Showing posts with label San Francisco. Show all posts
Showing posts with label San Francisco. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Best Things I Ate in 2020 (Part 1)


Every December when I do these "year in review" posts, I conclude with something my grandfather used to say: "Always better, never worse." Sorry, grandpa, but it didn't work this time. 2020 sucked. It's been a miserable year, for people who have lost their family members and friends, their health, their jobs, their businesses, their sense of security, their ability to enjoy companionship and community. It's been a year that's also brought into painful focus how race and class lead to fundamentally different experiences and outcomes in our country, and how hatred and intolerance are still alive and well. 2020 was worse, not better, in just about every way.

So it feels more than a little bit frivolous to be posting one of these "Best of 2020" posts in a year like this. And yet, if there's one thing we can all do right now, it's to support those people and businesses that we care about. The restaurant world I focus on here has had a particularly hard year, repeatedly whipsawed back and forth by closures and rule changes while getting little in the way of leadership or support from government at any level.[1] The industry is a challenging one in the best of circumstances; over the past year, mere survival seems to me an incredible achievement. I've always admired the dedication, resiliency, resourcefulness and creativity of those who've devoted themselves to this craft, but especially now, as so many struggle to balance the safety and security of their teams, the comfort and experience of their customers, and the sustainability of their businesses.

So as weird as it may seem in this disaster of a year, it's also gratifying to be able to celebrate the work of those that amidst it all have provided so many of us some moments of joy. Here is the first of three installments of The Best Things I Ate in 2020.

Million Dollar Salad - Navé
Million Dollar Salad - Navé (Coconut Grove)

One of my favorite new restaurants of late 2019 was Navé, the Italian seafood themed next-door neighbor to Michael Beltran's Ariete which he opened with Justin Flit. Navé quickly became a regular multipurpose spot, good for a quick bite at the bar, a date night, or a get-together with friends. There were a lot of things I liked: the seafood towers, the snapper milanese, the pasta with bottarga, uni and cultured butter. But the one must-order every time I was there was the simple but pitch-perfect "Million Dollar Salad" with crisp, bright gem lettuce, fresh herbs, and a Sicilian pistachio vinaigrette. I'm thrilled that after going into pandemic hibernation, then periodically resurfacing for some "Navé Seafood Shack" pop-ups, Navé reopened earlier this month. (All my pictures from Navé).

ankimo - The Den at Azabu
Ankimo - The Den at Azabu (Miami Beach)

In the early part of the year, pre-shutdown, I had a couple very happy omakase sessions at The Den at Azabu – a solo visit in late January, and then a follow-up shortly after with a jealous Mrs. F. My first round was with chef Shingo Akikuni behind the counter; round two was with chef Yasu Tanaka. Both meals were outstanding. Maybe my favorite bite among many was this ankimo (monkfish liver): lush, silky, and fully deserving of its nickname as the "foie gras of the sea." The Den has reopened for dining and is also doing a take-out omakase (which makes an appearance later in this list) if, like me, you're not yet doing dine-in. And I'm excited to hear that Chef Akikuni is now at Hiden in Wynwood, which recently reopened and is also doing a take-out omakase for two. (All my pictures from The Den at Azabu).

wagyu beef tartare - Eating House
Wagyu Beef Tartare - Eating House (Coral Gables)

It had been a minute since I'd last paid a visit to Giorgio Rapicavoli's Eating House in Coral Gables. But it felt like old times when I stopped by in February, taking a seat at the front bar counter, munching Sazon-spiced popcorn with an NBA game on the TV while waiting for my order, and eating tasty fun dishes like this wagyu beef tartare with shio koji, shallots, braised and pickled carrots, and lime zest, every bite bouncing with umami, depth, freshness and acidity. (All my pictures from Eating House).


Monday, December 30, 2019

favorite dishes of 2019: worldwide version

I made a decision this year to split my "favorite dishes" list between Miami and elsewhere. You can see the 25 best things I ate in Miami over here. This list (All lists! All the time! At least until the end of the year!) covers the best things I ate everywhere else in 2019.

We started the year in Marfa, Texas[1] before taking a long drive to Austin, which is a really fun town where there's a taco truck, a BBQ place, a beer hall, and a live music venue on every block. There were brief visits to New York and San Francisco, and then a wonderful week in Italy (Rome and Venice, broken up by a day in Florence), where I practiced some immersion therapy to get over my biases against Italian food.[2] Back to the Bay Area for a week. A long weekend in Los Angeles, making only the tiniest dent in the long list of places I want to visit in what may be the best eating town in the U.S. And finally, a late year return to N.Y. before the calendar flipped over.

charred cabbage, satsuma butter - Emmer & Rye (Austin)
Our first dinner in Austin was at chef Kevin Fink's Emmer & Rye, a place with a focus on heirloom grains (as the name suggests), local seasonal products, carts circling the dining room with little snacks a la State Bird Provisions, and generally speaking, some really creative stuff happening in the kitchen. I enjoyed everything, but especially this dish of charred cabbage, satsuma butter, trout roe and mustard greens. Savory, smoky, citrusy, and more, it was odd and delicious.

(See all my pictures from Emmer & Rye.)

(continued ...)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

In Situ - San Francisco

In Situ, the new restaurant in the recently refurbished and reopened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is a bundle of contradictions. The chef is Corey Lee, whose tasting-menu flagship, Benu, just retained the three Michelin stars it was first awarded in 2014. But the highly regarded chef didn't create a single recipe for the restaurant. Rather, the menu consists of a rotating selection of other chefs' dishes from all around the world, which the In Situ kitchen sets out to faithfully recreate. In other words, it's a restaurant in the model of an art exhibition, with Lee as the curator.

In this and other ways, including the exhibition catalog-style menu, In Situ clearly advances the notion of chef as artist. But the manner by which it is implemented – with Lee and his crew duplicating the "artists'" creations – undermines the very notions of authorship and uniqueness that are generally thought of as essential to the distinction between "art" and "craft." While Lee is ostensibly in the role of curator and not creator, the lines become blurred: when was the last time you saw a museum curator break out his brushes and hang up his own canvas on the museum wall as the "Mona Lisa"?[1] What you will get here is at best a copy, though it may be a very good one.

Indeed, the very name is a contradiction: "in situ" refers to a site-specific artwork, one that is created for the location. Yet each of the dishes served at In Situ was created for and is usually served in some other restaurant.

All of which is to say this: In Situ is possibly the most thought-provoking restaurant experience I've had in years. But unlike many restaurant experiences that aim to be thought-provoking, this one was also a lot of fun and mostly really delicious.

