Archive for the ‘Notes and Thoughts’ Category

Another Ode to the Great Ol’ U.S. Restaurant

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

        Here in San Francisco I live in a neighborhood dangerously crammed with gorgeous yuppies, expensive boutiques, enough nail salons and cupcake shopettes to service a dozen arrondissements, and restaurants with good food one cannot enjoy because the hip quarters they inhabit have been designed by demented entrepreneurs to mimic New Years Eve party spaces where the decibel levels put Edgar Varese and the opening of Thus Spake Zarathustra (aka 2001) to shame.

        And then, come to think of it, while much of the food is excellent some of it is too cute for words, the gastronomic equivalent of mindless, over-the-top forays into Euro Trash in current opera staging. Sample: long-locked Samson in a currentday hair salon . . .

        So, quite frequently, I escape a couple of miles east to North Beach where the weather is better anyway, and the streets are filled with Chinese babushkas, Italian fishermen just in from the Golden Gate, French tourists with noses in maps, and cute people sunning themselves in Washington Square where the Cloud Nine tai chi’ers swing their arms like orchestra conductors in slow motion.

        And in North Beach — no beach here, but it is North, and it t’aint the Upper East Side! — I find the Original U.S. Restaurant with its counter filled with habitues and a long menu that proposes comfort food categorizable as corner brasserie fare, retro perhaps but eternal in its culinary verity. Then too if one dines here often enough one becomes aware of all manner of personal “specials” added to an invisible side menu, sotto la carta you might say, created to satisfy the tastes of regulars suggesting this and that variation on the restaurant’s stated themes.

        11 a.m. at 515 Columbus Avenue and the pots steam and boil in the open kitchen, the bread arrives — just in time! — and Gus the pantryman is slicing mortadella, chef Benny stirring salsa pomodoro in a giant vat, owner Gaspare turning on the overhead Faniculi Fanicula, Joelle the more impish chef in the crew fantasizing about how he’ll dot Arthur’s mashed potatoes with specks of olive to give them a pretty face.

        And Renee the incomparable server is adjusting her apron, preparing to make us feel all cozy in her Spaghetti Row Shangri La.

        Now the regulars arrive: Franco the jolly retired plumber, erstwhile maestro of copper pipe installations sans faute, who used to drive one of those Mercedes 300SL’s with the doors that open like flapping wings; good and silent Filippo who tinkles supper club ivories by night; heart-of-gold Johnnie, retired from investigating the vexing innards of Xerox machines, who, when he isn’t golfing in the park, cooks splendidly for his Richmond District harem including lovely wife, guitar-playing daughter, diminutive mom and equally diminutive mother-in-law.

        And there’s Paul who strides purposefully around town with thoughts of Veal Milanese constantly on his mind. And charming Steven, another golfer, who carries with him an appetite hugely responsive to the efforts of Benny, Joelle and Gus.

        Now there are some who would cast the U.S. — by the way, that doesn’t mean United States, it’s U Sicilianu, because Gaspare is from Trapani — as an Eye-talian restaurant, a spaghetti and meatballs emporium and nothing more. But careful, here one finds a menu of great depth and considerable elegance. Example A: one day I ordered the Lamb Chops I’d been salivating over on other diners’ plates and asked for them with “that gravy.” That substance turned out to be an inspired Gallic brown sauce, a Perigourdine if there ever was one: Julia might have swooned.

        And when I ordered the equally sumptuous-looking Pork Chops with mushrooms they arrived in what struck me as nothing other than a textbook Marchand de Vin.

        Study that endless page of pasta dishes and you’ll find not only Bolognese, Pesto, Marinara, Alfredo, all the usual suspects, but Palermo (shrimp, scallops, olives, basil), Tarantina (mussels, parsley, white wine), Buongustaia (prosciutto, peas, cream), Boscaiola (bacon, onions, mushrooms, etc.) And there are Arancine, Sicilian deep fried risotto balls, and Panelle, garbanzo fritters also of Sicilian provenance. Pappardelle, fettuccine and gnocchi are all home made.

        And the meat balls, good ones, are available at the Giants’ ballpark!

        As for those sotto la carta items, well, Johnnie is responsible for Thursday Potatoes which translates as the boiled potatoes normally partnering corned beef wrenched from their usual role and deep fried in wondrous chunks, then served with chopped tomato and garlic. 5 Wows! I myself am the initiator of the Mort and Jack Salad which is the standard U.S. Salad of lettuce, tomato, onions and cannellini beans with the usual olives jettisoned in favor of thin slices of mortadella and jack cheese. Also credit me with advising you to ask for Salsa Verde with your Wednesday brisket.

        And for Constantino the busser I like to leave a dollar embedded in the French bread remaining in the basket, a “lettuce sandwich,” I suppose, in oldtime gangster parlance.

Home Plate – Spring ’09

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

        Been back in San Francisco some months now, tucking in at counters and tables, but time spent squeezing every last drop of metaphorical ‘whatever’ into my other and forthcoming book, More Than The Notes (see “About the Author,” please), has kept me from reporting on matters gastronomical. Post-“creativity”-stress having abated somewhat (out, out, dread migraine!) I’m in position now to give you my D-to-Z of Recent Dining:

        DOSA, San Francisco — at Fillmore and Post — A temple of gastronomy in more ways than one, this high-ceilinged one-time bank is not intimate–you’re eating in the middle of a statement–but the elegant south Indian menu includes one of the most addictive bowlfuls in my experience, a cauliflower, red pepper & coconut milk soup that absolutely soars. Lentil dumplings topped with yogurt are a great short-subject on this bill.

