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SF Trip Report

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It had been a few years since we'd been to SF, but I thought I'd share some thoughts (rather lengthy) on some of the places we visited this past week.

We started out at the Giants game at AT&T Park. What a gorgeous setting! It was a beautiful day and we had great seats next to home plate. The garlic fries were very tasty and better than the fries at Candlestick (which were overloaded with a somewhat unpleasant jolt of raw garlic). The Crazy Crab sandwich was rather disappointing however. For $15, I got a stingy, bland crab salad on limp, soggy sourdough bread. And that was all. The giant Bratwurst was good and a relative bargain at $7. In all, slightly better than average ballpark food.

That night, we explored Chinatown (we wanted to stay close to Union Square where we were staying). We ended up back at Great Eastern where we always seem to go when we are in town. I was rather surprised to see that there were no Chinese patrons this time. Rather, the other tables were filled with tourist-types. This should have tipped us off. The seafood hot and sour soup had peas and carrots this time, and was dominated by the overpowering vinegar. The Clams in Black Bean Sauce was good, though they did not use the more tender baby clams that are typically a part of this dish. Another classic Cantonese dish, Oyster and Roast Pork Clay Pot was undone by tough, overdone pork and gritty oysters loaded with sand. In all, a very disappointing experience.

We'd been very anxious to go back to Shanghai Dumpling King (I recall it used to be called Shanghai Dumpling House). During our last visit, we had some of the best XLB we'd ever had in the U.S....they were quite small, exquisitely thin-skinned, and filled with a copious amount of deliciously scalding broth. Alas, those dumplings are but a distant memory. The latest iteration consisted of much bigger dumplings with little to no broth. They remained thin-skinned, but there was little flavor. Very disappointing, even when compared to Joe's Shanghai in NYC (of which I am not a fan). The best I have had recently would be the ones at Grand Shanghai in Edison, NJ, and even Shanghai Park in Princeton. We also had the pan-fried pork buns which were OK, and superior green-onion pancakes. I think we will look for another XLB joint for our next visit.

We had dinner at Gary Danko that night. For those not in the know, you can eat there even if you don't have reservations (which can be difficult to get at times) by sitting at the bar (best bet is to show up at 5pm when they open). In any case, it had long been a favorite of ours for high-end dining. The "Dungeness Crab Salad with Citrus, Avocado and Meyer Lemon-Chive Vinaigrette" was wonderfully light and perfectly seasoned; the "Glazed Oysters with Osetra Caviar, Zucchini Pearls and Lettuce Cream" seemed like a poor man's imitation of Thomas Keller's Oysters and Pearls...for such a paltry portion, the dish was not rich enough to carry the flavors. My wife's "Savory Tart of of Spring Vegetables with Ricotta Cheese Mousse" was the biggest surprise of the evening. It was full-flavored but commendably light. Meanwhile, I was somewhat disappointed with my "Seared Sonoma Foie Gras with Caramelized Red Onions and Rhubarb". The flavors seemed almost tired...been there done that; my meal was redeemed by the "Roast Maine Lobster with Potato Purée, Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Edamame Beans and Tarragon"...this was a decadently rich dish and the lobster was perfectly tender and sweet. I would have licked my plate if I had the chance. I am glad I didn't get my wife's "Horseradish Crusted Salmon Medallion with Dilled Cucumbers and Mustard Sauce". The poached fish tasted soggy and bland, and the horseradish was not complimentary. My "Lemon Pepper Duck Breast with Duck Hash, Parsnip Purée and Roasted Grapes" was good but not great...the duck was cooked medium-well instead of medium-rare, but the duck leg confit hash was crispy and delicious. My wife's "Herb Crusted Loin of Lamb with Israeli Couscous, English Peas, Spring Onions, Artichokes and Mint" was perfectly cooked, but I preferred the flavor profiles of my "Seared Filet of Beef with Braised Celery, Potatoes, Bacon, Leeks and Bordelaise Crust". The celery was perfectly braised...it was tender yet retained some crunch while the beef was perfectly seasoned and cooked. We finally finished off our meal with the "Baked Chocolate Soufflé with Two Sauces". The souffle was perfectly light and airy and was complimented well by the creme anglais and dark chocolate sauces. The mignardises made for a final temptation though I missed the meringue cookies. This was a very nice meal and reinforced my faith in Gary Danko.

