If I had to pick somewhere (outside London) to move tomorrow, it would be San Francisco. The weather is gorgeous, the bay is beautiful and their food and wine are world class. Given the quality of raw ingredients available, you actually have to try quite hard to eat a bad meal.
Off The Grid
Street food has transformed the way we experience food both for the vendors and consumers. Whereas traditionally it would have taken huge amounts of capital to launch a restaurant, now it’s relatively cheap to buy a cart and get cooking. Similarly, a full restaurant meal is an expensive way for diners to try new things and experience the latest trends – a cheap, quick food stand is a much more democratic meal. The only challenge is deciding what to have and Off The Grid make it that much more difficult.
A joyous, weekly gathering of around thirty trucks, live DJs and views of the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s foodie paradise. Everything from confit duck to novelty candy floss is available – cheap, fast and fun. I shamelessly flocked to the most popular carts to see what San Francisco’s trucks had to offer.
The Chairman serves wildly popular dumplings, people regularly queue for over forty minutes to sample their tender steamed pork buns or fun fusion sliders. It’s great food, small enough that you can eat more than one with cleverly balanced flavours – their pickles are heavenly.
El Sur make empanadas – the South American pastry parcels I find vaguely reminiscent of a good cornish pasty. These were delicious, I chose the special – a slow-braised short-rib, with malbec and caramlised onion sauce.
There were a huge range of dessert options – the Lonely Planet recommended “The Creme Brulee Cart”. A team of blow-torch wielding foodies re-inventing the classic french dessert for legions of adoring fans. I ordered their most popular special the, ahem, “s’moregasm”. Based on the traditional campfire treat it’s got the normal ingredients (molten marshmallows and graham crackers) nestled on top of a chocolate custard. It’s incredibly good – just don’t expect to be able to eat it without liberally coating your face, clothes and innocent passers-by.
Off the Grid is the perfect way to spend an evening – just check out the view of the bridge from the park behind the trucks…
In N Out
Most foodies have a guilty pleasure, but one that I don’t feel guilty about at all is In’n’Out. I’ve waxed lyrical about it before – it’s simple fries and burgers, freshly cooked by staff who are paid a living wage. Their not-so-secret menu lets you customise your burger in all sorts of exciting ways. It’s cheap, fun and makes me very, very happy.
Rated as one of the best restaurants in the Bay Area, I was very lucky to snag a table at Gary Danko. It’s classic fine dining: dimly lit room, plush linens and polished staff. Their menu is cunningly arranged into four broad sections – starters, fish, meat and dessert and you can pick three, four or five courses at a flat rate. It’s great fun to plan your own tasting menu and surprisingly difficult to narrow it down.
My meal started with an excellent martini and a simple amuse bouche of curried carrot soup. It was light, sweet and a nice way to setup the rest of the meal.
To start I had their Dungeness crab risotto – the rice perfectly cooked and the crab resting on a bed of other delicious seafood, dressed in basil oil. Risottos are rarely light, but this was like a delicate marine cloud. Fluffy, yet still having a little bite.
My fish course was half a maine lobster on potato purée so delicate it’s practically a mousse, it really was stunning. The portion was generous and the flavours clean and refreshing, lovely stuff.
For my main I chose bison, served with a juniper berry crust, black trumpet mushroom and wild nettle spatzle. It was covered in the kind of rich, meaty reduction that has me mopping the plate clean with bread. The bison was a revelation – tender and strongly flavoured, perfectly matched with the sauce and a large glass of Zinfandel. Big, bold flavours – beautifully put together.
Keen to sample more American delights I ordered the Louisiana butter cake for dessert. It’s a rich, dense sponge, vaguely reminiscent of an English suet pudding, but with a crispy sticky crust. It came with caramelised apples, huckleberry compote and the kind of ice cream that speaks of witchcraft (or more likely a well tended Pacojet). Incredibly smooth with a lovely, aromatic vanilla flavour.
Some restaurants might give you a couple of chocolates or mints on the way out, Gary Danko give you a pastry symphony. A plate of petit fours which give their dessert team a real chance to show off. Each miniature bite, from a sweet fruit jelly to a fluffy chocolate sponge was brilliant.
I was stunned, it’s got to be one of the best meals of the last few years. I couldn’t fault it, from entering the restaurant to staggering happily out a few hours later it was just perfect. Wonderful atmosphere, great staff, stunning ingredients, precision cooking and real flair – it’s Californian cuisine at it’s best. When the free extras, quality of produce and standard of cooking are considered, it’s superb value for money. One Michelin star just isn’t enough.
Peruvian food is taking the world by storm, it’s fresh flavours and simplicity are instantly likeable. La Mar at the front of an impending wave of more affordable and family-friendly Peruvian restaurants.
