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Chez Spencer

Wednesday, Jul 31 2002
Motoring around in that slice of ungentrified real estate just south of the 101 overpass and just north of the Mission, we were peering out at the locked garages, dark warehouses, and empty sidewalks -- wondering if we'd ever see a human being again -- when we spotted a big, open gate scrawled with what looked like graffiti with a pool of light beyond. We parked, passed through the gate, and found ourselves in the front patio of a lively, humming, coolly elegant restaurant with music and laughter drifting out the front door. Everyone in San Francisco wants to find a little French eatery hidden away on some unmarked side street where the welcome is warm, the setting is unique, and the cuisine is out of this world -- which is why we were so delighted to realize that some of the most exciting food in the city is created and served in this tucked-away bistro many blocks removed from Hayes Valley or Union Square.

Chez Spencer takes the best aspects of several signature San Francisco restaurants and combines them into its own vision. The oasislike locale is not unlike 42 Degrees' sanctuary amongst the factory outlets. The mood (cheery and elegant all at once) is Zuni Cafe at its Friday-night best. The soaring, industrial-chic setting is reminiscent of Citizen Cake's, which isn't surprising given that this was Citizen Cake's original location. And the food -- the fresh, distinct flavors; the adventurous culinary combinations; the Gallic regard for artistic expression -- is surpassed only by that of La Folie and a handful of other venues.

It's the sort of place where stories are shared over open magnums and people dunk their bread in each other's platters to sop up the marvelous sauces (even though you'd never do such a thing in the City of Light, the restaurant's spiritual birthplace). The only things remotely Californian about Chez Spencer are the SOMA décor, the cool live jazz, and the relaxed affability of the staff. Otherwise, its service, table settings, and menu are as smooth as a crème caramel on the Île de la Cité. Many of the dishes created by Laurent Katgely, Foreign Cinema's former chef, are complex, exciting, and rich with possibilities. Such culinary creations take you on a journey from flavor to intricately unified flavor, offering an integral experience that resolves itself with the last forkful of squab or swallow of wine.

Take the foie gras, for instance. It's one of those rare dishes that inspires so much inner happiness that after the first bite you pause and reflect upon the incredible thing going on in your mouth. First, there's the foie gras itself, which is as rich and buttery here as anywhere in the city. Accentuating it are the crisp, barely sweetened, apricot-infused pastry it rests upon and -- the crowning touch -- a dozen or so ripe, juicy blueberries strewn about its perimeter. The crunch of the pastry, the velvet of the foie gras, and the tang of the berries work together like a mind-blowing balancing act. The slices of duck breast in the salad Lyonnaise are luscious and fatty, with a hint of woodsmoke; combined with chewy lardons (strips of fried bacon), a subtly tangy balsamic reduction, fresh greens, and a warm poached egg yolk, they lend a marvelous flavor to the whole. By comparison, the tuna carpaccio is a study in simplicity: Thin fillets of fresh ahi, tender as a good steak, create a dish that, while refreshing, lacks the depth and intensity of the other appetizers.

Many of the menu items showcase individual flavors so skillfully and with such brio that it's as though you'd never tasted them before. The Colorado rack of lamb features three rare, melting chops and a creamy (if somewhat gummy) potato gratin. But what really sends the platter into the stratosphere is a roasted tomato confit that's so earthy it tastes like tomatohood exponentialized, the very essence of sun-ripened pleasure. The Maine lobster is unsuccessful -- the shellfish, orange slices, Bing cherries, and two shades of heirloom tomato don't coalesce into anything meaningful -- but there are paper-thin yellow peach slivers fanned across the top that are so delicious the dish is almost worth ordering just for them. Then there's the roasted squab with morels. These morels -- "the truffles of the north," as they're known in Scandinavia -- are far removed from the pallid, inbred fungi we've grown accustomed to. Here they're as intense as a sun-dried truffle reconstituted in fine liqueur, with an additional down-to-earth quality out of some autumnal forest. (The squab itself is tasty as a sliced breast but tough as a drumstick; its sherry-infused sauce is the one that inspired the most bread-dunking.)

Two of the entrees are especially impressive. Butterfish, a supple, somewhat meaty, but lightly textured fish with a clean, subtle flavor, comes wrapped in a fig leaf and roasted until moist sheets of meat fall away from its thickly cut fillet. A hint of lemon infuses the whole, and a red pepper sauce adds an unexpected but complementary accent. Roasted black figs as essential as the morels and tomatoes complete this marvelous plate. A thick filet mignon is seared until it's black on the outside, a juicy rose on the inside, then served on a bed of hulled barley pilaf braised in a balsamic reduction and topped with a dollop of foie gras butter. The nutty, chewy pilaf acts as a foil for the lush meat and the creamy butter, while barely detectable minced vegetables add a sweetness that brings the whole dish together. It's a complete culinary experience.

The same can be said of the chocolate marquise, one of pastry chef Lisa Savell's best desserts. Here a soft coconut torte showcases the feathery chocolate that runs through its center like an unexpected vein of delicious gold. Strewn about the cake are blackberries that taste as if they'd been picked on Mount Tamalpais that morning. In another memorable concoction, a croustade (edible bowl) supports an origami of succulent, sun-sweet peaches; its crust is so much like caramelized brittle that you won't care if it takes a butcher knife to cut through. Two scoops of cinnamon-infused ice cream are the dish's final accent. You can also get ice cream rich with the taste of honey and served in a goblet with half a dozen ruby-red strawberries. A more complex dessert, the orange fromage blanc panna cotta, is good but somewhat disappointing alongside the other sweet things. As its name indicates, it's more cheesecake than panna cotta, and a bit on the heavy side, with a handful of roasted cherries providing extra baggage. But the black and tan pot de crème is a delight: one layer of caramellike butterscotch, another of delicate milk chocolate, both of them sleek in consistency and smooth in flavor, with a lid of dense brownie providing contrast and a scoop of whipped cream uniting the whole.

At present Chez Spencer lacks a liquor license, but it lacks a corkage fee as well, so you're welcome -- expected, even -- to bring along a few bottles to complement your meal. We carted in a Ravenswood zin, a Jenner cab, and a Barton & Guestier merlot plus random bottles of Pyramid hefeweizen, Full Sail amber ale, and Eye of the Hawk select, so we were prepared for any eventuality. The only problem was when our enthusiastic sipping and dunking soiled the snow-white tablecloth beyond the capabilities of the crumb comb. Our waiter arrived with two clean napkins, covered the offending areas to spare us further shame, refilled our glasses, and offered to open another bottle or two. It's that kind of place.

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Matthew Stafford

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