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Presidents are so seldom intentionally funny that when a genuine wit makes it to the Oval Office, we (the people!) tend to notice and remember. As a quipster, John F. Kennedy is without peer in modern times, and while his crack that Washington, DC, is "a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency" might not be his best line, it's still a pretty good one — not to mention useful for certain latter-day restaurant writers, who admire the deftly phrased paradox while being perennially fascinated by the truth embedded in it. Whether in the New World or the Old, we tend to think of the north as the home of efficiency and practicality, the south of beauty and sensuality, and can ever the twain meet without some sort of Death in Venice disaster?
Kennedy described himself as "the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris" — another excellent line — so we know he traveled to France. Did he notice, when there, that France might be the one place on earth where the twain could indeed be said happily to meet — that France is simultaneously a northern land of clean cities, fast trains, and a more or less honest bureaucracy and also a Mediterranean realm on easy terms with life's sunlit pleasures? If so, he has left us no witticism to announce the fact. But I think he would have warmed to Cafe Claude, which isn't in Paris but feels as if it is, on some lane in the Marais too narrow even for Europe's ubiquitous Smart Cars.
Here the lane is Claude Lane, a brief segment of asphalt lined by tall glassy buildings that rise in the complex borderland of Union Square, Chinatown, and the Financial District. Nearby Belden Lane, paved with bricks and lined from one end to the other with cafés, trattorias, and fish houses, is better known as a Euro-style restaurant row, but the basic principle is the same, as is the strollable, alfresco feel. The city seems less encroaching in these places, and that is largely because cars are unable to speed through.
Cafe Claude opened more than 15 years ago, so teething and shake-down issues belong to the deep past. The more pertinent question for a place of this age is whether it manages to be both polished and self-renewing or whether senescence has set in. In Café Claude's case, the answer is pretty clear: it's in its prime, lively and well run, with food of the urban-earthy sort — rustic dishes prepared with soupçons of metropolitan flash — so characteristic of a certain stratum of Paris restaurants.
For many people, the ultimate treat in French bistros is a plate of steak frites. For me, it is roast chicken ($12.50), a leg and thigh slow-cooked to a gold-dripping tenderness and served with a bright mix of chard, lemon slices, and black olives adrift in the jus. Fries go quite as well with roast chicken as with beef, but at Claude you have to order them on the side ($4, plenty for two). They are sprinkled with herbs and served with a "sauce piquant," a kind of paprika-enhanced sauce gribiche, lumpy with stubs of cornichons.
The duck rillette ($5) situates a petite slice of meaty pâté, about the size of a brownie, in a vast nest of greens. If shared by two people, the dish is like a charcuterie version of an Easter egg hunt, with the spoils consisting of a single egg. It is best to think of the rillette as a tasting experience: a burst or two of flavor, then on to something weightier, such as that excellent blast from the past, coquilles St. Jacques ($11). Here we have a trio of sea scallops on the half shell bundled with shrimp, mussels, and mushrooms and sealed, oysters Rockefeller–style, under a broiled cap of Gruyère and bread crumbs. The presentation is simple but impressive, and there is a definite unwrapping-a-present pleasure in cracking through the cap to the glistening treasures within.
Weightier still is lamb confit ($23), two rounds of lamb loin braised to pot-roast tenderness and served atop shreds of green cabbage dotted with black olives and bits of red bell pepper. Lamb fat can get pungent if heated, and I had a worry or two beforehand that lamb cooked in lamb fat would be a little too gamy, but the dinnertime kitchen (under chef Leo Salazar) succeeded in discreetly hitting the mute button, with the result a nice lamby — but not too lamby — flavor.
Complaints: the roast-carrot soup ($7), with a submerged reef of Emmentaler gratings, was tongue-searingly hot. A napoleon ($12) of sliced tomatoes and tabs of feta cheese was underseasoned, though the heirloom tomatoes were gloriously ripe. A pan bagnat ($10) featured a smear of tuna salad apparently made from ordinary canned tuna.
But all this was forgiven and then some when the list of digestifs was found to include Armagnac. Armagnac! A snifter for $8 — not bad. Could this be the next big thing? I sippingly pondered that question while the clafouti monster across the table dove into a griotte cherry version ($7) — eggy, I thought (upon a sample or two), but attractively so and baked in a handsome dish of white porcelain.
Cafe Claude must be one of the nicest spots in town to eat outside. There is less tumult and wind than on Belden, and while conventional wisdom teaches that the alfresco season is fleeting in this land of pampered softies, we must remember that the French have a different view: Parisians will take their coffee at sidewalk cafés even with snowflakes twirling softly down around them. So there is northern charm after all. SFBG
Continuous service: Mon.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m. Dinner: Sun., 5:30–10:30 p.m.
7 Claude Lane, SF