A Weekend in Edinburgh

Despite having Scottish heritage I’ve never been north of the border, so with the promise of good food, free accommodation and an enthusiastic guide I hopped on a plane to Edinburgh.
Scottish food has had some terrible press over the years – most people would struggle to get past haggis and deep fried mars bars. But this is a little unfair – Scotland has a wealth of fantastic ingredients: grouse, partridge, wild salmon, fresh shellfish and incredible beef. Top chefs like Tom Kitchin and Martin Wishart are reclaiming Scottish heritage and producing food that presents a local twist on Nouvelle Cuisine. Yum.
My goal over the weekend was to try a little of everything and I think I certainly managed it!

The Arcade
Located on Cockburn street (comically near to Fleshmarket Close) this very affordable little café/bistro is pretty representative of a nice tourist dive. Friendly staff serve hearty food washed down with reasonably priced whisky and wine. What’s not to like?

Starter – Smoked Salmon

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The salmon was obviously wild (just look how lean it is!) and richly flavoured. Deeply smoked with lovely fruit and spice notes I practically inhaled it. Fennel, salmon and balsamic is an interesting combination, but it certainly worked!

Main – Haggis, Neeps and Tatties

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I know it’s cliché, but it had to be done at least once. Haggis is gaining massively in popularity and is popping up on lots of menus – I’ve eaten it in Henley and even served it myself at a dinner party. Here’s it’s served in a neat stack with the traditional swede and potatoes. I prefer to interpret the ‘neeps’ as roast parnsips – to add a bit of textural contrast – but this rendition is lovely and the whisky cream sauce is a keeper!

Arcade on Urbanspoon

The Witchery

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This was a bit of a treat – The Witchery is one of the nicest restaurants in Edinburgh and has a great reputation. Situated off a little alleyway, just beside the castle it serves fantastic food in a wonderfully quirky ‘secret garden’ dining room – it’s very popular with celebrities. It serves a very reasonable lunch menu £30 for three courses and is well worth a visit.

Starter – Roast Partridge with ‘Scotch’ quails egg and black pudding.

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The partridge was lovely and the miniature black pudding delicious, but the real start was the quails egg. I like my yolks runny – but the sausage meat around the outside was incredible. Laden with mace and cinnamon it worked beautifully with the game.

Main – Ayrshire beef cheek on a spelt risotto with a burnt onion mayonnaise and kale.

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The beef cheek was fall apart tender and the spelt risotto perfectly cooked (I am definitely borrowing this for a dinner party). The kale was tasty – though I’d happily swap if for spinach. A lovely dish and perfect for a brisk November lunch.

Dessert – Marmalade Brulee

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A perfectly cooked vanilla brulee with a lovely layer of marmalade on the base – it’s a great combo and I’d love to try it myself. Some orange liqueur would help cut some of the richness too.

The Witchery By the Castle on Urbanspoon

Maxies
Saturday night is busy in Edinburgh. As we discovered – if you haven’t booked you’re out of luck. After traipsing round the streets for a while we headed for this cosy little place just off Grassmarket. Blessedly quiet it serves simple Scottish food and a great selection of wines.

Starter – Oysters

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Scottish seafood is excellent and these oysters were no different. I think my favourites still come from California, but these rank among the best I’ve had in the UK.

Main – Ribeye and Crevettes

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I like steak – and Scotland is certainly known for its Aberdeen Angus (which is completely meaningless is North America). This was perfectly cooked in a lovely whisky cream sauce with two enormous prawns all nestled majestically upon a bed of garlic mash.

Dessert – Apple Pie

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I also have a real thing for Apple pies – this frankly intimidating slab was delicious. Good pastry, nice filling and plenty of cream.

Maxies Bistro on Urbanspoon

Breakfast – World’s End Pub
In need of something substantial – this is a traditional fry-up with the addition of Haggis – a definite plus in the morning.

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Lunch – The Stand

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Now I’ll be honest – The Stand is a comedy club. The improv I saw was fantastic but the show was almost stolen by the nachos. Bought as a quick snack they were utterly phenomenal – the chilli wasn’t made with mince, but big tender chunks of beef in a rich, savoury sauce. We polished off a plate and immediately ordered a second. Beefy heaven!

