Monday, December 18, 2006

Shopper's Refuge: Eating and Drinking Near Union Square

For people that live in the nether-reaches of Northern California and make an annual shopping trek into downtown San Francisco every year, they have usually scoped out their favorite spots to find respite from the crowds years ago. John's Grill, Cheesecake Factory, Max's and Scala's are common examples, but the list is endless. Typically this shopper found their spot in 1985 and hasn't branched out since then. They read travel guides like this and like to take the glass elevators at the St. Francis. The food at their spot is typically bad and the drinks over-priced, but it doesn't matter because this profile of shopper is looking for the good time and the memory only. I know, because in the early 90s I was this shopper.

But for those discerning locals looking for a little something more from their respite, here are my recommendations of places to check out:

Postrio Bar
- This is probably my favorite spot to stop for a snack and a cocktail. It's not the restaurant, mind you, but just the bar that has its own food menu. Their appetizers are quite good and reasonably-priced. On a recent visit we had dueling tartars of steak and tuna - both of which were excellent. Their pizzas are quite good, as are their sandwiches. They have a sausage plate that I particularly enjoy that comes with some excellent housemade mustard for $11. Even the expensive stuff on the menu is under $20. The cocktails are very good, while classic, and you always have the option of ordering off the extensive main restaurant's wine list.

Overall, this is my go-to spot in the area, however it's so small that I considered not writing about so as to not give it more publicity and make it more crowded for myself. Then I remembered that I have a regular readership that barely cracks double digits and it doesn't matter ("Hi Mom! We're number one!"). Still I'd feel better if you'd just keep this one to yourself. Thanks.

Nordstrom Cafe Bistro
- Forgotten amid the opening of the new Bloomingdale's side of the mall and all food that came along with it is the cafe at the top of Nordstrom. This place has all the necessary ingredients: a basic-but-fun menu, solid cocktails, a view, no waiting, etc. Basically, it's the poor-man's Rotunda at Neiman-Marcus but with the bonus that they don't take themselves so seriously. My go-to food item here is the Asian Chicken Salad. It's exactly what you'd expect from something called an "Asian Chicken Salad."

Sidenote: While these is quite a bit of good food in the basement of the Bloomingdale's side of the mall, the crowds are so horrendous that I can't give it a recommendation of any kind. Going down there and trying to eat is looney for at least the next year.

Johnny Foley's Irish Pub
- Located on O'Farrell and Cyril Magnin, this place executes on the Irish Pub theme quite well. The burgers are good, using good meat and handmade patties. It's all reasonably-priced. Plus, this place has a few strong advantages over most others. First, it's spacious which means that you have room to set down your shopping bags and your not tripping over everyone else's bags. Second, you can catch up on sports scores if you're shopping on the weekend. Lastly, while there you can always chuckle over the bizarre and contrived story that they tell about the real Johnny Foley found on their site.

Tunnel Top
- If you're shopping into the evening and are just looking for a drink and an escape from the crowd I profiled above, I like the Tunnel Top above the Stockton Street Tunnel. At night, it's more of a hip-hop-meets-mid-level-ad-exec crowd. I know this isn't for everybody, but I'm a fan.

- The bar in the Four Seasons is great (like Postrio, I'm promoting the bar and their separate menu here, not the restaurant itself). The cocktails are very good here, it's extremely spacious and comfortable, and it's quiet. You get olives and wasabi peas with your drink, which somehow is a huge draw for me. The bar menu is very good, including a great burger (which should be great for $18). This place is like the quieter, more-expensive version of the Postrio bar with big comfy chairs.

- I'm not the biggest fan of Indian cuisine, but sometimes I crave it for some reason. Those that really know their Indian, or at least claim to, say there's much better around SF than Shalimar. I like it however, and it's also the cheapest snack I've mentioned on this list. The downside is that it's on Jones a couple blocks and a world away from the relative safety and cleanliness of Union Square.

- I wish there was more good walk-and-eat street food downtown, but there just isn't. The hot dog stands are pretty gross, even for hot dog stands, and places like Blondies Pizza I'm not a big fan of. I like Grand Cafe and Cortez a bit. You can always go up to Bush St. and do the Belden Place scene. There's a great little bar on Maiden Lane called Otis. There are good options around, but you need to do some hunting to find them.

Offensive side note: If I were on the ball, I would've written this post about three weeks ago when it actually would've helped people. Instead, I'm writing about where to find good food and drink in Union Square a week before the traditional holiday shopping season ends. We're already halfway through Hanukkah, which could make this post tangentially anti-Semitic. But I'm going to write it anyway and hopefully it will live on and be relevant next year (assuming of course that Al-Qaeda still lets us have "holidays").

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

All Bad Service Isn't Created Equal

One of the common complaints we all say and we all hear (especially in San Francisco) is that a restaurant disappointed because of "bad service". A quick tour of Yelp will validate this. While the descriptor itself definitely conjures up a clear image of what the diner felt like while dining, it's terribly limited in its accuracy. There are different types of bad service that occur for different reasons and discerning between them can give you a better idea of whether or not to give the restaurant a second or third chance.

I see two categories of poor service - systemically-bad service and bad service created by individuals. When it involves individuals, this is a restaurant that generally has its act together, but you happened to get a server or staff member who's generally apathetic or incompetent. This can bum out your meal, but this is a correctable problem for the restaurant. Systemically-bad service is what results from a poorly-managed restaurant that is either disorganized or chronically understaffed. This is a much tougher problem to fix, and often makes hard-working waitstaff look unfairly incompetent.

To give a quick football analogy, in one case your offense doesn't move because a receiver drops passes, and in the other case the offense didn't move because the offensive coordinator put together a bad scheme and everyone was in the wrong place. Same result - very different causes.

As example of systemically-bad service, there are two breakfast restaurants in Noe Valley that are pretty good examples. One, Pomelo, attempts to serve a very large crowd with only two waiters and no busboys. It appears that these two are the owners and they're either cheap or unable to hire from some other reason. They run around frantically with a sort of ants-in-their-pants look about them. The effort is there, but the end result is that it takes way too long for everything to occur at that place. Many people like this place, but I can't get past what a missed opportunity it is.

Another example is Toast, right down the block. They're quite new, and I generally like them, so I think they'll get things ironed out quickly enough, but they have the opposite problem - too many servers. They have a bunch of young girls running around and nobody knows what they're supposed to be doing. Whether it's waiting on a table, getting water, or clearing dishes, they have to have a conversation every time about it to see who's going to do it. The result is highly inefficient and you never really know who to ask about anything. One good staff meeting could clear this up. I hope it happens.

There are plenty of examples of poor service by individuals, and you all know what it looks like so I don't think I need to go into a bunch of examples. A recent dinner at Foreign Cinema comes to mind, but there are oodles of these.

There is, however, a combination of these two types of service that creates the absolute perfect storm of miserable dining. This occurs when you have apathetic inexperienced staff managed by idiots. The staff is disorganized, leading to poor morale for an already-incompetent staff, the management doesn't know how to fix it, and on and on. Polkers on Polk St comes to mind (even though I love their food). There are others, but I'll stop picking on people.

