Thursday, June 6, 2013

West Coast Dining Adventures

Hello TERP Muffins! I know I have been rather remiss in keeping up with posting lately, but this time I have an excuse. I know I forgot to mention it in previous posts, but I was away this past week. I hauled my east-coast-rooted butt all the way to San Francisco.

Our main purpose of this trip was to help fulfill Kevin's dream of visiting all of the national parks in the country and cross Yosemite off the list. Since I had never been to San Francisco before, we based ourselves in the city and did day tours of both Yosemite and wine country.

One of the aspects of San Francisco I was most excited about was the food. It's such a foodie city. I couldn't imagine a better place to break my diet. It definitely lived up to my expectation ones. We ate well there.

I sometimes feel like the biggest failure as a foodie when I take city trips like this.  I should be exploring obscure neighborhoods and checking out hole-in-the-wall joints.  Instead I usually find myself too exhausted at the end of a day of being a tourist to want to venture far from my hotel for dinner.  I'll hit some recommended restaurants, but honestly I just go for convenience most nights.  Lunch is even more touristy.  This was true for most vacations from Paris to San Francisco.  I still think I manage to eat well though.  This trip was no exception.  At least I never go to McDonalds or Starbucks or Applebee's or any place like that on vacation.

(If you are looking for non-food details of the trip, go here. If all you want to see is photos, go here. I warn you that although I uploaded the photos in chronological order, Facebook put them out of order, so it's good to read the blog to get a feel for when each photo was taken.)

I learned one very important lesson about dining in San Francisco before I even left. BOOK EARLY. I spent time online trying to find the most recommended fine dining establishments. When I went to Open Table to book the top choices I found almost none of them had available seating the entire week I was there. I was able to book three of them on the list. For everything else we just had to wing it.

Sunday - We arrived in San Francisco around midday. I booked a table for lunch at Yank Sing the week before. I wasn't sure if I had made the right choice or not. I really wanted to try some dim sum while I was in SF, and Yank Sing came up in every search. The problem was that the opinions were scattered. Some people called it an overpriced tourist trap. Others considered it an important SF institution and the definitive dim sum restaurant. I decided to take my chances.

We arrived quite early hoping they could take us before the designated reservation time. That was a wise idea since there was a never ending line in the doorway. Our wait wasn't too excruciating.

We had pork soup dumplings, potstickers, crab cakes, chicken patties, spring rolls, fried shrimp, and I can't remember what else, but we did finish with sesame balls. We stuffed ourselves silly. Kevin wanted to know if we could eat there every night. Eating there was a wise choice after all and any food snobs who want to tell me I'm a typical tourist with no discerning taste can kiss my dim-sum-fattened butt!

We never had dinner that night. We passed out early from jet lag and never felt hungry enough for dinner anyway.

Monday - It never occurred to me that a major US city would have so many businesses closed on Sundays and holidays. It seemed our whole neighborhood was shut down for Memorial Day. The breakfast offered at our hotel restaurant was ridiculously expensive (I will not pay $20 for eggs and toast), so we had to really do some searching to find a place for breakfast. The very helpful hotel staff was able to make some calls and find an open cafe.

We spent the morning at Pier 39 visiting the aquarium and the sea lions and even took a ferry boat cruise around the bay (We had a city pass that included the cruise so we thought, "What the heck?"). The day had become very cold and somewhat rainy by the time lunch rolled around. We wanted to eat someplace warm and sheltered. Kevin zeroed in on the Fog Harbor Fish House. The words Fish House didn't sound too appealing to me, but I decided to chance it as it was the only place that seemed to interest him. I was so cold after that cruise that I would have been happy to just park myself in front of their fireplace.

They gave us a lovely window table with a view of Alcatraz and the sea lions, It was the perfect spot to sip a cup of tea.

Restaurants like this in heavy tourist traffic areas like this are kind of risky. They are often more about the atmosphere and convenience than they are about the food. I was taking an even bigger risk ordering chicken in a seafood place. The food ended up surprisingly good here. I had a juicy and crispy-skinned chicken breast with some perfectly cooked spinach on the side. The sauce was a bit salty, but otherwise it was a very tasty and well-prepared meal. Kevin had crab cakes - a perennial favorite of his. I wondered how much difference he would taste between then California dungeoness crab and the blue crabs of Chincoteague. He said he tasted a difference, but that they were some of the best crab cakes he ever ate.

