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Restaurants & Bars 4

Very long report on our cool but wonderful November visit to the Bay Area

grayelf | Nov 28, 201101:43 PM

We had such a crazy fall that I didn't even post in advance of our second trip of 2011. We went for some old favourites but managed to fit in some new stuff as well on our chilly-but-still-warmer-than-Vancouver visit in early November.


Our flight was delayed about half an hour because of connecting passengers so was glad we'd booked the 9:15 seating at Canteen.

The restaurant was packed when we arrived with a full 7:30 seating. Much quieter for the final one which made for a different vibe than previous visits. They've also done a bit of a lipstick reno (still in progress) which took away from the charm, but I do like the pot lights they've installed which allowed for the best pix I've taken there, though that's not saying much -- still failed epically taking a shot of the menu so will have to rely on my memory, uh oh.

I've given up trying to drink the right wine with food -- I just order the one that appeals to me most, in this case the Marenco Scrapona moscato di asti which was light, sweet and delicious. The SO went for the Babcock Rita'a Earth pinot noir from the Santa Rita Hills. The amuse was smoked eggplant with coriander, nice if you're a fan of smoked things which we aren't particularly. Brioche as good as ever though somewhat downsized. For apps, SO had the shellfish soup which I would call a bisque. He loved it, very shellfishy with a mushroomy flavour too. The mixed chicory salad I had benefited from fresh mint notes and grew on me as I ate it. At first I thought the dressing was too sweet. Though I asked for it lightly dressed it was still a bit heavy on the sauce for me. They were out of the guinea hen, a hazard of the later sitting I suppose, so we opted for the vegetarian "gratin" and some perfectly cooked striped bass which we swapped halfway through. Though I wouldn't have called it a gratin (see photo), the eggy dish was right up my street with its lovely veg flavours (hello fresh artichoke, spinachy spinach and mushrooms!) and the generous fazz of whipped goat cheese on top melted into the light, sorta souffle-like body. Quite subtle yet satisfying.

The SO preferred the fish which was ideally crunchy skinned and done to a turn, no mean feat with a more delicate fish. I thought the skinny zucchini strips were a good complement and the onion puree was mild enough to showcase the fish. The light sauce had curry notes which worked well also. Very successful dish. And speaking of souffles, we finished up with the vanilla one to share which was as good as ever. Dining later has its privileges: the service was quite relaxed and I was (finally) able to thank Chef Leary for the many fine meals we have had in his establishment since our first in 2007. We were also tickled to note that staff meal that night was a couple of pies from Amici (note to self: if our plane is ever really late, order pizza from Amici's). Tab for our lovely repast was $96 before tip.


Up late and off to check out Contraband, a newish coffee place on Larkin near California, walkable from our hotel which is a good thing. SO was very pleased with his cappuccino made from beans roasted in Oakland. His blueberry scone also passed muster, with a nice addition of orange zest. I tried a small veggie and egg empanada that at $3.95 was a tad dear but delicious, with light crackly pastry and savoury filling, well served by being reheated in small convection oven. The Belgian waffle I couldn't resist also sampling was just okay. We sat outside (bliss for Vancouverites in November!), the downside of which is that Larkin appears to be a truck route so it's rather loud, and you're on a hill which means the chairs are a bit off kilter. Still a good place to work on a cryptic crossword :-).

For lunch, we headed to Tacobar. Yes, the tacos are prolly double what you'd pay on 24th but the fillings are quite special. We had five, with a delicious agua fresca de limon y pepino (lime and cucumber, $2.80) to share. The duck confit taco ($3.95) was delicious though the pineapple salsa was too sweet, all better when I scraped some of it off. The carnitas ($3.65) were appropriately crunchy and porky tasting, served with pinto beans and pico de gallo. The Veracruz pescado ($3.95) was our least favourite as the line-caught mahi mahi could have been more "grilly" -- I'd go for the Baja version next time though the beer batter gives me pause. The winner of the day was the shrimp taco ($3.95) which was so good I ordered a second one. The shrimps are marinated in achiote, topped with cabbage slaw, ancho salsa and a jicama and mango sauce that was excellent. I am often disappointed by shrimp so this was a welcome surprise. I can see us returning for lunch to try some of the special salads (more jicama) and the tortilla soup, and the breakfasts look good too. Atmosphere is light and bright with comfortable tables, and service is very forthcoming. Antonio, chef and manager, came to check on how we were doing.