        IZUMIYA, San Francisco — Post near Webster — A blonde-wooded boite upstairs in the Japan Center: I like to sit at the counter, watch the delicate workshop of white capped chefs wielding spatulas ready, it seems, to cue a lovely pentatonic passage by Ravel. Japanese food for me means shrimp and vegetable tempura and I’ve found none better in the City. In other words: light, not greasy.

        NICK’S COVE, at Marshall — more or less — on Tomales Bay — A tad stiff, perhaps, this Pat Kuleto “destination” restaurant in mock roadhouse garb out by that soothing plain-Jane stretch of water way up Marin — the look, of course, is quasi-Scots — but I’ve never had a better clam chowder. Actually it was a Potage Parisien, leek and potato, onto which a clam chowder had been grafted, sort of as if Paris and Brittany were holding hands.

        LA PROVENCE, San Francisco — 22nd Street and Guerrero — I chase bouillabaisses the way some people do Wagner Ring Cycles and I can tell you that the trim little Frenchman who runs this restaurant, a former participant in the Tour de France, serves a version that wouldn’t be sneezed at in the starriest salle in Marseille — ah, the fellow who likes to make awful puns would say it’s well past third baisse. Now by chance I got talking to a retired maitre d’ of the old L’Etoile on Nob Hill the other day as I was watering some sick plants in front of my house, I told him about La Provence, he duly hastened there like a good Poirot to sniff for evidence, and when I saw him next he told me he didn’t consider the fish in the cyclist’s soup “authentic” (but how could it be since this isn’t the Mediterranean, except in spirit) but Jacques my new friend thought the broth itself magnifique, and coming from an old-time pilot of the crepes suzette trolley that’s something, n’est-ce-pas? Furthermore, everything else I’ve tasted chez Provence, the octopus salad, the aioli of cod and vegetables, the sabayon, has been prepared with great care and imagination. Worth the journey — and the parking!

        RIO GRILL, Carmel — The Crossroads — About a quarter century now serving the hip and preppy locals as well as tourist trap-wary folks from San Francisco, the Rio is still offering the “school of Cindy Pawlcyn” cuisine I always think of as the Carmel attraction second only to the beach itself. On a recent visit an orchestration of halibut-guacamole-bbq sauce wasn’t exactly zephyrean but certainly exuberant, stylish and fun. Meanwhile, oh dear, so much of Carmel is being erased by some mad professor of CHANGE!

        UNIVERSAL CAFE, San Francisco — 19th Street near Florida — With the exception of a tortured visit to a “Chinese American” diner in Chinatown where the food was bland, heavy, colorless, utterly without redeeming culinary value (while making me yearn for good old Sun Tai Sam Yuen where pensioners in hats enjoyed $2 slabs of roast beef back in the 70s), I haven’t had a bad restaurant experience in San Francisco for many a month. But a recent dinner in the echt-SOMA spaces (read metallic) of the Universal Cafe was, I think, the most inspired of 2009 so far. The opener was a foamy and unctuous sunchoke-celery root soup with a green garlic walnut crouton long as a barge, the main (actually a starter) grilled shrimp marinated with aromatic sliced & oiled kumquats and attended by salsa verde and breadcrumbs, what a marriage, that!

        ZITOUNA CAFE, Sutter and Polk — An engaging uplift for a dicey but improving corner at the tip of the Northwest Tenderloin, the Zitouna is the brainchild of a husband-wife team, he a Tunisian veteran of such estimable locations as Fleur de Lys and the lamented Doros (where Jacques of the Suzettes also worked!) and she a Moroccan. As my old friend the conductor Jean Perisson used to say, in France when a Burgundian guy marries a Norman girl the cuisine of the house must be Burgundian, and so it is here: to my imperfect ethnic palate the food seems more Tunisian than Moroccan. In any event, the Kofta Tajine, baby meatballs and poached egg in a red sauce with bell pepper suggesting in a single bite provenances both goulashian and Basque, is worth wading through more yards of Tenderloin than you need to navigate to reach this gem.

Sidewalk Postscript:

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

        Now I’m on the way to my favorite coffee house/sidewalk café in my neighborhood — not one of the big chain coffee houses! — because I have my usual afternoon date to scribble on paper napkins.

        Yes, the cocoa is lovely, those Moroccan fellows make the best this side of Cazenave in Bayonne; and you can order it in English, French or Arabic. But it’s this inscribing on napkins that matters: a book has to be conceived somehow. Well, the regulars are at the next tables, maintaining their privacy and observing mine. It’s study hall, of course, with medical and dental schools not far off; I suppose I might learn some anatomy if I listened carefully. But the confessions of lovers are more interesting.

        Then there’s the distinguished looking woman who works so assiduously on Greek. When she has fellow students of Plato at her side I call her group the Spanakopita Brigade.

        Meanwhile, on the high street, everything is as yesterday or tomorrow: one’s likely to run into Fred the Mahler-loving bookseller with the marvelous muscles, macho Dino the Greek will be eyeing the girls outside his pizzeria, the pleasant beggar will be saying “Greetings!” in a bright C major. Now if Chester the terrier is outside Peet’s it’s time for tea!

        I will cringe at the dental school security officer armed like a Task Force for an invasion by Buck Rogers and his Naughty Martians bent on stealing a drill or two, and I will pity the several madwomen of the neighborhood.

        But I’ll rejoice in discussing the state of the world with Phil the mellow maestro of pots-pans-nuts-bolts as he waters the plants outside his hardware store, I’ll kibbitz with the jolly butcher from Puglia who sells me sausages and lamb and seems to have sprung from a 1935 musical and doesn’t mind my flamboyant fractured Italian; and I might run into an elegant friend with a zesty poodle who announces in quietly imperial tones, “I’m taking you to lunch”.   

        I will, in short, enjoy my Upper Fillmore.