Usually an honest smile and some attempt at an effort makes everything alright in the end. But recognizing the cause of "bad service" can help you make a more-informed determination on a restaurant.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Flat Tire: The Michelin Guide in San Francisco

It's high-time that I weighed in on the Michelin Guide's rankings of Bay Area restaurants. I've been thinking about it for a couple weeks now. Overall, I'm just glad that the guide has expanded here and provided another critical voice. Clearly, they made some errors, both in fact and opinion, and those errors have been well-documented. However, they succeeded in spurring discussion and probably in selling guides as well.

For those that aren't familiar, here's a brief rundown of the Michelin Guide. They try to review/describe every notable restaurant. A very few restaurants get stars, and just getting a single star is a very notable achievement. Two stars is a huge achievement. Three stars is world-class/elite/rare. This star system is the snobbiest of the snobby (in a good way) as shown by how few restaurants are even given stars. Service seems to be valued at a premium, as is French cuisine. I'm told that value plays a factor – I don't see that in practice, but I'll use that criteria to gripe about their rankings in some cases.

For those that haven't seen it, here's a list of who got stars in the Bay Area:

  • 3 stars - French Laundry
  • 2 stars - Aqua, Michael Mina, Manresa, Cyrus
  • 1 star - Chez Panisse, Fleur de Lys, La Folie, the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Rubicon, Bushi-Tei, Quince, Range, Acquerello, Masa's, Gary Danko, Boulevard, Fifth Floor, Sushi Ran, Chez TJ, Auberge du Soleil, La Toque, Bouchon, Bistro Jeanty, Terra, Dry Creek Kitchen, Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant, K&L Bistro

So here's my take on it.

I'm not going to offer opinion on French Laundry because I haven't eaten a full meal there, though clearly its reputation precedes it and no one is surprised in got three stars. Given that standard, and the idea that Daniel and others in New York didn't get three stars, I can't credibly argue that any other restaurant should've gotten three stars with French Laundry.

That said, the one place I would've assumed was in that class was Gary Danko. I've eaten at just about every fine Frisco establishment, and Danko rises well above them all in my estimation. Thus, since I can't argue for three stars, I can at least say that its an abomination that they didn't get two stars.

GD approaches both its food and dining experience with a decidedly Californian flair, which is perhaps what did them in for the Michelin audience. If so, this exposes the fundamental flaw of the Guide – that overseas snobs are telling locals what's good for them and encouraging tourists not to fully embrace the local food scene. And I say “snob” in only the most positive way. Anyway, I can't see any scenario where Gary Danko didn't deserve at least two stars, and I could likewise make a strong argument for others as well.

Which brings me to the four restaurants that did get two stars.

Manresa is in San Jose. I don't eat in San Jose at dinner time. I'd sooner take a cab to Palo Alto than eat dinner in San Jose. I'm sure it's wonderful. South Bay people can go ahead and enjoy it and not worry about me taking their reservation.

Cyrus I've heard great things about but haven't been. The locals up in Sonoma County have strong opinions about their local restaurants and are exceedingly tough critics on their own establishments. I know, because I grew up there. Cyrus gets the universal seal of approval from everyone up there. Gourmet did a nice feature on their cocktails this past month (which they don't offer online). Basically, their bartender Scott Beattie does the whole cocktails-as-cuisine thing and is apparently the best around at it. I know other bartenders who know him and consider him the guru. Adding that to an already great restaurant is a nice bonus. I'll be at Cyrus dining sooner than later. (Dry Creek Kitchen, which got one star, does NOT pass the locals' test, by the way)

Michael Mina and Aqua are not nearly as good as most of the restaurants that got one star. Aqua is a straight-up has-been. Mina probably hasn't been inside that kitchen in four years, and the food has definitely slipped since its peak in 2000. He doesn't even list Aqua on his website. The namesake restaurant in the Westin has the feel of a chain, which isn't an odd phenomena at all, since it is a chain. There are now Mina restaurants in Dana Point, Atlantic City, San Jose, and Las Vegas (four of them) and he's all over the food channel. I don't begrudge him for branching out and making a buck, but neither restaurant belongs in this category. Some of the restaurants with one star have true craftsmen (and women) working every day in those kitchens making unbelievable food and creating a wonderful experience, and putting Aqua and MM above them is an insult.

Which restaurants are insulted, you ask? As I mentioned, Gary D was definitely deserving of two stars, as is Fleur de Lys, Masa's and Boulevard. The fact that Chez Panisse didn't get two stars goes directly back to my point about the Guide not understanding the local cuisine. And though I haven't eaten at these places, I hear that the Dining Room at the Ritz, Terra and La Folie should've been given a shot.

Now that I've been sufficiently negative and done my afternoon Frano-phobing, there are a couple things I feel very good about. If you've read me in the past, you know that I love Range, and I'm glad to see they were recognized with a star. Personally, I would've given them two (especially with value as a factor), but that's just me and I understand why others may not. Similarly, K&L Bistro in Sebastopol is an absolute gem, and I'm glad to see them get recognized.

I'm also a bit intrigued that Bushi-Tei got a star. I haven't been there but have walked past them near Japantown numerous times. I've always wondered what the hell it was, and I've never heard people talk about it. Either the Michelin Guide's local consultant knows the place well and used his one “I'm-giving-it-a-star-dammit” card on it, or it's a secret gem. Either way, that's cool and I want to try it.

The only one-star place I have an issue with is Fifth Floor. I think the food is uninventive, the décor is dated, the service is stiff (but professional). Basically, from a food perspective, they take standard ingredients, basic combinations, and then soak it all in butter. I suspect that they got their star simply based on their price point and their reputation, but since value is supposed to be counted, I would've taken them off my list.

So what missed the cut and should've been included? Not much, but here's a short list of places I would've considered:

  • Harris' (no steak on the list, and this is probably the best so it gets a star by default)
  • Isa (the one place off the list I'd say was really robbed)
  • Kokkari (maybe too inconsistent, but can be top-notch)
  • Piperade (truly quality Spanish cuisine)
  • Town Hall (I'm not totally sold, but it's better than many on the list)
  • Slanted Door (slipped from the glory days, but the décor counts for something)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Joe D's Chops

Recently paid a visit to Joe DiMaggio's Italian Chophouse, located on the corner of Washington Square where the old Fior d'Italia was. Somebody poured an enormous amount of money into remodeling this place.

Not only is the inside a huge space that's completely remodeled with quite a bit of detail, but the place is packed with memorabilia and keepsakes from the DiMaggio family. One would tend to think that would give the place a Buca di Beppo feel, but it's actually very nicely done. Apparently it's been open for about 3 weeks, and currently the tourist-to-local ratio appears to be about 60-40.

My recommendation for this place is to go there for drinks for the next few months, before that ratio turns to 90-10 towards the fanny packs. They make an excellent cocktail and do both classic and contemporary options. The bar area is nice, spacious, and has enough going on to keep you interested.

I did end up eating dinner there, and figuring that I was giving the whole restaurant its day in court, I decided to go with the piece de resistance - the filet. The result was pleasing but predictable - the filet was on par with what you'd find from Ruth's Chris or Harris in terms of both meat quality and preparation. But considering the price is also equal, I'll probably go back for dinner to Joe D's about as often as I go back to Ruth's Chris (once every couple years).

In its defense, though, Joe D's proved itself a worthwhile competitor and a place that I'd send people from out of town who have had their fill of Morton's-style steakhouses. Also considering the dearth of good food in North Beach (a topic for another day) I'm mostly positive on DiMaggio's.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Deep Dish

I know the title sounds like a gossip column, but it's not. I just wanted to share a semi-secret scoop on some good pizza.

