With the lingering taste of severely bad coffee in my mouth from that place in lovely Jamestown, we slogged it pretty much non-stop all the way to San Francisco, stopping a couple of times to stretch our legs and take a break from driving. Once on the freeways I quickly learned how mad some of the drivers are in this state, scarily exceeding the speed limit and not caring to indicate when swerving and changing lanes just metres in front of us. Crazy bloody idiots.
I couldn’t help but get pangs of excitement as I drove, catching sight of the San Francisco skyline as we approached the Oakland Bay Bridge. “Quick grab the camera and get some shots of the bridge!” I said as the Sat Nav directed me to the correct lanes. Snaps to the other half for the great shots of the bridge, taken as we crossed the bay heading into town. Now all I needed to do was follow the navigated instructions from the bridge to The Fairmont on Nob Hill, home for the next four nights. Easy peasy and a big WOW, we’re in San Fran! Another one ticked off my “to do” list. Yes, it’s the small things, but I’ve been hankering to get to this town since I was a teenager.
After a couple of hours traversing the steep hills of this town we ended up in North Beach following a brief and uninspiring walk through Chinatown. Being a little early, it wasn’t quite time for food. Hold on. Allow me to rephrase as I’m an almost-firm believer it’s always time for food. Neither of us was feeling hungry so instead it was more like time for a well deserved drink after enduring the freeways and idiotic drivers for most of the day. The next leg of our journey begins; albeit in an iconic bohemian bar we’d just stumbled upon. Music, chatter and people watching over Colombus Avenue as we rub shoulders with like-minded boozing locals. I do like this place, even if that shady piece of shit did swipe our tip from the table after we left. Sorry, waitress, you were too slow in clearing our glasses.
Not really knowing where we’d end up for dinner on our first night, I had sufficient confidence that just being in North Beach was a good place to start looking. There’s no shortage of bars and restaurants in this neighbourhood and our pangs of hunger prompted us to give this seemingly popular place a go. A couple of tables remained in this dimly lit hot house of Italian food so we grabbed one of them, sinking into a dark corner near the bar. Man, what a joint. As busy as Sodini’s was with hungry humans we were looked after with welcoming warmth from a fantastic waitress that made us feel at home from the moment our glutes hit the seats. In fact all of the staff made everyone feel at home, especially the big dude behind the bar.
A bottle of Geyser Peak sauv blanc from Sonoma was poured, we chose our edibles and started off with an incredible grilled polenta (10.95) doused in marinara sauce, some oozing cheese and a whole lot of tasty love. Yes I was in love, at that moment in time, with a plate of food. Not the first time. The vino was pretty damn special as well. Pasta seemed like the way to go for both of us; tortellini al pesto (13.95) and linguini seafood (18.95), both of which were tasty but not fantastic. Humble pasta at a humble eatery. I wasn’t expecting anything mind-blowingly extraordinary.
When a room rate doesn’t include breakfast it generally means hitting the streets and eating as the locals do, or finding whatever-the-hell you can. Lucky for us we had farm:table just down the freakishly-steep hill from the hotel. This place was already on my “to eat” list and somehow, for the duration of our stay in San Francisco, became the breakfast venue by default. If there’s anything better between The Fairmont and farm:table, I do apologise, we just didn’t notice you. Or smell your fabulous coffee before we arrived.
The farm:table set-up is centred around an 8-seater communal table, making for coveted positioning as there’s not much else going in the seating department other than a couple of minuscule tables out on the sidewalk. Ahem, sorry I mean footpath. The coffee is made with love, none of that diluted Americano rubbish, and the food is kept simple and seasonal. They even grow herbs up on the roof-terrace. Over our several visits I picked up on the limited breakfast menu formula that seemed to change daily. Toasted bread with a certain topping, a small plate of something-or-other that included boiled or poached eggs, and the usual cereal or grain with milk or yoghurt.