(You can see all my pictures in this In Situ - San Francisco flick set).

A big part of the fun at In Situ is that the restaurant acts as both Star Trek transporter and Dr. Who time travel TARDIS telephone booth. Here, in one meal, you can sample dishes from thousands of miles away, and even from decades past – some of which may no longer even be available anywhere else.[2]

For instance, the lead-off item on the menu[3] during our visit comes from chef Wylie Dufresne. His restaurant in New York's Lower East Side, wd~50, was a mid-aughts "molecular gastronomy"[4] trendsetter. But I never managed to get there before it closed in 2014.

Yet here are Dufresne's "shrimp grits," a dish which subverts the classic Southern pairing, turning the shrimp themselves into the grits by chopping, cooking, finely grinding, and finally re-warming them with powdered freeze-dried corn, then garnishing with pickled jalapeños and a bright orange shrimp shell oil.

If I'm to be honest, one of the reasons I never ate at wd~50 is that I wasn't convinced I would have enjoyed an entire meal there: the place often gave me the impression that form was being elevated over substance, creativity over flavor. But that's another of the interesting things about In Situ: it's a chance to sample a chef's cooking (at least vicariously through the medium of Lee and crew), without the commitment of a full meal. Turns out, this dish was excellent: intense crustacean flavor, combined with a nostalgic creamy, nubby grits texture. Perhaps I misjudged. But In Situ offers a taste of what I missed.

We were in Kyoto a couple years ago, but did not go to Gion Sasaki, a kaiseki style restaurant that is a notoriously difficult reservation. So here is another "missed opportunity" dish. Tender, meaty chicken thighs are glazed with a delicate teriyaki sauce (not the gloppy syrupy stuff we get here, but a fine calibration of salty, tangy and sweet); concealed beneath them is a wobbly "onsen" egg (probably cooked in an immersion circulator rather than the traditional hot spring), mounted in a bed of crunchy lettuce, and dusted with tingly sansho pepper. It's Sasaki's version of "oyako," i.e. "parent and child" (chicken and egg), and it's superficially simple but elegantly balanced.

One of the challenges In Situ faces is finding dishes that can be replicated without access to all of the ingredients used by chefs whose restaurants may be thousands of miles away. Virgilio Martinez's cooking at Central in Lima, Peru is indelibly tied to indigenous products, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. So when he chose a dish for the In Situ menu, he had to do something that would "travel well." (More interesting tidbits in this conversation between Martinez and Lee captured by Lucky Peach).

His "Octopus and the Coral" is the result: plump octopus tentacles basted in a spicy rocoto chile paste, hidden beneath shards of silver savory meringues, dark grey rice crackers, and tufts of red seaweed, meant to appear like an octopus crouching within a coral-covered rock beneath the sea. It was a good dish, though not nearly as interesting as several dishes Martinez prepared for a dinner at Alter restaurant in Miami earlier this year.

(continued ...)

Friday, July 1, 2016

Quince Restaurant | San Francisco

Quince Restaurant is something of an anachronism. In these days of bare tables and and backless stools and leather-aproned servers, here there are still white linens and cushions and tailored suits. Refinement. Elegance.

I wasn't so sure I cared about such things so much any more, but a solo meal there a few months ago left me feeling happily coddled like a soft, warm, perfectly cooked egg. It's not just the trappings, it's the entire gestalt of the place: you don't feel so much like a customer as the guest of a wealthy, thoughtful friend. If fine dining is dead, Quince never got around to reading the obituary.

I was basically killing time before a red-eye flight home from San Francisco, and Quince might not have been on my radar but for several people mentioning it when I went fishing for suggestions on twitter. Then I recalled that on our last visit to San Francisco, we'd stayed just up the street from its more casual sibling, Cotogna, right in the path of a cloud of intoxicating aromas which emanated from the kitchen every afternoon. So I'd booked an early reservation, and now settled into a banquette (one of the joys of solo dining is getting to sit in the comfy seat) and watched as the room slowly filled. A cut crystal coupe was also filled with champagne, as an assortment of amuse-bouches was brought to the table.

(You can see all my pictures in this Quince Restaurant flickr set).

A finely minced steak tartare wrapped within a cylinder of bric pastry, dabbed with a tart gribiche sauce; a bon-bon of pickled persimmon with marcona almonds; a delicate croqueta of jamón ibérico dabbed with sweet onion jam; a featherweight chicharrón cracker, with a delightful crackle.

There was a stretch of a few months where every tasting menu I tried started with an oyster. If it's a good oyster, I'm OK with that. This one – from Fanny Bay in British Columbia – was a good one, its fluted shell also bearing some little horseradish pearls, a pink peppercorn mignonette and tiny tarragon leaves (a great accent mark over the cucumber-y flavor of the oyster).

Light and delicate, this little salad of empire clam[1] with purple borage flowers, fennel and meyer lemon, all nestled over a bright green borage leaf purée, arrived in a long, skinny dish reminiscent of a razor clam shell. For an eating utensil, they provided the same item with which it was plated: tweezers.

Clearly, Chef Michael Tusk likes caviar.  If you're not up for a full tasting menu, Quince has a salon where you can order several items a la carte, including an entire menu devoted to caviar selections. In the dining room, it was served two ways: on one side, a ring of tender brioche adorned with generous quenelles of Tsar Nicolai reserve caviar, buttons of creme fraiche and vibrant flower petals; on the other, a bed of creamy sea urchin, topped with an even more generous spoonful of steely grey roe, with a fine julienne of fennel and apple which provided a beautiful lift and brightness to the dish.

(continued ...)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

best thing i ate last week (feb. 1-7): salsify, nori, black trumpets at Aubergine, Carmel-by-the-Sea

This was not an easy one. The fact is, I had two exceptional meals back-to-back during our most recent brief visit to the west coast. In Carmel-By-The-Sea, we went to Aubergine, where Chef Justin Cogley does some masterful things with both local products like Monterey Bay abalone and exotica like insanely marbled Hokkaido beef, all in an elegantly restrained, almost Japanese style.

The next day, after dropping Mrs. F at the airport (she was off to another conference in San Diego) and visiting Frod Jr. in Berkeley, I still had several hours to kill before a red-eye flight home. So I'd booked an early seating at Michael Tusk's Quince in San Francisco, and proceeded to have one of the most indulgent, pleasurable, flat out smile-inducing dinners I've had in recent memory.

(You can see all the pictures from these two great meals in this Aubergine - Carmel flickr set and this Quince - San Francisco flickr set).

