Sunday, May 05, 2013

My San Francisco Restaurant Experience

Thanks again to you all for your thoughtful recommendations. General impressions? From the very small sample I experienced, SF chefs are clearly concerned with the freshest and most seasonal of produce, and they clearly have access to high quality material. Seafood was uniformly excellent. Service was uniformly friendly and competent. Reservations were uniformly hard to come by. Wine lists were not terribly exciting, but there was almost always something good to drink. Very high quality food is available, and if it were NYC, it would be two-three times more expensive and created in a far more precious atmosphere. Overall, I had a great eating experience and look forward eagerly to the day I can go back.

I ate dinner at Bar Tartine and it was outstanding. It's a comfortable and stylish space without any pretense. We tried 8 dishes and all but one was excellent, a few were superb. The assortment of pickles was skillfully done - the apex of pickling, if you will. Red cabbage, for example, was enlivened with just the right touch of ginger. Mushrooms were toothsome and not oily at all, chioggia beets were draped in buttermilk and the result was thick but lively, and completely delicious. Terrine of beef tendon with horseradish and fresh greens was complex and delicious. Raw halibut with seaweed was excellent, so was fisherman's stew with green chili, so was spätzle - the lightest I've ever had. We drank two excellent wines with this feast. 2004 Karthäuserhof Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Riesling Spätlese was in a great place for drinking, so balanced and lovely, so good with the food. And 2010 Knoll Riesling Smaragd Ried Schütt, which was young, reduced, and altogether reticent, but still after 45 minutes showed how good it's going to be. We loved our dinner at Tartine and I would recommend it to anyone without hesitation, and I cannot wait to go back myself.

I ate lunch at Hog Island Oyster Company before heading to the airport on a Sunday, and it was outstanding. Now, none of you mentined Hog Island in your recommendations - you said Swan Oyster Depot (which I drove by one evening and looked great). But I met a guy who left NYC in '06, a guy who had been one of my closest friends and who I haven't seen since then. We were near the Ferry building and that's where we went.

We ate oysters - couldn't tell you what kind, other than that some were Kumamoto. They honestly were as fine as any oysters I've had. So fresh and briny sweet. There was nothing terribly compelling to drink. I went with a bottle of Henriot NV Blanc de Blancs, and I must say that it was great. Focused, chalky, classic. Clam chowder was delicious too. This was a lunch I would happily eat once a week for the rest of my life, and my excitement would never ebb.

That same buddy and I ate an impromptu early dinner at Commonwealth one night. We tried to go to State Bird Provisions, but could not get in. We arrived at 5:07, the restaurant opens at 5:30, and there was already a line of about 24 people in front of us, none with reservations. That place must be interesting, and probably quite good, and one day I will try again. Commonwealth was a fantastic replacement. Okay, so I was with a good old pal and we would have had fun wherever we went, but Commonwealth really delivered. So comfortable and airy, everything so beautifully presented, so fresh and balanced in flavor. We had the tasting menu and it was a perfect meal. Yup, I said perfect and I mean it.

Not a whole lot of wine that I wanted to drink, and I was warned that this would be the case. But then I noticed they had Philipponnat Champagne NV Brut Royale Reserve, the entry level wine from this great house. I'm pretty sure this was based on the excellent 2008 vintage, it is predominantly Pinot Noir and like the Henriot, it was a reminder of how great even basic "big house" Champagne can be, when made by the right folks. This wine was excellent, something to seek out and drink for yourself. The commonwealth folks put a bowl of homemade potato chips sprinkled with seaweed in front of us as the wine was opened. Not an entirely bad combination. Then they came with an amuse of raw yellowtail with thinly sliced jalapeno, also pretty good with the Champagne.

And then another amuse of lovage stems with some sort of whey/herb frothy situation, and it was very, very good. And only after these items did our 6-course tasting menu ($70, $10 of which is donated to charity !) begin.

We ate smoked sea trout with trout eggs and horseradish buttermilk powder - chemical cookery there, and quite delicious. These portions, by the way, were generous. This meal would have cost $175 at least, before wine, in NYC. I hate that.

