THE DISH: FILET MIGNON (with morel mushrooms and truffle butter)
Chez Spencer serves up one of the best steaks in the San Francisco Bay Area, certainly among my favorite steaks for 2008. Just reading the ingredients on the menu is likely to make you drool: morel mushrooms and white truffle oil gravy….whew, why didn’t I know about this steak before last year? When people describe certain foods as ‘orgasmic’ or ‘like sex on a plate,’ include the morel-truffle drunk filet mignon at Chez Spencer among them. It is one awesome steak.
THE SPOT: Chez Spencer
Chez Spencer is a romantic little French restaurant hideaway in a funky, grungy stretch of city that conjoins South Van Ness and the Mission District. Chez Spencer has been around for some years, but still feels like a San Francisco secret. it really should be among everyone’s “best” lists — best steak, best romantic dinner, you name it.
The indoor decor of Chez Spencer is light and spartan, with white walls and a bowed timber beam-crossed ceilings. Go on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night to benefit from terrific atmosphere music from a blind fellow who plays the standup piano in the front corner of the bar. The acoustics in this converted space are sweet.
THE GRADE: Awesome, exceptional (5 out of 5) THE DAMAGE: $ 29 THE SKINNY: Chez Spencer
82 – 14th St (near South Van Ness) San Francisco, CA 94103 Phone: (415) 864-219 Website: http://www.chezspencer.net
This is one awesome pulled pork sandwich, one of many great dishes at Fresca, a Peruvian restaurant with two locations in the city of San Francisco. Juicy, tender, pulled pork meat and a symphony of spices are layered between a Dutch Crunch roll to give a delightful mouthful of sweet and hot, crunchy and meaty. Paired with crispy French fries or a small salad, the lechon asada makes a great meal break from a shopping stroll.
The Grade: Excellent (4 out of 5) The Damage: $8(great value for a great sandwich) The Skinny: Fresca 3945 24th St, San Francisco (Between Sanchez & Noe Streets) Phone: (415) 695-0549. Fresca is also at 2114 Fillmore St, San Francisco Phone: (415) 447-2668.
With a most fantastic Art Deco interior, Café Grundmann is like a living museum. Nearly all of the 1920s furniture is intact, including wonderful old booths and tables hewn from elegant hardwoods. The giant, round light fixtures are perfect reproductions of the Art Deco style and, up near the entrance is an antique coin-operated machine that contains tiny art pieces made by students at the local art college. (It’s the kind of machine that used to house slices of cake and pie in the 1930s.)
THE DISH: SCHNITZEL
The best schnitzel I’ve ever tasted is at one of the most wonderful—and authentic Art Deco—cafes in Europe, Café Grundmann in Leipzig Germany. It’s a generous portion of schnitzel with a light breaded exterior and juicy interior, coupled with a big, crisp salad and perfectly grilled potatoes and onions.
Simple, hearty dishes make Bistro Don Giovanni a favored dining spot for Wine Country locals in the know. I’ve dined at Bistro Don Giovanni a few times over the past year, and I really love their pressed chicken. It’s baked in the oven then finished in the pan, giving a crisp, crunchy skin that covers a perfectly cooked, lusciously juicy half-bird.
It comes with a deep swirl of peppercorn gravy, but I always ask for more; it’s so good the amount on the plate is just a tease. The chicken is paired with a nice seasonal vegetable; it might be broccoli rabe or new potatoes, but it’s always equally good.
The Damage: $19
The Grade: Excellent (4 out of 5)
The Skinny: Bistro Don Giovanni
4110 Howard Lane (Highway 29), Napa, CA 94558-1635
I’m the kind of guy who automatically orders certain things when they’re on the menu, no matter the restaurant, time of day, season of year, or price of the certain thing in question. One of those things is sweetbreads.
Sweetbreads are definitely not everyone’s idea of food. And contrary to popular rumor, they aren’t pan-fried bull testicles. But if you get caught up in the concept of them (or definition of them, actually) as animals’ endocrine glands, without the experience of them (tasting what a great chef can transform them into), you’re missing out on a potentially sublime food.
When done properly, sweetbreads are among my Pantheon of great things to eat. But when done poorly, sweetbreads can be gooey and gross. People’s revulsion to foods, curiously, are usually aligned more with unsatisfactory texture than taste. So, needless to say, there’s a wider opportunity for error with sweetbreads than the clear, thin line to sweetbreads glory. This is a round-up review of three San Francisco restaurants that serve sweetbreads on a fairly regular basis. I left prices off, as they will likely change more over time than regular menu items.