First visit saw us tucking into whole wheat toast (7.5) topped with mascarpone, mixed heirloom apples and caramel almonds. Yes, caramel almonds and it freakin’ worked. The other dish was hard boiled eggs (8.5) with candy stripe tomatoes, roasted peppers and baguette. It was at this point in our American travels that confirmed to me how much better tomatoes tasted in this country than in little ol’ Australia. It may have been a seasonal thing but to be honest, when tomatoes are in season in Australia they don’t taste as sweet and glorious as what we’d been eating in New York and now in California.
On our other visits to farm:table we ate things like boiled eggs with marvel stripe beans, bacon & German rye caramelised onion, fetta & parsley quiche (8) and an orgasmic braised pork shoulder (9) with tomato, long pepper, pan de mie and soft boiled egg. Pan de mie is a lightly sweetened bread, a little like the “regular” stuff you find around the country. Kinda like brioche. To my general experience regular bread is sweeter in the US, much more than I’ve encountered in Oz, Europe and the UK.
On one particular day we scratched the surface of The Mission district, an enclave that seems to have a culture of its own; flavoured with Central American food, heritage and architecture. This is one colourful neighbourhood, especially with its murals.
While the virginal Mexican wave may be flapping around Sydney, here in the Mission it’s very much the norm. Especially at the iconic 50-year old Gallardo’s with its humble interior, black & white era film pics, occasional mInnoDBchi band and steady stream of devotees. This is not a contrived Mexican restaurant with bright colours and sombrero’s, it’s a simple place for punters that want their fill on home-style stodge, and plenty of it.
Only on the weekends can you sample the menudo (7) and the birria (7.5), both of which we had. Menudo is a flavoursome broth containing tripe, then self-garnished with onion, coriander, extra chilli and dried oregano. Tasty, nourishing and very rustic.
Birria is much more friendly if you’re not into the offal thing. It’s a spicy lamb soup rich with deep flavours and perfect coupled with corn tortillas. I also tried the higardo encebollado (8.25), basically liver and onions, served on an enormous plate. I was completely defeated with the size of the meal, the menudo didn’t help, leaving half of it uneaten. Sadly the liver was over-cooked and really dry, making for something I struggled to get down comfortably.
Several blocks away is the fantastic Commonwealth restaurant where executive chef Jason Fox and chef de cuisine Ian Muntzert work their New American magic, dishing up delicious and creative food in a Mexican-heavy neighbourhood. $60 for a 6-course degustation sounded too good to be true. Irresistable, in fact, knowing that in my hometown a six-course dego normally hovers around the $100 bracket. Plus the restaurant donates $10 from the degustation price to local charities.
We choose an organic Natural Process Alliance sauvignon blanc from the Russian River Valley, pre-warned with its unconventional sauv blanc flavour and appearance. This vino comes bottled in a screw-top stainless steel cylinder, decantered into glass before being poured into wine glasses. By appearance it’s cloudy and by my personal palate it’s very acidic, apple-like and almost vinegary. Not a fan. The tart acidity of the wine paralleled the pimento spilette & seaweed chips, served with malt vinegar mousse. These little babies were just the ticket, flecked with nori and spices and making the wine a little more palatable for me.
An amuse of ocean trout crudo starts off the procession with delicate flavours of the raw trout, apple beet yuzu jelly and pickled wasabi with micro herbs. Served on a seaweed brioche cracker, the sea urchin is deliciously creamy with pearls of tapioca, ginger, cauliflower, kimchee and assorted wild greens. Overall it had a peppery, almost parmesan-like flavour. The grilled chicken tsukune is a simple arrangement of meat balls, citrusy umeboshi, sushi rice cracker and micro shiso leaves. A surprise addition to our six courses is a pan-seared scallop with squid ink cracker and a yuzu emulsion. Loved it!
