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.