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Of the top 10 questions I am most often asked about restaurants in the city, the top two by far are “Which is the best?” and “Which is your favorite?” Since "best" is a snake pit of competing considerations and unacknowledged biases, I am happier with the second, which is all about acknowledging one's biases — about being in touch with the inner bias. For me, it is also far easier to answer, since my favorite restaurant in the city, the one I have recommended to inquiring minds for more than a decade, is Hawthorne Lane. (And a brief digression here for the honorable mentions: Firefly, Delfina, Gary Danko, and Boulevard, each reliably sensational in its way.)
How do I love Hawthorne Lane? Let me count the ways. The food, of course, has always been exquisite, though the many Asian touches favored by the original chef, Annie Gingrass, are much less in evidence under the current regime of Bridget Batson; the only more-or-less intact survivor I recognized from the old days is the Chinese-style roasted duck.
Speaking of survivors: the restaurant itself qualifies as one, having surfed the treacherous dot-com wave and its rough aftermath with grace and without frantic reinvention. The restaurant still looks much as it did when it opened in 1995: there is handsome ironwork on a glorious old brick building, a casual front room whose ovoid bar stands amid a ring of booths, and a regal passageway to the main dining room, with its exhibition kitchen, banquettes upholstered in rich fabrics (some floral, others striped), and plenty of paintings (most of the colorful-squiggly school) on the walls. The look, with its meant-to-last fusion of traditional and modern elements, is timeless and has worn well.
Best of all, you can offer this observation and many others across your table without having to shout to be heard. You might even be able to whisper, or at least murmur. For Hawthorne Lane has artfully managed noise from the beginning, and on that basis alone it long ago won my heart. The place is busy and it is lively, but while the cauldron of sound simmers and bubbles, it never boils over. The result is a restaurant in which it is possible to converse while enjoying the food, and for some of us this basic and ancient mix of satisfactions remains one of the heights of civilization.
The food would be enjoyable in any event. While I mourn the passing of the $28 three-course prix fixe option — offered in the dark autumn of 2001, when air travel was stunted and tourism anemic — I am glad to find that most of the main courses on the ever-changing menu are now available in half sizes (at reduced if not quite halved prices), an innovation that encourages the trying of more dishes and the ingestion of fewer calories while helping with money management. (Hawthorne Lane is expensive, and you could easily drop $100 a head there, but you can also spend quite a bit less and not cheat yourself.)
One of the few big dishes not offered in smaller guise on the main menu is the Chinese duck — but it did turn up as a downsized item (for $15) on the bar menu, inclusive of split scallion buns with which to make little duck sandwiches. We agreed that the finger-food angle was fun, but the dish on the whole seemed to be a little out of tune, with too much vinegar in the sauce, like a light on an overcranked dimmer. Could this imbalance perhaps be because the duck is a signature dish from a regime that's no longer there?
Otherwise, Batson's cooking is both passionate and elegant. From the fire-breathing brick oven emerges a small but memorable procession of clever pizzas, among them a pie ($12) topped with prosciutto, Mission figs, and arugula leaves: an artful combination of salty, sweet, and nutty, with plenty of white cheese to serve as emulsifier. Squash blossoms ($14), icons of summer, are stuffed with goat cheese and basil, tempura-battered into flute shapes, deep-fried, and presented on mixed greens with a pool of soffrito and cherry tomatoes.
Even more deeply imbued with the essence of summer, if that's possible, is an heirloom tomato risotto ($13 for a half portion), intense with tomatoey-ness despite its golden color and enriched with plenty of parmesan cheese. The dish is like a distant, aristocratic relation of mac and cheese, with the differences as apparent as the familial similarities. We caught no plebeian echo, on the other hand, in the crisped striped sea bass ($17 for a half portion). The small chunk of filet was indeed well crisped, the better to stand up to a cap of peperonata and a few coins of fennel root (nature's little breath mint) braised with leek and pancetta.
The half-sizing joyride ends abruptly at the dessert border. But this poses no hardship, because people seem routinely to share desserts in a way they do not always share savory courses. It helps that Hawthorne Lane's desserts are big and complex; we saw a trio of the seasonal sorbets — spooned cornucopia-style into crisp fruit cups — arriving at the next table and silently wished that couple luck for the long march. For us, the matter at hand was the fetchingly named peach buckle ($9.50), a kind of stone fruit coffee cake with slices of Frog Hollow peach atop an almond streusel and cinnamon meal baked over everything, like stucco. We buckled down and demolished it. SFBG
Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m.
Dinner: Sun.–Thurs., 5:30–9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.
22 Hawthorne, SF
Pleasant noise level