Monday, April 14, 2008
San Francisco, at Last (part I)
A week ago today I woke up for the first time in eight days in Chicago (note: this proves how long I’ve been writing this post, I arrived back on the 27th of March, which makes it just about, oh, forever . Please forgive me! I had a paper! About Banking Law! BANKING LAW! I knew you would understand). I had been in San Francisco, stuffing myself to the gills and walking up and down (but mostly up) countless charming streets. The weather was beautiful (I got a tan!), which was quite fortuitous considering that this food wasn’t really going to walk itself off. We were there for long enough that we didn’t have to take a “let’s do EVERYTHING right NOW” approach to our trip, but sunk into Bay Area life and let it take us around.
It should come as no surprise that the main focus of this trip was food. While I was ecstatic about good weather, the Pacific Ocean, and a generally more relaxed attitude, I was thrilled at the multitude of dining options that lay before me. Caught up in the deliciousness of it al, I neglected to take pictures of everything I ate, and for this, I am deeply sorry. I hope you will bear with me and read along anyway. After all, it's not like my pictures don't suck anyway.
Our first stop along the San Francisco dining train was at A la Turca, a small Turkish place recommended by the friendly dude sitting next to me on the plane. He said his wife was Turkish, and this is her favorite place to eat. So without delay, we dined. The space was bare bones and casual. The kitchen featured an open grill visible to the street as well as the dining room. Having dealt with the requisite delays and airport difficulties associated with a flight out of O’Hare, we were both quite famished. So we started with the appetizer combo platter, which featured myriad vegetarian delights - I believe eight in total. I particularly liked the white bean salad and the baba ganouj. For my main course, I ordered the beyti kebap, which is ground lamb wrapped in Turkish flatbread and baked, topped with “special” sauce and fresh yogurt. The special sauce was essentially a spicy marinara sauce, but the yogurt, generously placed in the center of the divided beyti so complemented every aspect of the dish, bringing it all together seamlessly into one of the better bites in recent memory. Reenergized, we headed down to the Mission to drink some local microbrews and play Ms. Pac Man.
The next morning we set out walking, our ultimate goal to cross the Golden Gate bridge and head down to Golden Gate Park. We left our Union Square hotel and ascended Grant Street towards the gates of Chinatown. Before crossing the threshold though, we sat outside and drank cappuccino at Café de la Presse. It had been too long since we’d felt the warmth of direct sunlight for us to not merely sit, relax and enjoy it before we did anything else. I really took to that little Café, it was charming, quite Parisian in its décor, and while the cappuccino was expensive, it was really, really good.
And so we embarked, walking in and out of multiple bakeries in Chinatown until we found one that fit the bill. When we found what we were looking for, we got rather overzealous and carried away six Chinese buns to take along with us on our journey. We wasted no time though, and dug right in. I went straight for the char siu bao, a yeasted bun enveloping sweet, tender barbequed pork. The Chinese buns had been a matter of discussion for days leading up to our departure, and I had been quite excited to gorge on them as a result. The curried beef bun was rather good, though I prefer the pork. We also had a scallion bun, which, though initially untouched came up in the clutch on Friday morning when our stomachs were calling for something, anything, solid. I had been told tales of the coconut bun, convinced that the sweet, crunchy topping was what memories were made of. It was good, but I preferred the savory buns, and I am not a huge fan of dried coconut, so the paste on the inside really did not appeal to me.
As we were walking down Chestnut, popping in and out of stores as we saw fit, we stumbled upon A16, which I had read much about. Since it was about two o’clock and we had done a ton of walking already, we felt a glass of wine (or a half carafe) was well deserved. But what is afternoon wine without cheese and sausage? Nothing, I tell you. Accordingly, feasted on fennel sausage and burrata cheese. Now, I must admit - I have a borderline obsession with burrata. Gooey, creamy, chewy, soft, burrata is a being all its own, the mild cheese succumbs to the weight of your tongue, enveloping it with its milkiness. It’s sometimes hard to find, but I suggest that if you’ve never had it before and you stumble across it, whether in a store or on a menu, order it. You won’t be sorry. We ate and drank at the bar, conversing with the bartender the whole time, asking for advice on where we should go, what we should see. The sausage was great, and plentiful, as was the cheese, and though we didn’t order any of the pizzas, we watched as one was placed further down the bar and it looked great. Though I cannot attest to the main courses or dinner-time atmosphere at A16, which I know is busy every night of the week, our hour at the bar was entirely pleasant and the food was simple and of great quality.
