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Belated (and long) report from Van Hound's 11th eating trip to SF Bay area


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Belated (and long) report from Van Hound's 11th eating trip to SF Bay area

grayelf | Jan 6, 2013 09:30 AM

Thanks to this well-responded-to inquiry thread: we had another wonderful gastronomic adventure in the SF Bay area in early November. Though the weather was the chilliest we've encountered in 11 trips, the welcome was decidedly warm. Sorry it's taken so long to report back but perhaps my ramblings will be of some interest yet.

Arriving at the tail end of a heat wave, we decided to try a Lers Ros walk in and were soon ensconced with excellent grub in the 'Loin. Thought I took pix but apparently not. Anyway another great meal consisting mostly of appetizers, which is where I think LR really shines.

Wednesday started with a battle to try to figure out my cell phone problems while the SO hit Matching Half for a cappuccino and some reading on the patio as the café was full on this cool and cloudy morning. We took the bus to Hayes Valley for a Firebrand Bread pretzel ($2.50) and a meatball sandwich on an Acme sub at Fatted Calf ($9.50; alas, they were out of the roast pork). Both were good but not earth shattering. The lack of line at Smitten netted the SO a Tcho choc chip and mint ice cream ($4.75) which had the most delicate, fresh mint leaf flavour. Did some window shopping along Hayes before heading to Westfield for some shoppingand a quick walk through the Wednesday Civic Centre farmers' market.

As it was nearing teatime, we headed over to Coffee Bar in the FiDi and nabbed a chocolate kouign amann and some lovely tea from Five Mountains for the SO called Spring Jade (took home a bag too). I was craving a pourover but their coffee water boiler was broken -- the manager kindly gave us two free coffee cards for our next visit in lieu. He also told us that the Coffee Bar outpost on Bryant in the Mission is carrying baked goods from Patisserie Philip.

By the time we were done, happy hour at Harrow was in order. This stop was a highlight of our trip. Harrow is my perfect happy hour bar, relaxed lighting but not too dark, comfortable ambiance and tasteful, not too loud tunes, plus they have draft beer for a fiver and glasses of wine for $6, and four small bites for $3 each. The SO sampled Allagash white ale on tap ($5) from Portland, Maine, which he thought he could taste some fresh hops in, while I took the co-owner's advice and tried a Vermentino ($6) which paired ideally with the pan fried shisitos ($3) she cooked in front of us. It's so delightful when a sip of wine enhances the flavour of what you are eating. We also enjoyed a dish of freshly toasted Marcona almonds ($3). They have specials from 4:30 to 6 but stay open till 8. Highly recommended if you are in the area around this time Wed to Fri.

Dinner Wednesday was Canteen for our first experience of the prix fixe there which is now what they are doing nightly. It was a bit louder than last time, and they need to restuff some of the benches! Dennis was in the house. A miscommunication about shellfish resulted in a lack of mussels on the SO's fish plate which was a shame, and the wine was a bit disappointing, which is maybe not a surprise given the brevity of their list. As usual, I liked the red meat the best, and the desserts were stellar. Another fine meal at Canteen.

Thursday morning The Mill was on my mind for coffee and TOAST! That day, the aptly-named Josey Baker had the evil-genius combo of fennel and raisin, served with Riverview Orchard almond butter and Maldon salt. Outstanding. The SO enjoyed his cappuccino while my pourover was just okay, a bit flinty for my taste. Too bad they only have take out cups for the coffee, but then again the place is still under construction and you get served from inside a tent. The store was full of SFFD firefighters which was kind of cool.

For lunch we hit Shanghai House, braving rain squalls that beat against the car as we battled our way out to meet some Hounds for lunch. My target was the soy sauce pork knuckle which Cynsa had kindly prebooked and it was indeed the highlight of the meal for me, and perhaps even better than last time. I was not a fan of the rice claypot at all. You can check out other thoughts on this lunch here:

After lunch, me and another Hound spent a delightful hour at Buyers Best Friend in the Haight, filling our baskets while the SO went to Amoeba Records. We hit happy hour at Flybar where I had the (wrong but a nice) sake cocktail ($4) and J enjoyed a $3 draft beer. I love that you can wander into almost anywhere in SF at this time of day and get a ridiculously low priced beverage. So not the case at home, where happy hour is actually illegal : -(.

