Archive for the ‘San Francisco’ Category

Swan Oyster Depot vs. Pearl Oyster Bar: Bicoastal Bivalve Smackdown

August 16, 2007

In addition to being substations on “Lost,” the Swan and the Pearl are also the names of rival West and East Coast oyster houses. I haven’t been inside either hatch, but I have been to both restaurants, so I’ll focus my comments on the latter. Below are a few key points of comparison.

1) Oysters: Swan’s shucker-servers know and love their oysters like no one else, but it’s the West Village seafood house that takes the category thanks to remarkable freshness and flavor in their half dozen and dozen size plates. Could have been an off-day for the SF stalwart, but Swan’s Kumamotos and Olympias were a bit past their prime on my visit: Not 311 health crisis bad, like Grand Central Oyster Bar on Friday of a long summer weekend, but not good either. Interestingly, the oyster liquor was the highlight at Pearl, better than the Sea Jello snots themselves.

2) Sides: Pearl has a winner here as well in their thinner than Steak ‘n Shake numbers served hot salty and perfect. They reminded me—in a good way—of the canned jobs we used to eat at Camp Kooch-i-Ching. The preferred beverage pairing back then was “Bug Juice”, a generic Kool-Aid we drank by the gallon. Unfortunately, the candied cloying house Riesling at Pearl was eerily similar. Swan’s bread and butter are local laudable and delicious but just not interesting enough to carry the category.

3) Booze: The much more modest Swan list takes the prize with a limited selection of wines and beers that liven up the food without overwhelming it. On tap Anchor Steam beat all Pearl’s beer options and and King Estate Pinot Gris by the glass made the case for Oregon’s move beyond Pinot Noir. It also makes the case for Pearl adding to its underwhelming wine list.

4) Service: Swan by a long shot. Swan’s server-shuckers have a classic gruff competence because they’ve always been gruff and competent, and with four or five family members behind the bar, there’s no risk of getting lost in the noise. Pearl’s overcrowded and undermanned bar is competently covered, but the nudge to leave turns to a push as soon as your fork scrapes empty plate. Also, singleton diners get short shrift, even though they clearly help keep the lunchtime cash cow mooing.

5) Overall: Two winners playing different games. Each restaurant builds on different expectations and succeeds in surpassing them. Pearl is much more of a full service establishment with real starters, mains and desserts. Swan is a much more soulful and delicious version of Grand Central Oyster Bar’s shucking counter. Go to Swan for a late morning or late afternoon snack–closed by dinner time, packed at noon—and go to Pearl for a real meal at the start or end of service when seating is easier to come by. Either way, go. And if you figure out what the numbers on “Lost” mean, let me know.


Ferry Building Marketplace: SF’s Gastro Theme Park

August 16, 2007

A modest proposal for a half day’s eating in the nation’s best food court. Sorry Chelsea Market and Time-Warner.

8:30 Boulette’s Larder Named for the dreadlocked dog that occupies the underbelly of the communal table with all the size and intimidating qualities of Hagrid’s Fluffy, this unsung hero deserves a visit from any foodie worth her salt. Pork belly, bacon and lardo on toast with fennel flowers to cut the fat overload were nothing short of delicious. French press coffee put Peet’s to shame. Do get in before 10:30 when the kitchen takes a break to prep for lunch.

9:15 Cowgirl Creamery: Sample your way around then grab a chunk of a staff recommendation and head to Acme bread for a baguette to complete the snack. Enjoy waterside.

10:00 Slanted Door Takeout: Order a Vietnamese Iced Coffee and drink as slowly as possible. You might last a minute if you’re tough.

10:30 Taylor Automatic Refresher: Grab a burger, fries and shake and sit at the counter. You’ll get enough views in later. No need to down all of the above, but get a good taste of each, or share if you’re so inclined.

11:00 Slanted Door: Beat the crowds with an early bird counter seat. Grab some hamachi crudo, manila clams in broth with pork belly and a riesling or two. Finish up with any of the excellent desserts.

12:00 Breathe

12:30 Hog Island Oysters: Oysters aren’t that filling, so enjoy a dozen or so of the day’s selection. Add an Anchor Steam as a digestif.

1:15 Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants: Check out the selection but don’t down a flight quite yet.

1:30 Order a flight of white and a flight of red (best if split with a friend).

2:45 Double shot of espresso at Peet’s. A well known regional favorite beats Starbucks but not by much.

3:30 San Francisco Fish Company for Dungeness crab: It’s expensive, but so is Corton-Charlemagne. Take it to go on the Ferry to Sausalito.

