Day: October 3, 2018

Kantine

Old laundromats have been getting a new lease on urban life lately. And in San Francisco, not surprisingly, that means restaurant leases — from Tide Pods to table, so to speak.

I’ve lived in this city long enough that I used to do laundry where Nopa now serves burgers. But in the last year alone, the Doug’s Suds in Cole Valley has become a coffee shop called Wooden that is, yes, heavily wooded, with a resident wise-cracking parrot. In the Tenderloin, Barnzu serves Korean small plates where soiled pants were once cleaned. And in late May, on a quiet midday stretch of Market Street, the 52-year-old Little Hollywood Launderette became Kantine, San Francisco’s first Scandinavian half-day cafe.

Avery

There was a lot of chest hair. Not in my food, but peeking out from the shirts of the men presenting it. And it was mostly men — wearing skinny jeans, no socks, blazers pulled tightly around fit torsos, and button-downs unbuttoned one button more than most, at least on this coast. I wouldn’t mention it, except the servers underscore the atmosphere at Avery, which can be summed up in two words: bachelor pad. It’s like a dark, boxy, barely decorated apartment rented by a single, 30-something guy who happens to be a really good cook.

And when I showed up alone on a Friday night, it felt like an awkward first date. Greeting me was nothing — and no one — but a floating black slotted wall. I stood staring at it until my husband arrived. Eventually the host showed up. “Welcome to Avery,” he said, unaware we’d been waiting.

“You’ll be joining us tonight for the Cello Player menu?” he asked, I assumed rhetorically. We were unsure of the actualname of the menu we purchased, anyway, as we’d prepaid through Tock earlier that week. The more expensive one, I wanted to say. We followed him through the small, hushed dining room, past a lone table of four, and up a set of black stairs to the second-floor dining room. It looked the same as the first, just without windows.

There, the awkwardness continued. We looked at our server. Our server looked at us. We looked at our menu, a vertical cut of calligraphy paper scrawled, simply, in black ink: “Grains,” “Oyster,” “Curry.” It was pretty and poetic, but clearly called for some sort of introduction, which we never got. So we asked. After a seven-minute monologue describing each of the seven courses, plus all of the possible “additions” — like trout roe, “caviar bump,” and spicy lobster with sea urchin — he wandered off, without asking if we’d like to start with anything to drink.

Then I realized: Wait, we hadn’t prepaid for Cello Player! We’d prepaid for the 13- to 15-course Shades of Spring menu, which was supposed to include all of those decadent add-ons. An honest error, but we would’ve left cheated had we not realized. And — as I learned when we later tried Cello — still hungry enough to eat an off-menu hot dog at the Progress across the street.

I let our server know about the mix-up, which led to more awkwardness: scurrying, whispering. Apparently we should’ve been seated downstairs with the handful of fellow high rollers who had also paid $189 per person. Instead, we were seated upstairs, with the commoners who’d paid a mere $89 per person. We were told to stay put. Our menus were whisked away. (Shades of Spring doesn’t come with menus.) “Let us cook for you,” our server proclaimed, with too much pomp for a moment we both knew had been lost.

All of which is to say: It wasn’t the smoothest start to a $700 dinner.

But Grains is: a ceramic palm-sized bowl half full of a broth infused with toasted rice and clarified burnt onion butter. It was so aromatic and rich and soothing, I wanted to bathe in it. And I hate baths. With each sip, our angst evaporated, and we were reminded: We came to Avery to eat. We also came to drink sake — the restaurant has a sake sommelier, after all — except we still had yet to be offered any. Ultimately, we came for chef Rodney Wages, whose resume is studded with all-star venues like the French Laundry, BenuSaison, and Atelier Crenn.

I never made it to his pop-upRTB Fillmore (RTB as in “Rod the Bod,” a nickname courtesy of his pals at Saison). But it was such a hit, he and partner Matthew Mako decided to make it permanent, and wisely rename it Avery (as in Milton, the American painter). And now we have yet another elaborate, expensive tasting menu in a high-flying town that’s teeming with them.

Lest we forget how elaborate and expensive, each indulgent, artfully arranged course at Avery reminds us. It’s like culinary hedonism’s greatest hits: Pearls of smoked trout roe are piled into a pair of golden spoons over crushed avocado with sesame, and accompanied by cured kampachi in a spicy-sweet sunomono with preserved citrus, crowned with a crisp of kelp.

