A Fresh Taste of San Francisco

From artisanal bakeries to hip bistros to big-name dining rooms, Arthur Lubow reports on the best of the new cafés and restaurants in the City by the Bay.

In San Francisco, arguably the most food-besotted city in America, Alice Waters is a Living National Treasure, and the Zagat guide functions in much the same way as the "star map" does in Hollywood. Waters and one of her first Chez Panisse chefs, Jeremiah Tower, realized in the early seventies that the American tourists in France or Italy who were thrilled to discover a brick-oven pizza, a lightly dressed goat-cheese salad, or a garlicky, rosemary-scented rack of lamb would love to eat so well back home. Luckily, in Northern California they could. Today's big-city passion for locally grown produce originated in the Bay Area. The region's counterculture purveyors would eventually supply the cosmopolitan restaurants and European-style food shops of San Francisco. And it could all be washed down elegantly with Napa Valley Cabernets and Chardonnays. Who needed France?

The San Francisco culinary culture developed over the past three decades until, by the late nineties, it seemed that a new high-end restaurant was opening every week in every neighborhood. How many different kinds of organic fruit compote could you pair with foie gras? Not so long ago, that was the question.

But then the New Economy bubble burst, and some of the good restaurants (and many bad ones) started closing like dot-coms. To discover how people are eating in San Francisco in the new climate, I spent a week last fall searching, high and low, for both the unforgettable dinner and the perfect loaf of bread.

High-end Comfort

San Franciscans haven't renounced the expensive night out, but when they do go, they're looking for comfort, not flash. Chez Spencer is a South of Market restaurant opened last summer by French chef Laurent Katgely in a high-ceilinged, skylighted, wood-beamed industrial space. A small woodburning oven glows as a welcoming hearth when you enter. The food also glows. Katgely serves modern French bistro cuisine, which is essentially old-fashioned bistro cuisine with a little less cream and butter and a few Asian accents. (The chef de cuisine is Japanese.)

Thanks to carefully tweaked details, his food manages to seem familiar without being boring. Grilled mackerel is paired brilliantly with vinegared wax beans and tomatoes, to cut the fishy flavor. Oranges are used liberally: to sweeten a tower of sliced heirloom tomatoes and, combined with fennel, to complement sautéed sea scallops. Roast squab comes with walnuts and butternut squash (and a hint of the ubiquitous orange). Even better is the rare, flavorful Texas antelope, cut into thin scallops and accompanied by potatoes laced with raclette. Save room for the most reassuring of desserts, a warm tarte Tatin. Dinner, $90. At 82 14th Street; 415-864-2191.

The city's food world was rocked in December 2001 when George Morrone, whose bold and extravagant New American cuisine had catapulted The Fifth Floor to the top of the city's food chain, left to inaugurate Redwood Park. Bouncing back, The Fifth Floor hired Laurent Gras, who had never found his audience at Peacock Alley, at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Now that the dust has settled, The Fifth Floor, in a handsome, alcoved modern space in the Palomar Hotel, is the undisputed winner. (The macho Redwood Park, at the base of the Transamerica building, was a place to celebrate a closing at a time when few deals were being made; it filed for Chapter 11 in November and closed in January.)

Chef Gras is the city's foremost practitioner of modern French cuisine. His menu categories—ocean, field and forest, farm—smack of Bay Area earth-consciousness. Nowhere else in town, however, will you find cutting-edge food like Gras' poached lobster, its sweetness set off by a bitter symphony of lobster coral, mustard seeds, lemon zest, and Brussels sprout petals. Nothing could be more simply extravagant than a large, thin slice of toro (tuna belly) seasoned with lime juice and Hawaiian sea salt and generously dolloped with osetra caviar. The chef is belly-oriented. His signature dish consists of slow-poached pork belly, crisp and peppery, cut into squares and served with black truffles, two discs of potato, and a Fuji apple square. The fact that Gras has raised the ultimate down-home ingredient to such a rarefied level indicates just how in touch he is with the Zeitgeist. As a parting gesture, he sends out a basket of the French equivalent of the chocolate-chip cookie—madeleines, still warm from the oven. Dinner, $140. In the Palomar Hotel, 12 Fourth Street; 415-348-1555.

