Day: September 5, 2018

International Smoke

Everyone loves Ayesha Curry. She is warm and smart and real, with a tireless commitment to kids, her own as well as the 13 million children in America struggling with hunger, and a genuine adoration of her husband, the Golden State Warriors’ mouth-guard-dangling NBA star, Steph.

After joining her 5 million-strong Instagram followers and binge-watching her Food Network shows the other day, I became a fan, too. Of Ayesha the person. The businesswoman. The brand.

Just not of her restaurant: International Smoke, the sprawling, globally inspired, don’t-call-it-barbecue spot she opened with Michael Mina (his 33rd restaurant), street level at the slowly sinking Millennium Tower, in November, to much hype and booked-solid reservations.

Scanning the menu was like taking a quick culinary trip around the world: from wagyu shaking beef to jerk-rubbed duck wings to Argentine rib eye in a chimichurri to a Punjabi-spiced fish fry to a carne asada-stuffed baked potato alongside togarashi-spiked sticky rice. And that was my favorite thing about International Smoke (apart from the word “HUMAN” being stenciled on every bathroom door): its globetrotting, multicultural focus, its borders so blissfully wide-open I wouldn’t put it past Trump to swoop in at any minute and order them closed. I only wish International Smoke lived up to its promise.

Curry smartly conceived of a restaurant that mirrors her own Jamaican-Chinese-Polish-African-American background. Although she intended Smoke to be a mash-up of true international flavors, it played more like a muted, Epcot imitation fit more for an Anywhere USA mall than a sophisticated food city. Something along the way — from Ayesha’s home to the Mina Group LLC headquarters to the Millennium Tower — must have been lost in translation.

The place certainly had its pros: the frothy, coconut-milky, crushed-ice Horquito rum cocktail and the crisp fennel-radish-carrot crudite; the buttery-sweet curried cornbread and the garlic-chile hominy that should be bagged and offered to road-trippers as a substitute for corn nuts. The roasted, soy-caramel-glazed Brussels sprouts tasted like sticky-sweet bundles of joy. And the Thai shrimp tom khawas rich and spicy and better than any I’ve had from my go-to take-outs. Then again, if I’d been in the mood for red curry with shrimp, I would have stayed home and ordered it. This one, though, came flanked by an atypical garnish: more of that cornbread.

Otherwise, upon reading the menu, I wanted absolutely everything! Upon eating it… we were underwhelmed by almost everything. The Kalua “Instant Bacon” with Hawaiian teriyaki, cilantro, and pineapple salsa on a steamed bun was all bun, barely any bacon. I love a soft pillow, but its folded doughy-white puffs were so smothering they muffled any flavor. The green papaya slaw lacked so much, including kick, I thought perhaps the kitchen had accidentally shredded the fruit and then forgot about it. The smoked burrata came with a big show (a glass dish lifted in a magic puff of smoke) and a befuddling cold mush of shaved Brussels, spiced squash, apples, and pecans. The black garlic and miso cod was as salty as the sea, and the Vietnamese barbecue pork chop was striped with aesthetically pleasing charred marks, but tasted more like a quick flame-broil job than barbecue through and through.

Smoked pork — in various forms — was the supposed centerpiece of the lengthy menu, yet I’d take the simple charcoal-grilled, lime-tinged Maine lobster tail (for a ridiculous $58) over them all. The Korean scallion crepes were flaccid and forgettable; the sliders ranked low among all the sliders I’ve enjoyed in my life. Only the crunch of the tostadas topped with smoky-hot New Mexican adovada-style pork shoulder sated. And the smoked ribs, trimmed to an easy-to-eat St. Louis style, came coated in a too-mild Korean gochujang, spicy New Mexican adovada, or sweet, sticky American barbecue. Touched with caramelized sugar then blow-torched, the American barbecues were the best. The meat fell off the bone, but without more bark, more finger-sucking, soul-stirring depth, the ribs failed to make me fall in love.

I wanted to at least like our servers. As people they were fine, but as humans working in the hospitality industry, they lacked an understanding of their jobs. Instead of offering eye contact, a semblance of personality, and an ability to offer much more than poorly memorized descriptions of the $30, $40, $50 entrees, they seemed sort of miserable, mechanical, hoping to just get through their night rather than help us enjoy ours.

We had a minor issue not worth getting into here, but I’m glad it happened, as it brought over the manager, who was effusive and sincere and expertly handled it. I felt better knowing there was someone working the floor Ayesha would be pleased to know was taking good care of her customers, if she can’t.

Customers who are loyal Curry Family fans, packing the restaurant like it was Warriors stadium, and comprising a crowd equally, and refreshingly, as diverse. Customers who come from around the Bay, if not the country, to support Ayesha and Steph, to soak in their aura, and bask in their glory while shooting Buffalo Trace bourbon picklebacks chased by turmeric-curry-infused pickle juice.

Customers like the couple clad in NBA Finals hoodies we met at the bar. They’d trekked in from Vallejo for happy hour— and left unimpressed, but not unhappy. It’d be hard to be with $3 ponies of Miller High Life and $3.50 apiece ribs and barbecue red-chile-basted oysters. Still, “everything was so salty, I feel all swollen up!” laughed the middle-aged man, puffing out his cheeks. (I couldn’t argue.)