Both experiences are worthy of further thoughts (I've been jotting down notes), and any of about a half dozen or more dishes from the two nights could easily go here. So I've opted for the one that was the most unexpectedly good: a baton of Belgian salsify served at Aubergine, roasted until it had gone slack and almost sticky, shellacked with a dark, dense purée of nori and trumpet mushrooms, all adorned with a spray of fresh, grassy chickweed. There was just such a beautiful intensity and purity to the flavors here, an unexpected beauty in fairly simple ingredients.

Ask me another day, and I might instead single out that incredible Hokkaido beef dish, or Aubergine pastry chef Ron Mendoza's beautiful combination of chocolate, walnut, fermented pear ice cream, Amaro Nonino, and wood sorrel, or from Quince, a beautiful dish of caviar, uni and julienned apple, or the zenned-out bliss triggered by the combination of truffle-shrouded pork tortellini and old Burgundy.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Coi - San Francisco

There's a passage in Daniel Patterson's book "Coi: Stories and Recipes" that I found almost painfully evocative. The chef was writing about his first restaurant in Sonoma, and the turning of the season from summer to fall:
It was when the rains came, and the tourists went away. The first year the bills piled up on the mantelpiece at home, one pile per week, carefully bound with a rubber band, the total owed marked on a Post-it on top. At first there were two, then four and later eight piles, sitting there as a constant reminder of our empty dining room. The rain cut off roads and flooded fields, seeping into our subterranean bedroom at home, filling it with the smell of damp concrete and mold. Subsequent years were never as bad as the first, but every fall after that, as the days shortened and our bank account dwindled, my heart broke a little as we dug in for an isolated, depressing winter. That was some time ago, but the scars still remain. Every year, even now, when I step outside and feel that the light has changed, that it is fall and that summer is gone, I fight down a rising panic. It will be all right, I tell myself, over and over, until eventually I believe it enough to keep going.
Coi is one of the more unusual "cookbooks" I've read lately. It's not so much the format, which pairs a thoughtful one-page essay with each recipe, nor even the initially somewhat distracting decision to put all the ingredients and quantities for those recipes in a separate index at the back of the book. And while Patterson can wax seriously eloquent about what inspires his dishes and how to cook them, it wasn't entirely that either. What was so striking was his willingness to provide these personal and often brutally candid insights into the fears and frustrations of being a professional chef.

The restaurant business is a weird and particularly tough one that seems to be constantly teetering between success and failure, both on a macro and micro level. In a sea of competition, it's hard enough to figure out what's going to capture the dining audience's interest. Then you actually have to make it work. Even when you do, this year's hot-spot can quickly turn into next year's has-been. Get all the big things right, and you're still only as good as your last plate: some line cook screws up the seasoning or cooking time on one dish, or your server is having a lousy day, and a customer leaves with a bad impression that you may never have a second chance to remedy.

From reading his book and following his career, it's clear Patterson recognizes and, in his own way, embraces this dance on the edge. In the essay about his "beet rose," an almost absurdly labor-intensive dish in which slivers of roasted beet are assembled by hand to resemble the petals of a rose, then paired with an aerated yogurt and rose petal granita, he describes it like this:
When a dish is right, there is synchronicity between form and substance, idea and execution. This is a dish that was meant to be challenging to make, impractical to reproduce. There is something about its unreasonableness which makes it more impactful. For it to work, everything has to be perfect. ... But I came to love it most for what it represented to me: intuitive, handmade cooking. Each rose is a little different, and I can pick out who made which one every night. The seasoning is finely tuned, wobbling on the edge of sweet and savory, always close to tumbling into failure.
That sounds a little crazy, but yeah, I'd like to experience that. Because as good a writer as he is, Patterson is pretty universally recognized to be an even better chef. And yet I'd never paid a visit to the restaurant from which the book takes its name. My travels to the West Coast are almost always with family, which means my opportunities to do tasting menus are limited. And other, shinier objects always seemed to beckon. Then a month ago, Patterson announced that he was stepping down as executive chef at Coi and handing over the reigns to chef Matthew Kirkley in January. It was a surprising announcement: first, because Patterson's work at Coi has been so highly regarded, but even more so because it has been so definitively Patterson's restaurant, and his style of cooking is so personal, that the two seemed inseparable.[1]

We already had a trip to San Francisco coming up. So this would likely be the last chance, for the foreseeable future anyway, to catch Patterson in the kitchen. I re-jiggered the agenda, talked the family into doing a tasting menu dinner,[2] and booked a reservation at Coi. When they asked me what kind of restaurant it is, I wasn't sure exactly how to answer. What I knew is that it's a tasting menu format (but much more restrained than the 20+ course bacchanals like Saison); that it's got some locavore / forager sensibilities, but is not wedded to them; and that the cooking uses, but does not seem defined by, contemporary techniques and processes. This undefinability is also something of which Patterson is acutely self-aware:
When it comes to what a marketing wonk would call 'brand clarity,' we don't do ourselves any favors. ... When someone asks, 'What's the food like?' the best thing I can come up with is, 'Um, hopefully delicious,' my voice rising at the end in a note of uncertainty.
Well, let's see.

For this farewell tour of sorts, Patterson has seeded the menu with several "greatest hits," and his "California Bowl" is one of those. It's really just an elevated version of chips and dip using some of the basic tropes of California hippie cuisine: brown rice, avocado and sprouts. But those chips (made from rice cooked down to a paste, dehydrated, then fried like chicharrones) are light and airy and have a tingle of spice, the avocado is whipped until soft as a cloud, and zinging with lime, the tiny greens have bright, fresh, intense flavors.

(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this Coi - San Francisco flickr set).

(continued ...)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

best thing i ate last week (8/2-8/9): celtuce, just dug potatoes, comté, burnt hay, tarragon at Coi

A vacation has taken me off the regular posting cycle, but after two weeks tooling around the Bay Area (including moving Frod Jr. into U.C. Berkeley), I'm home in Miami and ready to get caught up. That means circling back to the first day of our trip: a visit to Coi, which I squeezed into the schedule on account of Chef Daniel Patterson's announcement that he will be stepping down as executive chef in January. (Patterson simultaneously announced that Matthew Kirkley, last at L2O in Chicago, will be taking over the kitchen. In a curious coincidence, I caught Kirkley at L2O only a couple months before it closed last year. That was an excellent meal, and while it's disappointing to see Patterson step away from cooking at Coi, I expect good things are in store.)

(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this Coi - San Francisco flickr set).

