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SF - tasting menu food, served a la carte?

It looks like I'll be getting a few days in San Francisco this summer after having been away for about three years. We have our favorites, but this trip I'm mostly interested in catching up on what's new since we were last there (though we still have many gaps to fill on places that have been around for a while).

Here's the dilemma: if left to my own devices, I'd be looking primarily at places doing degustation style menus - Saison, Atelier Crenn, Coi, Benu, Commis, Sons & Daughters - but my family, I've learned from sad experience, often doesn't have the patience for such things.

So my questions are:

(1) Where can I find "tasting menu" style food, but served a la carte so it's not a 3-hour plus affair?

Knowing my limitations, it seems I'll probably have to scratch several of those places above off the list. I'm considering adding the following:

Commonwealth
Prospect
State Bird Provisions
Frances
Mission Street Chinese
Lers Ros
Aziza
Flour + Water
A16

Thoughts? Other suggestions?

(2) I see that Benu and Commonwealth have both a la carte and tasting menus - how do they compare (in other words - do they make sense to try if you're not doing the tasting menu)?

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  1. I don't think Mission Chinese takes reservations. That might be a pain, if you have to wait a long time outside; they don't have like a lounge area for waiting or anything -- and if you are showing up later than, say, 5, you're definitely waiting a while. If you've got small kids who will grow impatient, I might not recommend it.

    Not sure what you mean by "tasting menu food," but Flour + Water and A16, though excellent, aren't super creative about their menus in the way that you seem to be looking for.

    Yah I often wish SF had lower-level food that was a bit bolder, something like Longman and Eagle in Chicago, but alas.

      1. Yeah, I know "tasting menu food" isn't really an actual genre, though I think you actually get what I mean: creative, chef-driven, not necessarily fixated on the "appetizer then a big protein" format.

        What's the typical wait like at Mission Chinese on a weekday? The kids aren't small any more (14 & 12) but it's true there's only so much patience they have for standing around (of course, I'm not remotely averse to plying them with Bi-Rite or Humphry Slocombe ice cream while we wait - those kind of bribes work on older kids too).

        Plum is Daniel Patterson's more casual space right? Thanks for the reminder.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Frodnesor

          There's also Patterson's other casual place, Haven.

          1. re: Frodnesor

            Personally I have absolutely no patience for lines, so I always show up right at open. Thus I don't know the exact wait time, but there are ALWAYS a dozen or more people outside, even during the week. Get there when it opens, and you should be fine.

            They also do take-out, I believe even delivery, although I've never done it.

            1. re: Frodnesor

              At MCF weekdays can be 30-45 min wait. Much depends on whether there are other simiIar sized parties ahead of you. On the other hand, we waltzed right in after prime lunch hour on Sat..

            2. Try AQ. And I think Commonwealth is worth a shot with Ala carte. Haven't been to benu.

              2 Replies
              1. re: sonj818

                Yes, I think AQ is doing food that's creative, chef-driven, not necessarily fixated on the "appetizer then a big protein" format for a reasonable price.

                1. re: sonj818

                  Second on AQ. The cooking's creative and technically sophisticated but in a very understated way.

                  1. Benu offers an a la carte menu that includes tastes from their tasting menu. But due to their special dinnerware the portions may seem quite small taken out of the tasting menu context.

                    1. If you are willing to go further south, Manresa will allow you to order four or five courses ala carte. If you want to do the tasting menu, then everyone at the table must do it.

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: 512window

                        I'm not sure Manresa does that any more. The old four-course menu with choices is no longer on the Web site, instead they have an 8-9 course menu for $125 and a tasting menu for $175. Kind of fits with the remodel, seems like they're shooting for a third Michelin star.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          I take it back, Manresa still has a four-course menu (three if you don't order the cheese, which would be insane). I was misreading it as a series of courses rather than choices.

                          http://www.manresarestaurant.com/kitc...

                          What the hell is "risotto without rice"?

