Despite the many delicious and thought provoking meals I had in San Francisco, I feel like there are many more to be had. Despite that nagging feeling that I’ve missed something good, I can ease my mind by remembering that nary a wasted bite crossed my lips. Armed with a pile of suggestions from various San Fran natives, visitors and my wonderful hosts–who happen to be lovers of the dining world as well–I set out to the south for a few good meals.
Straight off the plane we were swooped up and deposited at the front door of the Alembic, where the hostess touted to us the new menu. Service was beyond stellar, with the very same hostess keeping us just updated enough about the status of our table during the hour long wait, stretching and straining to try to make us as comfortable as possible. Once we got our feet in the door, we began exploring the cocktail list, a combination of classics prepared with prowess and new inventions which certainly provided our palates with their own excellent adventures. I waited too long to write this post and now am unable to recall the exact names of each one, but nary a bad one in the bunch, and with four people ordering multiple drinks, we sampled quite the selection. But as a lover of the edibles more than the imbibables, it was the food that truly won me over. We started with the blackboard special, a salt and pepper grass shrimp appetizer. Like little tiny chips made of shrimp, these savory crustaceans had us inhaling them like fraternity brothers with midnight pizza delivery. High on the delight of a brand-new to us delicacy, we ventured forth into the menu. I would never allow any bone marrow or steak tartare to go unordered, so those were in. We tacked on a few pork belly sliders for good measure and ricotta fritters. While the bone marrow was delicious, I’m not sure there was anything particularly spectacular about it, in fact it might have been slightly underdone. That said, it still had all the wonderful features of bone marrow, the thick, rich, stickiness of meat, combined with the creamy, melty features of butter. The bread was crunchy and the perfect palate clearing foil. The steak tartare was another traditional preparation, this one perfectly executed. Even the picky eater in the group had to admit that the textures and tastes of this dish were nothing short of stupendous. The dessert was a bit of a let down, not because it wasn’t delicious (it was) but simply because we expected more of a breaded, fried ricotta fritter, while this was really more like a doughnut made with ricotta inside. As I said, delectable none-the-less.
The next morning we awoke and were escorted to the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market. I talk a little bit about everything I bought here, so I won’t say much except that I adored the wine bar. There isn’t much better than sitting down at the high tables at 9:30 am and sharing a bottle of sparkling rose wine with friends while people watching the crowds. Life is good.
Later that afternoon, sufficiently recovered from the morning to be able to eat real food, we ventured over to Richmond to stop in for a late lunch at Burma Superstar. Unprepared, I was unsure of what sort of stuff we would be getting. We started out with a pitcher of an actually rather lovely Sangria–a Burmese spin put on it with various unexpected fruits –always nice to find an average drink to have a surprise twist. For food we started with their apparently famous Tea Leaf Salad. I’d never had a tea leaf salad before, but once I stopped attempting to discern the flavor of the fermented tea leaves, gave up and embraced the salad as a whole entity, crunchy little tidbits and all, I found it to be curiously strong–though not at all like an Altoid–more that the flavor and the crunch really resounded and made a strong statement. “I am salad, hear me roar,” is what I imagine it saying, staking out salad’s rightful place at the center of the meal. The tableside mixing service was cute, though not exactly necessary. We moved through the menu, picking and choosing from a lamb curry, rice studded with raisins, and a tofu tower that tasted much better than the terrible name would imply. The flavors of Burmese food were not as unfamiliar, in general, as I would have thought. Having extensive experience in Chinese, Thai and Indian food, meant that it was not the flavors, but the individual dishes that struck me as original. For anyone who loves those cuisines, this is definitely a good way to go, as it is sort of a greatest hits mash up of them.
Later that night we headed to our big dinner at Nopa. This was chosen for the dinner spot after I had heard good things, my host had mentioned it was high on her list to try and a former local food critic called it the place to go if you could only pick one. I was sold. The menu, I will say, though, was not one that grabbed you, drew you in and forced you to come. It was more of a simple, oh that could be good, kind of menu.
Sitting at the bar, drinking cocktails, waiting for our reservation–wait back up, drinking more amazing SF cocktails, what is up with all of the amazing cocktails here?–We watched food coming out of the kitchen and I changed my tune a little from my original “meh” at the menu. One of those! I say, we will order that–it turned out to be a lovely flatbread. We ordered an array of appetizers, but I was sold after the first taste of the amuse bouche touched my lips. Diving into the menu, first up were the little fried fish, yes, actually called that on the menu, absolute treasures, making audible crunches as you broke through the outer layer of fried tastiness and releasing all the smelt flavor, a wonderful flavor to all the fish lovers out there. We split a few appetizers as our main and each small plain dish exceeded by so much the expectations set by the menu, that it was almost like ordering via random drawing. Think you know what a baked giant white bean will taste like? Think again. You call what you ate in the past cauliflower, no siree, this, my friends is cauliflower. Again and again, they showed us new ways to look at foods that I thought I knew. Was it transcendent? A meal I’ll never forget? No, I’ve already forgotten what that terrific amuse bouche even was–but it was a restaurant that made me re-evaluate presumptions I make about my food knowledge and what I order, and I appreciated that. Along with great service and delicious wines, it turned out to be quite a lovely dinner.
The next morning we woke up refreshed and ready–Okay, that’s a lie. After Nopa we hit up a bar and then a wine bar and we all woke up struggling to move most of our body parts–but I knew what the cure was. As soon as we were all capable of dressing ourselves (it did take a few hours) we headed out to dim sum. This whole trip came about because of the idea of going to dim sum. However, I did make the mistake of listening to the wrong person for the dim sum choice and while the dim sum was passable, it was not the dim sum I came to SF for. We hit up Ton Kiang, a favorite of my travel partner. As we sat, they put out the hot sauce. A tiny dish, with two parts, one filled with hot mustard and the other with an odd salsa like green sauce. I tried flagging for the kind I wanted and got a sriracha type sauce. No others. Dim sum without appropriate hot sauce. Hangover nightmare! The food was…well, it was anyways. They had some interesting looking stuff, but nothing really ever panned out well. Softshell crab? Yes please! But it was over breaded and underseasoned and just tasted like friedness with a lack of hot sauce. Other items were better, but the dumplings were clearly made without care in the pleats–nor in any aspect of creation. Soup dumplings lacked soup and in general it just fell flat. As we left, the purpose of our trip half failed and my travel companion feeling bad for making the recommendation, I told her, “Don’t worry, we had fun, we ate well, and now I have a wonderful excuse to come back soon!”