Saturday, July 31, 2010

San Francisco restaurant roundup OR I left my heart attack in San Francisco

Clint Eastwood is The Fondue Cowboy.

This 200th post (!) is a by-neighborhood chronicle of a recent week of eating out on vacation in the San Francisco Bay area. This post is long, but like the trip itself, it begins and ends — as it should — with Fondue Cowboy.

There were no shortage of French boutique hotels and bistros around where we were staying. At first we thought it strange, but it turns out we were right by SF's French quarter. Which brings us to our very French Provincial hotel:

Union Square 
Petite Auberge hotel
268 Bush St.

Petite Auberge while very quaint is kinda famous, having been named one of the best 75 places to stay in the U.S. by Condé Nast Traveler 2 years running. But what sold it for Shawn was the daily hot and cold breakfast and afternoon wine and hors d'oeuvres that were included in the hotel's already reasonable room rate. Both were homemade and set up in their downstairs lounge. Talk about civilized. Here's what was on offer the week of our stay:

The only downside to this, I'm realizing, is that a daily 5 pm wine and cheese habit is hard to break. (I still find myself getting antsy around that time.)

Another big plus with this hotel are the fireplaces in most rooms. Mark Twain was quoted as saying "The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco." I think I get where he was coming from. Shawn and I froze, while a heatwave swept much of the east. I mention this because the climate obviously influenced our food choices, which leaned toward comfort food (with extra cheese).

Last but certainly not least, Petite Auberge offers complementary homemade cookies all afternoon, in a jar kept next to the antique elevator. We never ate the same cookie twice over the course of out stay, and Shawn couldn't get enough of these. Once he even temporarily got his hand caught in the jar. I really hope no security cameras were on us at the time.

The first restaurant on my list was the Fondue Cowboy, and we decided to go for lunch on July 4th. However, I led us in the wrong direction — right when we should have turned left — which took us right down Turk through the core of the Tenderloin — the infamously terrible SF sub-neighbourhood with unfortunately delicious-sounding name. Travel guides say that it's perfectly safe to walk through during the day, which may be technically true, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. I'll only say that it was the worst longest detour of my life (and I've taken a few).

After realizing my mistake, Shawn and I doubled back and took 6th all the way down to Folsom. (Past Market St. you're out of the Tenderloin and into an only marginally better part of town). At Folsom Shawn looked at me and said "Um... I really don't think there's a restaurant here, we're in the middle of nowhere." In the middle of nowhere we were, and I considered for a moment that I'd miss-mapped the restaurant, until I spotted it, in the distance, the logo of Fondue Cowboy. (I can apparently spot a fondue fork from blocks away.) Sadly, once at the door we saw the sign that said that Fondue Cowboy would be closed the 4th and 5th July. 

Not a great start to our vacation, especially considering that at the time of this misadventure our luggage had yet to join us. But we recovered and there was plenty of good food to enjoy.

The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen
1 South Park Ave. (at 2nd St.)
The name of much loved former San Francisco mayor George Moscone is all over SoMA (a neighborhood he once fought against developing); from the massive Moscone Convention Center to a rec centre, school, liquor store and one best grilled cheese sandwiches I've ever had — mozzarella, fontina, roasted tomatoes, basil-lavender pesto, kalamata olive tapenade.

The premise of The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen is simple: gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches served with a small bunch of grapes on the side. Also on offer is roasted tomato bisque, fresh lemonade and homemade baked goods. They also welcome your "cheese puns" and feature the best on the chalk board next to the menu. On my second visit I came armed with a few of my best (I'd thought up, like, 20), given how busy they were that day (not unusual), I decided not to bother my server.  I may twitter some to them later (they're @TheAmericanSF).

We ate here more than once, so in addition to the Moscone we also tried the Mousetrap (Tillamook sharp cheddar, creamy havarti, monterey jack, on artisan sourdough [served with optional applewood-smoked bacon , roasted tomato and bread n'butter pickles]), the Mushroom Gruyère (fontina, gruyère, roasted wild mushrooms + gold potatoes, melted leeks, caramelized onions, thyme butter), and the Jalapeño Popper (chèvre, monterey jack, applewood-smoked bacon, apricot-jalapeño relish).

As far as concept restaurants go, this one is inspired. But you don't have to take my word for it:

Delfina Pizzeria
3611 18th St.
Delfina Pizzeria came highly recommended. Delfina, the fine dining sister restaurant is also well renowned, but we came for the pizza.  I think you can see why. And it tastes as perfect as it looks (it's the clam pie). They also offer a great selection of Italian wines.

Once I mapped out the location I also decided to visit San Francisco landmark #227, which took us through the adjacent Castro. Mission and Castro districts were my favourite parts of the city.
Chez Panisse Café
1517 Shattuck Ave.
Dinner at this iconic California restaurant was by far the best "capital D" dining experience I've ever had. We ate in the Café, Chez Panisse's upstairs à-la-carte sister restaurant. Prices in the café are very reasonable, but if you eat in the restaurant downstairs, expect to pay $175 per person plus drinks for the multi-course prix fixe.

When I made our reservation 3 weeks before our trip I was only able to snag a 5:30 slot, which wasn't so bad since we got to enjoy a beautiful Berkeley afternoon and catch the end of the farmers' market (a block from the restaurant). Also loved the sun streaming in through the windows of the dining room which gave the place the air of the world's classiest tree house.

The service was 5-star (maybe 6) yet totally unpretentious and unrushed, and the food was impeccable. It was more than I hoped for, and I'd been wanting to go to this restaurant for a long time. When I gave my name our host he even said warmly "Ah, yes, Kristen, we've been expecting you." The dork in me wanted to ask "Why, do you read my blog?!"

