Tuesday, January 5, 2010

San Francisco: Short takes from a long trip

Short Takes in San Francisco

Here are some comments from recent dining experiences in the City that for one reason or another did not, in my view, merit a full-scale writeup.

1. Gold Mountain: We actually ended up eating here twice, once on Christmas night (when there was almost nothing open after our long flight from the East Coast). We had hot and sour soup (not adventurous, I know, but Michael had a craving and it was a model of its kind), crispy shrimp, and some kind of pork. I would rate the food as a 9 out of 10 and the ambiance as a zero out of ten. Of course it didn’t help that it was near closing but by the time we ate (quickly) and left we were the only people in the place, surrounded by a sea of empty tables (the dining room must easily seat 100) and linoleum. We went back for dim sum on our way to the airport. Quality, excellent. Ambiance, somewhat better since the room was more than half full (and with very few Caucasians, always a good sign). Selection, rather disappointing. Some tasty shu mai and buns appeared fairly early but much of the rest was a parade of uninspiring chicken feet, congee, sautéed bok choy, and those odd Chinese sweetened bean paste items. On the other, if we had been a little more patient or adventurous we could have stuffed ourselves for a fraction of the Yank Sing price…as it was our snack, hardly skimpy, was less than $18.

2. Yank Sing: Our usual go-to place for dim sum and we joined our good friends John and Glenn for a traditional New Year’s morning celebration here at the “new” location in the Rincon center. As usual it was clean, refined (by dim sum standards) and delicious but you really pay a price for it…with a Bloody Mary each and a good but not overwhelming assortment of stuff, it cost nearly $50 per person, which is staggering by dim sum standards. And not all of it was great, the Peking duck in particular which combined a doughy pancake, runny hoisin sauce, and skimpy duck pieces. I am not sure Yank Sing is going to be our go-to place for dim sum much longer if this keeps up.

3. Bi-Rite Ice Cream: Just to finish off our decadent New Year’s morning (or to start the year off right, take your pick) we went straight from Yank Sing to this little place in the Dolores Park area. Delicious ice cream in very unusual flavors. I had a wonderful combination of chocolate, toasted coconut, and roasted banana. Michael had a salted caramel that he raved about (apparently a specialty of the house). It wasn’t crowded when we were there…around 1 p.m….but I can imagine that it would be mobbed on the average summer evening. In fact they seem to be expanding into the next door space.

4. Dynamo Donuts: Rusty and JP insisted on taking us there on our first morning together and we were very glad they did. A little hole in the wall in the Mission near a plethora of Mexican and other Latino eateries. Michael and I split four of the unusual flavors: chocolate rose (chocolate cake with rose-flavored icing), bacon maple walnut (raised donut with maple walnut icing and bacon sprinkles), strawberry filled, and Meyer lemon with a huckleberry glaze. We liked the last one although the flavor could have been more pronounced. The strawberry filled wasn’t a winner (Rusty and JP concurred)…not bad, but the filling was overly sweet and it just wasn’t exceptional. The first two were terrific. Well, they can’t all be good when you’re trying to do something new. I was very content when we left (although sorry I hadn’t ordered a sticky bun to go along with…next time).

5. Garibaldi Café: We met a new friend, Grant Gibson, who writes a very interesting blog of his own (see blogroll) at this pretty little place in Pacific Heights. It does strike me a bit as a ladies-who-lunch kind of place but there is nothing wrong with that…if the shoe fits and all that. All three of us started with a carrot-saffron soup which was quite tasty. Michael and Grant had the house signature salad which was quite an impressive looking mound with plenty of grilled chicken scattered around. I was craving a burger and the Garibaldi version was truly excellent, cooked just as I ordered and so juicy that I had to eat it leaning over the table to protect my sweater. The terrific brioche bun caught most of the juices, but not all. The burger came with a nest of frites that as we all know can range from excellent to ho-hum. These were excellent, crispy and hot and totally addictive. They disappeared before I knew what had happened to them. Based on this one, rather undemanding, meal, I would be eager to see what else Garibaldi had to offer.