After a quick change, it was off to Seven Hills via the wrong transit route (the 49 is not a nice bus, and kind of slow). Reports of the proximity of the tables at this restaurant are not exaggerated. We could hear a little too much of the conversation of the 1 percenters seated to my right  and photo taking was nigh impossible. We received a tasty amuse of romaine and Parmesan frittatta plus very good bread. The SO had the chicken liver mousse and fig jam from the While you decide menu for $4 and he enjoyed it. Then we tried the seared mascarpone polenta with roasted wild lobster mushroom and mushroom sauce ($11) and the arancini with burrata and tomato basil sauce ($12) both of which were tasty but not noteworthy. I had the ravioli uovo which is the most famous dish here and it is quite impressive, though I don't think it needed the truffle oil ($10.50). The SO had the Euvitis wild mushroom tortelli with brown butter ($10.50 for half order) which was again good but not exceptional, apart from the delicacy of the pasta itself. The pastas seem to be the thing to get here, though we didn't try any of the mains. The buttermilk pannacotta was not quite up to my standards (didn't really get the addition of the coconut water and the texture could have been creamier) but the huckleberries on top were plump and huckley. Beer was just okay -- I think it was the Firestone Double Barrel Ale ($4.75) from a choice of only three. Caught the Hyde Street car right outside which was a much faster and better route.

Up early on Friday to contemplate where to go for coffee. Cynsa called to invite us out to the Philz on Diamond, where we indulged in a kouign amann and a savoury quiche along with a wonderful mint mojito iced coffee for me. Something magical about fresh mint leaves in a cold coffee, who knew? Parking is a bit of a bear in this hood but it is a lovely, bright café on a corner in a neighbourhood new to us. Next stop was the Wave Organ after a sunny but windy walk. Not too much action on the organ as it was low tide but still neat to see it. The Potomac was on the water from Alameda alongside a modern Coast Guard ship, plus we got to see the Americas Cup sloop in full sail, according to a friendly local who clued us in. Pelican, sand pipers, crabs, sea stars, terns and big waves added to the nautical jauntiness.

And then there were the windmills by the Beach Hut Café, where we repaired to get out of the wind and use their wifi to decide on lunch. Don Pisto's won, so we walked back by the Palace of Fine Arts which was splendid in the sun and without the ugly chain link fence that was around the lagoon last time we went. There were crowds of tourists ogling the antics of a particular uncamera-shy pelican who could easily win the next cycle of America's Next Top Model. We caught the 28 up to the 31 and then on to Union. The burger and fish tacos we had at Don Pisto were pricey (both $11) but good, though I would have preferred the burger to be less cooked. I really enjoyed their green salsa. Also the crazy oven/grill/charcoal thingy (see bad photo). We walked off lunch by hitting the Filbert Steps to Levis Plaza in hopes of finding a nice coffee at Parlour 1255 but they only had prebrewed drip (and dang, is that place hard to find!). Opted instead to try our luck at the Ferry Plaza.

The Blue Bottle line was insane even at 4 pm, so we bailed and went to see if Out the Door still carried nougat (they don't). Took the F car to Mahvelous in search of tea but fell victim to another miscommunication: they have cheese, not teas. We waited for the 49 in the biting wind as I remembered there was another Philz up the hill but this one was not salutary. Bad chai, weak green tea and kind of a dumpy spot all around, though they did have half price pastries so I ended the day with another kouign amann.

Tonight was Bar Tartine. Sadly, the best thing about the evening was the bread. The "mushroom broth" as the mushroom gulyas dish was correctly identified on the bill did not in any remote way resemble goulash but more importantly was bland, boring and didn't mesh ($14). It was also a weird size, neither appetizer nor main. The deep fried langos or potato flatbread with sour cream was more or less inedible, cool and pooled with oil ($12), which we pointed out to the server. The lamb cabbage roll had lamb only inside (no rice; $26) and was too heavy, plus there wasn't enough cabbage to counteract the overly sweet sauce, though the SO liked the grilled hearts that came with it. My farmers' cheese dumplings with butternut squash main was particularly silly, consisting of 3 small dumplings in a blob of squash for $21. And they included the bottarga which I had specified very carefully I did NOT want as an add on. It had to be refired and came after the SO was finished his main. We declined the offered comp on dessert as they did not appeal. The waiter, trying to make up for the disappointment that I fear was evident on our faces after the poor dishes and the various service missteps (some of which I won't bore you with) brought us two mini-pours of muscatel which at least allowed us to leave with a sweet taste in our mouths. The langos was also taken off the bill. I would not return, however, as everything we had was overpriced and underdelivered on taste, though I recognize we are in the minority.

