Sunny? San Francisco? Yes! My recent week in San Francisco and the Bay Area was marked by absolutely perfect weather. The clear blue cerulean skies and balmy, but not too hot temperatures certainly don’t hurt the pleasures of dining and they didn’t hurt mine.
When I arrived in San Francisco it was dark, but warm and clear.With a quick check-in at my hotel, the well situated and comfortable Kimpton Palomar, I jumped right into the fray. Just a short walk from the hotel, my first stop was Benu, the highly regarded fine dining restaurant from former The French Laundry chef de cuisine, Corey Lee. Lee’s cooking impressed me. It was precise and intricate, but with well developed and complex flavors and textures. Given the ingredients and the style of Lee’s cooking, which brought together California, French, Japanese, Korean and Chinese elements, Benu showed itself as a restaurant true to its locale. It feels right in San Francisco in ways that might not feel quite as natural in all but a handful of global cities. Whereas California and the Bay Area have been home to many Asian restaurants and “California cuisine” that leans very heavily on Mediterranean traditions, Benu combines those approaches seamlessly in a true fine dining setting. Look for an upcoming report with more detail on the meal.
The next day, a Saturday, I made my way down to the Ferry Plaza Market to meet up with my friend, Chuck and his family for lunch. While waiting to meet up, I perused the Farmers Market, where I ran into Alex Saneski, who invited me to try some of his ice creams at his little stand, Cremeaux ex Machina. Saneski’s ice creams were indeed quite impressive with interesting and delicious flavors and great texture. His Apple Caramel Gelato and Coconut Rice Pudding Sorbetto were particularly outstanding.
Lunch needed to be a light affair as Chuck and I would be dining later that evening along with Bonjwing Lee and Kim Nguyen at Saison for a guest chef dinner featuring John Shields. That bill was filled admirably at Bouli Bar, the bistro like restaurant associated with Boulette’s Larder in the Ferry Plaza Market building. While a pizza was a touch disappointing, the warm funghi salad was not. Made with pioppini and trumpet royale mushrooms along with a crisp flatbread, herbs and sherry vinegar, this was delightful and light enough to leave a bit of room for one of Boulette’s famed caneles. There were many additional temptations at the market, but somehow, I kept my resolve and managed to refrain from all but a few samples of fruit from Frog Hollow Farm, ‘nduja from Boccalone and my first ever cup of coffee from Sightglass. (see here for more photos from the Market)
I’ve been to a number of guest chef dinners in the past, They are invariably fun, but rarely reflect the very best that a chef can do in his or her own place. For the moment and for too long, John Shields, one of my favorite chefs, is without a place of his own.¹ This was my first time to Saison and I was blown away by the quality of the product and the attention to detail from start to finish. Chefs Joshua Skenes and John Shields traded savory courses with a few more coming from Skenes than Shields, but Shields handled the desserts leaving Saison’s superb pastry chef, Shawn Gawle, the job of mignardises. Shields’ use of crab, oysters, squab, jerusalem artichokes and burnt ember ice cream amongst other ingredients left me remembering my meal at Townhouse and that much more excited for his next restaurant. Meanwhile, Skenes’ use of caviar, tomatoes, cod and beef left me very excited for a return visit later in the week. (See here for all of my photos from this glorious dinner)
I was in San Francisco for a Medical meeting and had only limited time for lunch. On Sunday, I trekked across to Chinatown to try the much heralded Salt & Pepper Crab at R&G Lounge. Hot, greasy and huge, this was a meal that both singed my fingers and soothed my soul.
I worked off the calories hurriedly hoofing it back to the Moscone Center.
That evening I had a wonderful dinner at the home of some friends. We enjoyed a hot pot of local ingredients bathed in mushroom stock along with a game winning grand-slam from Big Papi and a card game before heading out for a nightcap at the most amazing beer bar that I have ever encountered. Originating in Copenhagen, Mikkeller Bar has a phenomenal array of 42 beers on tap and a host of others in bottle. Their own beers are superb with a wide range of exciting alternatives. We weren’t hungry, but tried some food from the kitchen that was quite good. Any beer aficionado finding him or herself in San Francisco should make a beeline for this place. That it was within a very easy walk to my own hotel made it that much better. (See here for more photos from Mikkeller Bar)
I enjoyed my coffee at the little Sightglass Coffee kiosk at the Ferry Plaza Market on Saturday and heard great things about the new Sightglass Coffee shop in the SOMA district not far from the Moscone Center. I hiked up there after I got out of my meetings and was blown away by the size and experience of the place. The coffee is roasted and packed on site and there are plenty of options for partaking of the beverage. I went upstairs to Top Bar, the small single origin coffee bar, where I got turned on to a variety of beans both through AeroPress (Colombia – Finca Alcatraz) and espresso (Ethiopia – Guji Yetatebe) through a gorgeous Marzocco machine. The precision with which both types of coffee were made was impressive as were the coffees.² I was lucky to have made it in just before they were closing the bar for the day, but that didn’t matter as they made me feel relaxed and that they were in nor rush to move on. Needless to say, I returned several times during my stay. (See here for more photos from Sightglass)
The following night took me to the now Michelin two-starred Quince with some friends. A beautiful space and refined service was met with beautiful and tasty food that was for the most part just a touch too sweet in balance for my palate. The highlight of the savory courses was the ricotta gnudi, which was well balanced, decidedly savory and delicious. The desserts were beautiful, well balanced and delicious. (See here for more photos from Quince).
