Hawthorne Lane: Restaurant of the decade

1995-07-28 04:00:00 PDT SAN FRANCISCO — A LOT of big, glittery restaurants have opened lately in San Francisco, but none with the pedigree of Hawthorne Lane. Created by chefs Annie and David Gingrass and restaurant manager Richard Coraine, all from Postrio, Hawthorne Lane defines the art and the craft of restauranting in the world today. Its very existence represents a culmination of 200 years of European tradition expanded by modern technology and re-energized by personal and American vision.

Because of its scale, the choices it offers, and the breathtakingly high standards applied to every detail of its operation, the experience of dining at Hawthorne Lane happens to be unequaled any place else that I know.

I felt much the same way about La Coupole in Paris 25 years ago and Stars a decade ago. When you walked into these roaring halls for the first time, you knew you were at the center of urban life – at the eye of culture, of pleasure, of sophistication. Anything you wanted to eat or drink, including much you didn’t even know you wanted until you tried it for the first time, flowed out of bars, kitchens and wine cellars just for you, and for hundreds of others seated around you. Transporting 50 lucky diners with exquisite food and service represents one kind of pinnacle; feeding the well-heeled masses in a gigantic, soignee brasserie is another.

Hawthorne Lane has been inspired by the grand brasserie tradition but the owners have attacked the project from an individual diner’s point of view.

The restaurant, divided into a bar / cafe and a formal dining room, inhabits the ground floor of the Crown Point Press building, a lyrical space with expansive arched windows that look out to a quiet urban alley. You enter off an even tinier street, Hawthorne Lane, through an entryway paved with a mosaic of silvery tiles. Inside, the cafe room is airy, dominated by a sweeping oval bar with booths on one side and a sea of small wooden tables on the other.

Little club lamps, brick walls, earthquake bracing, hanging light fixtures in geometrical shapes and stunning fine art prints from Crown Point Press gallery upstairs somehow remind me of the Four Seasons in New York, the classic modern American restaurant.

Hawthorne’s bar / cafe has its own menu – luscious anchovy pizza ($8), eclectic small dishes like the spectacularly delicious duck buns ($9.50), olives, house baked breadsticks – and a no reservation policy. The lucky grab the comfortable booths; others squeeze into chairs and tables. There are enough so that places free up continually, but you get no help. However, being able to drop in spontaneously for a bite and a drink throughout the day offers its own rewards.

THE SERIOUS dining room has been designed for luxury. Even bigger booths, good-sized white-linen-covered tables, a room divided into sections by a small mezzanine and yellow marble serving counters give patrons elbow room as well as the vista of activity. At least 15 white coated chefs balletically perform at one end in a completely visible kitchen. The cooking line really is the focal point of the room, competing only with a collection of fine Diebenkorn prints along the walls. Comfort, simplicity, elegant materials – on the tables and surrounding them – set the tone.

The menu reads like an original document. You haven’t seen it before. And it really represents a departure from the Postrio kitchen where the Gingrasses cut their teeth on managing the food service of a similarly large restaurant in partnership with Wolfgang Puck. As good as their cooking got there, it’s even better here. Their dishes taste fresh, not formulaic; they employ foods and combinations the couple discovered over their years of working and eating in the Bay Area.

A recent dinner started with a platter of steamed shrimp ($12 per serving), scooped live from a tank in the dining room, a dish directly lifted from our Hong Kong seafood houses. Yet the preparation felt completely at home here. I noticed that the tank was empty by the end of the evening, just as it happens in Cantonese restaurants.

WORLDS OF fine dining merge here, on the French side as well as the Chinese. Julian Serrano came up with a signature lamb tartare at Masa’s that might have sparked the Gingrasses to create one themselves. Theirs ($10.50) is equally wonderful, infused with white, summer truffles. The Gingrass foie gras ($13) melts in your mouth with a crisply seared exterior and sweet, velvety center. I haven’t tasted better. A the same time, a rustic dish like grilled fresh anchovies, slightly marinated, with a frisee salad ($10.50) somehow seemed completely in keeping with the rest of the starters. They were delicious and delicate.

Baskets of unique American-style house-baked breads – soft, peppery slices, eggy dinner rolls, rich herbed biscuits, addictive breadsticks sprinkled with coarse salt – keep being replenished.

Main dishes are as finely honed as the small ones. I love Atlantic cod ($19), a moist, satiny textured white fish served here with a Provencal melange of vegetables and herbs and some fabulous ravioli stuffed with favas and roasted fennel. Completely different in style but just as flavorful was steamed halibut ($21) draped with cellophane noodles and Chinese vegetables.

Meats are lovely here – leg of lamb ($24) thinly sliced, rosy, juicy; poached beef filet ($24) buttery and unusually beefy. The lamb dish gets an eggplant risotto served from a miniature copper pot. It alone would make me happy. The Gingrasses know the appeal of the side dish. Roast chicken ($17.50) comes with a miniature corn and cheddar spoonbread (in its own miniature mold) and the chicken rests on a bed of fresh favas and corn. A pair of boned quail ($20) perch on squares of scalloped potatoes studded with currants covered with crispy bread crumbs.

The large and original wine list, put together by wine and spirits aficionado Richard Coraine, offers many surprises, like a lush, oaky white Minervois for all of $25. Coraine takes joy in producing obscure and delicious bottles when diners ask for his advice, and watching their surprise at the downright reasonable prices.

Coraine’s currently waging a campaign to turn people on to his amazing list of after-dinner wines and liquors – 40-year-old Australian tawny port; tokay from Hungary that tastes like a bushel of sunbaked raisins in a glass; a flowery Aleatico made in California; rare 12-year-old Van Winkle bourbon.

But you certainly shouldn’t pass up the desserts, which seem to have become less fussy, more focused (and more to my particular taste) since the restaurant opened. I loved a miniature trifle ($6.50) made mostly of crushed berries and custard cream in a mold of tiny, crisp cat’s tongue cookies. And hot, crunchy beignets ($6), as ephemeral as sighs, with a cherry salad.

THE SERVICE staff make the whole monumental effort coalesce. The waiters are professionals of the highest order. They’ve learned about the wines; they understand the food. They know when to approach the table, when to replenish, when to suggest, when to take away. They’re intuitive and smart, personal and nurturing. They should be everyone’s moms.

So all the details that make up Hawthorne Lane, from having its very own street to the thinness of the glassware to the little nut coated truffles served with coffee, accumulate, layer upon layer, to become a truly grand vision. This restaurant is fresh, exciting, not formal but rewardingly substantial. Hawthorne Lane is the flower that California Cuisine has produced in the ’90s, and a spectacular hybrid it is.