After a lifetime mastering the art of Viennese and Eastern European pastry, Michelle Polzine, the talented, whimsical former pastry chef at Range and many other delectable places, has just opened her own charming little cafe in Hayes Valley, across the street from Rich Table. She raised the money to build it through a Kickstarter campaign, fueled by a clever silent movie made by and starring Polzine that became a runaway hit on YouTube. The only problem is that all the great national and local press about her project came out before she could open the doors. Securing final inspections caused big delays–so typical in San Francisco.
But 20th Century Cafe is now a star in the making. A striped awning over two big front windows marks the spot on a corner of Gough and Oak streets. A marble counter, in front of an open kitchen where a handful of savory dishes are cooked, is laid with fresh pastries. Customers order at the counter, find a marble table, a bentwood chair, or a place on the luxurious velvet banquette and wait for their food to be brought to them.
When it comes to Polzine’s pastries, I am her devoted fan, an infatuation that started at Range. Now, at 20th Century Cafe, I don’t have to wait for the end of the meal. Take, for example, her Russian Honey Cake, aka Krasinski Tortchen ($6). It has many ethereal layers of honey-scented sponge cake separated, as she calls it, by honeyed creamy deliciousness that also covers the tops and sides. A tall slice practically levitates off the plate, yet has substantial and intriguing flavor. One of the loveliest pastries I have ever tasted, it was named for State Bird Provisions chef/partner Nicole Krasinski, no slouch of a pastry chef herself, in return for a Kickstarter donation. Polzine, however, will not reveal its secrets even to her.
Equally divine is Polzine’s Summer Grand Nectarine Tart ($6), the thinnest, flakiest, most buttery crust imaginable neatly covered with juicy, glazed baked nectarine slices. It’s simply one of the best fruit tarts on the planet, as seductive as the ones at Chez Panisse.
Polzine also makes three different flavored ice creams ($3/scoop). Vanilla belongs on your tart, if you so please. Otherwise, they come in small, etched glass bowls with pedestals that somehow make them taste even better. Her chicory ice cream expresses the true flavor of coffee that I am forever seeking. Bright green peach leaf ice cream somehow suggests pistachio, but not really. They are both wonderful, especially with their light, creamy texture.
With morning coffee or cappuccino made on a copper espresso machine, you can have an individual damson plum coffee cake with a crunchy streusel topping and tart plum purée hidden inside ($3.25); or go savory with a small chewy house-made bagel infused with the flavor of the poppy seeds stuck to the top ($2.50), smeared with cream cheese and chives and layered with smoked salmon ($10).
Actually, Polzine’s savory lunch dishes are so delightful you may want to have some, but never at the expense of dessert. If I were to choose one savory dish, it would be her hen-of-the-wood mushroom quiche with beet salad ($10), because it showcases that ethereal buttery tart crust only she knows how to make. The filling is delicate and mushroom infused. It’s the most exquisite quiche I’ve ever tasted.
Also extraordinary and completely satisfying is a grilled kale, Hungarian pepper relish, and sheep’s milk feta sandwich on thin buttery slices of rye ($10). It hits all the right notes. A delicious salad of little gem lettuces with avocado, Sungold tomatoes, and cucumber is dressed with a creamy green vinaigrette ($8.50). Another good pre-dessert choice on a cold San Francisco summer day is a demure bowl of fresh butter bean soup ($8), a local delicacy, that becomes a meal with its side of thin toasts slathered with smoked eggplant purée.
I’d hurry to 20th Century Cafe right now, before the hoards discover it.
198 Gough Street (at Oak); Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; 20thcenturycafe.com