I was quickly seated and offered fried plantain and dips while I looked through their menu. While sipping on a lovely Pisco Sour I opted for a reasonably priced chef’s menu showcasing ceviche, seafood stew and their sorbets.
Ceviche – raw fish that is briefly “cooked” using an acid (like lemon juice) is the flag bearer of Peruvian cuisine. It’s heavenly – sharp, sweet, textured and refreshing. Both of these were lovely, but I much preferred the classic ceviche over the tuna tartare – the potato and avocado mask the fish too much.
The seafood stew was lovely – well cooked fish in a rich, almost Chinese sauce. Dessert were some lovely sorbets, light and refreshing. If you’ve never sampled Peruvian food, this is a great way to try a few dishes and see if you like it.
San Francisco has a real affection for brunch, and on a lazy Sunday morning the queue around the block for the best coffee and pastries. Tartine, in the lovely Mission district churns out the kind of morning treats that make you reconsider lunch. Their sugary morning roll was just delicious.
Bi-Rite Market has been a San Francisco foodie icon for years, selling top quality produce and providing fabulous lunches. Over the road, their creamery serves up fantastic ice-cream with a range of home-made toppings. I went for their local chocolate and salted caramel flavours, drenched in hot fudge sauce. Magic.
Four Barrels Coffee
Starbucks are everywhere in America, but there’s a growing trend towards better coffee. Four Barrels are perfectly setup to meet this need, featuring freshly roasted coffee from some of the world’s top producers. They have an espresso bar producing all the standard drinks, as well as a special “slow coffee” section to show off their incredible products. Knowledgeable baristas will talk you through the different varieties available and expertly prepare them, all while giving you tips on where else to go in San Francisco for top eats. It’s everything a neighbourhood coffee shop should be.
Surely one of San Francisco’s greatest inventions is the burrito. La Taqueria makes one of the best, using freshly cooked meat, hand chopped and bundled with the kind of salsa, avocado and beans that make you weep with pleasure. It’s so much better than some of the limp, stale efforts you see in the UK. Great ingredients, freshly prepared – it really is superb.
Upmarket burgers are ten-a-penny in London. This humble American invention has taken over the high street with Byron and GBK providing mass-market appeal while Patty and Bun, Honest Burger and MEATLiquor making bloggers swoon. The same trend is evident on the other side of the pond – I‘ve visited Umami Burger before but was keen to see if it had changed in the last two years.
The first thing that struck me was the menu – I liked the fact that they offered little tapas starters – it’s an unusual move for a ‘burger joint’, but it’s a really nice touch and something i’d like to see more of. There’s nothing complicated about throwing together a few little bites – but it really adds to the whole experience. The ‘devils on horseback’ were particularly good.
Like any good burger place (see In’n’out for details) they let you muck with your chips. I chose to cover mine in an avalanche of pulled beef short-ribs and cheese. It was utterly delicious – rich, gooey and decadent.
I spent a long time agonising over which burger to choose – I eventually opted for the special Jose Andres burger. Created by the star chef of Bazaar it’s patty is made from pork and cured ham, served with pepper confit, caramelised onion, manchego cheese and aioli. Rich, savoury and incredibly moist, this is a top burger – lets hope they follow Five Guys and Shake Shack to this side of the Atlantic soon!
Thomas Keller is one of my culinary idols. The French Laundry, deep in the heart of wine country, is a landmark on the world food scene and one of the best restaurants in America. Unfortunately it has a price-tag and waiting list to match but luckily, he’s got a couple of other restaurants in Yountville and I was thrilled to go to Bouchon Bistro.
It’s a little piece of Paris – smartly dressed waiters weave between closely packed, linen clad tables. There’s brass and banquettes, acres of marble and the kind of menu that makes you hum the Marseillaise.
While we deliberated, some lovely bread turned up – shaped into an ear of wheat. Keller is equally famous for his bakeries (one of which is next door) and the bread is suitably brilliant.
Sometimes, three courses aren’t enough. To kick things off we shared some lovely oysters – covering the spectrum from salty to sweet.
Next up were some lovely Burgundian snails in rich garlic butter, covered with little puff pastry hats. These were beautifully cooked, even if I did find a tiny fragment of shell.
For my main I had steak frites – a beautiful piece of beef, lovingly cooked, drenched in butter and served with fries dusted in enough truffle to make an accountant wince. In many dishes this would be overpowering – here it worked brilliantly.
To finish the meal – a trio of excellent brownies and some great ice cream. Rich, chocolatey and utterly delicious. I adored the set chocolate foam – the world’s most sophisticated Aero!
Bouchon Bistro is the perfect example of a restaurant doing something specific, incredibly well – it doesn’t try for modernist touches or strange ‘fusions’. It’s rustic French food, classically cooked and thoughtfully presented. It was a wonderful meal - the French Laundry will have to wait until next time!