Her husband, whose own three-year stint in the land of dry heat and palm fronds hasn't erased the memory of a local, redwooded childhood, observed the passing scene and said, "My God, every car has a KQED sticker." We found a spot in a mini-mall parking lot and piled out.
Piedmont Avenue, the neighborhood's main drag, is a well-heeled and active stretch of real estate that boasts such cunningly monickered establishments as J. Hamburgers & Such, Egbert Sousé Cocktails, and Crepe Crescendo, as well as antique stores and upscale groceries, coffee houses of both the local and global-consortium variety, hair salons, jewelry shops, bricked sidewalks, and posted pleas to Keep Crissy Field Green. Pasadena, possibly, but also mid-level Marin, or maybe upper-middle Palo Alto. At one end of this three-block precinct is Fenton's Creamery, a legendary, ever-hopping hangout that has supplied me with many a post-movie sundae; at the other is Bay Wolf Restaurant.
Bay Wolf is one of those revered local landmarks that's been keeping up its end of the bargain long enough to spawn trends and inspire locals to drop by for food and chitchat on a regular basis. It began life a quarter-century ago this year under the auspices of chef-owner Michael Wild, who still bears the title of executive chef. His notion was to open a restaurant that would prepare and serve food from the disparate regions of the Mediterranean, changing the dinner menu to accommodate a different region each month. (The lunch menu changes weekly and embraces the entire Mediterranean basin, rather than a specific cuisine.) Wild reconfigured a roomy old Victorian into a restaurant of two dining rooms and one enclosed veranda where patrons could dine, as casually or as elegantly as they wished, on the sweets and savories of Tuscany, Provence, and the Basque country. Of course, with every other hash house serving up lamb shank with couscous and braised fennel nowadays, it's difficult to imagine how refreshing this concept once was.
Bay Wolf's menu this month was based in Venice, a significant reason for my presence. I love Venice; it's the only city I've been to that's more beautiful than San Francisco. The Italians say, "In Florence you think, in Rome you pray, and in Venice you love," with a postscript: "In all three, you eat." In addition to its other charms, Venice is well-positioned in the food department: it's right smack on the Adriatic, home to squid, spider crabs, and other delicacies, and was for many years the gateway and trading post between Europe and the Orient, with all the delicious influences you'd expect from such a circumstance. Bring on the bussolai!
We got a table on the veranda, which, like Bay Wolf proper, is low-ceilinged, wood-paneled, and cozy, the glow of heat lamps and the murmur of adjacent streetlife reminding the transplants of Santa Monica Boulevard, if not the Ponte di Rialto. We began with a Venetian specialty -- grilled-artichoke salad ($7.25) -- and two appetizers from the less specific menu: the double celery soup ($6) and the duck liver flan ($7.50). The soup is all about texture, creamy and smooth and not too thick, with an occasional crunch of toasted breadcrumb, the bite of minced chive and the subtle fragrance of the vegetable in question pulling it all together. The flan, suave, supple, and delicious, is edgy with the occasional green peppercorn, while citrusy pickled red onions and the crunch of Acme sourdough add contrasts of their own. However, the salad, a lovely still life of blood oranges, asparagus, arugula, and grilled artichoke hearts, features a wonderful selection of ingredients but lacks a discernible gusto, a unifying zip to lend it culinary credence.
Two of the entrees, while tasty enough, followed the same innocuous lead as the salad. The duck à l'orange ($19.25) features Bay Wolf's signature ingredient -- locally raised duck -- and the tender, slightly smoky meat (and, even better, the crisp, fatty skin) is marvelous infused with tiny shards of fragrant orange peel. But the whole, which encompassed underdone turnips and a mound of bland wild rice, was a disappointment. Likewise, the grilled swordfish Venetian style ($18.75) is as meaty and juicy as a good pork chop, and its couscous accompaniment is fluffiness itself, but ponderous roasted vegetables and an undistinguished date-mint vinaigrette render the dish unmemorable. The pasta ($14.50), though, is the freshest and most robust I've enjoyed since my last visit to Rome, the sort of pasta that surpasses the merely culinary and makes you understand why it's consumed so regularly in the old country. Here it's prepared as in Venice, with a rich Northern sauce fragrant with butter and cheese and the crisp, simple verdancy of asparagus and mushrooms.
Bay Wolf's wine list is known for the small, hard-to-find producers that supply its pages. In addition to the expected French, Italian, and Spanish vintages there's a plethora of California and Oregon wines, adding up to a list of real depth with an equally well-rounded price range; you don't have to break the bank to sip here, but you can if you want to. There are cabs available, for instance, for both $20 and $175. Another plus is the nice selection of aperitifs, at $5 per glass.
For dessert we had pots of loose-leaf tea and three specialties. The chocolate bundino ($6.25), an Italian steamed cake, was big, spongy, boring, and on the stale side, but the sherbets of tangerine and blood orange ($5.75) took up the slack -- they were bracing, refreshing, and fresh. Best of all: Earl's Sweet Treats ($6.50), a platter of Lilliputian delicacies of high quality, including a barquette filled with pear puree and sweet cream, pound cake edged in lemon and ginger, a handmade, cocoa-dipped peppermint pattie, a slab of caramel ribboned with chocolate and almonds, a chewy, orangy macaroon, a chocolate-peanut cluster, and a tiny cookie earthy with cornmeal: yum.
Service at Bay Wolf is crisp and knowledgeable; the mood is friendly and festive. Depending on the month -- and the weather -- the place might well be a little bit of Melrose on the Piazza San Marco.