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Tuesday
Jan242012

San Francisco Tasting Tour 

View of the Transamerica Pyramid from Chinatown

San Francisco has a fabulous restaurant culture and you would need far more than the 3 days we allocated ourselves to get a proper sense of what this city has to offer but we did our best to make the most of the time we had.

Here is our dining itinerary:

DAY 1

Left ORD 9 am and arrived at SFO at 1 pm. Hopped on the Pittsburg BART line for $8.10 per person and arrived at our hotel in Union Square 30 minutes later.

Kuleto's -- This San Francisco institution was designed by legendary designer, restauranteur and vintner Pat Kuleto.  Kuleto's projects include Fog City Diner, Farallon, Boulevard, Jardinere and Postrio to name but a few. We stopped in for a glass of wine.

A childhood favorite made in San Francisco since 1928

It's It Fix -- I grew up on these and there's nothing quite like the taste of nostalgia which in this case is vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two oatmeal cookies, covered in a crisp chocolate shell. 

John's Grill -- This iconic restaurant has about around since 1908. We enjoyed a glass of wine and chatted up the bartender who had worked there for 30 years. He said Jack LaLanne was a regular customer  and they eventually named a salad after him on the menu. John's Grill was also the setting for Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.

Zuni's famous Caesar Salad

Zuni Cafe -- Chef and Partner Judy Rodgers was one of the pioneers of California cuisine: clean and simple cooking with seasonal, fresh produce. We ordered their famous Caesar salad and I discovered it was identical to the one I had served at a restaurant back in the 90's. Perhaps the chef at my old restaurant was quite taken by the salad as well and decided to emulate it along with Zuni's famous roast chicken, wood burning oven and elements of their decor. But then again, it was the 90's and Caesar salads, wood burning ovens and open kitchens were quite popular.

Note Pizzeria Delfina's condiment service for pizza

Pizzeria Delfina/Delfina -- After our Caesar salad snack at Zuni Cafe, we wandered down Market Street and made our way to the Mission district to Delfina Pizzeria on 18th St. After enjoying their sausage pizza we went next door to their more "formal" restaurant.

Bi-Rite Ice Cream -- located a few doors down from Delfina is the Bi-Rite Market which was closed but luckily their creamery across the street was still open. The ginger ice cream alone was worth the trip to San Francisco.

State Bird Provision's Cart Service

State Bird Provisions -- the final stop of the night was a 10 pm reservation at this unique new restaurant. They offer dim-sum style service where a waiter brings around a cart of various items for you to choose from. You can also enjoy items from the menu. The state bird for California is the quail (I still remember this from history class - thank you) and they offer it up deep-fried and delicious.

DAY 2

Bags of Blue Bottle Coffee awaiting eager patrons

Blue Bottle Cafe -- we started our second day bright and early with coffee. Blue Bottle has a cult following and when we arrived at the Mint Plaza location, there was already a line out the door. I had some difficulties in deciding how to order my coffee as they offer several brewing methods: drip over, single origin siphon, French Press, espresso, etc. I felt like I was in an episode of Portlandia but the coffee was very tasty.

Venga Empanadas -- We were on our way to visit Tartine Bakery in the Mission District but who can resist an Argentine style emapanada?

Tartine's take on a turkey sandwich

Tartine Bakery and Cafe -- Tartine is located next door to Delfina which we had visited the night before. I had heard so much about Tartine and was pleased to discover that the experience was well worth the hype. The only problem was deciding what to order as they offer everything from pastries, cakes, cookies, confections, sandwiches and all sorts of little things in between. We settled on a croissant that was perfectly laminated and soft and buttery on the inside. I spied a few people enjoying tempting looking sandwiches so I we decided to order the turkey pesto on Acme bread. If you find yourself in SF, I highly recommend you visit Tartine. It's a fantastic experience.

To earn our appetites we then walked through the Castro District, Haight, Hayes Valley, Chinatown and then eventually ending up in North Beach. It was a wet and rainy day so we stopped for a glass of wine and a chance to dry off at Absinthe in between neighborhoods.

Stella's Cannoli - take it and stay

Cannoli -- North Beach for me is synonymous with cannoli and other delicious Italian pastries. I couldn't decide between Stella's and Caffe Roma so we tried them at both locations. Needless to say, all the walking we did was crucial.

Kitchen window between Cotogna and Quince

Cotogna/Quince -- Our next stop was Cotogna, located a few blocks from North Beach in the Financial District. I had read a lot about James Beard Award-winning Chef Michael Tusk but unfortunately, Cotogna was closed for a private party. Their much higher-end, sister restaurant Quince was right next door but we were too wet and mangy looking to dine there. We poked our heads in for a quick look and the hosts cheerfully welcomed us in. With hospitality like that, how could we refuse? The wine director for Quince and Cotogna is the uber-awesome David Lynch. I'm a big fan of his wine lists so we decided to enjoy a glass of wine at the bar. David is currently planning his own restaurant, St. Vincent, which I look forward to visiting on my next trip.

