Well, I finally made it up for a weekend trip of dining. It had lots of twists and turns, but ultimately I am gaining a better sense of what SF dining is like. As a quick summary, here are the places that we went:
Craftsman & Wolves
Sightglass / B. Patisserie
Didn't make it everywhere I wanted to, but it was still a fun trip.
So, if you are interested in these places, feel free to read on about our experiences!
I will break it into general categories so far as possible.
Ritual is currently undergoing construction, so its a very small little cafe compared to the other massive coffee shops we went to. Espresso was first rate. Iced coffee was only OK. Actually pretty disappointing.
Purely in terms of coffee, this is the best place in SF. The baristas here are on a different level even compared to the other places, which are usually thought of as being the best of SF. The main thing was was incredible was the Slow Bar. Instead of going to the huge counter for lattes, or regular espresso you can go to a smaller bar manned by a single barista that can do customized espresso and pour overs from a selection of a bunch of awesome coffees. The espressos here are top of the line, and the iced coffee was also very good.
The most gorgeous place in terms of architecture. Also, they carry B. Patisserie, which means they have by far the best pastries of any coffee shop. Those Kouign-Amann are beyond incredible, mind-blowing level. We were thinking of going to BP after Sightglass only to see it served there, so that was nice. But in terms of coffee...by far the weakest. The iced coffee was bad. Their standard iced coffee comes loaded with milk and and vanilla syrup... yet they're still set on a no wifi policy. The place is built as a massive hangout area, yet the accommodations make hanging out there virtually impossible. The espresso was still pretty good though. Worth visiting as a sight and easy access to BP pastries, otherwise forgettable.
So, general notes on the coffee scene in SF: Overall, surprised that it's not as great as everyone makes it out to be. There is more talent, and more interesting things happening in the LA coffee scene it seems like. Also, the SF shops are almost hopelessly pretentious in their atmosphere. They all apparently refuse to offer wifi, or electric outlets. There's no real reason for this other than pretentiousness. It's their prerogative obviously, but something about it leaves a bad taste in my mouth since I can get equal, or better coffee with plenty of free wifi in LA. I guess SF lacks that "work in a coffee shop" culture.
Well...at least at the high end. If you take a step down you can find a nicer atmosphere at Philz Coffee. The coffee isn't as good, they do things in a more old school kind of way, but it's still better than somewhere like Starbucks. They have big round tables, comfy chairs, chess sets, and free wifi. If you need somewhere to relax while running around in SF, a Philz location would be ideal.
Craftsman and Wolves.
So the fabled place may not be as spectacular as the photos might lead one to believe, but it's still solid. I did not taste anything bad here. I thought for sure we'd bitten off more than we could chew with the kimchi pound cake, but it actually tasted remarkably good, not unlike quiche. A very savory bite. The most boring thing was a black sesame, apricot, and lemon verbena scone which tasted more like a poppyseed muffin and was lacking in appropriate scone-qualities. Not bad, but not really wowing. The famous rebel within was pretty tasty, with the thick orange egg yolk coating the fluffy sausage-laced muffin. It tasted much lighter than you would imagine. It was kind of weird to eat it cold though. Felt like it would be 10x better hot. The pepper gougere was very good. Flakey pastry, with plenty of cheese, and just the right amount of pepper seeping through. The morning bun was ok, fairly salty, and cinnamon heavy. There was a very elegant looking blackberry and chocolate cake square as well that was pretty tasty. All in all, I think SF is pretty lucky to have somewhere like this. Everything there seems to be pretty unique, and of very good quality.