The Spot #1: Canteen, Sweetbreads
The Grade: Awesome (5 out of 5)
I don’t know if the grade is high enough, because Canteen’s sweetbreads are likely the best I’ve ever eaten in my life. Like most dishes that Canteen owner/chef Dennis Leary puts out on the bright green countertop, his sweetbreads are just phenomenal. I wish they were on the menu more often, frankly. They are simply prepared and plated, and have the perfect sweetbreads texture: slightly crisp on the outside and tender inside. The appetizer is large enough to share (as most sweetbreads are), but I didn’t share mine. (I’m not cruel; I was just dining alone.) A little blanched spinach and jus with the sweetbreads, and that’s it. That’s all you need. It was simple and it was incredible. Kudos to Dennis Leary.
The Spot #2: Fringale, Sweetbreads
The Grade: Great (3 out of 5)
Fringale is an under-recognized French restaurant, perhaps because it’s neither new nor trendy after over a dozen years in its quaint SOMA location on 4th Street between Bryant and Brannan. Fringale consistently serves up classic French cuisine at pretty reasonable prices, so it should probably be back on people’s radars, if it fell off or if they’ve not dined there yet. Fringale’s sweetbreads are a bit larger in size, doused with a darker, richer gravy, and laid atop fresh asparagus spears. The sweetbreads are nicely prepared, and the pairing of the asparagus offers a nice counterbalance to the richness of the sweetbreads in gravy. This is definitely one you should share.
The Spot #3: Piperade, Sweetbreads
The Grade: Very Good (2 out of 5)
Piperade is a restaurant sporting high cool factor, due to its proximity to the many ad agencies in the neighborhood, and the cool agency folk who frequent it. Unable to say no to sweetbreads, I tried them at Piperade and, while I enjoyed them, they do have a few shortcomings. For my palate, the sweetbreads were a bit too soft all the way around. A bit crisper exterior would have been a major improvement. And, while I don’t mind sweetbreads being sloppily plated, I think the swamp of gravy didn’t elevate the taste or presentation. It had a good taste, but fell short of the gravies from Fringale and Canteen, and the amount of sauce here may have also contributed to keeping the sweetbreads too soft. So Piperade gets a ‘very good’ grade, along with my hearty encouragement to improve the dish.
THE SKINNY FOR SWEETBREADS IN SF, VOLUME 1:
1.Canteen 817 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 Phone: (415) 928-8870 Web:www.sfcanteen.com
2.Fringale 570 Fourth Street, San Francisco, CA 94107 Phone: (415) 543-0573 Web: www.fringalesf.com
3.Piperade 1015 Battery Street, San Francisco, CA 94111 Phone: (415) 391-2555 Web: www.piperade.com
I certainly enjoy hearty meaty pastas. And I usually enjoy the requisite napping that follows. As meaty pastas go, the pappardelle with venison ragu at Big Sur Bakery is outstanding. Rich and flavorful, the sauce puts a tingling in the mouth straight away. The venison is slow-cooked, tender, and thrillingly tasty. The pappardelle, long and flat, spotted with olive and basil oil, make a great wrap for the delicate deer meat. This was one of the best meaty pastas of 2008. Congrats, Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant!
The Spot: Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant, Big Sur, CA
Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant is my favorite place to eat in Big Sur, hands down. It transforms from a funky little bakery in the morning that serves up incredible pastries to a lovely and heart-warming little spot for a romantic dinner in the evenings. Every pastry, every dinner I had there was excellent. Two of the three folks behind this little gem are are an emigre couple from Los Angeles, pastry chef/co-owner Michelle Rizzolo and her husband, chef Philip Wojtowicz.
What’s great about Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant is its straightforward, unpretentious excellence and down-home, rustic simplicity: picnic tables on the patio and heavy little wooden tables and chairs inside.
The service is friendly and sweet and, if any place can demonstrate the inexpressibly tender magic of one of the most magical spots on Earth, Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant certainly does. It’s the gastronomic soul of Big Sur, and Rizzolo & Wojtowicz capture Big Sur’s zeitgeist in every bite. It doesn’t just get to your stomach; it stays in your heart.
The Grade: Awesome (5 out of 5) The Damage: $23 The Skinny: Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant
47540 Highway 1, Big Sur, CA
Phone: (831) 667-0520
Favorite of Francophiles, duck confit is made from the duck leg, which is salt-cured, then slowly cooked in an oven at low temperature so it poaches in its own fat. The curing usually takes a couple days, and the slow-poach roasting can vary from 2 to 10 hours. It’s often served at room temperature or below over green salad, but I far prefer the version served hot.
