Sunday, April 24, 2011

Cafe Jacqueline

Of all the “small” restaurants I’ve been to, Cafe Jacqueline has been the most intimate, yet has the biggest wow factor. The ”wow”, not  reserved for the souffles alone, but for the fact that each and every one is made to perfection, as well as to order by Jacqueline herself. This much work would have done in a less hardy soul after 30 years or more. Again, the was a Foodspotting driven meal, where I had to photograph a specific item at a particular place. I have found some wonderful restaurants doing this.

The decor was simple, quaint, and had a freshness about it, as though grand-mere had just finished her spring cleaning. The silver was polished, flowers were fresh, the linens were clean and crisp. What more could you want? Could that be a baguette and sweet cream butter, tasting just as you remembered them from France? Done!

Because I was the first person in the door, my wait was not terribly long, only the length of time it actually took Jacqueline to make the souffle. A review I read in SF Weekly mentioned the romance of this restaurant, where you spent a very long evening, most likely gazing into one another’s eyes, while you waited for your order, and ordered a bottle of wine during the extended linger. If you’re alone, bring a good book and a doggy bag, because you cannot gaze into your own eyes unless you also brought along a mirror. Furthermore, every souffle is prepared for two and even the most famished of individuals could not polish off one of these at a sitting.

Lordy, the mushroom souffle was heaven on a plate. The sweet earthy taste of the mushrooms was extraordinary and I attribute this to the simplicity of the recipe, and the deft hand of the proprietress. The texture was soft and luscious, firmer than a coddled egg but not as dense as custard. This was my first souffle, but certainly not my last. I desperately wanted to try the chocolate souffle for dessert, but had to retreat from the restaurant with half my dinner in tow, because I was full. My personal dining policy of “no dessert unless dinner is finished”  prevailed, but I had romantic ideas about coming back another time with my long term dining companion, holding his hands across the table and ordering that bottle of wine. It so happened that he like my leftovers.

Cafe Jacqueline has no website but here is a link to Menu Pages

1454 Grant Ave 
San Francisco CA 94133
(415) 981-5565

Wed-Sun: 5:30pm-11pm

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

La Table Ronde



In the heart of Le Cite in Carcassonne, there is a plaza filled with restaurants catering to mostly tourists, due to the small population that actually lives in this medieval walled city. La Table Ronde is on a side street leading to that plaza. The fare is classic French and many of the dishes are recognizable to anyone who likes hearty, rustic French food. Cassoulet was not offered the night we were there, but judging by the photo on their menu, they make an excellent version. It's on our list to try the next time we happen to be in the south west of France.


The fish soup was very rich and as well prepared as I have ever eaten it in French towns along the coastline. The rouille spread over little toasted baguette slices was sublimely garlic laden, and better than commercial products I have purchased, so I surmise it was house made. Grated cheese topped the toasts. Even though my Italian grandfather would turn over in his grave if he knew I was eating seafood with cheese, this was a wonderful soup, a spot on, classic recipe packed with flavor, and a perfect choice for the cold weather we were experiencing. Unfortunately, the lasagna was disappointing. The tomato sauce was not cooked well; it lacked any nuance or character of it's own. For some reason, and I suspect it had to do with the time we sat down, we were only offered choices from their lightest menu.

We had much better luck with the Toulouse sausage and fried potatoes. A simple, rustic dish that was well done and very inexpensive. I think the entire meal was 24 euro for two people and that included dessert. If you look at the website link, you will see that they offer four fixed price selections. That reason alone makes me feel they cater almost exclusively to tourists.

About those desserts, again they were French classics. We ordered the apricot tart with a nice Creme Anglaise sauce, and the chocolate mousse. Both were sweet, creamy and a nice finish to this meal.

La Table Ronde Menu

30 Rue Plo
11000 Carcassonne, France
04 68 47 38 21

Bay Wolf

I'm not certain, but the charming surroundings of the Craftsman style home, where the restaurant resides, were even more pleasurable than the meal itself. Having purchased the Bay Wolf cookbook, I felt compelled  to try this Oakland institution.

