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Jun 8, 2009 05:23 PM

LA hound on a weekend of chowing in SF – lots of fish and a loaf of bread that changed my life

Just got back from a weekend getaway to your excellent city. The meals were planned by other people so all I had to do was show up and eat.

Day 1:

Lunch at Out the Door - I know Slanted Door has its die-hard fans but my experience on a previous visit to SF was less than stellar – one that left me with the feeling that it’s just a dumbed down version of Vietnamese food. Or, perhaps euphemistically, “modern Vietnamese.” Not that I have anything against “dumbed-down” versions of what some may otherwise find “unapproachable,” because many Asian cuisines, admittedly, can be a bit difficult for the uninitiated. And even modern Vietnamese has its place in the culinary world and can be delicious. Out the Door definitely has its place and is delicious.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a chic and inviting eatery in a mall. My instincts steered me away from the noodle soups because I just couldn’t picture myself slurping pho in a perfectly clean and modern, non-grungy space. Our waitress informed us that we will get our food as it is ready. Fine. In true Asian fashion.

Fresh spring rolls – ho hum, the dipping sauce was weak. Though present, there was not enough pungency of fish sauce.

Caramelized pork over rice vermicelli – The pork was tender but had a crusty, almost jerky-like exterior – it was apparently braised then roasted in a hot oven to develop a crust which provided an interesting contrast of textures. Overall, the dish was tasty with a nice balance of salty/sweet but the dressing could have benefitted from a bit more lime juice to really make it sing.

Lemongrass chicken – Overall, the dish was successful, though I would have preferred more jalapenos… but I understand it’s for the masses. I didn’t get much lemongrass flavor, though… I think it was masked by the other strong flavors in the dish. No matter – I still enjoyed it.

Brown rice was cooked perfectly al dente with no trace of slime that is so often found in brown rice cooked with too much water or cooked too long. Yes, it’s only rice but I’m all about the basics. Mushy or undercooked rice is just unforgivable. This rice was perfectly soft throughout but still had the satisfying bite and pop of the bran.

Steamed buns (lemongrass chicken, BBQ pork) – came at the end of the meal which was odd – but I suppose I can’t say we were not warned. By this time we were quite full and weren’t all that interested in buns.. nonetheless, I rather enjoyed the chicken bun with its pleasing hint of lemongrass. Pork was just ok and a bit salty and oddly sweet. I wouldn’t say too sweet, just oddly sweet.

Dessert was Beard Papa cream puffs which we smuggled into the SFMOMA roof deck and enjoyed with cappuccino from the Blue Bottle kiosk.

Dinner at Albona – I had read some interesting commentary on Bruno but oddly none about the food. After much agonizing over the menu, I went for 3 app’s:

Gnocchi in brown sirloin sauce laced with cumin – gnocchi were spherical, instead of the traditional oblong. They were quite large (about an inch radius) and dark brown on the outside. Even though the menu says pan-fried, I’m guessing they were boiled then deep fried to crisp up the outside. Anyway, I didn’t care for the texture – though I liked the crispness of the exterior, I found the interior too soft and mushy – like deep-fried mashed potatoes. I prefer my gnocchi slightly chewy. The sauce was heavy on cumin and was somehow reminiscent of Japanese curry, even down to the color and consistency. I wouldn’t say I hated it, but I wouldn’t order this again.

Scallops in a lemon, prosecco, shallot, and butter sauce – this was my favorite of the 3. The sauce was buttery and lemony and perfectly seasoned. The scallops could have used a better crust on them.

Fried sardines with glazed onions marinated with red wine vinegar, golden raisins, pine-nuts – I was expecting deep fried sardines, perhaps dredged in flour for a light crispy coating, and I was certainly expecting a hot app. What I got was a cold dish of filleted sardines, fried, yes, but mushy from the dressing. This is my fault for not noticing the “marinated” part of the menu description. Though the dish grew on me the more I ate it, I never got over not getting my crispy deep fried sardines. I also found the dish too sweet and too salty. A lighter hand with the marinade and perhaps less onions would give the dish better balance.

Desserts (some gelato concoction and vanilla panna cotta) were entirely forgettable.

Day 2:

For breakfast, I walked over to the Ferry Building and got a cinnamon roll from Acme Bread and a cup of Blue Bottle drip coffee. Both were excellent, though I wanted the cinnamon roll to be a touch sweeter. This is highly unusual for me to want anything to be sweeter, but this only had a hint of sweetness, and I wanted just a bit more sugar to balance out my coffee. The texture, though, was outstanding.

