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Toast of the Town

By Carolyn Jung

Unlike some contemporaries, husband-and-wife San Francisco restaurateurs Michael and Lindsay Tusk are not all about stamping out cookie-cutter establishments one after the other as quickly as possible. No, they prefer to do their own thing in their own good time, opening their Michelin three-starred haute Cal-Italia Quince in 2003, then coolly waiting seven years before launching their casual trattoria Cotogna next door. Now, after a nine-year hiatus (a mere blink in Tusk time), comes their newest endeavor: Verjus, a combination wine bar, conserva bar and retail shop just two blocks away.

“That’s our pattern. We don’t rush into anything,” says Lindsay. “We only want to create concepts that are meaningful and significant, and informed by our experiences. With Verjus, we wanted to add a new model to the dining land-scape. It’s a departure from what we’re known for. We stripped the onion a bit.” Verjus opened in January in the historic Eclipse Champagne Building in Jackson Square. Dating back to the 1850s Gold Rush and Barbary Coast eras, it had been variously a gambling den, brothel and speakeasy. With such a freewheeling spirit part and parcel of its history, it’s no wonder the Tusks were compelled to break with convention here.

Though Michael Tusk may be synonymous with glorious Italian fare, Verjus leans decidedly French, allowing him license to revisit his roots of cooking in Provence. There are a range of wines — from France, Spain, Portugal, Australia and California — with all 450 selections naturally produced, comprising one of the most substantial such collections in the Bay Area. Their usual full-service model has been jettisoned for a walk-up-and-order system, in which patrons eat and drink — for the most part — while standing at one of three counters. Lest the bum-knee crowd com-plain, there are 40 actual seats, as well as servers to take additional orders once customers are situated at a table. And unlike Quince or Cotogna, no reservations are accepted.

“We want to be unapologetic that this is not a restaurant, that it’s a bar,” says Lindsay, who was inspired by the wine bars in France and pintxos bars in San Sebastián, Spain, that she and Michael frequent on trips to Europe. “It’s just with really good food, not a bag of pretzels.” Think suckling pig, duck confit, escargot, boudin noir, oysters on the half shell and a French omelet — all listed on a movie-marquee sign above the open kitchen that’s helmed by chef de cuisine David Meyer, who previously cooked at the French Laundry in Yountville, and The Progress and In Situ, both in San Francisco.

One thoughtful touch was incorporated early on into the design: a slew of electrical outlets so that antique toasters can be plugged in tableside. “When you have toast in a restaurant, it’s never right,” Lindsay explains. “It’s under or over or cold. We wanted people to have power over their own toast.” At least, as far as the law allows. The toaster service was supposed to center around foie gras. But now with the state ban on the sale and production of foie gras enforced once again, chicken or duck liver mousse is offered instead.

At the conserva bar steps away, tinned seafood is presented with house-made bread, extra-virgin olive oil, salsa verde and salsa rossa. This is no Chicken of the Sea, but Spanish and Portuguese sardines, mackerel, tuna, cockles and periwinkles that have been gently cooked and preserved.The easy-drinking wines are all made with hand-harvested grapes and naturally fermented with indigenous yeasts, with no added tannins or acidity, and no industrial processes involved. “If people are unfamiliar with natural wines, it’s not to say that these wines taste completely bizarre or wild,” says Matt Cirne, wine director and managing partner of Verjus. “There is some of that here, but there is plenty of Chablis that tastes like Chablis.”

Although Verjus offers 11 wines by the glass, the real value is by the bottle. Pick any bottle from its retail shelves, priced from $15 to $700, and uncork it at a counter or table here for only an additional $20.

The wine bar also recently added lunch service Tuesday through Friday, starting at 11:30 a.m. Along with the all-day a la carte offerings, there is also an optional three-course prix fixe for $31, with wine pairings for an additional $12, available until 4:30 p.m.

The 3,200-square-foot space is done up with whitewashed brick walls, a lacquered burgundy ceiling, and floors inlaid with Spanish tile in seven shades created with the ancient hot-wax painting technique known as encaustic. Antique truffle slicers, bespoke knives and French ceramics from flea markets and artists’ studios are for sale. A real record player spins ye-ye pop, jazz, punk, reggae and northern soul from the personal LP collections of Cirne and Michael Tusk.

With Verjus under their belt, will there be another new venture coming from the Tusks in, say, another nine years? “Never say never,” Lindsay says. “But I don’t think so. I’d rather perfect what we have. This might just be it.”

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