For dessert, walked up to Jane for a cappuccino and shared blueberry/raspberry coffee cake ($3 for a door stop sized piece). The room was very full this time with many ladies lunching on the chopped salads that seem to be a signature here. Sadly the coffee did not live up to memories of last visit (a bit bland) but the cake was well executed, moist and appropriately crumbly on top.

For dinner, local Hound cynsa and her SO joined us for a return trip to Lers Ros which was once again outstanding. Continuing with my strategy of focusing on appetizers, all the dishes were delicious though the pork shoulder (#9) was not as good as last time. The Som Tom Khai Khem, papaya salad with salted egg (#14) was crunchy and limey, the larb moo (#24) had the lovely nutty grindiness of pounded rice I had missed last time in the duck larb, the Tom Sabb soup (#31) was as good as on the last visit, with a pronounced sourness reminiscent of tom yam but richer with the pork base, and the stewed pork leg was falling off the bone. I daresay the dish of the night was the stir fried pork belly (#62) with the killer crispy rind, but the most interesting dish for me was the Nuer Tod (#6), a fried sun-dried beef that is worth trying. I'd only ever made it at home, never seen it on a menu, so that was fun too. Service was great and the cost was low ($86 before tip, including rice, a Fat Tire, hot tea, and two Thai iced teas) for a very filling repast.


We'd set our sights on Picante in San Rafael for some Mexican (after the Bay Model) where we were greeted by a tower of pork with pineapple on top. The tacos were tasty and ranged from $1.60 to $2 each (we tried carnitas, chile verde, al pastor, pescado, chorizo and pollo adobado, good guac $3 for a large serving, stellar refrieds, outstanding chips served in a basket with a side of salsa for a mere $1.40, aguas frescas $2.33). Our whole meal was just over $18 for 2; our DCs tried some tacos plus a corn and a flour quesadilla. I liked the chile verde pork the best, all good except the adobo chicken which was sweetish; very busy, fast friendly service, wish they had more house made sauces.

Back in town we hit Trader Joe's for a stash of chocolate covered pomegranate seeds on the way to Delise for a very fine Red Blossom green tea, best steamed milk evah, green tea chocolate chunk cookie and excellent home made gelato (salted caramel peanut butter brownie anyone? Or perhaps you’d prefer the caramelized walnut goat cheese?). Serving steamed milk with flavours doesn’t seem to have caught on here but the proprietor did an outstanding job on the foam which had the elusive miniscule bubbles that make this coveted “microfoam” come out like very soft meringue. I presume the Clover milk helped. A fun coincidence: Marcia Gaglardi of Tablehopper fame stopped by to talk to the owner and we got to meet in person after corresponding from time to time for a few years.

Hound escargot3 and her SO picked us for dinner at Mandalay for the Burmese fare. Our other DC, mariacarmen, thought the reservation was for 7 so by the time we cooled our heels till 7:55 for our 7:30 reso (they were giving away tables for five to walk ins even though we arrived exactly on time, grrrr!) we were all pretty hungry and I was a bit grumpy. Fortunately the food and subsequent service made up for that gaffe.

A bit of trivia: When questioned the server told us that Mingalaba in Burlingame is owned by the same people as Mandalay, and Mandalay has been owned by the same family since it opened a quarter century ago. I had a short list of dishes, then we added the Mandalay string beans which were quite tasty but not that different than other versions of this dish I have tried, perhaps a little sweeter. Dishes came fast and furious. We tried both the ginger and tea leaf salads. This version of tea leaf salad is my favourite of the ones I’ve sampled so far (see photo). The rest of the table loved the ginger salad but it was not a wow for me. The samusa soup was excellent if a bit shy on the titular item and the group preferred the mohinga we ordered. The deep fried onions suffered a bit from neglect ie. we should have eaten them earlier. The dry Burmese noodles I found too oniony but as advertised the noodles themselves were perfectly prepared. The balada was as lovely as last time also (see photo). Our largely vegetarian repast met with approval from all and was quite reasonably priced as well at $25 all in per person which included a couple of Singhas and a Thai iced tea. We were comped a smooth and delicious sweet potato dessert, presumably to make up for our wait.


