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Mum's the Word

La Scene
Making La Scene: Moms with a taste for French cuisine will appreciate the early-bird dinner at Union Square's La Scene.

Some favorite places for
Mother's Day or any day

By Hank Hamilton

While you're planning to take someone special out to dine this month (it being Mother's Day and all), I'd like to share a number of my favorite places with you. These are not necessarily the kinds of places you might take your sainted mother, but each is recommended for one reason or another, as I indicate in the following.

Alfresco Lunch
42º (42 Degrees)

A tough decision, as you will see in the next entry. There are a lot of reasons for me to recommend this place. At night, you get great views of the East Bay lights from the upstairs booths, indoors. At night, there's good live, cool jazz. At night, reservations are available. But the Mediterranean-inspired food here is about the best in the city, and at lunch you get the best outdoor food of about anywhere. There's an excellent wine list with 12 by the glass. The downer is that there's no weekend lunch. Sigh. Decisions, decisions. But dishes like these reward you for coming at lunch: chicken apple sausage with bell pepper relish; shrimp empanada stuffed with seafood and basil-accented ricotta; grilled ham sandwich on a pumpkin-seed roll; and especially the grilled eggplant with roasted peppers and goat cheese on focaccia. These run $5 to $6 (what a deal). 777-5558, 235 16th St., below Illinois, behind the Esprit Outlet Store. Lunch M-F; dinner, late dining W-Sa. Cocktails, wine and beer. Mod$-exp$. M, V. Reservations for dinner only. Smoking permitted only outside. You can park in the Esprit lot.

Alfresco Dinner

A charming little neighborhood Italian/ Mediterranean restaurant, and frankly, I had a hard time dividing the alfresco choices between this and 42º. But this is a different take on Mediterranean, and its sheltered patio is more acceptable at dinner. But if Mission Bay is too far to go, or if the winds are high, switch these two. There is a pricey wine list of about 50 items. Start with the grand antipasto platter; the ramekin of olives with orange and thyme. Move on to a salad of shaved fennel tossed with blood oranges, almonds and dates; roasted tomato soup with Parmesan croutons; and/or gnocchi with Parmesan, butter and goat cheese. For a main course, try the spaghetti with French butter, aged pecorino and ground black pepper; a lobster ravioli with fava beans and tomato butter; or walnut-breaded trout with spinach chiffonade and lemon chive mayonnaise. 931-7710, 3665 Sacramento St., above Locust. Lunch, dinner Tu-Sa; brunch Su. Beer & wine. Mod$-exp$. A, D, M, V. Reservations available. No smoking. For parking, see above.

Caffe Freddy's

Easy, casual service, with indoor (and a few outdoor, in season) tables and booths. This is a good place for conversation or Sunday paper processing. The food is prepared in a minimalist-style Italian kitchen where baking is the only means of cooking. There's a short list of good, rarely seen wines. Good, unusual breakfast dishes include baked eggs basted in olive oil on toasted levain with a thin slice of Black Forest ham; a morning pizzetta with new potatoes, ham, spinach and Parmesan; a breakfast salad of fresh spinach leaves topped with shredded Black Forest ham and chunks of seasonal melon, dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette. There are good sandwiches and pizzas at lunch. 922-0151, 901 Columbus Ave., at Lombard. Breakfast, lunch, dinner 7 days. Beer & wine. Inexp$mod$. M, V. Reservations not available. Early parking isn't too difficult on the streets.

El Balazito

Located behind a drive-in carwash, with indoor-service branches (as El Balzano) in the Haight and back east in a shopping center in San Ramon. Wash your car and/or grab some fajitas or burritos. Order at the counter and sit at sheltered outdoor counter seats or tables, or take out. This is as close to Mexican street dining as you'll get around here. The sauces and salsas are great. "Healthy" cooking methods and ingredients are used. Go for the seafood-based dishes, such as the burrito Vera Cruzana, or the fish taco. There's a terrific vegetarian burrito. 824-6684, 2560 Marin St., off Chavez, at Bayshore. Lunch, late lunch M-Sa. No alcohol, but great fruit drinks and sodas. Inexp$. Cash only. Reservations not available.