“I guess it was a little more gourmet than ballpark food,” added his wife. “I wouldn’t make a special trip again, but I’m glad we tried it.”

That’s the thing about a celebrity-owned restaurant like International Smoke. It has the easy advantage of getting people in the door, but then the food has to be good enough to bring them back. True sports fans will stand by their team through the ups and the downs. True Ayesha fans may, too. When it comes to restaurants, though — in San Francisco especially — food fans aren’t so forgiving.

As Quoted

A Glutton’s Report from the Gluten-Free Frontlines

For an omnivorous, carb-craving, cocktail-swilling, relatively new restaurant critic still getting accustomed to her intake, spending dawn to dusk at As Quoted, an allergy-friendly, all-day cafe in Presidio Heights, was like checking into a one-day detox center. Or at least the “spa cafe” of a refined resort.

Fresh off an especially indulgent stint that included ham-centric holiday parties and Harbison Cellar cheeseboards, platters of ribs and baskets of jalapeno poppers, I — like so many San Franciscans — decided I needed a cleanse of sorts, but just a quickie, as I’m not really the cleanse type. (I once tried a juice fast and quickly realized two things: Liquid kale makes me queasy, and I prefer to chew my food.)

According to As Quoted’s Instagram account, the cafe looked healthy and happy, like everything I hoped for 2018.

For this first review of the new year, a glutton’s notes from the gluten-free frontlines:

9:30 a.m.

Scene: Quintessential Sacramento Street. Well groomed, high rent, and white (its subway-tiled walls, Formica-topped tables, and customers alike). Lines of mostly women waiting for organic beet lattes, Americanos, and “dark green” smoothies.

Dress code: Black Lululemon exercise pants.

Overheard: “Hiiiii! How are you? Are you working these days?”

Order: I decided to stray from my regular morning ritual and kick things off as one is supposed to at As Quoted: with an organic turmeric latte, infused with fresh ginger, almond milk, coconut oil, sea salt, and coconut sugar. But then I asked the perky woman behind the counter, “That includes espresso, though, too, right?” She smiled. No. And so I reverted back to my latte, made with Andytown beans and real milk. (The only cow milk item on the menu.)

Adequately caffeinated and settling into the As Quoted spirit, I decided to give the turmeric latte a try. And it was a pleasant surprise. As I sipped the steaming, spicy, coconut creamy, curry-yellow concoction, I felt my skin glow, noticed my stress dissipate, and instantly anti-inflamed. Kidding. Still, Gwyneth, who’s popularized the benefits of the almighty turmeric latte, might be onto something. (As Ayurvedic practitioners, who have been using turmeric for centuries, were before her.) Even if, for me, that something is only an occasional non-caffeinated hiatus from espresso.

For breakfast, I was flummoxed, too. The brief list of options sounded perfect for my health-focused mission: an open-faced organic almond butter-banana-honey-cinnamon sandwich; avocado toast, of course; and poached eggs over frisee drizzled with a shallot-Champagne vinaigrette (hold the pasture-raised bacon). Except, wait a minute. “Do I have to get it on gluten-free bread?” I asked, fully expecting a gluten-free cafe to offer real bread for those who want it.

“Uh, yes,” said the nice woman, giving me a look that said, Duh. “Everything here is gluten free.”

Right.

And so, after years of eschewing it, I experienced My First Gluten-Free Toast. And you know what? Baked daily with sorghum and multigrain flours, honey, eggs, and avocado oil, it was hearty without being too heavy, and not bad! It was made better, of course, because it came smothered in super-fresh avocado, thinly sliced radish, a swath of “Just” mayo (a mix of yellow split pea, lemon, and canola oil), and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes and Jacobson sea salt.

It came accompanied by a ready-to-go “honey-bruleed” grapefruit, complete with a sticky, shatter-worthy sheen, more Jacobsen’s salt, and a dash of cayenne. I realized I could, and should, eat this grapefruit every morning. (Although five bucks almost seems like a fair price for having someone else segment and sweeten your grapefruit for you, I’d probably be better off eating it at home.)

1:10 p.m.

Scene: Crowded, but calm. Ladies lunching; people pecking away on laptops; babies wailing.

Dress code: Black Lululemon exercise pants; pressed slacks with button-downs.

Overheard: [Married woman to single man] “Can I set you up with my friend?”

Order: Salad expectations are high at a health-minded place like As Quoted. And my “Chinese Chicken” rose to the occasion: a simple, heaping pile of crisp romaine and cabbage chopped and scattered with scallions, black sesame seeds, and cilantro in a clean, subtle sesame dressing. It came with a single, sprawling sheet of rice noodles that I broke to spread its sweet crunch. Was the salad worth $15? I’m not convinced, but I thoroughly enjoyed every bite.

 3:45 p.m.

Scene: Still crowded, with a steady stream coming and going. Afternoon work meetings over herbal tea and “Shrub Spritzers.”

Dress code: Black Lululemon exercise pants; real black pants, too, with leather boots and long cashmere coats.

Overheard: “My friend launched his startup with only $12 million in funding.”

