SF w/ Kids report (long) –
We just got back from a 10 day trip to San Francisco and surrounds with our 7- and nearly 10-year olds. Thanks to many for suggestions. Since more inquiries about eating in the Bay area with kids have come up often since I first posted, I thought I’d share our experiences, good, bad and in between. We spent two weekends in San Francisco sandwiched around expeditions to Healdsburg and Point Reyes, which I’ll report on in a separate post.
Our kids are sort of hit-or-miss adventurous eaters. They will eat some Chinese (esp. dim sum), Japanese (mostly cooked but occasionally sushi), and will sometimes try something out of the ordinary, but spices or herbs will often throw them off their game and we’ll usually fare best with a simple salmon, chicken, steak, pasta or pizza. We don’t do “kids places” and we don’t insist on kids’ menus, but also don’t try to get them to sit through 3-hour tasting menus. We were able to find plenty that pleased both us and them.
Anyway, on to the report:
SF Day 1:
Lunch – Gold Mountain for dim sum. My daughter (the 7-year old) and I came in a day before my wife and son, dropped the luggage at the hotel and headed straight for a walk through Chinatown. Unfortunately we were somewhat late for lunch (after 2pm) and many of my daughter’s favorites (baked BBQ pork buns, custard tarts) had already run out. The two of us were seated at a long but un-busy communal table. She thought the BBQ pork puff and spring rolls were OK, had fun playing with the water chestnut cake (a sort of jello-ish concoction) but didn’t eat much of it. I loved the chicken feet and stuffed bean curd skin, thought the shrimp dumplings and a couple other items were pretty good. I actually thought most items were more flavorful than we had at Yank Sing later in the trip. Later enjoyed stopping into a tea shop dishing out several samples, and the Grant Ave. (live) poultry market.
Dinner – We had made reservations at Zuni Café expecting the four of us, but when wife and son were delayed for a day I wasn’t about to just give up. So daughter and I had a classy dinner, just the 2 of us, at Zuni. I started with an heirloom tomato salad dolloped with a little crème fraiche and espelette pepper (delicious tomatoes), she had a bowl of polenta with parmesan (too much pepper for her), and – because I had to try it – we ordered the roast chicken. By the way, we ordered it as soon as we sat down and my daughter wasn’t too frustrated by the wait. Waiter happily provided crayons and pens and she proceeded to decorate most of the paper tablecloth. We also had great seats in a corner on the second floor overlooking the first floor dining room.
As for the famous roast chicken? It was quite good, skin was perfectly crisp, meat was just slightly drier than I would have anticipated. The clincher though is the bread salad tossed in the pan juices with a little vinegar – delicious. So is it worth all the fuss? Mmm, I’m just not sure, but for a couple particular reasons: (1) I’ve done the recipe out of the Zuni Café cookbook, and my home rendition was almost as good. Undoubtedly that means it’s a great recipe and a well-written cookbook, but it does take some of the mystique away; (2) there’s a local restaurant where I come from in Miami, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, that does a shameless riff on the Zuni dish – a wood-oven roasted whole chicken served w/ some bitter greens, toasted pine nuts and plumped currants, duplicating everything but the great bread salad – which (dare I say it!) I actually thought might have been a better chicken. Maybe it was the experience of sitting at the kitchen bar watching the bird come out of the wood-burning oven, maybe it was the fact that it was served whole instead of carved up (per our request) so we had a carcass to pick at (the best part, after all). Zuni’s skin was better, but I actually think my local bird may have had more flavor. There, I said it. Throw stones if you wish.
Despite daughter and my best efforts, we had plenty of left-over chicken, and one of SF’s many homeless had a very fine meal that evening. Incidentally, Zuni had a very nice selection of ½ bottles and I had an Elk Cove Pinot from Oregon that was a perfect accompaniment.
SF Day 2:
Breakfast – Café de la Presse – my daughter wolfed down the french toast and enjoyed her hot chocolate, I had a decent smoked salmon benedict and a bowl of café au lait. Place would be pretty cramped for a larger family group.
Lunch – Great Eastern. After having picked up the rest of the family my son also insisted on heading straight for Chinatown. Though I hadn’t heard much about Great Eastern’s dim sum, that’s what the kids were in the mood for. Their liked their BBQ pork bun, Shanghai dumplings were only OK, they liked a dessert item which I think was called a steamed custard cake, a gigantic fluffy thing that sort of resembled a mutant angel food cake (I believe I’ve seen this or something similar also described as Malaysian cake). I liked the shrimp and snow pea dumpling; steamed tripe was bland. We also got a platter of BBQ pork, soy sauce chicken and jellyfish, all of which was delicious – my daughter even tried the jellyfish and conceded that it sounds much grosser than it tastes. Kids loved the tank of live fish and shellfish in the back.
Dinner – TWO. Grownups split several items – Caesar(ish) salad w/ a poached egg, ricotta-stuffed squash blossom w/ spicy tomato sauce, spaghetti w/ sea urchin and toasted bread crumbs, roasted marrow bones w/ caramelized onions. The last two I was particularly looking forward to trying and both were good – though the more dishes I try that use uni in cooked preparations, the more convinced I become that the best way to eat it is raw. Son liked the grilled salmon but scorned the accompanying romano beans w/ bacon; they happily made a “plain” pizza for daughter, which was good. Couple of nice dessert items, a trio of ice cream sandwiches, and a nectarine/pluot crumble served in a little cast iron pot. Particularly liked the wine list with “50 under $50” and had the reliably good and cheap Las Rocas Garnacha for about $25.