Onto some heavier proteins – grilled lamb cheeks with shishito peppers, sesame spätzle, a raw bean salad and dashi. Beautifully tender meat with some great clean flavours. Pork loin was the other protein, lightened with gem lettuce, fennel, slivers of plum, black garlic, mustard seeds and silky young coconut. Loved this one as well. A complimentary pre-dessert of cardamom sponge cake comes deconstructed with hazelnut streusel, pear sorbet and huckleberry fool. The only off-putting component was the slate it came served on. Not that we needed it, or would have rejected it, a chocolate-coated peanut butter semifreddo with a very scant smear of caramel and frozen popcorn. What a fantastic meal!
There were 7 flavours available and as much as I wanted to try every one of them, we did just two. Honey vanilla bean (4) and the cham-wow! (4) which was dark chocolate with Chambord & black raspberry liqueur. Just brilliant.
I’ve never been one to specifically make my way to a museum to eat at its restaurant but after stumbling upon The Moss Room online I made sure we got there, if only to check out its impressive 12-metre wall of ferns. The Californian Academy of Sciences is located in the sprawling Golden Gate Park and the restaurant can be found beneath the Academy Cafe, a cafeteria of sorts crawling with screaming children. I do like children, don’t get me wrong. Just not the noisy ones. Descending the stairs from the cafeteria begins to feel like another world, a child-free world of calm and serenity. Every now and then a shroud of mist sprays down over the ferns, giving the impression you’re in a temperate rainforest far away from the city.
There’s nothing ground breaking about the food at the The Moss Room but at the same time, it’s far from shabby fare. I started with delicious panko-fried Huma Huma oysters (13) from Washington State, simply served with chilli, cucumber and lemon aioli. I rarely eat fried oysters as I prefer them fresh but these were just the ticket.
I really liked the Llano Seco Farms pork sugo (18) , mixed through pappardelle with flecks of spinach and grand padano and thanks to someones aversion to corn, I got every kernel that came with the house made fennel sausage (19), shelling beans, spring onion and arugula. That was one mighty fine sausage. Dessert-wise, the angel cloud cake (9) came as torn chunks topped with diced strawberries and a lemon lavender sorbet. It was ok. Much more interesting was the vacherin (9), a scoop of coffee gelato perched on top of Swiss meringue, loads of chocolate sauce, crème anglaise and candied flaked almonds. It looked an absolute mess when I took to it with a spoon, but man it was tasty.
Just near Golden Gate Park is Haight-Ashbury, a hippy hot-spot in the 60’s. These days the area maintains somewhat of a bohemian vibe with alternative shops, restaurants, music shops and not-so-subtle joints (pardon the pun) selling accoutrement for pot-heads. Need a pretty bong? Look no further than Haight Street. Personally I found the strip pretty touristy so rather than hang around and perpetuate the fact, we grabbed the next tram and headed back to town.
Whilst on the tram we both had pangs for a coffee so I whipped out the iPhone and checked my City Maps 2Go app to see if I had any coffee shops pinned on it. There was one just down the road so we jumped out and got our fill at Blue Bottle Coffee which led to the discovery of this little ice cream place, Smitten Ice Cream. When there’s a queue of people like the one we saw, it’s got to be good. Right?
Just as the Crème Brûlée dude started out small, the lady behind Smitten started out a few years ago by wheeling a small wagon around events and festivals. Thanks to a custom made machine that relies on liquid nitrogen, a few basic ingredients are transformed into the creamiest ice cream in 60 seconds. These days Smitten Ice Cream has a permanent home in a recycled shipping container parked on Octavia Street just down from Blue Bottle Coffee and just next to Ritual Coffee.
Churning ice cream so quickly in such cold temperatures makes for smaller ice crystals and a much creamier result. No emulsifiers, stabilisers or preservatives. The options aren’t extensive so you don’t have to faff around choosing what you want. A small TCHO chocolate (4.25) for him and a regular peanut butter with honey (6) for me. The green things on top would be candied jalapeños. Hot and sweet. Great stuff.
Following a very uninspiring afternoon visit to the Fisherman’s Wharf precinct, hence no photo’s, we made our way back up to North Beach to suss out where we may potentially end up for dinner. Calzone’s looked like a good contender but seeing it was still a bit early we just sat outside, nibbled on some really good Italian pot stickers (9.95), some vino and people watching.
