The family, having convinced me that it was okay to be away for two weeks (after sixteen years) left for San Francisco via Auckland on Christmas day. The flight on Air New Zealand was uneventful, except that the quality of food begs to be mentioned...
Having left on Christmas day we arrived in San Francisco on the same day and made our way to the Hilton Hotel on Union Square. We had pre-booked some months before. Once in the room, we realised that it was almost completely unlike the photographs on the net. The fridge was in a locked wooden cabinet. When I asked for a key the housekeeping person said "Mister, the fridges haven't worked for years". We promptly booked out, quite a brave thing to do on Christmas day, and managed to find a decent hotel a block away.
Feeling peckish, especially after Air New Zealand, we walked up through Chinatown to Empress of China - a SF institution.
The menu was short (only about 20 items), perhaps being Christmas day, and the food was great. It felt like a less opulent version of Melbourne's Flower Drum.
Boxing day found us at OTD (an offshoot of The Slanted Door) for dinner. Of course we had no idea that it is really hard to get in, and we were lucky to get four seats at the window. The front of house guys were great, loved it that they had blackboard wine from small producers, and great craft beers - see their wine list on the website.
The food was stunning, the shaking beef being most memorable for me. A wow dish for sure!
Wandering around, having expended much energy visiting stores like Bloomingdales, Macys and Nordstrom, we chanced upon Betelnut, which seemed to have a reasonable menu, and wasn't too bad at all.
The food was good, if unremarkable. However, they had great use of Sriracha throughout. If you have a spare 30 minutes, watch the Sriracha story - well worth it!
On New Years eve, we decided to give something different a go. A garlic restaurant, and it certainly was that! The Stinking Rose is something that words do not fully convey.
We visited Pier 39, since it would have been wrong not to do it, but frankly it was so touristy to the point of being a grossly bad experience. The highlight was seeing the Sea Lions, and having the legendary crab bisque in a sourdough roll.
We went to see the Farmers Market at the Ferry Building, with not a hell of a lot to show at the time, probably because it was just after New Years. It was great to see the Rancho Gordo store, especially since we stock some of their products!
The Cowgirl Creamery shop was also on our list, they make great cheese, and it shows up all over SF on menus, and in specialty stores.
The shop is a very slick operation, seemed to be quite expensive, and impersonal - not what we had hoped to see. Some great crafted cheese made in the US, although we didn't see a huge amount of it. One to mention though is Cypress Grove Cheese Humboldt Fog.
We saw some less than traditional cheeses too.
Having said that, we also stock some "flavoured cheese", and there is a reasonably strong demand...
New Years day found us at The House, just north of Chinatown.
What an amazing meal - gorgeous food - wow!
Next day found us at lunch at a Gastropub called The Monks Kettle, an awesome spot, great food, lovely people. And what a great range of fantastic beers on tap!
It would be remiss of me not to mention the open way in which San Franciscan hospo people, and retail store assistants for that matter, engage with customers. So much more than the cursory "busy day?" we are used to in New Zealand. Kiwis are often very reserved, and I think that we could learn a lesson from others in opening up a little. And they are really eager to be of assistance generally, and for the most part, more than welcoming.
Another thing that took a little adjustment was the tax. It varies between around 8 and 9 % depending on where you are, so together with the tip can add a good whack onto the bill. Some eateries put a percentage guide on the bill, which is unusually suggestive. Nonetheless there were not many places where the service was undeserving of a tip.
It would be insensitive not to mention the homeless and the "mentally unwell" ( I was going to say nutters, but don't really want anyone to take exception!). I walked across the Tenderloin most nights and there could be up to fifty or sixty bodies sleeping on the sidewalk. They ask for spare change, but are not aggressive in any way. (And yet they all have cellphones). The streets are also filled with the crazies - apparently the US closed most institutions during the Reagan era. Now one thing we would have to question is what kind of society throws these people onto the streets?
What led me to this is that every night on my walk I took our leftovers from our hotel meal (typically more than substantial) so that somebody on the street could share, and the following morning I spotted the Vegetable Rolls from our takeaway from Mission Chinese on top of a Rubbish Bin - they didn't make the cut!
Mission Chinese, what can I say, I think I already used the word genius as an adjective, but it is the only fitting description of what jumps out at you off the menu. The restaurant does not attract patronage by exterior appearance (pictured above), but the food? Wow.
What to say about this man's eclectic food? Schmaltz fried rice, Salt Cod fried rice, Kung Pao Pastrami - you need to eat this food!
We decided to be brave and rented a car (tiny Mazda 2) - with Thomas navigating alongside me - desperately trying to make sure I was on the right side of the road. We ventured off to Napa, and started at Dean and Delucca, a beautiful store, with lots of familiar goods. Unfortunately, it seemed to be a shop for the well heeled though, which is not our food philosophy. We reckon everyone should be able to access great food, and our shop has that well worn, crowded feeling that allows people to walk in, look, and try, and feel undaunted. Just because you cannot pronounce "prosciutto" with the perfect inflections surely doesn't mean that you should not be ably to try it.