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            When I had the squash and courgette "risotto without rice" it was the vegetables cut into small pieces roughly the size and shape of grains of rice - and presumably cooked in a similar manner.

                            Yes, the cheese course was outstanding.

                        2. re: 512window

                          Ha! Sadly - very sadly - Manresa is where I learned my lesson about stretching my family's patience:

                          http://www.foodforthoughtmiami.com/20...

                          That was a few years ago, and we did the four-course (which was available then, not sure it's still around) rather than the full tasting menu, and they were still ready to kill me. I think it would go better now, but I'm probably going to have to make a solo SF trip if I want to go back to Manresa.

                          AQ, from reading the menu anyway, looks like a great recommendation, and was not at all on my radar.

                          1. re: Frodnesor

                            Oops! Take them someplace new for sure.

                            1. re: 512window

                              RL's comment on Plum is right on. It's right by the BART station - don't fear Oakland!

                              Plum is doing the most complicated and interesting food - and you can just order one dish and bolt.

                        3. OK, last call, we take off this weekend:

                          I've made reservations for State Bird Provisions and AQ. We are going to have one more dinner free. Primary options include:

                          - Izakaya. Several choices. I was leaning toward Chotto just b/c the menu looked a bit more diverse, but Yuzuki is also very tempting. Or Sozai? Nombe? Nojo?

                          - Plum - particularly since on one evening we'll be coming in late dinnertime into Oakland anyway.

                          - Mission Chinese IF the family has patience for a wait. Any recent thoughts on whether attention to the new NY operation has affected the original location, if at all?

                          - Wife went to Zare at Fly Trap on her last SF and enjoyed. Trying to convince me to return. Thoughts?

                          - A couple "classics" we've never been to: Nopa and Slanted Door. Should we be doing one of these instead?

                          - Lunch possibilities include Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market (Saturday - 4505, Roli Roti, ), Yank Sing, Great Eastern, Local's Corner, Tartine Bakery, Namu, Wise Sons.

                          Guidance and suggestions welcomed.

                          15 Replies
                          1. re: Frodnesor

                            My last meal at Nombe a month ago was meh. I'd strike that one from your list.

                            In your position, I would appease my wife and spare one meal for her choice. Give her the illusion that you're listening to her. ;)

                            1. re: Frodnesor

                              CH reports on Mission Chinese tend to emphasize the irregularity of their quality, so I'd also be curious to see if anything has recently changed. For this reason, I think its better suited to locals than visitors who might not want to risk a single mediocre meal. Note they do take-out and are closed on Wednesdays.

                              Izakaya small plates makes the most sense given your other dinner preferences and picks. There is good small plate Japanese in the East Bay-- Ippuku in Berkeley specializes in yakitori but has other small plates, Kiraku has a great regular menu and a bunch of more experimental specials, and B-Dama gets good reports on these boards.

                              1. re: Frodnesor

                                I think the chances of getting into Mission Chinese for lunch are better than at dinner. The bonus is that you'll be in the very vibrant and walkable Mission neighborhood for shopping and people watching if that's of any interest. I think they're quite consistent in quality (esp for the price) but where people seem to run into difficulty is ordering too much of the same taste. Their menu is very tilted toward spicy. I find it's a lot more enjoyable to to vary the heat level among courses.

                                1. re: Frodnesor

                                  Plum's the best match I know for the original request for tasting menu food a la carte.

                                  At Izakaya Yuzuki I had some of the best non-sushi Japanese food I've ever had.

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    +1 for Yuzuki. It was the very best izakaya food I have ever had in SF.

                                  2. re: Frodnesor

                                    I love that I can always count on CH for both sound food and marital advice! Setting aside relationship preservation concerns, is Zare at all in the league of the other places potentially on the list?

                                    Also: does Mission Chinese really deliver like it says on the website? If so, delivery to our hotel room after a somewhat late arrival into town might be a very viable option. Hadn't considered lunch either, somehow overlooked that they had lunch hours. That's also a possibility as we like walking the Mission and there are plenty of other options nearby if the wait is too long.