A tin of osetra caviar arrives in a crystal bowl of crushed ice. It’s served as a bona fide “bump”— the server spoons the eggs onto your fist along with a dollop of smoked creme fraiche, then drapes it all in a fat slab of barbecued wagyu beef fat. (Yes, all on your fist.) It’s a salty, smoky, slippery slurp, enlivened by a perfect pop. The effect is similar to the drug it alludes to: I immediately wanted more — although not at $68 a hit.

Also, an island of Fort Bragg uni floats in a rich red broth made from lobster shells, spiked with espelette pepper. It’s the four-star version of a Fisherman’s Wharf cioppino, and I savored the slow burn of every slurp.

And of course there is foie gras, twin silky, smoky morsels in a light garlicky broth encircled, like a team of synchronized swimmers, by hand-pinched tortellini: delicate pouches concealing shiitake mushrooms and a burst of cultured butter that vanishes. “This might be the star that steals the show,” Mako warned, his chest hair emphasizing the cheesiness of his line. But he’s right.

Until the 12th course, when the “snow beef” shows up: a pair of rosy, marbled hunks of A5 wagyu, perfectly seared.“He’s the Jedi of beef,” said our serverreferring to its famous Hokkaido rancher, Fujio Terauchi. The $78 price for this “supplement” had looked preposterous when I saw it on our wrong menu earlier, but biting into the charred, buttery meat — velvet incarnate, really — it almost made sense.

It at least made economical sense to go for the whole Shades of Spring shebang rather than to tack the beef onto the cheaper, briefer Cello.

Money and value is a funny thing, though, when it comes to tasting menus. These days, we’re seeing more and more of them in the Bay Area at all price points. We’re paying for the food, but at $89, $189, or, in the case of Avery’s private room, $289 per person, we’re also paying for the experience. Avery excels in the former. I revered, and demolished, almost every dish. There were just two blips: The spiny lobster curry, which was overpowered by mint, and tasted like the world’s most expensive cup of Scopeand the cheese tart, which was gloppy and flimsy and, as the penultimate course, oddly incongruous with an otherwise exceptional parade.

But as for everything else, Avery is lacking — no matter where you sit. On my second visit, despite booking the less expensive menu, we were seated downstairs in the supposedly nicer space. Perhaps because they’d remembered they’d messed up last time, or perhaps because they’d recognized me last time. It later became clear I’d been outed — and possibly overserved, yet never charged for it.

Maybe they thought if I drank enough sake by the end of the meal, I’d forget all about its clumsy start.

Nope. That’s the problem. No matter how seamlessly my second supper went, no matter how wonderful Wages’ cooking, the vibe is too immature for its price tag; the experience too stiff and stilted and salesy. The warmest thing about Avery is the nubby, soft West Elm blankets curled in the banquettes, in case you feel cold — like the place itself.

There are too many other restaurants where you can spend a small fortune these days. If only Avery felt more like a good first date: fun enough to want to do it again.

Che Fico

Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t come here often, but she came here once — on the heels of Anderson Cooper, no less. And once, within weeks of opening, by two separate super-celebrities, was enough: enough to garner more than 83,000 Instagram likes between them; enough to book every online reservation for at least a month; and enough to create such a frenzy that on a recent Thursday night at 6 p.m., a friend walked up the flight of terra-cotta-tiled stairs to the host stand and was quoted a — wait for it — four-hour wait.

Which is why we showed up at 5:22 p.m. on a Tuesday, eight minutes before opening, to join the lineup of actually fashionably dressed San Franciscans hoping to score one of the 46 spots generously reserved for walk-ins at the zinc-topped bar, or window ledge, or communal table. Little Star, next door, shooing people away from its entrance, wasn’t asthrilled about the swarm as the squealing women snapping so-excited-to-be-here! selfies beneath Che Fico’s sign.

It’s the flashiest addition yet to the ever-gentrifying Divisadero Corridor, a bulb-lit arrow pointing to what the city’s latest crop of restaurants has been missing: a new classic. A place that both fits right in — and stands out. Che Fico has taken what we know and love about pizza and pasta and San Francisco and given it a jolt.

