Friday, June 12, 2009

I'm Back

Alright, I think it's time to resurrect this blog from the dead. I still like dining out, I still do it, and I still like writing and having a personal pulpit for inane opinions. There's really no excuse not to get this back up and running.

I also have some overdue spots to either write about, or to update opinions on. Among those you can probably expect to see in coming posts are Beretta, Conduit, Gitane, Epic Roasthouse, RN74, Tipsy Pig, Bar Jules, SPQR and others.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

News Roundup

There seems to be an inordinate amount of restaurant news popping up in the city right now. So much so that it's getting hard to keep up. The well-done ZagatBuzz column helps out quite a bit, but not everyone's an online subscriber. Here's a few of the notable highlights from there and elsewhere.

- Spruce in Presidio Heights seems to be the new impossible reservation in town (probably replacing Salt House at the top of the list). Everyone loves the whole eco/sustainable/local food thing right now to the point where it's probably a necessity to weave that theme into any new opening to some degree. What's more interesting is that they serve 70 wines by the glass. How do they keep those from turning? Their storage system must be incredible. If not, is significant wine waste considered an ecological no-no? I have many questions here.

- Both Citizen Cake and Jardiniere are closed for the month for remodeli
ng. Indigo must love that. With some quick Google research it shows that the symphony is on tour and the opera season hasn't started yet, so I guess it's the Hayes Valley locals who are missing out, if they ever frequent those places anyway. Either way, I'm curious to see the new "J Lounge" on the bottom floor of Jardiniere when it opens.

- Palmetto and Laiola are new spots on Union St. and Chestnut St. respectively taking over where Home and Pizza My Heart once were. I haven't eaten at either, but I do know that Camber Lay, the bar manager at Laiola is very, very talented having seen her impressive cocktails-as-cuisine routine before at Frisson and Range. Word on Zagat was that they were having trouble with their liquor license though, so hopefully they have that fixed by now.

- Incanto's chef Chris Cosentino is on the next Iron Chef America. If there's an episode with an organ meat theme, he's going to dominate.

- Frjtz Fries opened a new spot on Valencia in the Mission. Twice-fried, extra-fat frites.... how trendy!

- Just finally ate at Salt House for dinner for the first time, and it didn't disappoint. The duck and the rib-eye are both great, and as long as we're talking about fries they do an upscale WT fries dish covered in cheese and rib gravy. Yum.

- There's an article this morning in the Chronicle about the new Intercontinental Hotel going up on Fifth and Howard, set for soft opening in January. Apparently there's a Cal-Italian restaurant street side going in. Given the area and the hotel, his could either be really good (Ame) or really bad (XYZ).

That's it for now.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

As The Brunch Turns: Toast and Stacks

Breakfast and brunch, being the most important meal of the day and all, deserves some updated attention in this space. My last take on breakfast was over a year ago, and much has changed, including my secret spot (Maverick) no longer serving brunch at all.

Sidenote: You'll notice that I use the terms "breakfast" and "brunch" nearly interchangeably. For me, the only difference is the hour of the day they're served and the fact that you can't have brunch on a weekday. The food is the exact same for me, even at a big hotel brunch. In fact, it somewhat bothers me when I go to brunch with people who proceed to order a salad or a burger at 11am. It just throws everything off.

Well, two of my current favorite spots for breakfast aren't even mentioned in my last post, and that's because they weren't open - Toast in Noe Valley and
Stacks in Hayes Valley.

Both places take the upscaled-Denny's approach to a straight-ahead breakfast. Scrambles, omelets, pancakes, French toast... the staples, plus a few other slightly-more-interesting items. Both places also take a diner approach to the dining room. Toast is small tables and a counter plus some outdoor seating, though the feel is clearly diner. Stacks takes a more traditional approach with fluffy green booths and big floral arrangements. It's what you would expect at the flagship Lyon's, if there were such a thing. Stacks does get bonus points for being big as well. I'm a bit sick of the typical breakfast spot where eight people eat while three dozen others watch intently.

But the biggest aspect the two places share in common is that they keep it simple and they execute well. When you order an omelet, you get back exactly what you'd expect in balanced, hearty quantities. It's not that I don't like it when breakfast gets a creative culinary edge (Ella's is a positive example that comes to mind), but sometimes it's nice to see a menu with the old standbys.