Sweet Woodruff for breakfast with Cynsa and her SO on Saturday restored my good food mood. The setting is a bit less comfortable than ideal for dawdling over your food but apart from the door sticking open resulting in repeated cold drafts it was decent for counter service. We got biscuits with Sawmill gravy and a poached egg ($10), Irish oatmeal with maple, brown sugar and fresh berries ($6.50), eggs Benedict with ham and Bearnaise ($9.50) and a side each of cheddar jalapeño grits ($5) and potato hash ($4) to share since the dishes don't typically come with sides. Really liked the biscuits and gravy with the perfectly poached egg, didn't love the bennies but that's a personal thing (not a fan of bread instead of English muffin or prosciutto instead of regular ham, and it's gotta be Hollandaise for me, plus ixnay on the salad at breaky!). The oatmeal (I wonder what makes it Irish?) was the top dish of the trip for the SO. It's not often you hear raves for hot breakfast cereal. I would return for sure, just be sure to ask for green onions on the side as there were a lot of them on several dishes. The pastries look worthy as well.

Though they had Front drip at breakfast, we all felt it was time to check out the mothership and so wended our way over to Front in Portrero Hill for coffee. Nice setup on a sunny day but no indoor seating (or doors!) as it is located in a refurbished loading dock. Good pourover, cappuccino and affogato (breakfast of champions!) made with Mr and Mrs Miscellaneous vanilla ice cream, also kouign amann from B Patisserie. These are lighter than the ones from Starter, with a more crackly top. Cynsa was an immediate convert but I still give the edge to Starter myself. They do refer to "espresso + milk" rather than lattes . There is a form of pretentiousness here I suppose but it seems to be born of a serious commitment to achieving quality so I was okay with it.

We decided to try Kuu'up for a late lunch. The food was more rustic than at Poc Chuc (as was the setting; this is truly a bare-bones taqueria) and the portions are huge in comparison. I liked it more than the SO did who was not too impressed with the flavour in the cochinita taco (too gamy for him). We also had a tamal de especies (colado), a salbute, a panucho and an empanada, plus some solid guacamole yucateco (though I'm still not sure what made it Yucatecan) and two passable aguas frescas for a whopping $20 before tax and tip. We only ate about half the food as there was so much.

After a bit more strolling, the SO headed to meet his brother and to dinner at Abbot's Cellar, lucky dog! and I wandered over to Xanath for vanilla, and to look in Her Majesty's Secret Beekeeper on 20th before making a beeline (sorry) to Mission Bowling for the happy hour burger. As sublime as before, and mine, all mine (not that I minded sharing with mariacarmen last trip). I ate outside again and the light was just lovely on the patio, resulting in this glowing pic of the beloved burger.

For dinner, the redoubtable Oakland Hounds met me at Rockridge Station and we repaired to Vientian where two more Hounds awaited us. We parked in front of a house that was literally rocking to the sounds of a quinceanera and had to restrain ourselves from going in. We weren't disappointed however, as $24 each all in soon netted us a feast. My top dish was (unsurprisingly) the nam khao, followed by the sai ooa. I didn't love the pickled fish this time (too fishy for me) but I think I was in the minority. I also preferred the mok pah to the mok gai. Contemplating making this a lunch stop next time and focusing on my two favourite dishes…

After dinner, the two Oakland Hounds and I headed over to Borgo Italia for dessert. This was an excellent plan, as I sampled an outstanding moscato di asti which paired wonderfully with the bigne mista, ciambella latte e miele and stellar panna cotta in an inviting room. I know there is quite a contentious thread here on this restaurant, but I would recommend it as an after-dinner destination, assuming the pastry chef is back in action.

