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From Gypsy to Grand-mere

Some restaurants you want to love, right away. Like the new Gitane, which just opened downtown, across from Café Claude. Why so much love? First, the Basque-styled bistro has alley seating, which we desperately need more of in San Francisco. More cobblestone streets, more heat lamps, more dinners under the stars. Great.

Gypsy Glam
Then there's the Gitane décor, which is all over the map, but in a dizzyingly fizzy way. (The restaurant was named for a "freewheeling Gypsy", after all.) Charles Doell of Mr. Important Design -- also responsible for the look of the Red Room, Bluepointe, Blush, and a slew of dot-com heyday hotspots (remember Sno-Drift?) -- succeeded in combining the "Euro-themed 50s, Hippie-Driven 60s, and Big Bling 70s," alternating between deep earth tones and garish hot splashes of color.

The upstairs 40-person dining room features a funhouse of mirrors, a plethora of disorienting lights, and one elegant-but-precarious balcony window. Lurid paintings of half-clothed ladies abound, along with 50-foot cascading drapes and a bar that's lit up like a Montparnasse pinball machine.

Solid Service
The staffers are as inviting as the surroundings. They're so nice that you want to invite them back to your place -- just for coffee, although I guess something more isn't out of the question. You know those restaurants where the waiters insert themselves into your conversations or try to show off how much they know? You won't find that at Gitane. Instead, the staff was present when needed but not overly doting, knowledgeable enough about the menu to pair a good wine with an entrée and to explain what tempranillo is. (They also helped several customers find the hidden bathroom door with just the right amount of apologetic charm.)

Iffy Sherry
Okay, then what's not to like? Well, first problemo: the cocktails. Yes, we're in the middle of the Cocktail Revolution, but does that mean that every drink has to be an experiment? Or that we need a whole menu devoted to a liquor that only grandmothers like? See, Gitane's bar program -- which was concocted by Dominic Venegas, who has worked wonders at Range, Cantina, and Bourbon & Branch -- is largely sherry based. Which means that if you don't like sherry, you're as sad as Sarah Palin without her RNC credit card. Want to know a good way to ruin a perfectly good rum or tequila? Add sherry to it!

Well, if you're going to experiment, you'd better knock a few out of the park, which was not the case here. The Gitane Cobbler was plain, its fruit not adding much to the sherry and lemon juice, while the Ribera -- a mix of sloeberry liquor, crème de peche, blue ice vodka, and melon juice -- had a strange aftertaste, like brown bananas.

A colleague, however, noted that the whiskey-sherry drinks were more successful, and she had a good experience with the Negroni Tinto -- perhaps because she's nuts for Campari -- mixed here with Millers Gin, Marie Brizard crème de cacao, and ruby port.

The wine list is not extensive, but it's entirely old world. Hottest bottle on the list: the smooth, rustic $50 "Petalos" by Alvaro Palacios, known among certain wine peeps as "The World's Most Attractive Winemaker." Ahem.

The Menu
Likewise, the food was good on average, but dishes were hit or miss on an early visit. Having previously worked her talents at Le Charm and Piperade, Executive Chef Lisa Eyherabide has created a menu of the "approachable and simple" items that come from Southern France, Northern Spain, and North Africa. (Chez Papa got there first, and better, but it's still a decent idea.) It was early on in the game, with the kitchen having just opened on November 11, and they seem to be working out the kinks.

The Bacon Bon Bons ($9), for instance, are a great concept, but the prunes overwhelmed the bacon and goat cheese flavors on first visit. (A balance has since been struck.) The Caille (stuffed quail, $16) was rather flavorless, although the port demi-glace was tasty. A lamb foreshank ($27) was tart and a bit tough, with a wine sauce that overpowered the baked polenta sticks. (People have been talking up the pizzas, but, come on, do you really go to a fancy restaurant to order something you could have delivered to your home?)

There were, however, notable exceptions. The baby back pork ribs ($23) were coated in an amazing honey-soy glaze, with meat as tender as a new bruise, perfectly complemented by smooth parsnip puree and tangy Brussels sprout leaves. For dessert, the fondant au chocolate ($8) was just rich enough that you didn't have to unbutton your pants afterwards, and the recent addition of a clever take on pain au chocolat (with vanilla salt and olive oil) is a definite hit.

One great thing about Gitane: The kitchen stays open until midnight, and the bar until 1am. It's a perfect destination for dressing up and feeling fabulous, although the glam atmosphere (especially the more casual street seating) is still somehow welcoming to professorial types in Birkenstocks and off-duty EMTs in jeans. If they do end up smoothing out their problems, the restaurant will be a great place to hit late at night. (Just make sure to bring your grandma.)

French Bistro
Financial District

Reservations Essential? Yes.