San Francisco chronicle

Explore the city’s vibrant food culture in three easy steps, advises Chris Ying: worship at the temples of California cuisine, work through the enviable Mexican menu, and head out of town for something wildly different.

By Chris Ying
San Francisco is not the California you're looking for. There are beaches, but no bikinis. The sunshine here is a trickster, trying to lure you outside without a light jacket. (Please always carry a light jacket.)
At any given time in this city, just one-fifteenth the area of Sydney, it can be 10 degrees warmer in the valleys - the Mission, Noe, Hayes - than in neighbourhoods closer to the sea or hills: Nob, Russian, Telegraph.
Likewise, the food in the San Francisco Bay Area - spiritual home of California cuisine - is not what you might expect. I don't say this apologetically. It just happens visitors are always startled by how cold it is and that the food isn't all macrobiotic salads and restaurants cloned from Chez Panisse's DNA. I'm trying to plough through the typical surprises so we can get down to what's really true about this town.
For example, if you want to eat like a San Franciscan, eat like an Italian. Every neighbourhood in the city has a good local Italian restaurant. Most of the time, there are two. They serve food most Italians would never concede is Italian, but you'd have to be really, truly, deeply, curmudgeonly Italian not to find it pleasurable. Walk in with your light jacket to Delfina, A16, SPQR, Flour + Water, La Ciccia, or Perbacco and begin with a plate of house-cured salumi, proceed to a bowl of fresh pasta, then a secondo of simply dressed roast beast or bird and maybe gild the lily with a local cheese to finish. I don't mean to imply all the Italian joints are the same - you'll find pizza at A16, remixed antipasti at SPQR and house-made semolina pasta at Flour + Water - but San Francisco's Italophilia is too complex and perverse to explore fully here.
Next, to get the most from San Francisco's food scene there are only three things you need to do. One, see where California cuisine has been and can go. Two, eat cheap Mexican food. Three, leave San Francisco. One of the advantages our little provincial hamlet has over megalopolises is that within half an hour's drive you can be somewhere wildly different.
Eating California
The story of California cuisine is a series of seemingly banal but transformative revelations. In the '70s, when everyone was trying to torture American ingredients into European food, a few astute Californians recognised the most European thing to do would be to let the local bounty speak for itself.
Zuni Café is emblematic of this golden age of Californian restaurants. It exists outside the influence of time and trend. When Zuni's late chef Judy Rodgers first offered a whole chicken to be shared by two, she did so in defiance of common restaurant sense - "people don't go out for roast chicken" being the operative logic. But they did and they still do. There it is, these many years later, still on the menu and almost every table. Roasted for a shade under an hour in a wood-burning oven, it arrives blistered and browned, chopped into eight or so pieces and piled atop with hearty greens and hunks of crusty bread, the value of which appreciates as they become saturated with chicken juices. You can and should try other things at Zuni, but do not resist the call of the chicken.
A little further down the evolutionary line of San Francisco restaurants is State Bird Provisions. Like Zuni, the restaurant makes its living on a bird - specifically, the eponymous official state bird of California. The majestic and delicious quail appears in a puffy jacket of buttermilk batter, fried and served with curls of shaved parmesan and a spoonful of caramelised onion jam. It is one of the "commandables" on the menu, meaning it's something you can order from your table.
I usually recoil when restaurants list their offerings under any title other than "food" or some close variant, but State Bird is excused because of a brilliant service twist. The "provisions", which comprise most of the menu, are available only via a dim sum-style cart. The kitchen prepares as many portions of guinea hen dumplings or almond biscuits with duck liver mousse as it sees fit and then they're wheeled into the dining room to be plucked by greedy paws. It makes for fun eating.
Fun is often what gets lost when one gets too sentimental about the relationship between local farms and the dinner table. There will be no wistful memories of summer in Provence, or whatever, stirred at Bar Tartine. The male half of chef duo Nick Balla and Cortney Burns trained in Japan and spent his high-school years in Budapest.
The Japanese influence pops up in ingredients here and there, but the flavours at Bar Tartine are all Eastern European: sour, fatty, fermented, pickled and yeasty. There's a fish stew they're quite proud of, and for good reason. Bobbing around in a robust broth brightened by green chilli are earthy petals of hen of the woods mushrooms and meaty pieces of fatty sturgeon. A potato flatbread is fried crisp on the surface while still tender and chewy within - like the best Chinese doughnut - then painted with a thin coat of garlicky sour cream. I should also mention Bar Tartine is the sister of Tartine Bakery and that the man who makes the bread for both operations is Chad Robertson, the finest baker in America, if not on the planet.
These restaurants are pushing the envelope of what constitutes California cuisine, but the chefs in this town have often been needled for relying too heavily on the quality of their resources. Partisan San Francisco food-nerds bristle at these accusations. If you peer into the recent annals of the city's menus, however, you can see my beloved Zuni once served a single ripe nectarine, unsliced and unadorned, lolling around on a white salad plate, for $5.