Volare Pizza on Haight at Fillmore has excellent deep dish. The crust is perfect, both from a texture and flavor standpoint. The ingredients are good enough. But the best part is how the pizza is broiled, just slightly burning the cheese on top. Prices are a fraction of places like Extreme, Za and Orgasmica.

Keep in mind, I'm recommending this only for delivery. I've heard that their digs on Haight are uninviting at best. But due to their centralized location, I figure they must serve a good slice of the city (ba dum cha - I'll be here all week).

Doing a Google search of this place comes up with some mixed reviews. The
reviews on Citysearch are positive, while Yelpers have some less pleasant things to say. That's why I ordered three times from Volare before making this post. I just wanted to be sure it wasn't an aberration.

And for the record, I hate both Citysearch and Yelp. Often positive reviews are posted by owners of places or friends of owners under pseudonyms and negative reviews are people with an axe to grind and found their one avenue to strike back is online. That's why I rarely link to those clowns, but I made an exception in this case cause I thought it was important. To be fair, though, if you've had a bad experience (or good) with Volare, be a clown on this site and post a comment.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Destination Chicken

Typically, I think ordering chicken at a nice restaurant is for fools. It's the equivalent of joining a fancy gym just so you can shower there. You can shower at home just the same and not pay the premium. Not that I don't ever order chicken at taquerias, Chinese restaurants and similar other low-cost establishments. It's just that I'm typically not going to sit down to a nice meal, look at an attractive menu selection, and then blow $20 on chicken. It's just not an option.

That said, there are a couple notable exceptions in San Francisco - restaurants that truly make Destination Chicken. Here's my very short list:

1. The whiskey and brown sugar glazed roasted chicken at Range

Those who know me are aware that I'm a Range junkie and try hard not to show my bias in this space by writing about Range too much. But this chicken needs to be discussed. It's absolutely the best chicken in San Francisco and probably the best chicken I've ever had. I'm not alone in this bold claim.

The preparation changes reguarly, even as much as weekly. The "whiskey brown sugar" move is new for summer, and almost doubles as barbeque chicken. Typically it's just roasted in sherry jus. Right now the side with it is spoonbread and arugula. In the past sides have included fiddleheads and bread salads. All have always been good.

I asked chef Phil West how he does it, and there doesn't seem to be any great secret other than execution. The chicken is brined for a day (all great chicken is, of course) in a standard brine with salt, sugar and peppers. The chicken is roasted at extremely high heat (550 degrees) and treated before and after with the glaze. The result is tasty, moist chicken with crispy skin that you can't put down.

2. The Sunday-night-only buttermilk fried chicken at Street

A writer I read regularly said once that fried chicken is the ultimate envy order. It's the item that people either pass up due to health reasons or simply because it's chicken. But if you're with a group of four people and you're the guy who orders the fried chicken, everyone else eventually regrets not following suit.

A few places make good fried chicken (Firefly and Jack Falstaff to name two), but my vote for best fried chicken in San Francisco goes to Street on Polk Street. Similar to Range, I have a heavy bias here, but with plenty good reason.

Available only on Sundays, chef John brines the bird for three (3!) days. The buttermilk batter is not too heavy and the chicken remains light and fluffy. Don't forget to ask for the cornbread, and the slaw it comes with is also excellent. Overall a great performance. They often run out before the end of the night (which I don't totally understand) so get there early.

3. The roast chicken at Zuni Cafe

Yes, this chicken is famous and I'm not exactly breaking new ground here. In fact, I think Zuni isn't quite what it once was - perhaps they're spending too much time writing cookbooks these days. But this roast chicken is still excellent.

Again brined (are you sensing a theme yet?), this chicken is prepared for two people and is some of the more flavorful chicken you'll have. Upon ordering, you should be warned by your server that it takes 45 minutes. If you know that you're going to have it, consider ordering it right as you sit down so as not to starve out your dining cohorts. It's worth the wait, however.

Making honorable mention in the roast chicken category is the brick chicken at Sociale.

But again, just like a shower, you can also do the Zuni chicken at home.

Sunday, July 30, 2006


Investment in the Tenderloin is continuing, but it also seems that there's more talk about it than actual delivery. I always hear grand plans of destination restaurants and bars, but once they arrive there's clearly less investment in them than promised (think Olive, for instance). That trend started to change about a year or two ago, most notably with O'Reilly's Holy Grail. O'Reilly's was clearly expensive, with a ton of imported stained glass. Problem is that it doesn't appear to be attracting the crowds that would justify the expense, lending credence to everyone else's low-investment strategy.

Brick is different and risky in a good way. Located at Sutter and Larkin, this place has both the investment and the interest. On top of it, the food is excellent. The restaurant is mostly one large, warehouse-style room with a very large u-shaped bar in the middle. Of course, as you'd guess by the name, there's a lot of brick involved (see left). The front of the restaurant is tall glass - a very bold move in that neighborhood. In a small side room, there are additional bar seats overlooking an exhibition kitchen. Overall, the setting is quite stylish.

The owners are the same folks who have Fly and Solstice on Divisadero. The chef, Noah Tucker, is a younger fellow who worked previously at Michael Mina. They don't take reservations, but the wait isn't atrocious (yet) - at 8pm on a Friday night we waited 20 minutes for counter seats.

The food is new American small plates (how novel!) ranging in price from $8-$16. Examples include ricotta gnocchi, the Brick burger (really two small "sliders"), confit buffalo wings, and drunken mac and cheese (truffle oil and leeks). The best item we had was the tuna crudo served with pickled papaya, avocado, sea beans, kaffir and horseradish. And no, I have no idea what sea beans are. The sourdough-crusted skate and scallops served with sweet corn, leeks and espresso salt were good, but too salty.

The menu leaned hard toward savory and salty and lacked palette cleansers. Luckily, the savory and salty dishes were generally quite good. For dessert, we had a Mini summer pie with amaretto custard, a "berry medley" and glazed apricots. It was decent, but not a highlight. The wine list is well-priced and offers a good mix of new and old world selections.

I would recommend Brick to those looking for something new and exciting (it's only been open two months), but it's more about the whole package and stylish digs than it is about the great food. If nothing else, at least it's interesting.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

FF On Location: Los Angeles

From time to time, I may write about dining in places I visit so long as they meet the minimum criteria that the city is interesting and also that other San Franciscans commonly travel there. This week I was in Los Angeles, and this town fits those criteria nicely. This post will be a rundown of four interesting dinners - all of which were at locations that would likely be on the list of consideration for most San Francisco diners visiting LA.

Furthermore, I think that Los Angeles dining is both interesting and mystifying particularly for the San Francisco diner because there simply isn't a clean and clear correlation between what's good in the two places. Definitions of a "good meal" or a "stylish place" simply haven't developed in parallel between the two places. I think it's helpful to present LA restaurants in terms that SF diners can understand. That said, I also try to put my pre-conceived notions aside and take things at face-value as a local would ("When in Rome..."). Trying to find an LA equivalent to your favorite San Francisco restaurant can only lead to trouble, and vice versa.

On to the meals in chronological order...

