Saturday, September 29, 2007
People have questioned my selection of restaurants in San Francisco.
My selections were often a matter of practicality, as I was with an ever-revolving group of people, and I had a conference to attend for six out of the eight days. I spent most of my time around Union Square and the Financial District, not of my own voilition.
However, within these parameters, I did have some decisions to make. And some of them were made as a result of Bauer's The Dish on LA. I felt like Bauer was kind of a Zagat victim. Nothing against Zagat - I faithfully take their surveys and even get giddy when I recognize my quotes. But because of Zagat and that whole school of thought, he reviewed the biggest, flashiest names. He definitely did not use Counter Intelligence as his guide. Bauer's review was criticized for ignoring some of our excellent local and "ethnic" food. I hate the term "ethnic" food. All food is ethnic food to someone, but I'll save that rant for another time. I was determined not to be seduced by the hippest and most happening hotspots. So I left the Zagat Guide at home this trip.
So first, I chose the oldest restaurants I could find, the grand dames - Sears, John's Grill, and The Tadich Grill. Classics. Then I went looking off the beaten foodie path - Tommy's Restaurant, Tommy's Joynt, Blondie's. I tried to balance things out with some newer and brighter spots - Millenium, Out the Door, and the Slanted Door. Some places were sheer happenstance or serendipity. I was hungry. I turned around, and there it was. Sometimes this worked in my favor, like B Restaurant, and sometimes not so much, like with the Jazz Bistro. You win some, you lose some.
Now here we are, two days left in the city, and I am going to make the most of it...
The Ferry Building
Thursday we headed down to the Ferry Building. I had been staring at its clocktower all week from afar, like a beacon of hope. I was kind of shocked when I offhandedly asked my nephew, "Hey, want to go buy some artisinal cheese?" and he actually set down the computer mouse and followed me. I guess it runs in the family. Cowgirl Creamery, the mecca of goat cheese lovers, was my first stop. I picked up their cute mixed bag (Hint: Don't buy the 60 dollar bag Giada buys on TV. The 20-dollar bag is perfectly good. You don't need a 40-dollar cheese board). Plus, I had to get their infamous Purple Haze, which is an herbed goat cheese.
Oh, Miette, with those delicate little macarons and lavender shortbread. Their pastel china just makes me want to throw a bridal shower!
And ScharfenBerger, who has rhubarb truflles and delicate little mushroom-shaped chocolates right now. And chocolate covered currants! Next time I am definitely taking the factory tour.
After loading up on treats for friends back home, I wanted to try The Slanted Door. I was really just interested in going there because so many people had told me that I would never be able to get a table. Unfortunately, I am easy prey for a double-dog dare and discouragement only made me determined. And I must admit, it was slightly complicated. They stop seating in the restaurant sometime after 2. but you can still order from the full menu at the bar until 2:30. But that means you can only eat it at the bar; you cannot carry it 2 feet over to a table in "the lounge". After the full menu ends at 3pm or whenever, you can order from a limited "tea" menu at the bar and at the lounge. This complex maneuver had me ordering very quickly and seating my 15-year-old nephew at the bar.
Luckily, the bartender was friendly and recommended a beef dish. I tried to pronounce it. Xiao Tsing Beef? It was just "Shaken Beef". I also ordered crab noodles, chicken noodles, and a crepe. Like the irresponsible aunt I am, I left my nephew in the bar to watch our seats while I found my husband who was parking the car. Which in San Francisco is like one of the labours of Hercules.
This time I LOVED the servers. Both of the bartenders were extremely friendly and attentive. I was even charmed into ordering a nectarine caprihana. I noticed "unfriendly waiter" from Out the Door when he came to the bar with a drink order. He gave me that weird "I see you; but I'm ignoring you" look normally reserved for ex-boyfriends. I thought it was strange he would recognize me, because he was the one waiter who had been rude to me the week before, whereas I was only one of hundreds of customers he had probably been rude to. Later I remembered that two members of my party blatantly undertipped him. So he probably did remember me.
The "shaken beef" is made with filet mignon and is unbelievable. Unfortunately, the "chicken noodles" were not the "5-spice chicken noodles" I liked, and they were pretty greasy. My nephew reminded me, "They ARE pan-fried." Which equals greasy. The crab noodles, made with transluscent cellophane noodles contained very fresh crab, but were pretty bland. The crepe was unexpected. It was more like an interpretation of egg foo young. It was a big omelet, stuffed with a stir-fry. It was extremely greasy, and no one ate more than a tester helping. But it did come with a sweet sauce that I used to liven up the crab noodles.