6. Sunflower Café: This is a little Vietnamese place within (strenuously hilly) walking distance of our hosts’ apartment. We popped in there on Sunday night for a casual dinner and had terrific food. JP, Michael, and I shared an appetizer sampler platter which included some grilled shrimp (nice, not exceptional) but the highlight was a make-your-own roll setup including 8 (!) rice paper wrappers, a large stack of impeccable romaine leaves, some shredded and seasoned carrot (not enough) and some crispy beefy chunks on a large bed of eminently edible rice noodles. The three of us had a ball making our rolls and adding some of the tasty fish-based sauce…the combination was delicious and quite filling. For entrees Rusty, who was avoided meat, had some sautéed eggplant which was among the best I’ve had. JP ordered grilled lemongrass chicken and was quite taken aback when it came in the same format as the appetizer…rice paper rolls, romaine, and all. It also seemed to be sautéed (and in small chunks) and not grilled. Tasty to be sure, but rather a repeat performance of the appetizer. Michael and I did better with a “shaking beef” and curried shrimp dishes both of which were both large and very tasty. More food than the four of us could eat. Great neightborhood place.

7. Goat Hill Pizza: Rusty, JP, and I wandered over there Monday night with two other friends of theirs. It is on the opposite corner from Sunflower…in fact that intersection is kind of restaurant central for the Potrero Hill neighborhood with three of the four corners being popular restaurants (the fourth corner has an Asian-themed bar with an attached restaurant seemingly in dormancy). Monday nights turns out to be “all you can eat night” at Goat Hill (a phrase that always sets my heart aflutter). Naturally it was mobbed so we had to repair to the aforementioned Asian-themed bar for a liquid libation while awaiting a table. The format is kind of frat-partyesque. Waiters emerge periodically from the kitchen with a pie of one kind of another and announce the selection (Hawaiian, pesto, onion and mushroom, or whatever) as they approach your table. If you want a slice, you take one. Otherwise, you wait for the next option. No judgement on those of us (no names mentioned) who may have had two or three pieces at a time piled on their plates simultaneously. Great format, great fun. Honestly, I didn’t think the pizza was compelling, the crust being a bit tough and thin for my taste, but the whole experience was a blast. Being with fun people helped of course, but it seemed like everybody there was having a great time. Really, how could you not?

8. Tartine. We were on our own for our first full day in San Francisco, Rusty and JP not having yet come back into town, so we drove over to Tartine, a famous bakery/breakfast café in the Mission District. I think Michael had heard of it but either hadn’t been there in years, or never, and I’m always up for a visit to a bakery any time. We got a bit of a late start and parking was a nightmare. Fortunately Michael dropped me off so I could get in line, since the line just to get in the door was easily 20 minutes when we arrived (and got longer). Tartine does not distinguish between those eating in and taking out. You shuffle around the perimeter of the room choosing items from the glass cases in front of you. If you want to eat in, you then grab a seat from among the scattered tables (despite the crowds, we did not have trouble finding seating). For some reason Tartine’s website advertises full breakfasts (e.g. cooked entrees) so we – Michael in particular – were quite taken aback to find when we got there that with few exceptions, it is baked goods only. (Not a problem for me, but I hate to see him disappointed). Well, having stood in line for 20 minutes, we were going to eat what they had. I started with a pain au chocolat, the standard against which all breakfast pastries ought to be measured, and Michael ordered a bowl of muesli. Further down the cafeteria line, we both ordered a piece of a tasty-looking quiche but I had a last minute change of heart and switched to a kind of open-faced croque monsieur. The verdict: Croissant was B quality…good size, using bittersweet chocolate (a nice touch), reasonably flaky, but nothing exceptional about it. Muesli was very Swiss in character, a bit sour in taste as though sour cream was mixed in with the yogurt, not a big hit with Michael. The quiche was delicious, very rich and eggy, and the croque monsieur was terrific, a kind of open-faced grilled ham sandwich and very generous with the ham by the way. All in all, Tartine was a nice neighborhood place with tasty food but we both agreed, certainly nothing that either of us felt warranted a 20 minute (or more) wait in line. It’s just not that special.

No comments: