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Culinary Adventures in San Francisco

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My husband and I just got back from San Francisco, a city known as a mecca for foodies and culture vultures. Some people live for the Rocky Mountain high. I always thought they were on drugs.

My beloved girlfriend since ancient times is one of these hearty sorts. She is nature girl, and likes nothing more than to be roughing it in the wild with her hubby and the bears. Not for me. I am a confirmed urbanite who prefers that a hike end in a café that serves up Illy espresso; where temples of fashion and art are all within walking distance, and the ‘wildlife’ wears green hair and Doc Martens, not fur attached to mile-long fangs. I prefer mints on my pillow to ants in my pants.

And if I want to see the top of Mt. Whitney, I’ll watch the Discovery Channel.

San Francisco is a city I love for many reasons; their love of art, design, and architecture is expressed in multiplicity. Relative to the creation and enjoyment of food, in San Francisco the bar is held higher than almost anywhere else in the country. It is the city’s religion, discussed in depth by people of all ages and genders.

Food, how it is grown (locally and sustainably), how it is prepared, and then by whom are subjects of common discussion and a great way to break the ice with the locals, talking about one of their defining passions. I found it amusing how passionately they try to distance themselves as far apart from their Southern California cousins as possible. Truth be told, San Francisco is closer to my native city of Washington, D.C. in temperament than to Los Angeles.

In LA we have movie, television, and music stars. In SF they have celebrity chefs, whose names were murmured to us in hushed tones like this should set off flashes of immediate recognition and culinary orgasms of anticipation. In this age of information overload, we just politely nodded and gasped, as names flew over our heads.

Our culinary journey began with a resounding bump in the LA airport. This is a no-man’s land where caught unprepared with a delayed flight you will have to  – gasp! – forage for something to eat. We settled on some sandwiches and cappuccino from a faux-Euro café which we will call ‘Café Bastille’, because its victuals conjured images of what one might have been fed whilst waiting for one’s appointment with the guillotine. The rats are just for ambiance. (I jest.)

Still, two stale tuna sandwiches from a refrigerator bin proudly labeled ‘Organic and Prepared… Recently’, a bag of BBQ potato chips and a weak cappuccino later, we were cursing. Not only because the sulfates in the sandwich were making us sick and spacy, but because this lunch had cost us $28! Our flight cost $128. You do the math!

Luckily, San Francisco and its bucolic spread of restaurants and bistros of all persuasions awaited us only an hour's flight away. It is very hard to have a terrible meal there, though some are better or pricier than others, which brings me to the interesting epiphany we came to whilst exploring this gastronomical landscape.

Haute cuisine does not necessarily a good meal make.

In my opinion, good food is a combination of quality in ingredients, care and deft creativity in creation, with a respectful nod to tradition. A chicken should look like chicken in my humble opinion, not the wreckage of an alien space craft. There is primitive comfort in food that is – well, recognizable as edible, and which does not seek to reinvent the wheel. Also, there is a point at which the price of a meal becomes ridiculous, and value becomes a matter of conjecture.

The best meals we enjoyed in San Francisco were Mediterranean or French bistro fare, frequented by locals and crafted from locally produced meats and produce so that one had the feeling of eating in the comfort of a farm house in Provence; a fond fantasy, since we were only an hour away from our smoggy home base.

These places made sensuous use of local fruits, pairing cherries with lamb or figs with duck breast. I would describe this cooking as inspired variations on a theme by Bach, rather than the pretentious strivings and clattering of Charles Ives, who scorned musicality and inserted fire alarms and barking dogs in his pieces.

To merely enjoy music, in his opinion, was to be banal. However, if it seared your ears like fiery hot tongs and you still managed to tape a clenched-jaw smile on your face and rave like a lunatic, then and only then could you claim to appreciate music and lay claim to being an intellectual sophisticate whose tastes and understanding rose above the rabble. This is a colossal load of hogwash with regards to music, and the same metaphor applies to cooking and the enjoyment of food.

One restaurant comes to mind as I write this. Since my husband picked it, I was blissfully blame free, while he could only mutter and laugh at himself before pondering whether he’d need to order something from room service later. He finally settled on a protein shake mixed up with tap water from our boutique hotel’s bath.

