After 11 years, still breaking out the bubbly beneath the gardener's dome
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Fizz, like buzz, is evanescent by nature, so I was not totally surprised to see that the champagne-bubble lights that once hung in the air above the bar at Jardinière were nowhere to be seen when we stepped inside on a recent evening. Had they been removed as a discreet way of acknowledging the rapid defizzification of American life? Or just switched off? Yet whether the bubbles be gone or merely darkened, the dome overhead remains; it was originally meant to suggest an inverted champagne cup (itself a suggestion of Marie Antoinette's breast) but, in its bubbleless state, it now suggests a classical aura. One thinks of the Pantheon or some venerable bank building a structure whose design is meant to radiate confidence, strength, and maybe a hint of transcendence.
Jardinière (the name means "gardener" in French) turns 11 this fall, and while that's hardly a pantheonic number, the restaurant for the most part has aged well. It helps, surely, that Pat Kuleto's interior design was one of his more restrained; the elements of whimsy, such as the wavy ironwork railings that line the sweeping staircase to the balcony, are subtle, while the largest of those that originally weren't (i.e. the bubbly dome) have been tuned to a lower frequency. The biggest star of the design was never frivolous, anyway; I refer to the cheese chapel on the main floor. Its glass door is still conspicuous behind the bar, and although the cheese course has become commonplace over the past decade, Jardinière was one of the first restaurants other than the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton to offer one, and still does.
Blessed are the noisemakers, for they've gone someplace else to eat, leaving Jardinière reasonably quiet and conversation-friendly. The restaurant's floors are mostly carpeted, which is a vast asset in maintaining a livable balance between bustle and din. The balcony, furthermore, is a motherlode of richly upholstered booths that line the outer walls and are cozy little havens in which talk is easy, if not cheap.
Did I say not cheap? Nothing is cheap at Jardinière, and since we're talking about one of the city's premiere restaurants, we wouldn't expect it to be. Nonetheless, prices for many of the main courses have risen into the mid$30 range now, and that's a lot more than just five or six years ago. On the other hand, it's a lot less than what they'd be at a comparable place in New York City. How strange to think of San Francisco as being a relative bargain.
The blow-out-minded might spring for the chef's tasting menu: $125 for seven courses, plus another $65 if you want the wine pairings. (The executive chef these days is Craig Patzer, and Reylon Agustin is chef de cuisine.) But one can make do quite nicely with the à la carte choices. There was an around-the-horn consensus in our little booth that a spring-into-summer soup ($10) of white corn, braised chard, shreds of duck confit, and tiny cubes of garlic crouton was undersalted, and our server seemed slightly startled by the request for a salt shaker. But the shaker was brought swiftly, therapy was applied, and the soup made with a rich, almost geutf8ous chicken stock came to life.
No such issue clouded a lovely salad of little gem lettuces ($10) whose bright green nooks and folds were laden with buttery avocado slices, radish coins, filets of anchovy, and crumblings of hard-boiled egg under a green peppercorn vinaigrette. It reminded me of an Easter-egg hunt, with delightful surprises tucked here and there.
In earlier years, the des Jardins cooking style made ample use of cream and butter, but those luxurious accoutrements seem less in evidence these days. Butterfat was definitely used to smooth the pat of mousseline potatoes that accompanied the Devil's Gulch pork ($36) two slices of roasted loin, two slices of garlicky sausage along with a pair of deep-fried okra knobs and some braised baby carrots and pearl onions. But slices of Liberty duck breast ($37) were fanned out over a bed of plump farro grains enriched not with butter but slices of nectarine and a five-spice gastrique (which also formed an elegant glaze at the edges of the meat).
And a sautéed filet of bluenose sea bass ($36) came to rest like a piece of tender driftwood on a bright beach of crispy sunchokes, Lucques olives, and almonds lightly bathed in a lemon emulsion possible butter there, but in a modest amount. The saucings generally suggested lean sophistication, and, in a mild anomaly, the main courses struck us as being at least as inventive and nimble as their smaller precursors.
The dessert menu has a greatest-hits flavor, with a strong subtheme of seasonality. Ingredients are immaculate and execution flawless. It's hard to find a dessert menu now that doesn't offer bread pudding; Jardinière's ($10) was made from brioche and plated with a pat of muscat sorbet (which had a singular and haunting flavor) and an almost impossibly fine dice of candied white peaches. Chocolate mousse tarts, too, are hardly unusual, but Jardinière's elongated wedge of hazelnut marjorlaine ($10) was distinguished by a smooth, dark-chocolate intensity subtly enhanced by espresso oil. For a seasonal touch, there was a cherry tart ($10), about the circumference of a golf ball and complete with latticework; it was escorted by a scoop of Tahitian vanilla gelato and a splash of balsamic vinegar.
In an important sense we know sublimeness, like art, by its flaws. One of our water glasses was cracked, and the service staff, while attentive and knowledgeable, occasionally seemed overeager to remove plates we weren't sure we'd finished with. Jarring. I wondered if there were a connection.
Dinner: Tues.Sat., 510:30 p.m.; Sun.Mon., 510 p.m.
300 Grove, SF
Well-muted noise, especially upstairs