On Tuesday, I made my way back to the Ferry Plaza Market for some lunch and to do a little shopping. With a number of interesting food stalls set up in front of the building, I chose Hapa Ramen, an unconventional and non-traditional purveyor of rather delicious ramen. With a chicken and pork stock base, I had a bowl of ramen with everything in it, including the highly unusual, for ramen, element of fried chicken. Chef Richie Nakano has taken his Japanese heritage and Americanized it using locally sourced, organic products in ways that are true to the spirit of traditional ramens, while also being creative and fun. I got there early so the lines weren’t too long, but the crowd quickly started accumulating. Nevertheless, the line moved quickly as the bowls of steaming ramen (several choices available) were efficiently doled out. (See here for more photos from Hapa Ramen)
I would have liked to shop for more, but my time was short and I had to shop at the new Rancho Gordo store in the market building. Previously only there during the farmers markets, it was a pleasure to peruse a brick and mortar shop for Steve Sando’s collection of quality beans as well as newer products like salsas, quinoas, Mexican chocolate and more. The best part was that I was able to have my entire purchase shipped directly home at a very reasonable cost.
I didn’t want a big lunch (the ramen hit the spot) because Tuesday night was my most anticipated one of the trip. I went back to Saison to experience the unfettered progression of chef Joshua Skene’s menu. A beautiful, new restaurant space, Skenes’ cooking is visible front and center in a kitchen that essentially flows into the dining room. It is elegant, yet still somehow homey in the best of ways with the polished and professional kitchen staff focused on their work, but neither cold nor distant. This turned out to be one of the finest meals that I’ve ever had. The entire experience was impeccable and delicious in every way. I will be presenting the meal soon in full detail in a separate post.
My culinary fortunes continued to shine the next day, when, before heading out from San Francisco, I stopped at the newest Umami Burger, located in SoMa near AT&T Park and Saison. Officially open to the general public that very day, I sampled a variety of items including the Hatch Chili Burger, The Truffle Burger, The Green Burger (with ground turkey), onion rings and a finish with local Humphrey Slocombe Secret Breakfast ice cream. I had been wanting to experience Umami Burger for some time, but that desire was stoked by Adam Fleischman’s demo at the recent StarChefs ICC in NYC. I was not disappointed as these were the most delicious chain burgers that I have ever had. I was tempted to devour all of what I had ordered, but again, I needed to save some room for another much anticipated dinner. (See here for more photos from Umami Burger)
This evening, dinner was south of San Francisco in Carmel-by-the-Sea. I made my way via BART (avoiding a possible strike) to the airport where I rented a car for the journey. I arrived a bit after 5 o’clock at the luxuriously intimate L’Auberge Carmel where I checked in to a gorgeous room and made my way down to the nearby beach to see and feel the beautiful Pacific.
If it weren’t for the prospect of dinner at chef Justin Cogley’s Aubergine, I would have had a very difficult time tearing myself away from the spectacular seaside sunset, but Cogley’s deservedly growing reputation made the choice easy. The restaurant is small and intimate and Cogley’s cooking creative and delicious. It was a meal in which, my dining companions (Chuck and his wife) and I made friends with neighboring diners and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Unfortunately for them, Chuck and his wife had to drive home after that meal, while I was lucky enough to just roll into a very, very comfortable bed. Fret not, this is another meal that deserves to be described in exquisite detail and it soon shall be. That it does not have any Michelin stars, I can only surmise is because it must be a touch too far south of San Francisco to qualify. If not for that, I can’t understand why it wouldn’t have at least two Michelin stars.