The Little Door - West 3rd St. near The Grove

Seen from the street only as a rustic wood door with a tell-tale valet stand,
The Little Door is 90% patio and 10% interior dining. It's dimly lit, soothingly quiet, and formal in a relaxed, LA sort of way. Some locals think it's the best restaurant in town. And while the typical arc of a nice restaurant in LA is a fast start and a fast decline into bankruptcy, The Little Door remains venerable and steady. The description on the website starts very awkwardly with the sentence, "Welcome to a real authentic restaurant." While I don't know what that means, somehow that's clearly what they're going for. I took some colleagues, and it was a very nice setting for a mixed business group, having a little something for everybody.

The menu is mostly French-influenced with a smattering of Meditteranean. The prices are expensive, even for LA. For appetizers, prices range from your standard $14 salad to a $25 foie gras terrine. Entrees run from $28 for the vegetarian options to $36 for the steak and lamb dishes. I started with a peach gazpacho which was great for the first two spoonfuls, and then was simply too intense to finish. Flavors were apparently carefully crafted with a sledgehammer. I then had scallops with an orange and mustard sauce on leeks. I had the same experience, where the first few bites were great but by the end of the dish the flavors overpowered me.

Those I went with were more positive about their dishes, the winner being the pine nut-crusted rack of lamb. The wine list is extensive, heavy on Old World options, and about 10% more expensive than one would hope. We had a beautiful Chateauneuf du Pape but it wasn't exactly cheap.

As for San Francisco equivalents, the patio (and how it was the focus of the restaurant) was much like Isa in the Marina. The menu was a cross between Boulevard and Kokkari, while the food itself was on par with One Market. It fit the bill well for an expensed dinner looking to please a diverse crowd, but I wouldn't give it my very highest recommendation.

2. Cobras & Matadors - W Beverly Boulevard in Beverly Hills Adjacent (no website)

This place is nothing like The Little Door. This smallish Spanish tapas restaurant is hip, loud, cheap and caters to the 20-something crowd. When we showed up it was still before the dinner rush, and not having a reservation the three of us were told that the wait would be about an hour. We went down the street for a cocktail and came back in 45 minutes. One hour turned into a full two. The host was very nice and professional and clearly working hard, but a two-hour wait for dinner is going to lead to some frustration. It would have been very easy to make a huge stink if the host had been an indignant asshole, but he wasn't so we gritted our teeth and stuck it out with only a few peeps.

Once we sat down, saw the menu, and had our first few bites, we realized why this place was so packed with 20-somethings. The food was excellent and very well-priced, with tapas ranging from $5-$16. In addition, the place has a BYO, no-corkage alcohol model and there's a wine shop next door specializing in Spanish wines (the two are clearly in cahoots, if not owned by the same people). My friend said it best: "Every 26-thousand dollar a year assistant is bringing his date here." I looked around and that comment was spot-on.

When we sat down in a fit of hunger, we immediately asked the waiter to bring us his three favorite things sight unseen. He brought prawns sauteed with cumin, dry-cured pork loin with goat cheese, and asparagus with sieved egg. All were very, very good. The menu is extensive, there are lots of different ingredients, and there's lots being ordered quickly. Given the quality of what came out, this was clearly a talented and organized kitchen. We rounded out our meal with a few other items, including some fried artichoke hearts with creme fraiche that were gluttonously good and some churros for dessert. If you're looking for very traditional tapas, this probably isn't your place, but we loved it.

The only disappointment was the wine. Not being familiar with specifc Spanish makers, we blindly picked out what appeared to be a good bottle, but our suspicion is that the wine shop next door sells ONLY for the restaurant and prices its wines like restaurant instead of a wine shop, making that whole benefit a wash in the end.

For San Francisco comparison, the best I can come up with is Zarzuela, only if it were more crowded, the tapas were less traditional, and the food was a little cheaper. Overall, not a great comparison, I know. The scene felt more like a scenario where Ti Couz in the Mission suddenly got a heavily-Marina crowd. Overall, I'd go again without hesitation. Next time I'll make reservations and bring wine from home.

Dolce Enoteca e Ristorante - Melrose @ Sweetzer

If you're an avid Us Weekly reader, you've heard of this place. I wanted to find the quintessential LA scene, and my very-accomodating friends were happy to partake. It's often described in the gossip columns as "Ashton Kutcher's restaurant," which I can only assume means that he's staked his reputation and life savings on it and is there at 10am every morning unpacking boxes of fresh ingredients. The restaurant business is such a tough road for hard-working chefs like Ashton. I figure Demi does the books.

Upon entrance, the place is interesting and well-done, but clearly with an LA sensibility. Imagine if the designers of Houston's had an unlimited budget. Big booths, private rooms, fire behind the bar... the works. If this place were in San Francisco, it would be located in... wait a second... this place would not be in San Francisco. Rather, if it were in Sacramento, there would be a six-month wait for reservations. Sarcasm aside, it's a nice place and built for both comfort and style.

I ordered a nice bottle of wine at the bar while we waited for our fourth person. It was a very tasty Pinot Nero (Movia, Slovenia 2001) served at just the right temperature. The very nice sommelier (named Jaron) immediately doted on us, decanted our wine, basically treated us like big shots. Only later, once I got the bar bill, did I realize that they had mistakenly thought we ordered a $300 bottle (the error was corrected and we did get the right wine). I think I would've gotten the same service anyway, though, because I look like a major star, of course. And to be fair, they treated us equally well once we sat for dinner.

The appetizers came and they were great. We had burrata (really good mozzarella, essentially) with prosciutto and tomatoes. It sounds very simple, I know, but the ingredients were of very high quality. Same goes for the pumpkin ravioli, which was very flavorful while managing to not be doused in butter and oil. We were all very impressed by the appetizers. The entrees were also good, but not quite as much so. I had a grilled pork loin with orange sauce and "creamy potatoes". The pork was prepared like a filet and was good, but not quite juicy enough. Just the description of the potatoes grossed me out, but they were good too.

The big problem with the place is the music. It's deafeningly loud, and they play an 80s-present Top 40 mix. It would be Gnarls Barkley followed by Blondie followed by old U2, and all at volumes that caused you to shout across your booth. It was so bad that we actually put a chair in the aisle and crowded into one side of the booth so the four of us could actually talk as a group. And the selection itself, I would've expected something more creative than a DMX channel from this place. You'd think they would find some ultra-cool underground band that was on the cusp of making it big, or play the hottest new Croation hip-hop or something. The selection was bizarre and jarring. Given that the crowd was less "celeb/powerbroker" and more "bachelorette party from the valley," perhaps they're just catering to their audience.

Overall, everyone's food exceeded expectations for a restaurant known more for its scene. Prices, while not cheap, were very fair. If you kept to the exceptional small plates and the reasonably-priced wine, you could escape with a very satisfying dinner for under $50 each. I would certainly go again.

The Dodger Dog

My final dinner in Los Angeles was a Dodger Stadium Dodger Dog. There were two basic problems with this, even though it was a great hot dog. First, I'm a Giants fan. And second, it's really, really tough to do food reviews on hot dogs and sausages without producing childish chuckles or opening yourself up to about 300 gay jokes.

Let's just say that the Dodgers have a few things going for them despite their on-field product: a great stadium, Vin Scully, and the Dodger Dog. The dog really is good, with excellent, classic flavor and grilled nicely (as opposed to steamed - ew). As far as straight-ahead dogs go (not fancy sausages), I haven't had a better one that I can remember.

Overall, the concessions at Dodger Stadium is pretty limited - there isn't much choice beyond the standard stadium fare. Thus, it's good that they convert well on their signature item. The
overall food at AT&T is better, but this item is a winner.

