San Francisco is celebrated by many as the most exciting food city in America, and this week I had the pleasure to visit it for the first time. I was expecting the food to be good, but I wasn’t prepared for such an impressive array of culinary delights. I was lucky enough to visit some of the top restaurants, as measured by Michelin stars, as well as some of the hottest new places in town, some of them not even a year old.
My guess as to why the food is so outstanding overall has to do with what I call the four P’s of the restaurant industry: Palate, Partners, Precision and Produce. A strong restaurant industry needs not just excellent ingredients and technique, but also demanding customers and deep pockets to finance it. San Francisco has some of the most amazing geographical surroundings and weather, making it a perfect cradle for some of the highest quality produce in the country. A stroll down Ferry Building marketplace or the Bi-Rite market in Mission Dolores are showcase to this. Technically, it is undeniable that just north of San Francisco sits The French Laundry by Thomas Keller, a restaurant that has created the highest level of standards when it comes to turning such great produce into masterpieces, and servicing with the utmost care to detail. Its proximity to Silicon valley makes it a very rich city, and its demographics offer a exquisite, clever palate that continues to fuel an ever expanding and exciting industry.
Below are my brief comments on all the places I was able to visit. As I did with Paris, I shall offer my list in order of preference, based on my dining experiences. Of course, the city has so much to offer I left with a long list of places I didn’t make it to but that I’m eager to try on my next visit, hopefully soon.
The links from each place’s name take you to the Kodak Moments.
Chef: Dominique Crenn
By the time I got to Atelier Crenn, the bar had been set pretty high by Benu, Coi and Saison, the other 2 Michelin star restaurants in San Franciso. The diversity of flavors, creativity and execution of every single one of the 17 courses at Dominique Crenn’s temple was truly the most enjoyable and impressive of them all. My exposure to molecular gastronomy has been very limited. I never made it to El Bulli. Haven’t dined (yet) at Alinea or wd-50. So when I was presented with a “rock” that I was supposed to put in my mouth, and to have it explode upon contact with refreshing rhubarb juice was one of the trip’s highlights for me. Sophisticated, interconnected, diverse, intense in both flavor and texture is how I would characterize Dominique’s “poetica culinaria” (poetry is just one of her many artistic veins). She takes you on a journey through her mind and talent that I had rarely witnessed before. If her goal is to impress, she achieved it. If it is to feed you to insatiability, she achieved it, and if it is to reach the highest level possible of execution and service, she achieved it too. Many meals you tend to forget. The nest made out of corn “silk” with the duck fat “eggs” delicately placed inside, I will never forget. An oyster swimming in wheatgrass juice, I will never forget. Most “crudo” dishes you get are a few slices of raw fish with hopefully some aioli or lime. The recreation of the thai flavors from the best curry you can possibly find, in a crudo presentation, I will never forget. A perfectly recreated beet together with its root and some of the dirt from where it came from, that turned out to be a sweet dessert, I will never forget.
Dominique gave me a glimpse into her summer menu by sharing a dish she is working on, and without giving out any details, I can tell you she recreated the perfect flavors of an outdoor grilled burger, without a patty or bun in sight. Some of the magic occurs in front of you. Something is grilled, something is boiled, something is poured, adding live drama to the event. All perfectly planned and executed. Her team is fully devoted and committed to your enjoyment from beginning to end, and no detail goes missed. Atelier Crenn is the restaurant I’m looking forward to returning to the most, and it was, to put it simply, flawless. The tasting menu I experimented is already one of my all time favorite meals and will probably end up at the very top, if not at the top, of my 2013 meals of the year.
Chef: Joshua Skenes
Of the 18 restaurants visited during the trip, Saison was the one I was looking forward to the most, specially after reading how it ended up at the top of many culinary enthusiasts’ lists of 2012 top meals, and specially after I was lucky enough to land a reservation right after the move to a new location, which was building a lot of expectation. A glimpse through the Saison webpage makes it ever more intriguing; chef Joshua Skenes and co. look like a young indie rock band, not a group of chefs that had achieved 2 Michelin stars. What you experience over the next three hours is truly impressive. Most of us are used to busy kitchens, with chefs shouting orders left and right, frenetically moving from one pan to the next, sweating. There is none of that at Saison. Skenes isn’t even wearing an apron, or a chef’s coat. He sports a checkered shirt. He moves slowly back and forth, stirs a small pot here, and pours a sauce there. You barely hear him, despite the proximity to the open kitchen from the dining tables. He glances across the room, takes another small pot, whispers into a sous chef’s ear. Is it all on purpose? Probably. Does he want to prove he can accomplish more than others with what seems to be half the effort? Perhaps, although one would have to witness what goes on prior to opening time. When plating time arrives, him and his 3 main chefs gather around the dishes like surgeons about to perform open heart surgery on someone.