Order: A cup of the seasonal/local/organic/andwholesome! (S.L.O.W™) bone broth soup of the day. It was spicy chicken vegetable — although I only spotted three teeny slivers of chicken, so it might as well have been veggie soup. Regardless, it was a deeply rich Marin Sun Farms bone broth with cayenne, cumin, broccoli, and an organic mirepoix. It was soothing and satisfying and I felt invigorated just sipping it (if also a little like a white-collar inmate who’d convinced Martha Stewart to cook for her; the $6 portion was small, and served on a spare white tray with a half-slice of multigrain gluten-free bread). Unadorned, it wasn’t as tasty as it had been earlier, but dipped in that broth it did its job.

6:30 p.m.

Scene: Still here. It was just me; a solo dude; and about a dozen single red roses, one on every white table, each poised in a glass bud vase. (If I weren’t married, and this guy were my type, and we were both vegan, this could’ve had the makings of a New York Times Vows piece.)

Dress code: Me: Uh, black exercise pants (Oiselle, though, not Lululemon.) Him: below-the-knee gym shorts and flip-flops.

Overheard: “Cruisin” by D’Angelo, coming out of the ceiling.

Order: “Is the zucchini pappardelle hot?” I asked the nice woman, already knowing the answer.

“No,” she said.

“And it’s just zucchini, right? No pasta?”

Yes, she replied. I tacked on a glass of earthy Spanish red. If As Quoted served wine, then even on my 10-hour cleanse I considered it kosher. Plus, it enhanced my vegan pappardelle: wide, paper-thin ribbons of zucchini that were silky and slippery in a sprightly green goddess sauce, effusing fresh basil and strewn with cherry tomatoes and crushed red pepper. It was a tangle that proved more flavorful and satisfying than it first looked.

The same could be said of As Quoted itself. Customers come in daily, sometimes twice a day, jonesing for its kale-romaine-cucumber smoothie, its Moofy muffin (brown rice flour, rice milk, avocado oil, banana), its Muff-Tata (eggs, spinach, garlic, basil), happy to have an eatery where they’re the majority, not an inconvenience. More and more people are anti-gluten and -dairy, -nuts, and -soy, and sisters Kara and Andie Yamagami opened this cafe, in 2016, for them. Digging into my zucchini pappardelle, though, I realized I don’t have to be one of them to enjoy it.

I admit, I often dismiss places like As Quoted and its ilk. If you eat everything, why go somewhere so restrictive? But my meals offered a glimpse into the Goopy, gluten-free lifestyle I’ve long ignored. It’s not my lifestyle, but spending the day at As Quoted, writing, eating, eavesdropping — and refilling my glass of fizzy water for free — left me, I’ll admit, feeling good. Better than I felt after my last review meal, as much as I’d loved it. It also left me feeling something I’ve rarely felt since starting this critic gig: hungry.

8 p.m.

Scene: Home.

Dress code: PJs, slippers.

Overheard: “What do you want for dinner?”

“I already ate,” I replied, tearing into a loaf of Acme’s olive bread.

Beep’s — SF’s Best $7 Burger

I had no childhood memories of the place. I had no adulthood memories of the place, either. Honestly, I barely knew Beep’s Burgers existed, until lost on Ocean Avenue one day, I noticed its red-and-white retro sign, complete with something resembling a rocket ship and a yellow arrow pointing the way, and pulled in.

Later I learned that the rocket ship was actually a satellite, a remnant of the Space Race days, when I guess all Sputnik really did up there was beep. It must’ve seemed like a good name, back in 1962, for a drive-in.

Fifty-five years later, having scored a prime parking spot, I questioned the drive-in concept on the whole. Scarfing down food from the front seat is a barbaric practice that should be reserved for those times when you’re running late to work or, say, trying to outrun Tahoe traffic. I suppose if they had servers roller-skating around and I were parked down the street and it were raining, I could see the appeal.

Instead, on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, we stood behind just two people (you can’t call that a line in this town) and placed our over-order with a nice woman behind the window. Then we grabbed a couple of free stools capped with squeaky-clean, bright-blue, Pepsi-branded cushions, and waited for our name to be called over the muffled loudspeaker — a throwback I didn’t realized I missed until I heard it.

No hand-held vibrating buzzers. No hordes of tourists. No Ferry Building prices. There’s no Trumer pilsner or Turley zinfandel either, but that’s okay; Beep’s is more of a Cherry Pepsi-Orange Crush kind of place. And ever since 30-year-old Samantha Wong took it over in 2014, it’s become a Cherry Pepsi-Orange Crush kind of place with food fit for discerning San Francisco eaters who’d never deign to drink the stuff. Myself included. (A Twinkie milkshake and jalapeno poppers, however, I was totally up for.)

Biting into the thick, deep-fried crust to find oozy-hot cream cheese hiding a fat hunk of jalapeno was a thoroughly satisfying, and, for once, non-tongue-burning experience. As it turned out, sucking bits of blended Twinkie through a straw wasn’t as fun as it sounded. But apparently it’s a hit with the college crowd. No matter: The Nutella and the Oreo milkshakes, the latter made with Oreos crushed on the spot, were thick, kitsch, and delish. At $4.95 apiece for the 16 ounce, they together cost less than one at Cole Valley’s Ice Cream Bar.

What I really loved, though, were the onion rings: hearty, steak-cut, almost greaseless loops with a clean crunch and slippery, flavorful insides. The curly fries, too, were firm and seasoned and all I wanted them to be. Even the sweet potato fries, so frequently mush, had that perfect snap. The only disappointment in the fry department were the plain ones, which were not as crisp or golden or salty as they could be. Nothing to rant on Yelp about, but nothing to come back craving either.

