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Hail and Farewell 

Mourning the passing of Gordon's, but encouraged by its sister restaurant, Verbena

Wednesday, Jan 22 2003
I didn't hit town quite like the confused character played by Frank Sinatra in On the Town, who gets into Betty Garrett's taxi and asks her to take him to see the Hippodrome, the Floradora Girls, and "the city's highest spot, the Woolworth Tower." Garrett replies that the Hippodrome was torn down a dozen years ago, the Floradora Girls folded up 40 years ago, and there's this new building called the Empire State. (Besides, where she really wants to take him is her place. Which is why the song is called "Come Up to My Place.")

So I didn't try to visit the vanished Dine (though I look forward to tasting Julia McClaskey's signature pot roast at Julia) or JohnFrank (now Home) or Carta (now Paisley's). (Or Ernie's or the Blue Fox, for that matter.) But when Cathy and Jay and I walked past Gordon's House of Fine Eats on the way to our car after a disappointing dinner at a nearby restaurant, I couldn't resist stopping in and checking it out. I'd already read that chef Gordon Drysdale was leaving his namesake restaurant, but the future of the place hadn't yet been announced. And after I looked at the winter menu I was seduced. It had been a while since I'd seen such an immediately appealing spread: Despite the fact that I'd just had a meal (or maybe because), things that I wanted to eat -- crispy artichoke fritters, a rustic tart of beets and cheese, cornflake fried chicken, barbecued short ribs, mmm, a French butter pear pizza with sweet garlic, local Camembert, and thyme -- leapt out at me. Cathy, who'd eaten there a number of times, pointed out her favorite dish: warm Brussels sprouts salad with bacon, egg, and onion. We made a reservation for a few days hence.

I took a menu home with me; further perusal revealed that I wanted to try virtually everything listed. Cathy and Jay had to reschedule, so it was Adam, Janice, and Chester who accompanied me to dinner. Adam had dined there alone, at the height of the dot-com epoch, when the restaurant's Media Gulch location often sported lines out the door. In those days the menu was divided into five sections ("healthful," "comfort," "local favorites," "luxury," and "international"); like several other S.F. places, Gordon's simplified its menu (into two sections, "downhome" and "uptown") and reduced its prices in 2002. Except for four main courses (of a dozen) and one starter, everything cost under $13.75.

We had what I considered an astonishingly good meal. The appetizers ranged from very good (a wedge of iceberg lettuce with creamy blue cheese, the "straightforward" pepperoni pizza on an excellent chewy crust, steamed mussels in a tangy broth) to very very good indeed (a potato and leek soup dusted with aromatic grated black truffles, that delicious and original Brussels sprouts salad). And the main courses were even better: tender barbecued short ribs with meat slipping right off the bones, plus creamy mashed potatoes and a sharply dressed coleslaw; satisfying fried chicken with a perfect flaky biscuit anointed with honey butter (so good I was tempted to request a second for dessert); a special of silky pork osso buco; and my plate of lamb two ways, little grilled rib chops and a lovely chunk of braised lamb shank, excitingly paired with crispy eggplant and a relish of cucumbers in yogurt.

But during this delicious orgy we learned, from a neighborhood couple sitting next to us and tucking in to salmon and a big, beautiful steak, that Gordon's was going to close on the 18th of January.

I found this news so depressing that it was all I could do to finish my fair share of the heap of half a dozen freshly made doughnuts (including a huge funnel cake and little star-shaped bitter orange doughnuts) we ordered for dessert. We also got a passion fruit meringue tart that was so much better in every way than the sad, thick-crusted, ersatz key lime tart my mother had ordered at lunch that day that I felt obliged to drive the remaining third of it to her afterward, just so she could enjoy its delicate crust, sharp, sweet, citrusy filling, and exquisite meringue.

When I reported on the meal and Gordon's imminent closing to Cathy, she reminded me that months before we had had a light lunch at downtown Oakland's Verbena, which acknowledged Gordon's as its inspiration when it opened back in late 2001. (I remembered how sad she was that day to find that they offered the signature Brussels sprouts salad only at dinner.) Both places are part of the Real Restaurants group of more than a dozen establishments, including such eateries as the Fog City Diner, Bix, and Tra Vigne.

