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11 restaurants in 4 days: a NYC hound’s EXTENSIVE REPORT on first trip to SF

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11 restaurants in 4 days: a NYC hound’s EXTENSIVE REPORT on first trip to SF

Skillet Licker | Feb 28, 2005 10:32 PM

SAIGON SANDWICH

Compared to Manhattan’s two great bahn mi joints (Vietnam Bahn Mi and Saigon Bahn Mi), this place could almost be described as spacious: it seats 2 compared to 0 in NYC. Anyway, I ordered the combo (roast pork, pate, liverwurst) with great expectation. And although the sandwich was delicious, I have to say it was somewhat inferior to the super-delicious NYC versions I’ve had.

First of all, while my request for extra chili peppers was graciously met with a mountainous side plate of peppers, the peppers themselves were huge green slices of some kind of medium-hot pepper (jalapeno?). In fact, at first I thought I was eating garden variety green peppers and was easily able to eat the entire plate of chilies. Moreover, the sandwich lacked the complex counterpoints of warm-cold, spicy-savory, crunchy-tender, meaty-vegetal, that makes the NYC renditions so exciting. And there seemed to be several ingredients absent (tiny red and green super-hot chilies, chili paste, and several vegetables I can’t readily name). Although the roast pork was good, the pate was a little dull, and the liverwurst --is that the ingredient that looks like chopped liver? -- also tasted weirdly of chopped liver.

Nevertheless, I returned a few days later and got another combo, this time for my flight home. I felt truly privileged savoring a bahn mi on the flight when everyone else was choking down airplane wraps. I also loved the rice noodle dumpling-like things topped with what looked like egg and red fish roe, but which I’m sure were something else. Doesn’t matter, it was delicious. And the plain homemade yogurt was also nice. Wish I had tried the meatball bahn mi. Next time.

TADISCH GRILL

I love this place. I love the 50-foot? bar - longest I’ve seen, and I love the cioppino. I’ve never heard of this dish before, simple as it is. Is it a San Francisco treat? Anyway, this was the perfect just-flew-into-town meal. We wanted good food, of course, in a relaxed yet sophisticated and characterful environment, and close to Union Square. This place scored high marks on every count. I really dug the super-sour sourdough (where do they buy it?). We both ordered cioppino which was zesty and fun and chock full of sea creatures (my favorite was the scallops). And contrary to admonitions concerning rude service, our bartender-waiter was quite friendly. This is a place to which I’d definitely return, though not necessarily immediately.

ROSAMUNDE SAUSAGE GRILL (and TORONADO BAR)

I wanted to love this place. I was primed and ready and receptive to love it. But it didn’t quite work out. First of all, the bread was pretty good (though I prefer crustier), and the selection of sausages was tempting and admirably homemade. I wound up getting the beer sausage which I didn’t care for because it had no particular character (my girlfriend got the Italian which was better).

But the real problem was the toppings. I’m serious about sausage (as I am about all things gastronomic) and I’m used to the eastern European way of doing sausage: crusty roll, sausage, mustard. Period. When offered my choice of two toppings from among the usual suspects: sauerkraut, fried peppers, onions, chili, I blunderingly assented to sauerkraut and peppers, which destroyed the sandwich. I can’t understand why a serious sausage monger would defile his artisanal links with crude pedestrian dreck. But then again, I guess the neighborhood demands hot dog stand-style condiments. The German potato salad was good. And I really loved taking the jaunt next door to the Toronado armed with sausages and thirsty for exotic beer. I’d go back and try more sausages sans toppings.

ZUNI CAFÉ

We were perched on the 2nd floor bridge over the oven, which was an interesting semi-secluded berth. Weirdly, for a scene restaurant, the visual lines are amusingly fragmented due to the many rooms and one is never glimpsing more than a small portion of the restaurant. We started with a bottle of champagne and a global variety of a couple dozen impeccably delicious oysters. Then came a superb polenta cake appetizer. And, at the behest of SF hounds, we ordered the chicken for two and weren’t disappointed. Though I’d suggest to give this dish a bust up shot with a motherlode of roasted garlic and maybe some chili peppers. But I realize my penchant for garlic and spice would take this dish entirely out of the loop of polite taste. Nevertheless, a very good dish.

