Should you be browsing the stylish watches at nearby Shinola, you need to follow it up by taking a seat at Verjus.
Basically, if you’re anywhere in San Francisco’s Jackson Square — or even farther afoot — you need to make a beeline to this natty new wine bar by Lindsay and Michael Tusk of acclaimed Quince and Cotogna restaurants.
If you know the couple’s two other San Francisco establishments, you know they don’t do anything halfway. Verjus, which opened in January just a short stroll from Quince and Cotogna, takes the concept of a wine bar and improves on it royally with one of the largest collections of natural wines offered in the Bay Area, along with a menu of classic European bistro-type food done impeccably well. Yet the vibe is as laid-back as you’d want. There’s a hidden refinement to everything that bolsters the experience without ever turning it stuffy or pretentious.
I had a chance to see for myself, when I was invited in as a guest of the establishment recently.
Housed in a historic 1850s building, the handsome space is done up with floors inlaid with Spanish tiles and a lacquered burgundy ceiling that’s so reflective it gives the interior the illusion of being twice as lofty as it really is. Indeed, it’ll probably take you a few moments — especially in the evening — to realize that the top windows and shelves that appear to be at the uppermost edge of the walls are actually the mirror reflection of the windows and shelves below. The slight-of-hand trick gives the whole space greater volume and airiness.
Unlike Cotogna and Quince, Verjus is not full-service. In fact, patrons need only wander up to one of the bars to place an order for food and drink. But once they find a table to sit at — or a counter to stand at — a server will come by to take additional orders. Old-time-y napkin dispensers on the counters and tables hold paper ones you help yourself-to when needed.
The space is divided into two connecting spaces. The first one, which you enter into through the front door, is the retail area where bottles of wines and imported tinned seafood can be purchased to take home, along with culinary gadgets that the Tusks have discovered through their jaunts through Europe.
If you care to choose a bottle of wine from the shelf to enjoy on the premises, it will cost you only an additional $20 over the price of the bottle.
The second room is where you’ll find the open kitchen, plus more tables and counters to linger at. The menu is spelled out on a fun, lighted movie marquee sign above the kitchen.
This is the place to try some interesting wines, as curated by Matt Cirne, the restaurant’s wine director and managing partners. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m no expert on natural wines — made with hand-harvested grapes and naturally fermented with indigenous yeasts — but I definitely found that the wines I tried here had a real sense of aliveness to them.
The 2016 Hidalgo 30 Cuadrado from Andalucia ($12 per glass) was especially memorable. It’s essentially an unfortified sherry. Deeply golden in color, it is incredibly nutty-almond tasting with a long finish minus the boozy throat-punch.
Because my husband and I were seated at the bar by the kitchen, we couldn’t help but order the pate en croute ($18), since the beautiful pastry-clad pate was on display right in front of us. Two slices, ever so long and slender, are presented on a black board along with baguette slices. If ever a dish could transport you back to Paris, this is it. The pork filling made with pistachios was so smooth underneath that wrapping of golden, flaky pastry.
A plate of olive oil-drenched anchovies ($8) were made for piling atop bread along with a glistening slick of salsa rossa and salsa verde.
Verjus carries a wide variety of premium tinned seafood from Spain and Portugal. We had tinned mackerel with spices from Lisbon presented in its can. Meaty and oily-rich like bonito, the mackerel was not fishy in the least but quite luxurious tasting.
Verjus makes its own charcuterie and sausages. The plump, juicy Manchego sausage ($14) is so named because when you cut into it, melty Manchego cheese will ooze out. It’s delicious, served with a crock of mustard from Burgundy, and sauerkraut.
Escargots ($18) do not come inside snail shells. Here, the garlic butter-drenched snails are piled atop grilled bread that acts as a sponge to soak up all that butter. Take a bite of the bread and the butter practically squirts out. It’s amazingly good, although super rich. It makes for a gut-buster if you devour the entire slab yourself.
Silky and sumptuous, the skate wing ($26) is finished with a lush, red wine-Bordelaise sauce that adds depth and almost meatiness to this fish dish.
For dessert, there is a slender chocolate eclair done up with gold leaf that’s more finessed than any typical old school-bakery one. It’s a chocolate bomb — like truffle meets pastry in one grand gesture.
Then, there are the doughnuts, the kind that you will dream about long after you inhale them. Eating these is like biting into fried air. Really. That is how impossibly ethereal these cruellers are. Dusted in cinnamon sugar, they arrive hot with bowls of chocolate and Meyer lemon curd. The doughnuts are plenty good just on their own, but the chocolate makes it all the more decadent and the lemon curd adds just the right bright fresh tartness to perk up the palate.
Verjus is the kind of place you can drop into for a glass of wine and a quick nibble by yourself after a day at the office. Or for a bottle of wine and impressive plates at a leisurely get-together with friends. No matter what your mood, it just works.
More: A Visit to Quince