Shopping can be so exhausting. A place like Claudine is just what a harried holiday soul needs for respite.
If you haven’t been downtown recently, you’ll be amazed at all the action on Claude Lane, the alley which intersects Bush Street a few yards west of Kearny Street.
The classic French Cafe Claude has a large outside dining area right on the sidewalk; Gitane, deeper into the alley, holds court at night at a dramatic bar with dining in a lair upstairs; and now Claudine has arrived, a small, second floor cafe and wine bar, right on the corner.
Claudine shares a chef with Gitane, Bridget Batson, whose cooking is personal and innovative.
The best part of Claudine is an intimate U-shaped, 14-seat bar with low stools in a windowed, light-filled aerie that affords views down to the busy sidewalk. This is just the place to sip a glass of California wine on tap and have a bite when the need hits, from lunch through late dinner.
My favorite dishes are the salads — simple, pure, colorful and perfectly dressed. Fat wedges of peeled persimmon and torn radicchio ($7/$11) glisten on a plate smeared with creamy fromage blanc. A sherry vinaigrette underscores the delicate sweetness of the fruit. Toasted walnuts add meatiness. The orange and purple color scheme suggest a party dress.
I’m equally enamored of a tangly pile of frisee and endive ($7/$11), scattered with pomegranate seeds which look like jewels, and toasty brown croutons, all tossed in Meyer lemon vinaigrette.
One day I had a luscious bowl of fresh noodles in a buttery leek fondue, its flavor deepened with miso, all topped with a poached Eatwell farm egg that melted into the pasta ($9/$16).
A rectangle of lamb belly, seasoned with cumin, is slow roasted until the top turns crusty and the flesh fork-tender. It is placed on a swatch of purple beet puree. Batson never shies away from a chance to put fat on fat, in this case a buttery pan sauce brightened with oranges and caramelized fennel.
Someone in the galley at the back is radically undercooking some of the food. Duck crepinettes ($8/$13), on one visit, were almost cold inside, with a pasty texture.
On another visit, the flank steak in a sandwich on focaccia with caramelized onions, capers and arugula ($12) was raw, the bread smeared with too much mustard. Execution needs to be tighter, especially on preparations that are meant to push the edges.
Desserts ($6) are worth dropping in for, along with a good espresso. S’mores come in a glass custard cup wrapped in paper to protect the eager eater. With a crusty, molten, marshmallow top and thick, sludgy melted chocolate on a graham cracker crust, the Claudine s’more trumps any campfire version in spades.
On the lighter side, a glass jar of ethereal pumpkin mousse, scented with sweet spices, topped with a pouf of soft whipped cream, comes with a side of gingersnap crumbs. I poured mine right on top.
This peripatetic menu, which offers many dishes in two sizes, is meant to be versatile. I can see Claudine becoming a true neighborhood hang, with a lunch crowd, an afternoon crowd, an after-work crowd and a dinner crowd, all eating, drinking and happily chatting away at the bar.
Patricia Unterman is the author of many editions of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide.” Contact her at email@example.com
Location: 8 Claude Lane (at Bush Street), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 362-1988; www.myclaudine.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
Price range: $7 to $16
Recommended dishes: Fuyu persimmon salad, frisee and endive salad, noodles with an egg, slow roasted lamb belly, pumpkin mousse
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted; walk-ins only