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San Francisco Bay Area Trip Report

Our love affair with all things Tartine-- and the rest of our trip to San Francisco (a long report!)...


Restaurants & Bars 42

Our love affair with all things Tartine-- and the rest of our trip to San Francisco (a long report!)...

jdream | Aug 23, 2007 05:49 AM

Day 1
We were immediately excited when we walked up to Yank Sing. We took everyone’s advice and went very hungry. The room was really attractive and the service was shockingly helpful (both these things were fantastic improvements over my dim sum experiences in New York). Overall, we were incredibly impressed. I’ll give the run down of what we had, with a grade next to them. First string beans with garlic and minced pork that were really fresh and wonderful (A). Next, through a little miscommunication, we ended up with fried shrimp and fried crab claw. The seafood inside both was really fresh, although the batter was rather heavy; this is something I would skip in the future (B). The Shanghai/soup dumplings were excellent, though really different than the versions I’ve had in New York; less soup inside, significantly less fatty and the dipping sauce was red and not soy based (A). The Peking duck!! Wow, we loved this. The sweet light bun went so well with the crisp duck, scallions and hoisin sauce—unbelievable (A+). The minced chicken in the lettuce cups was not a favorite for us, perhaps just a matter of taste, but we found them overly sweet and nutty (B-). The shrimp dumplings were great, not particularly exciting, but really simple and fresh (A-). We loved the pot-stickers, really gingery and flavorful with the skin cooked perfectly (A). My favorite of the meal was the BBQ pork bun; that light sweet bun filled with little pieces of sweet/tangy BBQ pork that we dipped in the hot mustard—awesome (A+). Finally, we got the egg custard which were very good but at this point I was way too full to even finish one (B+). Overall the meal was terrific. We got lucky and sat right near the kitchen so all dishes were hot and fresh. Again, the service was really helpful which made it quite enjoyable. Definitely true that this is more expensive than most dim sum (though admittedly, we ordered a lot of food for two people). We loved that Yank Sing chili sauce that was on the table. I really hope to make it back here again soon.

I must preface my report on Aziza by saying that we were considerably jet-lagged during this meal and slightly woozy. We found the room to be very pretty and our server (Jennifer) was lovely. At everyone’s suggestion we did the tasting menu. We both felt that the portions were rather large for that sort of meal. We were told to pick a soup and an entrée (and that we would eventually pick a dessert) and that the chef would pick the appetizers and we would get the Basteeya (?) as a third course—not much of a “chef’s” tasting, but I guess some choice in a meal is good... It started out wonderfully, he had the lentil soup with a date; the date was fresh and fantastic and complemented the coriander-heavy (in a good way) soup. I had the special that night, a corn soup with pink peppercorns and grilled corn, my favorite part of the meal. Next we got the “chef’s choice” which were the gigantes (huge lima beans in a tomato sauce, baked with French feta on top) and grilled kafta kebabs. The gigantes were terrific and the cheese on top of them was outrageously good. The kebabs were served with grilled grapes and julienned cucumber salad. All the flavors matched perfectly, but being a little nit-picky, I would have preferred if the kafta was cooked through (and I love rare meat), I just didn’t think the texture lent itself to that temperature so well. After this was the Basteeya, which neither of us particularly cared for. It was a little too heavy, too big, and too sweet for a course in the middle of a meal. I wasn’t especially fond of the texture, couldn’t taste the saffron and found it to be slightly cinnamon-heavy. I’m not sure what it was but this really didn’t work for us at all. For entrées he got the braised lamb shank in kumquat sauce with cranberry-cinnamon barley and earl-tea braised prunes. The lamb itself was amazing and perfectly cooked, but again it tasted a bit too sweet for us. I had the halibut in a saffron broth with potatoes and green olives. This was good (especially the potatoes), if slightly bland, and the portion of fish was huge. Now I’m not necessarily complaining about that, but sometimes when you are sitting down for a lengthy meal you don’t want to see hunks of fish and meat after you’ve already had three courses. At this point our jetlag was more then we felt like dealing with and got dessert to go (the fruit with cinnamon dusted almonds and the chocolate tart). Had the fruit and nuts when we got home, good quality ingredients, though again I didn’t think that everything (grapes, peaches, strawberries, almonds, etc. had to be dusted in cinnamon). The next morning for a pre-breakfast we had a bite of the bittersweet chocolate tart, which came with a peanut butter mousse wafer and a piece of cocoa nib toffee. Great dessert (or breakfast)! Overall the meal was really good, the ingredients were fresh and everything was cooked perfectly. Our minds just weren’t blown and this might have been an issue of taste (not loving all the sweet), maybe ordering too many sweet dishes (we were out of it) and mindset (damn jet-lag!). As a side note, we had a terrific pinot noir rose that paired wonderfully with the food and the anise seed flecked bread was awesome (and the cucumber scented water was a great detail)!