My burger, however, I’d trek out to Ingleside for anytime: an all Angus beef quarter-pound patty, with Beep’s secret sauce (a mix of mayo, ketchup, paprika, and cayenne that could’ve used more kick), leafy lettuce, and melted cheddar on a soft Semifreddi’s bun. Juicy, messy, hand-shaped Niman Ranch beef, it was a $7 feat in a city where burgers now push $20.

In June, Beep’s was declared a San Francisco Legacy Business, joining beloved institutions like Casa Sanchez and Tommaso’s. A dinosaur, however, it’s not. What’s driving Beep’s today is Wong’s commitment to preserving the past, while serving the present. She shed what didn’t work (a confusing mix of teriyaki rice plates, tacos, watery pineapple shakes, and shoddy ingredients) and enhanced what did.

“They’ve definitely upped their game,” said a dad in a tweed cap, with his tweenage son just out of the SSATs and diving into a half-pound double.

I’d heard from a few San Francisco natives that Beep’s used to be a spot where local City College and high school kids would come begrudgingly — not because it was good, but because it was cheap, and the only thing around. Literally, the only thing around, confirmed a guy who grew up nearby. He’s been back on Beep’s since the revamp, he said.

He comes for the crispy chicken sandwich. (I also had it, and it was a winner: succulent breast meat coated in a thick crust, with a fresh, lively jalapeno-parsley-red onion slaw.) The kid pointed to the Whole Foods and the spate of new condos and the Philz Coffee across the street. “None of that was here before,” he said. “It was just us.”

And now it was me. And the hipster dad and son. And a college couple, totally intertwined. And two pairs of stressed-out parents attempting to corral toddlers covered in ketchup. And a trio of 20-something dudes with slicked hair, wearing Vans and white tees, looking appropriate for the time warp where they were lunching. “I just discovered this place two months ago,” one of them told me. “And now I’m, like, here every day.”

There was also a nerdy high school student patiently waiting, with a McDonald’s bag, for his Beep’s Burger. “I like McDonald’s nuggets better,” he explained. I agreed.

True to its name, Beep’s is for burgers, with grilled onions or mushrooms, fresh avocado or fried egg, if you like. As well as mini-corndogs and breakfast sandwiches served all day, and wafer cones of vanilla-chocolate swirl that cost less than a ride on the K Line.

Beep’s is a worthy reminder that every meal in this town doesn’t have to be epic or expensive or — gasp — organic. Or consumed in a leafy parklet built by a local craftsman with reclaimed wood, for that matter. Sometimes, even in San Francisco, it’s enough to just sit outside, on a Pepsi stool at a non-descript counter, and enjoy an admirable, below-market-price burger, mere inches from a row of parked cars that includes more beaters than Beamers — looking up at a neon-lit sign that, propped up by the next generation, has stood longer than anyone eating beneath it.

Eight Tables

The walk to Chinatown’s most expensive restaurant isn’t easy. For one, hidden behind a chain-link fence down an otherwise desolate alley, the place is hard to find. But that’s not what I mean. What I mean is: Striding past so many homeless people huddled in doorways on your way to blow a thousand bucks on dinner is, well, hard to justify.

True, it’s an encounter we have in this increasingly stratified city every single day — but as I stepped around an old man outstretched in a sleeping bag on Broadway, I felt acutely conflicted about my upcoming evening at Eight Tables.

I also felt excited (if, in jeans, underdressed). The new, yes, eight-table restaurant was arguably San Francisco’s most anticipated opening of the year. George Chen is the brains behind Union Street’s 1990s trailblazing Betelnut, four restaurants in Shanghai, and in March, ChinaLive, the $20 million Eataly of dim sum downstairs. And now he was opening his “home” — or an opulent stage set of it — to the .5 percent, si fang cai-style. Or “private chateau cuisine,” as Chen puts it, a lavish, 10-course feast that takes entertaining tips from 17th-century China.

Sitting on a crushed-velvet settee waiting for my date, looking at framed black-and-white Chen family photos and listening to Miles Davis on a midcentury console record player, it indeed felt like I was in someone’s living room. Though when a fellow diner checked in and stiffly took a seat beside me, it felt more akin to an upscale doctor’s waiting room.

After several minutes of awkward silence, the fellow diner spoke: “I’ve never been to a restaurant like this,” he said.

Me neither. Because of the price and pomp, some might consider it the French Laundry with chopsticks; a Qing Dynasty-style Quince; a less-austere Benu. But, really, Eight Tables is unlike any restaurant this side of the Pacific — and exactly what chef Chen intended it to be: dinner at his place. The elegant, tan-hued, multi-room maze was regal but warm, with white embossed wallpaper fashioned from antique wedding dress patterns, cushy leather banquettes, and circular, semi-private tables that were comically large for two.

It also includes a full (and appropriately pedigreed) staff: Anthony Keels, a genius bartender who defected from Saison, along with GM Andrew Fuentes; Tony Kim, a sociable sommelier who came from the Clift; and a mannerly server named Huntly, who genuinely thanked us for asking his name. “People rarely do,” he lamented. Then snapped his fingers. “It’s just, ‘deliver my drinks, serve my food.’”

