Thanks to many wonderful recommendations and a leisurely month of my own lurking on the San Francisco board (which happened to coincide with the publishing of the SF tip sheet...an ENORMOUS help), my co-hound and I have just returned to NYC from a wonderful week in the Bay Area. Before I get to the chow (though my overall impressions of a place are, of course, largely driven by the quality of food that exists there) I must say that I absolutely FELL IN LOVE with San Francisco during the short time I was there. It is a wonderful city with beautiful buildings, clean air, and lovely people. I sincerely hope to return as a permanent resident someday (and look forward to participating in the many chow-related events when I do!)
The trip summary:
We began our chowing with a trip to Louie's California Chinese Cuisine. Though jet-lag put us in the restaurant long before the dinner crowds began to arrive, we found the service friendly and competent without being at all over-bearing. We shared the "Signature Dinner" and enjoyed the chance to taste so many dishes, the best of which were the 3-C soup (with wonderful cilantro and mushrooms that made us realize the quality of produce we would experience as the week went on) and the Peking duck. A round-about walk back to the hotel through North Beach guaranteed some great espresso, as well as plenty of irrirtating propositioning from restauranteurs who wanted to lure us into their establishments. Glad we chose not to eat in such a tourist-ridden area (though I'm sure there are hidden treasures...including XOX truffles where we returned to buy gifts later in the week!)
The next day we enjoyed brunch at The Meetinghouse. San Francisco, despite being a city with many wonderful places to eat, is unfortunate to lose such a nice spot. We loved both the atmosphere and the size of the restaurant and happily shared eggs benedict (served on the signature biscuit with ham-hock stew in lieu of canadian bacon) and buttermilk pancakes with lemon curd and strawberries. Absolutely delicious...and it kept us full for a day of walking around Fisherman's Wharf (another place we were happy we chose not to dine!), the Embarcadero, and the Financial District. We ended our day at Zuni Cafe, which lived up to all of the expectations we had. Sticking with "signature dishes", we ordered the Caesar salad and the chicken. Both were fabulous. The chicken and bread salad were just out of this world (though impossible to finish). The restaurant's atmosphere, with the large open kitchen in the back and the oven that gave off wonderful heat on a cold San Francisco night, was perfect. Certainley a must-do for visitors to the area.
The next night's dinner was somewhat disappointing. Realizing that both soft-shell crabs and oysters were out of season, we were still anxious to experience Pacific coast seafood and headed to Hayes Street Grill to do just that. Unfortunately, by the time we got there (or perhaps all evening?) many of the items on their menu were not available. We were left to choose between blue-nosed sea bass and swordfish. I was particularly upset as I had my heart set on sampling Pacific salmon, but must concede that the conciliation prize (the swordfish) was delicious and impossibly fresh tasting, so I had to appreciate that the absence of other menu items may have had a lot to do with the restaurant being unwilling to compromise quality for quantity. The evening's biggest disappointment was the creme brulee. I have a weird hang-up about "surface area" in creme brulee; since I love the brulee so much, I love it even more when there is a large surface area. Sadly, Hayes' was lacking, but more unfortunately, the brulee that was there tasted stale and burnt, as if they had torched/broiled it too much and too far in advance. Perhaps it was an off night, but I'll stick the NYC (or French) creme brulee in the future.
The next day we explored Sonoma, and visited (as part of a guided tour) a series of smaller wineries, our favorites being Cline and Homewood Vineyards. The latter, especially, made for a lovely tasting experience that included vertical comparisons (same wines, different years) and chocolate (which both complimented and completely changed the taste of the Cabernet we were enjoying). Overall, I was impressed with the quality and breadth that California wineries offered. I normally drink European wines (esp. French and Italian), but our visit opened us up to all sorts of local varieties and made me totally appreciate Red Zinfandel in a way that (as someone who has shunned white zinfindel for as long as I can remember) I never thought possible. At any rate, after a long nap upon return [g.], we had dinner at Golden Turtle. Perhaps we chose our Vietnamese poorly; it certainley wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. The service was fine, the food was fine...but fine is hardly memorable and I think we both regretted not choosing upscale (Slanted Door) or greasy spoon (Tu Lan). Next time...
We had better luck the next day at El Farolito. Our super burritos truly left us wondering where the "El Pastor" has been all of our lives. Though there are a handful of establishments in NYC that attempt to replicate the California burrito, they all lack the proper inclusion of marinated meats that were so evident at El Farolito. It was so good that I ate the whole thing!
Our "fine dining" returned the next day when we drove along the coast and out to Berkeley with a stop at Tartine on the way out. What a lovely bakery! Everything we got was so good (Croissant, Pain au Chocolat, Gougere, and Scone) that we both (particularly myself) overindulged and found outselves feeling a bit sick afterwards. It was worth it though, to experience delicious pastries still warm. One of life's pleasures (and the cakes/tarts they were putting out as we were leaving looking delectable as well!) The day ended (when we had thankfully recovered from our pastry coma) at Chez Panisse. It was easily the most wonderful restaurant experience I've ever had. The atmosphere, lighting, etc. are lovely and the service matches. Our server actually steered us towards a cheaper bottle of wine ("I think it is the best one for this meal") in a way that no New York server would be caught dead doing. From the first course of onion, olive anchovy tart to the dessert of Bing Cherries Jubilee, we really couldn't have asked for better. I wonder if Bay Area natives realize how lucky they are to have such a seasoned restaurant that sustains the quality and charm that were probably present at its opening. The restaurant scene in New York is much more volatile and fleeting, making it practically impossible for a restaurant to establish itself in quite the same way.
Of course, New York does not benefit (geographically speaking) from the abundance, variety, and quality of produce that San Francisco does. This was abundantly clear during our departing chow expedition to the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market. It was nothing short of amazing, and though I had planned in advance to bring a cooler for transporting peaches and cherries back to NYC, I wanted SO MUCH MORE. I quenched my desire to pack bags full of fresh produce by purchasing plenty of preserves, chutneys and olive oils...but the freshness. It makes me sigh in nostalgia already.
Anyway, if you have managed to make your way through this entire missive, thank you for your patience. I truly just wanted to share with the group that made it all possible what a lovely time I had in your city.