One other interesting note on Stacks that you'll find reading Yelp is that there appears to be some
neighborhood backlash based on Stacks being a "chain." To be clear, this is now the third Stacks, the other two locations being in Burlingame and Menlo Park. They're owned by a sole proprietor from the Castro named Geoffrey who greeted us at the door in Hayes Valley on our last visit. If this constitutes everything negative about a "chain" for you, then I suspect you generally begrudge others' success if it's not on your exact terms. Go on leading your happy life.

That said, I'm always on the lookout for new breakfast places, be they simple or aggressive on the culinary scale. If you've found something new, exciting, and without a huge line, please
email me and I promise not to write about it.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Spork: As Useful as the Name Suggests

Spork is a relatively new eatery on Valencia near 21st St. It's been high on my list to try for the whole two months it's been open. Unfortunately, until last night, I've had a severe mental block from actually entering the doors. While Spork seems to have the right combination of interesting, well-priced cuisine, a fun wine list, and a hip, alluring vibe, the problem has been that I wasn't able to get past the memory of a KFC being in the same location a mere six months ago. While KFC might be an erstwhile guilty pleasure (especially the biscuits), I could not imagine that the layers of reconstituted chicken and grease could possibly be gone from the walls. It turns out that I was considerably overdue making my first Spork visit, and KFC remnants are a distant memory.

The interior of Spork is very tastefully conceived and manages to be both modern and comfortable. My wife particularly likes the server uniforms, which I found to be a peculiar-yet-noteworthy observation. The tables and booths are spread out in diner-like fashion, yet I can see that it would still have a very lively buzz on crowded nights.

The menu is that undefinable cuisine that seems to be ever-growing in popularity, with a bit of Italian, some California/New American, and shades of Asian/Japanese. For instance, our starters were a yellowtail sash
imi with a Japanese citrus custard and wasabi vinegar, while the other was a gnocchi gratin with fennel sausage. It was an odd mix that worked well. The flavors aren't the least bit delicate, but in this case it keeps the meal interesting. And at the low price point ($13-$18 for entrees), that's the approach that makes the most sense and they execute it well.

The mix of entrees is also quite interesting. They offer a steak and an "inside-out burger," as well as a pasta dish, "mussels and pork with a spork," and a seabass. Our very nice hipster waiter steered us toward the mussels and the seabass and we weren't disappointed. The sweet corn and shitakes that came with the seabass was a highlight, while we did note that the broth for the mussels could've used more time on the stove.

Overall, my feeling leavin
g Spork is that it covers a niche that has been generally underserved in San Francisco: interesting, tasty entrees in the mid-$10s in an atmosphere that feels new, lively and vibrant. I had a hard time thinking of restaurants that were similar in that basic description, Chow and Street being two, though the comparison with both is very loose. Regardless, KFC is a distant memory.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

House of Prime Rib Has Seen Better Days

There was a time in my life when I would've told you that the House of Prime Rib on Van Ness was my favorite restaurant. I loved nearly everything about it. The menu is so simple that you have your order memorized by the second time you go there ("English cut medium, mashed" was all I'd say). The way the courses are set up in advance for you, it makes a meal there very pleasing and ritualistic. I've said before that the salad is my favorite anywhere. The bread is unbeatable. The way the prime rib, au jus, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and Yorkshire pudding meld together is masterful. I love the way the martini comes with the shaker in a nice cold glass.

BUT... I somehow no longer have the same warm feelings about the place. Perhaps I'm getting older. More likely, I think, The HOPR is getting older. The format remains the same. The bread is still the best bread in San Francisco. The martinis still come the same great way. But now there are all sorts of obstacles to my HOPR enjoyment.

The first and biggest one is health concerns. No meal makes me feel more unhealthy - fast food included. I wake up the next morning with my feet swollen to size 15 from the sodium. A friend coined the term "meat sweats" based on meals there, explaining the disgusting sensation you get overnight after a meal there. And invariably I ooze the smell of the creamed spinach for days. In recent visits (all told, I've been there probably 50 times over eight years) I've switched up my order to include putting the au jus on the side and special-ordering steamed spinach. I still feel unhealthy, however, and vow to only go there if absolutely forced by some large group event I must attend. I've even considered ordering the fish of the day, though I've never actually gone through with such a pathetic plan.

Beyond th
e health issues, the HOPR (properly pronounced, "Hopper", by the way) has lost a lot of lustre for me in other areas too. One problem I have is around the wine. I wouldn't begrudge them the $30 corkage fee if either they had a great wine list or they waived corkage if you buy a second expensive bottle. Neither scenario is even close, so the $30 corkage does really sting.