Which he did, flawlessly. He was aided by a fleet of mostly men wearing light-beige three-piece Ralph Lauren suits with a rainbow of patterned Hermès ties, who collectively looked like groomsmen at a WASPy summer wedding — and Chen, who came around to each table like the proud father, to introduce each course. (Chen was also wearing jeans, by the way, and a stained chef’s coat, looking a little schlubbier than a fine dining chef parading through his dining room usually does. I found it refreshing.)

I also caught a glimpse of an elderly Asian couple wearing white socks and matching Asics, and instantly felt better about my outfit. A good reminder that this is San Francisco: underdressing always goes.

The first course was a grid of mini multicolored porcelain bowls containing the “nine essential flavors” of Chinese cuisine. These bite-sized beauties tasted even better than they looked: sweet, a jujube date bursting with chrysanthemum honey; salty, sous-vide chicken coiled with cured duck-egg yolk; smoky, dark soy-marinated smelt wok-fried then smoked; numbing, paper-thin slices of beef tendon simmered in red and green Sichuan peppercorns that left my lips tingling until the next course.

Which was a next-level shrimp har gow dumpling: a delicate, open-faced quadrant brimming with Russian golden osetra caviar, trout roe, chives, creme fraiche, encircled by dollops of uni one night, curled on top another. Scooping it, and savoring it, like a Hoodsie Cup with a mother-of-pearl spoon, it had me wishing I could flag down this creation from any old dim sum cart, anytime.

But no, everything about Eight Tables is the antithesis of “anytime.” (For most civilians, it’s special-occasion time, if not once in a lifetime.)

 What Chen has done at Eight Tables is take standard Chinese dishes and turn them into more glamorous versions of themselves. You know, like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.A supplemental course referred to as “beef and broccoli,” for instance, was anything but the gloppy go-to take-out order. Rather, bright-green baby bulbs of tender Gailan hearts were plated sparingly with Miyasaki A5 wagyu, marbled hunks the color of cooked rhubarb and the texture of softened butter — and worth every one of its 6,000 pennies. (Although, on another night, it was a less transcendent experience.)

Barbecue “shao kao” became a trio that included sweet, smoky strips of Iberico char siu with a kumquat glaze; a crisp deconstructed Cantonese-style pork-belly sandwich about half the size of a Kit Kat, with more crunch; and a crackling Peking duck skin topped with Kaluga caviar teetering over a piece of feather-light shrimp toast — maybe my favorite bite of the night, save for the mushy fish eggs (which were farmed in the Hubei province of China, and not yet quite up to snuff. Still, Chen explained, he wanted to support their efforts).

On my first visit, Norwegian Icelandic cod steamed in banana leaf with hot ginger scallion oil, buried with lotus root stuffed and topped with shreds of pickled white melon,was silky, mild, and memorable, but a couple of weeks later, prepared with local cod and pickled cucumber, it was too firm, dry to the point of tasting almost parched. In a place that aims for perfection, the slightest imperfection — and inconsistencies — stands out. The velvet chicken, too, suffered a similar fate. Tender breast poached in shallot oil and enmeshed in slippery, snow-white egg whites and matsutake mushrooms came blanketed in Burgundy truffles, and yet, it was a bit bland. A kind of comfort food dish I’d be happy to eat elsewhere; here it was the faintest of them all.

It was a blip immediately forgotten, though, with the first forkful of the unctuous red “dongpo” pork that followed. The soy-braised, thick-cut pork belly looked, and tasted, as rich as a layered chocolate cake.

We would’ve been content to consider it dessert, actually. We were about eight courses in. And — having opted for the “beverage pairing” — about eight glasses in. We began with a Gosset brut, peaked with a decadent Peter Michael Bordeaux blend (paired with that pork), and in between, enjoyed the prettiest cocktail I’ve ever sipped. The Lily Pond: a palm-sized bowl of Martin Miller’s gin and floating nasturtium, mixed with “forest water” — cucumber juice, sorrel, and red shiso, spun in a centrifuge — prepared tableside, with tweezers and a flourish of liquid nitrogen, making the cocktail the new bananas Foster. Meanwhile, my friend, who rarely drinks, and declined the pairing, was loving, and feeling, his Thai Iced Tea Milk Punch, a white rum-based wonder that was smooth and subtle and creamy, like a real Thai iced tea, made with half-and-half yet magically clear.

Did we really need the two desserts that followed, on the heels of a foie gras-stuffed potsticker, no less? The first was a bracing chrysanthemum granita with plum preserve, and the second was what pastry chef Luis Villavelazquez dubbed “Chinese sea grass”: passion-fruit mousse capped with pickled sea beans and crinkled seagrass rice crackers and frothing with translucent, mesquite-infused bubbles that reminded me of the time I accidentally put dish soap instead of detergent in the dishwasher. It was more spectacle than satisfying, but — and perhaps this was the point — an unforgettable finale.

Did we really need any of it? Of course not. A dinner like this is all about indulgence.

So often, at other restaurants of its caliber, such indulgence comes with an air of snobbery, pretension, and an uncomfortable stiltedness. But Eight Tables isn’t supposed to feel like a restaurant. It’s supposed to feel like a private chateau.