The next morning we went to try out Ti Couz before a walk around the Mission and the Castro on a gorgeous day. We arrived expecting a wait, especially since we wanted to sit outside and enjoy the sun for the first time since last October. We waited. And waited. And watched as four tables sat empty for a good 30 minutes before anyone bothered to clear them and sit other people down. Our wait probably ended up being 45 minutes or so. And once we sat down we were fully ignored, we had to ask the host (who I’m convinced was superman, as he was carrying plates, bussing tables, seating guests, wiping down tables) to ask our waitress to please help us. We ordered drinks, then a few minutes later we requested a salad and crepes, one with mushroom, gruyere and crème fraiche, and one complete, with ham, cheese and a sunny-side up egg for me. Our salad came rather quickly, and was in fact quite good, as were the crepes, if you like that sort of thing. The complete was far better than the other, as the salt from the ham provided much of the flavor. What about our drinks, you might ask? Oh, those came after – after the salad, after the crepe. And the bread we were promised with our salad? Well that never even made it to the table. Now I’m not fully hating on Ti Couz, I really liked the atmosphere, and when the food made it to our table it was very good, not great, but I guess I’ve yet to eat a transcendent crepe. I didn't mind the relaxed attitude the wait staff exuded, and I appreciated that we were allowed to linger after our food was taken. I mean, its not like I was really in a rush to get anywhere, but almost two and a half hours for a couple of crepes and a salad seems a bit ridiculous, even in hindsight.
What came as most of a shock to me about the San Francisco culture was how early everything got going, but more importantly, what time everything got wrapped up. We had been excited for a German-style brauhaus experience at Süppenkuche, though I had read mixed reviews we thought it would be a fun time to sit around, drink giant beers and feast on no-frills cuisine. Thinking we were really hedging our bets, we arrived to request at table at eight, only to be told that they were no longer taking names for seating that evening. Really? At eight? On a Friday night? Really?!? So we walked down Hayes and stumbled upon a trendy little sushi joint that I had read reviews of in my pre-departure search for culinary destinations. We left our name, departed down the street for a drink and came back when we were called. Though the food came slowly, the service was incredibly nice and accommodating, our waitress in fact gave me her phone number in case we had trouble finding trouble to get ourselves into, and the sushi was very good. We had no intention of rushing our meal along anyway. The uni I ordered was stellar. I was slow to take to the uni craze, but I attribute that to the fact that the uni I tried early on was not the freshest, not the best possible uni out there. And when you’re dealing with a substance such as sea urchin roe, it needs to be of superior quality. Something custardy, smooth, buttery and rich in its most pure form can be downright nasty when it’s not fresh. The yellowtail (I forget the precise type I tried) was great, as was the eel, which was soft and subtly sweet. Sebo was not a bad place to stumble into after all.
Our dinner at 1550 Hyde was an equally pleasurable affair. We walked in a few minutes late for our reservation, but were seated immediately. The space was intimate, reminding me much more of New York than Chicago. With no more than a quiet din from the other diners reaching our table, our conversation was held at a normal level with no need to strain to hear across the table. The menu was quite small, and in fact nothing really jumped out at me from the get-go, which usually is not such a great sign. Though dining at a wine bar, I was unable to make up my mind as far as red and white goes, so I just went for beer to make my life easier. I chose an oatmeal stout, which was heavy, but nice. We began our meal with a couple of salads, one of grilled romaine with chorizo and the other an avocado and fennel salad with citrus vinaigrette. They were both quite good, refreshing and perfect for winding down a warm day. Andrew ordered the fried chicken, in what would become a theme of the trip, while I got the seafood stew with shrimp, mussels, clams. It was good, though maybe short of great, but I managed to muster up the strength to finish it all, so that must say something. The food was all very fresh, and very carefully prepared with the utmost care and deference clearly given to the selection and preparation of the ingredients. It didn’t break the bank either, and was great for a nice, cozy Saturday night.