A much longer line here than at Craftsman and Wolves, but not sure why. The morning bun was admittedly far superior. It was larger, fluffier, and had an incredible butteriness, as well as a ton of caramelized sugar on it that gave it a kind of addictive crunch. The croque monsieur however seemed to be all hype. How is this thing on SF's list of 20 most iconic dishes?... Maybe you aren't supposed to order the version with ham, but holy cow was it disappointing. It literally tasted exactly like a ham and cheese hot pocket. It looked good, but the flavors just didn't exist in the right way here. We also had a banana cream tart that was so-so. The finely shaved chocolate, and whipped cream were great. But there wasn't much banana cream...mostly whole bananas. Which is a shame, since the little bit of cream was actually very good, with a caramel-y tang that was addictive. But the crust sucked. It tasted like burnt cardboard. All-in-all, I would only recommend going to Tartine Bakery for those glorious morning buns. And you have to wait in a pretty long line to get them as well... I hope that Bar Tartine doesn't suffer from the overhyping that Bakery Tartine seems to?
Ok, we didn't go, but were had been planning on it. It turned out that Sightglass on 7th carries full stock of fresh pastries from BP though. So we got plain and chocolate Kouign-Amann with our coffee. Biting into the plain Kouign-Amann was a revelatory experience akin to biting into a croissant at Pierre Herme in Paris for the first time. The intense flakiness, butteriness, and potent saccharine of the syrupy sugar were absolutely stunning. This was everything a pastry should be, everything a food experience should be, everything a life experience ought to be, in short, this is the kind of thing that food lover are constantly chasing. Imagine a heroin addict being able to re-live that "first high"; if food loves are chasing their first high as well, then eating a BP KA is getting to have your first high all over again. I feel privileged just to live within a 6 hour drive of a place that serves these things. The chocolate one was great too, but I thought the chocolate just dampened to simple perfection of the plain one. Others liked the addition of the soft, almost truffle-esque chocolate in the center though.
Overall: Despite some hype issues, the bakeries in SF are pretty damn good, and should definitely be on the radar of anyone visiting the city. If nothing else, that Kouign-Amann from BP is probably one of the best things you will eat anywhere in the world.
A strange place. They have a guy that checks ids who is very salty. The decor is that of a dive bar. The bartenders are curt, and not really that attentive. But I'll be damned if they don't serve some of the best beer available anywhere. Everyone in there is dressed in like yuppie or hipster attire...so I guess it's probably ironic? I don't know. It's a lot like The Daily Pint in Santa Monica, but felt more ironic somehow, maybe because it's located in what appears to be a very well-to-do neighborhood. We just popped in and had a sour and an IPA. I'm sure things change often, but based on the incredible sour I had, this is a good place to go to get cheap beers of exceptionally high quality.
It feels like this place and Toronado should switch locations. The rough and tumble grimey-slicked Tenderloin is precisely the kind of area you would imagine a place like Toronado to be, but instead Mikkeller Bar is there, and Mikkeller Bar feels like it wouldn't be out of place as the bar at the top floor of the Trump Building in Manhattan. This place is exactly what I've always hoped a craft beer bar could be. It's spacious, and elegant. The music is quiet, and the bartender is soft-spoken, convivial, and exceedingly knowledgable. The beers on draft utilize a flux capacitor to be served at precisely the right degree. And the bottle list is among the best in the world. We had a sour Norweigian ale that was very good, followed by a bottle of Cantillon St. Lamvinus, which was a truly rare treat. Alongside it, we had a pretty good charcuterie board with some Beemster aged gouda and strawberry preserves, smoked arctic char, and garlic and cumin Filipino sausage plus tons of toasted bread, hot mustard, pickled, and almonds. This is probably one of the best beer bars in the world. SF is quite lucky to have it. Kind of surprising it isn't talked about more often.
We went after dinner at Commis. We were hoping to try the famous habenero popcorn, but they had run out. They stop serving food at 9 pm anyway though. The atmosphere was pretty horrible. Insanely loud, terrible acoustics. Hard to even really believe that the place could do any good food. The beer selection was not good. We got a few cheap beers anyway, and they were just standard. There were dirt Bocce Ball courts in the back though, which was interesting. Overall, if you don't come early to try the popcorn there's no reason at all to go the Make Westing unless you are just trying to find a fairly standard bar to get drunk at or something. Very disappointing.