But the "new" restaurant that most embodies today's spirit of luxury in San Francisco is an old one: Fleur de Lys, resurrected from the ashes of an electrical fire that, three days before the terrorist attacks, shut it down for almost a year. When Fleur de Lys reopened last August, its most celebrated design feature, a tented fabric ceiling, was back, as were the colossal flower arrangements and finely honed service. Nowhere else in San Francisco do you feel so cosseted as you do in this cocoon. Chef Hubert Keller, who has been running the kitchen since 1986, redid his menu during the hiatus, returning to his Alsatian roots. His restaurant exudes the contentment of a happy family. "Almost the entire service staff took other part-time jobs while we were closed, and they waited to come back to us," he says. The cooking can be overly complicated, as in lamb sauced with toasted cumin and coriander seeds, deglazed with red wine, sweetened with honey, and spiked with mint oil. But the atmosphere is calibrated exquisitely. While at table beneath those soft folds of burgundy and green velveteen, you're gripped by the sweet delusion that nothing can possibly go wrong. A fantasy, to be sure—but one that in San Francisco these days is particularly welcome. Three-course prix fixe, $65; four-course, $72; five-course, $80. At 777 Sutter Street; 415-673-7799.

Big & Small

Slouched at a low, dimly lit table on the mezzanine at the month-old restaurant RNM, I looked around at the noisy, youthful diners, who were paying no attention to the sixties cult movie playing soundlessly on the sleek TV monitor. I sank my knife and fork into a "small plate" of grilled hearts of romaine with Pettigrew Farms pears, Point Reyes blue, and toasted hazelnuts, a local translation of the Italian classic radicchio di Treviso con scamorza. Regional ingredients cooked simply in a casual yet stylish setting: This was classic Bay Area cuisine. But the "big plate/small plate" menu? That was something new, and it turned up everywhere.

This tapas-style format does away with the classic three- or five-course menu: You order any number of small or large plates, which can come together or one after the other. "It's become the way people eat here," says San Francisco Examiner food critic Patricia Unterman, whose invaluable San Francisco Food Lover's Guide (Ten Speed Press) comes out in a revised edition in April. My favorite "big plate/small plate" place is RNM, which was opened in the Haight last August by chef Justine Miner. During the day, you might see neighborhood folk on the bench outside, sharing an aperitif from a paper bag. At night, the fare leans toward Syrah-braised short ribs on lemon risotto with gremolata and shaved asparagus. Dinner, $55. At 598 Haight Street; 415-551-7900.

Andalu, an international tapas restaurant in the Mission district, opened in September 2001, but the retro decor—a ceiling painted with fair-weather clouds, long, plush red curtains, oversized fifties-style cloth-shaded chandeliers—could date from the Internet boom era, as could the young crowd. Like RNM, Andalu has a mezzanine, a bustling bar, and a lot of noise. It also has excellent food. The house version of bruschetta is butter-soaked grilled bread that is rubbed with bone marrow, just in case your capillaries were dilating too freely. (It's the evil twin of traditional bruschetta, in which the bread is drizzled with olive oil and topped with diced tomato.) Walu, a firm white fish, was a healthier choice, with bitter sautéed greens and mandarin orange segments. What I would go back for, though, are the polenta fries with a spicy tomato vinaigrette. Dinner, $60. At 3198 16th Street; 415-621-2211.

Large and small plates cropped up again at the more authentically Spanish—Basque to be specific—Piperade, which chef-proprietor Gerald Hirigoyen inaugurated last September in the space near the Embarcadero where he formerly ran Pastis. The new room has wood beams, a red-brick wall, oak floors, and a wrought-iron bottle-drying rack hanging from the ceiling. Although he's still a part-owner of the successful Fringale, Hirigoyen spends all his time at Piperade, overseeing the preparation of the hearty food of the border region of western France and Spain. "This is more me," he says. "And I think it is what my customers want." We ordered three fish-and-potato stews and discovered that each of them had been made with a different base stock: Monterey squid with slices of potato, foie gras, and grapes; a saffron-laced combination of fresh tuna and potatoes; and seafood and potatoes in a rich shellfish broth. Impressive. Dinner, $70. At 1015 Battery Street; 415-391-2555.