Since few things make a man more irritated than to leave a restaurant with an empty wallet and a grumbling stomach, he left a scathing review on the city restaurant board online, giving some much needed balance. Taking a turn at cultural commentary, he raved, “Kate Moss would have left hungry if she ate there!”

Well done, darling!

Poor thing. He had been all excited to try the ‘true suckling pig’ when it was described to him, and expected something like a Maori feast. Even I had visions of Polynesian bonfires, or Elizabethan tables with burnished piglets served up with an apple in their mouths, but it was not to be.

What arrived was something that looked two-bites-shy of an appetizer. Actually, they sent us out an appetizer compliments of the chef… if you can count one mussel next to some regurgitated melon-wasabi froth to be an appetizer. This was presented with much fanfare on extraordinary plates with the serving part the size of a silver dollar, and rims the size of one of the rings of Saturn.

For my dinner, I ordered the ‘poulard’. Are you confused? Don't worry. So was I. Even my computer’s spell check doesn’t know what to make of this. A poulard is not a ‘canard’ who plays pool, but a type of red hen.

When my own meal arrived, I was speechless. My husband asked if I was okay. I must have looked shocked, which the clearly pleased waiters interpreted as unabashed awe, but I was genuinely confused for a moment.

It wasn’t clear what I was looking at.

It was like contemporary art, or an alien’s idea of a good chicken dinner! Curls of barely cooked red hen wrapped around tiny new vegetables and strips of zucchini, and there was a piece of deep fried gristle I was told was a pounded wing… I was struggling for context.

As it was, it had taken two waiters apiece to pour out our soup, simultaneously, if you please. This is cuisine by way of Cirque de Soleil, and really a bit much. The relentless atmosphere of arch hyperbole seemed strangely necessary in order to keep the diners in a continual state of submissive shock, so as not to question anything, but only bob their heads and babble expected superlatives. We had equally good soups at other places without conjuring images of Las Vegas magic acts or the Wizard of Oz.

Did I mention the entree portions were minuscule?

Hungry as we were following the main course, we resisted the tempting cheese course offering of local goat cheeses, suspecting this was going to lift our bill straight into the stratosphere. It was well on its way already! These Euro-inspired cheeses are created by people who left their jobs as stockbrokers and entertainment PR agents in LA to raise goats in the surrounding areas of San Francisco, but then expect them to begin minting money from their teats and turning them into millionaires.

They remind me of alchemists, hoping to turn goats' milk into gold.

There is a lot of exaggerated inflation and massaging of egos that go on in these temples leading to the impression that you are in a theater where you are part of the production, perhaps its feted pasha. It is only later that you realize you have been the main course, as the bill is presented to you with a flourish and the fawning performers all flee!

No one is there to hear you scream.

We paid our bill and left, feeling vaguely rubbed down, goosed, bewildered, and over two hundred dollars lighter – and still hungry. Had we actually attempted to satisfy our appetites, dinner could have easily sailed past the three hundred dollar mark, which we weren’t about to do.

In the end, walking back to our hotel, we chalked up the evening to adventure and a lesson learned, and for the remainder of the trip enjoyed the more soulful traditional bistro offerings which proliferated around us. We felt much more satisfied with this, and much better fed after our days of hiking in the urban jungle and pondering Matisse. We also got more value for our money, which is important for digestion as well as enjoyment.

Good food is one of life’s great pleasures. It can be like art, but it is not art; and that is an important distinction. It is especially not art, and fails in its very essence, if in the end it ceases to resemble food and feeds neither the body nor soul.

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About Ashtoreth Valecourt

  • http://mythopolis.com TK

    Thanks for another entertaining article Ashtoreth… this time tickling my taste buds as well as my funny bone. You must come to Singapore and sample the local flavors! Chicken rice with hot sauce from a cheap hawker stall… $2… mmmmm.

  • bliffle

    When in SF I usually eat in the neighborhoods, where gentrification has resulted in quite good cafes with good menus at reasonable prices. All of the 30-40 something professionals in Noe Valley, for example, have been to Italy and France and discovered that food can be a pleasure as well as a necessity. Imagine that: more than just fuel! They’ve brought their tastes and requirements back to the quiet clean neighborhoods where they’ve restored livability at kinda modest costs. Also, there are a lot of gays everywhere and, as everyone knows, gays have better taste than straights.