Does the “tyranny” of a fixed tasting menu, as criticized recently by Vanity Fair’s Corby Kummer, help make this lax environment possible? Maybe; but the food that arrived did not have tranquility written anywhere. It was complex, diverse, intriguing and impressive, including changes in speed of service to facilitate blending (or not) of flavors. Highlights included a few of his signature dishes, like the unassuming wooden bowl of crudités and raw leaves. Each individual item had a particular dressing and a carefully hidden smear of fermented anchovy spread makes it the most interesting and least pretentious dish on the 19 course tasting menu. Seafood based one bite courses up front make sure you understand this is not a group of kids playing around. Live scallop and pear, sea robin with kale, a crisp of vichyssoise with roe all elevated technically to their maximum expression, albeit respecting the main sea ingredient in its raw form.
Things get really serious halfway. Joshua pushes the boundaries of what is possible combination-wise and gives you a dish with duck liver, black olives, milk custard, white chocolate and beer foam (no typo there). It works, and leaves you wanting another one. An immaculately poached pigeon breast is wrapped in cabbage and is rained by Perigord black truffle shavings. Another fish course has curry plantains on top and is sitting on a puddle of coconut and lime juice. He flows you into a palate cleanser, a perfect pine nut soufflé, a canele de bordeaux and “tea” (petit fours), which include a soft sweet brioche that makes next day’s black coffee taste like heaven. Joshua doesn’t mind your presence, and despite the open space environment, he is not seeking your praise. He knows how excellent a job he and his team are doing, so he doesn’t mind the fact that the group of candid, warm young chefs on the webpage is opposite to the cold, calculating precise scientists they are in real life. Just sit back and let your palate get bent over backwards. Because it will be.
Chef: Daniel Patterson
Present: Had just left
The third out of the four restaurants in San Francisco with 2 Michelin stars was an astonishing example of diversity of flavors and textures within its 13 course tasting menu. The setting is elegant, the most elegant of them all and the food is out there to impress. Coi gave me a few firsts in my repertoire of things I have eaten, like geoduck, which was combined with tofu coagulated with seawater and a dish which tasted just like the ocean. Wheatgrass I had never tasted either, and absolutely loved its fresh taste, in the case of Coi it served as a sauce accompanying an inverted fromage blanc tart. The final protein, the dish that tasting menus aim to perfect as it is meant to be the perfect ending to the main body of the meal, was a rich and tender veal that almost did not require knife.
Desserts included another first for me, Oro Blanco, a member of the citrus family, paired with a sweet ginger sorbet. Another dessert, a frozen lime marshmallow covered with coal toasted merengue, was probably the best dessert from the entire trip. Daniel Patterson is a self-taught genius, and Coi reflects this in spades. The service was flawless and overall dinner a faboulous experience. I’m looking forward to dining there again and be taught one more time a few lessons in gastronomy.
Chef: Matt Accarrino
A chef that is butchering a whole animal at the bar in front of his customers right in the middle of services is one of the coolest things I have seen at a restaurant. This is Matthew Accarrino, the genius behind A16 and SPQR, the latter a place where I ate some of the most amazing pasta dishes I have had in recent memory. The combinations, such as beet pasta filled with short rib, or whole-wheat with suckling pig reminded me how exciting a pasta dish can be. A simple white spaghetti with tons of Parmiggiano Reggianno and shaved Perigord truffles showcased excellence in simplicity, pure heaven on a plate.
When presented with a carrot salad, the variety of ingredients on the plate was outstanding, including a small tube shaped falafel, lentils with their sprouts, dates and a sweet cream. The carrots, presented both whole and shaved, came in various shapes and types of cooking, making for a very diverse dish worthy of a good amount of time exploring it. Unfortunately I chose SPQR, owner of one Michelin star, as my last stop and on the way to the airport, which limited my time there and how much I could taste, but this is the first place I am going to run to as soon as I get off the plane on my next visit. And order the entire menu I will.
Chefs: Evan and Sarah Rich
Present: No, in India
The food at Rich Table carries the depth of flavor one only wishes every restaurant would be able to achieve. Evan and Sarah Rich have made such a dent in the San Francisco food scene with their young eatery, that they are up for a James Beard Award for best new restaurant and were not there that night because a customer from India was so blown away by their food that he flew them to cater his wedding. Sardines neatly chucked into potato slices and fried, made for a first impression that sets the tone. I have said in previous posts how much I enjoy a pasta with a crunch.
