Uptown Joe's

Where you can converse and hear at the same time amidst old world graciousness and hearty comfort foods

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Who ordered the minestrone and garlic bread?
PHOTO BY RORY MACNAMERA

paulr@sfbg.com

DINE Use of the word "downtown" in the American vernacular has always faintly troubled me. It's a term that should be used only with respect to Manhattan, which really does have a downtown, along with a midtown and an uptown. The better phrase for the rest of us is "city center," which is what you tend to see in European cities — signs reading "centrum" or (in German-speaking lands) "zentrum," with a big arrow pointing you in the right direction.

Of course, in a city as hilly as San Francisco, "up" and "down" have meanings independent of any two-dimensional map. Uptown Joe's, the successor to Café Majestic, might not be in any actual uptown anyone here would actually refer to, but the restaurant is pretty far up the southern face of Pacific Heights. So it can claim some real elevation, if not a view. It's the "Joe" part of the name, interestingly, that's been the occasion for some legal tussling in the past year between Uptown Joe's and Original Joe's, which burned down three years ago.

What's most striking to me about the restaurant's name is how inapposite it is. It sounds a diner-ish, Seinfeldian note — you can almost see Uncle Leo carping and gesturing in a booth over a bowl of chicken noodle soup — but the restaurant is in fact an elegant, high-ceilinged, cream-colored vault, almost fin de siècle Viennese in its quiet dignity. If you thought that the quiet restaurant was a thing of the past here, where the dominant trend in restaurant design is a noisy urban minimalism with concrete accents and patrons texting away because they can't hear one another, you'll find Uptown Joe's to be a welcome surprise. It's the sort of place that encourages that most retro of human practices, conversation.

In keeping with the vast dining room's old world graciousness, the kitchen turns out a menu that might have been described as "continental" a generation ago. Many dishes have Italian roots — there are a number of pastas and several veal possibilities, including piccata and parmagiana — but many others seem generically occidental, such as charbroiled filet mignon or pork chops.

A nice touch on the antipasto platter ($14.95 for two) was the red-wine vinaigrette drizzled over everything. It lent a glamorous and inviting sheen. "Everything" meant ham, salami, and pepperoni, slices of white cheese, tomato quarters, black olives (pitted — thank you!), and red-onion rings atop chopped spears of romaine lettuce.

Minestrone ($5) was served in a tureen whose shape probably helped hold in heat but made access tricky. The soup itself had a sickly, gray-green color, perhaps because of a bounty of cabbage, and was dotted with kidney beans and macaroni tubes. Its flavor was dominated by the earthy bite of the stock (roasted vegetable?) and the heap of grated Parmesan our server spooned over the top, to give it a cap almost like that of French onion soup.

Fried chicken ($18.95 for a half-bird) had a crisp, brownish-bronze crust that was lovely to look at but, being gravely underseasoned, not much to taste. Some CPR administered via salt shaker did restore a faint heartbeat, and the meat itself was juicy. The real redeemer of the plate was the slew of vegetables — broccoli and cauliflower florets, zucchini, sheets of Swiss chard, chunks of baby carrot — apparently braised in stock, to judge by their flavorfulness. Steamed mixed vegetables so often taste like hospital food, but not these.

Calamari steak ($18.95) is sometimes said to be the poor man's abalone, but it can be splendid in its own right if not overcooked to toughness. Uptown Joe's batter-fried version was tender with just a hint of chewiness (can we say al dente in this context?) and doused with lemon butter for a fillip of decadence. On the side: a mound of rigatoni tossed with marinara sauce.

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