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May 31, 2009 07:10 PM

3.5 days in SF - report (long)

I am happy to report that our Mem Day weekend eating & drinking tour of SF was a smashing success. We chose our stops from a number of sources, including this board, and were (almost) never disappointed. A quick rundown:

Blue Bottle Coffee: single-origin espresso (Ethiopian) was mindblowingly intense, vacuum pot was subtle, elegant, beautiful. "Brioche" was tasty, though not actually brioche. Service at the main location was efficient and excellent. The Ferry building location did not have its act together service-wise, but the coffee was still good.

Absinthe: We mainly used them as a curator and enjoyed their excellent selection of oysters, caviar (farmed in CA), and cheese. Inventive and wonderful accompaniments with each cheese. 2 great salads, including a killer re-invented Caesar. And, of course, lovely glass selection of wine. Oh, right, and the absinthe was pretty cool too.

Gitane: One of the major happy surprises of the trip. Exotic transporting atmosphere. Fantastic food, with exciting and surprising flavor combos. Standouts include Bastilla and the Bacon BonBons (I know they are not the first to combine prune, goat cheese, bacon, and port wine glaze, but it was still a surprise somehow.) Amazing cocktails: try the Solera, kind of like a Sidecar but with a sherry base! Great sherry selection. Reasonably priced.

Swan Oyster Depot: one of 2 disappointments. The place is entirely charming, but the oysters were not fresh or not the best. The sea urchin was excellent. I did not enjoy watching the servers reach into trays of shrimp with ungloved hands to assemble salad plates, and I did not see nearly enough handwashing to make this ok.

Maruya Sushi: a quick pre-lunch snack, 2 nigiri pieces and a shiso maki roll, all very nice.

Good Luck Dim Sum: Gorgeous buns! Wanted more and more but had to save ourselves.

Alembic: Great cocktails, very inventive and original, up there with anything we 2 lushes have found.

Aziza: disappointment number 2. Ok, it didn't stink, and actually was rather good at certain points, but the overall impression was of a competent suburban neighborhood place shooting for something higher and missing. Boring sweet cocktails (ok, this was right after the Alembic), boring wine selection, some very good food but nothing to compete with Gitane from the previous night. The kitchen and service was clearly huffing and puffing to keep up with a full Sat-night dining room. Did not live up to the glowing reviews.

Saigon Sandwiches: 2 great sandwiches, roast chicken and "fanci" pork. Awesome.

Bourbon & Branch: Well. we tried, but weren't aware that reservations were necessary. I guess they take the speakeasy thing pretty seriously, locked door, secret codeword, etc. Oh well.

1550 Hyde: Really good food, fresh produce. Well-crafted savory food, large portions. Sardines, steelhead tartare, ricotta gnocchi, pork shoulder & farro stew, all excellent. And a lovely bottle of white Burgundy, a Pernand-Vergelesses. Very helpful wine guidance from our server. A joy all around.

Clock Bar: Good, interesting cocktails, comprehensive ingredient stock. This place is clearly trying to be at the cutting edge of cocktails, and does a pretty good job. The largely ignorant clientele surely doesn't help. I watched one young woman who could not herself name a single cocktail ask for the bartender's favorite -- he gave her a cosmo, which seemed like a good choice. I really enjoyed my Spanish Sidecar, that was certainly something new.

Turtle Tower: Pho for breakfast! Yum.

All that plus a cumulative 30 miles or so of walking equal a thoroughly satisfying trip. Thanks SF.

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  1. Thanks for the report back! You made me want to try Gitane soon.

    Re: your experience of Aziza. I have been a longtime fan of this restaurant, but my last visit there really shocked me. The portion sizes seemed to have shrunk, the welcome seemed to have disappeared from the staff. My friend and I walked in without reservations at 6;30pm, to a largely empty restaurant. Told we could only be seated at the bar we watched as many tables remained empty. When we left there were still empty tables.

    The cocktails also seemed to have lost their inventiveness and sparkle, the food still tasty but barely there—the spreads appetizer now three tiny smears like a minimalist's palette. Our other dishes didn't shine—but we also didn't order as much as I would have normally because we were sitting at the bar, and a little disgruntled.

