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Refined on Fillmore 

Creating new memories with French soul.

Wednesday, Apr 2 2008

Renaming Lower Fillmore the Fillmore Jazz Preservation District is a classic example of shutting the barn doors long after the cows have fled and the farmer has torn down the barn. The nightclubs are gone, and the shabby Victorians, brick storefronts, and aging movie palaces that housed them have disappeared. The blocks now contain faceless and rather charmless high-rise apartment buildings with long expanses of glass at street level; there's even a suburban-feeling drive-through McDonald's with a front lawn. What are "preserved" are the memories of a long-ago raffish, jazzy district recalled as you step over names of vanished clubs and the singers and musicians who played in them, inscribed on plaques set into the sidewalk.

But new memories are being formed. Nothing brings life to a neighborhood like restaurants and clubs. The Blue Mirror, Club Alabam, and Jimbo's Bop City may be long gone, but Yoshi's Restaurant and Jazz Club, on the ground floor of a brand-new complex on Fillmore between Eddy and Ellis, is booking nightly shows and attracting crowds with its upscale Japanese menu. On the Eddy corner of the same building is 1300 on Fillmore, a stylish yet cozy restaurant with chic decor, Frenchified American food with Southern accents, and a dazzling wall of photographs in its lounge that pays homage to the area's rich history.

Walking into 1300 is like entering a chocolate box: not a Whitman's sampler, but a box made of chocolate. Deep, rich tones of brown and black predominate, with wood paneling, plush carpeting, and a tufted leather banquette under tall windows sheathed with transparent draperies that let in urban lights. Witty touches subtly remind you of grandma's style in this modern room, including drum-shaped light fixtures lined with printed fabric, a row of overhead lights that look like upside-down lamps suspended over tables for two, and a few judiciously placed objets d'art that are cartoony takes on kitschy handpainted plates.

The plates that find their way to the bare wood tables are piled with executive chef–owner David Lawrence's fusion of French techniques and local ingredients, with American Southern accents woven in. Lawrence was born in Jamaica and raised in England, and cooked at the legendary, very French Le Gavroche in London. He came to San Francisco twenty years ago, and has cooked at the Hilton and most recently the revitalized Carnelian Room, going out on his own to open 1300 on Fillmore with his wife, Monetta White.

At its best, Lawrence's food is classic and satisfying. Triangles of cornbread, enfolded in a linen napkin, come to the table still warm, served with butter and slightly hot red-pepper jelly. They are cheerfully replenished. A simple dish of lightly sautéed wild mushrooms with fresh herbs arrives on a bed of silky hominy grits. A nice chunk of roasted arctic char is served atop a mélange of fingerling potatoes, pieces of lobster, and Brussels sprouts, with a lobster-tarragon reduction that could use a touch more tarragon. Smothered rabbit is a tender, creamy stew, the meat nicely matched with sweet baby turnips, potatoes, and red pearl onions. There's a well-described, gently priced, almost entirely American wine list, with 18 wines available by the glass.

The server extols the long marinating and braising time of the pork belly appetizer and the beef short ribs main course. The short ribs come out tender and look picture-perfect perched atop buttermilk-chive mashed potatoes, the rib itself used as a miniature flag pole on which to stack three perfectly fried onion rings. But the mashed potatoes are cool, and the advertised maple syrup too distant a memory. The pork belly, under crisp skin, also looks ready for its close-up on a pillow of bland white-bean purée, but most of its essential succulent fattiness has been cooked away, leaving admittedly tasty but ever-so-slightly dry shreds of meat.

Sometimes the dishes seem overly refined and timid — the barbecue shrimp and creamy grits, which are lovely and porridgy, is milder than any version we've ever had. The bouillabaisse — a generous assortment of lobster in the shell, scallops, mussels, crab, snapper, and good andouille sausage, with a toast properly smeared with rouille — comes in a yellow broth that isn't redolent of the saffron, fennel, tomato, and bay expected from its description.

Other preparations disappoint. The crispy sweetbreads are not crispy at all, but rubbery, and the tiny portion is padded by a triangle of the cornbread already on the table. The pressed terrine of foie gras, smoked ham hocks, and black trumpet mushrooms sounds lush, and is lushly priced at $17, but miniature islands of the fancy ingredients are inserted in a vast wine-dark sea of gelatin. Fried chicken should be a draw, made with Fulton Valley Farms organic birds, but those birds have been boned. No matter how crisp the coating and how carefully it's been fried, boneless fried chicken isn't as juicy as chicken cooked on the bone, and 1300's, though served with truffle whipped potatoes and a light pan gravy, doesn't win us over.

Desserts are a more successful blending of down-home and uptown. A delightful light and airy sweet-potato soufflé comes with a syrupy relish of three different-colored cubed potatoes (the purple, we're told, comes from Okinawa). Warm sugar-dusted beignets ooze chocolate and are paired with a tiny glass of refreshing coffee soda. An individual banana cream pie, careful layerings of rich custard, diced banana, and cream on a flaky pastry disc, is dressed with an irresistible lime-caramel sauce. The chocolate trio includes candylike chocolate–peanut butter crunch, a dainty chocolate streusel tart, and orange-chocolate sorbet. Sorbet and petits fours didn't catch our eye on the menu, but a glimpse of the tempting array nestled in a nine-compartment square dish that passed our table guaranteed that we'd order some on a return visit.

That might be for Saturday or Sunday brunch, a recent addition featuring eggs, pancakes, French toast, and Hangtown Fry; or on a visit to 1300's inviting L-shaped lounge, visible from the dining room through a glass wall, which features elegant living-room decor. There are exceedingly comfortable nailhead-trimmed wing chairs, deep leather-upholstered couches, and coffee and side tables for your drinks or even dinner.

On Sunday nights (and occasionally others), a jazz trio plays standards and new tunes in front of the photo-covered back wall. Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr., and many others glow in sepia tones; two slideshow frames feature a changing array of album covers and old playbills. Here the façade of the Fillmore Theater eternally offers Gene Tierney in Belle Starr and Irene Dunne in Penny Serenade. And in the mild and kind illumination of lights made from stacked old-fashioned glass globes hand-painted with flowers, we lingered after dinner, creating and preserving a few memories of our own.

1300 on Fillmore

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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