Oh, and I left in the 7th inning. As I said before about Rome...

On a side note, I want to apologize for making it so long between posts. I tried to make up for it with brute force as you can see by the length of this post. Also, I deliberately tried to disorient you by switching tenses about 40 times. Really, it was a plan, I promise. Hope it worked!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Bocadillos: Tasty, Trendy Tapas

I've always been a bit suspect of tapas, or even just small-plates, restaurants. With quick and simple analysis, it's clear that the margins at these places are impressive. Less ingredients, more dishes at growing prices, and social ordering generally add up to big bills. Five years ago, my suspicion is that restauranteurs licked that chops at the emerging fad, and rushed to open a number of ill-conceived venues.

I've since realized that I fixated on this issue of concept and value mostly because I was rarely thoroughly impressed with the food and the overall experience. Granted, I've really enjoyed both
Zarzuela, which serves traditional Spanish fare on Russian Hill, and Isa, where very-talented chef Luke Seng serve French small plates in the Marina. But those two have been the exception and not the rule. Generally I've pictured the owner of the typical small-plates restaurant as grinning feverishly at their good fortune that people actually began to like that format in the first place.

That said, the tapas industry seems to be turning a corner in the past two years in San Francisco. Less places are opening simply because small plates are trendy and financially attractive - the bar has been raised, apparently. And more places, like
Bocadillos where I went on Friday night, are opening because they're conceptually-sound and offering great food at a reasonable price.

(Yes, I know that I'm using "tapas" and "small plates" almost interchangably. I know the difference and I know what I'm doing. So there.)

Bocadillos is a bustling, hiply-designed place that offers a vibrant feel (replete with the wait) upon entrance. While the quarters are cramped and there's not enough room to comfortably have some wine while you wait, it's far from miserable. The general action and people-watching keep you interested.

Once sat (be forewarned - a promised 15 minutes turned into 45), the food was excellent. The menu is segmented into small categories like "marinated", "roasted", "fried", "a la plancha" and even "innard circle". I liked this approach because it both made sense, and it was a departu
re from the standard approach of "hot" and "cold". Highlights included the prawns with garlic flakes and lemon confit from the a la plancha menu and the fried sardines with moscatel and chili vinaigrette. Additionally (right) the chilled prawns in deviled eggs - perhaps a shout out Texarcana and Miller High Life (or perhaps not) - were also great. I guess I point that one out mostly because I found a picture, but none of the dishes we had disappointed. Everything was well-conceived and the quality delivered.

One of the highlights of the meal was the wine. I didn't pick it on this night, but we bought bottles that were offered by the glass and were very satisfied. This a always a great sign to me that the list is well thought-out and that you won't have to break the bank to get a good bottle.

Bocadillos is headed up by chef Gerald Hirigoyen, who also owns Piperade in the same neighborhood. I found it interesting that Hirigoyen walked into the kitchen at Bocadillos and then out the front door at least twice during our meal, insinuating that he's splitting his efforts between the two places. While that seems awfully tough, it's working for him.

I also like and agree with this review, if you're looking for more information.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Pescado and Pizza on Polk

Nick Fasanella, he of namesake Nick's Crispy Tacos on Polk and Broadway, took up a new venture selling pizza next door a few months ago. Both the tacos and Nicky's Pizzeria Rustica are great, cheap food. What I didn't realize until recently was that Nick no longer has connection to his namesake taco shop, bought out by his also-very-apt original partners.

As for the taco shop, luckily they're still going strong and the tacos haven't missed a beat. If you haven't been, try either the Pescado or Carnitas tacos Nick's way. The burritos are okay too, but comparatively they're the ugly stepchild. The interesting thing about the place is certainly the set-up and ambiance, as the taco shop rents its space during the day fr
om nightclub Rouge. Rouge is a vile, disgusting place in the daylight, but it somehow manages to be charming as the taco shop. You'll likely hold your nose the first time in, but it grows on you. Good move keeping the name, though, as after almost four years of good tacos it has some equity.

With Nicky's Pizzeria Rustica, I've only been a few times but I've been impressed. Fasanella took over what was "That's Amore", cleaned the place up significantly, and started serving square-slice, foccacia-style pizza by the slice. What makes it good is the fresh, quality ingredients (homemade mozzarella and sausage, for instance). If there's one thing Fasanella has shown with both places on Polk Street, it's the ability to identify a clear market need and then fill it. For a neighborhood with a ton of options, a taqueria and quality pizza-by-the-slice were both glaring needs.

What this brings up is the need for the ubiquitous "Best Taco" and "Best Pizza" column in this space. I'll do both, with caveats. Tacos, regardless of styles, can be matched up against each other for the most part. Pizza, on the other hand, can really only be compared against its like style. Deep dish, NY-style, thin-crust-artisan, and foccacia-st
yle like Fasanella makes all are individual types.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Jackson Fillmore: Great Food, No Ego-Petting

Jackson Fillmore is some of my favorite Italian food in town. The food is creatively-prepared, the ingredients are fresh, there are a couple must-get items that you can't get elsewhere, and the overall feel of the place is a great balance between comfort and formality.

Particularly, the zucchini carpaccio is worth the trip to this place by itself. It's a simple appetizer of jullienned zucchini mixed with toasted almonds, shaved pecorino, parsley and olive oil served lukewarm. If you go, don't miss this.

The pastas are always well done. My favorite is the tortellini al forno, though it works better as a shared appetizer because it's so rich. The entrees are the weakest part of the menu, but are still generally very good.

What puzzles me about Jackson Fillmore is that when I talk to people about this place, some version of the same theme always comes up: "The food is great but the service sucks." The last few times I've been, I've studied the service closely to find out exactly what "sucks," and I've come to the conclusion that I believe they're getting a somewhat bad rap.

I've looked for obvious errors: forgetting items, cold food, slow servers, lazy bussers, thoughtlessness, etc, and I haven't found any of it. What I have found is a certain ennui amongst the servers where they're making clear that kissing your ass isn't part of their job description.

"Come in and eat, don't come in and eat... that's fine... whatever," is essentially what they're saying. I think that this attitude is probably pervasive across about 80% of San Francisco restaurants except that in many of them the attitude is sugar-coated with an ass-kissing veneer.

Granted, some nice small talk is pleasant, and can make up for other shortcomings, but I've realized that I don't need it if everything else is buttoned-up. Even though they're not going out of their way to be nice at JF, they're at least professional about the tasks of their job and answer questions about the menu thoughtfully. I don't think we necessarily have a right to ask for much more.

I remember one time in there when one of the surliest servers was waiting on us the evening after the verdict was read on the dog-mauling trial. We were trading opinions around the table between courses, and the server (who's name I don't know) inserted himself quickly, said he thought the manslaughter conviction was "bullshit" and then just as quickly exited the conversation. It was startling not because of the language or the opinion, but just that he generally wasn't concerned either with decorum or with what we thought of him. But because he was quick and very honest, the interlude worked and we didn't mind at all.

Honesty seems to be the prevailing feeling I get from them - they honestly don't care what you think and wear it on their sleeve. Somehow their delivery works for me. It's great food and solid service, without the ego-petting.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Kirala: Sushi Satisfaction

I've stated before in this space, and many times to friends, how sushi in the Bay Area never seems to deliver. It's either too expensive for what it is, or the fish/preparation is much weaker than expected. Finally, I think I may have found the sushi that satisfies at Kirala in Berkeley.