    The menu descriptions now an unenlightening list of ingredients, I don't know what is going on but it made me sad.

    What happened?

    1. After reading your report, made reservations at Gitane. Went last week with dh & we absolutely loved it! Cozy, exotic yet retro Euro feel. While waiting to be seated upstairs, we ordered drinks at the bar, a La Perla for dh & the Muras for me. DH enjoyed his drink but I preferred mine. The latter with blackberry puree/foam, while not too sweet or tart, blended deliciously with the drink. I could probably just have a cup of this!

      Took our drinks upstairs as table became ready. Very cozy upstairs. We ordered the Bastilla, bacon bonbons, & quail from the apps section & at the earnest suggestion from our server, the Solomillo from the entree side. The solomillo is "grilled natural pork tenderloin & braised pork belly five-spice sauce". We pretty much enjoyed everything. While I would liked to have tasted more of the spices from the bastilla & quail, it's a minor quibble as we thoroughly enjoyed these dishes. Normally, dh & I aren't fans of pork in restaurants (outside of Asian) but we heard the magic words...sous-vide & decided to try it. Again, the spices were there but subtle around the grilled pork but the meat was oh so tender.

      Great drinks, food & prices. DH & I had a lovely evening & we look forward to going back. Funny that dh commented that he preferred Gitane to Aziza. Thank you for your report.

      1. I have been a long time fan of Aziza and used to go once a month or so until about six months ago. For budgetary reasons I have not been dining much at all which is why I have not written much here either. Went with some friends to Aziza on Saturday to celebrate a birthday and was shocked too. It was mediocre at best. As mentioned, the menu reads poorly with just the main ingredient listed. Portion sizes are much smaller, but given that the price has not gone up much it went from a bargain to fair prices. However, the quality is just not there. Had the beef cheeks with couscous and they tasted like plain braised beef with no spices and lack of salt. The orzo with egg that my veggie friend ordered was plain disgusting. The lamb meatballs with grapes appetizer were overcooked and rubbery. The bread was stale. The shrimp served with the mixed couscous were like rubber. Also, the dishes and plating went from a rustic with elegant touches to trying too hard to be fine dining. Aziza is off my list now--it was that bad. I am so sad. Hope they get together again.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Amy G

          Huh, if you went Saturday, I guess the addition of Louis Maldonado as chef de cuisine didn't make a difference.

          Maybe Mourad Lahlou's been distracted by his TV series. The economy can't be helping, either.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            It was shockingly bad. Forgot to mention the desserts. The banana dessert which was like a crisp bric pastry (similar to fillo) with custard and caramelized banana was good. The other 3 desserts were inedible. The spiced chocolate tasted like bitter potpurri, the granita scented with rosewater had way too much rosewater and was like eating soap. The wine list has now gone for biodynamic and organic wines and has lost the more interesting german, southern french and spanish wines. I am heart broken. It was one of my top three favorite restaurants.

            I think Louis Maldonado with his uber fine dining background may be part of the problem which may indicate the appearance of foam and sous vide and the overly intricate plating in Aziza's menu.

          2. re: Amy G


            5800 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, CA 94121

          3. Nice report. In my opinion, if you hit Alembic, you missed nothing at Bourbon and Branch. I've only been to B&B once, but the drinks were more mechanical than artistic, if that makes any sense. Sort of like the drinks at Absinthe--well conceived, and occasionally brilliant, but not really great all the time across the board.

            My one cocktail at Gitane was better than anything I had at B&B. Alembic is always wonderful, and my favorite way to drink away an afternoon. The skylight in the back allows you some sense of the day passing, and their bar snacks are pretty darn good too.

            If you're ever back, the "library" at B&B is not a reservation required place, and I think you can get in by saying library or books or something. It's their compromise between letting in the unwashed masses who aren't pretty interested in serious cocktails and being so impossible to get into that they couldn't possibly live up to the effort.

            1. I loved the sardine dish I had at 1550 Hyde a few months ago, and we also had nice guidance on the wine. thanks for the report.

              1550 Hyde
              1550 Hyde St, San Francisco, CA 94109