SF Day 3:
Breakfast – Sears Fine Food. Before I got too excited, my wife reminded me that their Swedish pancakes are much more like a typical silver dollar pancake and so I bypassed. Wife had nice made-from-scratch oatmeal, kids had OK pancakes and Belgian waffles, I had a “Joanie’s Special Omelette” with chicken apple sausage, green onion and cheddar cheese which was not very special. Somewhat dried out, hash browns were tepid. Mediocre, could have easily skipped. Place seems to be coasting on reputation alone.
(off to Healdsburg and Point Reyes, returning to SF following Friday)
SF Day 4:
Lunch – Yank Sing. We’ve now done both the Stevenson and Spear St. locations – does anyone think there’s a notable difference in the food between the two? Shanghai soup dumplings were delicious but a bit small. Also tried shrimp and vegetable dumplings (good), stuffed bean curd skin (not as good as Gold Mountain), peking duck “sandwiches” (nice to get in dim sum portions), phoenix tail fried shrimp (OK), chicken satay (interesting), spring rolls (pretty good), Chinese broccoli, and custard tarts. The kids seemed to enjoy this the most of our dim sum lunches.
Dinner – One Market. We had a very good meal here a couple years ago. This time around disappointed. The space itself is nice, with big windows looking out on the Embarcadero. They also had a kids’ menu with the usual suspects (pasta w/ butter and cheese, chicken fingers, etc.) which our kids resorted to. The chicken fingers were a little dried out. Waiter knew to ask to bring out the kids’ orders with our apps. As for the grown-up food, a BLT salad had tomatoes that had been marinated in a little vinaigrette and softened up, and not enough B or L. The smoked ocean trout w/ a poached egg over a potato pancake was good, though the fish was a little too subtle for me. A grilled Alaskan salmon with a vegetable relish was decent but boring, and the daily roast, a leg of lamb with nicoise jus, was also decent but bland (and somewhat inartfully carved into little strips rather than nice slices). The mild food did provide a good foil for a wine extravagance prompted by the great American-only wine list – a 2003 Beaux Freres Pinot which I just couldn’t resist. Was sort of surprised I had to ask for this to be decanted when the first glass poured was throwing off a little sediment.
I do like how they do the dessert menu. In addition to a regular dessert menu, there are several “mini desserts” which can be ordered for $5 each or a choice of 3 for $13.50. Son did an ice cream sundae from the kids’ menu, while daughter seized the opportunity by getting a mint chocolate chip ice cream sandwich, strawberry shortcake, and peaches and cream cheesecake from the “minis” menu. The mint chocolate chip ice cream in particular bears mentioning, as it was uncanny how it tasted not just of mint, but in fact exactly like a mint leaf. Really interesting. The peach dumpling I ordered was not quite as exciting, though pretty, a roasted peach encased in strips of dough and served w/ a vanilla sabayon and ginger ice cream.
There are a variety of ways to eat relatively cheaply here, between the kids’ menu, the daily roasts, some of which are pretty reasonably priced (the lamb was about $23), and a prix fixe menu w/ app, main and a “mini” dessert for $45. I just didn’t get that excited about the food.
SF Day 5:
Breakfast – tried to do Dottie’s True Blue Café but we woke up too late and the line was way too long. Went searching for other options and stumbled upon the Olympic Flame Diner on Geary. I can’t find this place even mentioned on this board and am surprised. I had a delicious “Northwest Scramble” w/ smoked salmon, green onion and cream cheese, wife had a fine spinach and feta omelette, the potatoes were perfectly cooked, crispy and not greasy, the kids liked their pancakes. This may have been my favorite breakfast of the trip.
Lunch – Osakaya in Japantown. Kids loved walking around Japantown, though our restaurant choice was pretty much a function of “What’s open for lunch, looks busy, and has a menu that includes both sushi and cooked stuff for the kids?” Various sushi was all OK but nothing to get excited about (boy they slice their fish thin for nigiri!), though I liked the trio of onigiri (salmon, ume and greens) for $4.50. My kids absolutely devoured the chicken kara age and were clamoring for more. Suspect we could have done better.
Dinner – Perbacco. When we reserved I’d asked for a table upstairs thinking we’d have a view over the kitchen, not realizing that there was more seating upstairs that didn’t have the kitchen view. Oh well. Mother and daughter both loved the burrata w/ heirloom tomatoes, while I enjoyed a tasting of cooked salumi (a traditional mortadella, another one with more exotic spices – cinnamon? – one with pork liver, and a couple testas). It’s amusing to me how restaurant trends spread. Seems everyone in SF is curing their own pork products these days, you can’t sneeze without running into another house-cured bacon or salumi. Pork shoulder braised in milk is a classic dish and well done here, though tremendously rich. My wife’s vitello tonnato was only a so-so rendition. The kids both wanted plain pasta and got lovely fresh egg pasta w/ parmesan. I was somewhat shocked, though, when I discovered that we were charged $15 each for these, when they couldn’t have amounted to more than a typical half portion (for which regular menu items, with sauces, are $10-12). Again, they knew to bring the kids’ pasta with our apps. A side of honey-roasted carrots had a little too much crunch for me – I do expect my vegetables to be cooked pretty much to death in an Italian restaurant. Incredibly broad selection of Italian wines, we found a nice 2000 Brunello that was pretty reasonably priced. For dessert, the brutto il buono with a glass of vin santo made my wife quite happy. Son gorged on a chocolate torte, daughter’s selection of gelati (chocolate, salted caramel and strawberry vanilla) was good though the heavily salted caramel was a little too avante garde for her, my fig leaf panna cotta w/ wine-braised figs had great texture and pretty subtle flavors.
Overall, I found service everywhere we went to be very kid-accomodating, and we had no difficulties eating at “fine dining” places with the little ones even if we did have a couple disappointments. Report on Healdsburg and Point Reyes will be posted separately.