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By   /   December 9, 2011  /   No Comments

Shopping can be so exhausting. A place like Claudine is just what a harried holiday soul needs for respite.

If you haven’t been downtown recently, you’ll be amazed at all the action in Claude Alley, which intersects Bush Street a few yards west of Kearny.  The classic, French, Cafe Claude now has a large outside dining area right on the sidewalk; Gitane, deeper into the alley, holds court at night at a dramatic bar with dining in a lair upstairs; and now Claudine has arrived, a small, second floor cafe and wine bar, right on the corner. Claudine shares a chef with Gitane, Bridget Batson, whose cooking is personal and innovative.

The best part of Claudine is an intimate U-shaped, 14 seat bar with low stools in a windowed, light-filled aerie that affords views down to the busy sidewalk.  This is just the place to sip a glass of California wine on tap and have a bite when the need hits, from lunch through late dinner.

My favorite dishes are the salads–simple, pure, colorful and perfectly dressed.  Fat wedges of peeled persimmon and torn radicchio ($7/11) glisten on a plate smeared with creamy fromage blanc. A sherry vinaigrette underscores the delicate sweetness of the fruit. Toasted walnuts add meatiness. The orange and purple color scheme suggest a party dress.

I’m equally enamored of a tangly pile of frisee and endive ($7/11), scattered with pomegranate seeds which look like jewels, and toasty brown croutons, all tossed in Meyer lemon vinaigrette.

One day I had a luscious bowl of fresh noodles in a buttery leek fondue, its flavor deepened with miso, all topped with a poached  Eatwell farm egg that melted into the pasta ($9/16).   A rectangle of lamb belly, seasoned with cumin, is slow roasted until the top turns crusty and the flesh fork- tender. It is placed on a swatch of purple beet puree. Batson never shies away from a chance to put fat on fat, in this case a buttery pan sauce brightened with oranges and caramelized fennel.

Someone in the galley at the back is radically undercooking some of the food.  Duck crepinettes ($8/13), on one visit, were almost cold inside, with a pasty texture. On another visit, the flank steak in a sandwich on focaccia with caramelized onions, capers and arugula ($12) was raw, the bread smeared with too much mustard. Execution needs to be tighter, especially on preparations that are meant to push the edges.

Desserts ($6) are worth dropping in for, along with a good espresso. S’mores come in a glass custard cup wrapped in paper to protect the eager eater.  With a crusty, molten, marshmallow top and thick, sludgy melted chocolate on a graham cracker crust, the Claudine s’more trumps any campfire version in spades. On the lighter side, a glass jar of ethereal pumpkin mousse, scented with sweet spices, topped with a pouf of soft whipped cream, comes with a side of gingersnap crumbs. I poured mine right on top.

This peripatetic menu, which offers many dishes in two sizes, is meant to be versatile.  I can see Claudine becoming a true neighborhood hang, with a lunch crowd, an afternoon crowd, an after work crowd and a dinner crowd, all eating, drinking and happily chatting away at the bar.

Claudine, 8 Claude Lane (at Bush) San Francisco
Contact:  415 362-1988; www.myclaudine.com
Hours:  Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Price range:  $7 to $16
Recommended dishes: fuyu persimmon salad; frisee and endive salad; noodles with an egg; slo roasted lamb belly; pumpkin mousse
Credit cards: all major
Reservations: not accepted; walk-ins only

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