"These nectarines taste like nectarines!"
One bite into a slice of nectarine tart and I caught myself loudly reciting rhetoric like Willy Wonka hyping his flavored wallpaper to Veruca Salt. It wasn't just the vibrancy of the produce but also a thin, buttery crust that had me wondering if this might be the finest fruit dessert I'd ever tasted.
Such is the norm at 20th Century Cafe, a new Eastern European-inspired eatery in Hayes Valley from former Range pastry chef Michelle Polzine. While coming down from my nectarine high, I could see that my wife was in her own altered state after downing half a wedge of pink pearl apple strudel. A delicate, crumbly shell, made only more irresistible by a dab of barely sweetened whipped cream, encased a gentle mash of tart apples. We swapped bites and gave each other knowing looks, as if we stumbled upon some sort of pastry holy grail.
Lest one think that Polzine can only perfect sweets, her flaky knish's potato filling is so silky and properly peppered that it will have you forgetting the bland, fried specimens of New York street carts in no time. And while we're comparing New York foodstuffs, the exterior of her poppy bagel is the crispest I've encountered, with a slightly burnt aftertaste that brought to mind charred pizza crusts commonly found around town. At $2.50, the price may be steep for an unadorned bagel, but I purchased one on all three of my visits and had no remorse.
On even the dreariest of mornings, the large corner windows let in tons of light, illuminating an elegant marble counter where Polzine displays her goods. Big-band music plays quietly in the background while the staff, garbed in 1950s retro attire and pointy librarian glasses, work diligently in a small open kitchen. It works without feeling too Epcot-like, and the vibe is downright mellow compared to other Hayes Valley lunchrooms.
The lunch offerings that I tried didn't provide the "Wow!" moments that the baked goods did. Not that anything was bad, but simply not as exhilarating. Though a dainty Polish sausage was advertised as spicy, I could barely taste any spice at all, especially in comparison to the cheaper, more filling version I'd had at the ballpark the night before. Similarly, the kale and pepper relish sandwich needed a cheese with more bite than sheep's milk feta to liven it up. More fun was a Reuben, expertly grilled on a small flat-top, though I still wished that between the pastrami and the sauerkraut, there was a bit more of a punch.
Pivoting back to a duo of desserts made any reflections of blandness vanish. A deceivingly thin piece of Russian honey cake was seven layers of airy, whipped intensity just shy of being too sweet.
My palate could only handle half of it, though my co-workers thought I was a hero, if only temporarily, for bringing the remainders back to the office. There were no remains of a sacher torte, a not-too-dense chocolate cake with the slightest hint of apricot, the result of a thin spread of jam.
With fall bounties looming, I can't wait to see what treats will soon be featured on the 20th Century Cafe's marble counter. From Polzine's hands, they're sure to be extraordinary.
20th Century Cafe
Location: 198 Gough St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 621-2830, www.20thcenturycafe.com
Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
Price range: $2 to $14
Recommended dishes: Reuben ($12), nectarine tart ($6), pink pearl apple strudel ($6), Russian honey cake ($6), potato knish ($3), poppy seed bagel ($2.50)
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted