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A Chicago hound’s thanks: Aziza, Yank Sing, and Perbacco! (LONG)


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A Chicago hound’s thanks: Aziza, Yank Sing, and Perbacco! (LONG)

Gypsy Boy | Feb 6, 2007 05:05 AM

Thanks to the generosity of the members of this board (a special tip of the hat to Robert Lauriston and rworange), our three-day whirlwind tour of San Francisco was punctuated by a series of really excellent meals. In gratitude for your thoughts, recommendations, and answers to our questions, let me recap in order of experience:

Okay, okay. We wanted very fresh fish and/or crab. We got what we wanted. Scoma’s, as I have noted briefly in another post, is one of those places you just have to go to once in a while. I felt like I'd entered a time machine. However, that said, my wife's (the Lovely Dining Companion's) Dungeness crab and my “Pacific” snapper were both very fresh. I actually began with crab cakes (and remoulade), the way I most enjoy crab. On the plus side, they may have been the most crab-filled crab cakes I've ever had. On the minus side, they may have been the crab-filled crab cakes I've ever had—I guess I’m used to a bit more “filler” to add other flavors to the crab. These were so overwhelmingly crab that I was a bit disappointed. However, I don’t think it’s fair to knock the restaurant for something that’s clearly my personal peculiarity. If you're a crab lover, I imagine Scoma’s version is pretty hard to beat. LDC chose an intriguing appetizer: shrimp (grilled, if memory serves) accompanied by eggplant stuffed with goat cheese, all sitting in a moat of slightly spicy tomato sauce. Delicious.

LDC ordered the cracked half crab, served on ice with a trio of “dips”: lemon, mayonnaise, and cocktail sauce. Plenty of crab, although as good as kept professing it to be, I could tell it wasn’t up to snuff. So I persisted and was finally told that as good as it was, she prefers Alaskan king crab, not Dungeness, because it's sweeter. Again, I’m certainly not gonna knock the restaurant because her preferences lies elsewhere: she could have ordered something else, though I imagine the temptation of crab that fresh is strong. (We were a little surprised to hear that the crab all arrives first thing in the morning and, because of its quantity, is all cooked then and there. Frankly—and here I betray my complete and total ignorance of fishing—I would have thought it made more sense to deliver the product in the mid- to late-afternoon.) I'm hardly an expert, though I understand her point and, given the nature of their crab cakes, think I know what she meant.

As advised by the board, we passed on both sides and dessert. The portions were certainly generous: my fish (I chose to have it prepared very simply, with garlic-lemon butter) came with assorted steamed vegetables as well as pasta. The bread was okay, no more. It would have been better if it had a crust worthy of the name or was even slightly warm. To our surprise, whatever else it may have been, it was most emphatically not sourdough of any stripe.

Prices are silly; in light of what we paid at Aziza and Perbacco, they’re out of line and unreasonable. You're paying because you're a tourist, like the idea of eating at Fisherman’s Wharf, or don't know any better place to go. We ate there because we were really interested in fresh fish and we got what we wanted. I doubt we’d return simply because, good as it was, the price and ambiance don’t encourage a reprise, although the food really was very good. All in all, we had an enjoyable meal with very efficient (I chose the word carefully) just felt like we had entered a time warp.

Breakfast the next day: Top of the Mark. Hey, we were tourists! Breakfast was a buffet, very good (even one steamer with dim sum!), but obviously the reason is the room and the view. And we were lucky enough to have a clear day. Wonderful experience.

My oh my. After 2 pm on a Friday at the Stevenson Street location, we had some excellent dim sum. We were seated immediately in a surprisingly still-full restaurant. Almost instantly we were the focus of a ten-cart pile-up. Selecting was difficult, although we were hungry: too much looked too good. We ended up with (I think) a Shanghai pork dumpling (offered as a house specialty), sticky rice (actually, it’s a stuffed lotus leaf filled with sticky rice, lop cheong (Chinese sausage ), shiitake mushrooms, chicken, and dried shrimp), har gow (a steamed shrimp dumpling), char siu bao, green beans, and finally the so-called “lettuce cup”: a mixture of finely chopped chicken, lop cheong, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, pine nuts, scallions, and cilantro, all served in an open palm of lettuce (trimmed with pinking shears!). Without going into detail, suffice to say everything was delicious, fresh, and cooked exactly right. Even the green beans surprised by their texture: served with just a little crunch as if they’d been made just for us. But I have to reserve special praise for the char siu bow. Despite lives of dim summing, neither LDC nor I have ever—ever—had fresher bao. I find it impossible to describe the extraordinary combination of fluffiness, slight elasticity, ever-so-slightly chewy texture of these buns. The char siu itself was excellent; maybe not the best ever, but top notch by any measure. Again, the attentiveness of the staff was surprising to us: whenever we were looking for someone or something, a staff member would come over and ask us what we needed. That’s not our experience of most dim sum places.