The thing about The Slanted Door (and Out the Door) is that everything is hit or miss. Some of the menu selections are breathtakingly delicious. If you know what you're doing, you could have a truly memorable meal there. But choose wrong, and you will get a lumpy, greasy dish full of bland. And if you know to ask for "moustache" with the mullet, or the two cute servers from my picture at the bar, you will have an excellent time and make new friends. But if you get stuck with "unfriendly waiter" - ok, lets just say it - "bitchy waiter" you are going to have a terrible time. I would recommend going to the Ferry Building's Out the Door takeout where you don't have to deal with waiters, and just eat outside where you can look at the gorgeous bay. But don't fill up, because there is still Taylor's Refresher waiting for you.
Of all of the low-budget restaurants I sampled, I would have to crown Taylor's king. And I am not the only one, In 2006, Taylor's received the James Beard Foundation American Classics Award. We were so sorry we had filled up on soggy noodles and had to split a hamburger. This hamburger was beyond compare. The edges were charred and the inside was juicy, bursting with greasy goodness. I will crave this burger forever and compare all other burgers to this one. I am ruined. The french fries were hot and probably double-fried to get that kind of crunch. But the thing that makes Taylor's stand out from the rest of the pack is the pistachio milkshake was rich and creamy with real ice cream, like a good vanilla shake should be. The pistachio flavor did not taste artificial in any way. It was clean and pure, like you always wished pistachio ice cream could be, without even realizing it. When I reached the bottom, there was a small pile of pistachio nuts in the cup. I asked them if anyone had ever choked on one, and the employees looked surprised and slightly frightened, like that had never occured to them before. As we walked out, everything on every table I passed looked delicious. I wanted to pick up the hot dog and fish tacos from a neighboring table and put them in my purse. I wanted everything. Taylor's turned me out.
Sometimes I try things just for the adventure, knowing they are going to be awful. When I put a pink peppercorn and star anise chocolate in my mouth, I thought maybe they could pull it off, maybe it wouldn't be dreadful. It never occured to me it could be better, that it could possibly be the best chocolate I had ever tasted. Better than See's California Brickle. Better than homemade marshmallows from Eidelweiss. It was nothing short of an epiphany. I realized that I had been limited in my thinking about spices. That there were so many new possibilities! That there were new horizons of flavors to explore! I bought boxes and boxes of chocolates in order to bring this amazing flavor back, so I could tell everyone what I had discovered like a converted religious nut. My conversion was short-lived. I left the bag on the counter in the airport and when I returned they said they had to turn them in to security as a suspicious package. Security claims to have never received them, Someone is either enjoying a sugar rush right now or 100 dollars worth of gourmet treats have been detonated in a field outside of Oakland.
For my big final meal out, my brother and his wife took us to what is perhaps the epicenter of the slow food movement, and every other movement promoting fresh, local ingredients, Chez Panisse. Alice Waters is truly a pioneer, and everyone was excited about our meal as we walked up to the big craftsman. We chose to eat in the "upstairs" cafe instead of "downstairs" because "downstairs offers only a single, prix fixe meal. Mondays are usually more laid back, the meal does not offer a dessert, and runs about 55 dollars. The rest of the week the menu averages 65 to 85 dollars and features events such as an "all duck dinner". "Upstairs" in the cafe/bar, the menu offers a simpler prix fixe menu at around 28 dollars. They also offer a limited menu of around 6 salads, one appetizer, one soup, six mains and four desserts as well as a cheese plate. We prefer the cafe for last-minute meals or when dining with a group because sometimes you don't like what is being served downstairs. A few comments I have read on the internet insinuate that the cafe is inferior to "downstairs" but maybe they are just snobs.
We all enjoy trying a little bit of everything, so we chose to eat "family style." We split a Caprese salad with Wild Boar Farm tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. It is so refreshing to eat ripe tomatoes, and the light vinagrette was perfect. The garden lettuce salad was simple, but it was one of those must-have items for my brother, who is a serious devotee of their salads. We split a main as a starter - the pizza with hot and sweet peppers. Ok, Bauer, if you have been reading these blogs and wonder what any of this has to do with you, listen up - here is your payoff. You wondered why San Francisco lacks pizza like Mozza, well here is your pizza. Call Chez Panisse every night until they have this pizza. You will never bemoan the state of Bay Area pizzas again. Hot banana peppers in the mix made this pizza just hot enough to be exciting without overpowering. The cheese, of course, was farm fresh - and that crust. Seriously, this is the pizza you have been waiting for. Pray that they offer some variation regularly.
Between the six of us, we ordered two orders of "Sonoma County duck-leg with corn fritters, green beans and morels", two orders of "Grilled James Ranch lamb leg with black-eyed peas and tomatillos" and one order of "Hand-cut pasta with heirloom tomatoes, basil, and Bellwether Farm Ricotta."