It might’ve taken almost four years to come to fruition, but — like the wait for a table — it’s worth it.

Inside is one of the most stunning, if intentionally photogenic, restaurants in San Francisco. It’s like Oakland-based designer Jon de la Cruz took the Insta-success of the lone wallpapered wall at Leo’s Oyster Bar and went nuts — well, figs — plastering the place with whimsical illustrations of leafy trees hanging with the plump, fuschia fruit. Mismatched with burnt-orange, black, and white floor tile, it creates a dizzying, almost Escher-like entrance that opens to a space so lovely — and unexpected in this city of lookalikes — that I literally gasped.

There are vintage-styled leather booths mixed with stained maple tables, a long marble countertop backed by a bright-red pizza oven from Italy, and a seemingly never-ending communal table fashioned from a 200-year-old felled oak. It is light and lofty, and inoffensively large. That size, and the rustic wooden rafters (festooned with bushels of sun-dried espelette peppers), are the only signifiers of the location’s former life as an auto-repair shop.

Rarely does a restaurant with so much hype actually live up to it. But from the first sip of my Coriander to the last scrape of olive oil cake through its puddle of roasted strawberry vinaigrette, I was a believer. The cocktail is casually elegant, garnished with a white blossom; it smells like a garden and tastes like gin — citrusy gin with coriander-infused curacao and housemade herbes de Provence bitters. And the fat slice of cake is as light and fluffy and life-changing as fresh snow on a Utah slope, adorned with a heavenly globe of malted yogurt gelato.

 And then there’s everything in between: antipasti and pastas and “peasant comfort” fare, wood-fired chicken and the crusty, eye-catching Parmesan-dusted pizzas that I passed up on my first visit to leave room for the lamb loin. Hailing from Sonoma County, it’s aged for 17 days, marinated for two, then slow-roasted on the wood fire and topped by a shrub of wild watercress. Thick, meaty medallions fanned across the plate, fat blissfully intact. It’s a hefty, yet tender, undertaking for two.

The albacore tuna conserva is the antithesis: delicate, with too few hunks of tuna. But with wisps of radish and wedges of artichoke, it’s a wonder: tuna from Baja that’s been cured and Cryovac’d in olive oil and slow-poached before it arrives drizzled with aioli. It is fleshy and light, more silky than fishy, and blows away anything served from a jar.

Meanwhile, the pasta blew my mind. Not an easy feat in a town where house-made tagliatelle has become almost as ubiquitous as burritos. Each dish is marked with a little bubble on the menu as fatta a macchina in casa (made with an in-house pasta machine) or fatta a mano (made by hand). The orecchiette with broccoli rabe and fennel sausage sounded so standard I almost skipped it, but that would’ve been a serious mistake. The chewy, thick thimbles, tossed in goat butter, trumped every other orecchiette I’ve tried. Another big hit was the bigoli nero, a bowl of delightfully dense squid-ink noodles tangled with octopus and Dungeness crab and littlenecks, scattered with the crunch of toasted breadcrumbs. Only the mafaldini — squiggle-edged lasagna-like lemony noodles in a bland fava-leaf pesto — was a miss. But in the lumache — snail-shaped shells clinging with a pomodoro sauce burning with ’nduja and chiles — I found true love.

And in the box on the menu labeled “Cucina Ebraica,” I found my roots. Sort of. Chef David Nayfeld’s NorCal version of the Jewish-Italian tradition was clearly not mine. In 1980s suburban Boston, where I was raised, that meant Friday night platters of chicken parm with gloppy ziti from a red-sauce palace off Route 9 called Marconi’s.

But, here, off Divisadero Street in 2018 San Francisco, Jewish-Italian cuisine includes locally sourced gizzards and chicken hearts and corned beef tongue. The duck liver is grilled over the wood fire, chopped, and mixed with a chicken-liver mousse. It is creamy and dreamy and something you’d think chopped liver, by its very nature, could never be: pretty. A velvety mound ringed like a hippie chick in petals of purple daikon and pickled onion, it came flanked by a single, seed-studded slab of Roman matzo that, if boxed, would put Manischewitz out of business. (Even if Nayfeld does use a reduction of its sweet wine to make the liver.) There was more liver than matzo, which was a little irritating, until I remembered I still had my fork. A chopped liver that stands on its own is a chopped liver worthy of celebration.

