AQUITAINE, Financial District (175 Sutter St. between Lick Place & Kearny St., 415-402-5290)
We lost San Francisco’s great, historic spirits shop, John Walker & Co. But the former storefront has been reinvented in what could have been just another wine bar. One-month-old newcomer, Aquitaine, is a stand-out wine bar and restaurant, transporting me straight to Europe. Opened by Michelin-starred chef extraordinaire, Laurent Manrique (whose cooking I relished during his days at legendary Aqua), the space is comfortably funky, eclectic, warmed by yellows, woods, and unique light fixtures glowing off a pressed tin ceiling.
Aquitaine serves an impressive wine list of uncommon varietals from Gascony, France’s southwest corner where Manrique hails from. Here I’ve sipped less familiar varietals like dry, white 2011 Bru-Bache Gros Manseng ($12), a stunningly earthy, crisp varietal with a mushroom-y nose. Though the wine list veers French, another acidic beauty is a 2012 Apaltagua Carmenere Rose from Colchagua Valley, Chile, while I’m crazy about a wine from one of my favorite Napa producers of the past few years, Forlorn Hope. 2007 Forlorn Hope Cadets Petit Verdot ($18) is a Gascon-style red made from 100% Petit Verdot grown in Suisun Valley near Sacramento.
Expecting basic (read: unexciting) charcuterie and cheese/wine bar fare, I should have known better with Manrique involved. The food made quite a statement from Executive Chef Patrick Colson. Grignoter (bites) are available all day, while larger plates and appetizers are available after 5:30pm.
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Similar to Dutch wooden shoes, here wood Gascony peasant shoes are lined with paper, acting as serving receptacles for smoked duck popcorn ($5) laced with decadent hunks of duck meat, or tender, herb-redolent calamari: calamars persillades ($13). Both are menu highlights, beautiful with a glass of wine.
As satisfying as Italian polenta or Southern grits, Escouton Landais ($16) is the Gascon version: fine-milled corn flour, rich and creamy with Pyrenees cheese, topped with rosemary and cherry tomatoes. Magret of duck ($28 for two) is an arresting presentation. Roasted on the bone, the duck’s neck elegantly drapes over the plate, graced in savory shallot marmalade. The plate rests dramatically on a bed of twigs piled atop a Gascon rooftop tile. Attention to detail is impressive.
Just as touches from the entire Aquitaine region appear (Pyrenees mountains to Gascony), so is Aquitaine’s famed wine region, Bordeaux, acknowledged, particularly in dessert.
Traditional Bordeaux canneles are doused in Armagnac Pruneaux creme ($9), while fresh, dark berries float in a Bordeaux wine/vanilla syrup ($7). Though meringue or custard-like desserts don’t typically call to me, my top dessert choice here is Iles Flottantes ($7), essentially a floating island (the definition of iles flottantes) of soft, poached meringue (traditionally made from egg whites, sugar, vanilla extract) in a pool of warm crème anglaise. It’s light yet simultaneously decadent.
Head down to comfy couches in Aquitaine’s glowing basement with a glass of sweet Floc de Gascogne to finish. As with my favorite European cafes and worldwide haunts, this space invites lingering over stimulating conversation with a close friend or lover.