Delarosa -- properly bolstered by sugar and wine, we began our long walk to Marina/Cow Hollow to visit A16. Along the way, we happened upon Delarosa (a sister restaurant to Beretta). The atmosphere was alive with communal table buzz so we grabbed a couple seats at the bar and watched the very handsome bartender churn out some serious looking drinks. Delarosa is known for their roman style pizzas but we resisted ordering one since we were on our way to A16. We snacked on crab arancini and meatballs instead.

Chef's table at A16

A16 -- A16 is down the street from Delarosa and I feared we would not be able to get in without a reservation. Twenty minutes after arriving, the friendly hostess placed us at the Chef's table which gives you a bird's eye view of the open kitchen with two wood burning ovens. Talk about dinner theater! We ordered an anchovy, olive and egg pizza and it had the perfect balance between a chewy and light crust with a wet but not watery center. Fantastic! A key component of the A16 experience is the interesting and impressive Italian wine program curated by Owner/Wine Director Shelley Lindgren.

SPQR & NOPA -- I hoped we had the time and energy to visit SPQR (sister restaurant to A16) and NOPA but sadly a long walk in the rain awaited us and we felt that it was best to reserve our energy for the next day.

DAY 3

Blue Bottle Coffee -- once again we began our day with Blue Bottle coffee.

RN74 -- A major reason for going to San Francisco was so we could visit RN74, a wine bar from Michael Mina and star sommelier Rajat Parr. If you are a Burgundy fan, you must visit this restaurant at some point in your life. We opted for a lunch of Toulouse sausage and beans, pate and cheese accompanied by some really addictive Della Fattoria bread (it seems serving good bread is a recurring theme for San Francisco restaurants).

Rainy day along the Embarcadero

Boulevard -- I was still craving some more cheese after our lunch at RN74 so we decided to stop in at Boulevard restaurant located a few blocks away along the Embarcadero. The Bay Area is home to an impressive lineup of female chefs and food pioneers including Alice Waters, Joyce Goldstein, Traci Des Jardins, Cecilia Chang, Judy Rodgers, and most certainly Nancy Oakes, chef and owner of Boulevard. Her new restaurant, Prospect is also located a few blocks away. 

View from our table at Hog Island Oyster Company

Ferry Building Marketplace -- a perfect place to be on a rainy day! Many of San Francisco's most famous restaurants and food artisans have stalls at The Ferry Building Marketplace making it convenient for one-stop shopping. You can visit Miette Bakery, Acme Baking Company, Blue Bottle Coffee, Cowgirl Creamery, Boccalone Salumeria, Slanted Door and many more merchants here. We stopped by Hog Island Oyster Company to enjoy a dozen local oysters and grilled sardines. Master Sommelier Peter Granoff, Debbie Zachareas and Bo Thompson own and operate The Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant where you can celebrate all things wine: purchase bottles, take a wine class, sign up for the wine club or simply enjoy a glass at the bar with cheese and charcuterie.

Check out that oven

Una Pizza Napoletana -- during our lunch at Tartine Bakery, we ran into Master Sommelier Jesse Becker who said if we wanted the best pizza ever to visit Una Pizza Napoletana. He advised us to get there as soon as they opened at 5 pm as they stop service once the dough runs out, usually around 7 pm. We arrived at 4:50 pm and were seated right away. The pizzeria is located in an old warehouse building and the pizza oven was set center stage in a sparsely decorated room.

Una's Pizza Margherita

The menu began with a list of rules warning customers about no substiutions or exclusions, no slices and a meat pizza was limited to Saturday service only.  There were no side dishes, salads or dessert - just various renditions of tomato and cheese pizza along with a succinct but well-done by the glass selection. Clearly, the pizzaiolo took his craft seriously. The pizza was was superb - light and chewy crust, the burnt edges were nutty but not bitter and similar to the A16 pizza, the center was wet but not watered down. Thank you Jesse for the recommendation!

Leave your name on the wait list posted outside

Mission Chinese Food -- another reason for visiting San Francisco was to dine at Mission Chinese Food after reading The Mission Street Cookbook. What started off as as a once-a-week experiment subleasing a food truck has now morphed into a benevolent business model that operates out of an old Chinese restaurant with a higher-end sister (Commonwealth) restaurant located next door.

Four Barrel Coffee -- After learning of our visit to Blue Bottle, Tony Dreyfuss from Metropolis encouraged us to check out Four Barrel Coffee. Sadly they were closed for a private party but hopefully we can join them on our next trip.

The secret is to use Bourbon and Straus Family Creamery dairy products

Humphry Slocombe Creamery -- Secret Breakfast Ice Cream -- bourbon flavored ice cream with cornflakes, need I say more? Quite tasty but overall, I preferred the ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery.

Mission Cheese -- we hoped to stop in for some cheese but we were too full to indulge. We did peek in and the array of cheese offerings looked impressive so we've added them to the list for next time.

Also For next time -- AQ, Alembic, Tacolicious, Range, Sons and Daughters, Baker and Banker, Swan Oyster Depot, Bar Bambino, Flour and Water, Coi, Benu and I'm sure this list will continue to grow. As I said, too many good places for such a quick trip.