The primary ingredient in this dish is celtuce, featured both in thickly sliced discs and thin ribbons of its stalk. It has the hearty snap of a broccoli stem, and a delicately bittersweet flavor somewhere in the neighborhood of lettuce, celery and asparagus. Freshly dug potatoes are cooked until just tender, and crowned with caps of nutty, buttery melted comté cheese. These sit over an oil blackened with powdered burnt hay. Those black and charred aromas are brought back to green and fresh by a few wispy leaves of tarragon.

"Coi" is an archaic French word meaning "quiet," and Patterson's cooking voice can be quiet, subtle, understated. Sometimes you have to listen closely. If you do so, in this dish maybe you'll hear something that sounds like a field of grass blown by the wind, with all these variations on the vegetal tastes of the pasture.

Runner up: the stone fruit curry with black lime cod, green beans and blueberries at Al's Place, just named the Best New Restaurant of 2015 by Bon Appetit magazine. Like many of chef Aaron London's dishes at Al's Place, the combination of ingredients sounds absolutely implausible, and tastes absolutely delicious.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Saison - San Francisco

There are few meals I've looked forward to with as much anticipation. Between the reports from trusted friends both virtual and flesh and blood, the three Michelin stars conferred late last year (which many thought were overdue), and myriad other raves and recognitions, my expectations for Saison were quite high.

Some reputations are so lofty that I fear the reality cannot possibly compare. But Saison did not disappoint.

Ingredients. Focus. Smoke. Pleasure.

These are the words that keep coming to mind as I look back on our meal.

Ingredients: With a menu that uses primarily seafood and vegetables, prepared in a minimalist style, every item that makes it to the plate has been selected with fanatical attention and care. Many are sourced from nearby: sea urchin from Fort Bragg, seaweeds from Mendocino, vegetables from the restaurant's own farm plot, milk "from our cow."

Focus: Instead of dozens of components thrown together, Saison's dishes have a unity of purpose: nearly every course is about one thing, how to bring out, concentrate, and enhance its flavor. Vegetables are cooked in their own juices, fish are served with sauces infused with their grilled bones, all with the goal of honing and focusing the flavor of the primary ingredient.

Smoke: Almost every dish here is kissed with smoke or fire: grilled over open flame, cooked in the wood-fired hearth, preserved in the smoke that makes its way up the hearth's chimney. This is not just some Luddite counter-reaction to the last decade's increasing focus on kitchen technology. Rather, it's a rediscovery that ancient ways of cooking have powerful ways of highlighting, punctuating, amplifying flavor and texture.

Pleasure: Maybe it's just because these are things that I really like to eat, but Saison's menu feels like it is designed to coddle rather than confront. No doubt, a tremendous amount of thought has gone into the preparation of the dishes; but it doesn't require a lot of thinking to enjoy them.This is not a meal whose purpose is to show you how clever the chef, Joshua Skenes, is. Rather, it's about how much pleasure the diner will take in his work.

(You can see all my pictures in this Saison - San Francisco flickr set).

The pleasure principle kicks in from the moment you enter Saison. There's something delightfully unstuffy about the restaurant. Yes, it's an elegant, beautiful space, filled with live edge wood tables and ornate flower displays; many of the seats are arranged to provide a vantage on a kitchen filled with more gleaming copper than a Mauviel warehouse.[1] But there's also something about it that's very welcoming and even homey: the foyer area is framed by a woodpile, around the corner of which is a cozy little bar where you can start with a cocktail before your meal; that open kitchen feels not so much like a stage with cooks performing for an audience, and more like the open floor plan of a (very rich) friend's loft apartment.

After a pause at the bar, dinner begins with a sort of tea service: an infusion of "some herbs from our garden." Bound with twine, the herbs release a heady aroma as they are dropped into the hot water. The Japanese aesthetic sets the tone for the meal. It's a remarkable thing: there's no dish in particular that is overtly Japanese, but the overall impression is uncannily reminiscent of our meals there last year.[2]

(continued ...)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Lazy Bear - San Francisco

Lazy Bear menu

When we started our Cobaya "underground" dinners, there was no pretense of originality; we were very deliberately copying things we had heard about in other cities. So for years I've been keeping track of what other like-minded people are doing around the country, including the Lazy Bear dinners in San Francisco.

In many ways, Lazy Bear is very similar to our Cobaya events: it's a set menu, with a focus on creative, contemporary cooking; events are announced only by mailing list and website; seats are assigned by lottery; the location is only disclosed to confirmed attendees.[1] But there are differences as well: whereas Cobaya was organized by a few avid diners, and features a different chef for every event, Lazy Bear is a chef-driven affair: specifically, David Barzelay, who cooked at Nopa and Commonwealth, and staged at McCrady's and Aldea, before going the underground dinner route.

When the opportunity presented itself to attend one of his dinners on our recent trip to San Francisco, we eagerly did so.

(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this Lazy Bear flickr set, or click on any picture to enlarge).

Lazy Bear dining room

The location was a secret, so let's just say that it was a funky warehouse-type space, with two long tables set up for a total of 24 diners. The attached kitchen had plenty of room to work; if the equipment was not exactly cutting-edge, it's still a leap up from several of the facilities we've used for Cobaya dinners.

Lazy Bear kitchen

This is a preview version of the menu from when the event was announced:

Lazy Bear menu

Nine courses are listed, though in actuality it was even more generous than that, with several "snacks" and "treats" bookending the start and finish of the meal.

First, a little amuse bouche of a "scrambled egg mousse." Like breakfast in a shot glass, the creamy mousse was infused with bacon and topped with snipped chives, but finished sweetly with a dollop of maple syrup. Some might recognize this as a variation on the "Arpege egg," Alain Passard's iconic egg yolk poached in its shell with creme fraiche and maple syrup. But you don't need to know the reference to know it's delicious.

Another small bite: tombo, or albacore, tuna, aged and cured in lime ash. The tuna had an intriguing, slightly waxy texture, and a deep, concentrated flavor that was further brought out by doses of acidity and umami from translucent cubes of pineapple compressed with tamari.

(continued ...)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

AQ - San Francisco

Three years ago, New York chef David Chang (of the Momofuku empire) caused a bit of a ruckus when he declared: "Fuckin' every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate. Do something with your food."[1] It was not quite Biggie-Tupac material, but it did spark something of an East Coast / West Coast rivalry; nearly a year later, San Francisco chefs were still defiantly crafting "figs on a plate" dishes as they thumbed their noses eastward.

