Having grown up in the Bay Area until I ventured to cold weather Ohio for college, I never realized how upside down the seasons are in the city. Though summer produce like fresh tomatoes and peaches still listen (for the most part) to the seasonal calendar, it is amazing how warm January and February are here compared to the actual summer months when the fog rests atop the city for 20 hours a day. After winters in Ohio and France, I’ll take the “summer” winters in San Francisco any day of the week…of course having spent two of the past three winters in Los Angeles, San Francisco seems chilly by comparison.
Now as the calendar shifts towards the heart of spring, the Bay Area weather is shifting towards…winter with rain and cold, gray days. Before it’s time to start preparing for root vegetables and beef stew season I guess, here’s a run thru of the past month’s dining around San Francisco and the Bay Area. For a full review of Gary Danko, visit the previously posted article here.
Judy Rodgers’ now over 30 year old institution on a still slightly gritty stretch of Market that isn’t really in any particular distinguished neighborhood, continues to produce some excellent examples of pure, seasonal Northern California cuisine, a Chez Panisse without the pomp and circumstance, along with cooking the standards that have been ordered by first-timers and regulars for three decades. The roast chicken from the wood oven for two remains mandatory and deservedly so, though the torn bread salad below always seems to steal the show. House cured anchovies with shaved celery satisfy, so does the simply caesar salad, but neither needs to be ordered repeatedly like the chicken, the dense gâteau victoire (a chocolate cake to trump all others), and the fascinating frozen yet not espresso granita. I always go with rookies, so the orders tend to be the same, but this time around I branched out successfully to enjoy the pillow soft Bellweather Farms ricotta gnocchi, served simply with spinach in a pool of butter, enhanced by the crunch of pistachio. Yes, the chicken does take an hour leading to long waits, but service is always very affable and spot on with answering questions. The design of the restaurant is quirky in a good way, leading to some great seats, and some uncomfortable banquette seats with no soft backing on the mezzanine level. Don’t forget the hamburger late night and at lunch, the best in the city. Zuni will thrive for another three decades.
After several visits over the past two years, some things are constant at Nopa. Reservations are hard to come by, but are possible if you try for Sundays weeks in advance. The place is always packed with the big swell arriving after 9 pm. The pork chop, in whatever the day’s preparation is, remains the standard to measure all others. Cocktails tend to be very spirit driven, such as the mezcal heavy Manzanita.
New Discoveries? Outside of that burger at Zuni, the best burger in the city, needing no dressing even because of the caliber of beef. On a homemade bun that holds up to the juice dripping grass fed meat perfectly and a few pickled onions, perhaps a dab of harissa aioli meant for the fries and a topping of gruyere cheese, this is a truly magnificent burger. As is the roast chicken, possibly even better than the Zuni version. Here it came atop an addicting pile of bulgur wheat with asparagus, walnuts, and arugula. Flatbread is always mandatory, especially this time when topped with smoked bacon, potatoes, spring onions, and crescenza. The Moroccan vegetable tagine is always a good bet, but seemed to have a more robust broth. The most skillfully created dishes showed the talent chef Jossel has with vegetables: delicate Nantes carrots with a tapenade speaking of Provence and a salad based on toasted farro with avocado, spiced chickpeas, oranges, and some more of those Nantes carrots. The little fried fish are always the perfect nibble and the dessert list short and sweet. Go for the sopapillas or if available, a textbook pecan tart in a strong whiskey sauce with an excellent butterscotch ice cream.
Flour + Water
Two years in and Thomas McNaughton is firing on all cylinders, creating Italian inspired California cuisine or vice versa, at this loud, rustic, corner where modernity meets tradition and the Mission meets No Man’s Land. Pastas are always breathtaking, never straight-forward, often rich but with a gentle touch. Razor thin squid ink corzetti thrives with homemade pork sausage and clams, along with a Calabrian chile blast. So too does the paccheri with polpettine, brilliantly paired with woody broccoli di ciccio and briny taggiasca olives. McNaughton is a master with pizzas, which I consider the best crust in the city, and with Gialina, the best pizza period in the city. You can’t go wrong, especially the funghi pizza with nettles, taleggio cheese, and both black trumpet and hedgehog mushrooms. Maybe the most intriguing fish was a citrus and olive oil octopus confit appetizer with the confit made the seafood seem like tuna fish. Atop marinated beets, kohlrabi, and radish, this was a brilliant creation from usually hum-drum ingredients. It’s hard to skip the chocolate budino for dessert with espresso caramel cream and sea salt, even when you can keep eating pasta after pizza. Service has found its groove, the room is great if you don’t mind knowing your neighbors, and come at 8 pm on a Thursday and you may not have to wait, which somehow happened for me.
The newest addition to Claude Lane (Gitane, Cafe Claude), a back alley in the Financial District, dominated by the glassed in kitchen and tiny horseshoe front bar, Claudine looks and is a jewel box. Lunch or dinner, be certain to start with the quintessential green goddess salad, given a spring freshness here from pickled spring onions and English cucumbers. If you come for lunch, the must order is a simple sounding open faced tartine, turned into a special occasion from dill gravlax, avocado, and Spanish black radish. It’s as satisfying a lunch there is anywhere.
Swan Oyster Depot
Since 1912, tourist after tourist after local have enjoyed the cracked crab with butter or on a bed of iceberg lettuce with louie dressing, and a pint of Anchor Steam at this Polk Street legend. The 18 stools at the counter means an inevitable line, but it’s always worth it for the classic San Francisco experience. It’s festive with the brusque yet comical Sancimino cousins hosting the eclectic clientele. The clam chowder is excellent but could use more clams. Besides the crab louie, the newest mandatory order is the house smoked salmon on rye bread. You won’t think of smoked salmon the same way again.
St. Michael’s Alley
Palo Alto’s only real stab at high end, California cuisine tends to be a tad stuffy and the preparations too rich and simple at dinner. My first lunch visit recently showed where this institution thrives. The salade niçoise is easily the best I’ve had, bountiful, fresh, with all the mandatory ingredients, plus perfectly seared ahi tuna. The reuben is spot on, even when it comes in a less glutinous (if possible for a reuben…) turkey version. Like the niçoise, salads shine such as the marinated skirt steak and cherry tomatoes one. And do be sure to try the ahi tuna sandwich, where the perfect sushi roll becomes a sandwich complete with the exact right amount of wasabi in the aioli and ginger in the slaw.
Salted caramel, roasted banana. Check. The problem is expanding beyond the dynamic duo. Brown sugar with a ginger swirl is a good contender, as is the pint only fascinating Mexican chocolate with salted peanuts. A seasonal orange cardamom shows successful ambition from Bi-Rite as does the plain ginger, both soothing yet packing plenty of spice punch. The winner could the ricanelas, a cinnamon ice cream with snickerdoodles. It’s the eternal problem at Bi-Rite. Which to choose? The legends or something new? You won’t go wrong either way.