Of course, I wanted veggies with the chicken but was told the restaurant doesn’t offer side dishes as such. So our waiter assembled a selection of veggies served with all the other dishes that evening and charged us for a vegetarian entree (I think $16). It made the meal. The platter contained roasted potatoes, fresh artichoke, greens and several other items I can’t recall any longer.

The dessert – some kind of citrus sorbet - was truly disgusting: emetically sweet, sharp, gritty, and hideous, like they’d dumped a tube of the lowest grade syrup available onto some shaved ice and called it sorbet. Needless to say, it was sent back and we weren’t charged. Still, it didn’t ruin a very fine meal. Judging by your board, many seem to hate this restaurant. I didn’t notice that much attitude (by NYC standards) among the staff, and the food, dessert excepted, was faultless. Perhaps I was just in a good mood with the champagne and all, and if I returned sober, maybe I’d hate it too.

FERRY BUILDING (the mushroom shop)

We were lucky to have a sunny Saturday morning for farmer’s market. Although we didn’t eat, it was a lovely scene. What impressed me most was the mushroom store. I have never seen so much sumptuous variety. I wish we had a place half as ass-kicking as this in NYC. Whew.

YANK SING

I rarely do dim sum in NYC, I don’t know why, but felt I simply had to go while in SF. And after a nearly five year dim sum hiatus, Yank Sing proved to be exhilarating fun. Although its hard to remember what we ordered (pretty much everything), the stand-outs were the bean curd skin, banana leaf(?) rice, chicken-mushroom dumplings, and the tea. The fried crab balls with gloppy red syrup were gross and the doubtlessly authentic spare ribs were inedible due to their miniature size and predominance of bone. Like at an Indian buffet, by the end of the meal I heard myself vowing to never eat again...anywhere.

VENUS (Berkeley)

We needed a spiffy good breakfast and Venus hit the mark. Fried eggs, bacon, biscuits, and hash browns (doused with the Mexican hot sauce provided on every table) was perfectly simple and simply perfect.

CHILI CHA CHA? (is this the name of the Thai restaurant down the block from Rosamunde?)

We dove in for a bite spontaneously -- we knew nothing about the place except that it looked cozy and promisingly spicy, given its name – and ordered their eponymous dish. The staff all seemed to be Thai and I asked that the dish (which consisted of rice noodles, vegetables, duck) be prepared at spiciness level 7 (the good natured young woman chef gave me a 1-10 spiciness range, warning than 10 was all but inedible). Level 7, it turns out, was lamely mild and the dish, though good, was nothing to wax poetic over. No harm, no foul.

MARIO’S BOHEMIAN CIGAR STORE CAFÉ

Nice little place. Very good cappuccino and espresso. The panini looked good. I ordered a caprese snack and it came, unconventionally, with pesto. I happen of late to be passionate about mozzarella and relish a meltingly soft fist-sized ball of super-fresh bufala. Alas, Mario’s was a big disappointment. Still, a cool place in a nifty corner outpost.

COLIBRI MEXICAN BISTRO

This place happened because I was looking for takeout to bring back to my girlfriend at the hotel. The bar was very inviting and comfortable so I stayed for a meal. This is an attractive restaurant with a huge tequila selection and cushioned bar stools. Beyond that, the three dipping sauces for the warm tortillas (they don’t offer chips) were good. The chorizo-stuffed shrimp were excellent, but there were only three of them! The black beans were completely unseasoned - not even salt or pepper. The tortilla soup and appetizer were decent. I liked the shredded salad of I forgot what (not chayote, not papaya, but like that). Nothing special except the comfy bar.

“THAT ITALIAN CAFÉ IN UNION SQUARE” (Café Il Rulli or something?)

On a sunny Sunday morning, Union Square was a delight. They make a very fine cappuccino and excellent panini here (I had the egg and bacon). I wish NYC had these kind of Roma-style places.