While Chang's gibe was preposterously reductivist, it may have stung precisely because there was an element of truth within the hyperbole. With the quality of product available, it's easy to understand why "California Cuisine" is so ingredient-driven: eat a perfectly ripe Frog Hollow Farm peach and you'll wonder if food can ever be better than that. Perhaps as a result, while there are many great restaurants in the Bay Area, using great ingredients, prepared well, it has not always been exactly a hotbed of culinary creativity, the dominant style often derided as "more shopping than cooking."[2]

But these days, from an outsider's perspective looking in anyway, it seems there are plenty of places in San Francisco that are "doing something" with their food. And though we were limited in our explorations, for reasons noted earlier, one of those places that kept coming to my attention was AQ.[3]

AQ menu

In some ways, AQ would seem to be just another of the seasonal, local, market-driven genre of restaurant. "AQ" stands for "as quoted," like "M.P." or "Market Price," traditional menu lingo for seasonal or specialty items. And the restaurant is designed around the seasons: both the menu and the interior of the restaurant itself are transformed with each season.

But while AQ looks to the seasons and the markets for inspiration, it's not content to merely "let the ingredients speak for themselves;" Chef Mark Liberman[4] doesn't hesitate to manipulate those ingredients or combine them in unexpected ways. At its best, this yields dishes that are small revelations; other times, though, the results seem overwrought and contrived.

AQ dining room

We were only dining at 3/4 power, with Mrs. F taking the night off, so the kids and I journeyed on our own to AQ, located in an old brick building in a rather dodgy SoMa neighborhood.[5] A plaque in the floor of the entranceway announces the season, which is reflected in the decor as well. When we arrived in August, hanging lights strung between the brick walls and dangling green-leafed branches gave the feel of eating in someone's lush backyard garden.

(continued ...)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

State Bird Provisions - San Francisco

State Bird kitchen

I keep lists of restaurants for just about any town I might conceivably visit. I don't get to do nearly as much culinary tourism as I'd like, but it's always good to be prepared. Drop me in just about any major city - several minor ones too - and in fifteen minutes I'll find a good meal.

When I get to the point of actually planning a trip, the list gets even more detailed. For a true dining mecca like San Francisco, which we've visited several times, the difficulty is not in coming up with the list but in paring it down. There are the old favorites, there are the well-known places we've still not yet gotten to, and then there are the waves of intriguing newcomers, and the challenge is figuring out what to squeeze into the limited dining opportunities.

On this particular visit, the paring down process is made both easier and harder by a couple factors. First, we've got very limited time in San Francisco, only three real dinners, in fact, as we're only in town on brief stopovers on our way to and from Hawaii. Second, this is a family trip, and I've learned from painful experience not to test their dining patience too much. I've been rationed to one tasting menu, and it's already spoken for - we've got spots at a Lazy Bear underground dinner one night, so it'll be a la carte for us the rest of the trip. That immediately eliminates a lot of the San Francisco restaurants that would otherwise be high on my list: Saison, BenuAtelier CrennSons & Daughters.

So what I'm looking for, if it makes any sense (and it does to me, anyway), is tasting menu style food, but without the tasting menu format. As I often do, I run my thoughts through Chowhound, where the Bay Area board has often steered me well. Of what's left on the list, one name keeps jumping out at me: State Bird Provisions. I'm not sure where I've heard of it, I've not read much about it, but the idea certainly intrigues: dim sum style service, pushcarts and all, but it's not Chinese food, just an eclectically assembled choice of small plates. It sounds just about perfect for our first night in town, as everyone recovers after a six hour flight.

It turns out to be exactly what I was looking for and then some.

State Bird cart

In a location adjacent to Japantown, an open kitchen hums, carts roll, and colorful little dishes pile up on the tables. But the food is geographically untethered: tofu is paired with Calabrian chiles and pesto; that doughy thing may look a bit like a char siu bao, but it's garlic bread topped with burrata cheese. And this is all no mere gimmick - eating at State Bird is fun, but the food is equally creative, thoughtful, and just flat out delicious.

(You can see all my pictures in this State Bird Provisions flickr set; click on any picture to view it larger.)

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Incanto - San Francisco

IncantoThey smelled good. They were topped with bacon. When I asked if he wanted to know what he was trying before he took a bite, he declined. And that's how my 11-year old son came to eat lamb balls at Incanto.

lamb fries
image via @offalchris
Before you accuse me of some form of child abuse, please keep in mind that he should well have known better. I have long been a fan of the so-called "fifth quarter," or offal. Tongues, cheeks, ears, feet, livers, sweetbreads, tripe, hearts, intestines, marrow, gizzards. They're all my friends. These are things I eat not on a dare, but because they have the capacity for deliciousness. They offer depth of flavor you often won't discover in the "prime cuts" (though in fact many are actually quite mild), and unusual, sometimes luxurious textures. And it is often the measure of a chef's talent what they're able to do with the misnamed "nasty bits." Anyone can take a prime New York strip and make it taste good. It takes some skill to make lamb balls tasty.

Chef Chris Cosentino has that skill, and has been one of the most prominent and vocal champions of offal cookery (along with perhaps his kindred spirit in England, Fergus Henderson). So his restaurant in Noe Valley was one of my "don't miss" destinations on our current San Francisco trip. And Frod Jr. was on clear notice that whatever he was taking a taste of could have come from just about anywhere on or in the animal.

Incanto looks much like many other Italian restaurants, with rough-cut stone floors, simple dark wood furniture, and a series of columns and arches that separate a partially open kitchen from the bustling, boisterous dining room. One thing that's a little different is the glass case of house-cured salumi on display as you walk in (this love of cured meats has expanded into a side business for Chef Cosentino, who now produces several "tasty salted pig parts" for retail sale through Boccalone, with an outpost in the Ferry Building). Many of those pig parts can be sampled on an antipasto platter at Incanto; and the menu, with a leaning towards starter-sized items and almost all pastas available in half portions, lends itself to trying a variety of dishes.

We started with the antipasto platter, which our server helpfully advised was also available in a 1/2 portion, even though this was not listed on the menu. My memory has faded a bit at this point, but I believe it featured some mortadella, prosciutto cotto (a cooked ham, delicately spiced and more sweet than salty), soppressata, porchetta di testa (rolled pig's head, thinly sliced), and a pork paté, along with some nice bright pickled vegetables. All were quite good, and surprisingly conservative with the salt - almost to the point where I thought they could have used a touch more. Some nice crusty bread, along with focaccia and breadsticks, were accompanied by a black olive tapenade.

lobster mushrooms
image via @offalchris
We followed with a simple dish of lobster mushrooms, sea beans and a sizzled egg. The lobster mushrooms are truly beautiful things, gigantic firm mushrooms, almost white in color, but with a gorgeous orange-red blush to the caps like the color of a cooked Maine lobster (they're actually the product of a parasitic fungus that grows on the mushroom). Here they were sliced thin, sauteed, sprinkled with a scatter of sea beans, then topped with an egg quick-fried in olive oil (I'm guessing) which made its own sauce for the mushrooms. I enjoyed this though I found (as I've experienced when cooking them myself) that the lobster mushrooms are actually somewhat short on flavor, though they have an interesting firm, almost steak-y texture.

