat of the pan. Slim sections of raw nectarines decorated the edge of the plate.
In brodetto ($16) -- an Italian seafood stew -- calamari, shrimps, a pair of clams, and cubes of salmon and a white-fleshed fish were dressed with a vivid coral sauce apparently made of fresh orange tomatoes. The squid rings were a little overcooked, and none of the promised scallops were in evidence, but the fish that substituted was tender. Alongside were grilled bread croutons covered with the most lemony of aiolis, uncompromisingly tart and wonderfully vibrant.
In such a small room, you can't help but notice what your neighbors are eating. At the next table, a slender, very pretty blonde was enthusiastically demolishing her herb roasted chicken with mango salad (which wafted a lovely scent our way), while her date ravaged his polenta and vegetable lasagna. Clearly, they liked their entrees at least as much as we liked ours.
Cafe Cuvee offers diners one side dish per entree: mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, a daily vegetable medley, herbed wild rice, braised white beans, and the enigmatic "capellini with evoo" were the day's choices. Since we'd just come from the Orson Welles film at the Castro, we wondered about the nature of this touch of "evoo." The waiter had to recite to every table: "It's just our shorthand for extra-virgin olive oil."
Disappointed at the banality of evoo, we ordered the white beans. They were a little dry, and we coveted our neighbor's mashed potatoes. Another letdown was the vegetable medley, which combined underseasoned, undercooked green beans and summer squash. The rice was very good; it appeared to be one of those fancy, healthy Lundberg (or imitation-Lundberg) blends, lightly herbed but with its most interesting flavors deriving from its mixture of chewy grains.
As you'd guess from the name "cuvee," the wine list is interesting -- an ample selection of minor bottlings, mainly from France, all under $30. Unfortunately, only four wines per night are available by the glass. The evening's whites were a sour Venetian pinot grigio and a gawky Central Coast sauvignon-semillion blend; more enjoyable was a gently tannic French merlot from Ardéche. The suds choices are scanty, mainly ales, including a new product from Berkeley called "Q." The label explains the name: "a proud, pale ale from the Queer Brewing Company."
For dessert, a warm peach dumpling ($4.50) was the loveliest sort of comfort food, a muffin-shaped pastry enclosing a syrupy fresh-peach filling, surrounded by a pool of light-textured cinnamon creme anglaise. Little puffs of whipped cream topped with fresh peaches decorated the edge of the plate. A warm plum upside-down cake ($5.50) was as dense as the house bread. Set in a pool of a thin, golden caramel sauce, it was topped with cooked plums, thinly sliced raw plums, and a generous blob of whipped cream.
For the gotta-have-chocolate crowd, a chocolate hazelnut phyllo tower ($5.50) featured crisp top and bottom layers of the miraculous, micron-thin phyllo, garnished with a mint leaf. In the center was a freshet of warm semisweet chocolate with minced nuts, resembling unset fudge batter. A cluster of perfect raspberries came along for the ride.
The letter-writers were right. Cafe Cuvee would be delightful in any neighborhood (I wish it'd move to mine) but it's especially valuable right where it is. Eating there is almost as relaxing as eating at home, but Ms. O'Driscoll doesn't cook Mom Food -- thank goodness.