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Unexpected SF / Monterey / Paso Robles Trip - scrambling to plan

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I've had about 48 hours to try to put together an 8 day trip to SF, Monterey area and Paso Robles. It's been 2 years since we've been to the Bay Area. Reports from our last visit are here ->
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/433015
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/433164

We will again have the kids (now 11 & 9, and reasonably adventurous eaters) in tow. If I had to pick favorites from our last visit, they would probably be Zuni Cafe (my first time there) and dim sum (Gold Mountain, Great Eastern, Yank Sing, each with their virtues). The kids love good dim sum and we routinely drive 30-40 minutes on weekends here in Miami for decent dim sum. Probably our all time favorite SF restaurant is Boulevard though we missed it on our last visit. My biggest regrets from last trip were not getting to Incanto, Bar Tartine, A16 (I know chefs are leaving at both of the latter - has it happened yet, is anyone noticing a decline?).

I hate being "that guy" who fires off questions without doing his research, and I'm trying not to be (I've plowed through the past month of posts on this board and done a few key searches), but here goes ->

- Any notable openings in the past year or two that I should have on my radar?
- Dim sum recs? XLB in particular, sadly impossible to find in Miami.
- Izakaya style Japanese?
- Vietnamese?
- I see Incanto is open Mondays and closed Tuesdays. In most places, Monday is often "chef's night off" and the experience can sometimes suffer. Should this be a concern at Incanto?

Incidentally, I note on OpenTable that many restaurants only have reservations at off-hours (5pm, 9pm) - do many restaurants block out reservation times from OpenTable, such that I might have better luck calling the restaurant directly?

I'm not sure if it's unkosher to solicit Monterey or Paso Robles advice on this board, but if you want to volunteer ...

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  1. Hi Frodnesor -- I'm enjoying some beer-flight induced insomnia here in Vancouver post 'Beerdown so thought I'd jump in with a few ideas before the SF Bay Area Hounds saddle up and ride to your rescue in earnest...

    We had some decent XLB at Bund Shanghai in Chinatown last visit, might be worth a look in since you seem to hang out in that hood.

    The izakaya scene appears to be nascent in SF. I've seen O Izakaya mentioned though more often for its burger (!) IIRC, and I know that Sebo has an izakaya night every Sunday. Here is a recent thread that may assist: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/624597

    You didn't ask about ramen but I know lots of kiddlies who love it so if that is an option and you haven't read it, search for Melanie Wong's ramen ratings list. Awesome!

    I understand that most restos do have the capacity to accommodate beyond Open Table so it is always worth a call (at least that is what I've been told by thems that knows about such things here in Vancouver) and I have had the best luck contacting restaurants in SF directly even if they are on Open Table. I have some sense that it is cheaper for the restos if you call though I may be making that up :-).

    My geography blows but I think your Monterey and Paso Robles questions would get more responses on the right board which I believe is "California"

    PS I'm going to seek out the Olympic Flame Diner on Geary when we're next in SF (beginning of November if all goes well) -- sounds like my kind of place so thanks for that in your 2007 post.

    1. I'm not sure if it's unkosher to solicit Monterey or Paso Robles advice on this board, but if you want to volunteer.

      Not exactly treif but more productive to repost to California Board.

      8 Replies
      1. re: wolfe

        For Monterey and Paso, you WILL get many more replies if you paste this onto the CALIF board.

        Also, I'd be a bit more specific in what you're looking for. Paso is casual, but plenty of good food can be found. Tell us what you're looking for, and if you want suggestions for food-related activities included. LOTS to do here out in the sticks, food- and wine-wise.
        Everything from great ice cream parlors to pik-yer-own and petting zoos. Lotsa Organics.

        1. re: toodie jane

          thanks. I've gotten some good advice thru local friends on Paso Robles, and my evenings in Carmel are now accounted for (shlepping out to Manresa one night, just learned there's a new Michel Richard Citronelle in our resort, so that takes care of the other night), so I've not followed up on those here or on CA board.

          Droppped our bags at the hotel and went to Yank Sing for lunch today. Did it get more expensive or did my appetite get that much larger? I've never spent $100+ on dim sum for 4 people before.

          Have been lured in by the 1/2 price offer on the whole wine list at Fifth Floor (we're staying at the Palomar) for dinner tonight, notwithstanding recent chef departure prices are reasonable enough to take a chance on.

          1. re: Frodnesor

            Good dim sum in the Bay Area is no longer inexpensive. At Koi Palace you can drop $100 on two people...but it's good.