The lamb fries were also a starter, and were done in a piccata style with bacon. They came, as I guess can be expected, two to an order.[*] The fries were actually a wonderful delicate texture, similar to sweetbreads or fish quenelles. They had a lightly meaty flavor with maybe just the slightest hint of iron, as in liver. And they were soaking in melted butter spiked with capers, topped off with a few strips of salty savory bacon. I thought they were genuinely delicious; Frod Jr., while he didn't go back for a second bite, didn't think they were bad (until after I told him what they were; and even then, he admitted he was more bothered by the idea rather than the flavor).

Next, a 1/2 order of the spaghettini with Sardinian cured tuna heart, egg yolk and parsley. I've had and enjoyed a similar dish at Sardinia Ristorante in Miami made with bottarga, the dried and cured roe sac of a tuna. The cured tuna heart has a flavor very similar to the bottarga, salty and with a deep funky marine whiff to it. It was generously shaved over the hot spaghettini, which had been tossed with olive oil, many slivers of browned garlic and a handful of fresh parsley, and topped with a raw egg yolk which is then lightly cooked by the heat of the pasta as you further toss the pasta yourself.

But Chef Cosentino's cooking is not just about offal. A handkerchief pasta sauced with a pork ragu was just flat-out good cooking. The pasta was just about perfect, supple and smooth without being insipid and limp; and the rustic meat sauce was rich, tender and hearty. Nothing unusual or exotic about this, just a delicious pasta dish.

beef rib
what was left of the beef rib
Frod Jr.'s appetite was not so thrown by the lamb fries that he couldn't dig into a Fred Flintstone-sized English-cut beef rib (a massize length of short rib), topped with "God's butter" (Chef Cosentino's name for beef marrow), dandelion greens and a simple onion salsa. Indeed he made pretty good work of that rib. We also had a braised duck leg, with contrasting notes of sweet and salty provided by grapes and pancetta in the braising liquid. Also very hearty and satisfying.

The wine list, if I recall, was almost exclusively Italian wines, and showed some nice breadth both regionally and in price ranges. A 2003 Fanetti Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva hit the appropriate note of refined rusticity to match the food.

And that is perhaps the best way I can think of to describe the cooking at Incanto - refined rusticity. While much of the attention is paid to Chef Cosentino's work with offal, I think perhaps that angle is overworked to a degree. It's exciting to explore the different flavors and textures that can be offered by the "fifth quarter," but unless it's done well, it's just something to brag about to your friends, which to me is infinitely less rewarding than a genuinely great meal. In our experience, whether it was lamb fries or pasta with pork ragu, this was just good, satisfying food.

1550 Church Street
San Francisco, CA 94131

Incanto on Urbanspoon

[*]As good as they were, I don't think I could eat 28:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Zuni Cafe - San Francisco

zuni I wanted to love Zuni Cafe. I really did. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is one of my all-time favorites, not merely a compendium of recipes but a passionate and wonderfully written guide to how to cook with literally all five of your senses. It's worth the price just for Chef Judy Rodgers' roast chicken recipe alone, even if it is widely available on the internet.[1] I actually don't often do recipes directly from the book, but there are any number of tips I've picked up from reading, and re-reading, that have been invaluable. And besides, notwithstanding my interest in more contemporary techniques, I usually enjoy the "California school" of ingredient-driven cooking of which Zuni is a paragon.

This was my second visit to Zuni, actually. The first was a couple years ago, when Little Miss F and I (having come out to SF a day before the rest of the family) went and ordered the legendary roast chicken. We had a perfectly enjoyable meal. Was it the best roast chicken I've ever had? Interestingly, no - as I noted back then, that honor actually goes to Miami's Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, which does an unabashed riff on the Zuni chicken, including basically every component but the bread cubes (which is a shame). It's possible Michael's chicken had an unfair advantage because we were eating it straight from the wood-fired oven, and (at our request) it was served whole so we got to pick on the delightfully juicy carcass. But that story's been told elsewhere.[2]

This time we had the whole crew together and I had the liberty of exploring some of the less-iconic items on the menu. We started with some Hog Island kumamoto oysters (breaking the "months with an R" rule for the occasion), a Caesar salad, and an heirloom tomato salad, then a spinach soup, a roasted squab, and a tagliata, along with orders of polenta and shoestring fries.

I do love the space itself, a flat-iron shaped wedge with a long bar on the ground floor, some seating around the kitchen area with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on Market Street, and a quirky upstairs area with several little passageways, nooks and crannies. Like our last visit, we were seated on a cozy perch in the second floor that overlooks the downstairs dining room and a bit of the kitchen.

The Caesar was indeed an excellent rendition, another of the iconic Zuni dishes (the burger is probably the third - and it acquired its fame well before the current burger trend). In the cookbook, Chef Rodgers acknowledges "There is nothing clever, original, or mysterious about this Caesar salad. The main 'trick' we rely on is top-notch ingredients, freshly prepared."[3] It works. This was as fine a Caesar salad as I've ever had.

The heirloom tomato salad, on the other hand, was a real disappointment. On our earlier visit a couple years ago I had a tomato salad (it was summer after all) and it came with a bountiful and generous variety of plump, sweet, and tart heirloom tomato slices simply dressed with good olive oil and coarse salt. This time around - well, I had no idea you could slice tomatoes on a mandoline, but I'd swear that's what they had done. This $10 salad came with about 10 paper-thin slices of tomato, along with some thinly sliced cucumber, a scatter of green onion, and again a dose of good olive oil and salt. Aside from being almost absurdly ungenerous, the slicing of the tomatoes as thin as a pounded carpaccio robbed them of any semblance of juicy goodness. I mean, these are tomatoes, not truffles, after all.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fifth Floor - San Francisco

Fifth FloorFor a place that's been able to maintain a high reputation for several years, Fifth Floor sure has had a revolving door in the kitchen. It was opened by George Morrone, but he left for other projects and Laurent Gras (now garnering oohs and ahhs at L2O in Chicago) took over around 2002. He left a couple years later, and was replaced by Melissa Perello, who earned the restaurant a Michelin star during her tenure and was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Best Rising Chef award. Then in 2007 she left, to be replaced briefly by former line cooks Charlie Kleinman and Jake Des Voignes (who managed to successfully maintain that Michelin star). Last year Laurent Manrique (until recently also the chef at the Michelin two-starred Aqua, which he's also left after problems with ownership) briefly took over, but now he's gone. Shortly before we arrived in San Francisco, the baton was passed to Jennie Lorenzo, who had worked with Laurent Gras when he was running Fifth Floor, and whose resume also includes stints at Blackbird in Chicago, time with Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay in London, and a trip to the Far East at the Michelin two-star Ryugin.