The dry aged beef pasta with crumbs hit all the right spots and made Rich Table an immediate favorite. The richness of the trout, together with its accompanying wild greens and sliver of almonds on top reminded me that rarely do ingredients go so well together. The desserts also make a name for themselves, including a rare olive oil sweet cake with kiwi that was both moist and crunchy. Rich Table is another place I’m definitely looking forward to going back on my next visit.
Chef: Matt McNamara
Carrying one Michelin star, this unique little dining room plays tribute to the real farm to table by serving a menu almost fully supplied by ingredients from their own farm located in Los Gatos. Chef Matt McNamara was on hand with a skillful team of young chefs cooking and plating what was a gorgeous tasting menu consisting of 10 courses, the highlight of which was a succulent lamb saddle, pink and moist, with a delicate potato millefeuille and hedgehog mushrooms. The baby beets and carrots dish, beautifully placed on a stone dish, spoke to the uniqueness of their garden, and a crab dish was nicely paired with apple and caviar.
A wonderful experience worth going back to try again, during another season, just to experience what that wonderful acre has to offer. The small living room setting truly makes you feel at home, and so does the attention of Matt, Tony and the rest of the team.
Chef: Corey Lee
The last of the 4 restaurants carrying the heavy burden of 2 Michelin stars. I went to Benu on the first night and it was a precursor of what became one of the best weeks of eating of my life. Corey Lee, French Laundry trained, pulls of a tasting menu in Per Se-esque style and order that plays with your mind and demonstrates a very high standard of technique and innovation. Given his Korean origin, this is the tasting menu with the highest level of Asian influence. It almost felt as if French Laundry was sent East for a six month immersion and came back. A kimchi based container is formed like an open flower and hosts pork belly and a tiny oyster. Baby anchovies, their miniscule eyes visible and perhaps deep fried using tweezers, sit atop a fluffy potato salad. Monkfish liver is a silky as it can possibly get, probably the work of a serious amount of whipping. An egg shaped white form turns out to be chicken that has been pureed, formed into an egg, frozen and then poached. The level of sophistication and exquisiteness goes on and on, and one can only but speculate how on earth do these places make money charging a mere 180$ for such a feast. My guess is liquor. A lobster coral dumpling explodes in your mouth with its perfectly encased stock, and is probably the best dumpling you will ever try.
The only reason Benu ranked so low on my list is because the final protein course, the beef, was braised in pear juice but was actually not tender, or not tender enough for me. Had it been “fall of the bone” tender, Benu would have probably ended up there closer to Atelier Crenn. A last course, an attempt at replicating the forbidden shark fin soup, came with black truffles and was truly exceptional. Desserts and chocolates to end were also great.
Chef: Thomas McNaughton
This rustic, simple restaurant with its humble entrance turned out to give me some of the best bites of the whole week. The difficulty in choosing where to eat in San Francisco is that most places, both the ones above and a few below, offer dinner only, so if you have 5 nights and you want to try 10 of these places, you are in trouble. The priority for me was for the 2 michelin star ones mentioned above, so great options like the ridiculously popular State Bird Provisions and Flour + Water fell to second place and were unfortunately left out (but are first priority for the next trip). During the week however, it came to my attention that Flour + Water’s sister restaurant, Central Kitchen, was named by GQ’s Alan Richman as one of the 12 most exciting restaurants in the US right now. So I shuffled around a few reservations and squeezed in an early dinner here to see what it was all about. I was impressed. I only got to taste a few things, pork trotter rillettes, which was chunky and creamy, some strongly flavored duck croquettes with aioli, and an unexpected homerun: a plate carrying simple raw radishes, stuck to the plate by a small portion of butter, and placed next to a shallow ring of colored salts. The impact of the crunch and flavor of the radishes combined with the creaminess of the butter and the boost from the salt was impressive.
A few subsequent dishes, one with thick grilled mushrooms, tiny bits of crackling and a cheese based sauce was quite the pleasant surprise, as was the duck confit and roasted carrots that followed it. Chef Thomas McNaughton is onto something here, and everyone visiting San Francisco should try either this or his other place, Flour + Water.
