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Hawthorne Lane does mainstream Californian with fanciful panache

Wednesday, Jan 17 1996
Hawthorne Lane is like a brand-new easy chair: It's not old enough to have begun fraying around the edges, but it feels comfortably established, as if it has been there a long time instead of a few months. From the wrought-iron door handles (shaped like tree branches) to the big, restless crowds, it feels permanent.

A dining companion of mine described the consciously unflashy decor as "ritzy Scandinavian Design" -- plenty of teak and white walls. The effect is not as lusciously romantic as, say, Boulevard, but it's not wearing, either. It says, in a quiet WASP voice: We're rich enough not to have to say how rich we are.

Each of the two huge rooms turns on a dominant physical marker. In the dining room it's the open, stagelike kitchen. Here the drama of preparing dinner is continuously enacted by a cast of mostly young, white-hatted chefs, who go about their business under an enormous air duct that gives new life to the overused adjective "industrial." The front room, on the other hand, flows around the bar -- an elongated oval island surrounded by tables and booths and a steady stream of human traffic. Sitting there in a booth at lunchtime was like being in an observation post. I could watch the maitre d' greeting newcomers, including, between Christmas and New Year's, lots of prosperous families, like latter-day characters from the Thomas Mann novel Buddenbrooks.

I could peek through an open door into the business office behind the maitre d's podium, where a young woman stared at a computer monitor. I could read the sign above the door: "MAXIMUM OCCUPANCY 114." My initial sense of the place was that it wasn't that big; but then, on a trip to the restroom, I caught my first glimpse of the dining room and felt like a coachbound wretch who glimpses the first-class cabin beyond the rustling curtain.

If the decor is relaxed, the food is mainstream Californian, executed with the fanciful panache that explains the extra $5 or $10 per dish. Hawthorne Lane is not fantastically expensive, but it is one of the pricier places in the city. Certainly there are restaurants serving comparable food for quite a bit less. But they're not as big, not as glamorous, and they're apt to omit such details as the triangle of pappadam that rose like a sail over my plate of seared yellowfin tuna ($12.50).

The tuna was beautifully cooked, though curiously tough and tendony. It came with a garlic-chickpea puree that reminded me of hummus. The dish was tasty, and just filling enough to be satisfying after a generous first course of little pizza ($7). The crusty pizza had been topped with house-made lamb and chili-garlic sausage, white cheese, and cilantro pesto -- a powerful, vaguely Southwestern blast of flavors that faded nicely into the tuna's mildness.

My friend started with the fried calamari salad ($9.50), which he pronounced the best he'd ever had. (He'd made a similar declaration a few weeks before, at a different place.) The batter was unusually light and had crisped up perfectly, and there was also a smattering of eggplant and diced red peppers to add color and contrast. For his main course he chose (inexplicably) a roast lamb sandwich ($11.50) on scallion focaccia. Going to Hawthorne Lane for a sandwich is like going to a Mercedes dealer for a used Volkswagen, and then having them install leather seats. The slices of lamb were cooked medium rare, and the bread was still warm from the oven, but the red-onion marmalade, dotted with currants and golden raisins, had a sweetness neither of us cared for.

We showed up for dinner that night without a reservation, expecting to have to wait for a table in the cafe. But we were immediately seated in the main dining room, at a table close to the kitchen. The first courses were served swiftly, but they weren't the ones we'd ordered.

"The computer has made a mistake!" our server said with a smile that masked his embarrassment. Hawthorne Lane, for all its casual clubbiness and glamorous clientele, is a high-tech operation, a place where art, craft, and discipline meet the microchip. There's something a bit chilly about it -- especially during a glitch, when the mechanical details suddenly become visible -- but the restaurant is too big and complex to work any other way.

The correct set of first courses soon arrived. Crab-asparagus soup ($11.50) and tempura lobster salad ($14) were competent, but only the lamb tartare ($10.50 and recommended by the server) distinguished itself. A pile of chopped, blood-red meat was surrounded by thin disks of golden beet and run through by slices of grilled bread, with a scattering of black-truffle shavings over the top. I did not love the earthy, gamy flavor, but it was clear and powerful all the same.

The main courses were all splendid. The schnitzel ($22) was a duck breast pounded thin and dredged in sage-scented bread crumbs that fried up a deep gold color; on the side was a perfectly cooked beet risotto the color of a ruby crayon. It was served in a tiny copper pot.

Venison ($24) arrived à point as we'd ordered it: seared on the outside, almost raw in the center. The meat's flavor was a variation on beef's, and it took well to the simple preparation. The venison slices rested on a sweet-potato puree saved from cloyingness by a black-bean sauce.

Petrale sole ($22) is a local glory, and the kitchen handled it with aplomb, garnishing the plate with the dorsal fin, dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried: another sail. A hash of potato and lobster meat added a gravity that matched well with the fish's lightness.

Such a substantial meal (the portions are ample) plainly illuminates the wisdom of the European dessert -- fruit or cheese, please; no fatty sweets. The chocolate souffle ($6.50), with its raspberry sauce and vanilla cream, wasn't too heavy. But the best choice was to sit there with an espresso and watch the parade: the two tables of A-list gay couples who pretended they didn't see each other; the nearby booth full of famous-looking people we couldn't quite place. Hawthorne Lane is like Manhattan: Eventually everyone passes through.

Hawthorne Lane, 22 Hawthorne Lane, S.F., 777-9779. Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sun-Thurs 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri & Sat 5:30-10:30 p.m.

About The Author

Paul Reidinger


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