We didn't get to do as much ice cream as I would have liked given SF's crazy ice cream scene, but we did chance about HS. This was some damn good stuff. I had been thinking it was mostly experimental, and expected it to be weird more than enjoyable, but every flavor I tried was incredible. We ended up ordering way too much ice cream, and the flavors mostly change so often that I am not sure it's worth reviewing each flavor individually, but the ice cream here is everything anyone could possibly want out of ice cream. It's god a perfect texture to it, not hard, and not too soft. The standard secret breakfast is so goo we ordered multiple scoops of it. The banana with redhots was also immaculate. I pretty much hate redhots the candy, but somehow they create an incredible taste sensation of just a slight warming in your mouth followed by a rapid cooling that accentuates the banana flavor, and makes the mouthfeel of the ice cream very unique, like a silk pillow is blossoming in your mouth. You pretty much HAVE to go here if you are in SF. Way better than anything in LA. Every flavor I tried was just incorporated in a subtle way that created amazing taste sensations without losing the essential textural elements of ice cream. This was a truly wonderful experience. SF is lucky to have ice cream like this.
We drove up to get into the place late Friday night. All in all, we had a pretty good dinner. The burrata we had was exceptionally creamy, and quite good. The eggplant sformato was really good though. The presentation was beautiful, and it was quite unique. Basically an eggplant flan with white cheese sauce, it had an explosively savory flavor that was fascinating when juxtaposed against both its innocent appearance, and its luscious texture. We moved on to pizza... this was the main failure of the meal. I have no idea what to say here except that if the pizza here is an example of the best pizza in SF, then the pizza in SF is pretty overhyped. It wasn't necessarily bad mind you, but the crust was basically flavorless. The ingredients didn't seem to mean much of anything. We got the lamb sausage pizza, and the mushroom pizza. The mushroom one was better, but still pretty uninteresting. Mushroom, cheese, olive oil on what seemed like pretty mediocre bread. Was pretty shocked by this. The pastas somewhat made up for it. The famous raviolo was a very intense dish. A lone ravialo that was literally swimming in butter. We split it open, and egg yolk and ricotta flowed out and mixed with the butter. In the end though, the butter was just too overwhelming and dominated the palette. I can't remember anything but butter as the flavor. I would say it was a failure of a dish. If only it had not been literally swimming in a pool of butter I think it could have just been decadently awesome instead. The tagliatelle was weird. I am used to tagliatelle being large, flat, wide noodles. What we were served was most like linguine. But there was nice chunks of rabbit in the sauce, that was kind of like the gravy on poutine. It was pleasant enough. The agnolotti dal plin with veal was delicious. Served in a pool of drippings, it wasn't necessarily mind-blowing, but it was solid and the portion was much more than I was expecting. The little agnolotti were stuffed with lots of savory, juicy veal. The best savory dish though was the corn triangoli aka triangle pasta with Chino Farms corn. These things presented an explosive corn flavor laced into perfectly pillowy, yet chewy triangle sheets that was totally unique. A remarkable pasta dish. The plate of heritage pork with new potatoes was not bad, but was a fairly small portion for being an entree. It was sliced very thin, and had a great flavor, quite juicy and was accented nicely by the cherries. The new potatoes were pretty much standard potatoes. The tripa alls fiorentina was really good though. Presented in a lentil stew, the tripe was not overly chewy, nor funky, but had a pleasant texture and soaked in the lentil soup beautifully. I wish we had had enough room to order the bistecca alls fiorentina as it looks like they probably do it about right there, but sadly we were far too full to attempt it. We ordered almost all of their desserts. A fig crostata had great whipped cream, and fig smear, but the pastry was abnormally chewy and unpleasant. A chocolate bar with chocolate gelato tasted like an upscale kitkat with basic chocolate gelato. But then there was the blackberry sorbet that was phenomenal. And something I've never seen before: Plum soup with fresh berries and buttermilk frozen yogurt. Holy cow was that plum soup amazing. Tangy, tart, sweet, viscous... with the berries bursting in your mouth, and the buttermilk yogurt adding additional texture, while slowly releasing a that buttery, dairy funk onto your palette. This was one of the best, most unique things I have ever eaten. Truly superb. It overshadows the rest of the desserts by a wide margin. We had several great bottles of wine, too, one from Umbria, and one from Piedmont. Both were really good, and very reasonably priced at $50 and $60 respectively. Their standard wine program is now $50/bottle instead of $40 btw.
