by Lisa Barlow
With the luster of Chez Panisse still casting its warm glow, San Franscisco has been a culinary beacon for the farm-to-table movement ever since Alice Waters opened the doors to her iconic restaurant exactly 40 years ago.
There is seriously delicious food to be eaten in this city. Much of it is influenced by Waters’ early recognition that good meals can only come from good ingredients. It is now more common to see the provenance of the string beans on your plate than it is to know the name of the chef cooking your food. But there is also another ingredient in ample supply here that is paramount to a good meal: technique.
Alice Waters’ strength was never her masterful pyrotechnics at the stove. She is still quite happy to bring an unadorned bowl of ripe just-plucked peaches to the table for dessert. But today’s young chefs, many of whom have grown up eating the flavorful produce of local CSA’s, are all about how those peaches carry intriguing layers of flavor and what might happen to them if you chef them up a bit. These kids have traveled and trained with great chefs all over the world, and they want to show you what they can do.
In 2009, David Chang, NYC’s reigning culinary impresario, famously insulted the San Francisco dining scene (perhaps directing his dig at Alice Waters) as being pretty much “figs on a plate.” But it is 2011 now, and the Foggy City has bested the Big Apple in the eyes of some food critics. Last month, Alan Richman’s GQ article I ♥ San Francisco, castigates New York dining as “predictable” and names 10 winning dishes that capture the crown.
Following Richman’s lead, here is my own version of the list. There are a few high-end restaurants that demonstrate the innovative elegance of new Northern California cuisine and plenty of others that serve simply great food. You won’t catch me making boastful claims about one city over the other. I’m a pretty loyal girl to my own hometown. But let’s just say, I can’t wait to return to the West Coast for dinner again soon. There are at least ten new restaurants I’ve been urged to try and the list is growing longer every day.
The scruffy Mission District is clearly one of most happening neighborhoods for superior dining. Behind its unassuming gray façade, Commonwealth is a luminous surprise. Chef Jason Fox, who donates $10 of every tasting menu ordered to charity, creates inspired combinations of fresh ingredients that are clearly influenced by other great chefs. His gorgeous sockeye salmon tartar with chiogga beets and fresh sorrel, comes hidden under a dome of frozen horseradish cream, a technique invented by Ferran Adria at El Bulli. (Rather fittingly, this was a dish we ate on the very night El Bulli was serving its very last meal.) Splurge for the tasting menu ($65 or $95 paired with wine).
Next door to Commonwealth is the permanent pop-up dive “Mission Chinese Food”, which still carries the name of a former restaurant “Lung Shan” on its signage. Like his neighbor, chef Danny Bowien donates a portion of his proceeds—75 cents for every dish he sells– to charity. This is Chinese food on steroids. The dishes are not exactly authentic. (His barbecued brisket is reminiscent of Texas hill country’s best and his warm custard with uni, salmon roe and shiso leaf is pure Japanese comfort food). But they taste the way you imagine great Chinese food should taste, full of intense flavors, varying textures, fun ingredients and enough spiciness to keep pouring the beer. Mongolian long beans are mixed with leeks, roasted chili, horseradish and garlic shoots were among our favorites. Dishes average $10-$12)
Note: Mission Street Food by Mission Chinese and Commonwealth co- founders Anthony Myint and Karen Liebowitz is hot off the presses. It’s a great read and a fun look at the chutzpah required to be both innovative and successful in the restaurant business.
Flour + Water
My favorite restaurant, also in the Mission District, is the thoroughly delightful Flour and Water. Chef Thomas Naughton has trained at two of San Francisco’s great restaurants, Gary Danko and Quince, but it is the time he spent rolling pasta dough in Bologna, Italy, that shines here. The alchemy that turns flour and water into pasta and pizza is brilliantly on display. Dishes are deceptively simple, yet disarmingly subtle and full of flavor. Farro noodles with braised rabbit and carrot blossoms carry a hint of lovage in a delicious and humorous homage to the rabbit and what it nibbled.
