Monday, 9 July 2007

San Francisco Treats

I could write an entry about every single thing I ate, and lots of things I only looked at, while I was in San Francisco. Unfortunately that’s too much of an undertaking right now, so here are some of the highs (and lows):

The Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market at the Embarcadero:

This is the ultimate farmer’s market, especially at this time of year. Cornucopia would be an understatement. There is a (well, at least one) reason why most of the produce in the U.S.A, and in fact a lot of the fruit sold around the world, is grown in California; the climate is perfect for it. Year round sun and very little cold make for a very long, almost interminable, growing season.

What you get at the Farmer’s market is the perfect mix of people who care about farming, the environment, and of course, taste. There were many small, local growers, some organic, and there was a wild variety of produce. Not only were there yellow peaches and (exotic in some places) white ones, but varieties like the strawberry peach – so juicy and sweet I thought it might have been steeped in syrup. And these onions were the size of my forearm.



Mushrooms were equally well represented. In the ferry building there are many gourmet stores selling everything from chocolates to cutlery, and many stalls were selling ready made food. We sampled tamales (cornmeal steamed in a husk) for the first time, and although I have no others to compare it to, it was fabulous.



Bar Tartine, The Mission District:

Bar Tartine
was a chowhound discovery. I already knew about it’s sister joint, Tartine Bakery, from ogling over their cookbook – it’s been on my Amazon wishlist for months. But when I found out they had a restaurant (and people on Chowhound gave outstanding reviews overall, so I knew it would be good) I had to go.

Jan hasn’t stopped talking about it since, and he’s a bread connoisseur, so you know the bread was outstanding. It was an open texture, wheaty sourdough, served with perfectly chilled butter. The gorgonzola stuffed medjools I ordered to nibble on came drizzled with rich balsamic. Although they looked a little underinflated, the ratio of date to cheese was appropriately high once I tasted them – the cheese just cut through the sweetness of the fruit at the end.

The rest of the food was a nice mix of traditional with innovation – quite typically California cuisine (more about that later). Jan’s ceviche was simple but well executed, my zucchini flowers were stuffed with brandade rather than cheese, a nice twist, and my gnocchi were so airy that might as well have floated to my mouth. My only disappointment was dessert – while Jan’s cheese came in perfect, manageable portions, my chocolate trifle was with caramel and salt ice cream was overwhelming. A quarter of the size, with more carefully calculated ratios of cake, cream, caramel and ice cream, would have been blissful.



The décor matched the food perfectly. Simple but beautiful pieces well combined. There was one of Jason Miller's antler-inspired chandeliers, white walls, a long banquette along one side, and wooden tables and chairs. The bar was a gorgeous, solid-looking piece of marble, and the partially visible kitchen was a gleaming stainless steel. The atmosphere was relaxed, as were the clientele.

Foreign Cinema, The Mission District:

It’s dinner and a movie. Literally. At Foreign Cinema, you can watch while you eat, from either the heated and covered (with a clear awning) outdoor area, or a little less clearly from inside. A great idea.

In the summer, the movie starts late since it’s too light to show it early in the night. We just caught the beginning of Pan’s Labyrinth as we were finishing our food, and it was the coolest part of the evening.

Jan has written off Foreign Cinema since the bread was disappointing. I agree that the bread wasn’t great, and that the food was not spectacular – it was good, but not great. This is not somewhere that I would recommend to foodie friends visiting San Francisco since the food is not the highlight, but I can see the attraction of something a little different for locals. And perfect for a date.

Tartine Bakery, The Mission District:

The greatest disappointment of the trip, maybe the whole year. We rolled up to Tartine Bakery at 1.25 on Monday afternoon, hungry for lunch, and with dreams of sugarplum pastries in our heads (well, at least in mine). I spotted the display counter from across the street – glowing and glistening with lemon custard and icing sugar. As we walked closer, I eyed the plates of everyone sitting outside – sandwiches and paninis on the delicious bread we had eaten at Bar Tartine a couple of days prior. I also saw something chocolately and gooey that was calling out to me. I opened the door and was greeted by the waitress with a lovely - “We’re closed.”

Now, this took me some time to process, as it was so incongruous with the picture of a full patio and many seated at tables inside, still being served crisp green salads. I asked if I could come in and buy a pastry – no. Sure enough, the sign on the door said they were closing at 1:30 for repairs. What perfect timing. Others came and left, surprised, as I stood on the sidewalk outside as if I had been hit by a bus. How could they be eating while I stood outside hungry? And this was my only chance – our last day in town.


Taqueria El Toro, The Mission District:

The bright side of my disappointment was that this gave us time to squeeze in a “Mission burrito” which the area is quite famous for, and which have been around longer than any fancy bakeries in the area. Stuffed full of meat, beans and rice at the very least, and potentially also salsa, cheese, guacamole, they’re hefty to say the least. And I only had the “baby” size.