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A Weekend in Paris

Western cuisine has changed significantly in the last hundred years, through New International, Nouvelle Cuisine and most recently Modernist cuisine (I can’t wait to see what Postmodernist cuisine is like!) but the bedrock is still French cuisine. Escoffier has had more impact on the way Europe (and by extension, fine dining) works than any other individual in history. His ordering of the kitchen and espousal and codification of classical French dishes is the bedrock upon which we stand. French cuisine itself is a diverse as any other with numerous regional specialities, from bouillabaisse to baguette, but if its centred anywhere, it’s Paris.

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With free hotel vouchers to use up, I hopped on the Eurostar for a packed weekend of art, food and alcohol.

Lunch – Cafe Constant
Once the proud holder of a Michelin star, cafe constant is a beautiful snapshot of the archetypical upmarket bistro. Sat on a corner near the Eiffel Tower it’s tiny dining room is host to some fantastic food.

Starter – Terrine of Foie Gras and Pork Shin, with warm lentil salad.
I loved the play of cold, rich terrine with warm smooth lentils. I normally avoid small round pulses, but these were superbly cooked.

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Main – ‘Calves Head’ (Veal brain, tongue and cheek) served with dauphin potatoes.
Offal is having a bit of a comeback in British cuisine and righty so. If you can look past the well… brain like look of it, a creamey subtley beefy delight is waiting. The tongue was meltingly tender and the beef cheek added some welcome firmness. The potatoes were beautifully cooked and the herby salad was nicely dressed.

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Dessert – Ile flottante
This is a dessert I’ve tried at home recently. This version has really beautiful presentation – I’ve no idea how they poach the meringue without it losing all definition, I suspect it’s a cooked, Italian meringue. The creme anglaise was a beautiful texture. Another innovation is the use of a salted caramel sauce rather than the traditional hard caramel – it works beautifully and I’ll definitely be stealing it!

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Dinner – Le Roi du Pot au Feu
As the name suggests this little bistro, a piece of the 1930s lovingly preserved behind the place de la Concorde, specialises in Pot au Feu. A traditional French dish where beef is stewed with vegetables until its fall apart tender then most of the juice is strained off and turned into a consommé which can be served as a starter.

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This rendition is gorgeous, big tender chunks of beef that are full of flavour and can be cut with a spoon. A generous chunk of bone marrow is also provided alongside some thoughtful toast and salt. It’s hearty peasant food, but wonderfully executed. A bottle of house wine (a surprisingly full bodied cote du rhone) is provided with each table and you simply pay for what you use – genius. In a restaurant with an eponymous special I really wouldn’t stray, the fish on the next table looked a bit ropey, but the pot au feu really is wonderful.

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Breakfast – Marche Bastille
All that’s left of the great prison is few bricks visible from the Metro, but in its place stands a large monument and on Sundays the biggest market in Paris. Unlike a British farmers market, where often the focus is on processed ingredients (chutneys, preserves, charcuterie etc.) here there was far more fresh produce. Stall after stall of immaculate fruit and vegetable, enough shellfish to sate even the greediest gourmet and some truly spectacular butchers.

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There was a notable shortage of baked goods and patisseries, though I imagine this has more to do with the very high quality available in every neighbourhood shop.

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Brunch – Cafe Hugo and Berthillon
Having sampled rather too many good things at the market I wandered a couple of streets over to the Place de Vosges, a picturesque little square with a number of tiny cafes.

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Next stop was Bertillon on the Ile St Louis. Shops all over Paris serve their ice cream and the selection of almost seventy flavours is dazzling.

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I plumped for the salted caramel and the kirsch with preserved fruit. The texture was lovely and rich, the caramel very dark almost to the point of burnt. Very yummy despite the freezing weather!

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Dinner – Market
Jean Georges Vongerichten is a French culinary force with a chain of restaurants around the world. In Paris he has Market. Just off the Champs Élysées it was a convenient stop on the way home and, more importantly, open on Sundays.