Excellent baguettes and creamery sweet butter are a great way to start. Bay Wolf sets itself apart from many other restaurants by also offering sea salt for those people who find unsalted butter bland. An acquaintance of mine, who was raised on a dairy farm, once told me that  inferior cream is used to make salted butter and the best, with the highest butterfat content, is reserved for unsalted butter. For starters my dining companion selected the bruschetta set on a bed of salad greens and slathered in an aioli laden tuna. A tuna sandwich was never so good.


Spring peas and mint caught my attention so I opted for the soup. It was flavorful, but the color put me off. That was because for some reason I was expecting it to be a raw soup, or barely cooked, so the bright green color of both the peas and mint would show off against the white plate. Bringing very specific expectations to a meal is not the best course of action. In this case it diminished my enjoyment of a perfectly decent soup, because I kept thinking it was overcooked. My friend selected the duck liver mousse that really delivered a pleasant combination of flavor, texture and eye appeal. But how can you go wrong with pate? For a restaurant known for duck, it was a slam dunk.

Speaking of duck, my dinner companion and I decided to split an order of the duck entree. The menu description of it being served with fennel and pink grapefruit was intriguing, so we added it to our order. It arrived sans the pink grapefruit. I asked the waiter about it and he said that they will substitute ingredients depending on what is available at the market. Shouldn't that be mentioned when someone is ordering it? Apparently not. I expressed a disappointment, because I was specifically interested in trying the duck because of the pink grapefruit, so the waiter walked away and brought back a bowl of fresh grapefruit segments. No apology for the kitchen having missed plating it, no cooking it, nothing. Wasn't it supposed to be cooked? When I inquired, the waiter said that it always goes on raw.  Seriously? I doubted that, so I left it in the bowl. Something seemed seriously wrong with the entire transaction and it was disturbing. We received an apology after we paid the tab, on our way out the door. This was a case of "too little, too late".

Ah, but there was one bright spot, enough to get me back in the door. Their duck ravioli was superb. It didn't need the escarole on the plate, but the fave were delightful and a lovely reminder that this was a Spring meal. The duck filling was so good, I'd like to try making my own. Did they make the sauce with a duck stock, veal stock, chicken soup from a can? I have no idea, but it was luscious with the ravioli and the color was very appealing on the plate. This was a dish worth ordering again, some time in the distant future after I've forgotten about the pink grapefruit.