It's also very easy to get to; just a 30-minute BART trip from SF, and the train lets you off on the same street that the restaurant is on!  

The Empress of China
838 Grant Ave.

You can tell from the photos that line the lobby that The Empress was the swingingest Chinese food restaurant in 1968. And, that it maintained its stellar reputation until the late eighties.

While you won't find celebrities here any more, you will find and a great rooftop view of Telegraph Hill and the Bay, and one of my favorite Chinese American dishes — walnut prawns (right) — Jumbo prawns deep fried, smothered with light mayonnaise topped with glazed walnuts. It may sound a little odd, but trust me, it's delicious and not easy to find where I am.

Now, help us settle a bet:

Is this, or is this not, Tatum O'Neal pictured right with Eric Estrada?

Nob Hill
603 Bush St.
The birthday girl of the party seated next to us at the bar declared that Swell was SF's "best kept secret." She wanted to know how we heard about it because no one she talks to seems to have heard of the place. But, considering that we couldn't get a seat in the dining room without a reservation on a Wednesday, it would appear that word is starting to get out.

Billed as a "modern seafood restaurant" Swell offers oysters, creative small plates, a few larger mains and desserts. Highlights were the lobster parfait (left) and trio of crème brullée — ginger, miso and espresso (right). The incredible miso flavoured brullée tastes just like salted butter. Almost disconcertingly so. But, to quote our birthday girl "a crème brullée a day keeps the doctor away!" (She really said that.)

This place also gets bonus points for the best bathroom wall mural in a seafood restaurant (right).

Fisherman's Wharf
In-N-Out Burger
603 Bush St.

A very big part of me wants to tell you to stay off the Wharf.  I want to recommend that you venture only as far as Pier 39, see the sea lions, and turn back around.  I want to assure you that its the most annoying tourist trap ever — like Times Square without all the stuff. I want to say that there's nothing worthwhile on the Wharf. But, that's not entirely true. It is, after all, home to northern California's only In-N-Out Burger.

The In-N-Out chain is a pop culture phenomenon and popular for its celebrity sightings. But for we eastcoasers it's only legend since the chain operates only in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. I remember reading years ago about one musician who was in the habit of having a private jet fly the burgers out to wherever it was he was performing. I want to say it was Diddy, but Diddy seems too obvious.

I also learned that In-N-Out has openly Christian roots, which I mention so that you can look out for the bible verse citations on their wrappers and cups. This philosophy also jives with it's reputation for high-quality ingredients, spotless restaurants and happy well-treated employees.

Even through I don't eat meat, I did split a burger with Shawn. Because, if you can't live like Diddy on your vacation, what's the point?

And, yes the burgers are that good. (The meat-eating Shawn concurs.)

My top pick in SF 
Fondue Cowboy (SoMa)
1052 Folsom St. (at Russ)

We almost didn't make it back to Fondue Cowboy, deciding on a whim to drop by on the night of our flight back home. I am so glad we did.

I chose this place as my top pick for its ability to bring people together, brighten up a neigbourhood and the killer fondue.

This small lounge, which currently serves only cheese and chocolate fondues and salads, opened a mere month before our visit, but looks to be getting pretty popular. More importantly there's a warmth about it that can't entirely be attributed to the fondue.  The crowd on the night we were there was very diverse, and everyone was talking to one and other. Not only about the food (i.e, "How many fondues should we order?"), but also the best iphone apps and of course the spaghetti westerns playing on the giant flat screen mounted behind the bar. Unless you've seen it for yourself, you have no idea how hilariously fake and wrong those films look on Blu-ray.

The decor is impressive, and somehow not at all kitschy for a place that sought to combine Westerns and fondue. Our server told us that that local artists were hired to design it. Then he asked us if we'd ever been there when it was Extreme Pizza. (Apparently it was pretty gross.)

Which brings me to the main reason I so enjoyed this restaurant. It was something beautiful made from something ugly (ugly, in this case being Extreme Pizza). It also totally changes the landscape of its neighbourhood, which is a big feat for such a small place. It's at once so out of place and at home in its surroundings, and I loved that the table next to us was comped a free chocolate fondue at the end of their meal because they were "neighbourhood people." It felt authentically San Francisco.

We ordered The Traditional — Gruyère, Ementhaller, white wine, roasted garlic, nutmeg; The Quick Draw — Manchego, white wine, roasted red pepper puree, roasted garlic; and for desert High Noon — white chocolate with balsamic strawberry puree. They were all incredibly good, and really you can't go wrong with those combinations.

But, Fondue Cowboy is more than a restaurant— it's a melting pot. How's that for a cheese pun, American Grilled Cheese Kitchen?!

Honourable mention:
Canteen (Russian Hill)— Cute decor, amazing desserts, but rushed service. (Not surprising for a place that only seats 15, but still.)

Kasa (Marina/Cow Hollow)— Great Indian fast food served on army issue steel serving pates with real utensils (no waste!), but possibly the worst music I've ever heard (new age electronica?).

Café Gratitude (Berkeley) — Feel-good vegan cafe where you really are what you eat/drink. You can order drinks called "I am precious" (rooibos) and deserts like "I am super hot" (a spicy dark chocolate nugget). When my bowl of Americano came the server declared "You are courageous." When we settled our bill we were asked their "question of the day" which was "Who is your hero?" Shawn answered without skipping a beat "Superman." I don't think it gets any more "Berkeley" than this.

A note on photography:  All pictures taken with my long-suffering iphone, with the exception of the In-N-Out Burger shots which I've reposted from a hamburger today.

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