4:00 Take in the view or take a nap. Consider your return options: Mijitafor a taco and Tecate or two, a return to Slanted Door for a full meal, caviar, exotic chocolates, or perhaps a break until the farmer’s market on Saturday with the best flapjacks and grilled rosemary pork sausage you’ve ever tasted. If gourmet IHOP on the weekends doesn’t do it for you, the fruit selection is an order of magnitude better than New York’s Greenmarket.

Cortez Restaurant: A Wonderful Close To a Week of West Coast Eating

August 16, 2007

Next time you’re in San Francisco, forego the easy, obvious and egregiously overpriced restaurants of Union Square. Walk a few blocks the wrong way to Cortez Restaurant , and you’ll be rewarded with higher quality, much lower prices and enough love to make you think it’s 1967 without the patchouli.

1) Stellar Service: Affable, attractive and knowledgeable front of house. Fire alarms went off a few times at start of evening, so desserts were comped, and, at server’s suggestion, we “didn’t skimp.” Pacing was fabulous and intuitive, turning five small plates into a three course meal. Never felt rushed, never felt sluggish.

2) Top Dog Desserts: Pastry chef Nick Torres is heading for the big time. These were some of the most memorable selections I’ve enjoyed in a long time. All the beautiful plating of Michael Mina, but way more flavor. These were sweets to savor with the eye then lick and lap from the plate. In less polite company, I might have considered a repeat.

3) Fabulous Foie:Canadian foie from Champs Elysees Farms was served cold with fleur de sel and grilled bread and warm as a sweet dessert like mousse. Would have redeemed a bad meal. Here it only confirmed a great one. Order it soon before foie gras goes the way of the after-dinner cigar and between meal trans-fat taste treat.

4) Half-bottles and other small serving delights: A Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc, a Quinta do Crasto Tinta Rouriz and a glass of tawny port complemented all the generous small plates and left me tipsily within budget and sobriety limits for a luggage heavy redeye flight later that night. No fat sweats, just a tiny hicky of a hangover the next day.

5) Farmers Market Fun: Heirloom carrots usually look better than they taste; here the colors almost caught up to the flavors thanks to a delightful crème fraiche accompaniment. Rucola and a variety of other market fresh lettuces helped stave off the crise de foie that I’d been dodging all week.

Michael Mina: No Heart Left in SF Restaurant

August 6, 2007

It’s still loved by San Franciscans, at least according to the latest polls, but I saw only out of towners on a recent Sunday night at Michael Mina, and I doubt many will be back. Two children asleep on their chairs were probably the happiest guests in the house. Here are five reasons why this much hyped restaurant isn’t meeting expectations, even for hotel dining. In short, Michael Mina’s heart–and soul–are no longer in SF. Good news for Vegas, bad news for the Bay Area.

1) Cold unskilled front of house: Not much food knowledge, emotional intelligence or hard skills evinced by server: bad marking of table, mis-placed chargers and total failure to accomodate a preference for placement of a wine glass on one diner’s drinking side. Of all cities, San Francisco should be able to accommodate lefties! Never checked on food or wines—never even offered taste of wine before pouring the latter—and thus missed easy opportunities to amend several egregious slipups.

2) Weird cheese plate: Serving meal-ending cheese selection with savory accompaniments just doesn’t make sense, especially such ill advised combinations as on offer here. Would have worked far better at the start of the meal . Beautiful plating only goes so far with an off-kilter palette. This was close to a bad Will Goldfarb parody. And can someone give the servers a brief class on pronunciation? Brebis and Idiazabal aren’t exactly rare cheeses or words these days and certainly seem to be within the realm of the knowable for putatively two star Michelin service. Melted ice cream on other dessert plate did nothing to redeem the course.

3) Overcooked Fish: Alaskan Halibut was clearly put under heat lamps when I ran off to a five minute bathroom odyssey (hard to find in a labyrinth of a lobby). Herb crust was crusty as promised, so crusty and charred that it felt and tasted like a dusty spice rack. The butter sauces and vegetable accompaniments were vividly colored and flavored and totally wasted on the centerpiece fish.

4) Wildly expensive wines by the glass: Twenty dollars seemed to be the low-end for options by the glass. An announced “Tokay” (yes, no date, producer or year) was nearly thirty. A Marc Colin White Burgundy was simply unpleasant. One Riesling almost redeemed the night, but not quite.

5) Dubious temperature choices: Frog legs three ways with trio of garlic soups sounded and looked great. But on a warm night, does anyone want three espresso cups heated to the burn point and filled with scalding soup? Slow to eat, too hot to enjoy, a dish in need of revision.

