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The McClaskey Touch 


Wednesday, Jun 26 2002
If I had to pick one local chef who knows how to feed people well (as opposed to lavishing them with delicacies, or dazzling them with technique, or fusing seven distinct cuisines into a single puff of foam) it would certainly be Julia McClaskey. I still wax nostalgic about her stint at Dine during the dot-com boom days. She wasn't the most daring chef in town, but her bold, clean flavors met in a wonderful sense of balance and wholeness. Even an appetizer -- say, seared scallops with chilled asparagus spears, lemon-tarragon aioli, and a crisp, cleansing radish salad -- could seem like a meal in itself. I remember feeling deflated when I first heard rumors McClaskey would leave Dine (according to the story I kept hearing, Esquire's chef of the year wanted to become a worm farmer). It seemed absurd, like learning about Michael Jordan's first retirement; yet in the end, she did leave Dine, last year.

Now she's back in the kitchen, and she's still got game. Her eponymous Julia recently opened on a quiet block of Sutter just off the Pacific Heights stretch of Fillmore. Drop by and you'll find the signature McClaskey dishes that put Dine on the map, served in a casually elegant, almost whimsical setting. The motif could be described as nautical kitsch -- rough, worn-looking wood, murals that evoke winter storms on the Pacific, golden cherub statuettes, tiny beaded lampshades framing votive candles at every table. Business is already booming, and from what I've seen the crew of the SS Julia aims to please. For example, as I waited for my friend Olga at the bar, the bar manager introduced himself and told me he'd be there six nights a week, his point being that Julia is a neighborhood restaurant where I'd see a familiar face if I returned. (On a side note, you can get the full menu, sans reservations, at the bar.)

McClaskey's cooking hasn't changed much since Dine, which adds up to beautifully composed, deeply satisfying plates done in the Franco-Italian/American/ Global style I've come to think of as San Francisco cuisine. This ain't New York, and there's nothing stuffy about the place. Service is efficient, yet friendly. The menu runs from New American fare to comfort food, and bears a quote ("I haven't had this much fun at a party since last night" -- Lou McClaskey) that reinforces the good-time vibe.

The 100-plus-bottle wine list ($24-160, 14 choices by the glass) includes some fine reds -- try the plummy Quivera zinfandel, the dusky David Bruce petite syrah, or the robust (as far as the varietal goes) Bishop's Peak pinot noir, all bold wines that stand up to intensely flavored dishes served in McClaskey's characteristic massive portions.

I once met a waiter who worked at Dine; he gained 10 pounds during his first month on the job. Thus, to prepare for a trip to Julia, you might want to starve yourself until your belly cinches up against your spine. Just about every high-end restaurant in these parts serves a variation on our first dish, the nut/fruit/blue cheese salad, yet Julia's version felt like a breath of fresh air. Here, a gorgeously constructed heap of endive, watercress, candied pecans, julienned Granny Smith apple, and Gorgonzola was framed by dabs of balsamic reduction. At first, the reduction seemed too potent, but once the ingredients mingled the salad resonated like a symphony.

Seared chicken livers are worth ordering, if only for the profound animal aroma that engulfs the table as they arrive, but they're worth eating, too. The plate is finished simply and superbly with bits of chewy applewood-smoked bacon, mixed greens, and sweet, juicy red flame grapes. I have yet to meet a braised beef cheek I didn't like, and Julia's appetizer-size version kept the streak alive. Slices of melting, buttery beef were accompanied by a silky parsnip purée and an accent of fresh-grated horseradish.

Much has been written about San Francisco as a small-plates town. With Julia's entrees, you find yourself in large-plate territory. Again, it's a matter of good, simple stuff matched with the appropriate sides. A brick of golden, hazelnut-crusted sea bass flaked apart at the touch, and came with a splendid supporting cast of caramelized fennel, baby artichokes, fingerling potatoes, mixed greens, and a subtle citrus vinaigrette. I could spend 10 meals revisiting the impossibly tender, chipotle-glazed short ribs, served in a pool of chili-infused gravy with mashed potatoes, cabbage slaw, and a zingy, house-pickled corn and cucumber relish that would overwhelm a less flavorful cut of meat. In fact, the only thing that would prevent me from ordering the exact same meal on my next visit is the promise of the dishes I missed: spit-roasted pork loin with polenta, a fava bean and pecorino salad, rotisserie barbecued chicken with cornmeal spoonbread, and grilled salmon with green curry (not to mention McClaskey's signature pot roast).

Be sure to save room for dessert. Our first choice, a peach and blueberry galette with lemon crème anglaise, was so large it fell just short of being a pie. The bright, summery flavor was impeccable, yet the dish was marred by a chunky, clumsy-looking crust. Meanwhile, our second dessert defined irresistibility. Discs of rich, crumbly almond praline shortcake sandwiched a homey mélange of sweet whipped cream, strawberries, and tangy rhubarb. Halfway through the plate, I felt I couldn't eat another bite -- but couldn't tear myself away from it, either.

Such are the choices one faces at Julia. I opted for the gluttonous route, which produced a mild discomfort and the feeling I wouldn't need to eat again until the following afternoon. As I said, McClaskey knows how to feed people.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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