By the way, if you want to witness the beauty that set a thousand chefs cooing over stone fruits and endives, head to the farmers' market at the stylishly restored Ferry Building. Three times a week, farmers and artisans present their finest goods to an egalitarian crowd of tourists, locals and chefs.
The city's high-end restaurants bear the cross of infusing sophisticated technique and finesse into California cuisine. A good place to begin is Coi, whose chef Daniel Patterson loves California in a way that only someone born in the cold, transcendentalist north-eastern United States can. The food at Coi is the most fully developed and best realised vision of California cooking in the city. A soup of Dungeness crab - San Francisco's spirit animal - speaks to the sort of ephemeral seasonality and localism that power the heartbeat of California cuisine, but the dish is electrified by tiny pearls of finger lime that swirl in an unearthly broth distilled from beef tendon. And while the melody of Patterson's cooking is poetic and expressive, the harmony is often sardonic and playful. An appetiser called the "California bowl" - airy brown-rice cracker, sprouts, tart avocado purée - riffs on the notoriously rabbit-like eating habits of the state's health enthusiasts, while also giving you an idea of how things are going to play out for the rest of the meal: mostly vegetables, deceptively straightforward.
Coi is a temple where Patterson worships doing things the hard way; Alta CA is his more secular outpost. Things are less exquisitely composed, but still carry Coi's refined-rustic vibe. A plate of chicharrón-like beef tendon puffs, crackles and pops as it's set on the table. The libations are thoughtful and potent. The burger is outrageous and the pastrami is, as a chef friend described it, "better than anything else being called 'pastrami' today". Oh, and the mad-science-y ice-cream concoctions are delicious enough to tempt even a savoury hardliner such as me.
Benu is the city's pinnacle of haute Asian cuisine. Dinner begins with a Chinese-style thousand-year-old quail egg sitting translucent like an emerald set in amber on a pillowy potage. As you progress through Corey Lee's tasting menu, there will be a moment when you feel compelled to say, "Okay, stop. This is the one. We'll take one large order of this." If you're Korean, it happens when the oyster, pork belly and kimchi course lands - a single salty, porky bite in the form of a diaphanous flower, like some mythical blossom containing everything Koreans love in this world. The wine-inclined, meanwhile, will find their bliss when visited by Yoon Ha, the resident Master Sommelier. As for me, I nearly wept when I looked down into an empty bowl that once held a pristine chicken broth with gossamer-like white bamboo fungi.
If Benu makes me want to dine at a hypothetical all-you-can-eat Asian buffet run by Lee, then Saison sends me daydreaming about a barbecue shack run by Joshua Skenes. Everything at Skenes' restaurant - the most expensive joint in town - revolves around smoke and fire. The hearth is the heart of the restaurant, and every dish on the extensive tasting menu is at least blown a quick kiss by flame.
The first seven or so small courses deal in raw, cured or slightly cooked fish, and they play out as the finest omakase menu in San Francisco. In rapid succession, Skenes hits all the notes that spell out why you're breaking the bank for the meal: caviar, raw fish from Japan, sea urchin roe. A crisp wafer made from sea cucumber skin solves the textural problem posed by the animal's slimy limpness and manages to be one of the two sea cucumber dishes I've ever enjoyed. (The other was at Benu.) After the seafood courses, Skenes, ever the polymath, shifts gears and accelerates into six or seven vegetable-as-high-art offerings. A dish of brassicas, finished table-side with steamy seaweed bouillon, is rife with darkly browned meat flavours. But you don't actually see any meat until the finale. A few slices of intensely beefy, pleasantly funky steak aged in-house for nine months is totally gratuitous, but also serves as the clincher for anyone still wondering if they're getting their money's worth.
Cheap Mexican
To everyone but Texans, delusional New Yorkers, pockets of Chicago and actual Mexicans, California's Mexican food is a constant source of envy. Mexican-Americans make up about a third of the population in California and their food is an integral part of the cultural lexicon. Even the most xenophobic Californian has an opinion about the best tacos in town.
The al pastor burrito at Taqueria Cancún is where your education in San Franciscan Mexican food begins. From here, you can continue your scholarly pursuits and form deep allegiances to other burritos, tacos, quesadillas and tortas. You can drive the length of California and see how Mexican food changes from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles to San Diego. You may even come to hate the stuff at Cancún, but you should start here.
There are several Cancúns, but the one I'm talking about is in the Mission District ("the Mission") and is the epicentre of cheap, gut-busting Mexican food. All the greatest hits
of drunken, 1am dining are present and accounted for, including the magnificent and alarming burrito mojado - extra-large and smothered in chilli sauce - along with alambres (steak, peppers, onion and bacon sautéed together), nachos and a bevy of egg-centric options.
