Flew in the Tues night, flight was long – fighting a headwind added close to an hour to an already delayed flight, too tired for anything but what was close to the hotel. Being on Columbus ave in North Beach we picked an Italian at semi-random. Ended up at Franchino, which seemed less tourist-bait and more homey than anything else on that stretch of Columbus.
The couple that runs the place could have been cast by the stereotype department for a 1940’s Warner Bros film. She the perfect friendly nonna, he, the gruff patriarch. Almost too funny, really. Anyway we ordered a Caesar Salad to share to start, which was bright and fresh tasting, with a good briny cheesy undertone. We then shared a veal picatta and a spaghetti carbonara. The veal was pretty unmemorable (and such small portions), not offensive, but nothing really stood out about it. The carbonara, on the other hand, was fantastic. NO cream. The onions were sweet, the cheese sharp, the pork salty and rich. A perfect carbonara. The nonna loved that we understood the no cream, and it made for some friendly conversation. All in all not bad for a random grab on Columbus ave.
The next night we had the blowout dinner, the one made ahead reservation meal at Benu. I was excited, as this was exactly the sort of place I enjoy when I want to step it up. I'm a sucker for an interesting tasting menu, I admit it.
The space itself is very lovely and low key elegant. The service was also very good; if it went wrong, it was on the side of being too much rather than inattentive. Almost all the waiters and runners were friendly, & the sommelier was great (had a fantastic pinot noir from the alexander valley – well suited to a tasting menu)
The tasting menu was long – 13 savory items, and 3 desserts (or 2 and a palate cleanser.) It started with a “1000 yr. old quail egg, with ginger and potage.” This was a bold 1st shot across the bow. It was beautiful, but the way an ugly dog can be beautiful. The almost-too-much taste (and look) of the egg was softened by the warm potage. While I couldn’t say it was the best thing I’ve ever tasted, it was good, and interesting as an introduction. If this was the 1st step I was ready for the ride.
Next came “jasmine chicken with dates”. It was cold and the texture seemed soft somehow. It just didn’t work as a follow-up to the warm and weird that had preceded it. Maybe in a different context I would have enjoyed it more.
Then “caviar, bone marrow, & lobster. “ While it was not the dish I was hoping for, it was good. It was a lobster cracker, denser than a shrimp chip, but the same concept, with a little caviar, and these microscopic cubes that looked like tofu, but had a super intense lobster flavor. There was also some freeze-dried bone marrow flakes. They didn’t do much for me, especially as I have just seen the same flakes at WD-50 last month, and put to better use. A good plate overall- a good b +.
“homemade tofu, abalone, chrysanthemum, moss” – This was a great dish. the texture of the tofu, the scent and taste of the chrysanthemum broth, the toothsome texture of the abalone all worked with and against each other– total success.
At this point we started to notice that all the dishes were very aggressively salted. Now I happen to like well-seasoned & salty food, so for me to note this means it was really uber-present. It was like that in just about every dish.
“oyster, cabbage, pork belly, fermented pepper” – tasty & a great study in textural contacts – I totally got what was being attempted – but the fact that less than a week later I really am not sure what it tasted like probably doesn’t speak well for it
“foe gras xiao long bao” – exactly what it sounds like. And that’s a good thing
“eel, feuille de brick, crème fraiche, lime” - crunchy fried eel goodness, like an undersea Moroccan cigar. this was like a little break from the tasting menu. very nice, and well placed in the order of things
“monkfish liver torchon, turnip, cucumber, salted plum, brioche” – I liked this dish very much, but I think the toasted brioche actually detracted from the dish. I mean I get that he was making a pun on liver and toast, but the subtle texture of the monkfish liver, and the delicacy of the taste were blown out by the bread. I ate most of mine w/out the brioche, and was happier for it. Because it was delicious.
“white sausage, black bread, XO sauce” – right on the heels of the monkfish liver, this didn’t work for me. too similar in some ways, and not successful enough to compete with something in the same vein. This was a shrimp and something sausage – the texture was a bit rubbery for me. It was just OK.
“ ‘shark’s fin’ soup, Dungeness crab, jinhua ham, black truffle custard” – I do not remember what the faux shark fin was made of, but this was a pretty tasty dish. but not so tasty that I really remember it well. again. but I do recall like the way the crab, the ham. and the truffle played together.