    A few days ago my wife and I spent a couple nights staying at an acquaintances lovely renovated home in the aforementioned Noe Valley, which has become very desirable in recent years. As it happens, the house was featured that very weekend in the SF Chronicle as an example of a small (600 sq ft) house on a 30 ft wide lot that was gracefully and tastefully bumped out to a 1600 sq ft delight, suitable for their small family.

    We ate in the neighborhood, modest, well made meals, and never paid more than $30 for the two (we always split an entree), not including drinks, which we usually skip anyhow.

    We like the Baker Street Bistro (out on Baker off Lombard) for it’s French country food, and we like Pastis, which I think is on Battery, for it’s Basque food, especially piperade. Always good, and reasonable prices.

  • Ashtoreth

    Your experiences sound wonderful Bliffle. I am always collecting gems about this wonderful place. There are so many ‘pockets’ to explore; many neighborhoods with interesting flavor.

    As I was within walking distance of Chinatown, I wandered there alone one afternoon (my husband was attending a work-related lecture). It was just as well because I stumbled on a little place not far from the main gate where they had a treasure trove of textiles, beautiful embroidered silks for a song. They had pillow cases for $9 in a rainbow of colors, heaps of them.

    Since one can refresh the look of a room very inexpensively this way, I picked up several. Now, I just have to get the generic pillow forms to slip them on and they will look like I spent a mint.

    I also enjoyed the SF Modern Museum of Art. There is a park just across from it with fountains and stone chairs. The sky was crystalline blue, families were relaxing, and taking photographs of the eclectic composition of architecture styles as one faced the museum. It was like a work of art in itself.

    There is an interesting SF publication that is also online at http://www.7x7sf.com Your comments about the evolving neighborhoods made me think of this. They had an interesting breakdown on them last time I checked.

    For sure, I left a part of my heart in San Francisco and will definitely go back. I always leave with a list of things to go back and see, try, do the next time. :)

  • Ashtoreth

    For the record, I invite any BlogCritics to share highlights of your adventures in San Francisco.

    Also, I should add for all the veggies and greenies out there http://www.greentopia.com and the Zagat guide-style book by the same name. There is one just for SF.

  • bliffle

    One of my favorite outings is to go to The City early in the morning, catch the ferry at Embarcadero (look for the big catamarrans, one is the Dolphin IIRC, for a fast exciting ride) have breakfast on the pier at Sausalito or Tiburon, and fly back on the Big Cat.

  • Ashtoreth

    What a totally cool idea Bliffle!

    I’d bet my husband would enjoy that too. :)

    We did go to see the Ferry Building on a Saturday morning (as advised by locals) since this is the day of their big farmer’s market. We explored, watched the locals shop, chatted with the farmers, and grabbed a little lunch and ate it outside where we could watch the boats.

    Maybe next time we can try what you described. It sounds like great fun, and I expect they can sail those CATS…

    I haven’t been on a CAT since years back when I allowed my daredevil brother to convince me onto one. This was off the coast of North Carolina.

    He managed to flip the CAT! I was panicking and having visions of ‘Jaws’ when a nice fisherman came along with his son. After having a good chuckle at our predicament, they through us a line and hauled us back up. ;)

  • methuselah

    Sail cats are infamous for getting de-masted at sea because they are too stable to heel over as a single-hull sailboat would.

    Those big ferry cats are diesel and you want to be standing out on the prow ahead of the fumes. Wear a good windbreaker and hold on to your hat!

  • bliffle

    As it happens I went to SF this morning for a bird walk in the Marin Headlands, crossing the bridge behind a gleaming MG TC (yes, TC, and not TD or TF) in British Racing Green (BRG) of course and Right Hand Drive (RHD). Now that’s a good walk for a person who wants to enjoy some fresh air without working up a sweat. It took 2 hours to go about 1/2 mile out and then back. The reluctant hiker might consider her most valuable accoutrement on such a walk to be one of those ultralight folding 3-cornered stools, since one often pauses to just look at things. The sights, of course, were lovely: surf breaking on rocks, the view back thru the bridge to SF, surfers frolicing, and several enthusiastic warblers and thrushes entertaining us with song and dance. Also, river otters and even a bobcat. I only carry 6×15 pocket binoculars on bird walks because they are perfectly adequate and other people bring spotting scopes that they setup and offer you good views of distant wildlife.

