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Civic Center's Reigning Destination: Jardiniere

  • Jardiniere
    300 Grove St, San Francisco, CA 94102 (Map)
    (415) 861-5555

Jardiniere is that rare restaurant that proves how interior design enriches the dining experience, and it exudes a particularly celebratory quality in both. The jazz combo plays tasteful classics on a cutaway second floor wrapped by a steel railing resembling flirty silver ribbons. Alongside the first floor's exposed brick columns, lush velvet curtains abound. The glittery gold ceiling looks down upon gold labels from the champagne bottles cuddled in a large silver ice bucket. The soft, long curvature of the obsidian-black bar -- meant to suggest a champagne flute dome -- gleams like the top of a concert piano. Fellow restaurateur and designer Pat Kuleto maximized the dramatic options of this converted space featuring the culinary dazzle of chef Traci Des Jardins. Steps away from The San Francisco Opera, Jardiniere is truly built as a theatre for food.

Just being led to our table, we felt center-stage special, and we cooed at the chef's introductory treat: a small bite of lobster, ginger and creme fraiche. We opted to jumpstart with two of the raciest appetizers. The first, a seared foie gras upon gingered baklava and wet pillows of stone fruit ($19), was gloriously juicy, crunchy, sweet and rich. Perfectly grilled Maine diver scallops ($18) in a sweet corn pudding with lobster glace also elicited immense, lingering smiles. Our second course, the warm bread salad with baby artichokes and marinated crescenza cheese ($15) was a perfect palate cleanser but would not dazzle as a first course. Tonight the sumptuous seafood selection included grilled local swordfish ($28) rubbed in black pepper and spices, in a tomato emulsion. Its summer vegetable caponata side -- red and green zucchini, eggplant, red onion and red bell pepper in basil and olive oil -- gave the feeling of cena in Tuscany, but the caper berries in the emulsion made the dish a wee bit salty. The lamb plate ($33) came paired as a tasty little rack in rosemary jus and a large crepinette (sausage patty). It was partnered with balsamic-kissed eggplant and red peppers a delightful potato gratin square made with chevre cheese.

Jardiniere has a dedicated sommelier whose selections stretch wider than Luciano Pavarotti's belt. His menu changes next month, but tonight's viognier ($9), syrah ($9) and zinfandel ($10) were all supple complements. The chocolate bombe dessert ($9), however, failed to detonate us, even with blissful sips of a shared Smith-Woodhouse port ($10). Perhaps the pain perdu with roasted port cherries and toasted almond ice cream ($9) would have made the grade.

In nearly every dish on her daily changing menu, which to her credit features sustainable cuisine, Des Jardins loves the contrasting play between crunchy and soft. Jardiniere's only real drawback is its cost; this may not be the place to bring a first date. The full house is primarily grayed couples, elegantly dressed thirty-somethings, single, Opera-bound gal-pals, or masculine groups sporting laptop bags and expense accounts. Still, when it's time to celebrate...