I’m going to skip ahead now until Tuesday, since Sunday we were mostly in Palo Alto and Monday we hit up Napa, a fantastic day to which I will devote a different post. One of the things we realized we had to schedule into our trip at all costs was a dim sum meal. We looked at a number of different books and while they all recommended different restaurants for dim sum, there was one constant throughout – Yank Sing. We walked over expectantly and apparently just beat the crowd; we were seated immediately but by halfway through our meal we espied a dense crowd at the entryway.
Nestled within a mall, Yank Sing seems quite unassuming, though it was soon clear that this was going to be a gussied-up dim sum experience. The dim sum started rolling out, and we began with fried scallop balls. Then came crabs cakes, then pork dumplings rolled in bean curd skin, then the mushrooms stuffed with chicken, then steamed shrimp dumplings (har gau), then greens, then fried tofu wrapped in seaweed, then the long rice noodles with shrimp nestled inside. The small bites descended upon us in a seemingly-never ending string, until our table was nearly covered with white plates of various sizes and dipping bowls as far as the eye could see. They cleared our plates, one by one, and though the boy across from me had grown increasingly full, nearly to the point of sickness, he was not done. We had to have Peking duck. Indeed, we had chosen Yank Sing because one of the books specifically noted that its Peking duck was not to be missed. I have an affinity for the steamed buns in which the Peking Duck is eaten – for which I give all credit to David Chang and his pork buns at Momofuku – and while duck is not my most favorite thing in the world, I gladly laid it snugly within the bun, brushed it with hoisin sauce and a couple of greens and dug in. The duck was quite good, though I would venture to say that even scraps of paper, brushed with hoisin and nestled in a pillowy envelope would be met without complaint from this girl.
Our final meal came at Café Claude on Wednesday afternoon after a leisurely morning enjoying one of the bottles of sparkling wine we had brought back from Napa. We had been in search of something close to the hotel, since we had to make our way to the airport and this seemed convenient and potentially promising. We entered the restaurant and were the first ones there for lunch service. Hidden on a quiet lane in an otherwise busy commercial area, Café Claude is instantly reminiscent of Paris. The outdoor tables tilted precariously on the sidewalk, the zinc bar was lovingly scratched - the charming imperfections that make Europe so endearing, yet we were in an alley in San Francisco. We shared a bottle of wine, dug into some crusty bread presented in generous amount in front of us and took our sweet time deciding on our orders. I settled on the Pan Roti, a pork tenderloin sandwich with grainy mustard, greens and an arugula salad with champignions and parmagianno cheese, while Andrew took to the steak tartare with its multiple traditional accoutrements. My sandwich was simple, and exactly as advertised, the bread was crusty, with great bite and the salad was devoured in order. The steak tartare was good as well, tender and flavorful. It was a fully relaxing end to a wonderfully relaxing week.
1550 Hyde St. (at Pacific)
A la Turca
869 Geary St
2355 Chestnut St (between Divisadero and Scott)
7 Claude Lane (off Sutter)
San Francisco, CA
Café de la Presse
352 Grant St. (at Sutter)
517 Hayes St. (between Ocatavia and Laguna)
3108 16th St. (at Valencia)
101 Spear St (at Mission)
Also of note:
Katana-Ya, where we had some pretty good ramen (advice: go for the richer broth, it’s well worth it). We had a craving, it hit the spot. x
430 Geary St (at Mason)
CocoBang, a Korean joint we stumbled into late Tuesday after the aforementioned dim sum incident. This was one of the only places still serving in our general vicinity by the time we were ready to eat again. We had hopes of the Korean fried chicken eaten religiously over the summer in New York, but we were disappointed. The bulgogi, however, was quite good, though our squid dish was disappointing as well.
550 Taylor St (at Post)