            1. re: Frodnesor

              Yank Sing is on the pricey side for standard dim sum items, but what can really drive up the bill are specials such as Peking duck or raw fish salad.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Did 4 pieces of peking duck (not four orders) and maybe a dozen items total. Wow.

                Tomorrow's agenda is still open though Foreign Cinema brunch and some ice cream (maybe a Bi-Rite / Humphry Slocumbe faceoff) are possibilities. Going to Incanto Monday night. Return at the end of the week for one more day, probably either Lers Ros or Anh Hong.

              2. re: Frodnesor

                Huh? if Citronelle is in your resort, you are in Carmel Valley if I am not mistaken, and ummm, you do know that it is QUITE a shelp from there to Manresa, right? (as in about an hour and thirty five minutes, more in traffic.) I don't see the point. If you want to go to Manresa it is closer to San Francisco, and quite a bit closer to San Jose if you end up there, than it is to either Carmel or Carmel Valley.

                1. re: susancinsf

                  Yes I do know that (now). This is what happens when you plan a trip in 48 hours. (and that's not the worst of it - I nearly booked us into the Bellasera Hotel in Naples FL instead of the one in Paso Robles! Luckily caught that one before it was too late). Game plan is to spend the afternoon in Santa Cruz before dinner, then have a looonnnnnggg drive back home.

                  1. re: Frodnesor

                    well, ok, though you are still backtracking. But, Manresa may be worth it. I do hope you will do a full report on Citronelle, have been wanting to hear more...

          2. At a fussy haute-French tasting menu place the chef leaving can be a major event, but all those places you mention make relatively simple food and the kitchen crews are experienced enough that the head chef leaving or being out of town isn't likely to make a noticeable difference.

            Oyaji's a great izakaya and family-friendly, at least earlier in the evening. O Izakaya has more of a bar atmosphere.

            Consider Lers Ros for spectacular Thai. I don't know of any Vietnamese restaurant here with cooking on that level.

            Always call the restaurant directly when you can't get a reservation through opentable.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              I think Nha Toi in San Jose stands out for me as the Vietnamese place that could match Lers Ros Thai - it's just off 280, it could actually be a convenient lunch stop on the way down to Monterey.

              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/600714

              1. re: daveena

                A detour through San Jose is a great idea if you're into Vietnamese food. The Grand Century and Lion food courts are amazing.

                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/597001

                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/637706

                -----
                Grand Century Shopping Mall
                1001 Story Rd, San Jose, CA

            2. Thanks for responses - Oyaji looks right, Lers Ros looks like great too, and the San Jose detour also is a good idea. A few followup queries ->

              - Hana Zen is geographically desirable and the menu looks good, but comments seem pretty unfavorable. Is it a place to avoid entirely, or is it just that you should stick with yakitori and skip the sushi?

              - Foreign Cinema for Sunday brunch? With a stop at Bi-Rite after?

              - Anh Hong 7 courses of beef - gimmick or good eats (or both?)

              - any decent (not even necessarily exceptional, just good) banh mi for lunch that's not a field trip?

              3 Replies
              1. re: Frodnesor

                For banh mi in the Tenderloin, you can go to one of the mainstream places on Larkin Street (Lee's, Saigon Sandwich, etc.) or head off the beaten path. If you're up for the latter, check out Melanie Wong's rundown here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/588771

                For 7 courses beef, I've only had Pagolac (also on Larkin Street), but it was very good.

                Definitely do Lers Ros.

                Foreign Cinema is a viable option for Sunday brunch. I'd do Humphrey Slocombe over Bi-Rite, but that's just personal preference. Loves me some Secret Breakfast ice cream.

                1. re: Frodnesor

                  7 courses of beef is a classic menu, not a gimmick. That's Anh Hong's specialty.

                  1. re: Frodnesor

                    I haven't been to Hana Zen in years, but I used to enjoy the yakitori there (but not the sushi). It wouldn't be high on my list for a limited trip, but I'd be interested in a report if you do go.....

                    -----
                    Hana Zen
                    115 Cyril Magnin, San Francisco, CA 94102

                  2. Fifth Floor was overall reasonably good last night. They seated us in the lounge rather than the restaurant - which I suppose was just as well with the kids, but it tended to result in us being somewhat neglected for service (out of sight out of mind, and there was maybe only one other table seated in the area of the lounge where we were). We were given both the restaurant menu and the bar menu, which features mostly simpler dishes (always a plus when we're with the kids - not sure what it says that we're raising our kids to eat from bar menus).