I didn't want to order dessert, but when they brought out the dessert tray everything looked so delicious I couldn't help myself. They had all of the classic favorites on one tray: chocolate cake, tiramisu`, creme brulee`, etc. I ended up splitting a warm, soft, chocolate chip cookie with ice cream and homemade whipped cream.

The service here was also excellent. We were never rushed despite the crowds of tourists. When our meals took a long time to come out our friendly server came by and explained that the chicken took a while to cook (good to know it was freshly prepared). She was also quite helpful in helping me select my tea.

We spent much of the afternoon in Fisherman's Wharf and the returned to our hotel and browsed nearby Chinatown. Walking through Chinatown we saw some rather interesting local food products.

By the time dinner rolled around, we were faced with the same problem we had at breakfast. We were too tired to venture too far from our hotel, but nothing nearby was open.

We ended up at a Thai place called Bangkok Best. I think everyone in the neighborhood also ended up there. We were seated at a window table with beautiful flowers planted in the window box. That was where the favors ended. It was clear they wanted everyone out quickly. I was glad that I was keeping alcohol to a minimum because I saw some wine and beer behind the counter, but no one offered any.

I decided to have some pad see ew for my meal. What they brought me was not pad see ew. I think pad see ew should be spicy. This tasted decent, but it wasn't spicy. It was more like laad na with a thinner sauce.

I'm sure San Francisco must have a lot of divine Thai food.  It was not at Bangkok Best.

Tuesday - Tuesday morning breakfast was available everywhere. Yay! We ended up not having lunch. We spent a good part of the day at Alcatraz where there was no food available and then had an early dinner scheduled.

Tuesday was one of the days when I was able to get a reservation at a recommended restaurant. We tried the Italian restaurant Perbacco, which was also conveniently a block away from our hotel.

Perbacco is sleekly and cleanly decorated with lots of wood and brick walls. Their menu changes daily.

I started out with this delicious cocktail. It had Proseco, St. Germain, and some herbal type juices.

 I tried to resist these grissini, but the green sauce on the side was too tempting.


For an appetizer I had a salad of arugula, ricotta salatta cheese, and strawberries. The sweet-bitter-salty contrast worked beautifully.

Kevin had a fritto misto that contained both seafood and vegetables.

For a main course I had pork shoulder served atop a bed of more arugula and a panzanella made with apricots, peaches, and plums. The meat was fork tender and made me ashamed of the pork shoulder I served for my mother's birthday last week.

Kevin had some kind of fish dish. I think it was halibut.

Desserts all looked unusual and too tasty to pass up. Kevin informed me we were not allowed to share. He had a caramel white chocolate cake. I had caramel ice cream with pine nut cookies on the side.

I was pleased with the service as well.  Everyone was friendly and attentive.

Wednesday - This was a very long day as we spent the day on a Yosemite tour. Breakfast was a pastry eaten in our room. We stopped at a lovely farmer's market on the way to the park, so I bought some strawberries to snack on.  Lunch was a salad and sandwich purchased at a grocery store and eaten as a picnic in the park. When we returned to the city it was almost 9:00 so we needed to find a restaurant nearby (no major walking) and serving late.

The hotel staff recommended Belden Place. It's a long alley between two major streets that is lined up and down with restaurants. The first place on the row is an Italian restaurant called Brindisi. The hostess was rather pushy making sure to greet us as we walked by and showing us a menu. We decided it was as good a choice as any and the hostess reminded us a lot of our owner of horse farm where we stayed in Tuscany two years ago.

Although Belden Place has indoor seating in all their restaurants, most places have ample outdoor seating.  It was a chilly night, but we had a space heater right above us.  It was lovely sitting outside on an otherwise chilly spring evening.

I started with heirloom tomatoes and burratta cheese on top of arugula pesto. I would never have ordered this in NY since it's way out of season, but I figured California has an edge on this sort of thing.  I was correct and it was quite good. After that salad I didn't need much else, so the lamb chops I ordered with polenta fries fit the bill nicely. Kevin had lobster bisque and lobster pasta. I think he was in seafood heaven this week.


We finished with a chocolate truffle cake (allowed to split this time) that was a bit underwhelming.

Thursday - We were out on the road again. This time we spent the day on a wine country tour. Breakfast was rolls I pilfered from the Brindisi bread basket the night before and the strawberries from the farmer's market. After a morning spent in Muir Woods and the Mayo winery, we stopped for lunch in downtown Sonoma. We ended up having lunch at a place our guide recommended called the Sunflower Cafe.

