SF Round-Up: Kin Khao, Marlowe, The Progress, Nopalito, Cotogna

“SF vs. NYC restaurants” is always a popular topic of debate, and there are certainly arguments to be had for both. Since I live in NY and visit SF one-off every year or so, I’m clearly more familiar with and biased towards the NYC food scene. That being said, I did visit SF several weekends ago and had wonderful meals at a couple restaurants, and here are some key differences I noticed between the two cities:

  1. Food quality is generally better in SF, so the baseline of restaurants is higher. You can walk into a divey looking bar in SF and expect to eat very decent food since chances are good that the ingredients will be fresh and locally sourced. In New York, not so much…
  2. The fine dining restaurant price points are generally higher. Saison $398 before gratuity?? (they said tipping is optional but come on…). Benu $268 before the 20% gratuity? Atelier Crenn $298 all-inclusive? On the New York side, Eleven Madison Park at $295 doesn’t sound like a steal, but it at least includes gratuity and there’s always the option of eating at the bar. Gramercy Tavern at $125 sounds like a bargain, by comparison, and again, there are even cheaper lunch menus and bar menus available. On the high end is Per Se at $325, gratuity included, but I think it’s safe to say that this restaurant is losing its edge a bit and is not as relevant as it once was. In case you were wondering, Atera is $235 gratuity included.
  3. Food in SF veers on the heavier side and tends to be served “family style”. I was surprised by this, as I expected California to have the edge on healthy foods, but every single lunch and dinner I had in SF was so rich and heavy. The ingredients were high quality, but it was like heavy full fat organic creams, meaty grass-fed, dry-aged beef patties and deep fried handmade tortillas. And family style dining is the norm in SF…I’m not sure why that is, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, just something I noticed.
  4. Mid price restaurants taste better in New York. I do think that New York is stronger in this category. The high quality, moderately priced restaurants like Pasquale Jones, Freek’s Mill or Uncle Boons are much more interesting and more flavorful than a Kin Khao or The Progress. I’m not saying that Kin Khao tastes bad, but the food is not as memorable as Pok Pok or Sripraphai.
  5. Japanese is better in New York. Ramen, sushi, just about everything. Korean is probably just as bad, and I can’t really speak to Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese…

Anyways, enough about that. Here’s a recap of recent SF restaurants I visited. Hope this is helpful to you if you’re ever making a trip out there.Read More

Tomales Bay Day Trip

 

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San Francisco is a beautiful city, but at some point it starts to feel small. Which is why day trips are essential to keep things feeling fresh. Napa, Sonoma and Big Sur are some popular options, but I’m a big fan of a much more low-key day trip to Tomales Bay. Tomales Bay, which is only about an hour’s drive from SF, is known for the fresh oysters that come directly from its waters. You can stop at any of the restaurants along the bay for some oysters that will taste better than anything you get at your high quality happy hour. Raw, grilled, smoked, it all tastes incredible. If you’re feeling up to it, you can even shuck the oysters yourself, but who really wants to prep their own food?Read More

SF Travels: Last Supper at Bar Tartine

Bar Tartine

My last dinner in San Francisco could not have been more perfect. A group of 7 friends, some of whom I haven’t seen in several years, caught up and broke bread at Bar Tartine. The beautiful, rustic wood fixtures were reminiscent of a luxurious country home–informal enough to set a comfortable tone for our reunion, but refined enough to mark this dinner as a special occasion. The cooking certainly enhanced this feeling, as we engaged in a family-style dinner around a communal table, passing around large plates of some of Bar Tartine’s most noteworthy dishes.

At first glance, I thought Bar Tartine would be a quintessential Bay Area restaurant featuring local, seasonal American cooking, but the flavors were much more bold and intense than your typical farm-to-table food. I tasted hints of Korean influences in the pickled vegetables, and more obviously Eastern European and Southeast Asian seasonings in the main courses. Overall, I found that the most successful dishes were not afraid to exploit these robust flavor influences. Here’s a rundown of my favorite items.

Favorites: Pickled vegetables; potato flat bread with sour cream; smoked potatoes with green ramp mayonnaise; and curried carrots in kefir buttermilk with spiced hazelnuts

A smattering of pickled vegetables arrived at the start of the meal, similar to how Korean restaurants serve pre-appetizer banchan small plates. The pickled turnips even tasted like Korean water kimchi. My favorites were the asparagus and horseradish, the mushrooms and the curried cauliflowers and potatoes. The loaf of dark rye bread that was brought to the table was amazing as well, a testament to Bar Tartine’s roots as an artisanal bakery.

mushrooms at bar tartine
mushrooms
pickled turnips
pickled turnips
asparagus and horseradish
asparagus and horseradish
curried cauliflower and potato at bar tartine
curried cauliflower and potato
country rye bread
country rye bread

The potato flat bread was simply euphoric. It was love at first bite when making contact with the golden, deep-fried bread crust. My teeth sank into a soft and chewy interior that was not at all greasy, and the sour cream added a nice, light touch to an otherwise heavy course. This was my second favorite food revelation in SF, the first still being the seaweed crostini at State Bird Provisions.

