Boulevard – San Francisco, CA
Nothing could have made me happier than a visit from my mother and sister a few months after my move to northern California, even more joyfully coinciding with my beloved Mama's 65th birthday. The night she landed, I couldn't delay in giving her a proper introduction to the current bests of the food scene in the Bay.
Boulevard opened under the oversight of chef Nancy Oakes nearly 30 years ago. It just this month made an appearance on San Francisco's "Eater 38," a list published and updated by Eater several times annually highlighting the 38 most important restaurants in the city. During my major culinary "exploration" journey back in 2010, Boulevard was my first stop in the city.
The menu, rooted in seasonal California fare deployed in an a la carte "appetizer-entrée-dessert" layout, now displays a "choose any three" prix fixe. While the appetizer-entrée-dessert format is a bit tired, I do appreciate this prix fixe menu format, similar to (but much pricier than!) the one at fave Pammy's in Boston (though Pammy's refreshingly doesn't divide the menu into appetizers and entrées!). Since we decided on three appetizers, two mains, and one dessert, the flexibility was wonderful as long as you're dining with a companion!
Mama's flight was delayed by about an hour so I pushed our 8pm reservation to 9, and when we ended up arriving rather early, we had some time to enjoy a couple of cocktails in the bar area and admire their recent pandemic-era renovations! Mom enjoyed a take on a French 75 with Earl Grey gin, while I enjoyed "Karl the Fog," an homage to the fog that ensconces San Francisco most evenings made with Hendrick's "Neptunia" gin, lemon, and crushed pearl for a sparkly fog effect.
The space has always been special––situated in the historic Audiffred dating to 1889, the art nouveau styling of the restaurant was already stunning, with beautiful mosaic floors, a classic nouveau-style bar, an open kitchen, and all manner of Belle Époque era touches that lend a classic elegance. During the pandemic closure they brightened up the deep blue upholstery and dark walls with brighter, peacock-color themes. It looks fresh and elegant, while still maintaining classic art nouveau aesthetics consistent with the history of the building.
Among the most stunning features of the space are the windows on the northeast side of the restaurant looking over the Embarcadero for a panorama of the Bay Bridge, which is now outfitted with the largest LED display in the world running along the vertical supports. Lucky for us, we were escorted to the best table in the house, overlooking this wonderful sight. A perfect setting to welcome mama back to San Francisco!
Settling in at our table, we opened our bottle of Alquimista Oppenlander pinot noir, the last bottle I'll ever get since Alquimista closed their label. Weep. This Mendocino County pinot is their most opulent, with deep brambles, redwood forest, and smoke on the nose. Brilliant with all manner of meat dishes, including our main courses!
We also ordered a half bottle of Peay chardonnay, a favorite of mine from Sonoma County, which paired wonderfully with the seafood courses in our appetizer flight––brightness and aromatic character from Peay's remote, rugged coastal vineyard with lovely saline and chalky clarity and a hint of oaky opulence.
A little amuse of a purée of piquillo pepper with sun-dried tomatoes and feta graced the table first, with dipping apparatuses consisting of endive leaves, cucumbers, a root veg chip of forgotten origin, and crackers. Tasty, but forgettable enough that I mostly made up that last sentence––though I think it's a good guess based on the photo!
After a much appreciated bread service, our three selected appetizers made their way to the table simultaneously. Mom was most excited about the beautifully seared scallops with a heady, but slightly heavy-handed, amalgamation of celery root, hazelnut, and black truffles topped with radicchio. I was looking forward to the mouthwatering fennel and lemon risotto with Dungeness and king crab, which was unfortunately marred by an interloping cut of abalone (the purported centerpiece of the dish) nearly devoid of seasoning. Our unanimous favorite ended up being a Caprese-adjacent dance between seasonally-perfect heirloom tomatoes, a sort of sweet-savory piquillo gazpacho of remarkable depth, and verdant local greens. The Peay chardonnay was a magical pairing with each dish, particularly the shellfish offerings.
After the Peay and appetizer plates were cleared, we dug deeper into the Oppenlander pinot after some time in the glass. I cannot speak more highly of Greg LaFollette's wines––this pinot displayed seemingly endless layers with extraordinary expressiveness up-front and a depth that defied the trend of many other 2017 California pinots. Man, I will miss these wines.
The opulence of the pinot, characteristic "Mendocino spice," and whisper of smoke made red meat dishes an easy choice for our mains. Rack of lamb was my choice, regally presented above a crumble of pumpkin seeds, pistachio, figs, and crispy potato, with a pool of Hakurei soubise bathing slices of roasted turnips. A particularly brilliant pairing with the pinot.
If Boulevard has a signature dish, it's their 48-hour brined Berkshire pork chop. Accompanied by the rich flavors of garnet yam, chanterelle mushrooms, and roasted cauliflower, the perfectly executed chop was elevated magnificently by quince butter and blueberries. While not the better companion with the pinot, still our favorite overall between the two mains.
The whole week was a birthday celebration for mama, so we started with her first cake of her birthweek––a Mountain Rose apple cheesecake atop an exciting cardamom tuile. Whiskey and vanilla ice cream accompanied, and the coup de grâce was a caramel made with calvados, a French apple brandy. And it even came with a candle and little sparkler thingy!
Glad to see Boulevard's still got it, and that they are getting more recognition in places like Eater of late. The menu approach may be a bit old-fashioned, but the food is wonderful, and deploys some of the freshest seasonal California ingredients.
I'm back in the habit! More write-ups from Mom and Georgia's visit forthcoming, and then some summer back(b)log entries. Stay tuned, Maestro fans!