Overall: Cotogna was really a pretty enjoyable meal. I did not come away thinking SF Italian is far better than LA Italian though. The total cost was about $110/person. The presentation of some things was really special, like the eggplant sformato, and the plum soup, but otherwise, the pastas were comparable to what I eat in LA for the most part, and the pizzas were not even close, I would compare them in flavor to 800 Degrees in LA. The meats were good, but I've had much better for that price point. I would take the tripe stew with cuttle fish at Angelini Osteria over Cotogna's tripe any day. Still, the atmosphere is very pleasant, and the service was really good. We all had a good time there, and it seemed to be very easy to get a table after 10 pm, which is always a major plus in my book.
My my...the fabled Commis. I'm not sure how you are supposed to review a place like this.We started with snacks, some bee pollen infused onion financiers and chicken skin chicharrones with tarragon cream and dill. The chicharrones were tasty, though not necessarily revelatory. The financiers were the same, soft, and pleasant, with a very slight hint of onion, though not sure what the bee pollen added. The first course was a simple oyster with ginger, green lemon, and dashi that was certainly the best oyster I've ever had. The second course was a soup made of tomato water poured over tomatoes, gooseberries, basil, and buttermilk shaved ice. I would say this dish was texturally interesting with the cold of the buttermilk ice against the tomatoes, gooseberries, and lukewarm tomato water, but ultimately it was a failure. The basil was too dominant, and it was just weird. Tomato water is about as appetizing as it sounds. I was shocked to have such a failure of a dish at this level of dining. The next course was mussels in vichyssoise with caviar and succulents. Another pretty unsuccessful dish. The caviar was pretty much overpowered by the vichyssoise, with the mussel just coming through, and the succulents only seemed to add bitterness to the mix for no apparent reason. Fourth course was pacific halibut with lovage, chanterelles, and cabbage. The fish was perfectly cooked, and pleasant. The cabbage was dried and presented as crispy chips, and was very flavorful, while adding a nice textural element to the delicate fish, as well as a slight bitterness to the sweetness coaxed from the chanterelles. It was solid, but not really that memorable of a dish. The fifth course was really something though. Beetroot with blueberry vinegar (in gel form), blueberries, smoked goat cheese, thyme, and (leek) ash. It was beautiful plating, but the flavors here were intense, and complex. The ash, which was literally leeks burned to ashes, and then sprinkled onto the cheese, actually gave a fascinating flavor accentuation in the combination of flavors going on in each bite: savoriness from the beets with a slight sweetness, explosive sour/sweet duo from the blueberries, astringent tartness from the vinegar gel, smokiness and funk from the cheese, and a kind of dry woody, burnt vapor from the ash. This was one of the best things I ate all weekend in terms of complexity, uniqueness, and execution. So seemingly simple, yet revelatory, and unlike anything else I've ever eaten. Magic on a plate. After this we had an intermezzo of mushroom tisane, which is a kind of herbal tea. It pretty much tasted like a mushroom soup, but with more clarity/purity than usual. It was ok. There was bread service, too. Basic wheat levain with cultured butter. It was nice, though nothing to write home about, just a nice rustic piece of wheat bread with good quality butter. We then had duck breast with green licorice, preserved cherries, and grains. Apparently green licorice is just a fancy way of saying fennel (according to our waitress), which made the dish a bit less "cool", but oh well. In terms of execution, this was probably the best duck breast I've had, though duck breast isn't something I often order. It was tender, juicy, and gorgeously flavorful where duck breast often seems to be somewhat bland. The cherries, and grains were also delicious, though not necessarily astounding. Then came little mini-onion pies with dates and raw cows milk cheese. These were just a tiny bite, but they had a very intense onion flavor that burst in your mouth. It was like eating an entire bowl of French onion soup in a single bite of food. Very interesting. Desserts were then served. The first was nectarines and cream with honey flavored shaved ice, and champagne jello. Texturally fascinating, but the flavors were somewhat forgettable. Then there was pecan sorbet and lavender crumble with apricots (but peach soup for me since I am allergic to apricots). This was a total failure of a dish. The pecan didn't come through in the sorbet at all, nor did the lavender from the crumble. The peach soup in mine was the only flavor really present, and although it was ok, the whole dish felt discombobulated and off kilter. The mignardises were slightly better. There were some basic caramels, and eucalyptus-infused chocolates (bergamot-infused for me since I am allergic to eucalyptus), and some cucumber, lemon, and gin candies that were very intense to eat.
