Jardiniére has been in my list of restaurants to try for quite some time. Its chef-owner Traci de Jardins often appears in the culinary press and the restaurant was supposed to be one of the best in the city. So when I decided on a Thursday (July 2004) that I wanted to take Mike out for a nice dinner the next day, I was glad to see that I could get reservations there. That in itself was not surprising, as Jardiniére mostly attracts a symphony-going clientele and becomes relatively empty by 8pm.
We were seated on the first floor so we didn't have the opportunity to admire all of Pat Kuleto's renowned restaurant design. I didn't really like the first floor, though. It was striking with its large rounded bar in the middle, open to the upstairs, but I didn't feel very comfortable eating there. Though our table was against a wall, while the symphony crowd was still there I felt we were in the way of all the waiters making their way through, and after they left, there was a sepulchral feeling to the place. The downstairs was still half-full, but there was a clear after-the-show atmosphere, probably made worse by the distracted attitude of the waiters. It was like they had mentally gone to sleep after the exertions of the pre-symphony dinner rush.
This is not to say that the waiters were not friendly, but they seemed to be on automatic-pilot and kept getting things wrong. We were served warm rolls with butter soon after we sat down, but our bread plates were then left empty until we were done with the second course - I would have loved to have gotten some extra bread to eat with my duck flan, but there was nobody around to ask for some. We had the same problem trying to find someone to bring Mike a knife for his salmon. Its seared skin was too tough to cut with a fork, I finally gave him mine and used a fork to spread the flan on the bread. We also had to wait until after the second course for the waitress to brush the crumbs out of our table, she did it once again, right before dessert. Even more annoyingly, the waiters didn't seem to really know the menu (either that or they were too tired to remember it), every time they brought a dish from the tasting menu they kept mumbling and stuttering through the ingredients.
The dishes also came at weird times, though this may have been the fault of the kitchen. We didn't expect synchronicity between the dishes, as Mike had ordered the six-course chef's tasting menu and I had only ordered three courses, but we figured some of the courses could come at the same time. Instead, they kept alternating between his and mine (he got his first course, finished, I got mine, in the middle of it he got his second, both of us finished, he got his third, he finished, I got my complimentary course), only our main course and dessert were served at the same time. The arrival of the complimentary course was also weird - when I didn't get anything before the duck flan I ordered I figured they were no longer doing the amuse buche I'd read about, so when I got some scallops right before my entree I was quite surprised. I guess it makes gastronomic sense to have a seafood dish after a flan, but it would have made much more sense if they'd brought me the flan when Mike was having his tuna and the scallops when he was having his salmon. As it was, the whole dinner felt unbalanced.
None of this would have mattered much if the food at Jardiniere had been great; unfortunately it wasn't. It was good, even very good, but uninspired. There were no dishes that evening that we hadn't encountered before, the food satisfied us but did not thrill us.
As I mentioned, Mike had the six-course chef menu ($75). It started with a piece of Ahi tuna seared on one side. Mike really liked the contrast in taste and texture between the cooked and the raw sides. He also liked the accompanying sauce. His second course, a piece of salmon, was less successful. He felt it was undercooked and didn't think much of the accompanying sauce. His third course, squab legs in an Asian-inspired sauce served with bok choi, was nice but its flavors were too familiar; we've felt we'd had similar dishes too many times at too many restaurants. The same could be said of the perfectly cooked rare lamb chop which followed. It was really nice, but ultimately it was just a lambchop. The cheese course that followed was a joke. All evening we'd been teased by the sight of large cheese rounds through an open window, and remembering the excellent cheese course we'd had at Gary Danko, we were expecting something nice. Instead, he got one tiny sliver of smoked gouda. The cheese was good, but merely a bite worth.
My dishes were also good, though again, not outstanding. The duck liver mousse was very light and fluffy ($13) and it reminded me very much of the duck liver flan served at Bay Wolf. The grilled garlic bread was good in itself, but tasted so strongly that it overwhelmed the mousse. I would have liked to try some with simple bread, but alas, we were out of it by then.
The complimentary dish of seared scallops was also good. I hadn't had scallops before, but I liked the fishy texture. The sliver of tomato confit it came with as really nice, though. Mike, who has had scallops quite often, liked the dish but wasn't overwhelmed by it.
We both really liked the Red Wine Braised Shortribs with Horseradish Potato Purée ($26) that I had as a main dish. The short ribs were very tender and the red wine sauce was deep without being bitter and truly delicious. The horseradish mashed potatoes were good, though ultimately they overwhelmed the sauce. Still, we both really enjoyed this dish and would certainly order it again.
The desserts - or rather, the ice creams accompanying them - were probably the most creative part of the meal. Mike had a sweet corn cake with berries and a side of sour cream ice cream. The cake was smooth, rather than gritty, but otherwise reminded me of a dessert I'd had at Charles Nob Hill years ago. In any case, I really enjoyed it. The sour cream ice cream tasted like lemon cheesecake, and it was quite good as well. I had the bittersweet chocolate mousse cake ($9) which was quite nice; it had an intense, rich, gooey chocolate taste. The cake was quite small - maybe three bites worth - so the chocolate didn't have an opportunity to overwhelm you. It was served with a very nice crispy (almond?) cookie, and some type of weird ice cream. I couldn't tell what the flavor was (and didn't notice when I ordered it), but it wasn't enjoyable at all. It had a strange margarine aftertaste.
Mike had a glass of the 1999 Bordeaux (Chateau de Lescours "SaintEmilion ~ Grand Cru" - $15). It had a nice, tannic start and no finish at all. You tasted it, were teased by it and suddenly there was nothing there. It felt very hollow.
In all, I'd say we had a nice dinner but not one worth $175 (after tax and tip). The price and experience was more what you would expect of a restaurant costing two-thirds as much. This said, I can see Jardiniére being a good choice of a place to eat before going to the symphony - it's right across the street from it - but as a non-symphony goer I doubt I'll go to Jardiniére again.
300 Grove St.
San Francisco, Ca