Sunday morning called for a trip to Wrecking Ball with Cynsa. We lucked out with parking perhaps because it was not a weekday. What a gorgeous space, with beautiful high ceilings and café tables that give it a warm feeling, especially on a sunny day (and they have the coolest logo: I'd love to come back for some of the events they have planned for this space. Definitely out of the way for us though, or it would be in regular rotation, especially if they start stocking pastries. This was the best pourover of the trip -- I got to try two, the Ethiopia Sidama Shakiso and the Nicaragua Nueva Segovia El Progreso, both roasted on November 7, just that Thursday. The 1Up espresso also got the seal of approval from the SO. Co-owner Nicholas is very forthcoming about what he's trying to do and not remotely pretentious. We picked up a print we had been eyeing the day before on Valencia -- there is art displayed in the café too.

We headed to Divisadero to check out the local farmers' market. It is just a block long, but chockful of local produce and goods even in November. We sampled some unusual Achadina Capricious goat cheese (which has apparently been through a lot: and were given a free-cama (that's a free jicama, apparently just because we asked for confirmation of what it was, as I'd never seen such petite, thin skinned examples). Feeling the need for *TOAST* again, we stopped by Josey Baker's to try his new apricot sage bread. Drool. I am loving the fruit and herb combos.

Our next target was Little Yangon in Daly City for lunch, which turned out to be quite a short drive away courtesy of the Oakland Hounds. Another feast and funnily enough it worked out to $24 each again. We got the last fourtop in the place. The owner's niece had just started working there and she was so charming, helping us understand all the dishes and making perfectly pitched jokes, really sterling service. And the food was outstanding. We had samusa soup, okra curry, paratha and chicken curry, tea leaf salad, pulled tea, an awesome coconut crunchy dessert called Moh Se Kyaw made with rice flour so suitable for GF types and a side of sourleaf. One of the top dishes of the day was the pickled shrimp salad. We all loved it but was the fave of the SO. Springy shrimp bits in an umami-rich acid base with lots of red onions and cilantro, plus raw sliced garlic you could add to taste. In addition we had a deep fried tofu which rivaled Dennis' at Burmese Kitchen, my heretofore favourite, partly because of the sauce. So complex and satisfying. Everything was spot on with well balanced flavours, lots of variety and tender meats. I would have preferred a bit more tea leaf and a bit less cabbage in the laphet thoke but otherwise it was a very worthy specimen. The fried legumes/pulses were particularly noteworthy. Since it was not premixed you could also customize a bit. I'd consider going by BART again it was that good, and the BART station looked to be relatively close.

Shopping at Colma Nordstrom's Rack then back to the city for happy hour at Fat Angel, Pimm's cup ($8) decent, no sours or draft fresh hop, but the SO tried a 750 mL bottle of the High Tide Fresh Hop ($16) and found it good. A Honsenbrouc Framboise ($9) was too sweet. The HH menu wasn't really notable here and didn't appear to be particularly good value as the portion sizes were miniscule (not that we were hungry but still) -- may be better during the week? We tried the Firebrand bread and butter, the fried capers and the homemade nuts. All just okay. It is quite a nice little room however, and the neighbourhood appears to be very up and coming.

For dinner we found our way to AQ. Beautiful space, especially the gangway entry, food and drink a bit disappointing: see mariacarmen's report here: My drink at $13 struck me as not special enough for the price but was tasty and the allspice made it a bit different than the usual gin and lime concoctions, albeit sweeter. We also received some fruit gelees after the meal that were a nice sweet finish. We were lucky enough to be seated near the kitchen so I was able to snag decentish shots of most of the dishes as it is lighter here. Usual open kitchen hijinks made for some entertainment as well.

On Monday, I was craving an old fashioned diner type breaky so we hit Eddie's on Divis for bacon, crispy shredded hash browns, eggs, biscuits and grits. It was very busy so we sat at the counter. Just solid, decent fare, nothing amazing but I could see myself going frequently if I lived in the hood, though I probably wouldn't bother with the biscuits again. Liked the southern touches down to the Crystal hot sauce.

Since the brown-crayon water at Eddie's was not going to cut it for morning caffeine, we decided to go to Blue Bottle Mint Plaza. There was a LOOOONGGG line at 11:30 or so but the SO stoically bore it while I noodled over to the Chairman Bao truck which was fortuitously located nearby to try the pork belly bao with turmeric daikon and green shiso. What a delightful bite! If that mini-sandwich is an example of what they are doing, then their (usually long) lines and reputation are well earned.