Ultimately, it’s neither Instagram nor Anderson Cooper (nor his viral post of the pineapple-red onion-fermented chile pizza, the crust of which I actually found to be too stiff, and one of the menu’s only disappointments) that is responsible for rocketing this restaurant to the top of San Francisco’s food chain. It’s the food and the drinks and the desserts. Not to mention the industry rock stars behind it: Nayfeld and his fellow Eleven Madison Park alum and Beard-winning pastry chef Angela Pinkerton — aided by co-owner Matthew Brewer and bar director Christopher Longoria, who are also ones to watch. Plus a staff that was so attentive, it at times felt stifling. They were peeking out from behind the fig trees, re-pouring water glasses still three-quarters full, and repeatedly asking “May I take that away?” a tad too soon.

Still, collectively, they have created a restaurant that feels unique and exciting and of the moment, like Delfina did two decades ago, like its neighbor Nopa did 10. And if we can peer into San Francisco’s pasta- and wood-fired chicken-tangled future — it also feels like almost-40-year-old Zuni does today: timeless.

   

Nyum Bai

Restaurants are often defined by their view: There are waterfront restaurants and rooftop bars and sidewalk cafes. But sitting on a pastel-pink stool one day in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, gazing out through a wall of windows, I didn’t see sailboats or city lights or women walking by wearing wide-legged Everlane pants.

Instead, I saw a Donald Trump pinata, dangling not unlike a dead man, from the store next door. And it made my meal of chef Nite Yun’s Cambodian street food even better. I found it satisfying to eat dinner cooked by a member of America’s immigrant community in the symbolic face of a president working to keep immigrants out of America.

If Trump had his way, we’d all be eating his eponymous steaks with ketchup — not dipping asparagus spears into a bowl of pungent Bolognese-like minced pork belly stir-fried with prahok (fermented fish paste) and simmered with coconut milk.

Yun was born in a Thai refugee camp to parents who’d fled the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime. Her family of five eventually landed in a small apartment in Stockton, California, home to one of the country’s largest Cambodian communities. Raised in her mother’s kitchen, filled with the smell of fresh-cut lemongrass, she was later inspired to return to Cambodia, to learn about her family and taste her culinary roots. In 2012, while slurping a bowl of noodle soup from a street stall in Phnom Penh, she found her calling.

Here, across from the Fruitvale BART station, steps from both a Payless ShoeSource and 2018 James Beard-nominated restaurant Reem’s, is the consummation of years of her hard work.

It’s also a sign of what’s to come in a changing city. As outpriced San Franciscans continue to invade Oakland, it’s easy to envision the Fruitvale Public Market one day morphing into a mini Ferry Plaza, complete with $4 peaches and $50 boxes of chocolate. But if change means more fantastic locally owned businesses like Nyum Bai, dedicated to enriching the community rather than bulldozing it, the future looks bright.

Inside Nyum Bai, it does too. The decor is airy and light, an upbeat palette of white, pale blues, neon accents, and millennial pink. Paper-wrapped chopsticks protrude from jasmine tea tins. Even the bathroom is somewhere you kind of want to stay a while — clad in wallpaper custom-designed by local illustrator Ratha Nou, featuring a mix of Oakland’s famed shipping cranes and faces of 1960s Cambodian rock stars like Pan Ron and Sinn Sisamouth. The same voices are behind the the music playing softly overhead and the colorful retro album covers that adorn the wall.

It’s all intended to buck our longtime association of Cambodia with its dark days, bringing us back to the country’s golden era. And it works.

The place, and its people, exude a kind of homey warmth and genuineness I haven’t experienced much lately on the San Francisco side of the bridge. It also serves the kind of unique, deeply flavorful, very affordable food I haven’t eatenmuch of lately on that side of the bridge.

Take amok, a curried fish souffle, steamed with coconut milk in banana leaf; koh, tender, caramelized pork belly and lightly fried tofu simmered in a coconut-soy broth; and lively ngoum, banana-blossom salad with crunchy sticks of cabbage and basil in a sweet lime dressing. It’s all served tableside, no less. You remember low-key sit-down restaurants, right?

Were Nyum Bai on, say, hip Hayes Street, it would no doubt be a fast-casual situation. I admit, I found myself feeling relieved, even relaxed, when I walked in and realized it wasn’t. (Am I tiring of ordering a multi-dish meal at a counter already? Maybe.)

