Thursday, April 12, 2012

Open Your Golden Ate

I'd be lying if I didn't admit I travel mostly to eat at new places, and I'd never lie to you, dear reader. Instead, I will bring back ripping yarns about manly meals and hope that the yarns covering my body don't rip from all the consumption. (And also hope that the dated diction at the start of the previous sentence doesn't leave you thinking I mean TB when I write consumption. Cough, cough.)

Two weekends back we had the good fortune to go to San Francisco and the bad fortune to have only about 48 hours total there, from Friday noonish till Sunday 10 am--if you're scoring at home, that's merely time for two dinners, two breakfasts, and a lunch. Luckily we were camped across from the Ferry Building again at the Hotel Vitale, which is still wonderful, and it looks like I owe y'all a Ferry Building essay that's more than a year a-coming. (I'll get there, promise. I'm fascinated by the FB and the way it totally fetishizes foodie culture and I still love it, anyway. Got to write that contradiction out to make sense of it.) That said, I want to run through the dinners and one of the lunches so you may drool onto your keyboard.

Named after a highway near Naples, this long revered place makes amazing Indian food...almost got you, didn't I? Nope, it's Italian without ever being Eye-talian, from the pizza program that's even certified by the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association to the teeth-stainingly good squid ink cavatelli. Airy, crispy, and with a bit of the wood-oven char, those pies are perfection with their mere smears of toppings: nothing is in the slightest heavy-handed, but neither is it precious or leaves you wanting. A16 also teaches you the fanciest word for crackers ever--croccantini--that come so you can scoop up yummy local albacore conserva with dried fava bean puree. Tuna and beans go together like Rogers and Astaire, of course (just ask your friend from Nice about his salad), and these do a delightful Continental on your tastebuds. It doesn't hurt that there's bitter greens and garlic to contrast the bass notes of the dish's stars.Then there's a wines-by-the-glass program that makes me feel very ignorant and thirsty--if you don't know your odder Southern Italian varietals, the staff will guide you accurately.

The Monk's Kettle
This cozy (or too damn tiny, depending upon whether you've lucked into a seat or are hoping for one) spot in the Mission likes to claim it helped kick off the gastropub movement back when such places were called gut-taverns and didn't have as good PR. Seriously, it's been around since 2007 and hits the sweet spot of fine beers (24 drafts and 180 bottles) and a small but exciting menu that not only does the now de rigueur local and organic thing, but likes working beer into the mix in usual (Penn Cove mussels cooked in Allagash White ale) and unusual (hop salt on the fries, spent grain in the veggie burger) ways. That veggie burger is far from the usual frozen slab to silence, if far from please, the non-meat eaters--it also is made with chick peas, and then adorned with fromage blanc, aioli, and onion jam. Those hop salt fries come with, and anyone would be glad they do, some of the most expertly cooked fries I've had in ages, crispy on the outside, almost creamy on the in.

Meat eaters won't go hungry, particularly if they're fond of odder cuts like sweetbreads and a plate of beef cheeks atop polenta with a daring dash of horseradish. The cheeks are fork tender without being insta-mouth mushy, the polenta a worthy foil and not merely some starch. An Existent, a dark farmhouse ale from Stillwater Artisanal Ales, made me realize the right brew might outdo any Bourdeaux (well, in my price range) for a meaty match, not to mention let me know I need to get back to my old college stomping grounds, Baltimore, and check out its brew scene (those old poor undergrad days meant Natty Boh or bank account bust, alas).

Supposedly you're not just talking hats with your oo-la-lah accent but saying wow if said chapeau is followed by an exclamation point. Chapeau! can make this claim for many reasons, not the least of which is that when you get your check, that comes to the table inside a hat, you'll be amazed at the lowish price for how much fine Frenchiness you had to eat and drink. But perhaps the wow is most earned as this is a place that has defeated web diy lcd syndrome--over 1500 people on Yelp have rated it and it still gets a well-deserved 4-and-a-1/2 stars. Incroyable!

This Richmond-district neighborhood joint is nothing fancy but captures a buzz in its precisely cream colored room, that hue making the light a bit gilded, and that effect is aided by the two-foot-or-so mirror panel that runs the perimeter, catching light and laughing faces and giving even the diners facing their companions on the ring-around-the-room banquets a view of much of the place. Chef and owner Philippe Gardelle greets everyone as if you'd been coming here all along, which is no doubt why many do. (And I am assuming every woman leaving gets the grand gesture two-cheek kiss when leaving and not just my gorgeous wife.)

As for the food, if you have a hankering for the French classics, you'll get them here done in a classic style but subtly updated and refined. That fourme d'ambert tart with pear and just the right amount of frisee will ruin you for savory pastries, that trio of salmon (tartare, roe, and gravlax) will all play off each other in taste (sweet, salt, salty-sweet) and texture (melt, pop, chew), while the plate, lightly glazed with gorgeous lines of creme fraiche quite chilled, gives up that dairy begrudgingly, so it never overpowers the fish. The skate wing in brown butter you will almost, almost that is, like best for the fingerling potatoes that come with it. And then the cassoulet. The meat-lovers dish akin to that girl in high school who only meant to please and did, this one has duck leg confit tender but not overcooked, the two very different sausages (garlic and Toulouse), and then the cannellini beans that have somehow sucked in every other tinge of the long-braise's flavors, so close to bursting yet still firm. A three-course prix fixe here is a mere $40, and the wines come by the glass and half-glass, if you need just a bit more St. Joseph for the last moist morsels of duck (you do have the leg's bone in your paws by now, but everyone else who has had the dish can't blame you).

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