Bay Wolf Menu

3853 Piedmont Ave
Oakland CA 94611

Open nightly at 5:30pm

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Practically no one in San Francisco needs to be told about NOPA; it's reputation is well known. It is indeed a good restaurant, but better still, it has inspired a neighborhood to embrace the arrival of more restaurants to the point of it becoming a "food destination" in the city. Since the opening of NOPA (an acronym for North Of Panhandle Area) this neighborhood has exploded with more good restaurants, such as Tsunami, Candy Bar, Bistro Central Parc, Ragazza, and Green Chile Kitchen to name but a few of my favorites, along with Nopalito, the authentic Mexican restaurant opened by the same people who brought us NOPA. Soon we will be graced with a Bi-Rite Grocery, known for exceptional ingredients any home cook would swoon over to compete with Faletti's another exceptional grocery store that was the original reason many of us, seeking good food, came to this neighborhood.
We gladly climbed to the loft dining area, because the restaurant does get it's share of noise without the benefit of carpeting. I've listed NOPA under Fine Dining American, because the food is elevated to "cuisine". NOPA performs the culinary arts at a high level, using inventive recipes and quality ingredients. It's casual atmosphere belies the quality and expertise of the cooking. These same dishes could be easily served in more formal restaurant, where one demands excellence, and finds higher prices. It's such a nice surprise to find this kind of food in a friendly, casual atmosphere where you can laugh with friends, instead of speaking in the hushed tones more often associated with fine dining.
It was pleasant to find flaked salt on the plate with the amuse bouche consisting of small toasts and tzatziki. It often makes a favorable impact when the salt hits your tongue, so it's a nice touch. Simplicity abounds in the recipes, but the flavors manage a complexity all their own, as is exemplified by the "simple" spinach salad with cumquats and shaved parmigiano. The shaved asparagus and fresh pea salad was outstanding and perfect for a spring meal. Large shallots were sliced and sauteed. Their softened texture contrasted well with the other vegetables and proved almost as silky as the egg. Can a salad be any better when a soft poached egg and bacon is introduced?
Shall we let the photos speak for themselves? There's not much one can say about a beautifully executed, medium rare,  succulent duck breast, or lightly roasted vegetables anyway. Okay, in this case I have to say that there seemed to be an overwhelming amount of onions in the vegetable dish, but I'll give it a "pass" since they were spring onions and came with baby artichokes (you are judged by the company you keep). Duck is always on the menu but the recipe changes with the seasons. I've linked their website so you can see how it's  being prepared currently.
Granted, the word burger is generally not in the same sentence as the word cuisine. Because NOPA has a casual atmosphere, a burger seems to fit, and that's good thing, since it happens to be one of the most popular items being served. You can't go wrong with grass fed beef and the pickled raw onions and house made aioli were perfect additions to this simple meal.
560 Divisadero St
San Francisco CA 94117
(415) 864-8643

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Picco Restaurant in Larkspur

Picco is one of those restaurants where what you order really matters. We did not order anything worth going back to reorder, but I suspect that was just a bad first try. With chef owner Bruce Hill at the helm, it is inconceivable that this wouldn't be a superior dining experience. Anyone who is responsible for Bix and Aqua, to name but a few of the restaurants notched on this chef's knife handle, is not going to fail at another venue. And when I heard he turned the Waterfront restaurant around, it was no wonder that it's still in business. My only dining experience at the Waterfront (prior to chef Hill) made me wonder how they could stay viable. Then I surmised that it must have been the view, because it certainly wasn't the food. No, Picco deserves another go.

I went to try two very specific items based on reviews in the SF Chronicle. I won't make that mistake again. My dining companion wasn't very hungry and decided to give the cheese plate a try. The fact that it had more than 3 selections made it better than some. Four separate condiments to eat with the cheese made it better. The toasted whole grain and nut bread pushed it into even loftier heights on the cheese-plate-o-meter. It would have been preferable to see something other than Parmigiano as the hard cheese, but we eat that so often at home, we give it less credit than it probably deserves.


My primary target was the risotto. It's made from scratch every half hour by the restaurant, so it is served fresh and at its peak of flavor. This idea was exceptional and I must applaud Picco for establishing this practice. Unfortunately for me, on the night we were there the risotto was asparagus and sweet corn, two vegetables I really like, but not in a risotto. There must be a vegetable risotto that I would really like, but I have yet to taste it, unless you count mushrooms. Risotto at Picco was much too subtle in flavor and had they added more cheese, it could have been more to my liking. I should have forgone the risotto for another time and ordered something that really appealed to me. The fault was all mine, not theirs. While they obliged my request to try the olive oil ice cream from their pizzeria next door, that was my second mistake.


Who ever heard of asking a restaurant to furnish something not on their menu? It was a crazy idea and I deserved what I got, a soft serve type of ice cream with a grassy tasting olive oil on top. My preferred ice cream is rock hard, so the texture was off for me from the start. I can't say the two ingredients together were bad, as I have since had a really good version from Mozza in Los Angeles. Picco's ice cream was just too sweet to carry off the idea to its fullest potential. Still I want to come back and order something else, while I'm not under the influence of a published food critic; another crazy idea.