The sad thing is that a place like Nyum Bai would likely never open on Hayes Street, let alone anywhere in 2018 San Francisco, where the costs of running a restaurant are astronomical, including rents up to three times that of Oakland.

Owning a restaurant in Fruitvale, however, is far less expensive. And Yun’s growing fan base benefits: Her priciest dish is $15.95. A creamy cardamom-coconut curry with braised short ribs in Oakland or a Pimm’s cup in San Francisco? Take your pick.

The sadder thing: A place like Nyum Bai couldn’t open at all without Kickstarter, yes, but also without assistance from food incubator nonprofits like La Cocina, whose primary mission is to help low-income women from immigrant communities realize their professional dreams.

One could argue that the industry is tough for anyone trying to open a restaurant, regardless of race or gender. But for the women La Cocina supports, that deck is stacked particularly high. This is expressly why the organization launched in the Bay Area in 2005 and why a cook like Yun was able to go from her mother’s kitchen to culinary entrepreneur to chef-owner of a restaurant  a restaurant so good, mind you, it’s in the top five of my running mental list and among Oakland’s top 18, according to my colleague Bill Addison.

Yun spent a year perfecting her mother’s recipe for kuy teav, a classic rice-noodle soup, before debuting it at her first San Francisco pop-up in 2014. She later moved to a kiosk at Emeryville’s Public Market. And now, at her first brick-and-mortar restaurant, the kuy teav “Phnom Penh” — dried shrimp and minced pork in a light, subtly sweet seven-hour pork broth brimming with fresh herbs and flecks of fried garlic — is just one star on a menu filled with them.

The restaurant serves 15 or so items, split into three loosely defined categories. My glistening pile of ginger fried chicken was slotted under “Snacks,” but in both size and sticky, crackling satisfaction, it was so much more. Even San Tung’s dry fried wings have got nothing on Yun’s.

Another supposed snack was skewers of grilled beef. Marinated in an umami-packed mix of fish sauce, honey, and lemongrass, countered by wisps of chile powder-dusted pickled papaya, the dish could have easily doubled as a small plate.

The condiment caddy deserves a category all its own. It’s a quadrant that includes a fiery hot sauce — a family recipe made with chiles dried over a wood fire — and something Westerners typically only offer with coffee: sugar. Sugar is a staple, our server explains. “Cambodians sprinkle it like salt.”

Tempting, but to me, the wilted stalks of garlicky water spinach delicately stir-fried and speckled with salted soybeans are perfect without it. So too is the kuy teav cha, which may have forever ruined me for pad Thai. The slippery rice noodles are stir-fried with dark soy and tamarind, touched with palm sugar, and blanketed by a sunny-side-up egg — further proof that a sweet yolk enhances everything.

As did knowing that the hundred bucks or so our foursome spent eating almost the entire menu supports a supremely talented, self-taught chef — a woman who has opened just the kind of restaurant America needs more of.

Bar Crenn

Not here. This opulent, dimly lit den is star chef Dominque Crenn’s, the Marina’s splashiest new spot since her first born, Atelier Crenn, opened next door in 2011. Crenn is one of America’s only multi-Michelin-starred female chef (Chef Suzette Gresham also maintains two at Acquerello). Nothing she does is kitschy: not the white, faux-fur-draped chaise or the chandeliers dripping crystal or the leopard-print thrones or the intentionally distressed books lining the shelves or the ginormous painting of a Coco Chanel lookalike presiding over our plates. It all could have felt gaudy or overwrought, but with Crenn’s touch, the sum total was tasteful, impeccably done. Bar Crenn is the most romantic place to sit and sip a pamplemousse negroni — and slurp Guy Savoy’s ice-poached oyster in its own gelee — in all of San Francisco.

And the most expensive: Bar Crenn was billed as a wine bar, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. If you want a table, you’ve got to buy a ticket through Tock: That’ll be $165 per person for the caviar tasting, $85 per person for the three-course “carte blanche” menu, or $50 per person for wine with “small bites.” If I’m going to spend at least $200 for two, I’m going to call it dinner. The only way to make this place affordable is to pop by for a glass (standing room only) or forgo all booze and order nothing but the brioche. Which, being a buttery, golden masterpiece of a mini loaf, would still be worth it.