The pot stickers were filled with mild sausage meat, wild mushrooms, garlic and ginger. It was like Europe meets Asia, cocooned in a wonton wrapper, pan-fried and then steamed.
The Stinking Rose seems to be somewhat of an institution, known for it’s heavy-handed use of garlic in pretty much everything on the menu. This place just had to make my eating list by pure novelty value. Ok, I’m not one for themed restaurants and looking around the restaurant at its many eclectic rooms, there was a definite theme going on. Let’s just pretend we’re back in Vegas, shall we?
The food is garlic-flavoured Italian. Not the best Italian, just middle-of-the-road stodge where the flavour of garlic will stay on your tongue longer than the memory of the food in your mind. Fluffy complimentary bread rolls and a forty clove garlic chicken (19.95). Yes, forty cloves. They were huddled around the roasted piece of chicken which was nicely seasoned and surprisingly un-garlicy. Ho hum.
I went for silence of the lamb shank (oh please, don’t make me regurgitate my bread roll) a very tender chianti-glazed shank with fava beans, creamed chard and mash (19.95). The meat was actually quite good and barely tasted of garlic, unless of course you accidentally forked one of the semi-cooked cloves scattered around the plate. Surprisingly the dessert had the strongest garlic flavour out of our meals. Gilroy’s famous garlic ice cream (6.95), topped with caramel molé sauce. The moment you start eating it you notice a little bit of garlic. Half way through the enormous scoop the garlic flavour takes over your palate until the sweetness transforms into an overall bitterness. It got a little sickly after a while so I put the spoon down and called it a night. No need to rush to this place, folks.
Wet weather decided to move into town on our last day, dampening our experience but not holding us back on exploring the eateries. Vietnamese was on the cards for a relaxed lunch at hot-spot Turtle Tower Restaurant in Civic Center. We left our names on the door and awaited a table, yes it’s that popular, and once seated it was Tsingtao (3.45) beer all ’round. I know, not very Vietnamese but it was the only Asian beer on the menu.
We begin nibbling on some Imperial rolls (2.15 each), much like the ones you get in Hue, Vietnam. Light, crispy, soft and damn tasty. The other half tucks into a pho gà (6.2) while I dip into some bun cha ha noi (8.2) – grilled pork patty and sliced pork, vermicelli noodles, pickled veg and the usual herbs and leaves. The meat is smokey and the broth just divine.
There were no real plans for our last night so we ventured back to North Beach as the selection of restaurants is pretty decent. I quietly wanted to try a Taiwanese place called Hunan Home’s but got the impression the other half wasn’t all that keen on it. Damn. We settled on Panta Rei, a modern-looking Italian restaurant on the main strip. Our legs were aching, the menu sounded good enough, this would do.
Somehow I ordered two squid ink dishes. Firstly the rather large polenta nera (12.95), tinted black from ink and generously doused in creamy mascarpone studded with nubs of shrimp. To say I loved this starter is an understatement. I wanted to marry it. Secondly it was linguine nere (17.95) with mussels, clams, calamari and shrimp in a white wine sauce. Not as outstanding as the polenta but still very good. Strangely the other half chooses a pasta with a cream sauce, something I know never really occurs. Pappardelle verdi all’anatra (17.95) – i.e. green fettucine with duck meat in brandy pink sauce. I ended up with the last quarter of it, preferring it to mine.
Not only was our waiter incredibly friendly and helpful but he gave us a slab of tiramisu to share, no charge. Really liked it.
Checking out of our hotel early, we threw the bags in the rental car and drove down the hill to our regular breakfast haunt farm:table, filling up on white Cheddar and mixed herb quiche (8) and the house cereal (6.5) with berries, yoghurt and star thistle honey. Not to forget a couple of coffees each as we didn’t really know when the next time would be where we’d have a good coffee.
Saying goodbye to San Francisco was a little sad but as we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, enshrouded in fog, I was already looking forward to the next leg of our trip as we headed north.