Mon 27 Apr 2009
While in California recently, we had plenty of opportunities to eat and drink really well. San Francisco is DEFINITELY a city for foodies, and our experiences barely begin to scratch the surface. We’ve already shared Tartine, Cyrus and Dry Creek Kitchen – some of the all-stars from San Francisco and Healdsburg. Here are a few of our other favorites from the trip:
The Slanted Door
The concept of Asian fusion – blending classic techniques with local ingredients – is still out there. But it seems to have gotten lost in a sea of Tex-Mex eggrolls and lemongrass pizzas while spreading across the country. Thankfully, chef Charles Phan’s hugely popular Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco’s Ferry Building continues to show what fusion can mean when it’s done right. Elizabeth’s pho bo, that most traditional Vietnamese beef and noodle soup, was an absolute star – due in no small part to the local Prather Ranch london broil credited on the menu. Slanted Door spring rolls, which offered both pork and shrimp inside their delicate rice-paper wrappers, were succulent and savory. The only miss of our meal was a special of dungeness crab over rice noodles, which I was drawn to because we kept hearing about the amazing crabs that were just coming into season during our visit. Unfortunately, the presentation overwhelmed the delicate sweetness of the crab with a heavy oiliness that seemed decidedly out of place among the other dishes we enjoyed. With a sleek bar and a huge space, you’d think there would be plenty of open tables during an average weekday luch. Guess again. Without our reservation, we probably wouldn’t have gotten in - and the food we enjoyed provides a pretty compelling reason why.
There is a driving desire among all relocated urbanites to become someplace’s regular – be it a coffeehouse, a dark meat market, or just a laidback place that offers an alternate view than the one from your couch. Blame Friends, or Cheers, or How I Met Your Mother or any number of other faux urban sitcoms for planting this idea, but I can’t think of a nicer neighborhood restaurant to be a regular than Pesce in Russian Hill. This tiny Italian spot focuses on small-plate seafood dishes perfect for a single diner or a communal table. On a recent visit with friends, Mr. and Mrs. Badoit, we managed to score a last-minute table and enjoyed a mix of cocktails, seafood and swine based dishes in an cozy (read: tiny!) atmosphere. Nearby diners had clearly already passed the I’m-a-regular threshold and spent their meal running into neighbors and being greeted warmly by the staff. I watched them, sipped my cocktail, and went insane with envy.
Blue Bottle Coffee Co.
Two words: Artisanal Microroasting. Three letters: WTF? As soon as we arrived in San Francisco, we started hearing about Blue Bottle Coffee, a “can’t miss” coffee spot outside the Ferry Building, a little stand where you can find some of the richest and most flavorful coffee you are likely to ever experience. We may not be java junkies, but we were already headed toward the foodie heaven that is the Ferry Building (Cowgirl Creamery, Acme Bread, Boccalone Salumeria, Scharffen Berger Chocolate, McEvoy Ranch Olive Oil…should I go on?) so we decided to check it out. This is a group that takes their coffee SERIOUSLY. If you’ve ever been to Peregrine Espresso, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about here: single cup pour-over brewing, small batches of beans bagged no more than 4 hours after roasting. It was an experience, but I can’t say it ruined me for other coffees (which is probably an indication of just what a coffee novice I actually am).
Blue Bottle Coffee
Outside the Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94111
Cha Cha Cha
Cha Cha Cha, a Caribbean institution on Haight Street, is probably the world’s most perfect place for a first date. It is fun but casual. The food is good but unpretentious. The crowd – and there is always a crowd – keeps the mood upbeat and is the perfect white noise to mask any awkward pauses in conversation. Don’t have a reservation and need to wait for a table? No problem, head down the block to Amobea and check out your date’s taste in music. Once seated, you must MUST order a pitcher the sangria. I’ve yet to meet a drink that loosens people up more quickly. The tapas theme means you can further break the ice by ordering together and sharing plates. Personal favorites are the fried calamari, new potatoes, sauteed mushrooms and Cajun shrimp. If you’re a little hungier, or just don’t like sharing with others, go for the higher end entree items like bistek encebollado. But really, you need to order that sangria.