“fresh noodles, shrimp roe, tarragon, chicken jus” – I think this was a low point for me. Sad given the way I feel about noodles &tc. I rarely like very thin angel’s hair pasta, because it often feel like a dense clump of pasta – exactly not delicate the way one thinks it will be. It was just a bit clunky, and unneeded, given all the other food.
“milk-fed baby lamb, spring vegetables, parmesan bullion” – another very delicious yet somehow in the end nearly forgettable dish. The broth was really good, the veg were ok, the lamb tender. as I don’t recall not liking it, I assume I did enjoy it.
“beef braised in pear, lily bulb, celery, shitake mushroom” – a bit heavy to finish, but very rich and delicious. the flavors and textures worked well together, each bit enhancing the whole.
“fennel sorbet, rhubarb, sesame” – it worked as a palate cleanser, and the flavors were good. not a home run, but a solid entry just the same
“strawberry, granola, buckwheat, caramelized goat’s milk” – I liked this more than I expected I would – good ply of sweet and tangy, creamy and crunchy. If I woke in your house the morning after a night of passion, and you fed me this for breakfast I would not complain. but was it dessert? sorta
“chocolates” – ok. not more than that though. and if 2 people are at the table, and you bring 4 tiny chocolates, all different, you are creating problems. AT that price point, bring 2 of each. don’t make me bite tiny chocolates in half to share them. it’s not cool.
SO – overall I enjoyed this meal a lot. But it was not an unmitigated success by any means. I’m glad I went, doubt I would return. The room and the service were close to impeccable. The food was certainly experimental – but varied between too much and not enough so. The concepts and tropes of each dish were solid – the execution varied. And please – from a salophile here – think about how much you’re seasoning this food.
Next day I was giving a reading from my new book, in the mission (the reason for the trip). this was also the day to meet up with a bunch of old friends I hadn’t seen in a few years. The original plan was a late lunch at Mission Chinese, but it didn’t shake out like that at all. We knew we would end up eating several smaller meals over the day, as the poetry reading would fill our time from 6:30 to past 10.
In our morning wander we stumbled across The Slanted Door @ the pier by the embarcadero and decided to go for it.
wood oven roasted manila clams with thai basil, crispy pork belly and fresh chilies &
hue rice dumplings with mung bean, scallion oil and spicy soy sauce
Meghan had the
spicy vermicelli rice noodles with chicken, green cabbage, cucumber, mint, peanut sauce
And I had the
pho bo, vietnamese beef soup with prather ranch london broil and wide rice noodles
also some lychee infused ice tea
everything here was great. light and bright (much like the space itself with a gorgeous view of the bay bridge and the water and the hills beyond) well seasoned without going over the top. The dumplings were a perfect comfort food, the clams had good flavor, the spicing etc. enhancing rather than covering the briny clam-ness. The pho, while not the best I’ve ever had, was unlike any I’d ever had in its subtle use of spicing, making it a dish on its own, rather than one to compare to more traditional pho. I would eat lunch here again, anytime.
we met up with some friends who were coming to see me read around 5pm and went to Limon, an upscale Peruvian place, for some cocktails and snacks. I had a caprehina and some wonderful ceviche, meghan had some meat and some veggie empanadas – also really tasty. we also had a few orders of yucca fries for the table to share. If I lived in SF this place might be on the rotation.
After the reading met another old friend who couldn’t make the reading at a bar around the corner called Davya, which was a good standard bar – nice vibe, and the guy mixed a strong drink. Following that (it was approaching midnight) we decided tacos in the mission were a must, and we found Taqueria Cancun, on mission, which was doing a brisk business to the post drinks crowd. Great tacos. a perfect late night post bar chow. I had the al pastor, the chorizo, and the carnitas. all great, and a bargain price.
That’s the most of it (breakfast was at espresso places in north beach – on the sunny mornings we went to café Greco – more touristy true, but directly across from the hotel with tables in the morning sun. on the cloudy morning we opted for the more neighborhoody café Trieste, a place frequented by the Beats (it is ground zero for modern American poetry in that ‘hood) like Kerouac and Ginsberg, and neighborhood locals. If I lived in the area I would frequent it, but for just a few mornings, we wanted the sun to chase off the morning chill.)
As always I had a great time in SF – the only other city in the USA I could consider living in.
Ferry Slip, San Francisco, CA 94111
2288 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110
524 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94110
347 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133
22 Hawthorne St, San Francisco, CA 94103