My son, Henry, insisted I visit the source of his favorite new cookbook. This wonderful little movie will tell you why. The line on Saturday was out the door, but I dutifully waited my turn for a slice of warm quiche and a frangipane tart. Show up at 5pm and you stand a chance of scoring one of the delicious hot loaves of bread fresh from the oven.
I love focaccia, pizza’s simple, yet fashionable cousin, and nowhere is it better than this little corner store on Telegraph Hill. In business for exactly 100 years, the Liguria Bakery makes only one thing in just a few flavors. Show up when they run out, and you’ll find the shop closed. And so I waited in another bakery line, happily chatting up locals who were here for their weekly fix. “Order the one with tomato sauce and onion” one lady stage-whispered. I did as I was told. Pillowy soft, and richly seasoned with the light coating of tomato sauce and a few sliced scallions, the dough has enough olive oil that when it is baked at 800 degrees, a delicious crust forms on the bottom of the bread. Forget Rice-a-Roni, this is the San Francisco treat.
I was told that this was where “ladies who lunch” tuck in, but it is also where you may find some of the city’s best chefs knocking back a glass at the bar after their shifts. In an elegant modern setting with a high ceiling and romantic lighting, this is definitely the “it” spot for date night, as we could see from the well-clad couples supping near us. Chef mark Sulliva
n’s splendid mix of local, seasonal ingredients with a few extravagant and (and decidedly non-PC) touches such as osetra caviar shows mastery in the kitchen. My favorite plates might have been his simplest. Ricotta ravioli with sweet peas and tendrils with a little pancetta and preserved lemon was close to perfect, as was the charred Berkshire pork tenderloin with crispy pork belly and shelling beans.
The Slanted Door
Traditional Vietnamese meets modern California cuisine in this stylish light-filled eatery housed in the Ferry Market Building overlooking San Francisco Bay. Chef Charlie Phan has created a magnetic hotspot that is as popular with local culinary connoisseurs as it is with the waterfront tourists who are directed here by their guidebooks. In an example of my favorite kind of fusion cuisine, our elegant lunch began with fresh oysters with a classic French mignonette sauce and continued with a glorious plate of “shaking beef “: grass-fed filet mignon, spicy local watercress and a red onion lime sauce. Dessert was a playful cone of litchi-flavored cotton candy that we ate with as much delight as the 5-year-old boy sitting near us.
Anchor Oyster Bar
What a nice surprise! Having hiked up and down San Francisco’s legendary hills, a friend and I ended up in the Castro District, hard pressed to walk another step. Looking up, with its cheerful sign and implied promise of cold beer, the Anchor Oyster Bar beckoned us inside. This is a tiny slip of a spot with a short lunch counter and a just a few tables squeezed into a narrow corridor. A peek in the kitchen revealed only a two-burner stove. And yet, the chilled plate of local oysters and the big bowl of steaming Greenlip mussels in a garlicky wine-infused broth that we shared were memorable. The neighborhood is fun to explore, and now you know where to eat.
Chez Panisse Café
Hello, Old Friend, you haven’t changed a bit. And that’s a good thing. Chez Panisse, despite all the hooplah about having altered the face of modern American dining, is still pretty much the same unpretentious place that it was when I first showed up at its Berkeley doorstep three decades ago. Alice Water’s revelation that fresh locally grown food tastes better than sad supermarket fare seems so obvious now. But when she first showed us that salad could be made of tiny leaves of mesclun and arugula, we had become so used to seeing only iceberg lettuce at the supermarket that these ingredients seemed revolutionary. Now, of course, Alice has the First lady planting myriad lettuce varieties on the White House lawn.
Because the restaurant is so popular, I have only eaten in the Café, Chez Panisse’s upstairs little sister. But that has made me happy enough. Dirty Girl Farm green beans with crème fraiche , mint and hazelnuts was simple and brightly flavored with a hint of citrus. The house-made rigatoni with shell beans, heirloom tomatoes and ricotta salata was delicately flavored, yet richly satisfying in the way that only warm plate of perfectly seasoned al dente pasta can be. Wood fired oven-roasted Monterey Bay squid was deliciously charred and complemented by frisée salad with sherry vinaigrette and a fat tranche of pan con tomate with aioli. Each ingredient may be encouraged to stand simply on its own at Chez Panisse, but together they make quite a synergistic presence.
