When Hawthorne Lane became Two late in 2007, I quietly mourned. The original restaurant had been, from its opening in 1995, one of my very favorite places in the city none better and when you are sitting on top of the world, where is there to go but down? The idea of attracting a younger clientele made a certain steely-eyed business sense; nearby Bizou had become Coco500 largely for this reason, so there was precedent. But young people also tend to be noisier than their elders, and Hawthorne Lane had been that rare thing: a nicely muted setting that managed to be lively at the same time. And beautifully upholsterd.
In hindsight, owner David Gingrass's complex decision to simplify and shrink his glorious establishment was as prescient as that of a broker who got out of stocks and into cash as the febrile Bush "boom" entered its terminal phase. The restaurant's second dining room is still there, darkened like a sound stage awaiting some new production, and maybe better days will bring that new production. For the moment it's a quiet shrine to memory. All the action, meanwhile, is in the front room, which is still dominated by the gigantic, copper-topped bar. The crowd does appear to be younger not too, though! while the décor now includes a gorgeous communal table whose glossy wood top appears to have been salvaged from an old whaling ship.
And, glory be, the food is as sublime as ever. Gingrass himself recently returned to the kitchen after a long hiatus, and he means to emphasize his longstanding interest in charcuterie and bread. (Those with elephant memories might recall that he personally sold housemade sausages from a booth at the Ferry Plaza farmers market in the mid-1990s when the market set up every Saturday morning in the middle of the as-yet unrestored Embarcadero.)
But Two also emphasizes value. Nowhere is this more evident than in the "5 for $5" menu, which is presented as kind of five-course tasting menu but doesn't require you to order the whole thing. You can pick and choose. The menu changes every Tuesday and might include a soup, salad, small pizza, meat course, and dessert. I did find a salad of crimini mushroom carpaccio to be underpowered, despite the bolstering presence of shaved celery hearts, grana padano cheese (a close relation of Parmigiano Reggiano), and a lemon-white truffle vinaigrette. Perhaps the disappointment flowed from the mushrooms, which are basically glorified button mushrooms; or perhaps the salad was overwhelmed by one of shaved brussels sprouts ($9), heavily showered with pecorino cheese (sharper than the grana padano), dotted with marcona almonds, and dressed with a garlic-chili vinaigrette. The salad looked like a sculpture made from lawn clippings and was fabulously tangy.
Other than that mismatch, the $5 items held up sturdily. Roasted tomato soup, topped with a dab of Parmesan cream, was silken and hearty. A four-slice pizzetta topped with a shmear-like combination of of smoked salmon, dill crème fraîche, and chives delivered a strong, smoky bite. And roasted Peking duck arrived in chunks aboard radicchio cups, buffered by totsoi and finished with a glistening sour-sweet Seville orange chutney that beautifully matched the richness of the meat. It was also a near-reincarnation of what had been one of Hawthorne Lane's signature dishes.
Roasted marrow bones ($9) probably don't count as charcuterie, but, like sausage, they do suggest an imaginative frugality, a bent for extracting wonder from unassuming sources. Bones often end up in stock pots, but here a pair was marinated in garlic and thyme, roasted, then served in a shallow platter with a caramelized onion broth (basically French onion soup without its cheese beret) and a baby loaf of crusty country bread.