For our final dinner in San Francisco, Tawn and I returned to Cafe Jacqueline, a charming restaurant in North Beach that specializes in soufflés, both savory and sweet. We first went here a dozen years ago and the place remains as charming as ever.
The restaurant is not very large – a dozen tables, perhaps – and reservations are strongly encouraged. Reviews on yelp.com and other sites sometimes complain that the staff is rude to walk-in customers, but I think that perception is understandable when you consider that their style of restaurant is very different from the average well-reviewed restaurant. They serve only one thing (soufflés) made by one person (Jacqueline) and so the pace of service is very leisurely. People – especially foreign tourists toting their guide books – arrive without reservations and confrontations ensue when their expectations differ from reality. Because of this, the wait staff interrogate walk-in customers in a brusque manner: “Do you know what kind of restaurant this is?”
If you have reservations – or if you are a walk-in and pass the interrogation – you are treated with old world courtesy by friendly, professional waiters who have worked at the cafe for years. It is an old-fashioned kind of place, in the best meaning of that term.
This is a restaurant made for romance. Next to several tables are small plaques commemorating special occasions that happened there. Our table had two such plaques: “George & Laura Vidalia – First Date… Married…” and the more interesting “Dav and Kate – Handshake of Monogamy, MLK Day 1997 – Proposal, MLK Day 2001”.
There is a small selection of soups, salads, and appetizers, all of which are very French. Escargots, onion soup, caviar, and our choice: a spinach and bacon salad.
It took some forty minutes for our savory soufflé to arrive, but this was totally expected and we kept ourselves occupied with an amazing bottle of old vine Zinfandel from Lodi, California. We had the prosciutto and cheese soufflé, which was a thing of beauty.
So that you don’t muss it up, the waiter serves the first portion for you.
Truly, the soufflé is a dish whose tremendous beauty is dashed just as soon as you cut into it. But despite its deflated appearance, the taste is tremendous and the textural contrasts energizing: rich and light, salty and eggy, crispy and smooth – all at the same time.
For dessert, we took advantage of the season and enjoyed a fresh strawberry soufflé. This, of course, was another forty minute wait or so, but that meant that by the time it arrived, we actually had some room in our bellies to enjoy it. I’d say that this soufflé was ever so slightly undercooked, but to such a minor degree that it remained very enjoyable.
Cafe Jacqueline is one of those restaurants that is a must-visit and very appropriate for a special occasion. I hope we’ll make a return visit sooner than another dozen years from now, for I fear that once Mme Jacqueline reaches a certain age, she will decide to retire. As the cafe is a one-woman show, her retirement would likely mean the end of an era, and that would be a truly sad thing.