Chez Panisse, Berkeley:

This is a destination restaurant. El Bulli, The French Laundry, The Fat Duck, are unequivicably in the same category, and are perhaps better examples, but there are many others.

Truthfully, our trip to San Francisco was born of Jan’s Christmas gift to me: dinner at The French Laundry. After many attempts, I gave up on trying to get a reservation. I think it would be easier to arrange tea with the Queen. But luckily I’ve always wanted to go to Chez Panisse, it is closer to San Francisco than The French Laundry, and I imagine it’s more my sort of place. I would love to have tried The French Laundry, but I am not the type to buy Thomas Keller’s cookbook and derive inspiration from it. It’s a league apart. Alice Waters, on the other hand, is like my culinary guru.

I first heard of her while reading Adam Gopnik’s book Paris to the Moon. He discussed how she was asked to consult on the menu for the new cafes when the Louvre was redesigned. He mentioned her restaurant in Berkely as the epicenter of a new culinary movement in the USA, now often called “California cuisine”, with seasonal, local ingredients as building blocks, prepared with traditional, minimalist techniques to showcase the best the market has to offer. I was mostly impressed with the fact that such a grand French institution had brought in an American woman to tell them about food. She had to be good.

Then I found out that Sally Clarke, of Clarke’s in London, had studied with Walters and emulated her ideals in her own restaurant and bakery. I still have yet to eat at the restaurant, but I had heard great things, and the bakery has always been outstanding.

I could go on and on about the many great things I have heard about this place. I am happy to say now that I agree wholeheartedly with everything I have heard. Chez Panisse is the type of restaurant I would like to have. Homely and warm yet professional, gastronomically innovative yet traditionally rooted, ethical without giving up quality, and ravely reviewed yet approachable. Even the graphic design and interiors are traditionally inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, yet do not have a “copy cat” feeling; they just fit.

Two friends who didn’t know I was going to San Francisco both asked, on my return, “Did you go to Chez Panisse? What did you have?” We had, between us:

Local hook and line-caught halibut tartare with avocado, cucumber, and cherry tomatoes, $12.00
Bellwhether Farm ricotta with roasted peppers, grilled summer vegetabes, and salsa verde, $10.00

Summer cassoulet with duck confit, grilled garlic sausage, shellbeans, and stuffed tomato, $24.00
Grilled Marin Sun Farm sirloin with shoestring potatoes and morel mushroom sauce hachee, $27.00

Nectarine and blueberry cobbler with peach leaf ice cream, $9.50

Since we ate upstairs at the café, we were spoilt for choices. Downstairs at the original restaurant there is a set menu every evening, priced differently on different days of the week. It is perhaps slightly more involved food in terms of preparation from what I can tell from the menu, but locals have told me the quality is equal.

The halibut tartare was the best dish either of us had over our four days in California. It was idyllic. The bread was excellent and the rest of the food was exemplary, too. The cobbler was as simple as it sounds, but it was perfect – the fruit was perfectly sweet-tart, the topping was buttery and light, and the peach leaf flavour of the ice cream was the perfect twist to take it away from something you may have dreamed up at home. It elevated the dish from comfort food to a step above.

Everyone in the room seemed happy.




Sonoma and the Sonoma Valley:

Jan is slightly sad about this part of the trip. Since we’ve been back from California we’ve only been drinking European wines. Having expected lush green vineyards, we were greeted by a dry, golden environment of rolling hills covered with heavily irrigated vines. The two vineyards we visited, while very friendly, lacked the soul that I was expecting. I am sure it exists, but I’ll have to put in some effort to find it next time.



The best part of our trip was Sonoma was eating the two perfectly ripe figs that Jan picked from the fig tree in the courtyard at the El Dorado hotel while we were having lunch. What was initially a rather ordinary lunch became very special.

4 comments:

Frances said...

Wow you certainly did a great deal of research about where to go for the foodie experiences. I would love to try Tamales.... I imagine you have to be in the right place, somehow I doubt you could reinvent the experience in central London.

There is a huge difference between the atmospheres of European vineyards and those of the west coast.. Simply a matter of hundreds of years of history I suppose!

Anonymous said...

i think i just got drool all over my keyboard. that was some top notch food porn there :o)

-alexa

J said...

Hmm, okay, I guess I won't bother trying the French Laundry for my honeymoon. I find the recipes are not so difficult, but they are time- and space-consuming. I used to read the cookbook before I went to bed but it is really heavy and gives me strange food-related dreams. T loves it because it declares that Lyon is the 'gastronomic capital of the world.' Remain calm, everyone!

Joanna said...

Jennifer - Apparently there is a trick to using OpenTable to book at the FL, you could try that (google it). I didn't bother with that because timing-wise I would have had to do it at 4:55 am, but it could work for you.