Starter – Iberico Ham
While undeniably delicious, I was hoping for a bit from this starter. I’m all for showcasing great ingredients, but this is just a bit lazy. That aside, the ham was spectacular.

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Main – Escalope of Veal with cranberries and salsify.
I wouldn’t have imagined this flavour combination, but it actually works really well. Light, fruity and very tasty. The salad on top was nice but I think they went a bit overkill – it doesn’t smack of careful presentation.

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Dessert – Chestnut Soufflé
At this point I was pretty unimpressed so I picked the most technically difficult dessert on the menu to see if they could redeem themselves. I think they pulled it off. The soufflé was beautifully risen, barely cooked in the middle and delicately flavoured. The sorbet was phenomenal – incredibly light and smooth. I’ve never eaten one with quite that texture but after enquiring (in very bad French) the waiter confirmed it was made with a Pacojet – a very expensive ice cream machine that literally shaves microscopic fragments off a block of solid sorbet. It’s definitely in my dream kitchen.

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Lunch – Au pied du Cochon
For my final meal in Paris I needed something quick and authentic. A short walk from the Louvre, ‘Au pied du Cochon’ has been serving food twenty four hours a day, seven days a week since the end of World War Two. It was very busy when I turned up, but they managed to squeeze me in and I’m very glad they did.

Starter – French Onion Soup
The great raft of cheese and toast hid a truly delicious soup, rich and savoury it was perfect for a cold November afternoon. The cheese was nicely browned and the complimentary bread and pâté helped mop up any left overs.

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Main – Pigs Trotter
The house speciality – beautifully slow roasted pigs trotter. There are 32 bones, in case you were wondering, but they hide some of the tenderest, most flavourful pork I’ve ever eaten. Slow cooking transforms the tough tendons into gentle, soft juiciness. Judicious application of bearnaise sauce made it wonderfully rich. I’m definitely trying it at home, though in a sop to British sensibilities, I might borrow another option on the menu: bone it out and stuff the cavity with mushrooms.

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Dessert – Brasserie du Nord
Too full after lunch I left my final snack for the way home. No ordinary station cafe, Brasserie du Nord is a 1920s gem. Waiters are immaculately dressed and the dining room beautifully mirrored around a copper bar. The ‘patisserie du jour’ was a beautifully cooked chocolate fondant with homemade vanilla ice cream. Yum.

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Paris has a lot of offer a keen foodie, on any budget. I’d love to return again and sample some of the more upmarket places. I was very impressed at the number of restaurants, though none seemed to deviate too far from the traditional bistro staples. I like the fact that a lot of English restaurants are starting to mix up the classics, presenting them with modern twists – hopefully I’ll find this somewhere in Paris soon!

American Adventure – Update 8

Well I’ve been getting very behind with the blog updates, testament to how busy I’ve been! This set brings it bang up to date. I’ve no idea what’s on the schedule for food tomorrow, so this may well be the last update!

I had a very chilled last day in LA – a late start saw us getting to Malibu for around 11:30am, so a late brunch/early lunch was in order.

The Reel Inn
Situated across the PCH from Malibu beach, The Real Inn is a huge surfer hit. Full of boards, plastic fish and laid back vibe. The concept is deceptively simple – a chiller cabinet full of fresh fish, pick your variety, have it grilled/sautéed/cajuned and served with two sides. Magic. The tuna was fantastic and the potatoes delicious. Top value.

Umami Burger
After a hard day of checking out Santa Monica and Venice, I was in need of a pre-flight top-up. Umami burger is a small chain, with a legion of fans. They specialise in modern burgers, taking the American classic to the next level. Their signature dish is the Umamir burger – a generous beef patty, Parmesan crisp, shiitake mushrooms and a mushroom ketchup – incredible. Umami is a pretty rare flavour and getting a hit of it this strong with the beef is amazing. Pure savoury. The sweet potato chips are pretty awesome too!

Magnolia Bakery
A rough red-eye flight left me in need of sustenance. Magnolia, like Hummingbird, has become a big deal. They serve a dizzying array of freshly baked delights. I had their cinnamon sugar muffin, which was superb – great way to start the day!