So I suggested Verbena as the site for an upcoming big family dinner, when my father couldn't get a reservation at two of his East Bay favorites, Citron and Jojo's. Verbena is on the ground floor of an office skyscraper, in an area of Oakland that's rather cheerless and deserted at night, but several other parties had managed to find their way there that evening. My rather demanding companions were more than pleasantly surprised by our meal: General acclaim was heard for the faintly sweet cauliflower soup perked up by its truffled croutons, the crispy fried calamari served with a spicy roasted-pepper romesco sauce, and the beautifully trimmed House of Fine Eats-style artichoke fritters with tart lemon aioli. I thought that the crepe wrapped around the rich, house-made duck confit was way too thick, but its orderer was well pleased. And the Brussels sprouts salad, with caramelized onion, nice little lardons of smoky bacon, and still-warm chunks of hard-boiled egg mixed with the pulled-apart tiny cabbages, was the hit of the table.

I missed a certain élan in execution and excitement in conception that I'd experienced with the dishes I'd had at Gordon's, but my fellow eaters weren't subjecting their dinners to invidious comparison; they were enjoying their meals on their own terms, instead of saying to themselves, "Well, this is quite a good braised lamb shank, but not as voluptuous as the three long-cooked meats I had at Gordon's last week." The grilled prime flat-iron steak was full of flavor and came with a rich potato-Gruyère gratin. One sister loved her plump, house-made spinach tortelloni under a light tomato-rosemary cream, though the other thought her "bouillabaisse" of sea scallops, Manila clams, and calamari was not really a bouillabaisse, nor particularly good on its own merits. I was happy with my roasted chicken tinted pale orange with achiote and served with salsa verde. As good as anything I had at Gordon's was the grilled pork tenderloin, two daringly rosy, huge hunks of it, paired with an impossibly light garlic flan and a freshly made Bosc pear chutney.

Our contentment continued with dessert. The pistachio baked Alaska, ringed with buttery caramel and chocolate sauces, was impressive with its carefully browned peaks of meringue, and, under a too-thick crust, the Kahlúa crème brûlée was perfectly fine. The star was the panna cotta, snow-white, barely gelled, cooked cream faintly perfumed with lemony verbena, flecked with black specks of vanilla bean, and decorated with bright pomegranate seeds and segments of cara cara oranges, a new one on me. (I find that they're also known as red navel oranges, with "a bright orange peel and pink-raspberry colored flesh." Very pretty next to the custard.)

It's happened that I've dined at restaurants on their very last day of existence, but it's not a practice that I would recommend. I remember an especially uncomfortable evening at Nickodell's, an old-fashioned eatery near the Paramount Studios in L.A., when the waitresses were tripping over TV cables as network field anchors shoved microphones into hapless diners' faces as we supped on badly shucked, warm oysters and Caesar salads that were the shadow of their former selves. Gordon's was still a couple of weeks away from its shuttering when Cathy, Jay, and I returned for our valedictory dinner; no slacking was evident in the food we ate, though the service suffered a little. (Our charming and hard-working waitress did tell us that the restaurant was short-staffed; "I think they may have found other jobs.") With every yummy mouthful of the crisp-crusted seafood hash topped with cold green beans and sided by a hot, spicy fresh tomato sauce that Gordon's called "tomato butter" (a wildly original plate of food), and the tofu stewed with baby bok choy and shiitake mushrooms in a coconut-milk red curry fragrant with lemongrass (the best rendition of that dish I'd tasted), I mourned the loss of this delightful restaurant. The second plate of fresh doughnuts and a tiny apple crumb pie that was better than any other apple crumb pie of my acquaintance riled me rather than soothed me.

But then an impromptu lunch at Verbena with Cathy and her mom cheered me up quite a bit. This time the room was entirely full -- as good a sign as Cathy spooning up every bit of her smoked chicken and vegetable barley soup with toasted pine nuts with exclamations of delight ("This is a really good soup!"). I surprised myself by likewise finishing every morsel of my peppery, well-dressed watercress salad ennobled with bright chunks of poached quince and candied pecans. The kitchen sweetly made us yet another, yes, Brussels sprouts salad, which we'd inquired about on the phone when we called that morning (the staff had already prepped the ingredients for dinner). I wasn't thrilled with the cracker crust on my chorizo pizza, but the grilled portobello sandwich was as meaty as any I've ever had, cleverly dressed with chopped red cabbage and accompanied by freshly made potato chips dusted with allspice and chili powder. I remembered that brilliant pork with the garlic flan and the Bosc pear chutney with pleasure. And the lovely panna cotta. Verbena isn't Gordon's, but it's good.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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