Forget about putting flowers in your hair. Pack an appetite.
After Yountville we were on a food high. Luckily, there was plenty to sniff out in San Francisco.
Here are our tips for where you should go, or die trying. And considering how dicey some of the neighbourhoods we accidentally stumbled into were on our way to these places, that’s not such a ridiculous statement.
The Mission is a very groovy precinct, with a generous dose of Mexican restaurants and some of the most innovative food around. However, to get to it, we had to walk from our hotel near Union Square through ‘the tenderloin’. I thought the name derived from it being long and thin. Maybe that was it. But I certainly felt like a piece of exposed meat walking through. I think we were ok until a guy pulled a toy gun on us as a persuasive begging technique. Next time we’ll take the underground train BART from Union Square to 24th street.
This is a restaurant grappling with its past. It used to be a KFC. Now it has a curved bar that complements plush booths, boutique beers and crisp dry roses by the glass.
The spork was introduced by KFC in the 1960′s. This fork- spoon combo came to represent fast food culture. Who has time for two pieces of cutlery, really?
The menu is American classics, with a twist. There’s something almost Buddhist about Spork’s ethos as it attempts to atone for past wrong caused in the building’s previous life.
These days the menu focuses on organic, sustainable, local food, and a sense of humour. There’s fluffy pull apart rolls which come fresh from the oven for those who ask. They’re as downy as a pork bun but with a shell as crispy as duck skin. There are three in a serving. This becomes a problem. There are two of us. A plague of Atkins-ista’s meant you now have to ask for them, despite being complementary. Too many went to waste, left sadly on plates.
There’s lightly fried calamari with brussel sprouts, drenched with lemon, garlic and chilli with a rounded base of aioli.
There’s a twist on a traditional burger, served inside out in a tower of organic meat, a toasted sponge of bread, cheese, tomato, caramellised onion and organic crisped bacon with a side of ‘smashed fries’($14 USD). It’s meaty, dense with a texture more like steak tartare than a mealy puck of ground protein sweet and our tastebuds adore it, even if our thighs may not.
There’s a twist on ‘pork and beans’ with their mussels and pork, served with a spork ($USD18). It comes as Mediterranean mussels, slow roasted pork,
belgian beer, with a verdant bounty of green beans, and an oil slick of smoked chili aioli. It’s very good.
There’s water being poured from a fluorescent orange coffee dispenser by waiters who have tattooed necks. Their advice on what to have so far has been spot on, so we take a punt on the signature dessert; ‘Elvis has left the building’. It’s a peanut butter cup with sliced banana, peanuts, salted caramel and vanilla gelato. The Hungry One is slightly disappointed in the girth of the peanut butter cup, but it’s only because it’s like a Snickers bar, only much better.
Dessert comes also with a spork. This is truly a restaurant turning something bad into something good. But they’re serious about atoning for past wrongs; this former KFC vows never to have chicken on their menu.
1058 Valencia St
If Zuni Cafe was to refuse to serve chicken, there’s every chance customers would revolt.
Right, smack in the middle of the Tenderloin is Judy Rogers’ Zuni Cafe. A protege of Alice Waters (more on her later), Zuni Cafe is a sunshiny place in the middle of a cringe inducing neighbourhood. The walls are yellow, the staff are cheerful, there are four separate rooms and a wood fire oven. We’ve come here to eat chicken. A whole chicken, which you have to wait an hour for after you’ve ordered it. That’s not really a problem. There’s a bottle of pink wine, some friendly folks around us and the heat from the grill, fueled by a stack of chopped wood as tall as a Hummer.
Exactly an hour after ordering a three pound chicken that’s been brined, then roasted arrives squatting on a Tuscan bread salad. It’s large. It’s juicy. The skin is crispy. It’s still on the bone. We pick elegantly at the hunks of toasted bread, pinenuts, bitter leaves and currants with our forks. We secretly wish we were either at home (or at French Laundry) so we could pick up the drumsticks and gnaw at them to get the best bits of meat off. It really is the best chicken I’ve ever eaten. Take that, Thomas.
Bluebottle Coffee Company
Essentially it’s a garage, in Linden Street. But it happens to serve some of the best coffee we had when we were away. It’s kooky, cute, small and so precious to those who frequent that fellow customers thought it almost sacrilegious when I dared to put a lid over the top of my latte art. There’s a sign urging people not to double park, but even the emergency service workers in the queue turn a blind eye. The Hungry One was so happy to have found quality caffeine that we had to swing past on our way out of San Francisco. After drinking some serious dreck, finding a place that served a ristretto was almost enough to make him dance.