Lunch was at The Rotunda at Neiman Marcus. I have to admit that I had expectations of a “ladies who lunch” kind of place with some rendition of bland spa food to go with it. And it certainly was a “ladies who lunch” kind of place, but it was also so much more. The space is stunning, the service was excellent, and the food, infinitely better than your average department store restaurant.

The shot of chicken consommé was intensely flavored and perfectly clear – a proper consommé, which is rarely found anymore because there’s just no appreciation for the art of consommé.

Popovers with strawberry butter – I’d go back just for the free popovers. Another thing one never finds on menus anymore. I mean, these alone were worth the price of the meal – light, airy, eggy, doughy, chewy, crusty, all at the same time. One could do a whole paper on the science and architecture of the popover. And another on the experience of eating one. And they offer seconds! One almost feels guilty getting seconds of these treasures at no cost. But the guilt passes quickly.

Black cod w/ ginger braised daikon & haricot vert–The daikon was braised, then given a quick sauté for a crust. I didn’t detect much ginger. The fish was cooked perfectly and had that beautiful buttery flavor that I love about black cod. The sauce was a bit oily and undersalted and not every component of the dish was excellent on its own, but everything worked beautifully and was perfectly seasoned when enjoyed together.

I had another cup of coffee here, which was unexpectedly good.

Dinner was at Zuni Café – of course, this is an SF institution, but I had never been here in my 20+ trips to SF over the years.

I started with some oysters:
Ostrea conchaphila from Olympia, WA – I tend to prefer small oysters but these were almost too small to be worthwhile
Hog Island Kumamoto – not much flavor and tiny!! What’s up with that!?
Pickering Passage (Washington) – at our waiter's recommendation - big and plump and had a really great flavor going in. Unfortunately it had a really strange aftertaste, one of an old sweaty gym sock… Oh well, it was good while it lasted. I washed it all down with the excellent, spicy virgin mary.

Caesar w/ anchovy fillets on the side – much touted by our waiter, the salad was indeed excellent. I wanted the extra anchovy fillets because they were listed as house-cured, but were perhaps superfluous because they were too salty with the salad.

Grilled grouper with Yukon golds, mustard greens was wonderfully cooked and perfectly seasoned. I devoured this. The raw mustard greens were a great bitter counterpoint to the sweet meat of the fish, not to mention an interesting textural contrast. This was a discovery for me, as I had only had cooked mustard greens up until now, and I look forward to using them in cooking.

Day 3
Breakfast at Mama’s
Can it live up to its hype? I wondered. I ordered pancakes, in my mind the litmus test for the worthiness of a breakfast joint. These were indeed good – airy yet sturdy with a burst of fresh buttermilk flavor and lightly sweet. I didn’t care for the invert maple syrup they came with but it didn’t matter because they didn’t need any syrup.

Their coffee needs work – bordering on Denny’s style.

So bottom line: did it live up to the hype? Not fair to say after only 1 meal. Were the pancakes great? Yes. Were they worth the 45 minute wait? No. Would I go back? Yes, if only to try other things so I can determine if it is worthy of the hype.

After breakfast, I walked up to Coit Tower and down the Greenwich steps to the Embarcadero back to the Ferry Building. I feel like a trip to SF is only complete if I walk the Embarcadero. I picked up a sour baguette at Acme to bring home and a peach/pancetta pizza at Frog Hollow for the trip home. The pizza was so-so but the baguette is perfection. The crisp/crunchy crust and pleasantly chewy and deeply sour interior make me jealous of you lucky people with daily access to this amazing bread. I find myself picking up the fine shards of crust with my finger tips. When was the last time bread made me do that? Never! La Brea Bakery pales in comparison; they are not even in the same class. I never had a deep appreciation for bread because LA just doesn’t have any good bread. I didn’t really understand the fanaticism some people have for bread until now. This is life-changing bread. Truly.

So to sum up, the stand-outs of the trip were: the whole experience at the Rotunda, the discovery of mustard greens, and perfection in the form of the humble baguette.

Hope to return soon and next time I will bring back several loaves of bread and freeze them.

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  1. Thanks for the report! As a native Angeleno, I hear you on the bread. The first time I went to ACME in the Ferry Building I bought two epi loaves for a party. By the time I got off Caltrain to be picked up by my friend, I only had one loaf to give her.

    Now I want to go get some bread...

    1. Acme's levain freezes the best of their loaves.

      I was surprised at how inferior La Brea's bread was given that Nancy Silverton has such a Berkeley mentaility. I think for one thing Steve Sullivan is pickier about flour.