If by some miracle of intestinal fortitude, you leave Cancún thinking, "Gosh, that was a lot of food, but I wish it were somehow more decadent", allow me to direct your attention to La Taqueria. Here's your order: two carnitas tacos, with everything, dorado. What you'll get are two face-sized tacos filled with crisp shredded pork and pinto beans, soused in fresh tomato salsa and topped with sour cream and guacamole. "Dorado" means golden, but more importantly it means your taco will be wrapped in two tortillas: one soft and the other fried brown and chip-like, the two bound together with a layer of cheese.
If you have a true death wish, you can substitute one of those two tacos for a burrito. And if you're doing that, you may as well go for the gusto and order the burrito dorado as well, in which case the cooks will let it roll around on the griddle for a few minutes like a corpulent seal sunning on the beach until the flour tortilla is charred brown and flaky.
There are also less outrageous, more authentic Mexican experiences to be had while wandering the Mission District, especially on 24th street. Breakfast at La Torta Gorda is primary among them. Sidle up to the counter for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a quesadilla filled with squash blossoms or huitlacoche, the more-appealing-than-it-sounds corn fungus prized by Mexican cooks. Return at lunch time for a pambaso: chorizo and potatoes stuffed inside a soft roll, dunked in red chilli sauce and griddled.
Our last stop on this quick tour is not a Mexican restaurant per se, but Mission Chinese Food draws its spirit from the taquerias that surround it. Inside, the restaurant has the unpolished, just-rolled-out-of-bed look that interior designers and hairdressers try desperately to effect. The food is cheap, satisfying, Sichuan-leaning and ferociously inventive. Come for the sightseeing, stay for the ma po tofu and the spit-roasted veal rib glazed in General Tso's spicy-sweet sauce.
Out of town
One of the enduring attractions of San Francisco is how far away you can get from city life with just a 30-minute drive in any direction. Half an hour south towards Half Moon Bay the buildings give way to the vertiginous cliff faces and dramatic beaches of the California coastline. The same distance north puts you over the Golden Gate Bridge into one of the loveliest wine regions on Earth.
To the east lie Oakland, Berkeley and a host of dining surprises. West, of course, and you're in the Pacific Ocean.
I usually head north. Sure, the south has Manresa, where chef David Kinch and farmer Cynthia Sandberg have formed an idyllic partnership between restaurant and farm. But I associate the South Bay (Silicon Valley to the rest of the world) with search engines. The north means Sonoma, Napa, Anderson Valley, Mendocino and The Restaurant at Meadowood.
There are two three-Michelin-star American restaurants west of Chicago and The Restaurant at Meadowood is one of them. (The other is the French Laundry, an obelisk that draws worshippers from around the world.) The Restaurant is part of a vast Napa Valley resort that is so stunningly luxurious it overcomes the effete aura of being a country club equipped with a golf course, tennis courts and private vintners' club. It's impossible not to like being at Meadowood.
As far as dinner at Meadowood is concerned, I generally think of a three-Michelin-star meal as a baby-proofed two-star experience. Cushions are taped over the sharper corners of the menu; challenging ingredients are presented in comfortable ways. But the cooking at Meadowood is cheekier and more daring than you'd expect. Diminutive baby vegetables cured in Champagne yeast are not immediately enjoyable, but they're so adorable you have to give them a chance to grow on you (and they will). A whole poussin cooked in a loaf of sourdough is presented theatrically, then whisked back to the kitchen for carving. Chef Christopher Kostow is a skilled technician, but he also has outstanding taste and restraint.
A dish of swede topped with white truffle doesn't lean on its opulent crutch. Kostow makes the humble tuber - transformed through baking in salt and soil - the star.
The pleasure of sleeping in a room a stroll away from where you're dining cannot be overestimated. Pouring yourself into bed after a flight of wine pairings is a luxury offered by too few restaurants. And it's especially nice to wake up at Meadowood because it means you're within striking distance of breakfast at El Molino Central in Boyes Hot Springs.
El Molino Central also serves the finest rustic Mexican market fare in the Bay Area. Almost everything they make - tamales, mole, enchiladas, chilaquiles - is based on a recipe gathered by eminent author Diana Kennedy. Tasting the food at El Molino Central is like seeing your favourite cookbook brought to life.
Our final departure from San Francisco is for destinations east: to Chez Panisse, where California cuisine was born and its legacy is maintained in timeless, tasteful fashion. To Ippuku, for Tokyo-style yakitori grilled over bincho-tan charcoal. And to Oakland, where James Syhabout is quietly amassing an empire of bold, Asian-accented restaurants including Commis and Hawker Fare.
I haven't spent as much time in the East Bay as I'd like to claim. Truth be told, I'm a homebody who likes to stick to my side of the Bay Bridge. If I'm out for a meal, I'm more than likely at the sushi bar at Ino in Japantown, or wolfing down Anchor Steam and crab Louis at Swan Oyster Depot. But I will resolve to right this oversight. In fact, I'm doing it right now - in print. Ask me again in a few months how Box and Bells stacks up, or if Oliveto is still as awesome as ever, and I'll have an answer for you. I swear.
  • undefined: Chris Ying