As Crenn told Eater earlier, Bar Crenn’s design is intended to make us feel like we’re hanging out in her living room. (Her house must be pretty nice.) It’s not unlike George Chen’s aim for his elegant, “private chateau” Eight Tables or the couch-strewn vibe at SF Jazz’s newish B-Side lounge.

I’m down with living room-like dining. I don’t mind sinking into a cushy armchair or hunching over a coffee table. But to be fair, I usually do it while eating delivery pizza in front of Netflix, not cutting into a dainty pancetta-studded tarte flambee donated by Alain Ducasse. (Jews are supposed to recline on Passover, so why not on a Saturday night at a 1930s-style Parisian salon, too?)

Glancing around Bar Crenn’s long, narrow room, though, it was clear not everyone felt so comfortable. There was the trio squeezed side by side on a loveseat, facing out rather than toward each other, TV sitcom-style. The silver-haired foursome (men in sports jackets, ladies in pearls) shifting in their deep, velvet cushions, trying their best to make out the menu’s 10-point font in the dark. (“It sets a mood,” said our server. “But…”)

The flirty, well-heeled couples sitting knee to knee at the marble-topped bar were content. As were my sister and I, sliding into our mismatched settees, feeling chicer than we actually are — until we also felt something I hate feeling in a restaurant: cold. Seated beneath a ceiling vent blasting frigid air, it was like Siberia suddenly invaded France. We couldn’t switch because every one of the 26 seats was reserved or occupied; requests to make it warmer resulted in a warm stuffiness that we all agreed was worse. So, soigne Siberia it was. I thought about wrapping myself in the white faux-fur throw draped behind me, but realized that would’ve probably been frowned upon.

After all, Bar Crenn is civilized and sophisticated, a welcome detour off otherwise fratty, fleece-clad Chestnut Street. The kind of place where a hollowed eggshell arrives brimming with bone-marrow custard, smoky creme fraiche, a squeeze of Meyer lemon, and an abundance of sturgeon caviar on a silver pedestal; and Dungeness crab comes delicately sandwiched between slabs of creamy avocado, dotted with Marcona almonds and purple nasturtium.

Meanwhile, one pink scallop, recently pulled from the Puget Sound, curls up inside a seashell with horseradish-spiked creme fraiche, a few pearls of caviar, and a $20 price tag. And finally, an eggy salmon souffle baked with a layer of black cod and accompanied by a sweet tomato compote arrives so fluffy and fleshy and flavorful — yet it’s finis after four or five forkfuls and left us craving more.

Which is to say, at Bar Crenn, the portions are small, the prices are high, and midway through the carte blanche tasting, you start to worry that despite blowing big bucks, you might leave on a still-empty stomach.

Hence, my sister: “Another round of scallops!” she said to our server with gusto, without realizing that’d mean another $40 on our tab. We opted for seconds of the $5 oysters instead.

We also opted for the wine pairing. It was lovely — particularly the rare Loire Valley Sancerre — but it, too, wasn’t enough. Call me a wino, but for $65 I wanted more than the allotted three half-glasses spread across our almost three-hour supper. Or maybe it was just that the pacing was off; the Sancerre was poured long before our salmon souffle arrived. I took my first bite with my last sip. It would’ve been nice if our server had noticed and offered a splash more. At these prices, in this heady atmosphere, it would have been appropriate.

Personally, watching Crenn, rock star that she is, chitchatting at the bar, I didn’t forget how to eat — I just wished I could keep eating.

My earlier fear about not getting enough food? Confirmed — even after we enjoyed every last morsel. (Everything except for the quenelle Lyonnaise, that is. Its twin mounds of fish mousseline were squishy and airy and doused in a too-fishy crayfish sauce. It all tasted like a failed French attempt at Gefilte fish.) Even after spreading more whipped beef fat onto my brioche than any respectable human being should. Even after devouring the most divine Madeleine of my life — bronzed and buttery, made with almond flour, filled with lemon curd, bursting with Sicilian pistachios, and served less than 60 seconds after leaving the oven — I was out hundreds of dollars and still hungry. No matter how enchanting an evening, that’s never a good feeling. Or maybe it’s just the American in me.

   
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