    SF, like civilized cities everywhere, e.g., Paris, Rome, etc., is best seen on foot, and there are a great number of formal and informal urban hikes every weekend. Some are historic, some literary, etc., and they usually end at some refreshment business, like a small bistro. There are a couple good ones at meetup.com, for example.

    I also visited Sausalito, which is always a great treat and you shouldn’t miss it when in SF. If you take the ferry across the bay (always a good idea) you can also go to Tiburon which is a little less crowded and busy.

  • Ashtoreth

    A bobcat! How cool is that. I wish you could have posted a picture.

    Sounds like you had a grand time. Enjoyed your story. I’m making a note of that walking tour site you mentioned, as I am in agreement with you that civilized cities (a caveat) are best seen on foot.

    That being said, Los Angeles is not a civilized city. Except for a few artificially maintained pockets, this is not a walking city. If you walk, it is you and the loons – and I’m not talking about the birdlands either. ;)

    There is wonderful freedom to be able to walk in a city and take in the sights where there are enough people that you do not feel vulnerable, isolated and exposed.

    In a civilized city, one also enjoys that great sport of people watching, and the creative stylings of the people around you who encourage you to improve your game while still feeling the comfort of cover in the urban jungle.

  • Catey

    I enjoy your writing Ash, it’s refreshing and funny… welcome back :)

  • Ashtoreth

    Thank you so much, Catey. Glad to be back. I am getting ready for the opening of my painting show in mid Fall, so I will post stories and play here as I can. :) (Imagine a slow-mo freak-out.) ;) The comments and conversations with blogcritics are half the fun.

  • bliffle

    My favorite museum is the Legion Of Honor Museum which is in a beautiful setting and it sometimes has the fine bust of Cosimo d’Medici by Benvenutto Cellini, which I’ve admired since I was 18.

    If you like food, then take a peek at Denny Adelmans blog from Albi about his birthday party at Michel Bras’ in the Aubrac.

    Denny Adelman

    I’ve never eaten there, tho I’ve driven by several times on the way to the more modest country restaurants we prefer, but a friend flew in from Paris once with his GF to have dinner – in a helicopter. Must be 2 hours of helicopter torture.

  • Ashtoreth

    I checked out that blog. That was a very witty series of posts about the experience at the restaurant on his birthday and the experience of the Swiss girls on the Iraq casualties on both sides.

    Having lived in Texas, I could imagine what happened. ;) I was regarded as something of an alien/enfant terrible when there and took great delight in terrifying the men (not a difficult feat as they are easily intimidated by an East coast gel for whom the word ‘perky’ is not in her operating manual.)

    They demand perky. They really do. It reassures them of an illusion of dominance which the women there use to manipulate with arch camp. Texan women are strong. They have to be to deal with the men. ;) Not because the men are so strong, but because they demand that you contort yourself so as to suit their narcissistic mirror and that you are properly reflecting to them what they feel you should.

    Needless to say this threw me into tantrums and then full-on Aquarian perversity. I had a lot of fun, but since I did not want to marry one, wasn’t a lesbian and didn’t fancy the nunnery, I had to leave.

    The Legion of Honor Museum:

    I read your post to my husband and we moaned that had we had one more day in our trip (a common refrain) we wanted to see this place. For sure, this will be at the top of the list of things to see the next time.

    I have really enjoyed your comments. :) Wonderful wit and stories, and ideas for future adventures.

  • Covert

    Your experience is why I have what I pretentiously call the “Outback Scale of Restaurant Quality” which is based on the Outback Special (12 Oz.) (I know right about now the serious foodies are probably drawing their Scimitars and preparing to shout “Infidel”) However for what it is worth the Outback Special is my personal optimum of quality vs value.

    A meal at McDonald’s is certainly cheaper, in all senses of the word but the less said about the quality the better.

    On the other end, Ruth’s Kris Steakhouse unquestionably serves a better piece of meat than the Outback, but is it three times better? This is after all a Value adjusted scale. While I place some value on ambiance there are limits.

    This place would get a low score on the Outback Scale…