Since the symphony strike of the mid-1990s, the west side of the Civic Center has seen more than its share of high-profile destination restaurants open their doors. From Jardinière (born 1997) to Essencia (2007), the tone of the restaurants in the neighborhood (whose epicenter is the corner of Gough and Hayes) has become considerably … tonier.
Much of the upscale-ishness doubtless has to do with the demolition of the Central Freeway viaduct and the reemergence of Hayes Valley as a nice place to live. A fresh bloom of boutique shops tends to confirm this. But east of Gough, the song remains largely the same: opera, symphony, ballet, with the occasional "in conversation with" at Herbst Auditorium thrown in. Yes, we are talking performances of one kind or another, and performance audiences often want something to eat in a civilized setting beforehand and aren’t always eager to cash out their 401(k)s or Google stock options to pay for it. Does the west Civic Center, with its new wealth of destination spots, have anything to offer these people? Ivy’s was the archetype of this sort of value restaurant, but it closed more than a decade ago.
On a recent weekend evening, mild and clear after weeks of stultifying rain, we slipped into Breezy’s at about 7:30 and found both large dining rooms full. A half hour later, as the clock struck eight, the restaurant was nearly empty; we were like the two forlorn members of a school of tasty fish who didn’t get the memo about the approaching great white shark. As curtains grandly rose in grand buildings on the other side of Gough, we made do with a chocolate tart.
Bawer Tekin and Dawn Wiggins opened Breezy’s last fall in a space long occupied by the Blue Muse, whose fanatical devotees will be relieved to know their restaurant has reappeared a block away, in a space that adjoins the performing-arts parking garage. The old space, meanwhile, looks little-changed and is still rather cavernous, with the front room still dominated by the big bar and the rear dining room faintly secret, like a cell in a medieval cloister. A creamy color scheme brings some warmth to this brutal roominess, and the iridescent tiles on the support pillars exert a certain hypnotic appeal, as Rubik’s Cube did a generation ago.
But forget about Breezy’s pleasantly unobtrusive décor and its friendly, efficient service, which holds up well even at the heart of the pre-performance rush. You’re there to eat, and the food is good. Quite good! Interesting without calling undue attention to itself, and reasonably priced in a fat-cat city where the word affordable often seems as if it’s been read right out of the language.
Chef Rodney Baca’s menu offers, according to the restaurant’s Web site, "the fresh tastes of the Mediterranean, with a swirl of Asian flair." Nicely put. The food, in other words, is that by-now familiar amalgam of CaliforniaNew American cuisine, with touches of local and sustainable, along with a few blatant violations of these tenets. I love stuffed tomatoes, and Baca’s version ($9) is excellent a baseball-size, reasonably ripe (for February) fruit, opened at the top like a Halloween pumpkin for a lively filling of prosciutto, cheese, and basil but … a tomato in February? With basil? Everything is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds, Voltaire wrote in Candide, except (and I choose to believe this is implicit in the Voltairean text) winter tomatoes.
An arugula and watercress salad ($6) is a little more like it. The greens reached the table still practically glistening with rain, and instead of walnuts (those usual suspects), Baca used spicy peanuts to add crunch while making, possibly, a sly Super Bowl reference. Aged bleu cheese is a standard player in these salads and did appear in this one, but the vinaigrette acquired a refreshing sheen from pomegranate juice.
The kitchen also handles pasta beautifully, and this is an important consideration for performance-bound people, who will be more comfortable sitting there for an hour or three if they’ve eaten something a little lighter than a 20-ounce steak. You can get some steak with your pasta if you like; linguine alla carbonara ($14), with a classic sauce of pancetta cream and green peas, also includes meatballs of rib eye and Asiago cheese just enough meat to register. And macaroni and cheese ($6, for a serving big enough to be a small main dish), is infused with truffle oil, scattered with crisped bits of chorizo, and plated with mixed micro greens, for a full-spectrum effect.
The chocolate tart ($7) we were so contentedly eating when the room cleared, as if in response to an air-raid siren, did suffer from a tough crust. Our server had mentioned this to us beforehand. But it was flavorful tough crust, we had good knives, and the ganache inside was intense and at the very precipice of not being sweet. Embedded on the surface of the ganache like bits of buckshot were blueberries, while napped around the edge was a wild berry marmalade and a dusting of pulverized pistachio.
At weekday lunchtime (the other busy period for restaurants in this area) Breezy’s is nicely accessible. Its large carrying capacity must help. Choices tend toward the conventional Cobb salad ($9), say, or seared ahi tuna ($11) on a focaccia bun and as at dinner, toward lightness too. Lightness, freshness, the pleasant startlement of a fresh breeze in the face: the name Breezy’s made not much sense to me before I went there and ate the food, but then I did and now it does. *
Lunch: Mon.Sat., 11:30 a.m.2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Mon.Thurs. and Sun., 510 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 511 p.m.
409 Gough, SF