I know I'm a little late to the party on this one, as Kirala is well-written-up, and the biggest general complaint about the place is the long waits, but it still warrants a mention. Four of us met out there last night and had an incredible sushi dinner for a very palatable price.

My basic approach to sushi (that I must announce at the start of dinner if at sushi with someone who's never been with me) is that sharing is great, and rice is a waste of time and space. What I mean by rice being a waste is that I prefer to go with either sashimi or aggressive rolls that use rice as a binder only. Filling up on rice is a terrible idea as far as I'm concerned, and this goes for pretty much all Asian cuisine in my book. In it's most basic form this means that I would never order a California roll and keep it to myself.

The net effect of this approach is that I end up with pretty high standards for quality of fish and preparation. However, I'm somehow not willing to pay for sushi the way I would for other high-end cuisine. Yep, sounds like I'm generally screwed.

Not at Kirala! We started with some Robata-grilled baby lobster tails in a cream sauce, and then moved onto the sashimi and the rolls. The lobster tails were the best part of the meal, with a succulent flavor and that good shellfish texture where they're firm but with the juiciness locked inside. "Cream sauce" is one of those terms used in Asian cuisine where they know that white people will generally freak out if they said "mayonnaise-like" - think Walnut Prawns. I say just go with it.

The sashimi was great, with the fish very fresh and the cuts nice and thick. The rolls, while the menu selection was small and unimaginative, all delivered the goods. We finished with an order of Tonkatsu, which is pork breaded and fried. My own description, while accurate, sounds gross, but trust me that this is incredibly good and tastes lighter than it sounds.

The ambiance and the service in the place was very straight-forward. There were no whistles and bells, no characters amongst the waitstaff and bartenders that we could see, and the utilitarian set-up was perfect for concentrating on the food. Everything held together well.

One general note on sushi that held true at this place is that I love the unfiltered sake - called Nigori at most places. Best yet, it's usually among the cheapest sake on the menu. The bottle that I most often get (including last night) is in the picture to the right. At Kirala, the bottle was $11 and two bottles took care of three of us for the evening.

I recommend Kirala, even with the wait and the drive. Finally, it's Bay Area sushi that all adds up.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

You Are What You Eat

In most sports, coaches and management have a tough choice to make: Do I build my team around the philosophy I believe is most right, or do I adjust my philosophy to best match the players who are currently on the roster? In the NBA playoffs happening right now, the Mavericks and the Pistons have collected players that fit their respective philosophies, while the Cavs and Suns have taken the talents on their roster and even gone so far as to hire coaches with systems that would accentuate their players' strengths.

It's a great sports debate (my take is that as an approach, both can be correct), but with food I think it's clear that it's the players who have the biggest impact on a winning team. Simply, restaurants that center their menus around great ingredients and then find the best way to assemble them are usually better, more-interesting places to eat.

I was talking with a friend who works at Boulevard, and he was saying that they have a "mushroom guy" who comes to the back door from time to time with a garbage bag full of some of the freshest, tastiest mushrooms you've ever seen. They don't know when he'll come by, but when he does they make a cash transaction on the spot and then figure out how they're going to use them. "Oh, there's a ton of options," my friend says. "Make a soup, pair them with meat, a stand-alone appetizer with them as the centerpiece... finding ways to use them is never an issue." I like this approach.

Similarly, when you go to a restaurant and they point out a new addition to the menu and say something like, "We just got some incredible grouper in and [chef] had to find a place for it on the menu." I'm a sucker for that kind of banter and I'm usually not disappointed when I fall for it.

At one of the best meals I've ever eaten - an Italian restaurant in New York called Il Mulino - there's a front table just as you walk in that's piled four-feet high with fresh vegetables from that day. Especially in a place like New York, that isn't regularly-blessed with great fruits and vegetables like the Bay Area is, this table acts as an effective beacon to diners who can discern great ingredients.

(What happens to this mountain of beautiful veggies after they close is a mystery to me, but my suspicion is that with the amount of money the restaurant pulls in they probably don't much care. Don't think I haven't wondered though.)

Point is that in cooking, as in sports, ingredients matter. Larry Brown, who I think is a great coach, will finish in last place with Isiah Thomas' ingredients. Likewise, the greatest culinary preparation in the world can only rise so high without the greatest ingredients. I appreciate restaurants that know the difference.

A canned, boiled tomato...

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Upsell

It must be difficult being a waiter. Management wants to maximize profits (as they should) and you want to maximize your tip by being the advocate of your diner. Generally, these desires are in line. Menu items are commensurately priced, the chef just wants to make people happy and wouldn't put on something he/she hated, and diner happiness generally leads to profits.

Where this equation often doesn't line up is with the wine list. Nowhere - including the wine industry as a whole - is there a greater room for discrepancy between potential prices and quality as there is with wine. As a waiter, if a patron feels jobbed by a wine recommendation, the tip will suffer.

With menu items, entrees for instance might range between 18 and 25 dollars with a rogue $29 steak, and each of those items is priced to offset the cost of the ingredients used to make it. At that same restaurant, the wine list could then range between $25 and $150 per bottle, with little oversight as to what goes into each selection as well as what's often a 100% markup. It's always said that a restaurant makes its money on booze, and wine is the greatest opportunity.

This is fine. These are the groundrules and the landscape for eating out. It's also what potentially can put the waiter in an uneviable position that they may or may not handle well.

Wednesday night I was with some friends at Plouf. The meal was great - even better than expected - and the upsell on wine was entirely evident. When we asked for a "moderate" selection of a French Bourgogne, we were directed to two wines that both looked attractive at $50-$55 each. When we asked for something "cheaper" we were re-directed to California Pinots priced between $55 and $65 because "French wines are expensive by nature". Finally, after more prodding, I was directed to a $47 Gigondigas which we opted for (and which we thoroughly enjoyed) . As much as we enjoyed it, it still didn't change the fact that on that Wednesday night we were interested in buying a $30 bottle of wine but couldn't get an appropriate recommendation.

(Granted, one aspect of this was that charming, French attitude of a selective-understanding language barrier. Both amusing and frustrating, this won't be found everywhere.)

Despite drinking wine we liked, pushing the bill over our comfort level left a bad taste in our mouth.
That's the example that spurred my thoughts on this. The point of it is that diners should be aware that wine is the area where a waiter only sometimes has your best-interests in mind, and thus this is the area where you should be the most direct about your needs and the most self-righteous. Complicating this further, wine is often the area on the menu where diners are the most unsure of themselves (do you see a market opportunity here?).

What this does is make restaurants that have thoughtfully-planned wine lists, waiters that are smart and independent, as well as a long-term perspective on management, places that are generally more enjoyable at which to drink wine.

Friday, May 12, 2006


Finding good, innovative Italian food in San Francisco isn't always as easy as it sounds. Sure, there are a handful of winners out there - a few of my favorites being Jackson-Fillmore and Antica Trattoria - but good Italian isn't nearly as pervasive as one would assume. Perhaps it's the very high standards for great produce that comes with making Italian food great, but it is what it is.

