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.