When we made our plans to head out to San Francisco, we reached out to a couple of friends who’ve made the move out there from Washington (yeah…we’re jealous, too). We put ourselves in their hands and asked them to pick a restaurant that they’d been eager to try. Their unanimous choice: House, an Asian-influenced restaurant in the North Beach neighborhood best known for Italian stalwarts like the Stinking Rose. Our friends sure know how to pick ‘em…and how to enjoy a restaurant foodie-style. Everyone made it a point to order unique appetizers and entrees, and dishes were passed so that everyone could get a taste. The verdict? House is nothing like home, but the skill with which Eastern flavors are brought to bear on dishes like steamed mussels and ribeye steak is truly impressive. Perhaps the most talked about dish of the evening was a broiled unagi (eel) that was covered in tempura flakes so fresh out of the fryer that they were still shaking when they arrived at the table. The visual effect got us talking, and the deep flavor of the eel kept the conversation going.
San Francisco is known for burritos. There are countless taquerias in the city and each resident will lead you to a new one, swearing up and down that it is the best - the best – burrito you’ll find. For me, the search ends at El Balazo on Haight Street. This is what a burrito joint should be. Ingredients doled out assembly line style (carne asada! barbacoa! I’ve missed you!) with rice, a choice of beans and toppings and size options ranging from bigger-than-your-head to weighs-as-much-as-a-toddler. Aguas frescas are also available to quench your thirst as you dive into your giant meal. As an added dining bonus, not only is El Balazo delicious and cheap, it is gorgeous: hammered copper walls meet up with bright blue ceilings, Aztec imagery and murals. I have never enjoyed a cheap meal in a more vibrant setting.
Crepes on Cole
Some places, in their simplicy, sneak up on your senses. Crepes on Cole is one of those. Glancing around, there is nothing notable about this corner shop in Cole Valley but every time I’m in town I’m drawn back. Perhaps it is the simple menu of sweet and savory crepes (I always go sweet – I’m pretty much Nutella’s bitch) and a hot cup of coffee in a sturdy white mug. Perhaps it is the fantastic people watching from their broad windows, ranging from UCSF med students to hipsters to the joggers with their dogs. Or the N Judah rail line that runs just past the restaurant on Carl Street. Or maybe its all of the above that makes this a great hideaway in San Francisco, where you can have a casual meal and watch the city life go by.
…. And a few San Francisco bars for the drinkers in the crowd
The Haight area may have once been known for the Summer of Love but these days its known for upscale boutiques. Mike learned this the hard way during our recent visit. After several hours of extreme husbandly patience, I treated him to serveral rounds at Hobson’s Choice. Walk by Hobson’s Choice too quickly and you may assume it’s a cozy coffee shop. It’s easy to be mislead – the red velvet curtains and cushy seating inside don’t exactly scream bar. Hobson’s Choice is a Victorian punch house with an overwhelming selection of rums. You’re welcome to order from their substantial cocktail menu, select from one of the monthly special cocktails or share a punch bowl with friends for an afternoon nearly guaranteed to end with a burrito from El Balazo.
Bourbon & Branch
Named after a classic cocktail (two parts bourbon to four parts spring or “branch” water), Bourbon & Branch is San Francisco’s best known speakeasy. As at PX and the Gibson, the secrecy of the space takes a backseat to good, old-fashioned bartending. Make a reservation, and you receive instructions directing you to a corner of Jones Street featuring a sign for the “Anti-Saloon League.” Ring the bell, give the password, and you’re ushered into a dimly-lit space that is dark and sexy, with secret doors and hidden rooms.
Your server doubles as your guide to the lengthy cocktail menu. Are you a fan of gin? The classic ‘Aviator’ beckons. Looking for something a little different than your typical Maker’s Mark on the rocks? Allow the bartender to whip up a “Black Manhattan,” which adds amaro Averna (in place of vermouth) to the typical concoction’s bourbon, bitters, and a cherry. The cocktails here run from the classic to the creative, with the common theme being a commitment to fresh ingredients and craftsmanship. The “Afternoon Tea” made with vodka or gin (we opted for vodka) was a definite favorite, blending all of the light flavors you might associate with the name into one satisfyingly smooth libation.