                    We started on a somewhat off note with a tortellini app, three green-skinned pastas stuffed with a fine dice of summer squash and "tomato marmalade" (not sweet enough to merit the "marmalade" tag), in a "bread and garlic" sauce that had formed an unfortunate skin on the surface. Nothing terribly wrong with this dish, just not much that really appealed. I liked the crab cappucino my daughter ordered better, very nice seafood essence, enhanced by a hit of ginger. Some unadvertised wilted greens in the broth (spinach?) made it a somewhat heartier dish but this was unexpected and didn't quite make sense to me given the cappucino descriptor. Mrs. F's caesar salad had a surprisingly strong fishy whiff to it - I'm an anchovy fan but this came on a bit too strong for me.

                    My entree hit all the right notes though, a quail, the legs roasted separately and the rest of the body boned out and stuffed with a rough forcemeat, all served over a succotash of peas, corn and piquillo pepper (with a scatter of pea leaves), and then a tableside pour of a nice madeira sauce. Nice dish all around. My son had a steak frite off the bar menu, nicely prepared (I suspect it was cooked sous vide and then seared as it ws perfectly medium rare out to a very thin browned exterior), with great thin crispy fries anointed with some garlic and herbs.

                    Dessert menu was interesting; Frod Jr. cannot resist a warm chocolate cake, and they had one, so it was inevitable we would try it. But you had to dig to find this one, as it was served in a bowl (really almost more of a big old-fashioned glass), topped with a lime cream, a coconut foam, and a scoop of popcorn ice cream. It sounded sort of unlikely but it actually worked quite well.

                    The hit of the night was a 2003 Frederic Magnien Vosne-Romanee Les Suchots for about $80 via their 50% off the entire wine list deal. That alone has got to make this place worth a visit. A menu with no entree over $30 with food at this level is also quite appealing too.

                    Mrs. F said she wants "California Cuisine," so it's off to Zuni we go tonight.

                    1. We seem to be re-treading old ground, ended up at Great Eastern for lunch yesterday (where we also lunched when here a couple years ago). Hands-down the best thing we had were some beautiful big prawns, fresh from the tank and steamed with ginger garlic and cilantro. Also enjoyed the beef shank and jellyfish on a cold platter, though I'm still trying to figure out the allure of duck tongues. Most of the dim sum we had was thoroughly mediocre though I sort of anticipated that (the kids easily deemed these XLB inferior to the ones at Yank Sing). One item we had, a "special" dim sum of "pasta" in a spicy XO sauce, was at least interesting, with mostly dry chili and some sort of dried shredded meat on the "pasta" (the slightly gelatinous sheets which I customarily see wrapped, crepe-style, around various fillings), here rolled and sliced crosswise.

                      1. Dinner last night at Zuni Cafe was somewhat underwhelming. Heirloom tomato salad had a nice assortment of tomatoes (along with a scatter of thinly sliced cucumber and some bigger slivers of green onion) but I would have preferred a more generous hand with the tomatoes and a less generous one with the olive oil. This was no more than maybe 10 wafer-thin slices of tomato (a presentation which arguably undermines the beautiful juiciness of a fresh tomato) for something around a dollar a slice. These aren't truffles, for goodness sake. The caesar was classically good.

                        I broke the "months with an R" rule and ordered a half-dozen Hog Island kumamoto oysters, but my order apparently got lost in the shuffle. I reminded our server who was able to bring them out a minute after the entrees hit the table. They were delicious, the best thing I had all night. A spinach soup Mrs. F had as her entree was full of green goodness but somewhat one-dimensional.

                        A squab was roasted too far for my taste and was a touch dry (and the poor little legs really not much more than skin & bone, though the skin was certainly worth picking off those bones), and accompaniments of a cannelini bean mash and oven-roasted cherry tomatoes (tomatoes were all over the menu - I know it's season, but with such a short menu perhaps there could be more variety) did little to compliment the bird.

                        A Marin Sun Farms strip steak "tagliata" was again sliced razor-thin like the tomatoes, much thinner than I'm accustomed to for a tagliata (and spread these slices out over the plate to appear a more substantial portion than it was), and wasn't brought to sufficient heat to render out or crisp up either the external or internal ribbons of fat. I know that grass-fed beef can be difficult to work with (but nonetheless often prefer its more robust flavor) but this was not a great example of how to do it well. I did like the accompaniment of some white beans with a tangle of wilted greens.

                        I have no qualms about pouring my own wine but we had water glasses go dry for a longer time than I would have expected at a place of this caliber - and I'm really not usually a pissant over such things.