The other thing that has recently struck me is a lack of neighborhood restaurants that deliver top-notch dining experiences for less-than-top-notch prices. My first reaction has always been to say that San Francisco is chalk full of this type of place - that the dining landscape is built on this. But dig a little deeper and ask me to name them, and I have unexpected trouble. Some, like La Folie for instance, have long-ago priced themselves out of this category. Others, like Blue Plate or Street, are going for a less-formal feel and scene than what I mean by "top-notch" in this instance. Still others, like Range, can't quite be considered "neighborhood" anymore when people from Sacramento and Santa Cruz are making reservations a month out. Finally, some others, like Firefly, Le Petit Robert, and Eos for instance, fall just short of their desired mark.

One place that is actually good Italian, and is actually a neighborhood place offering a top-notch dining experience, is
Sociale on Sacramento Street in Presidio Heights. Granted, this neighborhood is so sleepy that there's little competition, but this place really delivers. Last night we had a very reasonable four-course tasting menu with some excellent wine that came recommended by the knowledgable owner. With the food, like with the wine, here you can ask the staff to lead you in the right direction and you won't be disappointed.

I started with a crostini topped with a super-soft mozzarella. The crostini was nice and thin, the cheese was very fresh, and the flavors popped. Second course was an egg-noodle pasta dish with duck. As a light eater, a pasta dish as secondi usually puts me over the edge and wastes my entree, but the portion size was just right and the flavors made it well-worth it.

My main course was a rib-eye steak that was done perfectly. Some rib-eyes (by design) have too much fat content for my liking, but this one struck a nice balance and the sauce on top of it was really flavorful and interesting.
Finally, we (all four of us) finished with the Sfingi, which is pronounced just as it appears. This is basically a grown-up donut, with incredible homemade vanilla ice cream, all topped with honey. Yep, it's damn good.

Part of the highlight of Sociale is eating outside under the awning with the heat lamps. It's an incredibly comfortable and quiet place to have a conversation, and just festive enough that you don't feel inhibited at all by the other tables. It's a classic setting for a meeting with friends that you actually want to spend time with.

So as you can tell, I'm pretty positive on Sociale. The only downside is that with wine and everything else, the bill can add up a bit faster than you intended, but that's their goal, right?

One side note on this subject that both writing this post and also dining at Sociale made me think of was La Table - that ill-fated Bay Bread restaurant in Presidio Heights. They tried to create the neighborhood place I described above and failed miserably. It featured a $110 tasting menu with $25-per-entree-level food, The service was haughty and uncomfortable, and that description is being generous. The place generally sucked and the neighborhood rebelled and stopped going. Typically the Bay Bread Company comes out with great concepts, but this wasn't one of them.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Ballpark Eats

Nearly everyone has their favorite ballpark food. Sports fans identify a particular food item with "their" team or with a memorable moment or time at a ballpark. Non-sports fans often associate with specific foods to help them get excited about going to a game that they're dragged to a few times a year. Even those fans who purport to hate ballpark food for health or sanitation reasons often give ridiculous caveats like, "except for Dodger Dogs - they're different".

There are a few inalienable truths out there about ballpark food that no reasonable person can deny.
  1. Ninety percent of ballpark food anywhere is gross. This isn't even worth discussing it's so obvious.
  2. The idea that ballpark beer is watered down isn't a myth. The reasons for doing so, may still be up for debate however, whether you think it's simply profit margin or latent concerns stemming from Cleveland's famous "10-Cent Beer Night".
  3. Except for a few notable exceptions, any vet will tell you to not get too aggressive with your ordering. At a ballpark, the chicken sandwich will almost always beat the "Tandoori Chicken Kabobs". The [Team Name] Dog will most often be better than the "Smoked Wisconsin Cheddar and Sprouts Sausage". And for god's sake, don't ever get anything with vegetables on it or fresh dairy.
  4. Any stand purporting to sell cocktails or wine is something to stay away from unless circumstances are dire. Even at basketball games, or at an indoor club bar, these stands are a bad idea that will leave you soberly broke.
In the Bay Area, ballpark food is generally unremarkable with the exception of a few tasty items at the park that lately they've been referring to as AT&T. Coliseum food is pedestrian at best (I have high-hopes for many aspects of the new stadium in Fremont, food being one of them and the long BART ride not being one). Food at Warriors games, while not really under consideration because it's not a ball park, is as bad as the outside shooting and lack of rebounding or defense on the court. At Candlestick, with only 8 events per year, they're still serving leftovers from when the Giants left in '99.

That leaves AT&T Park. The overall level of food here is a notch above the other Bay Area venues. The bad food isn't quite as bad. Granted, you will NEVER again order garlic fries after seeing a vat of that garlic like I once did, but overall quality is above par. There are two items that stand out, however.

The Cha-Cha Bowl:
This item found behind the center field bleachers isn't a hidden secret, as it's been written about in numerous places, but it really is good. It's tasty, and the selection of sauces allows you to make it as spicy or mild as you wish. It's hearty, filling up even very hungry patrons. I suspect, with no proof, that it's one of the healthiest items in the park. And it's very eatable on your lap in your seat. You can even put the cover back on it and come back to it after a few innings, which is out of the question with a hot dog.

The Sheboygan Bratwurst:
Easily the tastiest sausage in the park, it used to be only found just outside the left field bleachers, but it's now sold at 3 other places in the park. Simple supply and demand led to its proliferation, I'm sure. The guy who grills them (in full view) at the original left field stand is still the best, however. I'm going to avoid too much gory detail describing sausage on my blog, but you should really check it out. It's not to be missed. It's possible that this is where they originate from, which just about sums it up.

Game on.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Frozen Potatoes

I suppose this acts as follow-up to my post on Arby's, but I just discovered the answer to one of life's great mysteries:

Ore-Ida potatoes, found in your local grocery store, derive their name from a shortening of "Oregon-Idaho".

This is interesting to me first because this puts Ore-Ida in direct competition with Maine potatoes. Also, I've insisted for years on calling them "Orr-
EYE-Dah", which is now clearly wrong. However, this also means that most people I know are wrong on their pronunciation. While typically I hear "Orr-AY-EE-Duh", it is cleary "Orr-UH-EE-Duh" based on the way one pronounces

This theory is confrmed on the official web site however I still find it suspect that in the address the name still has no hyphen.

How did I find all this valuable information? By reading
Dwight K. Schrute's blog. Is this post a cheap attempt to put a link to Dwight K. Schrute's blog in my own? Yes, obviously.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Flailing Fish

First of all, I want to apologize for my extreme tardiness on a new post. Ignoring a blog you created is as addictive as heroin, though I doubt you'll see studies on it anytime soon. On to some content...

For a town that's known for its seafood, San Francisco has a very surprising lack of good fish. Be it your classic Fisherman's Wharf-style seafood, your high-end seafood, or even sushi, San Francisco seafood specialists usually disappoint. Sometimes it's the fish itself that's not the best it could be, and sometimes it's the preparation. Since seafood specialists in San Francisco come in different shapes and sizes, I'll separate them out.

The Wharf: Let's leave "seafood" restaurants like A. Sabella's or Scoma's out of the equation. These venerable tourist traps don't just disappoint - they make you sick and rob you blind. I do have a soft spot of Alioto's for some reason, but I'd never in my right mind send anyone that I actually liked there. Generally, I'm not even sure that it's fish that these restaurants serve. Added bonus of not going there - you don't have to deal with the creepy bush guy.