potato bread--euphoric
potato flat bread–euphoric

I never had smoked potatoes before, so I was immediately struck by the novelty of the sensation. The roasted skin had a nice, crispy char and seemed to be infused with the embers of wood-smoked chips. The dollop of green ramp mayonnaise provided moisture and and some garlic flavors to the potatoes. This dish was like a wild, foraged version of baked potatoes.

smoked potatoes and green ramp mayonnaise
smoked potatoes with green ramp mayonnaise

The coolness of the curried carrots was a nice respite from the heavier flavor palate of the two potato dishes. It almost seems like a contradiction to characterize something curried as cool, but the curry seasoning in the whipped kefir based buttermilk was subtle, almost like a hint of cinnamon or nutmeg. I was blown away by the beautiful plating of this dish—the hues of bright orange and purple felt like autumn on a plate. The carrots were soft, but avoided that mushy sensation you can get with overcooked root vegetables, and the sprouted lentils provided nice texture. 

curried carrots in kefir buttermilk with spiced hazelnuts
curried carrots in kefir buttermilk with spiced hazelnuts

Honorable mentions: English pea and goat cheese dip with sesame crackers and laver; green chili fisherman’s stew with collards; and roasted kale with rye, seeds and yoghurt

With a name like green chili fisherman’s stew, you expect the dish to be rough, homey and a little bit in your face, as if a crew of Thai fisherman threw in today’s catch in an impromptu soup. The stew was well executed but very mild in taste. I wanted to taste more of the sour flavors, more of the lemongrass, cilantro and fish sauce that you get in a tom yum soup. This was more like well-mannered bouillabaisse.

green chili fisherman's stew
green chili fisherman’s stew

Roasted kale is one of my favorite food items, and the way Bar Tartine prepared it didn’t disappoint. The leaves were crisp but not brittle, which is a feat in itself since my roasted kale chips always fall apart at the slightest touch. The thick yoghurt and seed dressing tasted like a raw foodist’s version of peanut butter, providing the kale leaves with an earthy, creamy touch. 

roasted kale with rye, seeds and yoghurt
roasted kale with rye, seeds and yoghurt

There was nothing all that complex about the pea and goat cheese dip. Its light and fluffy texture, and the inoffensive mildness of the light goat cheese, seemed designed to appeal to the masses. It was a solid dish that went down easy.

English pea and goat cheese dip with sesame crackers
English pea and goat cheese dip with sesame crackers

Just ok: chopped vegetable salad; beef tartare with egg and coriander; squab ‘paprikas’ with spatzle and mushrooms; and desserts in general–farmer’s cheese tart and carob with black walnut

These dishes were edible but very unmemorable flavor wise. The chopped vegetable dish tasted like an unremarkable egg salad, and the vegetables used were much too bulky. The ground meat in the beef tartare was extremely bland. I personally don’t like squab–picking scraps of meat off of tiny bird bones is simply unappealing. Plus, the mushrooms had much more flavor than the meat did. The spatzle that was served alongside it was nothing special and seemed to add unnecessary volume to the dish.

chopped vegetable salad at bar tartine
chopped vegetable salad
beef tartare with egg and coriander at bar tartine
beef tartare with egg and coriander
squab ‘paprikas’ with spatzle and mushrooms at bar tartine
squab ‘paprikas’ with spatzle and mushrooms

Desserts don’t really seem to be Bar Tartine’s strong suit. The carob with black walnut tasted like an unsweetened chocolate mousse. You know how sometimes you go to a vegan bakery and get fake chocolate cake, but that just makes you want the real thing even more? That’s how I felt with this carob. The cheese tart had a nice and light texture, similar to whipped ricotta and mascarpone. But overall it tasted like someone had forgotten the sugar in a cheesecake. Maybe that was the point, to emphasize the “cheese” in tart, but it was a little too savory for me.

I couldn’t have asked for more from my last dinner in San Francisco. This meal left a good impression on all levels–the unexpected flavor pairings and multicultural culinary influences made my meal more adventurous, and the service was relaxed and congenial, allowing me to enjoy the food and the surrounding company that much more. I hope Bar Tartine continues to experiment with its inventive farm-to-table creations so that I can add to my arsenal of fond food memories here on a future visit.


Bar Tartine
561 Valencia St
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 487-1600

 

SF Travels: State Bird Provisions, The Best New Restaurant in America

pushcarts at state bird provisions
pushcarts at State Bird Provisions

Being named “the best” at anything, while a huge honor, is also a mixed blessing that invites intense scrutiny and inflated expectations from others. State Bird Provisions found itself in this position when it was honored as “Best New Restaurant” in the country by the James Beard Foundation. Naturally, on my trip to San Francisco, I had to find out for myself whether State Bird Provisions lived up to the hype. Tables were already booked up well in advance, so my best option of securing a seating was to line up for the limited number of walk-ins that become available at 5:30 pm each day. This was Little Serow all over again, and I knew that I would have to line up well in advance of 5:30 in order to improve my chances. Luckily the stars were aligned, and after a 30 minute wait, I successfully booked a table for two at 8:30 pm, a normal dinner hour!

