Next week we’ll finish our visit to New Orleans, including a look at the greatest oysters and slice of cake to be found. Yes, po boys, Commander’s Palace, and a 1 am visit to Café du Monde will be on the agenda. We’ll also be back to the more normal programming schedule with each week’s features returning to their usual time slot.
Velvet Coffee Shop, New Orleans
Unlike recent destinations of Portland and Seattle where nearly every café roasts their own coffee beans or at least serves beans from local micro roasters, New Orleans isn’t too focused on coffee, and certainly on roasting its own beans. A café du lait at Café du Monde or iced coffee at a ubiquitous P.J.’s or Community Coffee is roughly the extent of coffee culture in the Big Easy.
Except at a tiny yellow house Uptown along a boutique and gallery filled gentrified stretch of Magazine Street, a neighborhood exemplified by the mammoth Whole Foods Market across the street. Inside that tiny yellow house resides Velvet, an excellent coffee and artisan teacakes shop that barely can squeeze four customers inside and has a barista area that takes up half of the quaint interior.
Dominated by a painting of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter staring at you as you order a spanish latté, Velvet is a little slice of the third wave coffee generation that has swept across the country much the same way local, organic, seasonal cooking and artisan mixologist cocktails have.
More places like Velvet need to pop up in New Orleans and cities everywhere. The espresso beans come from Portland’s Stumptown Roasters, other beans are provided by Intelligentsia. Velvet’s espresso is deeper than any I had at various Stumptowns in Portland, full of tarragon and pine notes. Don’t even think of leaving without trying the chocolate chip scone that could be served at high tea with Her Majesty The Queen.
Merchant, New Orleans
The espresso comes courtesy of Illy, a nod to this very modern Italian style café in the Central Business District that takes pride in its “coffee, crepes, and grapes.” Being Illy coffee, the espresso is watery and lacking distinction. Better to veer towards an iced coffee or cappuccino. Afternoons bring the intriguing wine list including a rosé from Joe Bastianich, along with small plates such as a lighter, small take on the croque monsieur with duck confit, goat cheese, olive tapanade, sweet roasted peppers, and arugula. Best at any time of day would be a pastry from the Manhattan Jack bakery, a breakfast croissant sandwich, or really, some of the best crepes this side of Brittany. What goes in the crepe? No debate, nutella and banana s’il vous plaît. You’ll often find gypsy singers performing a genre that lies somewhere between jazz, alternative, and folk, and a squeaky clean atmosphere that would fit right into Downtown Milan.
Pesce, San Francisco
It’s tough to say which is the jewel of restaurateur Ruggero Gadaldi’s crown in San Francisco– the exceptional cocktails, meatballs, and acceptable pizza at the eternally buzzworthy Beretta in the Mission, or Pesce, his much more civilized and grown up seafood bar and Venetian small plates Russian Hill destination on Polk Street, sharing the role as mature adult with La Folie in a neighborhood known as the fraternity basement of the city.
The Venetian small plates, known as cicchetti, are a brilliant concept, with a small twist to each simple preparation keeping them alive and more appealing than just a plate of smoked salmon. Instead, house smoked salmon comes as a compelling bruschetta where the capers, red onion, and horseradish cream are complimentary to the outstanding centerpiece smoked fish. The braised octopus salad with potatoes, celery, and a perfectly balanced lemon vinaigrette looks and sounds like the first dish to skip, yet is a revelation with the crunch, smoothness, briny seafood flavor, and citrus acidity playing off each other as if it were a fully in tune symphony.
The crab tower interchanging Dungeness crab meat with avocado, cucumber, and tomato is the most epic of the colt cicchetti, while the knock out dish of the house is an Italian version of the San Francisco standard cioppino. Some spice enhances the rich saffron-tomato stew, given a delightful new addition of polenta cubes with the various crab, shrimp, clams, and other seafood items tossed about. It’s the best cioppino I’ve found everywhere, at a fraction of the cost too. Pasta in some form is mandatory, be it a simple, pristine linguine tossed with garlic, white wine, and Dungeness crab meat, or squid ink risotto with calamari.
A few cicchetti missed the mark, however. Scallops were pan seared to luscious, buttery perfection, yet suffered from a stark white on white presentation with a cream and truffle essence that also completely overpowered the scallops. Strangely in the heart of asparagus season, a side of grilled asparagus was chewy with a sour taste, topped simply with some terrific herb breadcrumbs and saba.
Dessert is mandatory–bread pudding with diced apricots and an unusually strong in vanilla flavor vanilla gelato is transcendent, the best bread pudding in the city without question.
Do also sample a dessert drink with the housemade limoncello or the sgroppino combining lemon sorbet, prosecco, and vodka. I could finish any meal with either. Service is a notch above most places in the city, while the search for parking will take as long as dinner itself.
A mini empire has now emerged from Martin Castillo, one of the first chefs to bring Peruvian cuisine to the modern dining agenda in this country, long before Gaston Acurio brought his ceviches and lomo saltados to New York and San Francisco. Castillo thrived on Mission Street with his original Limon, a hip, bar-restaurant hybrid that featured modern interpretations of Peruvian standards, including a stand out ceviche trio. A fire closed that branch and Castillo moved to Van Ness Street, downscaling the modern interpretations of his native cuisine, opening Limon Rotisserie, with a focus on, you guessed it, pollo a la brasa, or Peruvian roast chicken.