      Next time you're up, try a loaf from Tartine. Chad Robertson is the only baker I know who might be even pickier than Sullivan.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        Does Nancy Silverton still have her hands in the dough, so to speak, at La Brea? I thought she sold her interest in the place years back.

        1. re: Spatlese

          Her bio on Mozza's Web site says, "... as La Brea Bakery celebrates it’s [sic] 20th Anniversary, our freshly baked breads are available in 17 different countries ...."

          In contrast, Steve Sullivan has limited expansion in order to maintain quality. Acme's breads are available in, what, seven different counties?

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            Acme can be found more widely than that if you include the house label Artisan Bread it distributes through Trader Joe's . . . the best bet on the Monterey Peninsula.

      2. I agree about the Zuni oysters - was just there last week and found all our selections puny. I have been unimpressed by the vaunted roast chicken - it's just not that special. Range's is better. But we did love the grouper, and also a delicious starter of halibut cheeks in a divine buttery lemony vermouth sauce. The other standout of the evening was a rhubarb crostata - so fresh and bright tasting - excellent. For me Zuni's is best on an afternoon when you just want to lounge over a glass or three of wine, some of their shoestring potatoes, oysters (they're not usually the anemic ones we were served), the addictive brown bread . . . it's a lovely space but i don't find it lives up to the hype. i know others disagree. strenuously.

        3 Replies
        1. re: mariacarmen

          Zuni desserts and/or a bloody mary at Zuni are also worthy of being lounged over, for under $10. I won't get into whether the food is worth the price tag or not.

          1. re: Pei

            for next time, cliff house has great popovers!!

            1. re: Pei

              after admiring their on-line dessert & cheese menu, I was so bummed that we didn't have time for dessert - we had a show to catch... next time!

          2. The Bay Area is definitely the best place for bread I've ever lived - leaves both LA and NYC in the dust. When I first moved to the Bay Area (to Santa Clara), I couldn't believe I could get bread of Acme's caliber at my local supermarket (not even a Whole Foods or specialty store - I could get a limited selection at the local Safeway!)

            For me, Tartine's bread was the life changer - getting a loaf at the bakery can be a little complicated, but if you eat at Bar Tartine, it's the house bread - a bowl of soup and a plate of bread can be a fantastically satisfying lunch. I'm also hearing a lot of raves about Thorough Bread and Pastry, so that's going to be the next on my own list.

            1. Nice report. IMO, saying Slanted Door is dumbed down cuisine to please the masses is like saying California Cuisine is dumbed down French cuisine. I think the people who are looking for authenticity will be hugely disappointed every time. However, if you go in with the emphasis on the California part rather than the Vietnamese part it will be a totally different meal. Ordering the California dishes with Vietnamese accents is a better idea than ordering the Vietnamese dishes and looking for a classic interrepretation. Hope that helps if you find yourself there again.

              Cliff House has good popovers, but unfortunately you have to order the food at the cafe to get them. Most of the cafe food is over-priced tourist drek. Sutro's, the better upscale restaurant doesn't serve them.

              Zuni Cafe
              1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

              Mama's On Washington Square
              1701 Stockton St, San Francisco, CA 94133

              Acme Bread
              Ferry Slip, San Francisco, CA 94111

              Albona Ristorante Istriano
              545 Francisco St, San Francisco, CA 94133

              Out the Door
              845 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94103

              The Rotunda at Neiman Marcus
              150 Stockton Street, San Francisco, CA 94108

              14 Replies
              1. re: rworange

                Which Slanted Door dishes do you consider Californian, with Vietnamese accents, rworange?

                1. re: daveena

                  From tonight's menu

                  - live Atlantic sea scallop and golden caviar with lime-cilantro vinaigrette
                  - wood oven roasted Manila clams with thai basil, crispy pork belly and fresh chilies
                  - mesquite grilled lamb sausage and Kusshi Oysters chinese black olive and preserved lemon relish
                  - stir-fried chicken with ginkgo nuts, chinese dates, raisins, walnuts and cashews

                  To pick just a few. However people always glom on to the things they can order at a zillion other Vietnamese restaurants such as the spring rolls, papaya salad, claypots, shaking beef ... and then do a little superior dance about how it is tastier and cheaper a zillion other places.

