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!