Taylor’s Automatic Refresher vs. Shake Shack

July 27, 2007

A brief side by side comparison of New York and San Francisco’s top contenders for best open air burger joint.

1) Burgers: Shake Shack
Avoid the secret sauce. The meat at both places is too well cooked to need the moisture enhancement and too richly flavored to need the coverup. Taylor’s Automatic Refresher’s version has a great charred taste; Shake Shack’s has a rich poolside grill flavor.

After much ruminating and a few return visits, I have to give the nod to the Shack for meat flavor. Their mix of meat cuts is simply the most delicious I’ve encountered—great at any doneness from still-breathing to medium. Shake Shack also wins on the all important bun to burger to cheese ratio. The balance makes the whole far more than the sum of the parts, and with this kind of beef and potato bun, the parts are pretty great.

2) Shakes: Shake Shack
The name sets the bar pretty high, but it’s not the shakes that win the day; it’s the concretes. Taylor’s Automatic Refresher does a great vanilla shake with Double Rainbow ice cream, even if mine was melted on the first order of the day. It just can’t compare to frozen custard concretes, particularly the Wednesday peach offering that has me lining up right around a rational person’s brunch time.

3) Fries: Taylor’s Automatic Refresher
Garlic and parsley ries were unbelievably garlicky in a zippy and refreshing way. I wouldn’t have minded them a few degrees warmer, but they top Shake Shack’s crinkle cuts any day. Gilroy is the promised land of the stinking rose.

4) Wine and beer list: Taylor’s Automatic Refresher
The list is long, gently priced and burger friendly. Shake Shack’s list is also good, but they don’t have anywhere near as many half bottles and they can’t do real wine glasses in a park. Their draft selection is also limited. Taylor brings elegance and variety to the booze and burger experience with lovely glassware, additional indoor seating and no mosquitoes.

5) Location: Tie
Taylor’s Automatic Refresher at San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace has a great city view and even better water and bridge views if you take it to go. That said, I love gazing at the Flatiron building from Shake Shack in New York’s Madison Park, and it’s nice to picnic under real trees (or metal ones this summer).

Conclusion: Shake Shack Wins
In this West Coast/East Coast rivalry, both contenders have their virtues, but the Shake Shack takes the tourney by a hair, or rather, by a beautiful rich lush perfect patty of brisket enriched beef perfection. In the end, it all comes down to what’s between the buns.

Coming soon: Swan Oyster Depot vs. Pearl Oyster Bar

Slanted Door: 5 Reasons Why The Bi-Coastal Hype is Well Deserved

July 27, 2007

I’m always skeptical when a restaurant is so frequently and effusively praised.  High expectations are hard to exceed and easy to fail to meet.  For once, the critics have it right.  Here’s why.

1) Floyd Cardoz of Vietnamese Food in the Kitchen: Charles Phan enhances and refines his native cuisine but never obscures the ingredients that give it such a unique and attractive set of flavors and textures.  Makes New York’s Indochine look like Saigon Grill on an off night. Oh, and he’s also around at Slanted Door to talk to customers when he isn’t manning the stoves. No Vegas outposts…yet.

2) Snap-tight service: Counter and table servers know their stuff, and when they don’t, they ask. Exotic herbs in each dish were explained on request. Clam shells were whisked away and my usual spills were quickly and discreetly erased. I talked to a barman one morning, a takeout counterman another and an outstanding server at lunch on the third day. Not a single slip, plenty of charm and the best hard skills training—clearing, marking, tracking orders, wine service and pairing—of any of my week’s dining in San Francisco.

3) Wondrous whites: Reasonably priced wine list with unreasonably good selections. Bartenders check every bottle before pouring by the glass, and the reward is consistently exceptional quality. Two Rieslings were particularly delicious. For my money, and I didn’t spend too much, one of the better lists for white going in the Bay Area.

4) Manila clams with crisp pork belly and chiles: Ordered this dish on a whim, then returned for more on two occasions. Amazing combination of rich porcine juiciness from back bacon, piercing heat from piquant peppers and salty-sweetness from super-fresh clams. And Thai basil was a magic addition. The protein and vegetable components were delicious in their own right, but it was the broth they infused that had me gasping. Wonderfully integrated flavors.

5) Vietnamese iced coffee: One of few the great byproducts of colonialism. French press coffee with chicory drips onto condensed milk to produce a two layered parfait of pleasure. Mix the layers then add ice to order, as they do here, and you have coffee and dessert without the gutbusting juvenile whipped cream shenanigans of Starbuck’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. It tastes profoundly of espresso, but it’s oh so much better. Regular desserts are also outstanding, especially the lighter fruit based offerings.