In Sausalito, just over the Golden Gate Bridge, Sushi Ran just may be the Bay Area’s best Japanese restaurant. Led by two chefs: “world champion sushi master” Nori Kusakabe at the sushi bar, and Scott Whitman, who trained at the Cordon-Bleu California Culinary Academy, this is a restaurant that manages to please both traditional sushi lovers and those in search of new Californian cuisine. The pristine and generous sashimi plate comes with fresh wasabi, which is infinitely better than its pasty powdered stand in. Hijiki salad with carrots and a plate of king trumpet mushrooms sautéed with salsify, onion jam and mizuna were great appetizers. A side order of crispy aji nori potatoes, lightly flavored with sprinkles of seaweed, are so good they will lure you back across the bridge just for another crunchy, sea-salty bite.
Owned by the same team that started the successful Nopa and its Mexican sister Nopalito in San Francisco, this new Sausalito secret was a wonderful discovery. Even though she left this month, Kim Alter, Plate Shop’s original chef and co-creator, has left her mark with the gorgeous container garden she planted in the restaurant’s back yard. Sit by the back window and you can gaze on the pretty lemon tree and galvanized tins burgeoning with baby greens and fat tomatoes. Everything from the garden finds its way to diners’ plates. New chef Peter Erickson’s menu includes pressed cantaloupe (using a process that condenses the melon’s flavor) complemented by roasted pine nuts and feta cheese. Buttermilk-fried rabbit is crispy and lightly seasoned, a fun variation on a southern-fried staple.
The Lighthouse Cafe
Because I was staying in Sausalito, I ate here twice. There are plenty of gourmet tables at restaurants overlooking the water, but this little lighthouse-themed diner on the wrong side of the street was the perfect place for both breakfast and lunch. This isn’t a chef driven experience. It is simply great food. Owned by a Danish couple, you will find a Scandinavian twist to the menu. The excellent Norwegian smoked salmon is served with tomato, capers, red onion and a very decent toasted bagel. But by all means go for the Danish Lunch Plate if you can. Beautifully rare pieces of cold roast beef and two hefty Danish meatballs come with freshly grated horseradish, pickled beets, marinated cucumbers and potato salad. This would be a fun place to start your day tour of Sausalito after a ferry ride across the bay from San Francisco.
The day we headed to Napa, both Thomas Keller’s Yountville bakery, Bouchon, and his casual eatery Ad Hoc, were closed. My trusty iPhone apps led me to Bistro Jeanty and I feel like I hit the jackpot. The food here is flawless. French bistro dining is perfect for an outdoor lunch in grape country. Chef Philippe Jeanty has been cooking French food in America ever since he arrived from France in 1977 to open Napa’s first fine dining establishment for Domaine Chandon. Twenty years later, when he went out on his own, Bistro Jeanty was born. The menu is full of French favorites such as pig’s feet, snails and blood sausage. But less adventurous eaters will be happy with lemon sole simply prepared with caper butter or a classic Coq au Vin. Beef Bourguignon was not just textbook perfect, but the best I’ve ever eaten.
Last on my list, and the easiest to procure, a lovely piece of cheese. We never made it to any of the cheese makers I meant to visit in Northern California. But Cowgirl Creamery, which has stores in San Francisco’s Ferry Market Building and in Point Reyes, north of
the city, as well as Washington, D.C., offers a panoply of great picnic ingredients. In Point Reyes, we picked up a fat, bloomy Mt Tam for our trip to see the elephant seals lolling on the shores of Point Reyes State Park. Fat and buttery, this triple cream cheese is supposed to be reminiscent of white mushrooms and a bit earthy. Heavenly is more like it, especially paired with the Châteauneuf-du-Pape we heretically brought to California wine country and sipped from repurposed water bottles, having forgotten any picnic ware.