State Bird Provisions takes an unconventional, eat-by-the-seat-of-your pants approach to serving its small plates, a sort of Western take on Chinese dim sum service. You get thrown out of your comfort zone of knowing what to expect from your meal, as there is no set menu to refer to. Instead, dinner becomes a game of chance, and a server comes around pushing the plates on a cart, asking you point blank whether you’d like to accept or reject the options. Dinner takes on a tense and unsettling tone. Should you take a chance on this dish? Or should you hold out for something better? What if something better never comes your way?

We were constantly in a state of stressed indecision during the first part of dinner. Several servers pitched their dishes to us, but we didn’t really feel strongly about any of the options. Finally, out of pressure, we pulled the trigger and ordered the tuna crudo & confit with chickpeas and cumin, which can best be described as a chunky seafood dip served with a side of potato chips. We were also relieved to know that there were a small number of items that could be ordered off of a traditional menu, and we opted for the state bird with provisions and the sturgeon pancake. These three items could hold off the game of culinary Shark Tank for a little bit.

Our initial assessment of these three dishes was that they were very solid but not excellent. The restaurant’s namesake dish state bird with provisions fries the California valley quail and serves it with a side of sweet and sour onions and shaved Parmesan cheese. I personally thought the buttermilk batter that was used to coat the quail meat was too thick and didn’t allow for the delicate, gamey flavors to come through.

namesake dish - CA state bird with provisions
namesake dish – CA state bird with provisions

The smoked sturgeon pancake reminded me of a very good smoked fish and latke. There was no denying the quality of the separate components on the plate–the smoked sturgeon filets were pleasingly plump and fresh, the horseradish cream was a nice, light counterpoint to the briney flavors of the fish, and the fluffy pancake also balanced out the rich, seafood flavors. At the end of the day, it was a very good smoked fish pancake because the underlying ingredients were good to begin with and were prepared in a time-tested fashion, not because State Bird Provisions enhanced them in some mindblowing way. Same goes for the tuna crudo & confit. Potato chips and chunky, creamy dips is a proven flavor pairing. The restaurant executed everything well, but not in a way that significantly elevated the dish above existing forms.  

smoked sturgeon, horseradish schmear, ‘everything’ pancake
smoked sturgeon, horseradish schmear, ‘everything’ pancake
tuna crudo & confit with chickpeas & cumin
tuna crudo & confit with chickpeas & cumin

Everything so far tasted good, but nothing blew me away. I felt like I was in a musical performance watching some pleasant preceding acts, but I wanted to build up to the climax. We finally got our show stopper in the form of the hamachi-avocado seaweed crostini. The first bite left me and my friend Jeannie speechless. Oh my goodness. They should rename this dish seaweed crack. The nori seaweed square was deep fried to perfection. The hamachi brought some lightness to the cracker, while the avocado provided some fullness without adding any heaviness. And something about the aioli-type sauce really brought out the savory, umami flavors of the nori in an extraordinary way. It was so incredible, we ordered another one. At this point, we felt that the best new restaurant title might somewhat be justified.

hamachi-avocado seaweed crostini
hamachi-avocado seaweed “crack” crostini–amazing!!

Aside from the second order of nori crackers, we also ordered spicy kimchi yuba noodles, the charred Spanish octopus in tomato salsa and the garlic bread with burrata. Jeannie remarked that the yuba noodles “taste exactly like they sound.” And she was right. Yuba is essentially tasteless tofu skin, so as expected the noodles were extremely bland. The intense pickled flavors of the kimchi provided the noodles with some flavor, but that was it. You were literally eating noodles and kimchi, and integrating the two didn’t result in some powerful flavor combination. The octopus on the other hand, was perfectly cooked. The pan-fried technique allowed for a nice crispy char around the edges, but the meat inside still retained its fresh and tender qualities. The sauce was a little sweet and a tad spicy, similar to Korean gochujang sauce, a savory condiment made of red chili, fermented soybeans, glutinous rice and salt. The garlic bread was deep-fried to perfection, resembling a wonderfully soft, fresh and pliable cruller doughnut. The salty garlic seasoning was a perfect complement to the crispy, golden crust, and the burrata’s creamy flavors and texture balanced everything out. I only wished that the bread were served a tad warmer.

spicy kimchi yuba noodles
spicy kimchi yuba noodles
charred spanish octopus in tomato salsa
charred spanish octopus in tomato salsa
garlic bread with burrata
garlic bread with burrata

I certainly enjoyed my dinner at State Bird Provisions. Nothing ever tasted bad, and the only recurring criticism I had was that something pretty good wasn’t even better. I think a restaurant is probably doing a really good job if that is the only real fault I find with it. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Russian Roulette type ordering experience, but I can appreciate how this type of dinner service is more adventurous and unique than you would get a a traditional sit-down place. And the joy of stumbling upon the amazing seaweed crostini  was one of the most memorable dining experiences I’ve had to date. I would gladly stand in line again for dinner if the opportunity ever presented itself. I’m not sure if this is THE best new restaurant in America, but it certainly is one of the best.