What that means, I’m not quite sure. I never dined with 17th-century Qing dynasty nobles. Nor, for that matter, with 2017 Hong Kong elite. All I know is that after four hours hanging out with Anthony and Tony, Huntly and George, it felt a little like bidding farewell to new friends. Friends who hand you a bill, in a book of Chinese poetry (and inelegantly let you know that the service charge is shared throughout the house, but “anything extra” goes to them, which required us, woozy writers, to do unnecessary math in a moment that should be frictionless). Still, they’re the kind of friends you wish could come over and mix up milk punch at your place — the kind of friends only a fortunate few are able to afford.

A 77,000-acre National Park Off the Tourist Path

Somewhere on the long, lonely, blissfully open road between Salt Lake City, and Baker, Nev. — a tiny town that is the entry point for Great Basin National Park — I texted the one friend I have who had been there.

Lisa’s mother hailed from the small town of Delta, 100 miles east, where we stopped for a quick shop. It was the last chance for our San Francisco family to buy lunchtime essentials like organic crunchy peanut butter and tangerine-flavored La Croix.

“It’s so quiet and peaceful,” Lisa texted wistfully of Great Basin, one of America’s least-visited national parks. “Also, you will probably run over some rabbits on the way. This is normal in these parts. Don’t freak out.”

We didn’t hit a rabbit, but we almost hit a sheep. A fluffy, cute, seemingly lost black sheep. It leapt onto Route 50 and right in front of our rental car. My husband honked and the poor thing scurried away, but I couldn’t help but consider it a fitting start to our long weekend.

Here on the Utah-Nevada border, Great Basin could be called the black sheep of the region’s national park family. Bryce, Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, even Capitol Reef, get all the attention — and annual visitors (Zion got a record 4.5 million visitors in 2017, to Great Basin’s 168,000, also a record). But, I soon realized, Great Basin gets something arguably better: anonymity.

“I’d never even heard of it,” said Megan Neemann of Salt Lake City, who I met in Baker and then again, amazingly, on the trail — even though, at some 77,000 acres, Great Basin has more than 60 miles of them. She was on a babymoon with her husband, Erik. Great Basin was his idea for a last-minute Memorial Weekend; it wasn’t exactly Plan B — more like Plan F. “I tried everywhere — Zion, Bryce, Arches — they were all crazy,” he said. “But I was able to get a room here just two weeks ago!”

And Baker — population 68, as of the last census — doesn’t have very many rooms.

Or very much of anything at all. There’s one store selling marshmallows, Lunchables and mousetraps. An espresso cart, the Baker’s Bean, is tucked away on a grassy corner (“If anyone else tried to offer lattes around here, it’d be a hot button-issue,” said Cheri Phillips, the barista and an owner.) And two restaurants: one that appeared to be closed but apparently wasn’t, and Kerouac’s, which was really good (something restaurants in or near national parks almost never are).

A sophisticated pizza and burger place, Kerouac’s was opened last year by Kate Claeys and Jake Cerese, ex-New Yorkers who moved to Baker on a whim. They designed and renovated the circa-1905 miners’ saloon, aided by artisans who worked with ponderosa pine, spruce and steel. Kerouac’s has all the urban accouterments, including seasonal, local ingredients and a fully stocked bar. We ate six meals there in three days.

And not just because it was across the road. Our home base was the Stargazer Inn, also owned and upgraded by Ms. Claeys and Mr. Cerese. For $98 a night, we had wood paneling, carpet, a mini-fridge and toaster and, most important, a shower. It was five minutes from the park and felt kind of like camping, which we had considered, but with a flight and two little kids in the mix, reconsidered.

Last summer, we took a family trip to Yosemite, and it was a zoo. We’d arrived at our cruise ship-size resort armed with a vivid mental list of Yosemite’s iconic sites — El Cap, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome — then spent the trip surrounded by fellow tourists likewise checking them off. We left feeling Californian and patriotic and like good parents. We’d shown our children the American West, in all its glory.

In Great Basin, though, we were like slacker parents: totally winging it. We pulled in Friday evening with no plan, no must-sees, no mental picture of the place whatsoever. It’s a rarity when traveling anywhere these days. And it felt freeing.

It was also freeAs in, no entrance fee. No welcome gate. No traffic backup. Just a simple green-and-white roadside sign that read Great Basin National Park, which we cruised right past. We soon saw a smaller sign, for Baker Creek, and hung a left down a dusty dirt road. Creek sounded nice and my husband, Josh, had his fishing rod.

Remoteness aside, I realized that a big reason so few people come to Great Basin is because without an image of it etched in their minds, no one thinks to. People have no preconception of this national park, in part because it hasn’t been one for very long. Declared a national monument in 1922, it was only anointed national park status in 1986. (No wonder it held no childhood lore for me.) Yellowstone has Old Faithful. Banff has electric-turquoise Lake Louise. The Grand Canyon has, well, the Grand Canyon.And Great Basin, the vast, mountainous “cold desert” between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Range, has … the Lehman Caves? It doesn’t have quite the same ring.

We set out on the Timber Creek-Baker Creek Loop trail, a 5.1-mile trek that starts at 8,000 feet and climbs another 1,600 or so — perhaps an error in judgment given that we were toting two kids under 10. They got their first blisters, kicked off their hiking boots and walked the rest of the way barefoot. (That’s not advisable in rattlesnake country — and I say this as the author of a book on the subject — but I’m also a slacker parent who just wanted to get back before dark.)

