Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dish on Dining: Bar Jules

Neighborhood Café Draws in Hayes Valley
609 Hayes St., San Francisco
Hayes Valley
PH: 451.621.5482
Lunch, 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m., Wed.–Sat.; dinner, 6–10 p.m., Tues.–Sat.; brunch, 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays.
Major credit cards accepted, no reservations

Dining early is the key to visiting Bar Jules, the popular tiny restaurant on the edge of Hayes Valley. Opened since December 2007, the café has created quite a buzz about its daily changing menu and fresh, sustainable faire. And since it takes no reservations, you can expect a long wait if you arrive anytime after 7 p.m.

That’s why my food blogging friend Foodhoe and I was at the restaurant a few minutes after it opened at 6 p.m. We were there maybe 5 minutes after the doors opened and already two couples had beaten us. Still, we had our pick of the tiny two-seater tables along the wall and near the window. (The space has a total of 38 seats, including a few at the bar that looks onto the open kitchen.)

Bar Jules’ chef/owner Jessica Boncutter has worked at the nearby Zuni Café, so it’s no surprise that her menu reflects the fresh, seasonal, simple cooking of Judy Rodgers. But Boncutter has made Bar Jules a real chef’s restaurant because the menu is limited to only a few selections, which makes it almost like a daily tasting menu or an eat-what-we-cook approach ala Ad Hoc in Napa Valley or Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

So you need to go with an open mind and an adventurous appetite. If you’re nervous about what will be on the menu, you can get a sneak peek on the restaurant’s Web site after 11 a.m. every day; they’re very good about updating it.

On the night we were there, eight dishes were listed on the menu, which is written on large chalkboards on the café’s walls. There were a soup (chickpea), a salad (butter lettuce with heirloom tomatoes), what looked like three appetizers or starters, and three entrees.

The menu definitely reflects the seasonal ingredients as well as a couple of unusual items (our night’s menu included a beef tongue sandwich). There’s also a vegetarian option that you can request from your waiter.

Foodhoe and I started with the Preserved Yellowfin Tuna ($12) and plate of La Quercia Prosciutto with figs and melons ($14).

I’d never heard of preserved tuna and love yellowfin tuna from eating at sushi restaurants, so I had in my mind a sashimi-like yellowfin maybe a bit tougher due to pickling for the preserved angle. Instead, it came out looking like cooked tuna on a Mediterranean-style salad. Foodhoe actually said it looked like premium tuna from a can.

Don’t get me wrong, it tasted much better than tuna from a can, but still the texture was quite like canned tuna. The bed of greens under it was crunchy and I liked the added cooked eggs for even more protein, but it was one of those dishes that sounded better when you ordered it than when it arrived.

The prosciutto plate was a classic presentation of thin prosciutto strips with chunks of fresh cantaloupe and sliced figs, topped with a sprinkling of sea salt and olive oil. It was fresh and seasonal, but nothing to travel across the bay just to try.

For our entrees, Foodhoe got the Wood-grilled Sock-eye Salmon with Corn, Black-eyed Peas and Watercress ($26). It was a cleanly presented plate of richly colored salmon on top of a plate of corn and peas with a small watercress salad on the side dressed in a simple vinaigrette. The salmon was nice and flaky while the corn reflected the sweetness of summer. Again, all the flavors were clean and crisp but nothing illuminating.

I went with the Berkshire Pork Stew with Potatoes and Cucumber-radish salsa ($24). The pork was tender and flavorful, and Foodhoe helped me out by eating most of the parts with the fatty edges. I especially liked the cucumber salsa, which added a nice brightness to a generally heavy dish.

The meal was filling and our server was very knowledgeable and helpful in making wine recommendations (the wine list is also handwritten on a chalkboard near the bar). There were three items for dessert, but nothing really thrilled me—yogurt, chocolate or polenta cakes.

But Foodhoe couldn’t resist the chocolate cake, which was listed as River Café Chocolate Nemesis ($7) on the menu. Our waiter told us that it was a no-flour chocolate cake.

When it arrived, it looked like any no-flour chocolate cake with a dollop of whipped cream on top. I tasted a couple of bites and it tasted like a brownie, although not as sweet or dense.

Half-way through our dinner, the place completely filled up with what looked like a lot of nearby residents. A couple even braved the cold San Francisco foggy night to sit outside rather than wait. In some of the reviews I’ve read on the Web, several people mentioned that the service can be a bit delayed between the starters and the entrees, but Foodhoe and I didn’t notice much of a wait between courses. Then again, it may be because we were eating during the early bird hours.

I used to live in Hayes Valley and if I still did, I probably would visit the cozy and charming Bar Jules once or twice a month. But the food, while solid, doesn’t inspire me to travel far to try its dishes. It definitely is a refined neighborhood café that’s perfect for the locale but far from a destination restaurant.

Read Foodhoe's take on dinner and see her beautiful photos here.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (Clean flavors in a small package)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Bar Jules on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

LOL, foodhoe ate all the fatty pork pieces... no wonder I couldn't finish my salmon!!! I enjoyed that meal very much, although the best part was the actual exploration of Hayes Valley, which I haven't been to in quite a while. Love that last shot too btw!

Anonymous said...

You let foodhoe eat all the fat off the Berkshire pork? But that's the best part!! What a sacrifice you make, Single Guy. ;)