To be honest, the pasta was a little bland. The texture of the hand-cut pasta was perfection, the cheese was creamy, but it just needed some kind of punch. Maybe the hot peppers on the pizza had dulled my palate too much. The duck shown in my photo is a double order on one plate, and it was fantastic. The meat was tender without a hint of gaminess, more like free-range chicken. The corn fritters were the star of the show. Man. I wanted to grab them all, but all those Sesame Street songs about "sharing" have socialized me just enough to make it through a dinner party. The lamb was also excellent, without a hint of gaminess. I can really getting into game when it is this high quality. The black-eyed peas were a homey touch, but the tomatillos seemed a little out-of-place.
We decided to split desserts - a bittersweet chocolate pave (like a broken paving stone - really, it was similar to those molten lava cakes that were all the rage, but without the lava filling) and a strawberry sherbert. We all took polite bites, but it was clear that most of us were too stuffed to deal with anything else. One person took over the chocolate, and another devoured the sorbet while the rest of us groaned. There was a slight mix-up, and we had a hard time getting our bill, which turned out to be sitting on the counter right above my head the entire time. My brother hosted, and attempted to hide the bill, but it looked like it averaged out to about 50 dollars per person. Not bad for salad, appetizer, mains, dessert and 5 glasses of wine. As we left, my brother remarked, "I love this place. I don't know why we don't come here more."
De Young Cafe
Friday we spent the day at Golden Gate park and the De Young Museum. Out of convenience, I had lunch at the museum's cafe. I have to say, museum cafes have really come into their own. The sandwich was first-rate, and the bread was just as good as all of the other bread I was served in San Francisco. This city is into bread.
And again with the fresh, local ingredients:
As part of Bon Appétit’s pioneering “Farm to Fork” program, these ingredients are grown or produced within 150 miles of the kitchen where they will be prepared. The de Young menu includes cheeses and dairy products from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, Straus Family Creamery, and Cowgirl Creamery; breads from Berkeley’s Acme Bakery...
On Friday evenings, when the De Young holds special community events, the cafe offers a dinner menu. During the summer, they are offering a Cinema Supper Club, showing films featuring famous artists.
Contrary to what my favorite angled photo technique suggests, the cafe is not actually located on a boat that is weathering a storm.
I would never be such an ungrateful houseguest as to leave out the fantastic meal prepared for us by my sister-in-law Monette on Friday night. My entire family can cook, from my mom all the way down to my youngest nephews, who have "Iron Chef" competitions at home for fun. We all have our specialties, but no one can set a beautiful table like Monette. I have always envied her ability to take a few sprigs of Chervil and make a dish look like it should be on the front cover of Gourmet. She barbecued steaks and albacore tuna, and made gorgeous salads with haricot vertes and a delicious cherry tomato caprese. I didn't help matters by stuffing her full of Cowgirl goat cheese and champagne before dinner. But it was truly one of the best meals I was served, and a lovely way to end the trip. Plus, Monette works for Sephora and I got her tipsy enough to let me rifle through her samples box! Score!
To make any kind of pronouncement, I feel like I would need another month in San Francisco. There were so many places I didn't have a chance to try - Herbivore, Tu Lan, Swan's Oyster Depot, Little Joe's. I didn't even touch Chinatown or the Mission District. But after barely dipping my toes in the bay, I have to say I was was impressed with the value San Francisco places on food. It is the kind of dedication that made me fall in love with New Orleans.
I was particularly impressed by San Francisco's dedication to preservation. The number of classic restaurants still standing was a welcome surprise. In an era when newer is better, it is heartwarming to see history respected. From the Tadich Grill, the oldest restaurant in San Francisco, to Chez Panisse, a place of quality is never "over".
In the tradition of Chez Panisse, emphasis is placed on quality ingredients. In even the cheapest hole-in-the-wall, tomatoes were red, lettuces were crisp, and I was never served a single slice of bread that did not taste fresh and homemade.
There also seems to be much more of a focus placed on beer and wine as opposed to LA's ever-present cocktails. Smaller-label organic wines and interesting microbrews were readily available. A larger selection of wines are offered by the glass, and it seems like less of a formalized ritual. Only one restaurant offered to send over a sommelier and it was with that same half-serious tone that TV cops use when they offer to send in a lawyer. The only time I even drank a cocktail was in the Slanted Door, and only because I was sitting at the bar.
From the simplest taqueria to white tablecloth dining, there is a sense of continuity; every restaurant seems to feel a connection to the San Francisco's history. From the restaurants of San Francisco's past, one can follow the lineage eventually into the Educated Palate. You can see the pride in the instructor's eyes, and the smiles on her student's faces. In their classroom restaurant, they strive to provide the same high level of service one finds at Tadich's Grill. They serve only the freshest ingredients, as Alice Waters would have them do. They are here to provide the continuity that will link San Francisco's treasured past with its future.