The men's club
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As an aficionado of the men's-club look, I was swept into Scott Howard as if into some beautiful dream. Beyond the set of fluttering drapes that shield the host's station from errant breezes blowing near the front door lies a world of coffee- and tea-colored wood (floor, table and chairs, wall trim), gently dim lighting, a slightly sunken floor like that of some kind of arena, and a brilliantly backlit bar standing against one wall like a sentinel.
But ... we weren't really under any delusion of having stepped into White's or the Athenaeum in London; although Scott Howard's interior design relies heavily on traditional materials, it gives them a spare, modern look. Lines are clean and frivolities few, and you feel that the restaurant is meant to appeal to tasteful people who know how to make much of time. There is no wasted motion or idle effect. The Cypress Club (which long occupied the space) is indeed gone for good.
The masculine cast of things isn't surprising, if only because the restaurant's chef-owner and eponym bear a name of double-barreled maleness. Yet Scott Howard (the restaurant, and maybe the man too) is all about elegance, not ESPN, and elegance here is understood as flowing from understatement. In this sense the place makes an interesting contrast to nearby Bix (just around the corner, on brick-lined, lanelike Gold Street), whose aura, while also male, has a distinctly more fanciful, Great Gatsby retro element. You could easily stand at Bix's bar and indulge a brief fantasy of waiting for Nick Carraway; Scott Howard, by contrast, is very much of the here and now, spotlighted by halogen sconce lamps in the ceiling.
The tables are set comfortably far apart - a subtle touch that helps the restaurant breathe more easily and allows the restaurant's patrons to converse in ordinary tones. And what would they be conversing about? Why, the prix fixe, of course, an innovation Howard returned to the one-and-a-half-year-old restaurant a few months ago. The deal is $32 for a three-course dinner - starter, main dish, and dessert, with a couple of choices available in each category - or $47 for the same dinner with wine pairings. (No choices as to the wines, and none needed, so far as I was concerned. The pairings were superior.)
A la carte devotees and other iconoclasts need not fret, for an entire side of the menu card is given over to the regular menu, whose entries, from a pork chop to Maine lobster to hamachi, reveal Howard's distinctive blending of European, Asian, and all-American cooking. His style is a bit like Bradley Ogden's, but with a less overt Middle Western bent.
It is sometimes said by cognoscenti that when visiting London and Paris, you should always go to London first so as not to be disappointed. If you start in Paris, you might find London, for all its splendors, a little tatty. A similar advisory ought to apply to Scott Howard's tuna tartare ($12), a disk of chopped fish atop a bed of cubed avocado, with a well-modulated chorus of piperade and crisped chorizo bits on the side and, throughout, a subtle perfume of vanilla oil. This dish is so sublime that you will struggle not to order a second one (we struggled unsuccessfully), and if you start with it, you might find that it casts a shadow over everything that follows. One solution would be to have it for dessert, but this would seem odd, despite the vanilla; another would be not to have it at all, but this would be a heavy loss.
Only marginally less rapturous but considerably earthier is the orzo "mac and cheese" with tomato jam ($7 for a sizable crock), which could pass as an especially creamy risotto. ("That stuff is evil!" our server said to us with barely restrained glee. He meant "evil," of course, in the best possible, the Dame Edna, sense.) If Howard's sensibility glides gracefully between the earthy and the sublime, then the prix fixe cooking finds a balance somewhere near the middle, in happy-medium country. The cooking here is sophisticated rather than dazzling - the kind of food your table considers for a moment in quiet admiration but does not hesitate to eat, while talking about other matters.
A tomato soup, for instance, was rich and thick, with a few flicks of fennel pollen (which looked like black pepper) cast over the molten surface and a faint hint of smokiness that suggested roasting. A plate of smoked salmon draped over a potato pancake - really more of a fritter - and garnished with a dollop of sour cream was a classic presentation, the kind of thing you might be served at your club, if you belonged to one. (Wine pairing for both: a crispy-rich albarino.)
The recurrence of salmon - Scottish, as a main course, with hedgehog mushrooms and coins of fingerling potatoes in a tarragon broth - didn't quite make it up the mountain for me. The poached fish was fishy, the broth watery. Much better was roasted lamb loin, ruby rose in the middle, laid in two pieces atop a bed of braised spinach and scallions and finished with dribbles of truffled jus. Your club would definitely serve this with pride. (Wine pairing for both: an intense but controlled California primitivo.)
Prix fixe desserts seldom set the world on fire, and Scott Howard's are no exception, though the sparkling moscato sounded a festive holiday note. Warm chocolate cake with blackberry coulis and whipped cream? Nice, but a rerun deep in syndication. There was nothing showy about butterscotch pudding either, except that it was dense and good, sweet but not too. Can a dessert be manly? *
Dinner: Tue.-Sat., 5:30-10 p.m.
500 Jackson, SF