Picco Website

320 Magnolia Ave
Larkspur CA 94939
(415) 924-0300

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Aux Produits du Sud-Ouest

An unassuming storefront is what you find when you go to this restaurant just north of Rue Cler, the Rick Steves recommended neighborhood shopping street in Paris, that is now teeming with American tourists almost year round. When we go abroad, we always ask hotel personnel where they like to go to dinner with friends. This is a sure way to find an off the beaten track, authentic, and inexpensive restaurant. Aux Produits du Sud-Ouest was one such recommendation from the clerk at Le 300, a short term apartment complex in the Marais. She didn’t think we’d like having to walk through a store selling foie gras to get to the dining area, but we assured her it would not be a problem. The store itself sells all products originating from the Perigord  area of France, and that in itself is a reason to come here. The atmosphere is casual and you will not hear much other than French being spoken by other diners.

We had been eating so much rich food that I found myself craving vegetables and this corn salad with vinaigrette was just the thing. It would not occur to me to put these ingredients together in a salad, so it was not only refreshing in taste, but also refreshing in the flavor combination. I admit to not having tried it at home, but easily could since it was a decent start to a meal. The most interesting thing was that I had actually ordered Crudites, and this salad was not what I expected to be served as “raw vegetables”.

My partner in crime, yes, it was so cheap we felt like thieves, was very happy with his salad. It was composed of the usual suspects: lettuce, tomato and cucumber. On top of that was a heavy layer of fried potatoes, and the piece de resistance, cooked Toulouse sausage, all for under 10 euro. There you have it, a complete meal of protein, fat, starch and leafy greens. It was so filling he opted out of dessert.

My salad was decidedly heavy on the protein/fat combination with 7 thick slices of sausage, including blood sausage, rabbit sausage, duck liver pate, and a cooked pork sausage. They were served with what appeared to be a salad garnish. All were delicious, but if I could complain, I’d say there was too much served for one person. The sausage and pate had to be eaten with bread to cut the richness. Two blood sausage slices were overkill and although I like to try it when I can, I had to leave one on the plate because I prefer when they are loaded with spices. We are looking forward to a return visit to this little slice of the South-West in Paris, especially if the fowl ban has been lifted and we can take some foie gras home with us. Foul ban indeed. I lost $200 worth of foie gras and goose fat when U.S. Customs changed the rules in the middle of our trip to the Dordogne because of the Bird Flu! When I arrived home I saw all the products that had been banned for sale over the Internet, provided you wanted to pay four to five times as much as you would pay in France. I asked the customs agent if he was aware that the bird flu could not be transmitted directly from a sick bird to a person and his response was “Yes.” No comfort there.

Update: As much as I hate to be the killjoy, it must be reported that this restaurant has lost it's lease and is no longer at the Rue Saint Dominique location. In October of 2012 I was on my way there for lunch and was confronted with a Starbuck's. I may never drink coffee again. I'm hoping to do some research and discover that the restaurant merely relocated.
86 Rue Saint Dominique
75007 Paris, France
+33 1 45 56 04 31 ‎

Les Philosophes

Not being crazy for outdoor seating in Paris didn’t stop me from eating lunch at the only available table offered by Les Philosophes in the Marais. The romance of the notion seldom translates into the reality of the situation, especially when you’re choking on exhaust fumes. But I have to admit that if there were a bit more space between tables, this would have been a very enjoyable use of time, and the quintessential Parisian dining experience too. First of all Les Philosophes was a bistro, the weather was lovely, but most importantly it sat in the middle of a pedestrian zone. This affordable restaurant is a bit slow on service, but the servers were gracious. Unfortunately, since smoking is no longer allowed indoors, you will find yourself sitting cheek by jowl with smokers. Still it’s better than automobile exhaust.

The menu consisted of classic bistro fare that was well prepared. One example was the steak tartar. No mystery in this one, since all the ingredients were there on the plate, allowing the diner to use more or less of the garnishes to taste. The only one not seen in the photo was the Dijon mustard. The French fried potato slices were an inspired side for the tartar. The crisp, warm potato worked as a strong counterpoint to the cool, soft beef. These together were more than the sum of their parts; they were more than just meat and potatoes.