Chef: Danny Bowien
Do I really have to say anything about Mission Chinese? New York has taken care of making sure Danny Bowien can almost retire already with just two restaurants under his belt, given the almost cult like following that has ensued his opening in the East Coast. I showed up very early, scared by the stories of 3-4 hour waits for what is meant to be the best Chinese food in the US right now. Fortunately the madness has simmered down in San Francisco, or at least for a lunch appointment mid week. The place did get almost full quite quickly in any case, so I guess choosing Mission Chinese for dinner on a Friday night is perhaps no the best option. Of course the default option would be for me to come out saying I had never had better Chinese in my life. I was expecting to feel numbness in my mouth and face from some of the dishes, as most people account for, and this is supposed to be the highlight of my meal. And yes, I had a great Chinese meal, but why people stand in line four hours for it is beyond me. Maybe I ordered wrong. I had a very spicy cabbage and peanut dish up front which was actually fantastic, but then a smoked eel and pork roll was just OK, the baby bok choy was, well, boiled bok choy.
A pastrami dish was gorgeous chunks of pastrami but with semi raw peppers, celery bits and more peanuts. And finally, the famous salt cod fried rice, which I have read about in almost every account of Mission Chinese, did not taste like cod at all, just like regular fried rice. Again, either I ordered wrong, or indeed there is something here I’m missing badly.
Chef: Nancy Oakes
Present: Apparently downstairs
A classic for more than 20 years, this institution cannot be missed. It has one Michelin star, won 2012’s James Beard Award for outstanding restaurant and opens for lunch, which helps balance the agenda. The menu is franco-american, but I went American all the way and ordered a burger. I think I had read about it. It was superb. The patty was pink and moist on the inside, perfectly grilled and then broiled. Beautiful cowgirl creamery wagon wheel cheese oozed on top. The bun was soft and sweet, buttery, and slightly toasted. One of the best burgers I have ever had. A sole dish with fennel and celery gratin was also great, but not worth writing home about.
Chef: Michael Tusk
Michael Tusk is one of San Francisco’s most important chefs, thanks in part to his 10 year old Quince, another great restaurant I couldn’t get to since it’s also dinner only (another to-do). I believe local critic Michael Bauer has Quince as his number one restaurant in all of San Francisco, or at least it’s one of his top 3. Next door to Quince is Cotogna, which means Quince in Italian and is Michael’s second venture. It’s Italian fare in a lovely casual setting, and is open 12 hours a day, making it easy to visit. I had lunch there and tried some terrific pasta dishes, “Agnolotti Dal Plin” which were packed with lamb, some fantastically paired gnocci with crab and mussels, a perfectly shaped raviolo that oozed egg yolk upon slicing it, and some delicious spinach fagottini filled with smoked beets.
I also tried the suckling pig which was moist and tender. A terrific spot that should not be missed, specially for lunch if you happen to be doing Chinatown that day (it’s close).
Chef: Tommy Sancimino
I’m no oyster expert. I couldn’t tell the difference between a Blue point vs. a Miyagi vs. a Kumamoto. Let alone would I be able to tell the difference between a Kumamoto served here and a Kumamoto served somewhere else. The clam chowder was, well, clam chowder. The smoked mackerel was, well, smoked mackerel. The crab salad was indeed a highlight. Chunks of crab meat stacked on a cup, with loads of louie and cocktail sauce to dip them into. Delicious. I get the excitement of eating here. It’s 100 years old, it’s history. For someone like me, who prefers culinary tourism over museum tourism, this was a highlight. But as with Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami, this has to do with the setting, the place, the atmosphere, the experience. A crab claw is a crab claw. An oyster is an oyster. I doubt I would stand in line again for 3 hours to eat here.
Chef: Mark Liberman
A new place in town I was looking forward to given it’s praise with local food critics and bloggers, I chose to do brunch here, again, because it is dinner only (and brunch). Perhaps dinner is special, but brunch was just OK. A tuna sandwich had great kick from spicy avocado and came on a nicely grilled brioche type bread. Suckling pig hash with fried eggs was fine, the baked farm eggs where actually pretty good and benefiting from a chilli sauce. Beautiful rustic place, I’m sure a great setting for a dinner date. Perhaps I will try it on a next visit.
This is the place you end up in when you “browse” popular sources for where to eat. It offered lunch, so now you know why I ended up there. I love Dim Sum and having heard it was the best in town, in a town with a predominant Asian population. I had to give it a try. It was great! Incredibly busy and fast. You sit down, a flock of ladies with trays approach you and offer all they have. You are forced to choose quickly. Rinse and repeat. Should one desire, it is possible to be in and out of this place in 15 minutes flat. Talk about fast food; there is nothing wrong you can say about the food. It’s great Dim Sum; shrimp, chicken, mushroom, scallop, spinach, all these dumplings were great. Pork Buns fine also. If you are in town and you have a Dim Sum craving, this is it.
Chef: Charles Phan
Present: When I asked the GM, he pulled a funny face, as in saying, he never comes here.