                        My daughter really liked her dessert, a meringue with peaches (nectarines? I don't recall) and a Lillet-flavored cream (indeed she announced "This dessert IS me.") and likewise my son made a Gateau Victoire (flourless chocolate cake - his raison d'etre) disappear rapidly. I finished with a cheese, a Cowgirl Creamery Inverness (never heard of this from them before), nicely paired with slivered fennel and zante grapes, but again I was pretty surprised by the portioning - this was about the size of the first knuckle of my thumb, possibly only a quarter of a 2oz round of cheese.

                        I'm really not typically a diner that judges food by portion sizes; maybe I wouldn't have not noticed or cared as much had I been more impressed by the flavors. But the only item that really fully satisfied was the oysters, for which I mostly have the Hog Island Oyster Company to thank.

                        1. Had a few nice snack / lunch stops in the MIssion on Monday - Taqueria Vallarta, Ali Baba's Cave and Bi-Rite Creamery.

                          As we were walking around the Mission, Taqueria Vallarta just had all the right signs - literally, with a billboard out front offering cabeza, suadero, lengua, cachete, etc., and figuratively, with a bustling business of locals lined up to get theirs. I had cabeza and suadero tacos, with DIY yourself toppings of diced onion, cilantro, slivered radishes, etc. and a few different salsas to choose from. Greasy but good, these really hit the spot.

                          Ali Baba's Cave was mostly just geographically convenient for us, but the falafel were pretty darn good, and I liked the fried eggplant too.

                          We followed that with a stop at Bi-Rite (would have loved to do a face-off between Bi-Rite and Humphry Slocombe, but alas the latter is closed Mondays. I liked the brown sugar w ginger caramel the best of the flavors we collectively tried, but the salted caramel was good too, and the rincanelas.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Frodnesor

                            Nice reports. Thaks

                            -----
                            Zuni Cafe
                            1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

                            Bi-Rite Creamery
                            3692 18th St, San Francisco, CA 94110

                            Ali Baba's Cave Cafe
                            531 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117

                            Taqueria Vallarta
                            3033 24th St, San Francisco, CA 94110

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

                            Fifth Floor Restaurant
                            12 Fourth St., San Francisco, CA 94103

                          2. I still have to catch up on some of our meals outside the city, some of which belong on the CA board, but in the meantime will add a note on our final meal in SF before departing at Le Colonial.

                            Though I was eager to try Lers Ros, for our last night before leaving town geography was the final decider, and Le Colonial was only a block from our hotel. There seems to be little said about it on this board, and I was pleasantly surprised.

                            It's a neat location on the back-alley-ish Cosmo Place with some nice covered outdoor courtyard seating up on the second floor. It pitches itself as authentic Vietnamese with French influences which I suppose is about right. It's not overwhelmingly traditional but it's also not quite as California contemporary as Slanted Door's menu.

                            We stuck mostly with appetizer type items, trying:
                            - Banh Xeo - filled with diced lobster as well as Laughing Bird shrimp, nice crispy rice crepe.
                            - Cha Gio Tom Cua - crispy rolls stuffed with shrimp, Dungeness crab and pork, nicely crispy if just a touch greasy (both Cha Gio and Banh Xeo were presented with lettuce, cilantro, mint, bean sprout, etc. and nuoc cham).
                            - Bong Bi Chao Tom - very nice squash blossoms lightly battered and stuffed with a fine shrimp paste, plated with some frisee tossed with an assertively spicy vinaigrette; only drawback was that the delicate flavor of the squash blossoms was somewhat overwhelmed.
                            - Thit Kho Chien - pork belly, very nicely tender and crispy-topped, topped with caramel sauce and a few more unexpected pairings - cubed sauteed Asian pear, pickled bok choy, hard-boiled quail eggs, a drizzle of truffle oil. Seemed a bit unlikely but it worked for me.
                            - Goi Bo - spicy beef salad, one of the few disappointments, not bad, just not making much of an impression.
                            - Ca Nuong - Luch Duart salmon, grilled and served with a tart tamarind sauce. Very good. Kids loved it.
                            - Com Chien - curried fried rice, generously studded with bit of pork belly, shrimp, and scrambled egg. Also a touch greasy, but not so much to keep us from eating it with gusto.

                            I didn't have very high expectations but they were clearly exceeded and we all enjoyed this meal. Also enjoyed the Navarro Gewurztraminer (dry) which held up well to most of the spice and sweetness.

                            -----
                            Le Colonial SF
                            20 Cosmo Place, San Francisco, CA 94109