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LA hound on a weekend of chowing in SF – lots of fish and a loaf of bread that changed my life

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LA hound on a weekend of chowing in SF – lots of fish and a loaf of bread that changed my life

soniabegonia | Jun 8, 2009 05:23 PM

Just got back from a weekend getaway to your excellent city. The meals were planned by other people so all I had to do was show up and eat.

Day 1:

Lunch at Out the Door - I know Slanted Door has its die-hard fans but my experience on a previous visit to SF was less than stellar – one that left me with the feeling that it’s just a dumbed down version of Vietnamese food. Or, perhaps euphemistically, “modern Vietnamese.” Not that I have anything against “dumbed-down” versions of what some may otherwise find “unapproachable,” because many Asian cuisines, admittedly, can be a bit difficult for the uninitiated. And even modern Vietnamese has its place in the culinary world and can be delicious. Out the Door definitely has its place and is delicious.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a chic and inviting eatery in a mall. My instincts steered me away from the noodle soups because I just couldn’t picture myself slurping pho in a perfectly clean and modern, non-grungy space. Our waitress informed us that we will get our food as it is ready. Fine. In true Asian fashion.

Fresh spring rolls – ho hum, the dipping sauce was weak. Though present, there was not enough pungency of fish sauce.

Caramelized pork over rice vermicelli – The pork was tender but had a crusty, almost jerky-like exterior – it was apparently braised then roasted in a hot oven to develop a crust which provided an interesting contrast of textures. Overall, the dish was tasty with a nice balance of salty/sweet but the dressing could have benefitted from a bit more lime juice to really make it sing.

Lemongrass chicken – Overall, the dish was successful, though I would have preferred more jalapenos… but I understand it’s for the masses. I didn’t get much lemongrass flavor, though… I think it was masked by the other strong flavors in the dish. No matter – I still enjoyed it.

Brown rice was cooked perfectly al dente with no trace of slime that is so often found in brown rice cooked with too much water or cooked too long. Yes, it’s only rice but I’m all about the basics. Mushy or undercooked rice is just unforgivable. This rice was perfectly soft throughout but still had the satisfying bite and pop of the bran.

Steamed buns (lemongrass chicken, BBQ pork) – came at the end of the meal which was odd – but I suppose I can’t say we were not warned. By this time we were quite full and weren’t all that interested in buns.. nonetheless, I rather enjoyed the chicken bun with its pleasing hint of lemongrass. Pork was just ok and a bit salty and oddly sweet. I wouldn’t say too sweet, just oddly sweet.

Dessert was Beard Papa cream puffs which we smuggled into the SFMOMA roof deck and enjoyed with cappuccino from the Blue Bottle kiosk.

Dinner at Albona – I had read some interesting commentary on Bruno but oddly none about the food. After much agonizing over the menu, I went for 3 app’s:

Gnocchi in brown sirloin sauce laced with cumin – gnocchi were spherical, instead of the traditional oblong. They were quite large (about an inch radius) and dark brown on the outside. Even though the menu says pan-fried, I’m guessing they were boiled then deep fried to crisp up the outside. Anyway, I didn’t care for the texture – though I liked the crispness of the exterior, I found the interior too soft and mushy – like deep-fried mashed potatoes. I prefer my gnocchi slightly chewy. The sauce was heavy on cumin and was somehow reminiscent of Japanese curry, even down to the color and consistency. I wouldn’t say I hated it, but I wouldn’t order this again.

Scallops in a lemon, prosecco, shallot, and butter sauce – this was my favorite of the 3. The sauce was buttery and lemony and perfectly seasoned. The scallops could have used a better crust on them.

Fried sardines with glazed onions marinated with red wine vinegar, golden raisins, pine-nuts – I was expecting deep fried sardines, perhaps dredged in flour for a light crispy coating, and I was certainly expecting a hot app. What I got was a cold dish of filleted sardines, fried, yes, but mushy from the dressing. This is my fault for not noticing the “marinated” part of the menu description. Though the dish grew on me the more I ate it, I never got over not getting my crispy deep fried sardines. I also found the dish too sweet and too salty. A lighter hand with the marinade and perhaps less onions would give the dish better balance.

Desserts (some gelato concoction and vanilla panna cotta) were entirely forgettable.