                  Well, yes and no. A zillion other places aren't using Niman Ranch beef for the shaking beef. That isn't a great example, because IMO NR meats aren't all that tasty no matter what cuisine is using it. However, you got your five cent mom and pop Vientnamese joint and they are using cheap cuts of meat so they have to up the flavor to cover a poorer cut of meat. Sometimes letting the meat star because it is a quality cut can give the impression of less flavorful

                  1. re: rworange

                    I agree. But I'll point out that a lot of people recommend those dishes you mentioned (shaking beef, clay pots) as "must-orders" there.

                    When Slanted Door first opened there weren't as many mid-range Vietnamese places in the city, mostly just pho/rice plate joints. So clay pots, shaking beef, etc., were more distinctive. Now that there are places like Bodega Bistro, maybe they should revamp their menu a little bit away from Vietnamese classics and more toward the fusion dishes that are both better and more unique.

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      Slanted Door is the highest-grossing restaurant in San Francisco, so they're not under much pressure to revamp their menu.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        I meant "should" in the sense of "should do it to be more of the cutting edge restaurant it started out to be and to please chowhounds (admittedly not high on their priority list)" than "should to be more successful" -- clearly they are successful enough already!

                        Of the dishes I had when I was there recently, the ones I liked best comprised one classic: the banh xeo or "crepe" and one fusion: the salad with duck confit. I saw a couple of Chinese-looking dishes and wondered what they were doing on the menu (not in the "why are there Chinese dishes on a Vietnamese restaurant menu" sense as much as in the "why are there boring dishes you can get a million other places" sense) and why anyone would order them!

                      2. re: Ruth Lafler

                        I hear SD's shaking beef is now up to $33 -- just meat, no veggies and it's pretty chewy. That place has just gotten way too expensive for me.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            I'm only going by a conversation I had with a waiter who works there -- I mentioned the $29 shaking beef and he corrected me and said it was now $33.

                      3. re: rworange

                        Slanted Door's crispy crab and mushroom rolls are the best version of that classic dish I've had.

                        Cheap cuts of meat generally have more flavor.

                        1. re: rworange

                          I think I've read most of the Slanted Door threads, and I can't remember any of the fusion dishes being recommended. Does SD have a core menu, with the classics, and a rotating selection of fusion dishes? That could partly explain why the new-wave dishes rarely seem to make the discussion.

                          I don't think high-quality meat is an excuse for something being less flavorful. Food is cooked well, or it's not. If it doesn't taste good because they're using filet mignon, they should switch to a cut that tastes better. Anyway, that filet mignon is heavily marinated in soy sauce, so they're not exactly letting the quality of the meat shine through. I am generally in favor of local, sustainable, higher quality ingredients, etc etc, and crediting the producers on the menu, but in the case of the shaking beef, I think using Niman Ranch filet mignon is purely marketing.

                          1. re: daveena

                            The menu changes daily based on what's available, but there are certain dishes they always seem to have. My favorite dishes there are the Slanted Door (i.e. non-vegetarian) spring rolls, daikon cakes, catfish claypot, crispy crab and mushroom rolls (seasonal), shaking beef, and seasonal vegetable (asparagus, bok choy, etc.) with shitake mushrooms.

                            Most of those are standard dishes you'll find at many Vietnamese restaurants, and the two that aren't are Chinese (like the chef's family--they spent only around 10 years in Vietnam before moving to the US). I've never had anything there that seemed fusiony in the Wolfgang Puck vein.

                            Slanted Door, like many local restaurants, is picky about sourcing and often lists farmers and ranchers on its menus. That's part of the modern local culinary tradition that the Ferry Plaza is intended to promote.

                            1. re: daveena

                              If for some reason a thread catches my attention, I'll do what I did here, tell the poster what looks good on the menu and to go with those rather than the classics. I lived two blocks from Slanted Door in the previous location and went through the entire menu. After the novelty of my enchantment and introduction to the standards wore off, the other dishes were what kept me coming back.

                              Of the classics, I like that daikon cake a lot also, though it gets trashed more often than praised by purists.

                              I agree with Robert, it really isn't fusion any more to repeat the previous reference that one would call the food at Chez Panisse Cal-French fusion.

                              1. re: rworange

                                "it really isn't fusion any more to repeat the previous reference that one would call the food at Chez Panisse Cal-French fusion."

                                Really? Not even the "mesquite grilled lamb sausage and Kusshi Oysters chinese black olive and preserved lemon relish "?

                                I actually do kind of consider "Californian cuisine" fusion on its own, but that's probably another topic entirely.

                                1. re: daveena

                                  Yeah, that's pretty darn fusiony. Sounds good, though.