                                    1. re: Frodnesor

                                      Yep, MCF does deliver. So does Lers Ros.

                                      1. re: Frodnesor

                                        MCF does indeed deliver! They say on the website that they might not deliver at peak hours but I've gotten delivery from them at 7-8PM on weekdays without a problem

                                      2. re: Frodnesor

                                        - Izakaya. Several choices. I was leaning toward Chotto just b/c the menu looked a bit more diverse, but Yuzuki is also very tempting. Or Sozai? Nombe? Nojo?
                                        HATED Nojo (so over-priced for the quality and quantity), Nombe hasn't been any good since Nick Balla left...

                                        - Plum - particularly since on one evening we'll be coming in late dinnertime into Oakland anyway.
                                        Wish they had some consistency in their help. I've had good meals and mediocre meals and there always seems to be someone new in the kitchen...

                                        - Wife went to Zare at Fly Trap on her last SF and enjoyed. Trying to convince me to return.
                                        I'm a fan, but it doesn't usually blow people out of the water the way other SF restaurants do.

                                        - A couple "classics" we've never been to: Nopa and Slanted Door. Should we be doing one of these instead?
                                        I'm not a fan of Slanted Door because I find their food to be too sweet for my tastes. Nopa is pretty good.

                                        - Lunch possibilities include Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market (Saturday - 4505, Roli Roti, ), Yank Sing, Great Eastern, Local's Corner, Tartine Bakery, Namu, Wise Sons.
                                        Consider Hong Kong Lounge over Yank Sing. Roli Roti's pork is exceptional as is the entire Farmer's Market. Tartine is always worth a visit...

                                        1. re: CarrieWas218

                                          The turnover at Plum is kind of remarkable, but despite that I've always eaten well there.

                                          1. re: CarrieWas218

                                            Note that the chef who won critical praise for Chotto (although not from me) left recently.

                                          2. re: Frodnesor

                                            Izakaya:
                                            -- Yuzuki is my hands down favorite. After this, Chotto, then Oyaji, then Sozai, then Nombe. Have not tried Nojo yet. Ippuku in Berkeley was a huge disappointment, though I might try it again and stay away from the yakitori, which I did not like.

                                            Classics:
                                            -- I'll take Tadich Grill over Slanted Door, though Slanted Door is really good. And if La Folie counts as a classic, I'd consider that over the others.

                                            1. re: pauliface

                                              La Folie also has their relatively new lounge next door, same chef, less formal.

                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                I am still thinking about the amazing duck egg I had last time I was at La Folie. Time to go back soon!

                                            2. re: Frodnesor

                                              totally seconding (thirding? fourthing? yuzuki). it's underrated and unique and fabulous. get the house made tofu and beef tendon (if they're serving it, and if that's your thing).

                                              zare at fly trap is totally enjoyable and yet falls into a strange category that i call "if only we didn't live in sf". i'm referring to perfectly delicious meals that i eat out that i would be thrilled to find in nearly any other city (barring, perhaps new york), and yet, which i know we won't make our way back to because of the bizarre overabundance of choice and quality in the city. in short, it is excellent food, but just somehow not as superamazing as the ten other, newer, superamazing restaurants that opened last week.

                                              local's corner also falls in this category. fresh. nice. seasonal. delicious. not over the top ridonkulously good.

                                              fwiw, i'm pretty sure the waits at mission chinese are mostly for dinner. we've never had a wait to walk in at lunch.

                                              oh, and wanted to add that state bird is such a good call. it's just really different and fun and tasty. i think you'll like it.

                                            3. Very brief mid-trip update, will follow up in more depth later:

                                              - State Bird Provisions - winner. Exactly what I was looking for. We tried about a dozen or more different things, all good, some exceptional. Love the dim sum style service.

                                              - AQ - winner. Loved the tripe & plum dish, nice aged squab.

                                              Still plotting our 1 open dinner on our way back through SF next week.