Once the whining subsided, we experienced true tranquillity. We picnicked creek-side in a meadow below snowcapped 11,926-foot Pyramid Peak. Josh cast futilely for native Bonneville cutthroat and I fell asleep to the sound of warblers — eventually awakened not by my children, but by a wild turkey. We wandered over boardwalks and mossy rocks, past bright-yellow balsamroot and through aspens shimmering green, their bark whittled with names dating back decades. It was rare proof that other hikers have, in fact, been here. We did not see a soul.

Come dinnertime, though, everyone is at Kerouac’s. Ms. Claeys welcomed us back and regaled us with tales of an enormous but innocuous snake she had discovered outside Room 5 earlier that day in mid-digestion of a bird.We say hello to the Neemanns, who had another great day: Erik climbed 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak; Megan, being pregnant, hung back.

My 6-year-old son, Oren, made fast friends with 30-year-old Sam Schneidman, who was “on his way” (sort of) to a wedding in Washington, D.C. He was initially bummed that he didn’t make it to Capitol ReefNational Park in south-central Utah as planned, but his geologist buddy from Reno had heard of Great Basin and dragged him here instead. Mr. Schneidman was glad he did, as were we. “This place just feels so unexpected, almost forbidden,” he said.

Ben Wong, a van-lifer from Brooklyn, rolled into the park in his Mercedes-Benz Sprinter after rock climbing with his fiancée a few hours away. They’d been living like nomads in their van for the last nine months. “We just looked at the map and said, ‘Hey, there’s some national park nearby, let’s go check it out!’” He glanced around. “We’re the only Asian people here,” he added, laughing.

It appeared to be true. Travelers from Asia, in fact, may be the fastest-growing segment of visitors to U.S. National Parks, increasing by 13 percent in 2016 from the previous year, and accounting for one in six of foreign visitors in 2016, according to a report from Visa. But Great Basin isn’t on the international tourist circuit.

Unlike in the big-name national parks, almost everyone we met was from Utah or Nevada; as Californians, we felt almost exotic. Our neighbor at the Stargazer, Monty Ashton, grew up nearby in Ely, Nev. His family came to scatter his uncle’s ashes up by Baker Lake. He and his 84-year-old mother, Shirley Ashton, have been coming to Great Basin long before it became a national park. And they were happy it did. To Ms. Ashton, a National Park Service designation means crowds and cafeterias. They haven’t showed up yet. “It just means people can’t ruin it now,” she said.

Lehman Caves, a limestone and marble underworld, though, is the park’s main attraction, and popular enough that the hourlong, 20-person tours often book up a month or so ahead. Still, we showed up at the Lehman Visitor Center the next morning around 8 and had our pick of time slots. Dripping with stalactites and bats and a rich history that includes Prohibition parties, the cave is pretty cool (literally and figuratively).

But a cave alone won’t woo me 600 miles from home. Stars, on the other hand, would. One of the least populated areas in the lower 48 — at 10,000 feet no less — Great Basin became an official International Dark Sky Parkin 2016. This is a collection of some 100 destinations — from Warrumbungle National Park in Australia to Hortobagy National Park in Hungary — recognized by the leading anti-light pollution organization for their nocturnal environment and exceptionally starry nights. It’s a designation of rising importance in our country, which is increasingly aglow.

“Half the park is after dark,” as one ranger put it. Unfortunately, the weekend we were there, the night sky was a mix of clouds and bright moonlight. We certainly saw a super-clear Big Dipper, but not the Milky Way or the meteors or the supposedly mind-blowing intergalactic show of stars darting across the sprawling sky. We did, though, get to ogle Jupiter and its red racing stripes through the high-tech telescopes that astronomer-rangers set up outside Lehman Visitor Center on Saturday nights.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t what was overhead or underground that made Great Basin worth the journey.

It wasn’t Wheeler, the tallest peak in the park, as looming and humbling as it was. Or the big, fat marmot we saw squatting on the side of the road, looking at us like a hopeful hitchhiker.

It wasn’t even the 4,000- to 5,000-year-old bristlecone pines — a stark, surreal grove of gnarled, ancient wonders that have withstood all that this cold, harsh world has thrown at them.

What made the trip to Great Basin worth it was the affirmation that an empty national park is better than an epic one — in part, at least, because you feel less like a lemming and a more like a pioneer. (Of course, the Native Americans who lived here thousands of years ago were the real pioneers.) Plus, there’s something bonding about going where so few fanny pack-clad tourists have gone before; a camaraderie that comes from being in an isolated place together.

For our secular, urban clan, the trek was a true pilgrimage to the middle of nowhere. “How far into the middle of nowhere?” a ranger named Becky Gillette had said earlier. “All the way.”

On our last day, amid stalemates and whines of “I’m tired,” we slipped and slid over late spring’s snowfields. The hike was three rigorous, arguably treacherous miles, at 11,000 feet, under the threat of thunderstorms. Good parents would turn back, I thought. But soon, the first bristlecones came into sight. Weathered, wise and weary, but still standing. “I want to touch the oldest living things on the planet!” said my 9-year-old daughter, Hazel. She broke into a sprint, her little brother trudging behind, slowly but surely. Blisters be damned.

Rachel Levin is the San Francisco restaurant critic for Eater and the author of “Look Big: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds” (Ten Speed Press).