Another thing that really bugs me now is the rising prices combined with the lack of investment. When I first went there in 1999, the price of the English Cut was around $22. Now it's $37 (granted, your salad and everything else is included). But they only do one thing! All their sides are the same, and their agreements with suppliers were probably set in 1968 and they're paying the same prices for their ingredients (hyperbole alert... please note). The place may as well be a mint the way they print money. Now I don't begrudge the very nice Betts family making a very nice living, but it does really bother me that the carpet and upholstery is the same dowdy crap they last installed in the 70s. If I'm going to pay through the nose for my meal, please don't make me sit in a disgusting booth coated in three decades of meat stench.

I could go on with the complaints. The staff isn't nearly as well-trained as they used to be. The clientèle is not the same bunch of old-school San Franciscans that it used to be. The salad is now more about the MSG than it is about the beets and dressing. And on and on.

I'm rooting for the HOPR to make a return to glory, but I'm not counting on it. In the meantime, I'm going to do my very best to avoid the meat sweats. I'll tackle my alternative locations for great beef in another post.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


I really appreciate seeing aggressive, ambitious projects downtown, whether it's a fancy new restaurant, the Rincon Towers project, the new Moscone Center, or anything else. Downtown needs a constant influx of investment and innovation to stay vibrant and relevant. As San Franciscans, we've been generally lucky in this regard. In particular, I also appreciate when a worn-out, has-been restaurant with a great location gets a full face-lift and new life.

Perbacco, the now-year-old Italian that took the place of the old Gold Dust next to T
adich Grill, fits this mold, and thus I'm glad it's there and open. However, the follow-through of the restaurant itself doesn't quite live up to the promise and appearance. While it remains an interesting spot to try, flaws with the food, service and pricing make it a place one would have a hard time rushing back to.

The interior is wonderful. A long bar at the front is very inviting, with a brick backdrop, the now-stylish downward-slanted mirrors and great lighting. The scene is active and vibrant. Behind it and above is a two-level dining room that's also very well-lit and the tables are the perfect distance apart for creating a comfortable dining experience while keeping the feel active enough to be fun and potentially even a bit rowdy. Whoever designed this place had a clear vision, looked at every detail, and made few mistakes.

The same eye for detail doesn't quite get to the staff however. They seem somewhat disorganized, forgetting either us or our orders a few times over the course of our three visits. One time we were seated upstairs with only two other parties around (boring compared to the downstairs) and it was clear that they forgot we were there and didn't assign anyone to us. That made me feel really big and important.
When ordering wine from their expensive and expansive wine list, the sommelier was less than interested in finding us some fun, interesting value in the $40-$70 range, presumably because the price point wasn't worth his time. I'm sure he's very knowledgeable given the large list and what others have said, but I prefer talking to someone who's simply excited about wine and what they've put on the list and shows it without pretension.

The food is good but not great. In all three visits, I was much more excited about the appetizers and first courses rather than the entrees. The house-cured salami is a definite highlight, and I'm not the only one who noticed, apparently. The entrees were acceptable but uninspired. My overall reaction to the food was that everything (except the salami) could've been a notch or two better, and that the prices are about 20% too high as a result.
The pasta is not quite a fresh or flavorful as you'd hope for. The meats not quite so skillfully prepared as you'd expect for the prices.

So given all this, my final recommendation is that it's worth an exploratory visit, but you might want to stick to drinks and appetizers at the bar to start. Given other viewpoints I've seen, I may be in the minority. I love the overall effort to do something so ambitious downtown, but the ambition doesn't quite meet the final delivery for me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Spencer's House

I have to say, I was shocked and amazed to hear that Chez Spencer was celebrating its 5th anniversary this year. This unlikely and upscale French restaurant is located on 14th St. near the Best Buy, tucked away from the street by a garden, then a dining patio, and finally in a fairly industrial building that appears to have been a warehouse.

The amazement I had about it being around for five years came from a few things. First of all, it's an excellent restaurant all around and I only heard about it for the first time about a year and a half ago. I prefer to blame that on their inept PR rather than admit that I just wasn't paying attention. More importantly, the interior is quite hip and I don't believe it's the least bit outdated. If you were putting together a fine French restaurant in a converted warehouse this year, it might look a lot like Chez Spencer. And lastly, both their food and their service still have that extra effort and edge you typically see at a restaurant that's aggressively trying to make a positive name for itself on the SF scene.

