Food & Wine

Farewell, Jardinière

By Erin Carlson

A typically buzzy dining room at the legendary Jardinière. (Ed Anderson)

I’m guessing you’ve heard the news by now. Late last month, Jardinière closed its doors for good after more than two decades serving haute French cuisine in Hayes Valley, now a trendy dining destination. It’s truly the end of an era — one in which pioneering chef-owner Traci Des Jardins presided over a restaurant that became part of the social fabric of a city shortly after she opened it to great fanfare in 1997. Cue countless first dates, marriage proposals and anniversary dinners, not to mention the sheer amount of champagne consumed during gossipy post-Opera Ball get-togethers. (Talk about leaving on a high note.)

On a rainy Monday in early April, my Gazette colleague Jill Pietrowiak and I made a reservation to feast at Jardinière one last time. (Next time I see you, ask me about the night our name cards mysteriously disappeared from a table at a high-profile San Francisco event — it’s a funny story, actually, and we were happy to recap the episode, for the first time, over drinks at Des Jardins’ welcoming institution. But I digress!

Once we arrived, the mood was celebratory albeit bittersweet; couples huddled in corner tables upstair while the oval, marble-topped bar below hummed with low, candlelit conversation.The hyper-knowledgeable, ever-efficient servers glided across the space with speed-skater grace. Des Jardins, who’s been eager to move on from fine dining and its myriad pressures, emerged from the kitchen to greet diners.

“We’ll miss our guests,” she said. “What I’ll probably miss most, though, is the staff and the family we’ve created here. I’ll miss seeing these people every day.”

Owner and executive chef Traci Des Jardins alongside Jardinière chef Audie Golder and chief of staff Amy Reynolds. (Ed Anderson)

But the show must go on, and Des Jardins still had work to do — for Jardinière’s swan song, she juxtaposed its signature classics with newer menu offerings, such as the “Impossible Larb,” incorporating the meatless Impossible Foods recipe that she debuted, in celebrated burger form, three years ago. I devoured the duck liver mousse (a buttery masterpiece that almost made me recite Peter O’Toole’s monologue from Ratatouille), as well as the excellent warm bread salad and potato-leek soup. The quail? Cooked to perfection, and Jill thought the Alaskan halibut was light and delicious. The roasted baby carrots with quince chili sauce were the perfect complement. Or was it the vintage Champagne? Oh yes, reader, you’d better believe that I ordered a glass of the 2010 Demière-Ansiot Neyrot, as crisp and effervescent as a green apple, with warm, biscuity notes.

Alan, our master somm, was in agreement with Traci, thinking that rather than save small amounts of allocated wines, we should open them and share them with the people who have supported Jardinière all these years,” said server David Chan, noting of the Demière-Ansiot: “We have actually been pouring most of it this evening — we just put it on the menu — and it’s been going very, very quickly.”

All good things must come to an end. The James Beard Award-winning Des Jardins, however, is not going away. She’ll continue to guide the Presidio restaurants Arguello, Transit and the Commissary, in addition to Mijita Cocina Mexicana, the Ferry Building restaurant whose name pays homage to her Mexican-born grandmother’s nickname for her — “Mijita,”or “Little One.” When the Gazette’s Janet Reilly interviewed Des Jardins last spring, the chef revealed: “Honestly, if I had my whole career back and I could go back to my 17-year-old self, I think I would go deep into Mexican food. There is so much richness to explore there and I just love it.”

While Des Jardins looks toward the future, it must be bittersweet to bid farewell to a beloved pillar of San Francisco nightlife. Like Meg Ryan as Kathleen Kelly, closing the Shop Around the Corner, I imagine that she might feel a pang of melancholy for a time gone by. But the City is changing, and so must she.

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