When the word tart comes to mind, I visualize a thin crust and a light layering of the filling. This tomato tart seemed more like a pie, and it may have been as sweet as one. It was outstanding in the flavor. I suspect the tomatoes were vine ripened when they went on the crust and into the oven, and were therefore sweet, but the caramelization that occurred during baking intensified that sweetness, and for the first time, I could really embrace the fact that tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables. I hope I get another chance to order a tomato tart in France, because this one was outstanding in flavor and texture, and I’d like another for comparison.
Why is it that whenever I order a lamb chop in France, it’s never French cut? It’s a mystery, but one that I don’t need to solve. I just need to remember to order a rack and then I’ll see what I’m expecting on my plate. No matter the shape, this was a tasty cut of lamb, however a little tougher than I would have preferred. The fact that it was flanked on both sides by those lovely potatoes was enough to keep me distracted from the texture of the meat. The sauteed  haricot vert as well as the tomatoes and peppers were a nice addition to the plate that I hadn’t anticipated. They really provided a visual lift to the order and brought much needed color to the table.

28 Rue Vieille du Temple
75004 Paris, France
01 48 87 49 64

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Swann et Vincent

Swann Et Vincent is another charming small restaurant in the Marais neighborhood of Paris. Located on a narrow side street, it could easily get missed if you didn’t know about it. As it happened, it was on the shortest route between our hotel and Chez Paul, our favorite restaurant in Paris, or we may have missed it ourselves. This spot is decidedly Italian in nature, but the food has a very French influence in the way they handle classic Italian recipes. It’s clearly a French homage to Italian food or perhaps, as in America, Italian immigrants used what was available locally to try and recreate what they had eaten in Italy and it morphed into something unique.
One thing’s for certain, the bread was hard to visually identify as either French or Italian, but that held no importance because it was the taste that mattered. This herb and green olive baguette was 100% Mediterranean. But it was the fact that the herbs were Herbes de Provence  that  definitely made it French, along with a very soft crumb. Olives were also spanning both culinary traditions with their briny taste enhanced by an addition of olive oil.
There was no contest with the charcuterie platter. While the name is strictly French, the cold cuts were undeniably Italian. The plate included Mortadella , prosciutto, salami, coppa and even a bit of Bresaola the Northern Italian dry cured beef. All were very good, very authentic, but I doubt they were house made. After going to at least 7 major outdoor markets on this trip, I discovered that nearly every one of them had vendors selling Italian imported cheese, charcuterie and other foodstuffs.
The Carbonara aficionado at our table pulled a switch and ordered the Tagliatelle  with Gorgonzola Sauce. It was a decent interpretation of the classic and he was very satisfied with the selection. Heavy on cream and heavy on Gorgonzola and I suspect some Parmigiano, it was rich and satisfying. I in turn ordered the Pasta Carbonara, a very uncharacteristic rendition of the Italian classic. It looked like a cream sauce, but it wasn’t entirely made of cream. The  pasta with a bit of bacon, perhaps pancetta since it was not smoked, also had a sprinkling of parsley. There was no evidence of egg in the taste, even though the menu states that yolks were used, and no black pepper, two essential ingredients for an authentic Italian Carbonara. The cream was a dead giveaway that the chef was not Italian, as an Italian would lose his citizenship for adding cream to Carbonara! Even though I refuse to buy any Italian cookbook if cream is present in the recipe, I enjoyed this pasta, I just could not bring myself to call it Carbonara.
The atmosphere of this bistro/trattoria was lively, even early in the evening, and it was mainly serving French patrons. The decor was dark and a bit brooding, but not the clientele. To a person traveling, it was a good opportunity to get a sense of the community, but not feel like part of the touring hoard that can ruin the ambiance for regular patrons.  The service was good and there are so many specials offered each night, we’ll be going back when we again stay in the Marais.

7, rue Saint Nicolas
75012 Paris
Tel : 01 43 43 49 40
Open daily for lunch and dinner
Between the Bastille and Ledru Rollin metro stops