The next stop was Bouchon bakery. We were lucky that the queue was not too long, and we managed to get a small selection of their goods. They have a lovely seating area outside where we could sit and enjoy the treats.
There were a number of shops around, mostly touristy, and some very expensive art galleries. We took a drive out of Yountville, but being the middle of winter, coupled with an extreme drought, all of the small wineries were closed. Then it was back to Bouchon for lunch, a booking Maxine had made months previously, with great expectations.
The food was good, perfectly cooked and plated. Everything exactly as it was supposed to be, French classic, but perhaps our expectations were too high? I have eaten such food a gazillion times in different places. I think that the love was missing. Everybody was doing their job exactly as prescribed, but without the love, and you can taste it in the final product.
After lunch we were looking at wine in an overpriced shop next door. We had been in the Thomas Keller shop, full of his books, cutlery and crockery, and cookware. Thomas and Maxine were outside, when Thomas burst into the wine store "come quick". We thought Maxine may have been feeling sick, ran outside to find her in tears - "Look! It's Thomas Keller."
He was extremely gracious, asked whether we were going to eat at The Laundry, and let us have a photo. We had decided to skip The Laundry, at US$270 times four, plus tax, plus tips, plus drinks, we figured it was going to cause the poor credit card to cringe to the point of disintegration. I am still wondering whether we missed something sensational, and have been told that we certainly did.
We managed to have a breakfast at Wise Sons deli on 24th - great Pastrami sandwiches, interesting chopped Liver .
It was also the first time we had been to a place where you had to clean off your own plates!
We had enjoyed OTD so much that we decided to try for an evening booking at The Slanted Door. We managed to procure one, the place was blasting along. The food was great, but the restaurant was really big! Maybe four or five hundred seats. We loved the shaking beef once more! OTD the better option in our opinion.
It would be wrong of me not to mention the number of great chocolate shops, besides Dandelion in SF, and saw lots of Valrhona being used.
Dandelion, however is a most inspiring bean to bar operation, where the beans are sorted by hand!
A visit planned to Tartine had to be cancelled, because the line was forty five minutes long, even early morning!
However, Valda had spotted a great looking patisserie in a shop nearby.
This is Craftsman & Wolves - what can I say but wow!
With pastry you would find at the world's finest. If you are in SF, you have go there. Peculiarly, we found a bakery that caters to pets only!
Another Jewish deli breakfast at Shorty Goldsteins was great as well - they even make their own pickles!
We even found a Sake shop too!
The visit would have been incomplete without the ice cream, and where better than Humphrey Slocombe.
The shop is crammed with great food, fresh fruit and veg, cheese, charcuterie, meat, meals, frozens. Everthing that you could possibly need or desire. Our kind of food store, all filled with love!
We decided to rent a slightly larger car second time, and went off to Sonoma. We saw these amazing cactus plants full of cactus fruit (We called them prickly pears in South Africa.)
We had decided to have lunch at Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, and it was superb. Catfish Sandwich, Duck Burger, Hangar Steak. Great food, unpretentious, and best informed wait staff we came across in SF. I would love to go back there.
I don't know whether Chef Cindy Pawlcyn was there, but the food was cooked and served with so much love!
I should probably mention that I had a really hard time keeping the car in the right part of the lane, and that the right hand wing mirror is now happily resting somewhere on the Golden Gate Bridge...
SF has heaps of bakeries all over besides all the great pastry shops, and a chain called Boudin Bakery all over. However, the bread was amazing! Once again, the baker's love can be felt and tasted in the bread.
Maxine took us to a bakery called The Mill, where they mill their own grain. The line was long, but we managed to order, and secure seats for ourselves. They offer thick slices of toast with butter, honey, or Pumpkin, and the like.
When the young man put the tea leves in the water to steep, much to our astonishment, he pulled a stopwatch out of his pocket! Have never seen that kind of precision dedicated to a pot of tea, certainly in this context.
So the time arrived for our last meal in SF, all too quickly, except for my poor credit card! I told the family that it needed to be somewhere memorable, and they came up with Namu Gagi. The Lee brothers call it New American Cuisine. To quote them, "We do our best to serve incredible, thoughtful food using the freshest and finest ingredients." and they sure do it well.
I know that there is some kind of grammatical crime committed from the overuse of superlatives, but once again the quality, love and thought behind this food was way up there.
Some parting pics from SF, because we saw and experienced so much more:
Having taken the time to read my thoughts on our experience, you may think that I may soon explode! Never fear, we had plenty more food there. We enjoyed quite a few Mexican meals, some were okay, with one at a small cafe in the Mission where all the clientele were Mexican. We ate once at an American diner/steakhouse, which turned out to be surprisingly good.
What we did find is a vibrant food service sector with so much love. Having used this word so often, I feel a need to elaborate. The word "passion" has been so overused in our industry that it means diddly-squat. Photographs and descriptions of food are great, and there are experienced food writers out there who are able to elucidate the plates in front of them in a far better way than I ever will.
But I know that when I tell you that you can taste the love on the plate, I know that you know what I mean. Without ambiguity. It is all encompassing, sort of like Terroir with wine. It is the same love that we have when we offer a wedge of cheese, or a slice of meat to taste. Because we care.