San Francisco brings out one of my worst professional bad habits.
Any overseas visit involves me in contacting those I know there, professionally or socially, to discover either new restaurants or those where the kitchens are cooking particularly well. I do this whenever I visit the foggy city but I then seem subconsciously either to forget or ignore any up to the minute advice for the opportunity to return very happily to the Fog City Diner, the Hayes Street Grill, Rubicon or a trip across the Bay Bridge to Chez Panisse in Berkeley or Bay Wolf in Oakland. This trip I resolved to be more adventurous.
This resolve lasted two hours. A call from the airport managed to secure us an early evening table at Zuni Cafe which has just celebrated its twenty fifth birthday. And almost immediately the combination of sun, strong breezes, daily printed menus and fresh, fresh produce made me appreciate why eating out here is so special.
In fact the reason for choosing Zuni was partially altruistic. Now that the whole ethos of just what the onset of California cooking set in motion a generation ago has swept the world’s menus it is possible to forget just what an impact it has made. Press releases from restaurants opening virtually anywhere today seem to stress just how enthusiastic every new chef is about working with seasonal produce; how much they value their suppliers; and that they will be changing their menus regularly to reflect all this. Returning to Zuni Cafe was my small personal thank you to all those chefs who
initiated this transformation and the opportunity to show our children where it had all begun.
Zuni’s menu for dinner on Wednesday April 7th read as comfortably as a copy of a favourite novel: baby lettuces and greens with Banyuls vinaigrette; a dark green spring vegetable soup with lemon oil; a multi coloured salad of tangelos (a tangerine variety), blood oranges, feta cheese, olives and chives; possibly the world’s lightest ricotta gnocchi with fava beans and sage; and the perennial chicken for two roasted in their brick oven. All these are dishes that would make anyone salivate and, in almost every case, the name or source of each major ingredient was proudly attributed.
All of this was backed up by intense professionalism. When I asked our waiter for his opinion on the dish of braised halibut cheeks with Butterball potatoes, English peas, butter, white wine and coriander his response was an insight into how to run a top restaurant. “Well, in the tasting of all tonight’s specials just before the service began this was my favourite dish.” It was, not surprisingly, as good as he
The particular reason why San Francisco’s chefs and restaurateurs have to continually empower their waiting staff with such detailed knowledge is because, as one American restaurateur once explained, “Bay Area customers are by and large extremely knowledgeable. Nobody even in Europe lives so close to so much good produce, both food and wine.”
And anyone who wants to share in this bounty now has a new and very fitting meeting place, the Ferry Building on Embarcadero which encompasses inter alia a ‘permanent market’ that comprises several food outlets; a wine shop that opens at 8am; an outpost of each of the seminal Acme bakery and Peet’s Coffee; and the new home of the famous Slanted Door California-Vietnamese restaurant. On Saturday mornings this building erupts with stalls of organic farmers from the deepest recesses of northern California.
For someone visiting this market after a cold, wet European spring this could have been produce from another planet. There were huge artichokes; mounds of fresh peas and broad beans; tomatoes that smelt of warm soil; Swiss chard of various colours; and mounds of herbs all heady in an aroma of just picked sweet peas. This seemed the perfect combination for whetting an appetite for the stalls cooking food right by the piers (it is best to arrive here for breakfast as close to 8am as possible to avoid the crowds).
Our brief stay did allow time for three restaurants new to me. The first, Town Hall, is so emblematic of a city finally emerging from the consequences of the dot.com crash and recession that it should appeal to any visitor. The second, Ton Kiang, is so good and such good value that it should appeal to anyone while the third, The Fifth Floor, is so very different – defiantly non casual – that it is definitely the place to go to impress any native San Franciscan.
Town Hall occupies a corner site in SOMA, (south of Market
Street), that was a former warehouse and has, with one major omission, been cleverly converted into a hugely popular restaurant which opened last November. Its ground floor comfortably incorporates an open kitchen, a long bar and a communal table, all of which have been knitted together with considerable sensitivity. Their sourdough bread, for example, is cut on an old butchers’ block.
The menu and wine list are skillfully compiled and keenly priced. Lunch incorporates a seafood chowder with sourdough crackers, sandwiches, ale battered fish and chips and salads while dinner takes in Sonoma rabbit and Niman Ranch beef. The restaurant’s only drawback is not culinary but architectural – the interior’s initial hard surfaces, brick, cast iron and stone, have not been softened by anything either on the walls or the tables and it is difficult to hear and be heard.
The only disadvantage with Ton Kiang, other than that it is a long way west of downtown, is the probable wait for a table – particularly for its spectacular dim sum at lunchtime.
But a trip here along Geary not only brings probably the most polite service I have ever encountered in a Chinese restaurant anywhere in the world – and this from waitresses who have to carry trays full of food and balance them on one hand as they mark your order on their special pad with the other – but also the opportunity to witness the city’s changing ethnic mix. Next door are Russian owned shops. Across the street is Azziza, considered the city’s best Moroccan restaurant. Down several blocks of Clement Street, are Vietnamese restaurants, highly fashionable Japanese tapioca juice bars and steadfastly, in a rapidly changing city, a selection of “Irish” bars.
Fifth Floor restaurant, on the fifth floor of Hotel Palomar just south of Market, shares some of these incongruities from the outside; for example it is opposite a neon sign that shouts ‘Ross – Dress for Less’. But its interior is conversely extremely plush and comfortable.
It is here that Laurent Gras, who cooked for Alain Ducasse in Paris and Monaco, has chosen to settle and create a new style of menu that incorporates his French training, Japanese technique, the best possible ingredients from the length and breadth of the Pacific rim under menu headings such as flavour, texture, contrast and classic.
While apparently extremely popular with all the San Franciscans I spoke to, and everyone else in the restaurant, this meal left our English party, two chefs, one wine writer and myself, confused by too many flavours and overall pretty disappointed.
But perhaps I had just left my culinary heart in Zuni Cafe.