We returned to another favourite haunt, Blue Bottle Mint Plaza for breakfast. Word to the wise: get there by 9:30 as we did or brave the 30-odd-strong line! None of my favourite iced coffee drinks this trip as it was the coldest one since we started coming regularly in 2007 with record lows on several occasions. I tried a Tcho hot chocolate which I would have preferred hotter but had good flavour and was not too sweet. The SO had his usual cappuccino (good but not as smooth as Contraband, I was told) and we split a frittata which was slightly overcheesed. I found the Prather Ranch bacon too sweet in combination with the caramelized onions. Rosemary potatoes were well done.

Next eating stop was Naked Lunch for a late bite at 1:30. This North Beach sandwichery which uses Acme bread has been on my hit list since it opened a couple of years ago. Worth the wait. Since they had only had time to make three of their usual 10 duck prosciutto and foie gras ($16) sarnies, we made do with the outstanding Applewood smoked bacon and egg sandwich with pickled onions, arugula and pesto aioli and the worthy roasted Japanese eggplant with warm chèvre, melted onions, pea shoots and brown butter aioli ones instead ($9 each) supplemented by a bag of 4505 chicharrones ($3) which I didn’t love as much as last time, as they seemed sweeter. I’d come back, and might try to do so next trip early on a Tuesday which is the only day they do fried chicken, also to catch the foie gras before it disappears forever in summer 2012. Of note is the lack of bathroom facilities here.

Next it was off to Hayes Valley to meet the BIL for a Ritual capp (seasonal espresso was Volare with equal parts La Folie, La Merced and Carmona, all Guatemalan) and my lone Gibraltar of the trip which I had with the $1 upcharge Honduran single origin espresso called La Piñona. It was disappointing as it started off tasty but had a very stony/ashy finish.

Dinner that evening was La Ciccia for the third time, second with the BIL. I indulged in a glass of the moscato di Cagliari Cantina Sociale de Dolianova ($10 IIRC) to continue my moscato kick. The three of us shared two appetizers, the burrata with Sardinian flatbread, fava beans and tiny tomatoes ($13) and the roasted sardines with garlic, parsley, breadcrumbs, pepperoncino and pecorino ($11) which were both well executed, with the sardines being the standout. For my primi, I had the semolina gnoccheti with a very fresh tasting tomato sauce ($16). The lads each had the rigatoni with veal and pancetta with porcini ragout ($17) which was a savoury delight, and a massive portion. The BIL enjoyed the seared lamb tenderloin drizzled with saba ($26 I think, can't read my notes here) and it was huge, with 8 slabs of meat. I opted for the pork loin breaded and pan roasted with saffron and onions ($22) which was perfectly cooked and also gargantuan with 3 four inch by 5 inch pieces. The SO tried the sea bream roasted with olive tapenade ($26) and his was also top notch and the lightest of the mains ordered. The mains were served with cauliflower, escarole and cabbage respectively. I ended up setting aside half my pasta and a piece of the pork for later consumption by the BIL which is what saved me from being completely stuffed. I swear the portions have grown since our last visit. Next time we'll prolly share two mains. And there will be a next time. Service and atmosphere were as delightful as on previous stops.


We headed to Golden Coffee for corned beef hash for me (v. tasty, hash browns too crispy and greasy but great setup in a real diner) then Contraband again. Spur of the moment decision to do the Billionaire's Row walking tour of Broadway meant hailing a cab, which seemed surprisingly easy at 10:45 am on a Sunday at California and Larkin.

Dithered about lunch, the skies went dark, the wind came up and we made the bad game day decision to try Pho Garden at 2109 Clement. The room was full even at 1:45 but this was no indication of goodness, sadly. The chicken pho was bland and tasteless and the shaking beef and garlic noodles inedible. I left the dish untouched after two bites. Avoid. I had to walk it off, which made me even grumpier when I realized we had been only a block or so from La Vie and the Richmond outpost of Turtle Tower, either of which would have been much better. Sigh.