Top-notch French-Basque food in a sunny, friendly room. The owner/exec-chef is Gerald Hirigoyen, who came from the departed Le St. Tropez in The Richmond and who also owns Pastis behind Levi Plaza. There are a number of good wines in the $20-$30 range. Half-bottles are available, and there are only a few by the glass. The room is so tightly packed you can eat off your neighbor's table. The scents from the kitchen blend with those from the tables to produce an erotic, appetite-building aroma. The menu is seasonal, but you might find an appetizer of Roquefort ravioli in a creamy sauce; mashed potatoes with duck confit and walnuts, garnished with garlic cloves; pork braised in wine sauce and cabbage, with spears of wine-poached pears; salmon served on a bed of fennel. 543-0573, 570 4th St., above Brannan. Lunch M-F; dinner, late dining M-Sa. Cocktails, beer and wine. Mod$-exp$. A, M, V. Reservations available. Smoking permitted at the bar. Parking on the streets is fairly easy.

Thirstybear Brewing Co.

The downside to this is that the place can be oppressively, painfully noisy in the evenings. I prefer it at lunch. As the name implies, this is a brewery, and it brews a fine line of beers. On top of that, the tapas are a bit more unusual and innovative than those offered at most restaurants: fish cheeks with garlic, sherry and lemon; squid marinated in cayenne pepper and paprika; shrimp à la plancha with blackened garlic and herbs; a vegetable-seafood mix with lemon and cilantro. Darts and pool are available upstairs. Large plates, including a pretty good paella, are available. For quieter surroundings and excellent, more trad tapas, I suggest Zarzuela up on Russian Hill. 974-0905, 661 Howard St., above Hawthorne. Lunch M-F; dinner, late dining 7 days. Cocktails, beer and wine. Mod$. A, D, M, V. Reservations suggested. Park on streets or in garage on Third.

Union Square Charmer
La Scene

Go for the $21 early-bird dinner, pre-theater or apres-shopping. The restaurant is a theatrically themed space with sketch-portraits of famous thespians and some costume design works. Some nights there is a live pianist. All in all, a very civilized place with good food inspired by healthy French cooking. Armand, at the bar, will charm you and deliver some of the friendliest service in the city. The wine list (mostly Californian and French) is good and the prices are fair, with a good set by the glass. There's a bar menu. Settle down for dishes like a salad of warm, grilled duck breast with baby greens and walnuts in a light, orange-scented vinaigrette, garnished with fried onion rings; rare ahi tuna atop greens, strands of cucumber and red bell pepper; monkfish ravioli; pork medallions with creamy mashed potatoes and a cherry chutney; rib-eye steak with horseradish butter, sweet potato fries and miniature grilled vegetables. 292-6430, 490 Geary St., at Taylor, in the Warwick Regis Hotel. Breakfast, dinner, late dining 7 days. Cocktails, beer and wine. Mod$-exp$. A, C, D, M, V. Reservations available. Smoking only at the bar. Use the $5 valet parking.

Wine Picks

Ridge California Zinfandel, Jimsomare Vineyard 1993. A zinfandel for all tastes: rich, mellow, complex, plummy flavors and texture; soft with slight chocolate edges and accents of dark cherry; red berry fruit; intense spice; firm acidity. You can expect this wine to continue to develop through 2003! A good choice for millennium celebrations. 408/867-3233.

St. Clement Napa Valley Chardonnay, Abbotts Vineyard 1995. Ripe, rich and complex, showing a lot of complex tropical fruit as well as pears and apples; aromas of spring fruit blossoms; hints of nutmeg and butter; rich finish hints of butter but ends up crisp. Wow! 800/331-8266

Hank's just waiting for readers' suggestions. Send snail mail to at The Metropolitan or email.

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From the May 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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