Welcome to Cook's Day Off, chronicling the food-centered wanderings of a Valley cook -- away from the heat, noise, and chaos of the kitchen. Just because it isn't a day in the kitchen, it doesn't mean it isn't a day about food.
In San Francisco, the hills are alive with the sound of cocktail shakers, sad-looking women drunkenly stumbling in inappropriately high heels, and, of course, those famous trollies. But it's not all clanging bells and unsteady heels on rollercoaster sidewalks. There's also the whoosh of those cocktail shakers as they craft a perfectly foamy and oh so popular pisco sour.
Here's where to eat, drink, and tipsily stumble out of in the City by the Bay.
Look anywhere in San Francisco and you can find a top-notch eatery for whatever your stomach desires. Choosing where to seat yourself and indulge becomes a task in itself, one that thankfully, I got to leave in the capable hands of my friend and guide for the weekend's activities, former local chef and now San Francisco pastry slinger, Veronica Arroyo. If there's one thing to know about cooks on their days off, is we tend to stick together. Your average desk jockey is not willing to visit five or more restaurants in one day, offer to sell themselves to a sous chef to score a hot reservation, or wade through multi-course tasting menus, not without putting on the brakes on your gluttonous parade. Better stick to your own knife-wielding kind.
There's no point in traveling to San Francisco and starting things out with an ordinary meal. Better to visit Incanto, the offal-centric eatery helmed by Chris Cosentino. The bespectacled charcuterie-loving chef was absent that night; a sad thing as the small dining room would have afforded plenty of opportunity for Fan Girl moments. Casual celebrity chef run-in opportunity lacking, we dove into the usual menu overanalysis likely to happen when obsessive, cynical, sarcastic kitchen types get together. Oh, dear, the menu says currents instead of currants. Sweetbreads with preserved Meyer lemon, sunchoke puree, and golden raisins . . . yes, please. Are we man enough to take down a "Leg of Beast" if we could talk them into serving it to our small party? Only if we planned on not eating for the next three days.
And then we saw it, the fancy toast. San Francisco's latest hipster food craze is the $4 slice of fancy toast; Incanto upped the game on that trend with the $14 piece of house-baked brioche toast topped with herring milt and roe. If there was one item on this menu that indicated Cosentino's lack of fear in getting intimate with his food, it was this delightfully textured -- imagine whipped cream tasting faintly of the sea with a side of pop rocks -- fancy piece of toast. If only the impossibly light blood sausage that followed could have been put on toast, the meal would have been beyond perfect.
It was at this point of the evening I learned two great truths about San Francisco: 1. The sidewalks might as well have Goodwill printed on them as unwanted items are left there for anyone to take: ski boots, books, jackets, small electronics. 2. Everything you ever need to get to in San Francisco will always be uphill. When slowly dragging yourself and the variety of animal organs you have eaten uphill to the car, those hills are not your friend, and my new life philosophy may be that nothing worth having can be found up a hill. Full stomachs lead to poor decisions, like waiting for 10 minutes as we watched a flustered bartender awkwardly crack eggs for an otherwise perfectly foamy pisco sour at Cantina, in Union Square. Dodging those sad women in sausage casing-like dresses and impossibly high heels, and us in flat shoes stumbling downhill, literally, for that end of the night beer at Lefty O'Doul's. Going back in the morning for an Irish coffee for breakfast. Bad decisions are so much easier to recover from with the aid of a comfortable mattress and a pillow fort to keep you warm.
Everything from this point is a blur of one meal after another:
A rotisserie chicken sandwich for breakfast at a farmers market. It doesn't matter which market, as you can pick a day, any day, walk in any direction and you can find a thriving farmers market somewhere in the Bay area.
Fragrant chocolate treats at Tcho.
Four-dollar salumi cones at Cosentino's Baccalone (no fancy toast needed for this treat), stocking up on beautiful beans at Rancho Gordo while pondering their wooden bean masher. Taking a big whiff of all the cheeses at the Cowgirl Creamery shop and picking up Blue Chair Fruit Early Girl Tomato Jam (more fancy toast please). All at the Ferry Building Marketplace, the type of permanent food market that the Valley so desperately needs. The market may have a slight whiff of tourist trap about it, but with so many high quality edibles under one roof, even the most jaded of travelers would happily become a tourist for an hour. More pisco sours and tamarind spiced tuna cebiche at the beautiful La Mar, a wonderland of colorful contemporary Peruvian cuisine.
Coffee and the kouign amann at the airy and feminine b. patisserie. This is the moment when hyperbole should come into play, life changing, light as a cloud, etc., etc., to describe the feeling of biting into this simple pastry. It is easier to say that what I experienced was a moment of sadness, at never again being able to eat this combination of flour, salted butter and sugar, folded into flaky, clinging to the lips layers, for the first time ever again. Give me something perfect to eat and the first thing I will feel is sadness. Followed by gratitude at being able to taste such a delicate thing.
The pastry induced sadness evaporated at sight of State Bird Provisions. Chilled cava, oysters with kohlrabi kraut, nori crackers with hamachi and sesame seeds, savory ginger-scallion pancake topped with a thick soy glaze and a beautiful local sea urchin, garlic bread with burrata, potato chips with delicate horseradish cream and bright orange trout roe, the quail of California, and another moment of sadness at the perfect $6 quenelle of duck liver mousse paired with beignets. It might be illegal to sell foie gras in the state of California, but it is perfectly legal to give it away. Go ahead, eat the hell out of those $6 beignets draped in free foie. No fancy toast needed here. Had this endless parade of lovingly executed dishes not been enough, the generosity of the sous chef we sold ourselves to in order to score this reservation extended to sending one of every dessert. Bless the hearts of everyone working there.
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Everything that came after dinner at State Bird Provisions was gravy on the fancy toast. Hipster beers at 21st Amendment Brewery. Drinks into an unknown hour listening to the ego-driven ramblings of kitchen folk. A nauseating cab ride to Tartine, a place I disappointedly found overly hostile (yet delicious) after the serenity of b. patisserie. It was here that I realized the third great truth about San Francisco: Give people there a line to wait at, and they will, maybe even without knowing what it is they are waiting for. That is a town that loves to wait in line. Think there's no bread lines in the capitalist mecca that is America? Try going to Tartine. A delightfully quiet hour or two admiring every volume on the shelves of cookbook focused Omnivore Books, housed in a former butcher shop, its walk-in still intact. Clam chowder, sourdough, oysters, Anchor Steam and a seafood cocktail served with a side of mannish charm at counter of Swan Oyster Depot.
San Francisco may not really be my kind of town -- the hills, the fog, the lack of urban bigness -- but it's still a town very much worth eating up, hopefully served on fancy toast.
Minerva Orduño Rincón dreams of a day when Mexican cuisine begins to get the respect it rightfully deserves, a goal she trying to help along with Muñeca Mexicana handcrafted food. Until then, you can find her at a kitchen near you.