Bi Rite Creamery
Continuing in the theme of ethical consumption in San Francisco, BI RITE Creamery is a haven for earnest indulgence. In the Mission, on 18th street we know it’s going to be good when on a cold day there’s a queue of 10 people going out the door. All the ice cream is made from Strauss organic dairy, just 45 minutes away and all the other ingredients are sourced locally. But what really keeps people coming here is the salted caramel ice cream.
I have it with creme fraiche flavour. Together, they’re a revelation and a song. They’re a school girl with a glint in her eye. It’s when Johnny met Baby, just before they practiced lifts in the water. It’s so sweet, but there’s an undercurrent of sexiness that keeps you going back, until it’s all gone and you seriously wonder if you can go in and order another. If there was one meal that I could have, ever again, I’d be sure to include this ice cream. For now I’m stuck at putting salt on caramello koalas, just to try and replicate the feeling.
3692 18th Street (@ Dolores)
San Francisco CA
Just down the road from BI RITE Creamery is Tartine. Another place with a queue stretching out the door, but on the day we visit the sky is shaking out cats and dogs and everyone huddles, holding umbrellas, waiting for a chance to come inside.
If you live in close vicinity to the Bourke Street Bakery and Sonoma in Sydney, like we do it’s hard to get excited by a bakery. But we’d been away for a while. In this open, industrial sized space where you’re asked to ‘bus your own table’ and need to sharpen your elbows to snaffle a spot at communal plots there seem to be two things which everyone is tucking into.
One is the eggy bread pudding which comes piled high with batons of banana that have been lazily bathing in brown sugar and butter before being blasted by heat and become toasty and brown. The other is one of the varieties of croque monsiuers. These open faced sandwiches (tartines) come with an underlayer of bechamel, bacon, roasted tomato and cheese that’s bubbled to a scabby crust. On the side is a lone pickled carrot, that’s quite useful to cut through the devil’s trinity of pig fat, cheese and white bread.
Just to finish off, for The Hungry One there’s a bite sized Valhrona chocolate button.
600 Guerrero St. (@18th Street)
Central San Francisco
Bistro Jeanty at Jacks
When we went to lunch at Bistro Jeanty, at Jack’s, we didn’t realise that ontop of a meal, we’d be having a history lesson. You see, Jack’s is the longest standing restaurant in San Francisco. It’s been there since 1864. It’s stood through earthquakes, fires,and even 18 months when a French champagne house no longer would send them supplies, after Ernest Hemmingway, Alfred Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergmann had the audacity to invent the mimosa in house, happily muddling their Dom Perignon with orange juice, oblivious to the offense they were causing.
It was called Jack’s, because when it started it was in a field, surrounded by wild rabbits, which they called ‘jacks’.
So it made sense to me, when we stumbled into this incredibly ornate terrace restaurant, to deny every Buddhist instinct in my body and order the rabbit rilettes to start.
Jack’s has always been a French restaurant. Last century for many patrons dessert was more likely to be a visit to the high class brothel on levels two and three. In 1999 Phillipe Jeanty, chef and owner of Yountville’s Bistro Jeanty took over the ownership of Jack’s, creating a sister restaurant. On level two and three there are now tables.
The history is fascinating and the food is fine. There’s a pitcher of cote du rhone for US $19 which keeps us tottering along. For The Hungry One it’s a cassoulet, which they recommend is quite good if you take half of it home and reheat the next day. Needless to say, he made his way through all.
The signature dish is a cream of tomato soup; a heavy crimson lake beneath a puff pastry dome. It’s very sweet and very rich and I’m not sure we’ll be able to make dessert.
I should know better by now. There’s a double layer creme brulee. One layer is chocolate, the other vanilla. Once you’ve cracked through the thin shards of sugar and got to the bounty beneath it’s like licking flavoured silk sheets. Now that’s a revolting thought. But it was really quite wonderful.
The only saving grace from a meal that rich was a little secret revealed to us by our genial tour guide/ waiter. Fernet Branca. An Italian digestif made up of 40 herbs and spices including myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, and saffron, with a base of grape distilled spirits. It’s known as a true hangover cure.
It’s magical and I must get more.
We came home from this lunch, had a sleep and then saddled up for a seven course meal at Chez Panisse that night.
Oh yes we can, and we did.
More to come on that and others, soon.
Bistro Jeanty, at Jack’s
615 Sacramento Street San Francisco