The single best meal/experience of the trip. We arrived promptly for our 7 pm reservation last Friday only to walk in and find the front room jam-packed and extremely loud. The hostess steered us (with some difficulty) through the hordes by the bar and into the “middle” of three rooms. She explained that a private party was in progress in front and that this was likely to be the quietest table in the place. It was the last table in the room and, though not quiet, certainly quiet enough for conversation. The first thing we noticed was the roominess. Two tops were not squeezed in together and there was more than enough room to get in and out of our table. Ordinarily I wouldn’t even comment on this, but a few recent unhappy experiences at some top Chicago establishments now prompt me to notice this kind of thing.

The room was dark, both in décor and lighting. The designer scored points for having the light suspended directly over the spot where you read your menu. Plenty of light to read as well as enough light shed so you know who your dining partner is. Again, were it not for too many occasions when we’ve struggled to read the menu and took the identity of the person across from us on faith that I comment. In the last of a series of non-directly-food-related comments, I must single out our server, Jason. With fewer and fewer exceptions, it seems like knowledgeable, helpful, well-informed, thoughtful, able servers are a thing of the past. Jason was everything a server should be. There when you needed him, absent when not. Friendly and warm without becoming your best friend for the evening. Very well-versed in what was in the dishes; indeed, I was quite impressed when he helped LDC choose between two dishes she was considering. He described each briefly in terms not so much of ingredients (though they were mentioned) as general taste and “approach.” Listening to him, you could get a very good sense of precisely what the differences were and why you might choose one or the other.

Aziza was one of those happy places where nearly everything on the menu looks good. Rather than having to settle for the one thing that truly appeals, it took quite some time to choose which direction we wanted to take. Eventually, realizing that I had to order or go hungry, I settled on the merguez (described only, as I recall, as “spicy lamb sausage”). LDC decided to go with a salad of wild arugula, persimmon, pomegranate, hazelnuts with a bit of crème fraiche & balsamic. Either we’re less well-informed than we believe ourselves to be or wild arugula looks and tastes like watercress. Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you. Her salad had that “just-picked” freshness and was a wonderful marriage of ingredients. LDC ordinarily remembers to ask for the dressing on the side since she normally uses a very small amount. This time she forgot. Nevertheless, the salad arrived perfectly (for her, anyway) dressed. Lightly enough to allow the flavors to come through and still enough to appreciate the reason for this particular dressing.

My merguez reminded me of those little cocktail hots from the 1960s in appearance. They were sliced in half on a bias and surrounded a small bowl of “goat yogurt-fromage blanc dip.” The sausage, which Jason informed me was made specifically for the restaurant according to a house recipe, was excellent: spicy without being overpowering, very “lamb-y.” The dip was fine, no more; I’m wouldn’t choose it, given a choice. The yogurt cut some of the heat, but I didn’t find the sausage spicy enough to particularly warrant it. Still, it was finely ground, juicy, and had a wonderfully full round flavor.

After a lengthy debate with herself, LDC chose the “charmoula vegetable stew” with sweet onions, potatoes, black olives, and a poached egg with couscous on the side. In ordinary Moroccan (well, Northwest African) cooking, charmoula is an all-purpose marinade based on lemon juice and oil with plenty of garlic, both parsley and cilantro, cumin, cayenne, and (sweet) paprika. Here, the marinade became the basis for the thick “broth.” The result was an impossibly rich, highly flavorful stew that was a bit spicy (but not too much—LDC has no tolerance at all for heat). I was skeptical until I tasted it; as much as I enjoyed my meal, I was quite taken with LDC’s and would recommend it without the least hesitation.

Perhaps my greatest dilemma of the evening was selecting an entrée. Complicating the choice was the fact one of the appetizers (for two) greatly tempted me. The basteeya is described on the menu as “Phyllo Pie with a Filling of Saffron Braised Chicken & Spiced Almonds, Draped In Powder Sugar & Cinnamon” which is, I guess, accurate enough though I’ve always found this dish to be so much more complex, creative, and fascinating than its mere description. The basteeya is listed/designed as a shared appetizer. But Jason hesitated not at all when asked if the kitchen would allow it to be served as an entrée and so I made my choice. A phyllo disc about six inches in diameter and perhaps two inches thick was presented with a beautiful pattern of powdered sugar on top. Inside, very moist, finely chopped chicken and almonds favored with just the right amount of cinnamon. It may not have been the single best version I’ve ever had but it was undoubtedly in the top two or three. Again, an excellent dish, beautifully presented, and the only problem was whether I could finish it. (I did.) My only reservation about it as an appetizer for two is that unless your appetite is worthy, you’ll never finish this plus an entrée (much less have room for dessert).