Day 2
We woke up and headed over to the Ferry Building around 9. Initially we only saw the front booths (which we were still impressed by) and we bought naan, jalapeno chutney and some channa masala from Sukhi’s. They were very generous with the samples and what we got was great. Finally we realized all the other booths that were on the backside! Wow, this market is reason enough to move to San Francisco. It was so overwhelming, in the best possible way and we proceeded to eat our way (rather eclectically) through the market. We got a German bier sausage from Aidell’s—juicy and really flavorful, great mustard. We got a couple oysters (one from Hog Island booth one from a seafood booth inside the building, I forgot to check out the name of it). We got excellent chips and avocado/tomato/corn/red onion salsa from Primavera—awesome. He got a custard bomboloni inside, which he loved but I didn’t taste. We got beef jerky (and dog treats!) from Marin Sun Farms. And along the way we tasted June Taylor preserves, various cheeses, dips, nuts… I’m sure you get the idea. It was a wonderful morning that ended with a really reasonable $10 wine flight at the wine shop inside the Ferry Building.

Our meal at Bar Tartine is exactly why I wanted to come eat at all these fabulous restaurants in San Francisco—this is what I had in mind. The room is elegant and understated and the service was so friendly and just really lovely to talk to. The entire menu was appealing and we were feeling pretty blissful after the first sip of a delicious California Dolcetto. We started with the bone marrow and grilled bread—this was so luxurious and flavorful, like meaty butter (and the fact that the bread there is some of the best I’ve ever had really didn’t hurt the dish). We also shared a salad of just mixed lettuces and herbs with olive oil croutons and radish. Fresh, good and what we needed to break up all of these indulgences. For an entrée he got the onglet, which was served, with bitter greens, grape tomato/green bean/bread salad in a bordelaise sauce. We love hangar steak and know the difficulties of making it tender, this was absolutely perfectly cooked. I got the gnocchi with hen mushrooms, grilled corn, Parmesan and truffle oil. The gnocchi was browned on the outside and tasted as if they were toasted and not boiled. For as heavy as this dish sounds like it could have been, it wasn’t at all. The truffle oil wasn’t overdone and the flavors were just awesome, really delicate. We moved over to the bar for dessert and got some after dinners drinks. The Milk and Honey (honey mousse over almond cake with peach sorbet and half a grilled peach) was so wonderful. Much like the gnocchi (in some odd way) it was light and the flavors did exactly what the chef intended them to. Great variety of textures going on. We also tried the lemon verbena and basil ice creams. This is honestly in the top three meals I’ve ever had and my boyfriend said it’s the best he had. Beside impeccable food the laid back but elegant atmosphere and service was perfect. We were contemplating canceling all other reservations and just going here for the rest of our meals—it was that good! (P.S. I know this is a bit like comparing apples to oranges, but this blew Aziza out of the water.)

Day 3
I think we got suckered into our first (and only) tourist trap of the trip! When we were at the Ferry Building Saturday we noticed a really nice looking place with outdoor seating a good sounding breakfast menu, MarketBar. We woke up this morning rather hungry (and early) and knew that dinner wasn’t until 8:45 so we figure we would do all three meals today. We went down to MarketBar. The outdoor seating is quite lovely but the service was totally inept (we’re on vacation, we didn’t stress it, and as a result I won’t go through all the reasons why here. Needless to say my boyfriend and I have both waited tables know some confused servers when we see them—these were them). We ordered a frisee salad with poached egg, bacon, roasted potatoes, green beans and heirloom tomatoes. It was fine, a bit heavy handed with the dressing and as a result over-wilted the veggies. We also got smoked salmon on toast with cream cheese, red onion and capers (and a side of sausage). All was fine, nothing great, but it worked.

For lunch we went to La Taqueria—and now I understand why people complain that there is no good Mexican food in New York. We got four tacos to share: chorizo, pork, beef and tongue. We loved all of them except the tongue, which didn’t have enough texture/flavor pay off. These were awesome though. The cheese was melted into the tortilla, slightly crunchy on the ends and great salsa. Again, this and Bar Tartine are reason enough to move out here. We were too full and didn’t make it to Bi-Rite or La Cumbre or Papalote for burritos. Oh well… next trip.

