August is the best eating month of the year. Now is when the blackberries ripen along trails and roadsides; the tomatoes and peaches burst with warm, sun-kissed fecundity; the farmers' markets are as corny as Rodgers and Hammerstein; and the (finally!) warm weather inspires outdoor grilling of smoky delicacies. This is also the month of sidewalk cafes, late-night ice cream cones, hot dogs at the beach, beer on the front stoop, and two-hour lunches at Belden Alley hangouts on company time.
Especially with September — S.F.'s sultriest season — just around the corner, and Belden (an oasis of cheerful Euro al fresco in the avaricious Financial District jungle) more tantalizing than usual. Although the Bank of America building and other towering landmarks surround the vicinity, plenty of sunlight filters onto Belden's block-long asphalt, attracting scores of the office-bound to its many tucked-away establishments. After Cafe Bastille, the alley's pioneering tenant, persuaded the city to ban automobile traffic, other cafes of global provenance set up shop as well, and today the place is abloom with festive umbrellas, colorful awnings, and sidewalk tables. Where else can the lunchtime daydreamer wander from Rome (Cafe Tiramisu) to Paris (Plouf) to Barcelona (B44) in the space of a single block?
And now that Moscow (aka the Voda vodka dispensary) has closed its doors, there's a new kid on the block. Trademark doesn't share its neighbors' Old World proclivities, serving a menu of classic American cooking (think crab cakes and cobbler), but it fits into Belden's sun-dappled bistro milieu otherwise. There's the row of tables and heat lamps; the menu-wielding huckster at the entrance; the bar up front with the cozy booths in back; the friendly, casual Pinot-and-calamari ambience. Voda's sleek Euro-techno interior has been replaced with a more traditionally elegant look: leather and mahogany in black, brown, and beige; a pressed-tin ceiling emitting a silvery glow; illuminated glass bricks bordering a handsome mirrored bar; a subtly swinging soundscape of mid-20th-century jazz creating a cheerful atmosphere.
It's the brainchild of Peter Snyderman and Jerry Mendoza, owner and chef (respectively) of the Elite Cafe on Fillmore. Unlike its Louisiana-centric sister establishment, Trademark takes in a broader swath of the American culinary landscape, serving up Caesar salad, collard greens, grilled ribeye, rhubarb crisp, and other down-home standards with a California Cuisine-y focus on organic ingredients, and with the always-welcome Mediterranean influence popping up here and there. The results are hearty and often delectable, especially with all that summertime produce at hand.
A fine example is the grilled corn salad ($10), a bountiful bowl of the season's sweetest corn kernels, cherry tomatoes, field greens, cucumbers, and roasted peppers served perfectly chilled with a lightly peppery feta vinaigrette that doesn't detract from the farm-fresh flavors. Another yummy starter, the deviled eggs ($3 for three), has the yolks whipped with dry mustard and paprika into a creamy, spicy amuse-bouche. The four-cheese mac 'n' cheese ($6), another attempt to raise a comfort-food classic to the gourmet level, doesn't succeed; thin in texture and bland in flavor, it could use more cheddar and Gorgonzola and less American and Monterey Jack. The duck confit quesadilla ($12) has a nicely ducky flavor, but despite the gooey goat cheese and caramelized onions that share the tortilla, the dish doesn't pack much oomph. Excellent arugula–pink peppercorn accompaniment, though. The best way to kick off your meal is with a plate of the house biscuits, a recipe that dates back to the old Meetinghouse in the Western Addition. These staggered squares of dough (the only way to describe them) break apart into feathery layers of sweet, creamy pleasure, especially decadent with a pat of unsalted butter.
The menu's top entrée is the slow-roasted pork belly ($22), and while it's not quite up to the lush standards set by the Fifth Floor and Boulette's Larder, it's still tender, sweet, and succulent, especially dipped in its own rich jus with a slice of fingerling potato, a crunchy stalk of broccoli rabe, and a candy-sweet garlic crisp or two. The pan-roasted Alaskan halibut ($25), an easy slab of protein to screw up, is perfectly crisp on the outside, moist and flaky within, and served on a bed of clam-bacon chowder with lots of corn and carrots but no discernible flavor of clam or bacon. The crabmeat tagliarini ($18) is equally unexciting — the kitchen should probably hold off on the Dungeness until November or so — but the sweet peas and asparagus tips that dot the pasta are crisp and verdant, and taste like they were pulled from an English garden a few minutes ago.
The desserts reflect the season particularly well. Dig into the cobbler ($7.50), a ramekin of freshly plucked, lightly simmered blackberries and peaches under a crust of those marvelous biscuits, a scoop of rich vanilla bean ice cream melting on top. Or the rhubarb-strawberry crisp ($7.50), in which the tartness of the former and the sweetness of the latter mingle copacetically under a crunchy, buttery crumble. The chocolate malted ($7.50) doesn't seem like anything special — just your typical soda-fountain milkshake — but take one sip of the rich dark eau d'endorphins and you won't be able to stop. It comes with three housemade cookies: okay shortbread, a pretty good sandy, and a crumbly anise biscotto.
The wine list features 90 vintages ranging from a $30 South African Sauvignon Blanc to a $200 Syrah from Sine Qua Non, the limited-production Santa Barbara County trophy vineyard, but most are California wine country natives in the $40 to $80 range. A dozen are available by the half-bottle, a dozen by the glass. Draft beers include Guinness and Anchor Steam, natch, and among the varied house cocktails is the OH! Pear (orange juice, pear vodka, and a slice of jalapeño): a crisp, refreshing cooler that leaves a hint of warmth in the mouth, the perfect summer libation.