Friday, May 26, 2006

Jackson Fillmore: Great Food, No Ego-Petting

Jackson Fillmore is some of my favorite Italian food in town. The food is creatively-prepared, the ingredients are fresh, there are a couple must-get items that you can't get elsewhere, and the overall feel of the place is a great balance between comfort and formality.

Particularly, the zucchini carpaccio is worth the trip to this place by itself. It's a simple appetizer of jullienned zucchini mixed with toasted almonds, shaved pecorino, parsley and olive oil served lukewarm. If you go, don't miss this.

The pastas are always well done. My favorite is the tortellini al forno, though it works better as a shared appetizer because it's so rich. The entrees are the weakest part of the menu, but are still generally very good.

What puzzles me about Jackson Fillmore is that when I talk to people about this place, some version of the same theme always comes up: "The food is great but the service sucks." The last few times I've been, I've studied the service closely to find out exactly what "sucks," and I've come to the conclusion that I believe they're getting a somewhat bad rap.

I've looked for obvious errors: forgetting items, cold food, slow servers, lazy bussers, thoughtlessness, etc, and I haven't found any of it. What I have found is a certain ennui amongst the servers where they're making clear that kissing your ass isn't part of their job description.

"Come in and eat, don't come in and eat... that's fine... whatever," is essentially what they're saying. I think that this attitude is probably pervasive across about 80% of San Francisco restaurants except that in many of them the attitude is sugar-coated with an ass-kissing veneer.

Granted, some nice small talk is pleasant, and can make up for other shortcomings, but I've realized that I don't need it if everything else is buttoned-up. Even though they're not going out of their way to be nice at JF, they're at least professional about the tasks of their job and answer questions about the menu thoughtfully. I don't think we necessarily have a right to ask for much more.

I remember one time in there when one of the surliest servers was waiting on us the evening after the verdict was read on the dog-mauling trial. We were trading opinions around the table between courses, and the server (who's name I don't know) inserted himself quickly, said he thought the manslaughter conviction was "bullshit" and then just as quickly exited the conversation. It was startling not because of the language or the opinion, but just that he generally wasn't concerned either with decorum or with what we thought of him. But because he was quick and very honest, the interlude worked and we didn't mind at all.

Honesty seems to be the prevailing feeling I get from them - they honestly don't care what you think and wear it on their sleeve. Somehow their delivery works for me. It's great food and solid service, without the ego-petting.

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