More than made up for that frog kissing with dinner at Ventiane in Oakland that night. I had never eaten Lao food before so was keen to try it and came armed with suggestions from earlier CH threads. Four of us (including Oakland Hound escargot3 and her SO, who we met in Vancouver earlier this summer) walked in around 6:30 and waited less than 10 minutes despite a full room. Though humble it is inviting and the servers are very welcoming. Also handy that they offer a number of dishes in small and large so you can try more. They do have a menu called Lao Specialties but it's worth combing through the regular menu as well as a few are lurking there. We tried khao plak (chicken noodle soup sans the optional pork blood), nam kao (deep fried rice mixed with pork salad, which was one of my favourites of the night, crunchy toasted ricey goodness, we requested it light on the green onions), sai ooa or Lao baked sausage (another standout with great texture and chewy bits), Lao bbq pork ribs (meaty good with a nice char but perhaps not as exciting as they might be), mok pa (steamed white fish "tamale" which was another personal favourite, very lemon grassy) the Lao-style papaya salad (I thought this was too similar to Thai style but still tasty), som pak (pickled mustard greens), gang nor mai (bamboo soup), the Lao-style larb gai (again, a bit too close to the Thai version to be revelatory but tasty nonetheless), and sticky rice which came in a lovely basket but was a bit dry for my taste. I would love to go back and try out more of the Lao specialties. This meal was a highlight of our trip both for flavours and value.

Continuing our tour de Oakland, our guides suggested Camino for dessert. Though they were out of the shaker lemon tart, we happily consoled ourselves with the persimmon pudding with crème fraiche (best in show, $9), the chocolate cake with almond milk (surprised everyone by how special it was, $9) and the wood oven roasted quince and pear with bay leaf ice cream and a benne seed wafer ($9). The SO and I shared a pot of delicious mugicha (barley tea $3). We passed on the interesting sounding cocktails in favour of a trip to Mua where we indulged in a beer, a caipirinha and two of their signature cocktails with gin, black pepper and ginger.


We had a wandering day, with a late start at newish Coffee Bar at 101 Montgomery (recommended by one of the baristas at Contraband), serving Mr Espresso from Oakland (very good first day, less so second though I enjoyed mine the best of the places we went this time -- guess I'm just not a third wave coffee gal!), am now in love with the kouign amin (bottom left of photo) from Starter Bakery that they carry there. Also thought their cheddar and parsley scone was worthy and nicely sized, nice setup with great chairs (see photo) though seating is limited and outside under an overhang, not busy this day (later) but v. busy the next.

After some architectural sightseeing, we started grazing at Off The Grid St Mary's with the Fryin' Maiden buttermilk fried chicken sando with jalapeno slaw from Brass Knuckle ($8 including fries pic) which was overcooked, underdressed, not hot and generally way below the standard set at the Ft Mason OTG in April, where their deep fried prawn was one of the best things I had. Owner Shelly was v. nice but more consistency is needed. Also had the house made chips from 3-Sum Eats ($3) which had great flavour and seasoning but the SO found them too greasy. We both liked that they were packaged in a Zip Loc baggie. Spoke to a regular at this event who works in one of the towers across the park. She loves it but wishes they would rotate more than the same eight trucks. V. cool statue of Dr Sun Yat Sen here, and a nice dab of green space that we will remember for future treks through Chinatown. Next target was the rice dishes at Dol Ho I'd read about. We got the spare ribs and the chicken, which I uncharacteristically preferred ('ware bone shrapnel though), along with a nifty steamed item that had rice vermicelli on top and chicken, mushroom, tofu and shrimp layered inside (see pic). I didn’t realize they have carts at Dol Ho during peak hours which is how we spotted this one. With more than enough food for $9.25, we reluctantly left much of the rice uneaten. Was kicking myself afterward for not trying the famed hot sauce! Next was the Grant and Green area for some window shopping, followed by a foray into Jackson Square (must come back on a weekday to check out Thomas E Cara espresso machines (mural pic). Tried the Reveille coffee truck at Pacific and Sansome (7:30-4; check twitter for location) where they are serving Four Barrel, very nice Clover, same corner as a dog truck and a taco truck, both gone by 2 pm, then it was back up the hill to test drive a few taco sliders at Nico's which also has two for one tacos on Monday if you come in with a real or fake mustache, not the greatest presentation as you can't see much except the "crak" slaw (see photo) but I'd come back for the chicken slider tacos ($1 each, 3-6 pm) and the 2 for $5 Baja style fish tacos all day Friday and to try the "greengo" -- a taco dorado with green goddess dressing (!).

