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Acme Chophouse

Wednesday, Jul 17 2002
When Traci Des Jardins opened Jardinière back in 1997, post-Panisse California cookery reached a sort of apex. Like Alice Waters, Joyce Goldstein, and her other culinary forebears, Des Jardins took the state's matchless raw materials and treated them with the same earthy exuberance and tender loving care they might have enjoyed in Provence or Tuscany. At the same time, she put her apprenticeships with Alain Ducasse, Joachim Splichal, and the Troisgros brothers to good use, showcasing her farm-fresh ingredients in classically conceived dishes accented with an imaginative but always belly-pleasing intelligence. Served up in Pat Kuleto's sumptuous surroundings, the results continue to dazzle.

Des Jardins' new place, the Acme Chophouse, is some distance along the gustatory spectrum from Jardinière despite a few familial similarities. Unlike Kuleto's urbane duplex, Acme is as strapping and sporty as its landlord, Pac Bell Park. Instead of the suave French-fusion creations encountered at Jardinière, Acme serves steaks and chops and the rib-sticking foods that go with them (creamed spinach, scalloped potatoes, Caesar salad, cheesecake), most of them dripping with butter and olive oil, with nary a squash blossom in sight. But both venues also place a premium on organically raised foodstuffs -- Des Jardins uses produce from local farmers as well as hormone-free, grass-fed beef -- and the food at Acme is often luscious and satisfying.

Like its two most venerable steakhouse rivals, Alfred's and Harris', Acme serves its meat in a handsome, clubby setting of burnished wood and roomy banquettes, but the ambience here is airier, with tall ceilings, tan-and-beige accents, clean, simple surfaces, and expansive windows looking out on Third Street. Burnt-orange light cylinders, a flame-spouting open kitchen, and good, heavy, Italian silverware provide a few visual highlights. A long and well-polished bar offers both TV monitors (tuned to three different ballgames) and the rarely encountered Sierra Nevada Summerfest on tap. The bar doesn't skimp on the Grey Goose, either, if you happen to be in the mood for a pre-prandial vodka tonic.

Alternatively, you might want to begin your meal with something from the seafood bar -- clams, oysters, mussels, or, best of all, the marinated grilled squid, a collection of tender, briny rascals that sparkle in your mouth and offer up a tart, peppery afterbite. Another starter, the wilted spinach salad, is tastier than it sounds: a bushel of fresh, deep-green leaves tossed with just enough bacon shards, hard-boiled egg yolks, and creamy balsamic-edged dressing to give it that limpid quality. The other great West Coast salad, Caesar, is a disappointment here. In these environs we were expecting the classic rendition of coddled egg, salty anchovies, and adroit tableside service, but what we got instead was the typical modern yawner of crunchy romaine and croutons in a lightweight dressing with no hint of garlic or even much lemon. Happily, there's a pretty fair steak tartare to pick up the slack, complete with capers, scallions, (too much) Worcestershire, and a miniature quail's egg resting on top, ready to be mixed into the whole creamy, hearty mess.

Time for the main event. Acme being a chop house, we ordered up some chops, and to get right down to it the cured, double-cut pork chop was the best freaking pork chop any of us had ever tasted. Two inches thick, grilled a deep rich brown on the outside, and rose-white within, it was a buttery porcine triumph with a hint of wood smoke throughout and a luscious layer of tasty fat along the side. The two dry-aged lamb chops were nearly as memorable, as rich and as tender as a really good steak -- and impeccably medium-rare to boot.

We also tried the sautéed petrale sole (a gamble in these surroundings) and scored. Two thin fillets were cooked in butter until crisp on the outside and cloudlike on the inside, with a light dusting of chopped herbs and peppers bringing out the fish's mild flavor. But Acme's house specialty is its grass-fed steak from the Western Grasslands Cooperative, meat that's healthier to consume than even organically raised beef and better for the planet (and for the cow, in the short run) to boot. Nevertheless, our inch-and-a-half-thick New York was on the chewy side, with only a fair-to-middling flavor. (We asked for it medium-rare, and it came to the table barely pink in the middle, which might have had something to do with our disappointment.) A dollop of silky blue cheese compound butter, one of seven sauces available to complement the entrees, added a wonderfully pungent accent, however.

Most of Acme's main plates come au naturel (except for a small bread salad dressed with cilantro, red onions, and Italian parsley), with a variety of sides available as supplements. Primary among them are the scalloped potatoes, a luxurious dish in which thinly sliced spuds come saturated with melted butter and layered with melted, pungent Gruyère, an irresistible combination. Also excellent are the usually prosaic onion rings, proffered here in sweet, unaccountably delicate strands. The macaroni and cheese sneaks up on you: It doesn't seem like anything special, but before you know it the whole warm, comforting, gooey mess has disappeared.

By this point in the meal, a platter of light, crisp greens sounds just about right, and the one great failure of Acme is that there's no such animal on the premises. The creamed spinach starts off fresh and verdant, but a pound or two of melted butter and a fistful of salt are also part of the equation. And the market vegetables -- a beige confluence of corn, favas, and overcooked peppers -- are pleasantly fat-free but vapid and flavorless.

When Acme's predecessor, Twenty Four, occupied the ballpark space I was dismayed that top-quality baseball grub hadn't been attempted -- house-made hot dogs with three kinds of mustard, say, or made-on-the-premises Cracker Jacks. Acme has now filled the bill with the best caramel corn I've tasted since Poppycock departed my grocery store's shelves. Clusters of popcorn, hazelnuts, cashews, and pistachios come bound together with thick dollops of buttery caramel and served in a little paper sack: an idyllic bleacher nosh. Another dessert, the peanut butter fudge cake, features too little of the former and too much of the latter, but the frosting's luscious and the cake is moist and marvelous. The peach and cherry pie is disappointingly meager considering the summertime bounty all around us; a leaden crust encapsulates the odd piece of overcooked, unripe fruit. But the apricot cheesecake is like some ethereal panna cotta, a supple, feathery confection in a pool of bracing, bittersweet apricot coulis.

The wine list is packed with Burgundies, Bordeaux, and Rhône Valley varietals -- ideal companions for a good steak or lamb chop -- as well as a surprisingly extensive selection of whites from around the world. Niebaum-Coppola's 2000-vintage Diamond Series merlot is a fine accompaniment to the steak: rich, dry, and full bodied with a complex, fruity finish. (The Terres Blanches '99 cab out of Provence, by contrast, is flat and tedious.) Twenty wines come by the glass, 150 by the bottle.

Perhaps the most significant thing about the Acme Chophouse is its awareness of our increasingly fragile environment. As noted, the kitchen purchases most of its produce from small organic farms and serves only hormone- and antibiotic-free meat. In addition, all seafood served on the premises is sustainably caught; the Brazilian coffee is harvested without disturbing the rain forests; the building renovations were accomplished with recycled materials; and the restaurant composts and recycles on a regular basis. All that and the food's good, too.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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