Nice guys finish first
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In the Big Book of Troubled Restaurant Spaces, there will have to be a long chapter (with footnotes!) devoted to 2101 Sutter. Since the mid-1990s this unassuming but hardly forbidding site has been home to Nightshade, Laghi, Julia, Winterland, and now Cassis, and I might be forgetting a few. The comings and goings have been many and hasty. Why the address's occupants should have such a nomadic bent, one after the other, isn't obvious when considering the physical particulars. 2101 is a perfectly nice setting, a sort of fat reverse L with the entryway, bar, and small dining area on one axis and, on the other (beyond a psychedelic screen that resembles strips of vinyl studded with disks of glass, like a hippie's belt collection), a larger dining area with an exhibition kitchen. The kitchen had been covered over during the brief Winterland era, the picture-window opening plugged with drywall, but now the view is back, and we notice a pizza oven among the other handsome implements.
Yes, pizza, though Cassis (as the name suggests) is a French restaurant. But the cooking isn't generic French; the street signage advises us that the restaurant serves "cuisine niçoise," and Nice is a French Riviera town quite near Italy. The city's most famous contribution to culinary annals is probably the salade niçoise, that likable jumble of tuna, red peppers, quarters of hard-boiled egg, and black olives, but the city is nearly as pizza crazy as Rome, and that's saying something. To sit at an outdoor table at one of the many cafés along Nice's pedestrian promenade, drinking chilled rosé and eating thin-crust pizza, could be the ultimate experience niçoise.
Cassis can't match these plein air atmospherics, of course. For one thing, it's in San Francisco, which is not an alfresco town, and for another, it sits in a remarkably nondescript building in a neighborhood filled with nondescript buildings. Even if you could sit at a sidewalk table, you almost surely wouldn't want to, since Sutter and Steiner are not, to say the least, charming pedestrian promenades, while nearby Geary Boulevard is a roaring sluice of automobile traffic. So, inside! The big horseshoe bar is welcoming, the outer dining area relaxed but you like to see your chefs in action, and that means a table in the main dining area, beyond the hippie-belt screen.
The screen is a Winterland holdover, but subtle changes to the sleek chill of that restaurant's design have brought some cheering warmth to Cassis. The return of the open kitchen is one; another is the faux brickwork on the support pillars. The rise in ambient temperature has, like global warming, caused a palpable shift in the mammalian population; gone are Winterland's droves of 30-year-old, gelled-hair, tech billionaires in black mock turtlenecks, and in is an older contingent, rather Pacific Heightslooking. These are people who might not have responded too enthusiastically to Winterland's sea urchin foams but are perfectly happy with Cassis's simple but intense lobster bisque (a steal at $6.25), enriched with cognac, or the pissaladière ($7.50), the classic tart of caramelized onion that's like a solid version of French onion soup.
The master of the kitchen is Stephane Meloni, who opened the restaurant last year with his brother, Jerome. Jerome runs the front of the house. The brothers grew up in Nice, which among its other winning attributes is not far along the coast from Cassis, a picturesque, cliff-hanging village. Hence the restaurant's name. Those with total recall might remember that there was another Cassis in the city in the mid-1990s, a bistro in Cow Hollow. But there is no other connection between the two places.
I would have dispensed with the coil of fried onion atop the pissaladière. It had been fried to toughness rather than crunchiness, could not be cut, and was generally an inconvenience. Otherwise, the kitchen didn't miss a step; the cooking is a series of gentle euphonies, polished versions of bistro favorites. (There is a real difference in France between a bistro and a restaurant, and les frères Meloni calling their place a restaurant isn't a casual choice.)
Duck confit ($22.50) is a rustic staple on many a bistro menu, but here the leg (good crispy skin!) was accompanied by a boneless half breast grilled to a gratifyingly steaklike medium rare. Lending the plate architectural interest and style: a cylinder of gratin potatoes, looking like a pillbox.
Potatoes fingerlings got a more natural treatment with the roasted monkfish ($23). They were simply steamed, halved, and thrown into a peppercorn sauce, velvety but with sharp edges. Lying at the edge of the sauce pool was a bundle of pencil-thin asparagus (too early to be local, I'm afraid), baby pattypan squash in green and yellow, and a fine dice of tomato. I would give this combination no better than a C for seasonality but an A for color and texture.
Even the small dishes are memorable. You hardly ever see panisses ($4.25) the chickpea fries of Provence anywhere, but Cassis's are excellent: crisp outside, creamy within, and presented in a geometric stack. And spinach ($5), seared with garlic and shallots, unfurls on a long platter like a length of knotty, kelp-swaddled rope recovered from a long-sunken ship.
Cassis doesn't seem to have generated the buzz of its most recent predecessors, and maybe this offers us a clue to its prospects. Although it's a nice destination, it's not a destination restaurant but a neighborhood one, and the neighbors, having reclaimed the space after a long struggle, seem to be pleased. Everybody likes a new chapter.
Tues.Thurs. and Sun., 5:3010 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 5:3011 p.m.
2101 Sutter, SF