BUT, the management and/or staff here are nearly retarded. I had a Monty Pythonesque time of it. When you order a sandwich you’re given a number card with a metal stand to put on your table so the staff can find you and bring your food. I think, but am still not sure, that you are instructed to wait for your coffee near the counter and run it back to your table yourself. So after a long while we heard our number being shouted and came in to fetch our now cold panini. I asked why we were given a number stand if we were expected to serve ourselves, to which I received no clear response. I asked that the sandwiches be replaced with hot ones and that the cappuccinos, if they were ever made, could be redone as well. Again more waiting followed by more yelling. Then, when we retrieved our paninis, the cappuccinos had (presumably) been swiped by other customers. So I asked for new cappuccinos and was told that other people were waiting and that I had to wait my turn. I told them to make it now and that I’d been waiting like an idiot forever. They complied. So we eat our paninis without coffee and then went running again for our coffees when the shouting resumed.

Decent food destroyed by the stress inherent in a place without intelligent management. Which is surprising because evidently the city has given this company a very profitable license to set up in Union Square. Oh well.

CHEZ PANISSE

The most memorable and exciting meal of the trip. I was really impressed. First of all, the place (we ate in the café upstairs), though bustling when we arrived for our 2:45 reservation, bespoke serenity and polish. Our female waiter, it must be added, was a real professional: helpful and well-informed, personable, smoothly attentive, unbothersome. In short, everything you want from a waiter but rarely get, which is to say, someone who A) doesn’t ruin your meal with attitude or ineptitude, and B) actually enhances your dining experience. That said, our “dining experience” was almost sunk by the loud, lunching ladies at the next table (I’m a little sensitive, to these things).

Anyway, we survived the bellowing duo and had a fantastic meal. Inspired by the waiter’s comment that the restaurant believes in patrons sharing dishes, I ordered each dish serially, to be shared, except for dessert. Which means we had a five course meal. We started with champagne (or was it “sparkling wine”?) and a wildly good wild mushroom risotto. Then a crisp, clean, perfectly (which is to lightly and zestily) dressed green salad. Next was boudin on a crusty roll with coarse mustard and a watercress salad. Funny, what I couldn’t get at Rosamunde I found at Chez Panisse. Then a houmungously delicious and satisfying steelhead trout with savoy cabbage in a beurre blanc. Lastly, we ordered a plate a fruit sorbets (done right, unlike at Zuni’s) and a dish of awesome cappuccino ice cream with chocolate sauce.

It all came together: My virgin experience with California Cuisine, in a sophisticated and handsome setting, at the famous and fabulous mothership of the cuisine. Enough said.

Places I wanted to try but ran out of time or were otherwise thwarted:

SWAN’S OYSTER DEPOT - next call
BURMA SUPERSTAR - next call
WAT - we were in Berkeley on Monday, not Sunday, no cigar
CAFFE TRIESTE - too crowded
SAM’S (Tiburon) - no time
TANGO GELATO - no stomach capacity

Places I noticed while in S.F. that are now on the “list”:

There’s a bunch of ethnic places in downtown Berkeley that looked appealing (sorry, I didn’t note the names): the Ghanaian restaurant and, across the street, the Persian restaurant. Also, next to Chez Panisse there’s a Thai restaurant that boasts Lao food. I wonder if it’s the real deal?

STINKING ROSE - I know it’s touristy and kitschy, but I LOVE garlic. And everything seems to be served skillet or casserole fashion, which I like. But is it good?

TRATTORIA CONTADINA - very cute seeming neighborhood place that looks good

CAFÉ PRAGUE - wanted to go but were locked out by the throng within

PALACE HOTEL GARDEN - spectacular room, and the brunch buffet looked decent and Japanese inflected.

Places I read about since returning from S.F and are now on the “list”:

BALBOA CAFÉ

HONG KONG FLOWER LOUNGE - love the name

and lastly for bahn mi....
WRAP DELIGHT
and/or IRVING STREET CAFÉ
and/or LITTLE PARIS
and/or TARAVAL

Thanks for reading the report and for all the good tips. Till next time...

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