Five Guys
Lunch came courtesy of Five Guys. A small chain that’s really popular in Washington D.C. They serve burgers and hotdogs with a huge array of toppings, all available at no additional cost. Ordering a burger with ‘everything’ would be a mistake. The ‘dog itself was great, split grilled so it’s nice and crispy and served with bacon and cheese. Great stuff.

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Keen’s Steakhouse
Having sampled the best of San Francisco’s, I owed it to New York to see what they could bring to the table. The best steak in New York is a fiercely debated topic – Luger’s in Brooklyn is widely respected, but it’s a bit of a trek from Manhatten, which left Keen’s. Founded in the 19th century it’s been serving big hunks of meat for years. The interior is akin to a country club – comfy leather armchairs and wood panelling – like Harris it totes a live pianist and house aged meat.

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The 26oz t-bone was an imposing sight. Big and very juicy. You could certainly tell it had been dry aged, but it didn’t have the flavour of some British beef, despite being grass fed (finished on corn). The staff were excellent and more than happy to accommodate a lone diner at an odd hour. In a straight fight between Harris and Keen’s, the New Yorker just edges it, but they are very similar!

Shake Shack
When Heston Blumenthal came to New York in search of the perfect burger, one of the places he stopped was here. Based on a similar vibe to In n Out, they sell simple burgers, with great ingredients, all freshly made. The shack burger was rich and incredibly juicy. The chips were average, but the milkshake was the real show stopper. Made with their own recipe for frozen custard – its wonderfully rich. They also offer ‘concretes’, somewhere at the milkshake end of the sundae spectrum. There’s a couple of branches around Manhatten and the queues can be staggering. Go early.

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Momofuku Ssam Bar
This is a tiny restaurant with a huge reputation. Take a look at the photo below, it’s on the corner of a largely residential area, it seats around forty people, mostly at the bar and dinner for one, including drinks cost under $50. What’s all the fuss about?

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Just that it’s the 37th best restaurant in the world according to the San Pellegrino rankings (which are a big deal) – it beats out the French Laundry by five places. Yeah.

So are the plaudits justified? Absolutely. If you wanted an example of gastronomic value, this would be it! It serves Asian fusion, with a heavy focus on rare breed pork. I had the pork buns, the BBQ bun and veal sweetbreads. The pork in the buns was amazing, soft, textured, crunchy round the edges and so porky flavoured you expected it to oink. The veal sweetbreads were gorgeous, so nice you overlook the fact that it’s brains. The texture combinations, gentle flavourings and presentation all hit top marks. The staff were attentive and laid back. I loved the fact they offered beer pairings, as well as wine. If you visit one restaurant in New York, make it this one.

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Blue Smoke
As I mentioned in a previous post, barbecue food is an up and coming trend in America. People are taking the backyard staples and combining them with the best ingredients and the most traditional approaches. One of the places that’s been doing this the longest is Blue Smoke. Situated a couple of blocks from the flatiron, it was quite a trek from my hotel, but completely worth it. Their menu is an homage to smokey goodness. I had their rib sampler (Texas, Memphis, Kansas City) and they were great. Big, juicy and very very tender. The service was friendly and the vibe lively. There’s live Jazz most nights and the staff know their stuff if you have any questions. They have an frankly dizzying selection of beers, wines and spirits, so some time at the bar is a must. Great find

American Adventure – Update 7

Today was a very special foodie day – exploring the north end of LA. Breakfast was a hastily grabbed bagel but lunch and dinner more than made up for it.

LunchThe Ivy
The Ivy is an LA icon. Set in the centre of Beverley Hills, amid the eye wateringly expensive fashion boutiques. The array of cars awaiting valet parking (a Ferrari, Lamborghini and a Rolls) gives you some idea of the local taste. In terms of celeb spotting we clocked a celebrity chef and someone who looked an awful lot like Tiger Woods.

Starter – Native Oysters
Oysters are a big deal in California and most menus offer them. The Ivy’s were on the smaller size and one had a few chips of shell in it. Otherwise, the cocktail sauce was gorgeous and the oysters themselves were lovely.