Dinner was at Zuni. (We tried to go to Cav first, but it turns out they are closed on Sundays). We got there early had a drink at the bar and were then seated. As for the “where to sit” debate we didn’t make any requests and ended up at a table next to the kitchen across from the bread station. We were definitely in the action and got to see the kitchen, which was nice. Likewise, we were seated next to each other, which is nice for sharing and having a more intimate meal. The place was really pretty; my only complaint was that it would benefit from dimming the lights a bit. Great bread—we finally got to try the Acme sourdough. It was really good, but Bar Tartine’s was better. (Uh oh, we’re afraid we peaked too early with Bar Tartine). We shared four courses. First cold thinly slice Marin Farm beef with green beans in a tarragon mustard sauce. The meat was salty and delicious and melted in my mouth. Green beans went well but were a little over-cooked/mushy for my tastes. Next the Caesar salad—it definitely deserves all the praises that it gets. Everything about it was perfect—its what every Caesar tries to be; crunchy, garlic, anchovy goodness. After this was the garganelli in a red wine-squab sugo. Pasta was cooked perfectly, with a little crunch in the center. It was our first introduction to squab and we both really liked it, the sauce in general was pretty mild. Finally we finished with a pan-roasted salmon with escarole, potatoes in a shallot-shellfish sauce. This was the least exciting of the dishes. It was well cooked but nothing particularly interesting or flavorful about it. We also got the shoestring potatoes, which were awesome. We decided against the chicken (as I’m not such a big chicken fan and the bread salad was served with currants, prunes, pine nuts and we were hesitant about another sweet meal) and it gave us a chance to try more of the menu. For dessert we had the flourless chocolate cake with whipped cream. This was great and not too sweet. Overall the meal was very good; it just didn’t reach the same level as Bar Tartine for us (for service, atmosphere and food). But we had a conversation about the fact that Zuni has been around for 25ish years and though it may not still be very innovative it really is a predecessor for restaurants like Tartine. I’m glad we went for the history and since it is pretty classic SF—not a place I would run back to, but I understand how there are people that have been going there for 20 years.

Day 4
We skipped breakfast today and had lunch at Burma Superstar. This place is awesome—definitely something that I would try and do weekly if I lived here. We had the Tea Leaf Salad, which was incredible, so interesting and crunchy (loved the fried garlic chips)! We had the Samusa Soup which was very good, loved the falafel and samusa’s in it, though the flavors of the broth weren’t my favorite—but still wonderful. And finally we had Garlic Noodles with Duck, which was terrific. Everything tasted distinct both from foods I had eaten previously and from each other. We had no wait at all and the bill for all that and a couple drinks was only 32 dollars.

We drove around 18th and Dolores at the recommendation of the manager that we adored at Bar Tartine. To continue our Tartine love affair we had the most amazing brioche bread pudding with nectarine and Bavarian Coconut cake with passion fruit icing. And if that wasn’t enough… we noticed that Bi-Rite was just down the street and had a scoop of the Salted Caramel (quite possibly the most perfect ice cream flavor).

We had late dinner reservations at Quince. We tried going to Hidden Vine first for some wine, but it turns out they are closed on Mondays, so we went to Cav. Good selection, informed bartender and love the tasting sized options for the wine. Felt the décor was a little cheesy/dated. Ok, back to Quince. This was such a nice way of doing a fine dining restaurant—still small and intimate. The room was beautiful and food was absolutely stellar. We shared to start; the “Oxtail Sopprosata”, breaded and pan-fried oxtail served over a big thinly sliced beet and horseradish sauce and Grilled Sardines served with cubed watermelon and cantaloupe with fresh mint. The way that the flavors melded in these two dishes blew my mind. Whoever came up with them clearly has an amazingly refined palette and a wonderful talent for pairing flavors—impeccable! At everyone’s recommendations which bypassed entrees and shared three pastas. First was conchiglie with snails, fresh tomato and garlic crema. The second was macaroncello in a foie gras/vin santo sauce. And the third was pappardelle with rabbit. I can’t pick a favorite dish out of any of these five. They were each superb. The macaroncello was everything the mac and cheese wishes that it were. Just wonderful food and perfect service. We got one cheese (the AMAZING Midnight Moon) for dessert, but as we had told the waiter we were trying to drink as much California wines as possible, to go with the theme he brought us their one California cheese just to taste. Then the cheese-person asked what we thought of the selection and we got into a conversation about favorite cheeses etc. Long and short she brought us yet another free cheese and two free glasses of dessert wine to sample the different ways the cheeses could taste. It was generous, informative and fun! This was by far the priciest of all our bills (220 before tip, where most others were about 130 before tip) it was well worth it to do one fine dining splurge—didn’t feel the least bit disappointed.

