FILET MIGNON (Chez Spencer, SF)

FILET MIGNON

Filet Mignon with morels, truffle butter, Chez Spencer, SF CA
Filet Mignon with morels, truffle butter, Chez Spencer, SF CA

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
Chez Spencer on Urbanspoon

Pulled Pork Sandwich (Fresca, SF)

The Dish: Lechon Asada (Pulled Pork Sandwich)

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.

Lechon Asada (Pulled Pork Sandwich), Fresca SF
Lechon Asada (Pulled Pork Sandwich), Fresca SF

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.

Fresca on Urbanspoon

Schnitzel (Cafe Grundmann, Leipzig GERMANY)

Schnitzel (Cafe Grundmann, Leipzig, Germany)

The Spot: Cafe Grundmann

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.) 

Cafe Grundmann in Leipzig, Germany
Cafe Grundmann in Leipzig, Germany

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.

Fantastic schnitzel, Cafe Grundmann, Leipzig Germany

Fantastic schnitzel, Cafe Grundmann, Leipzig Germany

The Skinny: Cafe Grundmann August-Bebel-Straße 2, Leipzig, SN 4275, Germany Phone: +49 341 222 8962 Website: http://www.cafe-grundmann.de/

BAKED CHICKEN (Pressed Chicken)

CHICKEN – Pressed Chicken

Bistro Don Giovanni, Napa CA

 

Baked (Pressed) Chicken, Bistro Don Giovanni, Napa CA
Baked (Pressed) Chicken, Bistro Don Giovanni, Napa CA

 

The Dish: Pressed Chicken

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

Phone: (707) 224 -3300 

Web: http://www.bistrodongiovanni.com/

Directions: http://www.bistrodongiovanni.com/directions.htm

Best Sweetbreads in San Francisco

Sweetbreads in San Francisco

The Dish: Sweetbreads (vol. 1)

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.

Best Sweetbreads in SF: Canteen
Best Sweetbreads in SF: Canteen

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.

Sweetbreads, Fringale, San Francisco CA
Sweetbreads, Fringale, San Francisco CA

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.

Sweetbreads at Piperade (Basque restaurant), SF CA
Sweetbreads at Piperade (Basque restaurant), SF CA

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

 

 

MEATY PASTA: PAPPARDELLE WITH VENISON RAGU

Pappardelle with Venison Ragu

Awesome Venison Ragu Pappardelle, Big Sur Bakery
Awesome Venison Ragu Pappardelle, Big Sur Bakery

The Dish: Pappardelle with Venison Ragu

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.

Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant, Big Sur CA
Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant, Big Sur CA

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
Website: http://www.bigsurbakery.com


Big SUR Bakery on Urbanspoon

DUCK CONFIT

DUCK CONFIT (roasted duck confit)

THE DISH: ROASTED DUCK CONFIT

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.

Roasted Duck Confit, Bistro Ralphs, Healdsburg CA
Roasted Duck Confit, Bistro Ralphs, Healdsburg CA.

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)

Hours: Lunch 11:30 – 2:30 (Mon-Sat); Dinner 5:30 – 9:00 (Mon-Thurs) – 9:30 Friday & Saturday; closed Sundays.

Bistro Ralph on Urbanspoon