Bistro Ralph’s roasted duck confit is a generous portion (two legs, not one), and the meat peels gracefully off the leg bone. The richness of the duck is well balanced with perfect polenta and duck jus in a nice wide bowl, making a perfectly hearty winter meal. The addition of the huckleberries, to me, was entirely unnecessary because they just weren’t integrated well. Nonetheless, it didn’t interfere with the excellence of the dish. I’d have to say this was among the best duck confit dishes I’ve had in the past 3 years.
THE SPOT: BISTRO RALPH, HEALDSBURG CA
A lot of really good restaurants survive in Healdsburg and, while others may get the notoriety, Bistro Ralph’s unpretentious vibe and unbelievably good martinis keep locals recommending it to tourists who weren’t savvy enough to make reservations at Cyrus a month in advance. It’s a bit narrow and, like many other local restaurants, a bit noisier than it should be, it serves solid fare at hearty portions for the prices.
THE GRADE: EXCELLENT (4 out of 5)
THE DAMAGE: $27
THE SKINNY: BISTRO RALPH
109 Plaza Street, Healdsburg CA Phone: (707) 433-1380 Website:www.bistroralph.com (Note: only basic info online to date; no seasonally updated menu)
THE DISH: EMPANADAS (BEEF & ONION and many others)
It’s probably impossible to have an empanada in Argentina that’s not muy delicioso. La Pulperia is a small chain (with numerous locations throughout Buenos Aires) with an extensive menu of empanadas. They’re cheap, perfectly crispy on the outside and meaty and moist inside.
The good, and occasionally bad, thing about La Pulperia is that the empanadas are made fresh throughout the day. This means that not all of the great flavor combinations will be ripe for the picking. Unless you’re starving, it’s worth waiting 10 minutes for.
You won’t need to seek out La Pulperia because empanadas are ubiquitous in Buenos Aires. But if you see their distinctive red and green signage and you’re hungry, grab an empanada. They’re good, on-the-go snacks when you’re running through Buenos Aires, shopping your brains out.
The juicy, hearty lamb chop here is befriended by a lamb shoulder portion on one side and lamb loin on the other, across a bumpy tuft of gigante beans and a smattering of basil oil and what they call “zikiro” vinaigrette. Piperade offers three distinct lamb sections with great color, texture, and flavor in the dish they call “Lamb Basquaise Chop.” Gigante beans in oil give a great mild flavor and counterbalance to the richness of the lamb, and the vinaigrette provides an eye-popping verdant swirl around the plate rim to make a striking presentation.
THE SPOT: PIPERADE, SAN FRANCISCO, CA
Piperade is a favorite haunt of neighborhood ad execs who expend creative brainpower during the day and come here for after-work cocktails and Basque-inspired dining after 5. The bar is friendly and active, as is the service, and there’s a great big communal table to spark the opportunity for new friends. Fun place, great drinks, and generally really good food as well.
Nice grill marks give stripes to the crispy roll, inside of which is a slathering of tender, juicy pork belly and Asian spices. Kudos to Chef Dominique Crenn to conceive this midday porcine rush; it’s a good lunchtime filler with a little edge. The spices’ flavors swirl between cool, sweet, and hot, and the texture overall is superb in its mix of crunchy and soft. If you’re near Moscone Center, the pork belly sandwich at Luce is a highly recommended sandwich indeed.
As described on the Luce menu: Braised Pork Belly “Vietnamese Sandwich” with cilantro, mint, and jalapeño. Note: Pork belly sandwich only served during lunch.
The presentation of ice tea is fantastic and smart; you get your own personal pitcher so you don’t need to flag down waiters for the inevitable refills.
The Spot: Luce Wine Restaurant
Luce Wine Restaurant is inside San Francisco’s InterContinental Hotel. The room itself during lunchtime is modern and, especially on sunnier days, strikingly beautiful. Skyscraping windows stand authoritatively behind cerulean-turquoise blue curtains over white sheers. There’s an overall spirited, airy effect in the well-mannered dining room, where the keen design sensibility is evident in all corners: booths, chairs, silverware and glassware. Luce is a sophisticated and contemporary space, carefully considerate of details so that the experience is harmonious. Service was gracious and effective. Really, Luce is just a wonderful room to have a meal in with friends or clients.
The Grade: Great (3 out of 5)
The Damage: $14
The Skinny: Luce Wine Restaurant 888 Howard Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 Phone: (415) 616-6566 Website: www.lucewinerestaurant.com