July 10, 2002

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(Wood) burning man

By Paul Reidinger

LIKE A GOOD story, a good restaurant is a kind of tapestry, a weaving together of themes and preoccupations into a unique coherency. You perceive its individual elements – the interior design, the menu, the clientele and their buzz, the staff – and at the same time you experience the place as a whole greater than the sum of those parts, if it all goes right.

Laurent Katgely's Chez Spencer opened just a few weeks ago, at the beginning of June, but already the signs are that it's going right. The place sounds its chords of sense and memory with an almost Proustian intricacy. There's Katgely himself, for one thing, conspicuously working the wood-burning oven near the front of the dining room. There's the airy, concrete-floored boxiness of the setting – so reminiscent, in a way, of Foreign Cinema, where Katgely cooked so successfully a few years ago, or maybe of Campanile, in Los Angeles. The staff all wear pressed white shirts; that detail reminded me of Masa's, and of two-star spots in France, and it suggests, in its subtle formality, that Chez Spencer aspires to be something more than a bistro or a brasserie. It is a restaurant, in the full French sense of that word.

All this registers in one's first few moments in the place, before sitting down. For those of us who remember the location as the original home of Citizen Cake, the vast increase in seating capacity is probably the most striking aspect of the makeover. The large courtyard at the front of the restaurant has been reclaimed from its status of parking lot during a brief dot-com interregnum (an ad agency that filled the place with slithering coaxial cables as if it were a snake farm), and Katgely's wood-burning oven remains from bakery days. But the counter and the wall of glass cases are gone, and the floor has been opened up to tables and chairs – with prep stations, aglint with stainless steel, sitting here and there like islands in a stream of human traffic.

It is fair to say that Katgely is a high-style chef, in the California-French manner. True, the wood-burning oven does provide a rustic, earthy dimension (as at Globe and LuLu); you can make a pretty nice lunch from a pissaladière ($10), the Provençal-style pizza topped with caramelized onions, anchovies, and black-olive tapenade, possibly preceded by a cooling, fresh salad of arugula and shaved fennel root ($6). Or, if you're a soup person, a bowl of simple vegetable ($5), with carrots, onions, and celery all neatly diced, mirepoix style.

But Katgely's real art is not in dicing (though he is most impressive in that department) but in sauce mastery and presentation – often on the same plate. Sautéed striped bass ($23), for instance, is a napoleon-like alternation of crisped, skin-on fish filets and layers of petite ratatouille (diced zucchini and bell peppers with halved cherry tomatoes, tossed together instead of stewed), napped by a creamy saffron sauce the pale yellow color of a summer morning.

Wood-roasted squab ($27) goes a step further and could be the ultimate Chez Spencer dish, bringing together presentation (breast meat sliced and arrayed in fans around the bronzed rear quarters) and sauce (a rich, jus-like sherry gastrique) and adding the smoky whisper of the wood-burning oven to the whole thing. We saw, not surprisingly, many plates of squab being distributed throughout the dining room.

The first courses are equally lovely, though not as formidably sauced. A salad of smoked duck breast ($9) consisted of the meat sliced thin and arranged into a fan around a heap of frisée, with a scattering of lardons (bits of crisped bacon) for counterpoint and, on one side, a poached egg that spilled its yolk like lava once we'd punctured it. And ahi tuna carpaccio ($11) arrived as a translucent purplish cylinder – sliced, naturally! – sprayed with an elegant buckshot of diced celery and green olives.

The best postprandial treat at Chez Spencer might be simply to lean back and stare upward – toward the lofty ceiling and its old-world wood groining, such as you might see in a European country church, toward the skylights and the sky beyond. The sense is almost that of an open-air porch – of freedom and security delicately balanced. With its high glass panels and perfume of wood smoke, it will be a spectacular place to eat during epic rainstorms.

But epic rainstorms are a few months off, and back on the floor it's hustle and bustle and sweets from the hand of pastry chef Lisa Savell. I was quite taken with a lemon-fromage blanc panna cotta ($7), a squat, jiggly cylinder that in its gelatinous creaminess and citrus bite was like a single-serving cheesecake without a crust. We were slightly less wild about an almond tart slathered in halved cherries ($7) – crust more brittle than crisp-tender, with a hint of peanut-butteriness in the filling – though the accompanying scoop of crème fraîche ice cream was deliciously grown-up in its unsweetness.

Moral: less is more, at least with respect to crust. End of story.

Chez Spencer. 82 14th St. (at Folsom), S.F. (415) 864-2191. Tues.-Fri., 8 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sat., 5-10:30 p.m. Brunch: Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Full bar pending. American Express, Carte Blanche, Diners, Discover, MasterCard, Visa. Moderately noisy. Wheelchair accessible.