Monday, 11 March 2013
Cheese and Biscuits on tour: San Francisco
Parts of San Francisco, this will not be news to many of you, are quite spectacularly beautiful. You'll have seen the impossibly severe roads lined with picturebox Victorian rowhouses, the Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars and the glittering waterfront from countless travelogues and movie locations, but up close it's all even more impressive.
The Pacific Heights and Telegraph Hill areas of town, in particular, have a unique kind of dramatic impact; standing at a street junction with one road plunging down towards Alcatraz Island and the other soaring infeasibly skyward is equally jaw-dropping and unnerving, like that scene from Inception when the buildings start folding up and over themselves. It's almost enough to put your off your lunch.
I said almost. Given my priorities when visiting a new city position eating and drinking significantly higher than sleeping or breathing, I had a list of places to cram into a whistle-stop 3-day stay, and all a strenuous traipse up and down Lombard St was going to do was work up an appetite. So breakfast at the excellent Thorough Bread bakery near our Air B&B in Castro gave way to a an obligatory terrifying cable car ride up to Russian Hill (surprising how paranoid Americans are about health and safety in most cases, and yet are quite happy to make you hang on white-knuckled to the back of a covered wheelbarrow as it hurtles up a mountain) and lunch at Leopold's.
A boisterous Austrian gastaus isn't the first thing that might come to mind when thinking of San Francisco, but a beer and a poached egg salad was just the ticket after barely having time to work off a pound of pastries from Thorough Bread. A white bean soup, too, was typically hearty Austrian fayre, even if we weren't as badly as need of its warmth as presumably most are in Austria this time of year, and one of our party even managed to stretch to a pile of grilled sausage and sauerkraut, all very well received.
Maverick, a restaurant in Castro serving regional (largely southern) cuisine had the kind of menu an American food obsessive like me dreams about. The buttermilk fried chicken was predictably brilliant, as were some miniature lemon tarts for dessert, but the star of the evening was devilled eggs with caviar, the kind of dish that can make an entire trip. We still talk about it.
The next evening was Oscar Night, and I'm afraid the first real disappointment. No, not just Brave winning Best Animated Feature (I mean come on, ahead of Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, Pirates! and Wreck-It Ralph? Are they insane?) - a takeaway from Mission Chinese. I am painfully aware that judging a venue on its takeaway offering is a bit like having a beer in the street outside Harry's Bar then moaning about the lack of complimentary peanuts, but we really found it hard to see what all the fuss was about. For a not insignificant chunk of cash, lamb ribs were 99% fat, Mapo Tofu was notable for little other than its eye-watering dry heat, and all dishes, including the famous Chongqing chicken wings and Kung Pao pastrami, were disastrously salty. I've since learned that the head chef has left to do something in New York, which may explain something, if not excuse it.
The next morning though, a stunning selection of pastries at Tartine got us back on track. One of the most acclaimed bakeries in the US, if not the world, Tartine is always busy and always churns out incredible product. The gigantic ham and cheese croissant, for example, was so astonishingly good with its dark crust, soft filling and perfect balance of dairy and protein that I can hardly believe a better version is made anywhere in France. The only downside, in fact, is that given Tartine's immense popularity, much like anywhere else that has them queuing round the block no matter what, the serving staff aren't often all sweetness and light. I realise it must stressful dealing with such huge numbers all day every day with no end in sight, but as we were unceremoniously chucked our carefully-selected purchases and told to bugger off (I paraphrase) a quote from Absolutely Fabulous came to mind from when Edina found herself in a Kensington art gallery - "You only work in a shop you know. You can drop the attitude."
And talking of bad attitudes, this might be a good time to bring up the biggest problem I had with this city, something which really took a shine off most of the many wonderful things it has to offer - San Francisco is Crazy Central. In no other place in the world have I ever seen so many drug casualties, hoboes, lunatics and destitutes. We were shouted at on the bus, screamed at in the street, sung to, propositioned and abused more or less wherever we went. Sure the smart areas of town had fewer issues, but it seemed every tiny area of public space was a cardboard city or had people pushing their belongings round in a old shopping trolley, and it made getting around - particularly on public transport though by no means exclusively - a bit, well, unpredictable. I'm not going to pretend I have any idea why the problems should be so bad here and why elsewhere in California seems to have more of a handle on it, but it's certainly something to be aware of.
I swear I will end this post on a lighter note, but we have one more disappointment to get out of the way first. I don't know what's happened to Chez Panisse since it was one of the most well-regarded and famous restaurants in the US, but I can only tell you time has not been kind on this Berkeley stalwart and these days the pioneer of California cuisine now appears happy to charge credulous guests (that would be me then) a vast amount for dreadfully boring food. Perhaps in 1971 it was acceptable to charge $150 a head for a spinach & ricotta pie, some greasy pieces of duck and a (actually this was OK) crème caramel, but we left feeling completely ripped off. Thoroughly not recommended, although I promise it wasn't me that set fire to it a couple of days ago.
But happier times awaited elsewhere. Back in Mission the next day we jumped in the queue for Dynamo Donuts, surely the next imported American fad to hit London if these are anything to go by (Electric Donuts have already made a start). Lovely friendly staff and great fresh donuts with a variety of very interesting toppings such as "Meyer lemon and huckleberry" or "passionfruit milk chocolate". And just round the corner, another first - lunch at an El Salvadorian restaurant for pupusa, a kind of thick corn tortilla filled with cheese and pork. The pupusa were very nice - incredibly filling for something so deceptively small and pretty cheap, but a huge bowl of shrimp soup was the unexpected star of the meal, powerfully flavoured with a generous number of plump, juicy shrimp. At the very least, I'm glad they turned out better than the "Mushy Disturbances of Corn" promised by my specially-purchased augmented-reality translation app (above).
Ah, I almost forgot. Straight from the airport early in the morning on the first day we hired a car and drove to Napa. A brief tasting at the Alpha Omega vineyard opened the door to lunch, and we found ourselves in the Oxbow market just down the road, sat at the bar at the Hog Island Oyster co. It is difficult, in fact I might argue impossible, not to enjoy yourself eating fresh oysters, drinking Sauvignon Blanc and pulling apart whole Dungeness crabs of an afternoon, and it is this place I think reflects the side of San Francisco cuisine the world is more familiar with - fresh seafood, served with charm and with a nice cold glass of local wine.
A strong start, and end, to the trip then, and plenty to love in-between, but like the city itself geographically and otherwise, the food was (groan) a bit up and down. Tartine aside, we seemed to do better by avoiding the big names and just wandering into whichever little place was nearest, which also had the advantage of not requiring risking life and limb by travelling on public transport. Getting there was a cinch, though, thanks to Virgin America, our little house in Castro was a joy, and though it will never replace dear old San Diego in my affections, it's clear there's a lot more to know of this enigmatic, topsy-turvy town.
Mission Chinese 4/10
Chez Panisse 3/10
Dynamo Donut 7/10
El Salvador 6/10
Hog Island Oyster Co 9/10