Day 5 ☹
For breakfast, we went to Mama’s. The line from start to sitting was about 40 minutes. Personally I’m not big breakfast person but dishes that were coming out of the kitchen looked good. My boyfriend had huevos rancheros that he was happy with. I had the Farmer’s omelet (goat cheese, leeks, spinach, bacon). I was very happy with the design of the omelet, it was easy to open up and eat all the delicious fillings (great spinach and bacon). Only complaint is that I personally like my potatoes crispier.

For lunch we went to Chez Panisse. We were initially seated in a really dark booth directly across from the kitchen. It was a beautiful day and we asked to move to a different room so that we could enjoy our last day of glorious California sun. We started with bone marrow (I know, again—but we thought maybe we needed to compare theirs to Tartine’s!) and a baby gem lettuce salad with beets and crumbled hard-boiled egg in a light anchovy vinaigrette. The bone marrow was good, how could it not be? But not as good as Tartine’s. The marrow at CP was brown (as opposed to a lovely pinkish tone at Tartine) and wasn’t as seasoned and the bread just wasn’t as good. The salad was very good. For entrees we had the pizza with eggplant and mint and chicken confit with giblet gravy and green beans. The pizza was enjoyable, not much to say about it. The chicken was absolutely delicious—the giblet gravy was quite rich and felt the dish could have benefited by having some slightly acidic or bitter element to cut all the fat. For dessert we had the blackberry-nectarine cobbler, it was delicious (but didn’t touch the nectarine bread pudding at Tartine—see a trend yet?). Overall we were very happy with our food and the room. The one thing we were really surprised about was the service. I’m not sure if it’s a result of the tip already being included. But they seemed SO disinterested and uninformed. Much of the service was pretty unprofessional (including discussing a tip another table left within ear-shot of us). When we asked our server what he recommended he really couldn’t provide much of an answer, beyond pointing to a couple dishes—no elaboration or further details. Having both worked in restaurants as servers for some time (how we met, aww) we tend to be pretty tuned-in to that part of the experience. I don’t doubt that CP churns out delicious food, overall it really was, it felt like too much of The Disneyland for Eaters—or something to that effect.

Dinner plans were at Slanted Door. I’m not sure if it was just lunch at CP or an accumulation of all the meals we had had over the past five days but we struggled to conjure up an appetite for dinner and definitely didn’t want anything fat laden. We had some outstanding oysters at the bar first and their entire raw bar looked really delicious. We were seated at one of those lovely orange curved booths facing the water—so nice. We had a half order of the Slanted Door spring rolls, which ended up being my favorite dish of the nice. They tasted fresh and lean and the peanut sauce was great, textures and flavors were perfect. The Niman Ranch ribs were our other appetizer (so much for light, but they’re his favorite). Nothing particularly unusual about the hoisin glaze but the meat was excellent and they were delicious. For entrees we had Dungeness crab cellophane noodles and caramelized Tiger Prawns. The noodles didn’t taste particularly crabby, but they were very good. The prawns were good, flavorful and cooked well. We also had some steamed bok choy; its amazing how much more flavorful some of the ingredients are California just due to freshness (bok choy tasted really earthy as opposed to watery). It was a nice meal to cap off our trip with, the Vietnamese flavors being a needed break from a French heavy week.

Our trip was amazing and so was the majority of the eating that we did. It was a treat for us to do all of this together and we really savored it. Our favorite meal of the trip was Bar Tartine (and we were equally impressed by what we tried at Tartine), followed very closely Quince and then Burma Superstar, Yank Sing and Taqueria. We agreed that Zuni was in many ways the most forgettable meal (the salmon really was shockingly bland) and Aziza was our least enjoyable. Most of the complaints throughout here are nit-picky and I feel the need to end all this by saying how wonderful most of what we had was. SF is obviously an awesome eating city and I look forward to exploring more in the future. Sorry for how lengthy this is and thanks again so much for all of the help in planning!

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