Probably one of the most popular restaurants in the city, Slanted Door is a Western Vietnamese restaurant by Charles Phan. His original Slanted Door opened in 1995 and his group now has 6 restaurants, all offering variations on Asian fare. Located inside the Ferry Building with a majestic view of the Piers, Oakland Bay Bridge and the San Francisco Bay. Upon entering the Slanted Door, I had the opposite reaction to the recent Asian places I have discovered in Miami that have been filled with Asians: there wasn’t one in sight. So perhaps this set the tone for the food not being as authentic as it probably could be, which indeed was the case. It was fine, but felt rather American. Kind of like China Grill in it’s days, or perhaps Hakkasan. It was great to have been there, but I probably won’t go back.
Chef: Jennifer Puccio
This was a spur of the moment meal I had when I arrived, hungry and without a reservation elsewhere. I didn’t just stumble upon it, I actually had read both this place and its sister restaurant Marlowe were quite good, and I had recently read an article by SF critic Michael Bauer praising the roast chicken and the Marlowe Burger. I actually had the burger and was not impressed at all. Other items were nice, crab cake, polenta with poached egg, but nothing special. It felt like a prettier version of Houston’s.
Chef: Gonzalo Guzman
Also had read good things about this Mexican food restaurant and its bigger brother Nopa. Had a fish taco al pastor that wasn’t much better than the fish tacos from local Miami favorite My Ceviche. A duck tamale with mole sauce I didn’t enjoy. This didn’t work for me at all.
Also a very popular place, offering many types of different pizzas from different ovens, Neapolitan, different tempratures, different doughs, quite an extensive menu. We actually had to wait an hour! For a table. Pizza was just OK.
Apart from restaurants, here is a list of other places I also got to visit:
The coffee culture in San Francisco is amazing, probably the best in the country. There are a few well established local brands that import, roast and sell their own beans, and they all have local places for you to enjoy. The level of sophistication of the different methods is staggering, from various types of espresso machines to different filtering techniques. Four Barrel was the most impressive place, a gigantic warehouse half of it dedicated to roasting. There is no wi-fi and no electrical outlets, so they want to make it clear this is no starbucks for you to come and borrow as an office. I had a cup of espresso here many times, and could not stop thinking how awful the espresso at Starbucks actually is.
An impressive showcase that displays a wide range of the Region’s best produce. This is the place to come to to witness one of the reasons San Francisco has such a strong restaurant industry. The cheese monger, Cowgirl Creamery, displays cheeses and other milk derivatives I had never seen or heard of. There is also a butcher, a charcuterie by Chris Cosantino, a stand dedicated to mushrooms, a bakery, and a Blue Bottle coffee shop (another large coffee group from San Francisco). These are just a few of the many available. A must visit.
If there is better patisserie in America, I would like to know where. Another line generating local institution like Swan Oyster Depot, it requires a visit off-hours to avoid the hassle of waiting in line for half an hour or not finding a place to sit (it is a small place). The level of quality of the bakery is light years ahead anything I had tried before, probably Bouchon Bakery in New York City coming the closest. A cougere was soft and hollow, making for a large presentation and carried the right amount of cheese tanginess. The almond croissant was also probably only beaten by the one at Ble Sucre in Paris. Tarts and cookies where also great. Another must.
Nice new venture between a well know pastry chef, William Werner, and Sight Glass coffee, another one of the big coffee groups in town. William has done his fair share of work for important restaurants in both the East and the West coast and is actually a semifinalist for pastry chef in this year’s James Beard Awards. The display of pastries demonstrates this. I only had a cup of (amazing) espresso and a chocolate / coconut muffin that was really good, but for pastry lovers this another must.
The Bi-Rite shop is another must stop for browsing through impressive local produce. Down the road from it, they have a creamery offering some of the funkiest ice cream flavors I had ever seen, like toasted coconut, orange cardamom, brown butter pecan and more. A great stop to gran a scoop and take it across the road to Mission Dolores park, where you can take a nap along with all the other stress free locals.
The Four Barrel coffee group mentioned above opened this new place recently in conjunction with Josey Baker Bread. I had read the lines went around the block and back but fortunately when I went there was no one there (and I went twice). Maybe it was the very loud punk rock music blaring through the speakers that was keeping folks away. Great espresso though.
I had done quite a bit of research before going to San Francisco so any places that remain on my to-do list are a consequence of this same effort. Of course, a subsequent trip will hopefully be combined with a must visit to Napa Valley and in particular to Yountville (we all know who’s there right?), and maybe even a jump over to Oakland, where I also hear are some great places to eat.
Thank you San Francisco,