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On the Waterfront 


Wednesday, Feb 7 2001
As a wise man once said, unexpected travel invitations are dancing lessons from God, and for me, that statement has never rung so true as it did on a certain Sunday last fall. A friend needed a ride to what she called a barbecue in Napa; since I like barbecues, I quickly volunteered, only to discover on our arrival that the "barbecue" was actually a restaurant industry event known as the Big Biscuit. Our host, Preferred Meats, had borrowed a small winery for the afternoon, and asked a few clients to provide samples of their wares: Tra Vigne, Gary Danko, Lark Creek Inn, and some 30 or so other restaurants and purveyors of things gourmet. In other words, we were faced with a free, seemingly endless tasting menu (wine included) rich with venison terrine, buffalo tri-tip, foie gras over walnut bruschetta, duck prosciutto, oysters, rabbit, quail, squab, and even a bit of kangaroo (which wasn't bad).

Of course, there was a catch: To gain entrance to the Big Biscuit, you had to be on the list. I wasn't, but my friend's original ride was, so I spent the day wearing a preprinted name tag with someone else's name and place of employment on it. Conversations proved interesting. A sample:

"Nice to meet you, Herb [not the real name on the tag]. How's [Herb's general manager]?"


"Do you have a business card?"

"Must have given them all away!"

Although I imagine a few celebrity chef types were present, I didn't look for them, since I generally don't give a Shaq about celebrity anything. Still, I must admit I was a bit tickled when I noticed that the woman standing next to me was Nancy Oakes, who was voted "Best Chef" by readers of this newspaper last year. Her restaurant, Boulevard, shouldn't be judged by how many readers' polls it wins, but by how many consecutive years it has won polls, surveys, and awards naming it the most popular and/or best restaurant in the Bay Area.

Boulevard is the kind of place where you walk in, contemplate your fellow diners, and wonder if you all might be living just a bit too well. In my case, my friend Michelle had some gift certificates from Boulevard and I have an expense account, so we made our reservations and bopped down to the Embarcadero with $400 to blow on dinner for two. Given the seemingly innumerable accolades Boulevard has received, our expectations were impossibly high, as they should have been. Since four years had passed since I last dined at 1 Mission St., I had to wonder: Would we find Boulevard coasting on its success? Could more recent polls be dead wrong? No way. I can recall restaurants that serve individual dishes equaling Ms. Oakes' artistry -- even a few that perform as consistently well as Boulevard -- but after 2 1/2 hours of subtle, eminently clever, more or less flawless New American fare, it was hard to imagine anyone doing better.

To sum it up another way, any rough spots have long since been smoothed over down at the old, prequake Audiffred Building. The restaurant's interior, by Pat Kuleto, is as sumptuous as anything you'll find in this town: Step through the revolving door and behold vaulted brick ceilings that give way to an elongated corridor decorated with dark woods, hand-set tile, absurdly gorgeous glass drop fixtures, and an exhibition kitchen filled with chefs who may well be capable of anything. We were seated at a sort of half booth -- a thick, cushioned bench set before an oval table, the Ferry Building gleaming through the window behind us. Our waitress was as friendly and professional as they come, and so smooth that I didn't notice her crumbing the table until I looked down and noticed that the table had been crumbed.

Since we had a few c-notes to work through, we began with champagne. Michelle ordered the priciest by-the-glass available at Boulevard, a tart, lingering, exquisitely fruity Billecart-Salmon brut rose. It was quite fabulous, of course, but if Michelle could do things over again, I have a feeling that she'd opt for my choice (since she tried to swipe it) -- Jacquesson brut perfection -- a piercing, stunningly crisp sip with palate-awakening properties that flowed through my consciousness like cracks in a thin sheet of ice.

Then I came back to earth, remembered we were in Boulevard, and grinned so unabashedly I probably should have been arrested. Though I'd never spend $85 of my own money on an ounce of beluga caviar, other people's money is a different matter, especially when each shimmering, gray-black orb yielded a salty, semiliquid, entirely resonant sensation that made us realize we absolutely have to become filthy rich. The mother-of-pearl spoon was a nice touch, and the accompaniments were quite appropriate -- toast points, a dab of crème fraîche, potato pancakes, and tiny mounds of finely chopped red onions and chives.

That settled it: We were ready to eat. A trip through the predictably extensive wine list yielded a bottle of rich, dusky Stag's Leap petite sirah '97. We began the meal proper with a pair of appetizers that epitomized the seasonal menu's impressively global scope. From the east, we had silky ahi tartare served with fried wonton chips stuffed with shiitake mushrooms and a side of julienned carrots and ginger in a bright, invigorating Chinese mustard sauce. From the west came superfine, first-of-the-season asparagus wrapped with serrano ham, topped with bits of almond, and accompanied by a light romesco vinaigrette, an arugula-frisee salad, and a Parmesan tuile (a thin, elongated, concave cookie). At first I thought: Nothing special. Then the magic began. Slender, exactingly al dente asparagus spears played off moist, salty ham, crunchy nuts, bitter greens, and the sharp, firm bite of Parmesan -- simple, clean flavors coming together so perfectly we could have walked away happy right then and there.

Fortunately, we didn't. Once upon a time, I believed my own fresh egg fettuccine laced with pepper would be the finest example of pasta-making I'd ever taste. Boulevard's pappardelle appetizer shattered that illusion: Imagine mile-wide belts of pasta pressed with pungent black truffles to form a tiger-stripe pattern, then served with Parmesan, a decadent white truffle butter, and more black truffles, the flavors so ruthlessly intense that a larger, entree-sized portion would have short-circuited the senses entirely.

My entree showed a Celtic/Anglo sensibility: tender, pepper-dusted, wood-oven-roasted lamb loin served with morel mushrooms, a blessedly fragrant rosemary jus, and -- the only disappointments -- buttered mashed potatoes, English peas, and asparagus. It wasn't that the sides were anything less than what they should have been, but when I saw what had arrived at Michelle's end of the table it was hard not to feel I'd made a boring choice. Why go with meat and potatoes when you can have juicy, crackling, pan-roasted mahi mahi topped with firm, buttery lobster, with a side of chanterelles in a creamy lemon beurre fondue and the most flavorful saffron risotto imaginable? To drive the point home, the plate was finished with sprigs of dill, parsley, chervil, and a single basil leaf, all quite edible, meaning those fresh herbs could be worked into the arborio to yield saffron risotto four ways.

For me, ordering only one sweet is a rarity, but one is more than enough when you've never had anything better. We selected the Boston crème brûlée pie, which meant a standard custard with tiles of chocolate embedded under the glassy, caramelized top, the whole thing set in a light vanilla cake and served with strawberries, slices of mandarin orange, and homemade marshmallows. To finish, Michelle sipped a bold, full-bodied Hennessey VSOP cognac while I enjoyed a spirited example of the world's other great brandy (Armagnac) from the good people at Domaine du Tariquet. Both were served in chic, stemless snifters that forced us to embrace these fine digestifs fully. It was another nice touch that made us realize Boulevard may be an obvious choice when you want to impress, but only because it's one of the best.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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