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Restaurants & Bars

SF’s Union Street: Merenda, Café Merenda & Perry’s

Melanie Wong | Aug 5, 200212:14 AM

A few weeks ago, my Auntie Helen treated me to a lovely, lovely dinner at Merenda, the first time for both of us at this Cow Hollow neighborhood restaurant. She had stopped by earlier in the day to make the reservation in person, and had obviously charmed the staff who were more attentive than I’ve experienced anywhere in ages.

We decided to go for three-courses ($38) each and shared a couple glasses from the nice selection of wines by the glass list. The first was the 2000 Galatin Bandol Rosé made of Mourvedre from sunny Provence. I was pleased when our server, Claudio, brought out a chilled and unopened bottle to be uncorked at our table. As we requested, he split the serving between two glasses for us (and gave us a little extra, I think!). Crisp and bone-dry with a whisper of wild strawberries, Helen loved this one – “So refreshing, I’ve never tasted anything like this before.” That’s what made it the perfect aperitif, to enjoy with nibbles from the variety in the bread basket and the excellent sampler of olives. We also asked for a dish of the fancy mixed nuts served at the bar.

For the first course, we both chose pastas. Most are housemade, and Helen’s spaghetti was toothsome with a satisfying firmness and fresh taste. My trenette (tubular with a triangular opening) was the only dried pasta used, but it was the right choice to carry the braised lamb and guanciale sauce. With previous discussion of guanciale (cured pork jowl) on the chowboards, naturally, I was attracted to this dish to taste for myself. Claudio relayed my question to the kitchen on the sources returning with the answers – the lamb was from Sonoma and the guanciale from New Zealand. The fatty portion of the soft braised bits of guanciale was firmer, almost crisp, with a sleeker mouthfeel than that of pancetta. The meat was sweeter and both smoother and softer in texture than pancetta. Just a small amount of these tiny nuggets in the sauce added an extra unctuous counterpoint. Both pastas were exceptional and I preferred them to our entrees.

Our second wine was the 1998 Nicolas Potel Savigny les Beaune, a Pinot Noir from Burgundy. Again, Claudio presented a fresh bottle and offered a taste before pouring. I wish that every wine by the glass program were managed this way. Very dark in hue with aromas of minerally earth, black truffles, oolong tea, and black cherries, firm tannins were indicative of the hard vintage, yet there’s plenty of ripe dark fruit and complexity to balance and carry through to a lingering finish. I was sorry that I had not asked for our wine to be poured earlier for additional aeration as it continued to improve and grow more seductive with time in the glass and was consumed all too soon with our entrees.

For mains, Helen ordered the fish of the day, grilled halibut, and I had the sirloin of grasslands beef. I ordered it very rare, tapping the fleshy mound at the base of the thumb on my hand to indicate the degree of doneness desired. Claudio assured me that the kitchen usually serves it quite rare. The steak was sliced across the grain and fanned out over a baby spinach salad bed. It was mostly red and rare, but not bleu and very rare, and the thin end was well-done. Since I wasn’t that hungry, I ate around the overcooked parts and didn’t send it back. For me the jury’s still out on grassfed beef – those few times that I choose to eat beef, I want that full marbled flavor which this does not have. Helen’s halibut was excellent, a choice piece nearly 2” thick and cooked perfectly. It almost made me forget about Chilean seabass. The surrounding summer veggies were done to a turn too.

Later Keith Luce came out from the kitchen to introduce himself saying, “ah, you must be the very special niece, is everything to your liking?” We were digging into the dessert course at that point, so we were as pleased as pie! The molten chocolate cake (ordered at the start of service) was everything it should be, and we loved the sour cherry compote on the side. The fresh peach melba with vanilla bean-flecked ice cream and raspberry sauce was the height of summery fruit goodness. A third dessert of a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a pile of excellent biscotti holding a lit candle was on the house – guess Auntie told them it was my birthday (last April!). The coffee was good – from Caffe Roma in North Beach – and was accompanied by cookies wrapped in wax paper bags to take home.