Main – Seafood Risotto
The Ivy has a strong line of Italian dishes and their seafood risottos reflects this influence, packing scallops, clams, prawns, squid, mussels and crab into a gorgeous mound. The serving was very generous with a great seafood/rice ratio. The rice was perfectly cooked, with he tiniest hint of a bite amid the creaminess.

DinnerThe Bazaar
After watching the sunset from Griffith Observatory, we meandered down the slopes to the SLS Hotel. José Andrés creates an exciting modern take on tapas. Pulling on Spanish tradition, using incredible Californian ingredients and the latest techniques of molecular gastronomy is a potent mix. Hottly tipped by many review websites I was very excited to sample it. After a brief waist we were seated a the chef’s bar, where you can watch the team prepare the orders as they come in. (And ask them geeky food questions as they work) The tapas format works perfectly with the ultra-modern cooking as it gives you the chance to sample lots of different dishes. We had:

Oxtail Sandwich – Based on a Chinese steamed bun, these tiny bite sized spheres contained incredibly tender beef with spring onions, radish and seasoning. Stunningly moist and flavoursome, I think the bread was infused with a beefy flavour too.
Caprese Salad – The traditional tomato/mozzarella combo is really superb, the tomatoes appear to have been soaked in a tomato consommé to create a super rich taste, the mozzarella balls are stunning, constructed from mozzarella, cream and the mozzarella water they are solid on the outside, molten in the middle.
Cotton Candy Foie Gras – Exactly what is says on the tin and as exactly brilliant as you might hope. I have no idea how this works, but it’s very delicate, I was told it’s a very time sensitive process. It’s not like it was going to hang around long anyway!
Philly Cheesesteak – Served on ‘air bread’ this is a light crisp dough, puffed and filled with a cheese foam. The ‘bread’ is topped with wafer thin slices of ‘blue’ wagyu, raw in the middle, caramelised on the outside. Heavenly.

The Bazaar isnt just one of the best restaurants this trip, it’s one of the best I’ve eaten at ever. Incredible food, cunningly executed with unique twists in a friendly and exciting atmosphere. Absolutely worth a visit.

American Adventure – Update 6

After a final trip to In-n-out burger, it was time to fly down to LA. Gorgeous weather greeted us and we set off on road trip down the pacific highway to Manhattan, then Newport beach.

Brunch was at a little Italian cafe in Manhattan, overlooking the ocean. Very nice French toast with fruit and decent coffee (a rarity in the US!) Lunch was spectacular though, a Lonely Planet ‘Top Pick’, the Oceanside Grill in Newport Beach resembles a private yacht club, overlooking the marina. A tasting of oysters identified our favourites (Baja) and six more were duly brought out, including two of the largest I’ve ever seen, palm sized monsters almost three inches across.

The main was a superb swordfish, very fresh and stunningly cooked on a charcoal grill giving it beautiful caramelisation, I’ve not had one nearly as nice before. Highly recommended.

American Adventure – Update 5

Today was my final full day in San Francisco and certainly one of the best. I tried to hit all the galleries I could and managed: SFMOMA, Legion of Honour and de Young Museum.

The food was equally spectacular:

Breakfast- Hollywood Cafe

Rated as one of the top ten places to eat by Tripadvisor, I was keen to check it out. Down near the waterfront, the tiny cafe is run by a friendly staff and serves traditional American brunch items. I went for the buttermilk pancakes and bacon. They were really good, not as upmarket as Mama’s or Sweet Maple, but no worse off for it.

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Lunch – Boxed Food Company

Situated in the heart of the financial district, this is reckoned by many to be the best salad in the city and I’m inclined to agree. Their house ‘box chicken’ is fantastic. Good quality ingredients with some innovative combinations, the chicken was rubbed with a Provençal herb mix, the dressing used pulped apple and the sliced strawberry was an inspired choice.

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Dinner – Slanted Door

As it was my last dinner in San Francisco, I wanted to make the most of it. By most lists, roundups and reviews, Slanted Door is the best restaurant in central San Francisco. It serves Asian fusion, pulling on San Francisco’s rich immigrant heritage, fantastic local produce and updating it for the 21st century. Reservations are notoriously hard to get, but a friend of a friend got a table so six of us headed down the the ferry building to see what all the fuss is about.