Then we ate what I would say is the single best thing I ate in SF, called eggs and asparagus on the menu, but it was about the sea urchin. Served atop a seaweed brioche with asparagus, egg mousse, pickled horseradish leaves, and whey foam - I think it was whey foam.

The salad of mizuna, black radish, and goat cheese with green strawberries (the new hottest food item?) and fennel pollen was mild, earthy, and delicious. My friend didn't love it, and I can see how that is possible, as it wasn't a viscerally delicious thing. But I thought it made sense in its own composition, and in the place it was served in our meal - after the amuses and the seafood courses, almost to calm us down, to recalibrate us, before the sweetbreads.

Which were excellent, perfectly cooked, served on fava and nettle porridge and topped with pickled mustard seeds. I'm not a huge sweetbread fan, but I was sold on these. And this was followed by the most perfect small glass of celery sorbet. I don't even need to describe it further - perfect. The peanut butter ice cream bar with salt caramel sauce and "frozen popcorn" was seriously excellent too, but the sorbet stole my heart, in the sweet department. Wow - Commonwealth.

I took a long walk from the Embarcadero to the Mission one day and ate lunch at Local's Corner. Everyone I mentioned this to said they like Local's Corner, and I liked it too, but I didn't love it. There was no wine I wanted to drink and the beer taps were down, but my lemonade was very good. People were genuinely friendly, and it felt good to be there.

The pickles I ordered were excellent, but mostly it was the tart, sweet, green strawberries - filled with fresh strawberry taste, but green and pickled. Spring garlic soup was the emperor's new clothes, so mild and milky that there was nothing to latch onto. And trout with spring peas and pea tendrils was admirable in its simplicity and freshness, but was under-seasoned. Salt would have been enough (but there was none on the table, of course). The earnest chefs in the open kitchen looked like they stepped right out of Taconic on Bedford, so that's something. I would go back if some one else suggested it, but I doubt I would return on my own.

Zuni Cafe was a bit disappointing.The food was tired, that's the best way to describe it. Nothing was plated in a terribly attractive way, salads were overdressed, lamb was underwhelming, but none of this mattered one bit because I was with good friends and had a ball. I don't remember what I had for dessert but it was delicious. But I suspect that this place is past its prime. One thing - we drank very well at Zuni - Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs was delicious, as was 2010 Roulot Meursault (!). We had a weird experience with our red wine, but that's a story for another time.

Oh, and by the way, I stopped by Terroir one late afternoon, not having planned to, but I was 3/4 of the way through a tremendous walk, and it was relaxing and nice. The dudes who worked there were friendly and there was a load of enticing wine on the wall. Not a lot of which was actually for sale at Terroir, but that's fine. After asking for 5 different wines that turned out not to be available, I took the guy's recommendation and drank a glass of 2009 Puffeney Savagnin. It was delicious and I enjoyed taking it upstairs and lounging on a comfy club chair, leafing through Jay McInerney's wine book.

Local's Corner and Zuni aside, it's obvious to me from Tartine, Commonwealth, and Hog Island that there is fantastic eating to be had in SF. Thanks again for your recommendations.


Ben said...

Sorry Zuni was disappointing - I was one of those who recommended it and felt I had a very good lunch there in November last year, but maybe my wife and I are more generous because we also love the cookbook. I wonder what happened with the red wine?

Sean said...

Hog Island was the one place I was going to recommend, but you seemed overwhelmed by rec's already...It's the one place I go every time I'm in SF. And that Ferry building is a foodie Mecca, don't you think?

jason carey said...

I hate to say it but the Wine list at Local's is excellent. Having read you for years, My guess is you are not that familiar with California wines. For instance, if you had ordered the Donkey and Goat Merlot.. you might have thought it was like a Cru Beaujolais.. or the taut Clos Saron Tickled pink.. which is all minerals and very little fruit.. or The Broc Cellars Picpoul, or the ... anyhow.. I dont work there or shill for them.. but I know you shy away from Domestic wine.. too bad.

Brooklynguy said...

Hey - so these are only my opinions, and they are based on one visit. Don't take this as anything more than that. Zuni might be great and we caught it on an off night. Local's may have a good list, but what was available that day by the glass in white wine was not inspiring. Whaddaya gonna do...