We did do the wine pairings, and I would recommend it as the wines were generally pretty good. The moscato at the end of the meal was exceptional (Saracco, moscato d'asti, piemonte, Italy, 2013). But the real fun was the mini-lectures that the sommelier gave with each one which livened up the meal considerably. In general, I would recommend the wines, though the wine list wasn't bad either. I could go into it in more detail if anyone is interested.
One of us was a vegetarian, and, in general, the substitutions that were made for him seemed to be pretty good. He had a rendition of the peach soup for the oyster that was very good, and various vegetables filling in the places of the proteins in the dishes. So that was nice to see.
The service was good I guess. I mean, plates were changed out frequently, water was usually filled quickly, etc... the guy serving the bread seemed to be almost unable to speak English though, which was kind of weird, only in that we weren't sure what he was asking us the first time he asked if we wanted bread. Our server also changed mid-meal, which was kind of weird. We weren't notified of it or anything, the lively woman who was serving us at first just suddenly disappeared... kind of odd.
In general, it felt like the staff kept a distance from you. The total opposite of the jovial, convivial service at Cotogna, which was no less formal in the switching out of plates... is this how the service is when you get into the Michelin Star places? I guess I really prefer less stuffy service. I like to get to know the service staff. The servers seemed like they were just going through the motions in a certain sense. Also, whenever we asked questions we got some kind of strange responses that made the restaurant come across as somewhat pretentious. Like when we asked was "green licorice" was and were told, "oh, it's just fennel". Well, why is it called green licorice on the menu? Seems pointlessly confusing... Maybe the place still feels like they have something to prove because they are located in Oakland? The sommelier's stories were also nice, but he seemed like he didn't enjoy it much, and was sort of trying to get through the spiels as quickly as possible, as opposed to really trying to engage with us. We didn't lessen the tip, but...is this the kind of service that you should expect from fine dining establishments?
Overall: I don't know. There were some high points, certainly, and I guess at $200/person this is considered cheap fine dining, but still, the dominant thought in my mind at the end was, "why wasn't every dish as great as that beet dish?" The desserts were also very troubling. Why were they so mediocre-to-failure? The desserts at Cotogna outclassed the desserts at Commis by a wide margin. It seems like I should have been eating something like that Plum soup at Commis. They should just avoid offering desserts if they don't know how to make them. Also, it seems unacceptable to me to have dishes on the menu that just totally fail. Is that really common for this level of dining? As a dining experience, I am not sue it was worth $200, but as a learning experience I suppose it was.
I learned a god deal about fine dining. And I gain a lot of context. I learned a lot about Taco Maria's heritage by dining at Commis, where Salgado learned his craft. I can see why TM doesn't offer desserts first of all... but I also now think that Salgado took all of the best parts of Commis, and fashioned them into something better down here, which is pretty cool. For fans of Commis in SF, I'd say you should definitely go to Taco Maria if you are down south, and if you are a big enough fan, it might even be worth a trip down for it.