That's a lot of turnover at the top, and frankly, Fifth Floor was not on our eating agenda for this San Francisco trip. But we happened to be staying at the Hotel Palomar, wherein Fifth Floor resides, and when we learned that they were promoting a 50% discount on the entire wine list, assembled by the highly regarded and aptly named Master Sommelier Emily Wines (who also did the wine list for Miami's Area 31, another Kimpton hotel), we quickly changed our plans.

When we made our dinner reservation they put us in the lounge area rather than the dining room, which I suppose was just as well, given that we had the kids with us. The lounge area adopts a very clubby, manly theme, with lots of wood and leather. There is one long communal table (which nobody was using), a couple other tables (including a large round one that we commandeered), and several low-rise two-tops scattered about. A quick peek into the dining room gave mostly an impression of beigeness; it looked like an elegant, somewhat generic hotel restaurant. A drawback to being in the lounge area was that service was somewhat sporadic - out of sight, out of mind, and with none of the waitstaff regularly passing through the lounge area, there were times we were somewhat neglected.

The menu is fairly short - no more than 10 appetizers and about the same number of entrees - but was supplemented by a bar menu of mostly simpler fare, which is where we often find things for the kids. The restaurant menu is geographically unplaceable, subtly drawing influences from all over (some Italy with a tortellini, some Japan with a tuna "zuke," some North Africa with a "b'stilla" sauce for foie gras...) but doesn't come off as silly for doing so. Collectively, we had starters of a crab "cappuccino," summer squash tortellini, and a caesar salad, followed by a stuffed quail, and a steak frites and a club sandwich off the bar menu. Things started off a little shaky but got better from there.

The tortellini starter brought three vividly green belly-buttons of stuffed pasta. They were filled with a tiny dice of summer squash, along with a tomato "marmalade" that was not sweet enough to merit the moniker, yet didn't bring much else in the way of flavor contrast either. The "garlic + bread sauce" the tortellini were placed upon had formed an unappealing skin on its murky brown surface, and its flavor didn't do much to enhance the somewhat bland squash filling. The crab "cappuccino" was much more successful, a big coffee cup of a creamy broth redolent with dungeness crab, picked up by a hit of ginger, and topped with a truffle foam duplicating the milky froth of the namesake. The only peculiar note to this one were strands of greenery lurking in the soup (wilted baby spinach?), not off from a flavor perspective but just an unexpected texture given the "cappuccino" descriptor. A caesar salad bore a pungent whiff of fishiness (and this from someone who is a big anchovy fan).

The quail, on the other hand, was pure bliss. The bird was perfectly roasted, the legs separately from the rest of the body, which had been boned out and stuffed with a slightly chunky and very flavorful forcemeat. It was served over a bed of a succotash of fresh corn, peas and piquillo peppers along with a scatter of pea tendrils, and then a Madeira sauce was poured tableside (the tableside finish possibly being either an allusion to or a remnant from the Manrique tenure, but either way a nice touch if somewhat incongruous while eating in the more casual lounge). Every single component of this was good on its own, and even better together.

The steak off the bar menu was also nice, a thin cut (the same as the rib-eye "paillard" on the regular menu?) which I suspect was cooked sous-vide and then finished with a quick sear, as it bore that method's typical red-to-the-edges coloration. It came with some gloriously crispy fries which had been given a drizzle of a bright green herb oil. One oddity was that the bar menu steak came at no notable discount from the one on the regular menu, a more composed and elaborate dish with persillade tater tots (tots!), cipollini onion, smoked sour cream and a cabernet reduction. I didn't try the club sandwich but noticed that between my wife and daughter it disappeared quietly and surreptitiously.

The real standout of the dinner, particularly with the 50% discount, was the wine - a 2003 Frederic Magnien Vosne-Romanee Les Suchots. What a treat it is to be able to get such a nice wine, with some bottle age on it, for about $85.

We closed out with one dessert, a warm chocolate pudding cake. Frod Jr. finds it almost impossible to resist the gravitational pull of a warm chocolate cake, but this one came with some unusual accompaniments - a lime cream, a coconut foam, and popcorn ice cream. It sounded pretty unlikely, but it all worked out just fine. Presented in a big old-fashioned glass, any sign of chocolate was initially completely concealed by a big white cloud of coconut foam. As we dug in, it all came together in surprisingly pleasing fashion, and Frod Jr. and I both particularly enjoyed the popcorn ice cream.

Though we experienced some missteps, the 1/2 off wine deal alone would seem enough to make Fifth Floor worth a visit. And if the rest of the menu can reach the level of the quail dish and the dessert we had, then San Franciscans ought to hope that Jennie Lorenzo sticks around a while.

Fifth Floor
12 4th Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

Fifth Floor on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 24, 2009

San Francisco Dim Sum - Yank Sing, Great Eastern

Our trips to Northern California always seem to start the same way. The non-stop flight from Miami gets us into San Francisco around noon, and after six hours in the air we are ready to stretch our legs and fill our bellies. While the order of those priorities sometimes varies, the former always involves a walk across town (typically starting from the hotel in SOMA or near Union Square, winding our way through Chinatown, then North Beach, and finally out to the Fisherman's Wharf to fulfill our obligations as tourists); and the latter invariably involves dim sum.

This time around, we elected to start with the belly-filling dim sum portion of the agenda, particularly since our hotel was only a few blocks away from Yank Sing. The commonly held wisdom among SF locals these days seems to be that the best dim sum is found in the farther reaches of the Bay Area: the Richmond District in San Francisco, and even further afield in Millbae and San Mateo. But for in-city eats, Yank Sing still has a well-earned reputation that we've confirmed on several prior visits; plus, it was geographically desirable.

The original Stevenson Street location is somewhat hidden in plain sight one block south of Market Street, and with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows and white tablecloths, it is one of the more polished-looking dim sum venues I've visited. Service is push-cart style, and tea is brought in stylish glass infusion pots. We selected a fairly customary lineup of items: xiao long bao (pork soup dumplings), har gow (shrimp dumplings), shiu mai (pork & shrimp dumplings), baked char siu bao (bbq pork buns), potstickers, turnip cake, fried shrimp, spring rolls, and custard tarts. We also added on four pieces of Peking duck, a nice item to be able to get as dim sum, with big slivers of crispy skin with a little meat attached, to be stuffed into little steamed buns along with some hoisin sauce and shredded scallion.