Day 2:

For breakfast, I walked over to the Ferry Building and got a cinnamon roll from Acme Bread and a cup of Blue Bottle drip coffee. Both were excellent, though I wanted the cinnamon roll to be a touch sweeter. This is highly unusual for me to want anything to be sweeter, but this only had a hint of sweetness, and I wanted just a bit more sugar to balance out my coffee. The texture, though, was outstanding.

Lunch was at The Rotunda at Neiman Marcus. I have to admit that I had expectations of a “ladies who lunch” kind of place with some rendition of bland spa food to go with it. And it certainly was a “ladies who lunch” kind of place, but it was also so much more. The space is stunning, the service was excellent, and the food, infinitely better than your average department store restaurant.

The shot of chicken consommé was intensely flavored and perfectly clear – a proper consommé, which is rarely found anymore because there’s just no appreciation for the art of consommé.

Popovers with strawberry butter – I’d go back just for the free popovers. Another thing one never finds on menus anymore. I mean, these alone were worth the price of the meal – light, airy, eggy, doughy, chewy, crusty, all at the same time. One could do a whole paper on the science and architecture of the popover. And another on the experience of eating one. And they offer seconds! One almost feels guilty getting seconds of these treasures at no cost. But the guilt passes quickly.

Black cod w/ ginger braised daikon & haricot vert–The daikon was braised, then given a quick sauté for a crust. I didn’t detect much ginger. The fish was cooked perfectly and had that beautiful buttery flavor that I love about black cod. The sauce was a bit oily and undersalted and not every component of the dish was excellent on its own, but everything worked beautifully and was perfectly seasoned when enjoyed together.

I had another cup of coffee here, which was unexpectedly good.

Dinner was at Zuni Café – of course, this is an SF institution, but I had never been here in my 20+ trips to SF over the years.

I started with some oysters:
Ostrea conchaphila from Olympia, WA – I tend to prefer small oysters but these were almost too small to be worthwhile
Hog Island Kumamoto – not much flavor and tiny!! What’s up with that!?
Pickering Passage (Washington) – at our waiter's recommendation - big and plump and had a really great flavor going in. Unfortunately it had a really strange aftertaste, one of an old sweaty gym sock… Oh well, it was good while it lasted. I washed it all down with the excellent, spicy virgin mary.

Caesar w/ anchovy fillets on the side – much touted by our waiter, the salad was indeed excellent. I wanted the extra anchovy fillets because they were listed as house-cured, but were perhaps superfluous because they were too salty with the salad.

Grilled grouper with Yukon golds, mustard greens was wonderfully cooked and perfectly seasoned. I devoured this. The raw mustard greens were a great bitter counterpoint to the sweet meat of the fish, not to mention an interesting textural contrast. This was a discovery for me, as I had only had cooked mustard greens up until now, and I look forward to using them in cooking.

Day 3
Breakfast at Mama’s
Can it live up to its hype? I wondered. I ordered pancakes, in my mind the litmus test for the worthiness of a breakfast joint. These were indeed good – airy yet sturdy with a burst of fresh buttermilk flavor and lightly sweet. I didn’t care for the invert maple syrup they came with but it didn’t matter because they didn’t need any syrup.

Their coffee needs work – bordering on Denny’s style.

So bottom line: did it live up to the hype? Not fair to say after only 1 meal. Were the pancakes great? Yes. Were they worth the 45 minute wait? No. Would I go back? Yes, if only to try other things so I can determine if it is worthy of the hype.

After breakfast, I walked up to Coit Tower and down the Greenwich steps to the Embarcadero back to the Ferry Building. I feel like a trip to SF is only complete if I walk the Embarcadero. I picked up a sour baguette at Acme to bring home and a peach/pancetta pizza at Frog Hollow for the trip home. The pizza was so-so but the baguette is perfection. The crisp/crunchy crust and pleasantly chewy and deeply sour interior make me jealous of you lucky people with daily access to this amazing bread. I find myself picking up the fine shards of crust with my finger tips. When was the last time bread made me do that? Never! La Brea Bakery pales in comparison; they are not even in the same class. I never had a deep appreciation for bread because LA just doesn’t have any good bread. I didn’t really understand the fanaticism some people have for bread until now. This is life-changing bread. Truly.

So to sum up, the stand-outs of the trip were: the whole experience at the Rotunda, the discovery of mustard greens, and perfection in the form of the humble baguette.

Hope to return soon and next time I will bring back several loaves of bread and freeze them.

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