For our final dinner this trip, we opted to try neighbourhood joint Sociale, recommended to us by mariacarmen. Coincidentally, I had nabbed a bloomspot coupon that saved us about $30 on our choice of three courses so that made a great meal even better. We started out with a moscato di asti ($12) for me and a glass of Brachetto d'Acqui ca de Baio Barbera d'Alba Vietti for the SO ($11 for a six ounce pour). For appetizers, I selected a house specialty, the fried olives stuffed with fontina ($8.50) and the SO had the seared scallops with quail eggs, cavelo nero and pancetta vinaigrette ($12). Both dishes were perfectly executed and delicious. For mains, it was the papardelle with braised duck and porcini pear truffle oil ($19) and the pan roasted petrale stuffed with rock shrimp, fingerling potatoes, oyster mushrooms and spinach chive beurre blanc ($28). Both these dishes while not changing anyone's food world view were well balanced and tasted really good. I would have left out the shrimp in mine but that is because I am not a huge fan of rock shrimp. The SO's only quibble was there was too much duck (!) in his dish. Special mention must be made of the warm and crusty Bay Bakery bread, which they get par baked. Dessert was a wonderful goat cheesecake served in a little pot with strawberries on top and a piece of pine nut brittle to provide a bit of crunch. Not too sweet, creamy and very sad to have to leave some as I was full ($8). The SO was most pleased with his apple gallette with spiced mascarpone and vanilla ice cream ($8) as he is mad for appley things. He paired it with Earl Gray, hot, to great effect. As suggested, we sat outside on the patio despite the chilly evening (the staff kept the heaters trained on us, turning them up and down as necessary) and the atmosphere was really quite romantic. Inside was much buzzier with the tables closer together. I'd love to come back on a warmer evening for the patio and the overall experience. How I wish we had a neighbourhood bistro/tratt that could compare to Sociale at home.


Coffee Bar again, at 9 am, just scones this time, then on to FPFM to eat on a sunny bench, then grabbed an excellent Baja fish taco with deep fried rock cod, cabbage and avocado-cilantro cream at Mijita (nice corn tortillas) that was a highlight and noted they are now serving their chilaquiles and huevos rancheros all day though I'd sit outside next time as the indoor seating area is very loud. After a bit more poking around in the very small Tuesday market (not much prepped food selection at all, maybe 5 booths) and some other Embarcadero sight seeing, we headed up to Barbacco to meet mariacarmen for an early lunch. As advertised, this is a less formal option than Perbacco next door that encourages tapas-style dining. It was quite loud but we could still talk and very busy (glad we had made resos). We tried the Brussels sprouts fried in duck fat with capers, anchovies and red wine vinaigrette ($5). Though I couldn't really taste the capers or anchovies, this was a standout dish for me. maria wanted to check out the bruschette so we tried the cured sardine with potatoes and salsa verde and the house cured lardo with rosemary and frisee ($3 each). She was very happy with them but they didn't seem all that special to me (note that I am not a fan of lardo in general). We tried the local squid stuffed with nduja (a spicy Calabrian soft salame; $10) which was tasty but we felt the sausage overpowered the delicate squid a bit. Our "mains" were farrotto which is a farro dish done risotto style with roasted mushrooms and parmigiano reggiano ($12) -- another standout, I thought. Then we had the polpette or Sicilian meatballs with raisins, pine nuts, braised chard and tomato sugo ($13). I was surprised that I liked this dish as I am not crazy about raisins and meat together. Neither larger dish was particularly large. Overall a delicious meal that was maybe a bit pricey for lunch -- I'd consider going back for dinner as I found the flavours more robust than at Perbacco and the ambiance livelier.

We had a couple hours left after lunch so headed over to check out OTG United Nations and then went down to Sightglass to see the newly finished roastery. Disappointingly bland cappuccino, and the space is so big and echoey it is not very inviting but my Hooker's mocha was fine, and I loved the chocolate in the cookie which had a slight lemony flavour.

Final meal was a cooked to order burger at the Lori's at SFO International wing. So sad that an airport burger is better than 90% of the ones available at home but it was a nice way to end our eating extravaganza.

3665 Sacramento St., San Francisco, CA 94118

Golden Coffee Shop
901 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA 94109

340 Bellam Blvd, San Rafael, CA 94901

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