The xiao long bao are something of a house specialty and are indeed a fine example. The dumplings have a smooth, thin, just slightly elastic shell, within which lurks a filling of minced pork bathing in a mouth-filling gulp of rich broth (they are made by including cold, gelatinized broth in the filling, which warms back to a soup when the dumplings are steamed). Yank Sing's recommended eating method is to gently place the dumpling in a soup spoon (without breaking the wrapper), and ladle over some ginger-infused vinegar - from there you're on your own. I bite off a bit from the top of the dumpling, slurp a bit of broth, then eat the rest in one gushing mouthful.

XLB have made occasional appearances in Miami (briefly at Jumbo, in the North Miami Beach location now housing Hong Kong Noodles; at Mr. Chu's, a dim sum place on South Beach which has now moved to Coral Gables as Chu's Taiwanese Kitchen, though I don't believe they have dim sum service any longer; I have heard the newly opened Philippe on South Beach will be offering them, though I haven't yet been to confirm) but they are pretty hard to find here. That's too bad, as when done well I think they are one of the crowning achievements of dim sum cookery. Frod Jr. and Little Miss F certainly thought so, too. We ended up having to order two rounds (6 dumplings apiece) and I still only got two XLB total.

The rest of the dim sum was all good, high quality, and pleasing, though there was nothing that really floored me. Despite advertising that they offer over 100 selections, the choices available during our visit seemed much less broad, and focused primarily on traditional, middle-of-the-road items. I saw no chicken feet, no tripe, nor anything else particularly exotic. In Yank Sing's defense, I think the Rincon Center location may have a broader selection, and on a return visit on the back end of our trip (return visits are highly irregular on the same trip for us, but the kids insisted on another XLB experience) we did try a few more unusual items, including a bright yellow steamed dumpling (colored with egg yolk?) stuffed with minced vegetables, and a tofu item topped with an assertively-flavored dice of onion, ginger and chiles.

The carts are many and are regularly moving throughout the restaurant, and special items also get circulated frequently (the Peking duck, lettuce cups, big pieces of baked sea bass). Servers are generally very friendly, including one who diligently hunted down some fresh XLB for us on our second visit when we didn't see any circulating. The high volume helps keep everything fresh and hot, which is always a plus.

I was somewhat floored by the bill after our first visit, which came out to well over $100 for about 11 items - easily the most I have ever paid for dim sum for 4 people. On our return visit I got a look at a pricelist and at least began to understand how it got so high. Even the cheapest items go for around $4-5 an item, and many, like the xiao long bao, are around $10 or even higher. The Peking duck goes for a whopping $5 a piece. Whether or not the dim sum is worth this kind of premium (easily 2x what I'm accustomed to seeing at many other places) is certainly open to debate.

And while I'm not one of those people who seem to believe (particularly when it comes to "ethnic" food) that the dirtier the place, the better the food (I'm not sure what distinguishes House of Nanking other than its grimy windows) - there is something that seems to me just a little too sanitized about Yank Sing. It's not so much the clean restaurant and the white tablecloths - it's the absence of any offal or even for that matter any meat on the bone that seems sort of odd. The food is good, and the xiao long bao are exceptional; but I miss some of the variety that often makes a dim sum meal so pleasing.

Yank Sing
49 Stevenson Street
San Francisco, CA 94105

Yank Sing on Urbanspoon

Great Eastern menuThe following day, we ended up again retracing steps from one of our prior visits to San Francisco, and went to Great Eastern for lunch. Great Eastern is a big, bustling place in the heart of Chinatown, with two floors filled with tables, and the back of the restaurant occupied by several tanks holding live seafood - dungeness crabs, spot prawns, ling cod, geoduck clams, and other delicacies. They offer checklist-style dim sum service at lunchtime, and also a lengthy menu that runs the gamut - a cornucopia of seafood items, unsurprisingly, but also Chinese BBQ, cold platter items, all sorts of soups, clay pot dishes, and plenty else to boot (goose chitterlings, goose web, sea cucumber, etc.).

We had a cold platter with thinly sliced beef shank, duck tongues, and jellyfish. The beef shank was nice, with a slightly gelatinous texture, and a rich flavor not completely overwhelmed by soy and five-spice. The jellyfish I'm also growing quite fond of, its long, slightly bouncy strands reminding me both in appearance and texture of a thick cellophane noodle, dressed with sesame oil and a touch of vinegar. The duck tongues, however, have yet to demonstrate their allure to me - somewhat firm, not too flavorful, and with a bit of cartilage running up the middle that was a tad too hard to comfortably chew up. After a few tries I figured out how to scrape the meat off the strip of cartilage, but it still hardly seemed worth the effort. These seem like they'd be better in a warm preparation, or perhaps confited.

The dim sum we ordered was generally pretty pedestrian and unexciting (the kids scorned the xiao long bao here as decidedly inferior to those at Yank Sing, though they still finished them); a "house special" dim sum item of "pasta" roll with spicy XO sauce was at least something I'd never seen before. The somewhat thick rice pasta sheets I've often seen wrapped, crepe-like, around roast pork or other fillings were here rolled and then sliced crosswise (like cinnamon buns) and dressed with a chunky chile-garlic sauce and also some shredded meat.

The real standout at Great Eastern - as I could have predicted - was the seafood. Our table was right next to those tanks, and from the moment we sat down I couldn't take my eyes off the spot prawns dancing above our heads. Our server said the minimum order was 1 pound (for $35) which he recommended we get steamed. Done. This order brought at least 8 beautiful prawns, split in half cross-wise and dressed with a colorful and flavorful confetti of garlic, ginger, chiles and cilantro. They were beautifully fresh and sweet.

I've only begun to scratch the surface of San Francisco's dim sum and Chinese options, but it is these kinds of experiences that always make me skeptical of any claim that a particular place is the "best" dim sum in town (or any other food genre for that matter). Yank Sing may have the best xiao long bao in town but I'm dubious they could run the table for every other variety of dim sum too. The fresh seafood at Great Eastern was excellent but the rest of the stuff was fairly pedestrian. I suspect that with enough exploration, you could find plenty of "bests" for different individual items. Maybe next visit we should squeeze in a field trip to Millbrae.

Great Eastern
649 Jackson Street
San Francisco, CA 94133

Great Eastern on Urbanspoon