From hither and yon comes word that the restaurant world is troubled. Nice spots are half-empty in San Diego, greasy spoons are going out of business in small Great Lakes burgs, and even in our own golden city, a slick new restaurant in the Mission District was pretty torpid on a recent Saturday in prime time, according to my friend the reconnaissance man.
Then there's Bar Jules, which is snuggled into a slender spot next to Suppenküche in Hayes Valley, and still seems to be packing them in, even as the wreckage of the Bush demolition derby continues to accumulate, like rubble in the streets of a bombed city. If your idea of fun is to sit at a Parisian-snug bistro table, a mere elbow's throw from tablesful of 30-ish wine hipsters I lost count of the number of times I overheard the word "awesome" with respect to this or that cult vineyard or vintage then you will love Bar Jules.
As for me: I find that while eavesdropping can be fun, compulsory eavesdropping is seldom fun. Also, I dislike the heavy-framed spectacles currently in hipster vogue, and I fear they come from France, a land I otherwise have the greatest admiration for. No elbows (or shoes!) were thrown at the hipsters, but I could not stop longing for some modified version of that big red Staples button, which, with an "awesome" floating toward me, I would push, and there would be a gentle, obliterating bzzzzt. That would be awesome, in the Dame Edna sense.
Bar Jules isn't exactly a French restaurant, but it does have the bustling feel of a boîte in one of Paris' edgier arrondissements. The restaurant, which opened last spring, features the cooking of chef and owner Jessica Boncutter, whose Zuni pedigree is very much in evidence on the menu. The cooking speaks largely in a Mediterranean vernacular; it's peasant food that's donned its Sunday best for church. But because this is California, other influences make themselves felt as well, and the restaurant quietly but firmly pursues a commitment to local and organic foodstuffs.
Among the least Zuni-ish of the dishes we came across was a shallow bowl of cochinitas ($10): shreds of pulled pork laid across a bed of short-grain rice, with twirls of pickled white onion scattered across the top. We were advised that the cochinitas were spicy, but apparently the sense of spiciness is relative, since we found the pork tasty but not even slightly incendiary. A little color would have been welcome, although in general the kitchen seems attentive to the visual dimension of food.
Among the most Zuni-ish dishes was an arugula salad ($9) tossed with walnuts and red beets, lifted by a creamy coriander vinaigrette. And I mean coriander not in the cilantro sense but in the spice sense; the plant's seeds, when dried, resemble large white peppercorns and, when crushed, release a (to me) spicy-nut essence. That essence brought balance to the vinaigrette and helped boost the beets, which for me never taste quite as good as they look.
The bigger plates were nicely sized, not huge. A chunk of bluenose sea bass ($26) washed ashore on a rubbly winter beach of cannellini beans, shreds of braised fennel root, and black and green olives. I would describe this dish as quintessentially in the Zuni style: elegant rather than fancy, with enough high-quality ingredients to form an ensemble but not so many as to start drowning one another out.
The vegetable platter ($17), on the other hand, did suffer from a bit of crisping-bin clutter. The star of the plate was a single round of sweet potato, softened and lightly charred on the grill, and it was good. But around it clamored a madding crowd of grilled leeks, beets, cannellini beans, and quartered baby artichokes, each a worthy player but somehow not connected to the others.
Although I am not a vegetarian, I appreciate the fact that Bar Jules takes vegetarians into account.
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