If Veronica Lake, Hedy Lamarr, and Ingrid Bergman were the women on today’s movie posters, they might also be seen celebrating their successes with dirty martinis and steak tartare at Bix. Close to the noise and clubs of North Beach and the crowded streets of Chinatown yet as far away as if it were from a different era, this hidden gem of a restaurant on tiny Gold Street, between Montgomery and Sansome, is as classy as they come. The street consists of one glorious block in the middle of Jackson Square, the oldest commercial area in San Francisco, whose buildings are among the few that have survived two earthquakes and a fire. Gold Street is aptly named as it is where miners used to bring their gold to be weighed and stamped -- the building housing Bix is actually the old Assay office.
Unless you knew better, you might never wander down this alley in search of culinary adventure. You’d have to be on the lookout to notice the lone neon sign assuring you that you have arrived. The feeling that the alley itself is small and cramped enhances the illusion that one has walked into something from Alice in Wonderland, because through the seemingly small door lies a vast and glamorous interior. It is easy to imagine Bix as once having been a financial institution. The grand two-story-high ceiling and intricate crown moldings are a give-away, yet the room itself is far from being institutionally minimal. It closely resembles the main dining room of a fabulous luxury liner from the 30’s. The dizzying staircase leading up to the more intimate booths on the second floor and sweeping mahogany bar whisper a promise of good times, and the nightly live jazz creates a feeling that is both relaxing and sexy.
We begin our meal with the Steak Tartare, the Smoked Trout Salad, and hearts pounding with excitement. If you are a fan this style of dish, the tartare is not to be missed. It comes wheeled in on a cart and is prepared tableside. The preparation consists of a white-clad server ceremoniously mixing together the shallots, capers, parsley and mustard with a tantalizing mound of the freshest ground beef, topped by a raw egg. The dish is finished off with a spritz of cognac from a tiny silver bottle. It’s a pleasure to watch this show while sipping a frosty glass of Veuve Clicot champagne. The tartare comes with an abundance of crispy Black Olive Toasts and is a wonderful start to any meal.
While the tartare is altogether scrumptious, the Smoked Trout Salad with Broccoli di Ciccio, Fingerling Potatoes, Crème Fraiche and House Made Caviar is a harmonious symphony of textures and tastes. The trout is gently smoked resulting in a deep and mysterious flavor. Its soft texture is a pleasant contrast to the sturdy crunch of the spicy broccoli, while the tender potatoes with a ribbon of tangy crème fraiche create a bridge between the two. The fish is topped with bits of crunchy fried potatoes, providing yet another texture and flavor and making for a very satisfying dish that engages the whole palate. In addition to being delectable it is lovely to look at. The salad comes on a simple rectangular plate and is artfully arranged to have splashes of green visible beneath mounds of yellow and soft pink. The composition is dotted with tiny orange orbs of salmon caviar and laced with creamy white crème fraiche.
Although we generally have no trouble deciding what to order, the entirely tempting Bix menu makes it a more difficult than usual task. But after some debating we decide that we cannot pass up our favorites: the Fresh Maine Lobster Spaghetti with Lobster Cream and the American Kobe Bavette Steak with Pommes Puree, Roasted Cipollini Onions and Natural Jus. Yes, they are both as good as they sound. The spaghetti comes with generous bits of the sweetest, most tender Lobster, while the sublimely al dente noodles luxuriate in a sauce of pearlescent cream. The richness of the dish is cut by the sweet tang of cherry tomatoes and a hint of spice from bits of jalapenos, which have been cooked until they give up most of their biting fire. It’s just like a plate of comfort food with a wardrobe makeover by Prada.
The Kobe Steak is also very simple, but utterly delicious. The meat comes rare and buttery with a glistening mound of whipped potatoes and little caramelized rounds of sweet Cipollini onions. This delicate Italian varietal of onion is one I always look for at the market because I love its sweetness, but somehow never manage to find. The dish is really very simple, but it would not work if each component on the plate were not just right. The savory, dense flavor of the meat harmonizes with the airy lightness of the whipped potatoes and is given just a little extra kick by the sweetness of the small onions. Again, it is comfort food dressed up to the nines.
Although our dinner was very rich, it is a cold and rainy night and we can’t leave Bix without ordering dessert. Bananas Foster is a house specialty and I would readily recommend it, but upon the whispered suggestion of our server, we decide to try the Coffee Toffee Profiteroles with Dark Chocolate Dipping Sauce instead. To accompany this indulgence we order a glass of Scotch that has the voice of a cigarette-loving lounge singer. It shines with the dark and almost unsweetened chocolate sauce. The dessert is lovely, because it was not overly sweet. The invigorating coffee ice cream, sandwiched between an airy profiterole, is made more interesting by the crunch of toffee and is delicious when dipped in a glass bowl of the sauce. As an added bonus, eating dessert with our fingers without overstepping the bounds of etiquette made for a sexy end to a sexy evening.
Bix is a glamorous experience on any night. It calls for the opulence of black and white attire, red lipstick, stilettos, and crisply ironed shirts. It is a place to take one’s time and indulge. The staff is serious, polished and precise, capable of intuiting a guest’s mood. They can make you feel like an old regular in for your weekly dinner, like a dignitary out on a special occasion, or like anyone else you desire to be that night. The atmosphere is the ultimate chameleon and can accommodate both the floridly romantic and business-oriented evening. Whatever background it creates for your evening, you can rest assured that you will leave happy. Above all else, Bix is consistent. The word “trend” has never gotten past its doors and I can safely bet it never will. This restaurant is a true classic; one that I hope will never go out of style.