All in all, one of the nicest restaurant experiences due to the warm and gracious hospitality and special welcome extended to us. Everyone – our waiter, the other servers, the busboys, the proprietors, and the captain - was at our service, taking active notice at each pass by our table to see if we needed anything. The kind of teamwork and attention to detail was very impressive and appreciated. And, of course, the food was wonderful too. Highly recommended.

* * * * *

About two months ago, Café Merenda opened around the corner at 2760 Octavia with a couple sidewalk tables and a couple inside for coffee, pastries, and snacks. The cases display cheeses, Italian meats, antipasti, salads, Italian food stuffs, and other goodies available for take-out.

The baked goods come from Rose’s Café on the other end of Union. So far I’ve had a terrific mixed berry muffin ($2.25) that had a crunchy top, moist, almost cake-like crumb and was studded with raspberries and blackberries. Last week I picked up a roasted veggie panini ($5). Later I popped it into the toaster oven as the counter man had suggested to warm it just enough to soften the fresh mozzarella cheese and crisp the roll. The aroma compelled every person who walked past my desk to stop and ask where I’d bought my lunch! In addition to the thick slab of fresh mozz, the light and airy round roll was filled with yellow and red peppers, eggplant, green beans, and zucchini. I was surprised to find that it had not been dressed with any aioli, mayo or oil. The eggplant had a light wisp of something brushed on it that reminded me of seasoned rice vinegar, but other than that only a bit of salt seemed to be added. This was pretty much naked vegetables, relying on the smoky carmelization and milky cheese to add dimension to this studied simplicity. The unadulterated fresh intensity of flavor felt as if I were tasting the natural sweetness of real zucchini for the first time. Also, the slices and pieces of vegetable were assembled in asymmetrical layers. The silky yellow peppers were on one side, the squeaky and crisp green beans down the middle, and the firmer red peppers along the other rim. Every couple of bites yielded a new combination of flavor and textural sensations.

Café Merenda is a welcome new addition to the neighborhood. Open Monday through Friday from 9am to 7pm and Saturday from 11am to 6pm. Still cash only as of last Thursday.

* * * * *

Shep’s post and link on the origins of the Cobb salad motivate me to comment on a recent lunch at long-time Union Street watering hole, Perry’s. I ordered the Chopped Salad, having in mind La Scala’s version of years ago that is basically an old-fashioned antipasti plate and lettuce worked over by a mezzaluna. What was served to me at Perry’s was a terrible disappointment. Limp rusty iceberg lettuce, mushy presliced California black olives, tinny-tasting garbanzo beans, dried out bits of cheese, stuck together slivers of pre-sliced salami, and a flavorless dressing. I was staring in dismay at my plate pondering what to say about this when my server stopped by and could see from my face that something was wrong. I explained that the lettuce was soggy and less than fresh, and Sarah immediately offered to bring me something else. I asked if she recommended the Cobb Salad, and she did but said that it used the same iceberg lettuce. Eyeing the sprightly Caesar salad at the next table, I requested the Cobb made with Romaine lettuce for me.

That was the ticket. I also asked for chopped scallion (which had been missing from the Chopped Salad). The classic ingredients were arranged in stripes atop a bed of chopped lettuce. This Cobb Salad was more than acceptable and worth eating. The vinaigrette (served in a boat on the side) could have been zestier, the prepackaged Roquefort cheese didn’t need to be the overly fine crumble, and diced tomatoes would be preferable to cherry tomatoes. Yet, the avocado was perfectly ripe and buttery, the bacon plentiful and crispy brown, the egg just barely hard and freshly cooked, the half chicken breast sliced and presented whole had good grill marks and was moist enough for this white meat-hater, and most important of all, the Romaine lettuce was snappy and fresh. Sarah got a 25% tip for making me happy, even though her busser failed to refill my water, for a total bill of $16.


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