Speaking of which, we split a pistachio cardamom cake, topped with a “scoop” of yogurt-something cream. I accompanied this with excellent coffee and a glass of cynar. If we lived in San Francisco, I can see this becoming a favorite place very easily.

The odd one out in all of our meals was Mama’s on Washington Square where we had breakfast Saturday morning. A perfectly fine meal but whatsoever out of the ordinary. We enjoyed our food but neither of us found Mama’s to be worth a detour; it’s just a nice place to go if you live in the neighborhood. Our food (egg-white omelet with spinach and mushrooms and a “real” omelet with bacon, avocado, and jack cheese) was fine—no complaints. But we found nothing particularly praiseworthy about the menu selection, the preparation, or the experience. Neither of us feel any desire to return on our next visit; there are simply too many detour-worthy places, I think.

(It didn’t detract substantially from the experience but it didn’t help when the hostess/server decided to argue with us about what sides the egg-white “scramble” included. The board says home fries. Instead, the plate had tomato slices and cucumber and her response: a somewhat curt “that’s how we serve it.” She persisted in arguing with us—we obviously hadn’t read properly—until, reading the board herself she realized that the board does, in fact, clearly say that it includes home fries. Then, no apology, just a “let’s-get-this-over-with” offer to bring the potatoes.)

Because Saturday was market day at the Ferry Building, the wait at Slanted Door was very substantial, even at 2 pm. Then, I misread the admittedly user-hostile Piperade website, and we arrived to find that they don’t serve lunch on Saturday. A huge, huge disappointment. Instead, after much to-ing and fro-ing, we ended up eating at Greens. By the time we actually ate (circa 3 pm), I was exhausted from walking, grumpy, and not in a mood to enjoy much of anything. My entire report will be limited to saying the meal was perfectly unexceptional. I had some kind of tofu sandwich with peanut sauce; I don’t even remember what LDC had. Nice room, absolutely jam-packed with people (it was a gorgeous day this past Saturday), competent service, no more.

Boy oh boy. If this place weren’t so noisy, it would be even more popular than it is. If that’s possible. When making my reservation (through Open Table), I made a special request for a quieter table (based on input from SF hounds). I was impressed to receive an e-mail directly from Umberto Gibin clarifying one point; he also stopped by during our dinner.

As I noted about Aziza, we had excellent service here as well. Dean knew his stuff, was warm without being overfriendly, answered our questions directly and made knowledgeable and helpful suggestions. He also helped me choose a glass of wine that was precisely what I sought. LDC sadly had a small appetite that evening, so she chose only a main course, the roasted monkfish. Although I also chose the monkfish, I rarely suffer from lack of appetite. So I decided to try as much as I could. I preceded the entrée with a salad of shaved fennel and blood orange, a little arugula and whole white anchovies. I was slightly disappointed to get little flavor from the fennel, but the salad proved a nice, light starter for what followed. Based on my reading here and elsewhere, I went with the agnolotti dal plin, little square handmade pillows filled with the most ethereal ground roasted veal I’ll ever eat on this earth. The agnolotti were topped with just a bit of finely shredded of Savoy cabbage and sugo d’arrosto (a sauce based on the juices from the roasted veal). Plin, it seems, is Piedmontese for pinch, the manner in which these little raviolis are made—the filling between the sheets of pasta is pinched tight to make enough room to cut the individual agnolotti apart.

As at Aziza, the challenge was choosing only one thing. Each course presented at least half a dozen serious contenders and I spent much time wishing we could either spend more time on this trip or return to SF about once a month for the next year or two. So many of the items on the menu were enticing, suggesting new experiences or exciting plates. The monkfish was, in many ways, a “safe” call but neither of us was disappointed: the fish was cooked á point and served with chanterelles and cipollini in a porcini broth. Perhaps, in retrospect, a trifle too safe, but entirely worth recommending. Now I just want to go back so that I can try the rest of the entrees, and appetizers, and house-cured salumi!

Dessert: pistachio panna cotta. I’m not generally a panna cotta fan, but this came highly recommended from multiple sources and lived up to its billing. Wonderfully balanced pistachio flavor came through beautifully and the acacia honey “sauce” was a perfect foil.

Overall, we were extremely happy with our trip. We were both exceedingly--albeit pleasantly--surprised at the reasonable (dare I say 'cheap') prices at both Aziza and Perbacco (notice I didn't include Scoma's). And even more welcome than that, Jason and Dean restored our faith in the profession: truly top-notch, attentive, highly informed service at both places. Throw in the sightseeing, the shopping, the chance to drop by Molinari and City Lights, how could you have a bad time? We look forward to returning soon.

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