Running with the Rhinos

THE NIGHT before the race, I started to freak out. A few nerves are normal, I know, but this was different. In my past as a very amateur competitive runner, I’d climb into bed on the eve of a race and fret about whether I’d set the alarm for p.m., not a.m.; whether it would even go off; where I’d go for breakfast after the run. But here I was, lying on a cot in a canvas tent in northern Kenya, hours before the start of a half marathon, worrying about lions. As in: being eaten by one.

Last summer, my husband, four friends and I had traveled from San Francisco via Frankfurt, arriving late in Nairobi to spend the night before flying out the next morning in a little plane to land at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. In other words, we were not in tiptop marathon shape—even half-marathon shape. And this was not your average, or easiest, course. Rather, it’s said to be one of the world’s toughest. At 5,500-feet elevation, Lewa was hot, dry and dusty. It suddenly dawned on me: Maybe I should have trained for this.

Team Gazelle—as we’d optimistically christened ourselves—had come to take part in the Safaricom Marathon, a meticulously orchestrated event co-hosted by Lewa, in partnership with the nonprofit Tusk, to raise funds for wildlife conservation, education and community development across Kenya. A 55,000-acre preserve, Lewa is home to 137 rhinos, 182 giraffes, 1,160 zebras, some 500 migrating elephants, 26 lions and—I was promised before committing to this harebrained idea—140 armed guards standing watch in case there’s any trouble. (In the marathon’s almost two-decade existence, though, there hasn’t been.)

Still, as I lay in the dark listening to screeching baboons, the possibility felt palpable. A few hours earlier, we’d gone out on a game drive and seen scores of wildlife: Cape buffalo, hyenas, black rhinos, white rhinos, so many rhinos. We even chased a cheetah. In the Land Cruiser, mind you, not on foot. For 364 days a year, safari guests aren’t allowed to roam free, but race day is a different beast.

I awoke before sunrise to Kenyan pop music blaring over speakers, thumping through camp, a communal call to rise. Then came the whoosh of helicopters, revving up to ready the course. Manned by Mike Watson, longtime CEO of Lewa and a rugged bushman if ever there was one, and his colleagues, the helicopters crisscrossed the landscape, hovering overhead, gently flushing the wildlife away for the day—making way for Lewa’s rarest species: humans.

Fourteen hundred runners from 20 countries—the majority from Kenya—come together for one morning every June, in the name of conservation and inspiration. Most people opt for the half, but a hardy 200 or so, including top Kenyan runners like 2016 Olympic gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge go for the full, which double-backs along the same route. There’s a 5K kids race just before it, too. Local school kids train all year in hopes of winning vouchers to the supermarket, goody bags filled with socks, pens, paper and chocolate, and to the first-place finisher: a phone.

For 364 days a year, safari guests aren’t allowed to roam free. Race day is a different beast.

 

Fueled up on bananas and coffee and what felt like a reservoir’s worth of bottled water, we laced up our sneakers and drifted down a dirt road toward the starting line, where we met up with one more member of Team Gazelle: Jacob Kanake, a Lewa driver who had worked on the preserve for years, but had never run the race before. “I’m ready!” he said. We group-hugged. A muffled voice over the speaker beckoned everyone to the start line. The Kenyan flag waved and we were off. It was a human stampede, 1,400 runners of varying levels charging the line, a simple banner propped up by two branches, revealing a dirt path no wider than a fire-road. We squeezed onto the soft, stone-strewn path—flanked by uneven ground and prickly grasses, ensuring we didn’t stray too far—and took off en masse: a scrum of sinewy Kenyans, brawny Kenyans and some barefooted Kenyans, as well as fully outfitted super-fit foreigners in dry-wick tees emblazoned with company logos, and not-as-fit foreigners, no offense to my fellow Gazelles.

And then the adrenaline-fueled din subsided into a collective quiet, everyone instantly awed—or was it daunted?—by the vastness surrounding us, by the quest before us. Behind me was a mini-platoon of rangers running in full garb with their rifles. A helicopter hovered above keeping tabs on everyone’s whereabouts—like an overly concerned parent. Soon the throngs started to split. I found my rhythm, relaxed and realized: Nothing was going to maul me.

I ran. And ran. Past the odd acacia tree and lone ostrich and pair of giraffes in the distance, rising from the ground like elegant, blinking sculptures. Spectators were sparse—a handful at the homemade spritz station; a smattering outside Kirafu, one of five lodges on the preserve. Uniformed, apron-clad staff waving, cheering. It might be Lewa’s biggest day of the year, but the Boston Marathon this is not.

I picked up speed, crested a small hill, and continued through a canopy of acacias. Soon, I found myself in lockstep with a muscular Kenyan man. We sprinted toward the finish line. We crossed together, then high-fived. I finished with a respectable 1:56:28, by no stretch the fastest woman—that went to local Betty Karambu, at 1:14:28. Soon enough, in strode lanky superhero Philemon Baaru, completing the full 26.2 miles in 2:22:18—before my fellow Gazelles even finished the half.

For the rest of the trip, we were on a standard safari—tracking leopards; marveling at lions’ manes and elephant herds; aww-ing at rhino babies—bumping through the bush in the back of the Land Cruiser. And all along, I was itching to get out. safaricommarathon.com

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