The High-High-End: I put Aqua and Farallon into the high-high end, and somehow no one has come in to replace them. They're both restaurants that I consider has-beens. They were places you desperately wanted to get into around 1999-2000, they were still considered very good around 2002-2003, but in 2006 my impression is that the real kitchen talent has all moved on elsewhere and the decor has never been updated. Even Michael Mina himself moved on from Aqua. But in fairness, I've never eaten more than appetizers there, so take my impressions on Aqua with a grain of sea salt.

The High-End: Here's another area where I'm confused as to why there aren't more players in this space. There's really just Plouf, Catch, Hayes Street Grill, Pesce and Yabbies. Pesce and Yabbies are located right next to each other on Polk St. Both are very servicable options, but won't wow you. That said, on Thursday nights Yabbie's has a great special that's essentially a big basket for two filled with steamed shellfish - a traditional New England lobster boil I believe it's called. Hayes Street Grill is downright gross. I've never been to Catch but have heard unimpressive word-of-mouth reviews. Plouf is a very cool place sitting outside in the alley on a warm night, but the fish itself is less than spectacular. Again, there aren't bad options here, but nothing is going to blow you away considering these are the best options that a so-called seafood town has to offer.

The Old Timers: Tadich Grill and Sam's Grill and Seafood Restaurant are a lot of fun to do every once in a while. Tadich is great fun to go and sit at the bar for lunch, grab a cup of clam chowder and a crab louie salad. Both transport you to another time of distinction and formality for San Francisco. The problem with these places is (again) for a place that specializes in seafood, neither their fish nor especially their presentation is very good. At both places, I shy away from any dishes that need too much preparation at all. If you get anything sauteed or fried, your body will punish you for days as if you ate fast food. Fish, in general, is wonderful because the freshness and taste speak for itself. Hiding it in butter and oil ruins it. In fact, that's the theory behind...

Sushi: Granted, there's some good sushi in San Francisco (this deserves a more elaborate post of its own), but you'll always pay just a bit more than it's worth. For instance, I think Blowfish and Sushi Groove have great sushi. The fish is fresh, and the preparation is innovative and interesting. I'm just not comfortable paying $150 per cou
ple for that meal. Similarly, there are about 75 different sushi restaurants on Lombard Street offering the same pedestrian selection of rolls and not one of them providing value. I like sushi enough to where I'll still go to all these places, but I never leave with a great feeling.

A couple other sushi notes... the so-called no-name sushi on Church St near 15th that people talk about... don't go there - it's for people who are without taste glands and immune to bacteria... I hear that Sushi Ran in Sausalito is the best sushi in the Bay Area, but I've never been... my best advice for go-to sushi places are Wasabi and Ginger on Van Ness (free valet parking and zero ambiance) and Tokyo Go Go in the Mission.

I think San Francisco is a great restaurant city, but we don't hold a candle to New York and LA when it comes to sushi.

The Specialists: Two places that offer incredible shellfish are Swan Oyster Depot (right) and Hog Island Oyster Company (in the Ferry Building). They both do what little they do very, very well. Lunch at the counter at Swan is one of my all-time favorite treats. Hog Island has one of the coolest oyster and wine happy hour specials I've encountered. Neither prepare any fish in traditional restaurant ways, so it's hard to match them up against others, but they hold their own place of excellence.

The Recommendation: Sushi aside, my recommendation if you want a great piece of fish that's very well-prepared is to not go to a seafood restaurant at all. The best fish I've had in San Francisco has been at places like Boulevard, Range, Antica Trattoria, and Sociale. Think about it - the best fish mongers in the Bay Area don't sell exclusively to seafood-specialty restaurants. Other restaurants have fish just as good if not better, and they likely have more talented chefs. Cooking fish isn't some rare specialty like raw foodism - these folks know how to do it.

Often when people come to town, they say they want to go out for seafood, and resist when I want to take them to a non-seafood restaurant for their fish. I feel strongly it's the right thing to do.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Michael Bauer is Too Influential

Nothing against Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle, but he has far too much power for one man in an industry that is so subjective. The fault lies with the Chronicle, however, not the man.

San Francisco is a town known for its restaurants (among other things, of course), yet the Chronicle only invests in a single voice to review restaurants. While Bauer's technique for reviewing (three hopefully anonymous visits) is pretty good, he can't escape personal bias. When livelihoods are on the line, this is too much responsibility.

To give you an idea of his influence, when he first reviewed Range, he (very deservedly) gave it 3.5 stars which put it in rare company. He got this one right, which was great, but what followed was telling. The restaurant has now been in every possible local magazine and relevant website three times over and it has a reputation now of being one of the toughest resos in town.

When Roy's Restaurant came to town (around 2000 or so), the restaurant was very good, with a staff that was eager to please (in SF no less) and well executed food. Apparently during two of Bauer's visits that eager staff didn't recognize him when he dined and he got the same treatment everyone else did. He slammed the restaurant in the review and it has since barely recovered (even though it's gotten worse in recent years).

What's happened is that there's now a cottage industry of waitstaff who recognize Michael Bauer. I have no idea whether this is asked in interviews when a new restaurant is opening, but it might as well be. The obvious insinuation would be that a waiter could recognize him, give him and those sitting next to him immaculate service, and not let on that he's been recognized. I would assume Bauer recognizes that this is going on and makes some (likely flawed) attempt to compensate. However, this goes to show the make-or-break power he has.

This brings up the other issue of no-effort service in town, but that post is for another day. And for the record, I have no idea what type of experience Bauer had at Range to make him give 3.5.

And the last example, that many have highlighted in the past of this, is Hayes Street Grill. This restaurant, opened by Bauer's former Chron cohort, is/was unspectacular in every sense of the word. Muddled, sometimes even disgusting, seafood dishes, drab decor and listless service. This is not a place that anyone other that some old opera coot who eats with his gums and lost his sense of taste 20 years ago would go back to. Yet somehow, this restaurant got great reviews for years from Bauer, even making the vaunted Top 100 list for many years. I'm only sortof suggesting nepotism, as Bauer probably really did get that restaurant's absolute best effort every time, but it certainly highlights the potential conflict of interest inherence in a reviewer who has no checks and balances.

Worse yet, Bauer has little competition outside of the Chronicle. The Guardian only likes dirty taco joints. CitySearch is all ads and is so sold out I shouldn't even be mentioning it. Zagat, while very good in San Fran, is still beholden to the opinions of the masses. If you think that's not a problem, check out the LA Zagat where Cheesecake Factory holds literally every spot on the "Most Popular" list from 5-17. I'm not joking. It's worth buying the subscription just to see this.

My simple solution just requires investment from the Chronicle: hire two more reviewers that are placed as equals to Bauer and employ and Siskel and Ebert formula. With three reviewers rotating, no restaurant review goes out unless two of the three reviewed it, and the reviews would be published side by side.

This is only going to reinforce the reviews they're right on (Range) and will provide a more accurate checks-and-balances to weed out the anomalies. Plus, it will be harder for restaurants to recognize the reviewers, and readers will eventually find that there's one particular reviewer who's tastes theirs are most in line with. It's a win-win for everyone other than the Chronicle newsroom budgeteer and the restaurants that are terrible who count on a good review from their buddy Michael to keep them afloat. Unfortunately, this would be very expensive for the Chronicle and the only thing that would make them do it is if enough people like me rant about it. Such is life in essentially a one-paper town. I think this is enough of a restaurant city that we're worth it.

And yes, I know that through linking I just give Bauer and SFGate about 50 lbs of free advertising. Luckily no one reads this blog.

For the record, here's a similar viewpoint.