There is nothing like meeting up with old friends from college to make you feel your years. Luckily, there is nothing like Alembic to make you feel like a college student again – only with a better budget. The crowded bar exudes energy made for a Friday night – crowded, jovial and with a hint of restlessness. Alembic employs one of my favorite new trends in bars – get a seat or wait outside. No more sharp elbows and pleading for a beer (Bistrot du Coin, I’m looking at you). No no, here you can grab a seat and get a stiff drink like a civilized but savvy adult you are. My friends Mai and Sunny arrived about 20 minutes late (some things never change) but I was more than happy to pass the time at a bar with so many bourbon and whiskey options. Next time I’m in town, I plan to give the impressive looking small-plates menu a test drive.
After wandering around SOMA for a while, we found ourselves in that wonderful timeframe between lunch and dinner when most folks are still at work and those who aren’t are ready to start the evening’s festivities (no wonder they call it Happy Hour!). Rather than stopping into one of the more tourist-friendly bars that surround the convention center, we walked down Natoma and found ourselves facing Zebulon. From the exterior, we couldn’t quite tell if it was an art gallery, a restaurant, or something else entirely…so we asked. As it turns out, Zebulon is both of these and more, a very laid-back neighborhood venue that brings in live music and other artists while serving an Asian-inflected menu and cocktails made from fresh-squeezed juices. In Washington, that kind of pedigree tends to come with a reservations-only policy and a $12 price tag. But here we were able to enjoy drinks like the Jeremiah (St. Germain, chambord, champagne and a twist) for only $8 each. Reason #812 we love San Francisco.
Lee’s Garden Restaurant
The trip to Monterey and Carmel was a bit of a bust. The rain never let up and it’s hard to enjoy the quirky coastal town charms and scenic beach view when you’re dashing for cover. By the end of the day, we wanted something substantial and definitely not touristy. Yes, we decided, this was a perfect night for Chinese food. We asked the two teenagers manning the hotel’s front desk for their recommendation. “Lee’s!” they answered, almost in unison, with the gusto only teenage boys can master. “Definitely Lee’s is your spot.”
And their recommendation didn’t disappoint. With gray skies above and a ittle bit of a chill in the air, the substantial won ton soup and the spring rolls we enjoyed helped to warm us up and lift our spirits. Frankly, the portions were big enough that we could have ended the meal there. Instead, we each ordered an entree and found ourselves bringing at least half of what we got back to the hotel room with us. It was exactly the kind of atmosphere we had been craving, and the steady stream of carryout orders that passed through while we were eating served to reinforce our belief that we had chosen wisely for our low-key meal.
215 Reservation Road
Marina, CA 93933
Healdsburg (Sonoma County)
We only spent two days there but Healdsburg quickly became my dream small town. It has it all – beautiful setting, a town square, artsy shops and fantastic restaurants. We’ve given the full court press to Cyrus and Dry Creek Kitchen, but wanted to give a shout out to one more little shop we enjoyed during our stay:
Healdsburg Charcuterie and Cafe
We ducked into this cozy cafe on our first day in Healdsburg, after making a few rounds at the wine tasting bars and realizing we ought to put down a base of actual food before we got too carried away. We found the Healdsburg Charcuterie and Cafe to be a homey little spot and a perfect place to escape the rain. It feels like a small town diner, where the sleeve-tattooed waitresses know everyone and just how they take their coffee. We grabbed a corner table and eyed the menu. I couldn’t resist the white bean soup but Mike took one for the team and ordered the charcuterie plate with pate, salami, brie, and olives. We were both pleased with our orders, switching plates back and forth for variety. The only disappointment came when our server informed us, rather proudly in fact, that the charcuterie was flown in from France. We were baffled at the import in the middle considering the number of farms we passed on the drive up. Could there possibly be no local sources? Hopefully this will be rectified by our next visit.