San Francisco – A Foodie Fantasy
San Francisco is undoubtedly America’s food capital – A title it richly deserves due to its pioneering and trend setting “California cuisine” that has captured the imagination and taste buds of gourmets for its lavish use of fresh ingredients, pure flavours and lack of ostentation – Infact the cuisine embodies many facets of the city itself and converted American’s from can-opening fast-food junkies in the 70’s to devotees of healthier fare.
Away from the broad boulevards, this welcoming city unveils its soul amid the laneways and alleys, culinary arteries in the heart of the bay area where there’s a culinary gem round every corner awaiting the adventurous.
Take China Town for instance – We set aside a good three hours, for this densely populated neighbourhood with its exotic temples, noisy markets and ethnic restaurants; yet we only managed to scratch its culinary surface.
We learnt that you don’t need an itinerary to tackle Chinatown which by the way is the largest outside of Asia. Wandering aimlessly, weaving between locals and ducking into shops is enough of a plan.
It was our nostrils that led us to the Stockton Street Market with its congested stalls hawking everything from herbs that claim to cure arthritis to leafy green pak choys that brighten the façade. Of course we duck past the stalls selling entrails and other bits and pieces that were a bit too much for our taste buds to handle – “What are Thousand Year Old eggs and ‘Jook’?”
We managed to line our stomachs with some memorable food that included foo yung abalone, scrambling eggs with shellfish and quail soup plus a delectable basil-mushroom stir fry at Jai Yun on Pacific Avenue. Other feted restaurants include House of Nanking at Kearny Street literally a hole in the wall serving green onion pancakes, chicken with Tsing-Tao beer sauce, crispy sole with garlic sauce, or the sizzling scallops and Nanking-stuffed mushrooms. Or if you can’t decide, the staff will be happy to just start bringing out platters of food for the table-though chances are good that the food will keep coming long after you’ve had your fill. Get there early to avoid the long lines, particularly on weekends.
Of course our real mission was to sample not the ethnic cuisines of the East but the indigenous flavour of the city captured through the prowess of its local chefs who have catapulted the city into becoming the second US destination to have a Michelin guide, with more than 300 restaurants receiving the coveted stars or making the cut to be included in this prestigious journal.
But first let’s get a brief history lesson. Whilst Californians were content to chomp on burgers and fries, young Alice Waters returned home from France in 1971 where she was mesmerized by the use of fresh produce, simple ingredients and bold flavours. She opened ‘Chez Panisse’ in Berkeley in the seventies and took the citizens of SF on an odyssey of their taste buds.
Creating California cuisine with dishes like mesclun salad, wood fired pizzas and goat cheese laced salads where the fruits and veggies were fresh off the trees and farms catapulted the city into a diner’s paradise as the trend became a habit and Waters became a legend in the process. We couldn’t get a booking at the ‘Chez Panisse’ (named after a character in a film by Marcel Pagnol) which serves a single prix fixe three-four course menu that changes daily but we managed to grab a bite at its informal café on the same venue with an a-la carte menu which was almost as memorable.
If you can’t make it to Chez Panisse there are dozens of restaurants and chefs who have drawn inspiration from Waters or have mentored under her at some time including the wildly popular Zuni Café at Market Street known for its divine Caesars Salad, famed roast chicken and gnocchi oozing with the softest ricotta cheese ever.
On our last day in San Francisco we realized that we hadn’t experienced the ultimate touristy thrill; eating sourdough bread and clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf. I must confess I never developed a taste for the distinctive sourdough bread at Boudin Bakery which has been baking these loaves since 1849. Boudin’s loaves get their chewy texture and slightly sour flavor from a naturally occurring sourdough starter, and they contain no yeast or preservatives. Visitors can observe the work in the baking room through a large window, where long baguettes, breadsticks, and the small rounds (which also double as clam chowder bowls) are molded and baked.
My travel companion however was smitten. He surreptitiously tucked a sourdough roll into his pocket laced with butter which he sheepishly confessed was intended to fortify him on Emirates’ 16 hour non-stop flight to Dubai. I guess good food makes us all do the strangest of things?
SF RESTAURANT’S SERVING CALIFORNIA CUISINE
CHEZ PANISSE – The restaurant where Alice Waters invented California cuisine is still packed every night. If you want to eat here, start calling at 9:00 a.m. one month ahead of time and say your prayers, you’ll need all the help you can get. 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley.
ZUNI CAFÉ – For twenty-four years, in an odd and intimate warren of rooms, San Franciscans of every variety have come to the Zuni Café with high expectations and have rarely left disappointed. 1658 Market Street.
QUINCE – Gourmet magazine says this Octavia Street restaurant serves “exquisite food honoring the best of the West’s small organic producers and family farms.” 1701 Octavia Street.
COSMOPOLITAN CAFÉ – San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer says this place “features the stellar cooking of Steven Levine.” It has also earned the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for its wine list. 121 Spear Street.
GREENS – With a beautiful view of the San Francisco Marina and Chef Annie Somerville’s imaginative cooking, there’s much to like at this pioneering vegetarian restaurant. Building A, Fort Mason Centre.