The cafe had a beautiful back patio with gardens and a fountain under the canopy. There was even a lemon tree with a single lemon growing on it.

I drank one of their specialty cocktails called a Tincho. It was a sweet sparkling wine with lemon.

Lunch was a salad of black kale, eggs, and sausage. I'm not a huge kale fan and have never eaten it raw, but I took a chance and I have to say it worked well in the salad.

We went to two more wineries and drank like fish all afternoon. At the end of the day I'm surprised we had the energy or the hunger to go out again. Somehow we did. We headed back to Belden for dinner.

Our next Belden restaurant was a Catalan restaurant called B44. I never found out why it's called that. There was only one appetizer I wanted that night. After all of that wine, I had a huge craving for cheese. I ordered a Spanish cheese plate to start. Alongside the cheese was a fig and almond cake and quince paste. I have had Spanish fig cake before, but never one quite like this. this one had a distinct anise flavor to it. My main course was a duck leg confit with sausage, beans, and mushrooms. I can only describe it as a sort of duck stew or maybe a Spanish cassoulet - very unusual and tasty. Kevin had one of the many paella offerings on the menu. He managed to find one without any pork products in it.

For dessert we split and order of profiteroles filled with the restaurant's special dark chocolate almond ice cream.

Friday - We were back to exploring on our own this day. We spent the day exploring the sites in Golden Gate Park. We started in the DeYoung museum and then headed to the California Academy of Science where we ate in their restaurant, The Moss Room. It's on the lower level and has a really cool vibe. There is moss on the walls and an aquarium on the floor. Since it has a full bar and is on the lower level under the main cafe, it is a quiet refuge for adults.  Lots of noisy kids inhabit the place.
I kept it simple with a salad and a burger because sometimes all I want is a burger.  The burger had a local white cheddar on top and a tasty aioli on the bun. I just had to have a burger some time during my trip. I classed it up with Pinot noir. Kevin had a chicken breast with vegetables. Everything was very well prepared and fresh.  You don't often find museum fare this good.

For our final dinner in SF I had managed to book another highly recommended restaurant. We went to the jazz-club-themed Bix. I was a doodyhead and forgot my camera, so I have no pictures. The decor was cool. It was a mix of modern looking brick with fancy moldings, dark woods, and chandeliers. The only thing I didn't like about the place was the noise. The bar was extremely busy and grew busier as the night went on. The bar crowd even overpowered the jazz trio that had begun playing during our dinner.

The food had many American classics, but with a twist. I started with a salad of butter lettuce dressed with Greek yogurt, honey, and hazelnuts. Kevin had some chicken nuggets in chili sauce that sort of tasted like the best General Tso's chicken you ever tried.

Kevin went for yet another lobster pasta this time around. I decided to try their steak. It was thinly sliced and served a perfect medium rare, served with caramelized roasted carrots and a mild chimmichuri. The steak was melt-in-your mouth tender (if you'll pardon the cliche`). It better have been since it was the most expensive item on the menu!

Desserts were also very classic. I enjoyed their coconut cream pie that was really more of a tartlette. The crust was made from puff pastry. The filling was light and fluffy. Kevin went an even more old-fashioned route and had oatmeal butterscotch cookies.

Although we never had bad service at any of the restaurants we ate at, this one topped them all.  Staff was so attentive and the owner/manager made a couple of visits to our table as well.  

So ended our San Francisco food adventures. I think I made some good choices when it came to the recommended restaurants. I definitely hope to go back one day and see what else the Bay Area has to offer.  I do hope to visit Perbacco and Bix again!


bellini said...

You can't often go wrong in San Francisco when it comes to restaurants and as you have discovered it is all a matter of taste. I have been there 3 times now and have eaten at some incredible places.

Nikki said...

I am so happy to see & read about your SF foodie adventure! I love SF and I try to eat my way through the city every time I go. There are so many places, when you find a less-than-stellar restaurant, it really puts a damper on things.

Blond Duck said...

I'm sorry you had bad Thai food! If we ever go, I'm printing out your list!

Sue said...

Thanks for sharing all those pictures and places. What a great trip! Sometimes the restaurants you find on the fly are just as good (or better) than the ones you plan for ages to go to.

I can't believe how cold San Francisco can be, and it sounds like it was nippy when you were there.