The next day, we visited the Swan Oyster Depot, another old favorite. We arrived at about 11am and had our pick of the seats at the bar...within 15 minutes, there was a line out the door. Let's face it, the place is a cramped dive. But it has a terrific vibe and we had typically friendly service from the many guys behind the counter. We had wonderfully fresh and plump bluepoint and miyagi oysters (you don't get oysters like these in Utah and Texas!). My wife had the clam chowder (too thin for my tastes) and we split a dungeness crab salad which was loaded with impeccably fresh-picked crab. Awesome meal and still a must-do in SF. Remember to bring cash cause they don't take any credit cards.

Finally, we were going to cap off our visit with Wicked at the Orpheum, so we needed a restaurant near the theater. I had heard of Absinthe from some of the other threads here, and I was intrigued by eating at Chef Jamie Lauren's place (of Top Chef fame). We were shocked at the size of the place (it took up four rowhouse fronts) and by the size of the crowd. The front bar was packed (and very loud)...fortunately, we were seated in the relatively sedate back. The atmosphere was wonderful and felt like a real Paris brasserie. We started with perfectly crisp frites which were served with malt vinegar, a mild dijon mustard sauce, and a nondescript rouille. They were terrific but we had barely made a dent in them when my frisee salad and my wife's onion soup were brought out. My salad was fantastic (it always amazes me how good something as simple as a salad is when it is perfectly prepared). The bacon lardons were crispy yet tender, the greens were perfectly dressed, and the fried duck egg which topped the salad added the perfect richness to the dish (the caviar seemed of a lower grade and added little to the dish). Meanwhile, my wife's soup was rich while not being overly salted, and topped with a mountain of wonderfully gooey melted Gruyere. My wife had the Absinthe Hamburger which was perfectly done, juicy, and tasty. I had the "Pan seared local halibut with sunchoke purée, pea leaves, baby carrots, sugar snap peas, sorrel & lemon thyme fumet " which required a finesse that I thought really showed off Chef Jamie's skills. The fish was impeccably fresh and prepared flawlessly, and the accompaniments reminded me of the subtle tastes at Chez Panisse. Wow. We finished with the "Warm chocolate-banana with
salted caramel sauce, malted banana ice cream, macadamia brittle"...this was very dense and rich, but a little bit too cloying for my tastes. Overall, a fantastic meal. Admittedly, we were somewhat surprised at Chef Jamie's finesse and skill (could it be her antagonistic and militant attitude on the show?) but I think we have found another favorite for our next visit to SF.

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  1. Thanks so much for the report. Sorry to hear a downhill report on Great Eastern. I hope that was some kind of anomaly!

    I think one reason you were surprised by the size and style of Absinthe was that you were thinking of it as Jamie's restaurant, and thus as being a cozy, chef-run bistro. As you saw, it is not Jamie's restaurant: it's the restaurant where she works -- a subtle but meaningful distinction. Which of course makes no difference at all if you enjoyed the food!

    1 Reply
    1. re: Ruth Lafler

      Good point. Actually, I did know that she was not the owner (why else subject yourself to the drama of Top Chef?). The whole time we were at Absinthe, my wife and I kept remarking how happy the owners must have been that Jamie did not win. Otherwise, they would have lost a star chef. Regardless, I think Jamie is clearly very talented and will do just fine in the future.

    2. Shanghai Dumpling King got a lot of publicity from that segment on Check Please, Bay Area! the other week. I tried going there with my cousin, but the wait was so long. There IS a Shanghai House just a few blocks down. That's where we ended up going - with NO WAIT! They had fantastic XLB.

      So to clear things up to all y'all, there is a Shanghai Dumpling King AND a Shanghai House. Both on the same side of Balboa.

      Great report overall. =) I have yet to try Swan Oyster Depot. I pass it every single day on my to and from work. I have to go there now after reading your report.

      2 Replies
      1. re: jobostonisafoodie

        I think there is another post about this as well, but I think SDK is losing the battle to Shanghai House. I went before Check Please, and the only dish that was barely edible was the XLB. The stirfried rice cakes were greasy with scary meat and the beef soup noodles looked like instant ramen in dishwater. Plus, everybody seems to be native Cantonese in the kitchen.

        1. re: jobostonisafoodie

          link

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          Shanghai House
          3641 Balboa St, San Francisco, CA 94121

        2. Nice report. Thanks

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          Great Eastern Restaurant
          649 Jackson St, San Francisco, CA 94133

          Swan Oyster Depot
          1517 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94109

          Gary Danko
          800 N Point St, San Francisco, CA 94109

          Absinthe Brasserie & Bar
          398 Hayes Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

          Shanghai Dumpling King
          3319 Balboa St, San Francisco, CA 94121

          AT & T Park (Formerly SBC and Pacific Bell Park)
          801 3rd St, San Francisco, CA