Let's be clear though, that while the food is very good, it's not cheap. They offer a six-course tasting menu for $80 that looks like way too much food to me. We opted for the a la carte menu which is designed to be three courses with entrees in the high $20s and low $30s. Our dining highlights included a smoked duck breast for a second course and the venison entree. The venison was a "Pan Seared Venison Tenderloin" with juniper berry-peppercorn jus. The meat was sliced very thin and appeared to be nearly carpaccio-like in its rareness, but when tasted it was clearly cooked through and not at all gamey. One theory we discussed is that it may be cured for days with a salt rub. Whatever the process, the result was amazing and some of the best meat I've ever had.

Also of note are the martinis. They have a nice specialty cocktail list, of which one option is their special martini. It's served in a tumbler that is mostly filled by one, single giant round ice cube. The ice is so big that it barely melts yet keeps your martini very cold. It's a very nice touch and something very unique. Beyond cocktails, the wine list is very French and has good options, though I'm a bit sick of restaurants pulling the old $30-corkage-fee move. However our group brought one bottle and purchased another nice one and they waived the corkage, so at least they're not unreasonable.

All in all, Chez Spencer gets a big thumbs up from me. It's a great place for a date, to meet friends, or even do a civilized family dinner. I'll be back.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Tidbits, Updates and Reconsiderations

I've noticed that quite a few items I've written in the past are sorely in need of an update. And since this blog is the journal of record for all things food in this town, I think it's my duty to set the record straight on a few things.

- I've found chicken that's worthy of adding to my Destination Chicken post from August. farmerbrown has some of the better fried chicken I've ever tasted. And the mac and cheese that comes with it isn't to be sneezed at either. The chicken meat is quite flavorful.

In fact, the restaurant overall is a great find and a great addition to the SF dining scene. First of all, the decor is quite fetching. It's dimly lit without being dark and the tables are arranged in such a casual way as to elicit the good aspect of lounge dining while still having the structure most would want with a good meal. The only complaint I'd have is that writing "farmerbrown" in lights on some of the columns in the dining room feels a little contrived and over-branded.

The cocktails are spectacular, and are a nice departure from both the SF standards as well as the developing trends in to
wn. I had a blood orange margarita (okay, a few of them) that was dripping with fresh fruit and the tumbler was salted with a spicy salt. The food was equally as good, and also very well priced. One highlight was the spareribs appetizer that's done more savory-Southern-BBQ style than the equally good slow-cooked, fall-off-the-bone style.

Lastly, I'm not sure whether to be annoyed or amused that they decided to make "farmerbrown" one word and not capitalize it. You make your own call there. I do know that it feels very awkward to start a sentence with it.

- My opinion of Range hasn't changed one bit, but some of my reasons for liking it so much have.

First of all, I made the mistake of picking out specific staff members, when in reality nearly everyone that works there is exceptional at their job. I haven't met a bartender there that I wouldn't consider in the top 2% of bartenders anywhere (both skill and personality). Every waitperson is completely buttoned-up and uniformly friendly and warm. Credit co-owner Cameron West for great hires.

Second, I love the way that they care about their local clientele and take care of them and make them feel at home (yes, myself included, but also from what I've heard from others). I wish more restaurants did this.

Lastly, I love how since they got their Michelin star they haven't mailed it in one bit. They still have the same top-level commitment to a great dining experience.

- I have a winner for my worst dining experience of the millenium: La Rondalla. I recently went for a birthday and it was so incredibly bad that it's actually a fond memory. It's a special thing when literally every possible aspect of a dining experience comes apart at the seams. From getting seated, to our waitstaff, to our disgusting margaritas, to having to pay for those margaritas at our table separately from our dinner bill in cash right away, to frozen entrees that were only 50% heated up, to being brought water but not enough for the whole table to have some, to disgusting, dirty tables, to etc, etc, etc. You get the picture. It was laughable, and quite memorable.

Sidenote here: La Rondalla makes Puerto Allegre look incredible. Long ago I wrote a mixed review on Puerto Allegre that to this day accounts for an inordinate percentage of the traffic on this site (If you Googled some version of "Puerto Allegre" to find this, raise your hand now... it's uncanny). Well, considering Puerto is competing with La Rondalla, I take back anything bad I wrote about Puerto. In comparison it's a shining star.