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Size Matters

Aubergine ripens with age.

No sooner had Sean Kelly opened his Aubergine Cafe, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this month ("The Eggplant and I," July 5, 1995), than the pressure to expand began. Over the past five years, Kelly has considered adding on, moving to a bigger space, even opening a second Aubergine. But each time the concept of expansion came up -- when he thought about moving to the Golden Triangle, or when he thought about moving down the street, or when he thought about making the patio a year-round venture -- Kelly asked a lot of restaurant people for advice, looked at his family and then resisted the urge to grow. "They're the ones who would suffer the most if I did any of that," Kelly says of his family. "I'd never see them."

And while he wasn't seeing them, he'd be dealing with all of the headaches that come when a business gets bigger: maintaining quality control, more employee problems, lots of overhead.

So instead of adding an Aubergine II or moving Aubergine into a space that might net him a hundred more seats, Kelly recently opened another restaurant altogether: The Biscuit, at 719 East Seventeenth Avenue (see Mouthing Off). This tiny cafe is relatively low-maintenance: It's open for breakfast and lunch only (when Aubergine is closed) and gets several of its items -- soups and pastries, for example -- from Aubergine.

The color purple: Aubergine has just gotten better over the past five years.
Q Crutchfield
The color purple: Aubergine has just gotten better over the past five years.

They couldn't come from a better place.

Because Kelly decided to stay put and concentrate on keeping the status quo at Aubergine, his small eatery remains one of the best in town. The setting is warm and intimate, the truly skilled servers very welcoming. And the food is fabulous. The menu changes daily except for Sundays, when Kelly offers his special chicken dinner. Following a recipe by Judy Rodgers, whose Zuni Restaurant has dazzled San Franciscans for years (Kelly once worked with the innovative chef and credits her with helping him to "get" food better), Aubergine's kitchen roasts whole chickens Tuscan-style. The scents of garlic and rosemary waft from the bird the minute it's set down, alongside an extraordinary warm bread salad that contains arugula, currants and pine nuts. That's more than enough food, but order an enormous side of perfect mashed potatoes ($4) anyway. The chicken dinner costs $30 for two and is so popular that people have to plan their Sundays weeks in advance.

But any night of the week is a good one at Aubergine (except Monday, when the staff takes a break). Kelly is a marvel at Mediterranean comfort foods. His appetizer of country-style pork terrine ($8), for instance, comes with pickled mushrooms -- a smart and unusual combo. The antipasto platter ($9) of shaved fennel, mini slabs of parmigiano-reggiano, house-roasted almonds, blood orange segments and soft, gooey Medjool dates is grazing heaven. And then there's Aubergine's signature starter, the crispy fried baby artichokes ($9), all crunchy exteriors and sharp-flavored insides, enriched with a basil-pumped aioli.

Kelly likes to keep things simple and let just a few ingredients make a complex flavor base. So the pappardelle noodles ($17) are paired with squishy-centered, juice-oozing hedgehog mushrooms, butternut squash and Swiss chard; sage ties the ingredients together and deepens the earthy tastes. The paella ($22) contains just enough components -- clams, shrimp, chicken, mussels and chorizo, along with Spanish rice and plenty of saffron -- to create a steamy, heady mixture.

With food so wonderful, it's no surprise that you leave Aubergine wanting more -- more meals there, more restaurants like it, more Aubergines, period. But Kelly's decision not to expand is a wise one: Very good things come out of this small package.

 
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