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David Fortin

Simply Superb: For pre-opera dining, Jardiniere is not disappointing--but make reservations.

Why Jardiniere and Max's Opera Cafe are optimal choices for pre-opera dining

By Paul Adams

So, you're going to the opera. You've got a date and the tickets, and your clothes are all picked out, but where are you going to have dinner before the show? Which restaurant you pick depends essentially on what you're in the mood for, but both Jardiniere and Max's Opera Cafe, two very different restaurants, are highly recommended for an optimal pre-opera dining experience.

It's hard to remember that Jardiniere has been open for just a year, as it's become such a fixture on the city's food-scape. Star watchers probably care that the restaurant was designed by Pat Kuleto, and the kitchen is handled by Traci des Jardins, ex of Rubicon. (Of course, the restaurant's name is a pun on hers, but it also seems to refer to the garden freshness of the ingredients.) The way that matters to the rest of us is as follows:

The room is dominated by a horseshoe-shaped bar, which is positioned directly under the atrium, enabling couples on the second floor to peer over the balcony (whose railings integrate lighted champagne buckets) and admire the large selection of high-end alcohols. There are individual staff members to greet you, check your reservation, lead you up the striking spiral staircase to your table, take your order, help you choose a wine, refill your glass, bring your food and remove the plates. The walls are exposed brick, and the whole is topped with a golden dome. The wine list is decently sizable and organized by variety, and the wine staff are knowledgeable; all the staff, in fact, are well trained and doting to the point that one feels rude topping off one's own wine glass. There are even wildly perky hosts circulating exclusively to ask if "everything's all right." And the paper towels in the rest rooms are luxurious, a detail that devotees to this column know means that I automatically like the restaurant.

The food is your standard creative California cuisine, with top-notch ingredients and skilled preparation. Garnish is minimal, oddly, and the portions are on the small side, though they have grown since the restaurant opened. Many of the dishes are on the sweet side. A seared-sea-scallop salad, with adorable baby artichokes and leeks, is served in a somewhat cloying vinaigrette, and the excellent fresh fettuccine arrives in a tomato confit that is sweet enough to be dessert.

A salad of pale roasted beets, frisee and the requisite candied nuts and goat cheese, though, is a delicious version of a familiar concept; the contrast of the very mild cheese and big sugary clumps of walnuts with the vegetables is genius. Cured pork tenderloin is served in a thick, almost beefy, reduction of its own juice with a hint of mustard. It comes on a bed of smoky chard and beside a sinfully pleasing potato galette. The entire dish is very noticeably salty but not quite too much so; the pork could not be more tender.

There is usually a rabbit dish on the menu, as well as oysters, caviar, a wonderful lobster-and-chanterelle salad and smooth-as-anything foie gras with fruit. There are not many surprises, but there are a few--goat's-milk yogurt sorbet, for example. The ingredients are seasonally trendy; now, at the end of the summer, the incumbent white corn is still present but must make room for squash moving in. Jardiniere is not disappointing; make reservations.

On the other hand we have Max's Opera Cafe. Unpretentious, taking its inspiration from the delis of New York, Max's offers massive portions and a hefty array of dishes, all well-executed, as well as singing servers, about which nothing more need be said. It's an upscale diner-type restaurant, with a pushy, homey personality that comes through despite the universality of the food and ambiance--the menu lists "Max's Laws," including "This restaurant is run for the enjoyment and pleasure of our customers, not the convenience of the staff or the owners," which seems to be true.

The food is on the heavy, caloric side (although the many-sectioned menu does include a low-fat section): steaks, pastas, delicious roast chicken, huge sandwiches and a large counter of enormous desserts. It's best to arrive with a large appetite, as the meat loaf odor rising from a bag of leftovers may offend your neighbor at the opera. Service is very efficient and cheerful. All in all, a satisfying experience.

Jardiniere, 300 Grove St., 415/861-5555, expensive.

Max's Opera Cafe, 601 Van Ness Ave., 415/771-7300, moderately priced.

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From the October 5-18, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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