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trip report

Carl | Dec 24, 200302:54 PM

I recently made a five-day trip to San Francisco, and I planned most of my meals using this board.

Lunch at Umbria. I had chicken with an intense, rich, excellent, surprising black olive sauce. The portion was small and the accompanying broccoli was a little overcooked, but the price was right and the meal overall quite positive.

Dinner at Ino. I got there early and was the only customer. The chef is this wily, happily gruff character and his wife is utterly charming. We got off to kind of a bad start when I asked him what among his (I have to say, not outstandingly fresh-looking) fish was fresh and he responded that it was all fresh. But I asked him to just serve me whatever fish he thought was best and we settled down to work. I didn't keep a list, but I found the fish to be consistently fresh enough and in the A-minus range in terms of flavor. The guy is a purist: the ginger isn't that standard-issue pink stuff, he puts the wasabi between the rice and fish himself (and with rather a heavy hand) rather than giving you a pile of the stuff to fumble with yourself, and he puts the sushi directly on the countertop. It makes you want to eat it right.

Afterward I stopped by the Maruwa Market and got a package of mixed mochi in four flavors -- green tea, coffee (I think), and two fruit flavors that I can't recall. No price was marked on them, and while they ended up being interesting and even a little alarming, I was disappointed when they rang up on the cash register at $5.99 for what's nothing but flavored rice cake.

Lunch at O Chame in Berkeley. I had the roast lamb, which I admit I don't think of as being traditional Japanese cuisine. It was prepared very simply, with no noticeable seasoning. There is a fine line between subtle and bland, and this was maybe two steps on the subtle side of that line. Accompanying portobellos were good though.

Dinner was supposed to be Kabuto. I even called ahead to ask when they opened and an unhappy-sounding guy with a Japanese accent answered "Kabuto" and said 5:30. But when I got all the way out there, it turned out that Kabuto is kaput, closed, no more. This is a drag -- I first went to Kabuto twenty years ago. I guess I now know why the guy was unhappy, but I can't say I sympathize.

So okay, I got back on the 38L bus and, improvising with guidebook and cell phone, ended up at Millennium. The place was packed. The way it is set up, eating at the bar is not so great. But the waiter was refreshingly chilled. I ordered the squash and chestnut raviolis with some greens and beans whose names I can't recall. The raviolis were pleasantly squashy, the greens were okay, and the beans were very good. So all was well, pretty much.

Lunch the next day was take-out bao from Dol Ho on Pacific. This is another place I've been going for twenty years, but by now it's really because I'm too lazy to systematically taste-test the other places. The roast pork buns, I'm sad to say, were substandard. The bread was airy and slightly rubbery in a good way. But the shredded pork inside was neither plentiful nor spicy. The chicken was better, with kind of an interesting edge from the mixed-in veggies, but still basically average.

Dinner at Jardiniere. I had the venison with mushrooms. The portion was good and the meat was exceptionally well-cooked. The broth the dish was served in could have been a little more interesting, and the mushrooms were soggy. Warm rolls were very pleasant, though, and the meal was certainly positive overall.

Lunch at Andale on University in Palo Alto. This is an upscale gringo burrito place, packed at lunchtime. I had the unfortunately-monikered Maya Burrito, which is a chicken burrito with a very good, richly flavored mole-like sauce inside. It's actually the best thing I ate on the whole trip.

Dinner at Fifth Floor. I paid thirty-eight dollars for duck with berry sauce and nine and a half whole dollars for a bottle of mineral water. The duck and sauce were beautifully cooked and perfectly matched, but while I don't fundamentally care about money I found myself wishing that I hadn't paid quite thirty-eight dollars for them. The side dish, which I don't know how to describe, was a study in texture and temperature (and geometry) more than in flavor. One of the two types of bread, though, an olive bread with whole olives, was interesting and good. The waiter doled out his smile in precisely controlled rations. For all that I admit I'd probably go back.

Lunch at Cafe Tiramisu on Belden Alley. I had the black pepper crusted tuna in fennel broth with gnocchi. The tuna had an excellent texture and a nice black pepper bite, but maybe not quite as much tuna flavor as I was going for. They brought way too much Italian bread with an outstanding olive oil with herbs and cheese. Both broth and oil were excellent for the dipping of bread.

Two muffins at SFO, apple and bran, on the way home. Not so great.

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