Enjoyed my beloved New Orleans iced coffee which I asked for with a bit less coffee and the barista happily complied. As always, we enjoyed the room and the people watching as well at this, our favourite café so far in SF. We caught the 9L out to 24th and Potrero and walked back to Mission which was rather depressing with all the closed businesses. Then we took the 14 back to SOMa for lame antiquing but great green iced tea and Macau iced coffee (with 1/2 decaf) at Vega. I'd been wanting to try this place for a while and since we stumbled across it, why not? Nifty décor in this almost-kiosk on a rather bleak stretch of Folsom.

We caught the 27 up to Chinatown (that was quite the ride!) and tried Comstock Saloon for happy hour but with only two lame drafts we didn't stay. 15 romolo netted a better selection but irritatingly no food/snacks until 6 pm (really wanted to try the bone marrow fritters). I had a decent Pimm's Cup with too much ginger for my taste (though to be fair it does say there is ginger syrup in there). The SO fared better with his Green Flash Hophead Red from San Diego ($6). Not the most salutary space and the staff seemed a bit harassed despite it being nearly empty.

We had made a last-minute res at West of Pecos (having noted it after our sad meal at Bar Tartine) for 7 pm on urbanspoon for four but it expanded to six and they happily accommodated us when two visiting Van Hounds joined us. We were able to cut quite a swath through the menu -- for drinks, the Mezcal Mule, 2 Red Seals and 2 Allagash Whites plus a Prickly Pecos Marg were ingested (cocktails here are CRAZY strong if a little heavy handed plus the Allagash came in a "chalice", the most gigantic mug I've ever seen, for only $7), accompanied by guacamole, padron peppers (with unnecessary additions of feta and something else), 2 orders of roasted corn, 3 duck tacos, 1 Romaine salad, 1 order of carnitas, 1 order of albondigas, 1 poblano relleno, 1 flat iron steak, 1 order of tortillas, 1 side of chiles rajas and for dessert (though we were stuffed) sopaipillas and flan to share. This was a very good meal in a welcoming place. We paid $35 each for a lot of food and drink. I don't believe we were warned about the 18% autograt which is fair enough as we were originally seated as a group of four but it was circled prominently on the bill. There were no duds in any of these dishes and I'd order them all again, except maybe the rajas.

Since we had to be in the area for lunch on Tuesday, we decided to try The Station which we had spotted earlier in the week. Hurray for a decent second-wave coffee place with indoor seating in this zone! We tried a cappuccino and a NOLA iced coffee made with Blue Bottle, plus a cranberry scone and a creditable if pricey ($2.75) cannele. Pastries here are from Alan Carter of Mission Beach Café. Too bad they only have take out cups for the beverages. Neat that there is a bespoke tailor sharing this space with the café.

We spent some quality time in the Stout architectural book store and then had a nice wander around the Barbary Street area before repairing to Cotogna for our 11:30 reservation. Another outstanding meal at this charming, light-filled place, and we had what I have now decided is our favourite table again. Only quibble was I felt our server might have warned us about the double shot of radicchio, which appeared prominently in two of our six dishes. Check out mariacarmen's comprehensive report with pix here:

A bit more wandering around in FiDi (noted both Wexler's Back the food truck and Tlaloc Sabor Mexicano for future reference) plus a stop to pick up a bag of the SO's top beans yet, Owl's Howl from Sightglass, and then it was time to head to the airport, where we arrived an hour earlier than needed thanks to my excellent (not) reading of the military clock. That did get us there in time to check out the small but very good aviation museum at SFO, and eat a bowl of ramen from Ebisu and a burger from Lori's. Neither was stellar but solid and not a bad sendoff to another great eating trip in the Bay Area. Thanks to all the generous Hounds who contributed tips, ideas and auxiliary tummies, not to mention wonderful company. Y'all rock!

Here are some pix from our Wednesday destinations: sub and pretzel at Fatted Calf, dry ice cloud and ice cream from Smitten, first kouign amann of trip!, beer, wine, almonds and shisitos at Harrow

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