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Dolce Far Niente 

Absinthe; David's; Ella's; Garden Court; Liberty Cafe

Wednesday, Jun 7 2000
Each day of the weekend has its own ethos. Friday is Friday, thank God, the night to forget the week's myriad disappointments with a post-vocational program of alcohol, bar food, loud music, and other spiritual unguents. Saturday is the day to get things done: laundry, gardening, a trip to the dump, sowing the back 40. It's immediately followed by Saturday night, a genre unto itself, the night to dress up, go out, and frolic far from the constraints of the workweek.

And then there's Sunday. The day of dolce far niente, late slumber and unplanned languor, newspapers thick with color supplements and crossword puzzles, lovingly brewed cups of coffee, mellow sunbeams, and Antonio Carlos Jobim drifting out of the stereo: how sweet, indeed, to do nothing. Brunch is the perfect protein for this day of rest. It doesn't have a rigidly settled place in the culinary cosmos -- too indulgent for breakfast, too sprawling for lunch, it exists as a sort of special-occasion hybrid, its unformed complexion ideal to a day of procrastination and indecision. It was invented just about a century ago, when circling the world took 80 days, making a phone call was a sometime thing, and there was no hurry, no hurry at all.

Absinthe has the whole leisure-genteel Edwardian atmosphere down pat. Nestled along blossoming Hayes Street within overture distance of the symphony, ballet, and opera, the restaurant can get frantic just before a matinee, but its dark-paneled brasserie elegance, redolent of chilled Lillet and Toulouse-Lautrec, is conducive to lingering conversation and good digestion. And the food is exemplary, an array of dishes that add wit and high spirits to the already lush nature of the brunch experience. Start things off with one of the venue's fine cocktails (c'mon, it's Sunday!) -- a French '75 ($8), perhaps, named (for cause) after the World War I firearm, a pleasantly tranquilizing, highly sippable concoction of gin, lemon juice, sugar, and champagne.

The polenta ($5.50), an out-of-this-world version of breakfast cereal, is creaminess exponentialized, infused as it is with mascarpone cheese and maple syrup. Another eye-opener, granola ($6), is equally transcendent with its huge pecans, fresh berries, and chunks of musky-sweet papaya. The croque monsieur ($8.50) is, in essence, a really good ham and cheese sandwich, with pungent Gruyère melting into smoky Madrange ham while a dollop of Dijon adds a creamy little kick. And the omelet ($12), prepared in our case with a hint of the Creole, bursts at the seams with plump, sweet Louisiana shrimp and a devilish combination of fresh herbs. The scones ($2) are, of course, buttery and terrific.

Outdoing Absinthe in the elegance department is the Palace Hotel's Garden Court, one of those Old San Francisco icons you have to experience at least once in your lifetime. A few years ago the 130-year-old restaurant was painstakingly returned to its former luster, and the result is absolutely dazzling: a dozen crystal-dripping chandeliers illuminating brocades, statuary, and potted palms in tasteful abundance, marble pillars with memories of Enrico Caruso, Warren G. Harding, and other past tenants, and the venue's crowning glory -- a towering vaulted ceiling of lead glass intricate in its prismatic variations. Here the classic all-you-can-eat buffet brunch ($36 per person) is prepared and served every Sunday, and as a veteran of these affairs I can say it offers all the eclectic triumphs and disappointments of the genre.

On the one hand there's predominantly taste-free fruit, dull sausages, and boring ham, thick, stupid French toast, cold, hard polenta, overly rich and salty scalloped potatoes, gloppy spinach-stuffed chicken breasts, and a too-sugary tiramisu; on the other hand there's a terrific smooth-jazzy Ramos Fizz ($7), nice smoky bacon, moist salmon fillets, and tender whitefish with saffron, a simple, terrific ahi salad in a light vinaigrette, a fine selection of fresh oysters, nice little meaty spareribs, marvelously silky blintzes, an exemplary crème brûlée, and a terrific moist, lemony pound cake strewn with fresh raspberries. Bonus: the talented, Gershwin-versed pianist adding to the ambient gentility at stage center.

The gluttony-inducing buffet is one classic version of brunchtime satisfaction; another is the Upper West Side menu of lox and bagels, usually consumed en casa with the Sunday Times. There's nothing like the original version here in the Bay Area (one of the best things I've ever tasted was the smoked sturgeon on pumpernickel at Barney Greengrass at Amsterdam and 86th, but you'd have to head 400 miles down the I-5 to find anything close to it), but David's, across the street from ACT, the Curran, and other Broadway-esque establishments, gives it the old college try. Most of the elements are present and accounted for: the big Formica counter, the lore-filled menu, even Dr. Brown's Celery Tonic ($3). The lox platter ($17), enough for two people, is, however, David's pièce de résistance. This here is the best smoked salmon in the city -- creamy in texture, thick and supple, without a trace of saltiness, it's imported from Scotland, perfectly filleted, and served with really fresh sliced tomatoes and red onions, good, spiky pickles, a mound of velvety potato salad, and -- the unfortunate part-stale bagels. Solution: Stop at the Bagelry (2134 Polk at Vallejo, 441-3003) on your way to or from David's and you'll have yourself a hamper worthy of Sunday morning.

And then there are the neighborhood hangouts -- not particularly fancy places, but not at all scruffy, either -- that serve up brunches so outstanding in quality and invention, they inspire Sunday sluggards to cross the city and join the locals in lines that stretch down the block. The Liberty Cafe is located in Bernal Heights, a neighborhood more reminiscent of a Gold Country village than its location (between the Lower Mission and the Bayshore Freeway) would indicate. This dichotomy is exemplified in the Liberty's food: basic grub informed by big-city elegance and imagination.

Example: the house-made granola ($3.50), a light and lovely semisweet combination of nuts and grains served with bananas and milk. Or the hash ($7.50), a high-class rib-sticker glistening with pungent shards of corned beef, onion, and potato, two perfectly poached eggs adding creamy support on top. Or the French toast ($6.50, $7.50 with fruit in season), made from thick slabs of house-baked challah, a wonderfully buttery maple syrup infusing the whole. The setting is funky and friendly, and there's a bakery out back where you can purchase the breadstuffs and other delights that just went into your memorable brunch.

Ella's is a perpetually packed Presidio Heights institution (the line starts forming half an hour before the doors open at 9 a.m.), and for good reason. The setting, a simply elegant wood-burnished quasi-bistro dappled in sunlight, hums with professional acumen, and the food that emerges from the kitchen with admirable speed is marvelously inventive. The chilled fruit on the fresh fruit platter ($3.50 small, $4.75 large) -- strawberries, mango, pineapple, pith-free grapefruit, and orange at our visit -- is not only sweetly, impeccably fresh, it forsakes the usual bowl presentation for an intricate and lovely origami arrangement. The sticky bun ($2.75) is huge, glaze-hard on the outside and buttery-rich within, with crunchy pecans (lots of 'em) adding texture and contrast. The Bloody Mary ($5.50) is potent, spicy with horseradish but not too hot for a gentle Sunday morning, while the Ramos ($6.50) is the venue's one disappointment: too sweet, too orange-flowery, too much taste of gin. (The proper Fizz is like a potable, barely scented pillow.)

But the French toast ($4.25), prepared with bread baked on the premises, is as dense and delightful as a slice of barely sweetened cake, with none of the sog that usually besmirches this breakfast classic, and ribbons of orange rind lightening the whole. And our scramble of the day ($9.50) featured creamy-moist eggs jazzed with bright little capers and generous chunks of briny, silken smoked trout -- a dish at once luxurious, satisfying, and worth lingering over, a perfect evocation of the brunch experience.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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