The next morning I slept in a bit and returned for a visit to the beach before coming back to the Auberge for a perfect omelet and croissants eaten outside in the courtyard. This was a place I could have happily stayed for an extended time, but I didn’t have that time. Packing up my car, I took a quick pass through the scenic 17 Mile Drive (see here for photos from the 17 Mile drive) between Carmel and Monterey with a quick stop at the most amazing aquarium in the world. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is beautifully situated with stunning exhibits. It had been at least fifteen years since I had last been there and I wanted to return to see two exhibits in particular. The jellyfish tanks were every bit as spectacular as I had remembered if not more so. The Open Water tank with a school of yellowfin tuna amongst other fish was still impressive, but not as much as I had recalled. It seemed like there were fewer tuna (reflective of their wild state?) as well as no large sunfish. Other exhibits made up for this minor disappointment. The male and female octopi were especially impressive. I would have liked to linger, but I needed to move on. (See here for more photos from the Monterey Bay Aquarium)
I drove up to Oakland where I would spend my last couple of nights of the trip staying with friends. This night, though, we would travel back to San Francisco for dinner over the brand new Bay Bridge, replacing the older span that had been damaged all the way back in the 1989 earthquake.
Mourad Lalou’s Moroccan inspired Aziza was another restaurant I had been wanting to visit for some time. I was surprised to find Lalou in the kitchen. Following him on Instagram and facebook, I knew that he had been traveling in the Middle East as recently as a couple of days before my reservation. He had, in fact, arrived back the previous day and went directly back into the kitchen. The space was warm and comfortable and the food beautiful and very tasty. The duck bisteeya was particularly impressive, both sweet and savory. It was a marvelous dish. Melissa Chou’s desserts were also deserving of the accolades that she has received. (See here for more photos from Aziza)
The next evening we stayed in Oakland, enjoying a variety of dishes and pizzas at Pizzaiolo. The meatballs were a particular standout, but photos were not to be as the lighting frustrated my camera. It was also difficult taking photos later that evening at the Chabot Space and Science Center where we went for some astronomy viewing. It was around a full moon, which was great for peering at its craters with detailed definition. Looking in the other direction from an even larger scope, we observed a quasar that looked like an amoeba under a microscope. The evening left us pondering our own minuscule places in the universe.
The next day, my last in the Bay Area on this trip, was reserved for a visit to Berkeley, where I had appointments to visit two special artisanal craftspeople. Before those visits though, I stopped in the Downtown Berkeley Farmers Market to appreciate the amazing seasonal local produce. I would have liked to leave with samples of everything, but I limited myself to some wonderful varietal tomato juices from Gattonelli Farm, Meyer lemons and a couple of comice pears to carry home. (See here for more photos from the Downtown Berkeley Farmers Market)
From the market it was a short hop to visit Kevin Farley at Cultured Pickle Shop. Kevin is making some of the most beautiful, creative and delicious pickles in the country and I got to taste an amazing variety of his products from kombuchas to kim chees to all sorts of Japanese styles with each taste delicious and palate enlivening. I plan to post a bit more on this exclusive visit in the not too distant future.
I couldn’t come to the Bay Area and not visit Mandy Aftel, a perfumer and leader in the art of culinary scents. She’s authored a book on that topic with Daniel Patterson and first came to my attention several years ago when she, Patterson and others put together a fascinating program at The Astor Center in NYC on The Alchemy of Scent and Taste. Recently, I have been playing with a number of her culinary oriented products under the heading of Chefs Essence Sprays. These are concentrated scents typically based in alcohol that are used to provide an additional aroma to a prepared dish or cocktail. Either individually or in combination, they add highlight elements to dishes without dilution or significant visual effect. I have been particularly enjoying using them with cocktails to add distinct flavor notes. Aftel’s business, Aftelier Perfumes, could easily double as a Museum of Scent as she has an unbelievable collection of books, paraphernalia and natural scent materials and scents as essential oils, tinctures and whatever other ways they are used. We spent the rest of an intoxicating afternoon exploring her marvelous collection. I believe that the only thing worse than a bad perfume is a lot of bad perfume, but when the scents are as pure and wonderful as the one’s in Aftel’s hands, I can truly appreciate the art of the perfumer. (See here for more photos from Aftelier Perfumes)
With my bags packed and ready to go, I rejoined my friends for a final Bay Area meal, once again at an Umami Burger, this time in Oakland. Each Umami Burger location has its own personality and even its own unique menu items. This time, we tried cheese tots off the “secret menu” and I had a pork burger with chorizo and bacon that was a powerhouse of flavor. This time, with a red-eye flight staring me in the face instead of a meal at Aubergine, I had no inhibitions in eating the whole thing.
As with most large cities, a short trip of week is not nearly enough time to sample the breadth of what that city has to offer. Such was the case here, where I picked a few of the places that I have been wanting to visit and left many others for another, as yet unplanned, visit. With tastes and experiences like these, however, I know I must return and the sooner the better!
¹ Shields announced that his long search for a property to host the next restaurant for he and his wife appears to be over, as they have found a place in Georgetown in DC with hopes of opening sometime before the end of 2014.
² The Sightglass “recipe” for making coffee with the Aeropress is [amd-recipeseo-recipe:14]