Recently I spent four days holed up in the St. Francis Hotel in the most intense mental work-out of my life. During our 90-minute lunch breaks, I needed not only tasty, easily digestible food, but also a quiet place to sit down, unwind, cram a few more facts into my head, and revive for the afternoon sessions. This was one time where the ambience and setting would be as important to me as the food.
The first day, I stumbled upon Mocca on Maiden Lane, the composed salads displayed in the window attracting my eye. It comes the closest in appearance and menu to a Parisian coffee and sandwich bar that Ive seen in the City. Outdoor seating on the lane is available, although it was too cool and breezy to suit me that day. Instead, I was lucky to get a seat inside in a back corner away from the hustle and bustle. I grabbed a tray to place my order at the start of the long counter and it was ready by the time I reached the cashier. I had the pan bagnat a delicious and not too dripping wet sandwich of top quality albacore tuna dressed with olive oil and capers, celery, nicoise olives, tomatoes, a little cheese, roasted red peppers, cucumber, lettuce, fresh herbs, scallions, and other goodies on a length of baguette. Basically this was a salade nicoise in a bun crunchy, salty, savory, and garlicky that was assembled to order rather than the traditional maceration to saturate the bread. A portion of over-salted celery root remoulade was on the side. With an ice tea, my bill was $11 (cash only). Fast, tasty and economical, although the room was noisier than I wanted.
The next day I sought refuge in The Rotunda Restaurant at Neiman-Marcus (http://www.rotundarestaurant.com/1.html). Had it really been more than a decade since my previous visit here? I was seated on the third tier which offered some distance from the reflected buzz bouncing up from the floors below. Even better for my purposes might have been a table in the Siberia-like corner room in the back. The serene atmosphere befitting the ladies who lunch crowd was exactly what I needed, as well as the larger than average table covered with heavy and thick linens for me to spread out my papers.
Arriving famished and with stomach growling, I didnt hesitate to order the decadent-sounding lobster club. But after polishing off most of the traditional starters of the hot popover served with swirls of strawberry and lemon butters (which had silently appeared at my elbow within seconds of ordering) and the very good demitasse cup of chicken consommé, I was starting to fill up. One look at the very generous club sandwich - toasted slices of brioche layered with ripe avocado, tomato, green leaf lettuce, lots of lobster chunks, crisp smoky bacon, roasted red peppers, and seasoned mayo - told me Id not be able to finish it. It was awfully good though and as rich as it sounded on the menu. I did pull out the red peppers, as the slight bitter note was an off-tone for me in this mix. Also on the plate were half a small boiled artichoke with a dab of mayonnaise and a whole lobster claw. While it broke my heart to leave more than half my food behind, test jitters kept me from eating more.
Service was seamless and unobtrusive, formal in manner, speaking in hushed tones. My server checked back at my table twice and the bus boy made regular rounds to refill water glasses. Id give my waiter extra points for the diplomatic way he handled the customer at the next table who complained that his crème brulee was dirty, pointing out the Tahitian vanilla bean seeds. (g) One small criticism is that the consommé had sloshed over onto the saucer when it was served, dampening the bit of puff pastry crisp accompanying it. For a $28 lunch, including tax and tip, expectations are higher. Yet all in all, I was very satisfied with my meal and the surroundings.
My third lunch was at Anjou in Campton Place (http://www.anjou-sf.com/). This was a first time visit too. My heart lit up as soon as I spotted the tri-color and the façade, and even more so when I stepped into the very atmospheric brick-walled interior and could hear the French accents of the staff. The lunch express menu offers several entrée selections for $14 including soup or salad. Remembering my overly rich experience of the day before, reluctantly I skipped over the duck foie gras on brioche and ordered the ahi tuna sandwich with a cup of asparagus soup. The soup was a light chicken broth with pieces of asparagus, rather than a thicker purée or cream style, making it simpler and more homey rather than high cuisine. I was happy to be served an épine-type of French roll, but with a soft non-crackly crust and fluff inside, it turned out to be no better than average. Ordered bleu, the tuna was cooked suitably rare, just seared. Served on olive-studded foccacia and garnished with slivered red onions, tomato and lettuce, the thin slices of tuna almost melted into the whole and was hardly noticeable as a separate flavor. The olives and the seasoning on the fish made this all a bit too salty, as was the side of wilted cucumber salad. I needed the constant refills of my ice tea! Also, I needed to remove some of the onion that was overwhelming the balance. The frites were very good, staying crisp even after they cooled down. I liked the caper mayonnaise for dipping the fries, as well as my tuna.
The tables were a bit close along the bench seat side of the lower level. But the patrons were low-key lending a feeling of privacy and enough quiet for my last minute study. The customers seated next to me were chatting in French, which added to the Gallic atmosphere. The service was professional and efficient, knowing how to move patrons through during the lunch hour without making them feel rushed. My food didnt quite come together, but was good enough that I would return for something else on the lunch express menu. The whole experience was satisfying for $20 including tax and tip, and a nice value for a lunch date in this area.