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Restaurant Review: Rubicon, San Francisco

I’ll just get it right out of the way and say that Rubicon is, and has been for years, quite possibly my favorite restaurant in San Francisco ” I ate there when it first opened in 1994 and have been back many times since. However, for all the dining out that Ruth and I do, we’ve never been since we have been together. So when we decided to take a close friend of hers from out of town to a nice dinner, I called up last week and got us a table. Rubicon offers a polished and consistent dining experience that is much more intimate than the larger restaurants like Jardiniere and Aqua that compete in offering haute-California cuisine to business and epicurean diners in San Francisco.

Rubicon is tucked under the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid in the Financial District, and its unassuming brick front opens to a compact low slung bar, and a gorgeous dining room that is capped with a not-to-be-missed hand blown glass masterpiece of twisting and curving fantasy flowers and vases of every shape and color. Nearly everyone notices the sculpture for the same reason that they notice other details of the restaurant like the grain of the dark wood that lines the booths against the wall or the rich wooden tones of the floor: this restaurant is impeccably lit. From the subtly glowing green alabaster squares that are embedded in the wall above the booth tables to the combination of pinpoint halogens and small dim glowing iron lanterns that cap some wooden posts, the light directs attention where it needs to, and creates atmosphere everywhere else.

If the interior is well designed, the wine list is even more so. I normally like to talk about the food before I discuss the wine, but the library that has been built by sommelier Larry Stone is beyond words, and hands-down one of the best that I have ever seen. It is impressive not only for its depth and breadth, but also for its attention to, and value of, small production wines and hard to find gems. Nor is this substantial list structured to be inaccessible except to those with deep pocketbooks. One of my favorite features is its pages like “40 great red wines under $45.” Because of Mr. Stone’s strong commitment to offering wines across a spectrum of values year after year, Rubicon is one of the few places in the world that I know I can find reasonably priced wines from fantastic California vintages like 1994 instead of just the few wines like the Opus One’s and Dominus’ that people tend to keep around from good years.

Even without the wine list, though, this restaurant would be one of my favorites in the city. I think it is poised perfectly along the curve of culinary artistry, not tipping too far towards ostentation, and not playing it safe with old standards. What comes out of the kitchen is inventive in its combination of flavors and the service and presentation of the food are classy but not overdone. Let’s take for example my appetizer the other night ” described on the menu as hot and cold foie gras. What came out was a simple plate scribed with a drizzle of balsamic reduction over which lay three simple shapes, a small pile of roasted salsify with a chunk of seared foie on it, a rectangle of foie terrine, a sprig of watercress, and a small round ravioli made from pear instead of pasta, and stuffed with duck confit. Beautiful, creative, excellently flavored, and delightful in its new treatment of traditional flavors.

The rest of the recent dinner followed suit and did not disappoint. We were started with a small amuse bouche of house cured salmon, diced and daintily piled on small rounds of English cucumber with a touch of olive oil. Ruth and I both ordered an aromatic herb crusted lamb loin (star anise, cardamom, clove, sage) to follow ours appetizers. It came with a whole grain mustard rubbed artichoke and a small dab of fennel puree, all of which sat nearly on a bed of cubed roasted potatoes mixed with green olives. I loved the combination of the green olives and the potatoes mixed with the lamb jus. Our dining partner, Karine, had smoked duck with glazed foie gras, Maitake mushrooms, bok choy, curried lentils, fenugreek.

The desserts were stunning, as usual, with excellent combinations of flavors and textures. I had lavender ice cream over an earl grey honey cake with strawberry rhubarb sauce, flecked with flower petals. Ruth opted for a bittersweet chocolate roasted banana cake with lime sherbet and spiced cashews which she said was really amazing (I’m not a fan of banana flavored desserts).

Ruth’s favorite California-French restaurant in the city is Jardiniere, and so it was a natural point of comparison for this dinner. In her opinion, the presentation of the food is better at Rubicon and the desserts are much better, but the service and the overall quality of the meal are better at Jardiniere. I had to agree (on this particular) evening, that the service was a little off, but that hasn’t been my experience in the past. Ruth also wants me to mention that Rubicon’s portions are a little smaller. I’d have to agree.

Despite a bumbling waiter this week, and even acknowledging some of Ruth’s criticism’s I still love the place. After 10 years this restaurant still continues to impress me, and that’s quite a feat.

How Much?: About $90 per person with a reasonable choice in wine, or corkage ($20).

558 Sacramento Street
San Francisco, CA 94111

Reservations recommended. The restaurant also has a private dining room for larger parties or special occasions. Street parking is reasonable later in the evening and on the weekends, but during the work week it can be rough.

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