Ok, we just stopped in for small bites, aka Korean "tacos" and Gamja Fries. We just did the "tacos", which are basically open-faced seaweed wraps with tofu, which is literally just cubed, plain tofu. Kind of odd, but whatever. The flavors from everything else in the taco were awesome. Clean flavors. Very Korean. There are lots of high-brow sounding things in the "taco" such as daikon kimchee salsa, kimchee remoulade, and toasted kim with seasoned rice... I don't know that I picked out all of those flavors, but it all combined in a texturally fascinating flavor bomb that was tempered by the nori wrap. It's probably better with chicken, or beef in it though. But everyone thought the flavors were really good. The gamma fries were not as interesting, but had some very high-quality, tasty beef bulgogi displayed with solid fries and a lot of gochujang and kewpie mayo. Solid enough, though probably wouldn't order again necessarily. Looking at the slick plating at dinner, and given how good, and clean the flavors were at this place though I plan on coming back for dinner for sure. Really awesome. Surprised, and a little sad that LA doesn't have a place like this. Of course we have Kogi, but to have a sit-down place that looks as nice as Namu, with such delicate, clean flavors, and plating is something really special.
Ok, seems weird, but it was the only place with plantain burritos that was open on Sunday. The plantain burrito was really tasty with the bold saccharine of the plantain enmeshed in rice and beans and a cream sauce. The guacamole was a solid rendition, with some mild peppers in it. The chips were ok, but were served with over half the portion in fractured bits as opposed to whole chips and they broke very easily when dipping into the guacamole. Kind of ridiculous. The breakfast burrito we tried was a complete joke, just a miserable failure of a burrito with awkward flavors, and no real substance to it. The guacamole enchiladas were ok, but nothing to talk about really. The rice and beans were incredibly bland, despite the beans having bacon in them. The plantain burrito was nice. I don't know how LA doesn't have these. But for the most part there was no reason to go to this place. Hopefully Cu Co's is open next time we're in town.
Sooooo the big picture?
SF has some truly awesome things going on. There's a lot of hype, but there's also a lot of magic. I was pretty happy with this trip, except for the fact that we ended up having to leave early, and couldn't go to State Bird, which I hope to return ASAP to try. I feel like I've significantly expanded my understanding of the SF dining scene, as well as my context for dining as well. Also, it truly is insane to experience being able to walk to so many great places.
The big things that stick out to me are how generally disappointing the coffee scene is (when it is hyped up as being far superior). And the pizza. I saw the pizzas at pizzeria Delfina as we were walking to Namu Gaji, and they looked the same as the ones we had at Cotogna. I have a feeling that pizza in SF is massively overhyped, but was mostly just disappointed by the ones at Cotogna, and realize that an entire city can't necessarily be judged by a single place. In general, if Cotogna is representative of Italian in SF though, then I would say there is no way for anyone to suggest that Italian in SF is better than Italian in LA, whereas previous sentiment has made it seem as if this was the case.
Am also surprised by the highest level of baking in SF. Do you guys have better water or something? Not sure what is going on there, but ya'll are damn lucky. At the same time, very surprised by Tartine's hype...
Finally, I learned that people in SF love standing in lines. I have not stood in so many lines since I went to Disneyland like a decade ago... I guess I can see why SF is able to support so many awesome places though.
All in all, I can't wait to go back to try more places. I believe I will focus future trips on the specific types of cal-X restaurants though given the initial feel of Namu Gaji. Dosa, Kokkari Estiatorio, Aziza, etc... and, of course, try out the rest of the ice cream places I couldn't get to this time!
Thanks for reading!
P.S. What is with you guys and wood? It seems like literally everywhere I visited had the same design team do their interiors, and everywhere is made of exposed wood...