Now the original Limon has re-opened as Limon, then closed as Limon, and re-opened as Limon Rotisserie, along with another Rotisserie in the Bayview neighborhood. A recent visit to the original on Van Ness showed that for the most part, life is continuing smoothly despite the expansion. The place was packed to the rafters, as loud as I remember the original Limon being. Pisco sours here rival any I had last year on a South America trip, perfectly frothy and balanced between sweet syrup and pisco, with the proper angostura bitters drops on top. You can easily have three of these before the night is done.
Unfortunately the service was beyond hurried, with pacing obviously not a word in their vocabulary. When the menu says food comes when ready, they mean it. And that’s not a good thing. The celebrated chicken arrived before appetizers did, about five minutes after ordering, forcing ceviche to become dessert. The chicken is perfectly moist, though lacked the herbs and crisp skin that can make pollo a la brasa so much more than just roast chicken. This was just roast chicken, a good version that can’t compare to Nopa or Zuni Cafe at half to two thirds of the price of the latter two.
The highlight of the evening actually are the aji sauces that come with the chicken, in particular the emerald green aji amarillo and the excellent chimichurri. Each chicken order comes with two sides: perhaps perfectly crisp yuca fries or the filling, unique rice-beans mash up known as tacu-tacu. Every table gets an order of empanadas and ceviche in some form. This version tasted more sterile than at the original Limon, too bitter a marinade and too pale a fish. Instead, a must order are the antichucos de Res, or beef heart skewers that provide enough funk to be unique, enough grit to be an abnormal meat, but enough elegant tenderness to be an altogether exceptional grilled meat dish.
Just don’t order the chicken immediately I guess if you’d like to have a correctly ordered and paced meal.
Nopa Cocktails, San Francisco
It’s no secret Nopa provides some of the most consistently excellent dinners (and brunch now) in the city: it’s impossible to choose between the flatbread, burger, roasted chicken, Moroccan vegetable tagine, pork chop…anything new as well from Laurence Jossel.
What is more of a secret is how consistently too strong or too light or too sweet or unbalanced in some form the cocktails are from the grand bar. It’s too bad that such an excellent restaurant and such a handsome bar still has not provided me a cocktail that can really be considered compete, despite numerous visits over the past few years. The Lowland Dram with Glenkinchie 12 yr. Scotch whiskey, Dolin Blanc vermouth, and allspice dram is essentially nothing but whiskey. Despite the Leopold’s apple liqueur and punt e mes, the Manzanita is the Lowland Dram’s mezcal overkill version.
The Courage was supposed to be a balanced, slightly spirit forward Bols Genever based drink. Instead, it tasted as sharp as the dry martinis at Tadich Grill. At the other end of the spectrum, the Sunshine Fix is an aperol heavy apertif with Broker’s Gin, angostura bitters, and lemon. It won’t inspire or refresh.
The only non clunkers, but still not flawless drinks were Paradis, a boozy concoction of Armagnac, Lillet and cardoon (similar to sunchokes) liqueur known as cardamaro, and The Aristocrat, a reliable take on the negroni with sherry added that lacks the poking, refined herbal taste of excellent renditions. Here, it tasted mainly of Campari, with a very enjoyable well-rounded finish from amontillado sherry.
Everything else at Nopa is the class of the city– food, service, atmosphere, wine list…let’s hope the cocktails reach that level too.
Churchill, San Francisco
Not to be mistaken with The Churchill in Los Angeles, this is a constantly crowded neighborhood bar with thoughtful cocktails on Church by Duboce Triangle, right on the border like the nearby, superior cocktail bar Blackbird, where the Castro culture meets Hayes Valley. Bartenders here craft an exceptional riff on the standby Negroni, but the Apple Brandy Ginger Hot Toddy was a warm, undrinkable mess, that could maybe pass as a cocktail after a day of skiing. Go for the Farewell to Arms instead, a Hemingway approved riff on the Hemingway Cocktail with rum and maraschino liqueur. Cocktails may be on the great side of good, but the real highlights are the impressive, compact craft beer list, and the ceiling made of ropes as if this were a 2012 seafarer’s tavern.
Steep Brew, San Francisco
A bar inside Whole Foods Market? That’s what I thought after initially hearing about this new frontier Whole Foods is trying to conquer. It’s not just a bar. Steep Brew is a craft brew bar in the basement of the market on Potrero Hill, amidst a food court that is much more Alice Waters than Panda Express. Indeed, the atmosphere is not exactly idyllic for watching the game or catching up with friends. This isn’t going to be a neighborhood pub, as essential to a neighborhood as a city park. Steep Brew does however have an astoundingly impressive dozen or so craft brews on draft, from world leaders of the genre like Mikkeller, and hyper local nano breweries such as Linden Street in Oakland and Pacific Brewing Lab in San Francisco. Best of all, though prices for a pint are a bit steep (pardon the expression) around $7. For the same price, you can get a quarter of four ounce samplers. There’s no mark up like at most brew pubs (Monk’s Kettle…) for the sampler. It’s a steal.
The atmosphere may be less Toronado or City Beer, more supermarket, but the beer list is nearly as impressive. Besides, how cool is it to drink craft brews after grocery shopping, in the same store?