Spent the 9th through the 13th in the Bay Area, staying with family out in Sebastopol. We saw all the usual sights and toured the neighborhoods, but this trip was about food and started with our reservation at French Laundry. Ive made trips before that centered around food to Chicago, Dallas, Portland, Kauai, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico City, and Washington, DC. In many ways this was the best trip, yet.
We ate at five places for dinner. In order of preference (just for food), they were:
French Laundry (best service, too)
Gary Dankos (best kitchen tour)
Masas (best décor)
Chez Panisse (best ingredients)
Fifth Floor (best lounge/waiting area)
There were few poor or even mediocre dishes and several spectacular dishes. French Laundry was clearly the best, I think, with Gary Dankos and Masas very close and Chez Panisse hard to judge because of its different style and fewer courses, but still very good. Fifth Floor was good with some of the most interesting (at least sounding) dishes and most complex presentations, but over-priced and in need of flavor refinement. Dankos was clearly the best value at $74 for their fair-portioned, 5 course dinner with lots of extras.
Several highlights: the scallops with cauliflower and the foie gras with bee pollen at Fifth Floor; the peach and boysenberry dessert and the most perfect tomatoes ever in the salad at Chez Panisse; the mignardises, the salmon carpaccio with lemon oil amuse, the sea bass with pesto, ratatouille, and pepper puree, the golden delicious sorbet, and the crispy marrow at Masas; the port roasted figs and licorice ice cream, the Moroccan spiced squab, the lemon herb duck breast with plum compote (and wonderful carrot-ginger puree), and every dish on the tasting menu that we had at Dankos, including the glazed oysters with leeks and caviar, the chickpea crusted grouper, and the apricot gratin with pistachio ice cream; lots to like at French Laundry including the salmon coronets, the cauliflower panna cotta with caviar, the sautéed moi with leeks, the rillettes de lapin (rabbit carnitas), the corn pot de crème, the little mac, and all four of the desserts we tried.
We only had two real lunches, Slanted Door and Yank Sing. Loved the caramel claypot chicken at Slanted Door. Yank Sing has good food, but I think Ive just learned that dim sum just isnt my thing. I like it but it just doesnt do much for me. I prefer the more meat, vegetable, and sauce Chinese dishes.
We did snack a lot, though. La Torta Loca in Fruitvale area of Oakland is awesome, especially their huaraches with tinga. La Gran Chiquita close by has excellent tortillas for their quesadillas. Love the pizza at Cheese Board. Had some decent pupusas in the Mission. Ate very good brisket at Memphis Minnies. Wonderful Mexican chocolate ice cream at Mitchells. Dont bother with the gelato at Marco Polo; I think youd be better with what comes out of the supermarket freezer (and theyre rude).
Enjoyed shopping at the Farmers Market in the Ferry Building, but I would choose Berkeley Bowl over it. Hell, Id choose Berkeley Bowl over any market Ive ever seen. It probably even has more variety and better quality than the mega-markets of Mexico, Mercado Libertad in Guadalajara and Mercado Merced in Mexico City (at least for produce).
The biggest disappointment on the trip was service. Only French Laundry was exceptional with good course timing, attention to detail, and a general willingness to please. All the other places were very slow (the meal for two at Masas took over 4.5 hours) and made a number of minor errors like not filling water, putting ice in drinks when the person had asked for none, giving people the wrong dishes (in one case when the person had asked for no shellfish he got lobster), etc. I think the city in general may have a different sense of service because of other annoyances we encountered. Eg, Marco Polo only gave one taste of their gelatos. Zuni Café refused to let us order a couple of oysters to go on our way out of town (and it wasnt even busy; it was like 3:00pm on a Sunday). Its impossible to find a bathroom even at places like music and bookstores. Just stuff like that that you never think about in many other cities.
Though poor service certainly detracts from a meal, I was able to look past it when there was such great food. The Bay Area clearly has an excellent food scene. Balancing the service problems was the generous help we received from Chowhound. We ate dinner with the sage of savory, Paul H, and the belle of bon appetit, anti-foodie, and I very much enjoyed their company. I hope it was mutual. Im jealous of your Chowhound community and Paul H and anti-foodie were both excellent examples of why people are so active on your boards: good company.
Thanks San Francisco!
PS If you didnt think this was long enough. Ill be following it up with 5 more detailed reports, one for each day.