Starters
Spring Rolls – huge, juicy and with a great lime dip. Nom.
Pork Rolls – self assembly, with lettuce and rice noodles rolled in.
Rice Cakes – Sticky, sweet and very very good. The bitter soy was balanced beautifully against the rice.
Razor Clams – An unusual choice, but a good one. Lots of lemongrass lifted the salty flavours and the meat had just enough texture to hold up.

Mains
Chicken Claypot – One of their signature dishes, if a little 1970s Habitat ‘chick in a brick’. The meat was gorgeously tender and the sauce rich without being cloying. Combining a caramel with the more traditional asian flavours was great.
Shaking Beef – Generous chunks of beef fillet, marinaded and flash fried with lime and cinnamon. Incredible.
Scallops – A tower of scallops and a sweet honey/citrus sauce.
Snowpeas – Oriental mushrooms and mange-tout, just al dente.
Suba Noodles – Light, aromatic and very nice.

Desserts
Rhubarb Pannecotta with a Rosemary Granita – Rosemary and rhubarb?!? Just gorgeous. So refreshing, just needs a little semi thing to turn it into a full dessert, but an excellent palate cleansing pre-dessert.
Candy Floss – A great cloud of light fluffy sugar in the middle of the table on a stick. Great to share I’ve no idea what they did, but the sugar was much lighter and less sticky than the kind you get from a fairground – ultra-refined sugar?
Black Forest Torte – Great chocolate, great cherries, maybe needs a little more alcohol?
Lemon and blackberry tart – Another unusual combo, but it worked really well, great contrast between the creamy lemon mousse and the sweet blackberry mix.

Certainly one of the best Asian meals I’ve had – it shows how good fusion can be, but how carefully it needs to be done.

American Adventure – Update 4

Today’s sightseeing was a bit of a nightmare, it involved getting incredibly lost, thankfully this was more than compensated for by the quality of the food.

Breakfast – Sweet Maple

Eggs benedict are incredibly popular in San Francisco, with umpteen variations offered by restaurants. On my host’s recommendation I ventured past Japantown to Sweet Maple. The friendly staff had me seated in seconds and I ordered their signature dish – dungeness benedict with a side of millionaire bacon. Dungeness benedict is essentially a scone, with wilted spinach, crab meat and a poached egg, drizzled with hollandaise and served with fried root vegetables. Millionaires bacon is an ultra thick slice of belly pork, cured and marinated in a spicy maple syrup before being fried and dipped in yet more maple syrup. Both were gorgeous. Sweet Maple is almost as good as ‘Mama’s on Washington Sqaure’ but without the ridiculous queue!

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Lunch – Blue Barn Gourmet

Highly rated in the Lonely Planet, blue barn gourmet is situated down in the marina district. It specialises in organic salads and sandwiches. Their most popular special is their Cobber salad. Lettuce, tomato, croutons, chicken, bacon, avocado and egg. The dressing is a house special ranch. As a salad, it’s perfectly nice, but it’s just that – nice. The ingredients are great but it doesn’t do anything particularly inventive or exciting with them.

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Dinner – Harris

America is synonymous with steak. Finding the ‘best’ steak restaurant in San Francisco proved a real challenge, with lots of conflicting opinions. I finally settled on ‘Harris’.

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They offer a 21-day dry-aged steak in a sophisticate, but relaxed environs. Modelled on a stereotypical view of a London members club, it’s all dark oak and comfy armchairs. A pianist plays in the corner while the barman rustles up a stunning martini.

    Ever wondered how to keep your Martini cold enough without diluting it with too much ice? Harris chill all the ingredients, quickly shake over ice in a chilled container before straining into a small carafe which is placed into a miniature barrel of ice, ready to pour as needed. Yum.

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The steak itself was enormous, I went with a bone-in rib-eye, and it must have weighed upwards of 20oz. The plate is vast.

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I asked for rare it it definitely came medium, but it was so good I couldn’t really complain. I’m writing a longer post soon about beef/steaks in general so the detail of what I thought will be there. But overall it was a great experience which I would heartily recommend to anyone visiting San Francisco.