The American version of comfort food is dished out at Julia, the new restaurant from Julia McClaskey, a young chef who developed a cult following a few years ago at Universal Café. On the lower edge of Pacific Heights, this theatrically designed restaurant (the men's room is decorated with a stuffed marlin, two pheasants, and a deer head) serves up large—really large—plates: huge portions of down-home cooking. I loved the starter of seared chicken livers with applewood-smoked bacon, Concord grapes, and organic greens. A golden-beet salad with ricotta, watercress, and candied pecans artfully balanced textures and acidity. For a main course, when the weather is nippy, I cannot think of anything more soothing than Julia's pork loin with creamy polenta and red cabbage. The service was scatterbrained and, at dinner, the maitre d' was completely out to lunch. Still, McClaskey is a leading exponent of the Waters tradition: She has an original flair for juxtaposing local farm-raised ingredients in ways that accentuate their honest flavors. Dinner, $75. At 2101 Sutter Street; 415-441-2101.

New Asian

In a city with so many Asian inhabitants, there are surprisingly few noteworthy new Asian restaurants. One reason is that most of the immigrants live in the suburbs; even San Francisco's outlying residential areas have become very expensive. So in Chinatown, where you might naturally look for good new Chinese restaurants, there are not even many good established ones—although I do like the R&G Lounge in the heart of the touristy Chinese district (try the salt-and-pepper crab) and the dim sum at Ton Kiang in the Richmond (the city's most recent, more middle-class Chinese neighborhood).

Not new, but in a new location on the Embarcadero, is San Francisco's premier Vietnamese restaurant, The Slanted Door. While its former digs in the Mission district are being renovated, The Slanted Door has moved to an airy, white-tiled space with an open kitchen. For a subtly flavored starter, I would find it hard to pass up the spring rolls: The wrapper is thin and delicate, the Asian tiger shrimp taste clean and sweet, and the mint is bracing. If you crave more of a pepper kick, consider the crunchy salad of shredded green papaya with strips of preserved tofu and rau ram, the Vietnamese variety of fresh coriander. The tiny florets of organically grown broccoli are accompanied by pressed tofu fragrant with five-spice powder. The ingredients, often organic, are gleamingly fresh. Dinner, $70. At 100 Brannan Street; 415-861-8032.

A similar emphasis on freshness can be found nearby at the two-year-old Ozumo, which has quickly become the city's best Japanese restaurant. The blond-pine room with yellow and orange lighting is breathtakingly serene. The sake list is monumental. But what truly wins you over is the food: the sushi (the dragon roll of grilled eel, tempura shrimp, and avocado, or the spider roll of tempura soft-shell crab and radish sprouts), and the fish and vegetables that are expertly grilled on the robata. I had never been persuaded that avocado belonged in a sushi roll until I ate at Ozumo. Nor would I have believed that green-tea powder had a place on a fudgy chocolate cake (paired with a tapioca cream emulsion no less). The refined Japanese menu here has a charming California accent. Dinner, $80. At 161 Steuart Street; 415-882-1333.

Perhaps because of the influence of Japanese immigrants in Peru, or because the most celebrated national dish is based on raw fish, I think of Peruvian cuisine as being an Asian hybrid. San Francisco has a very good new Peruvian destination: Limón, an orange-and-lime green cafeteria-style room in the Mission. Far funkier (and cheaper) than Ozumo, its standout dish is also made from raw fish—the ceviche Limón, composed of halibut and seafood marinated in lime juice and accompanied by hard, large dried corn kernels and yams.

Chef Martin Castillo, 33, began his culinary career as a busboy and line chef in some of the city's fanciest restaurants: Aqua, Rubicon, and Stars. Joined here by several of his relatives, he's made Limón a family success story. Indeed, many of his recipes are based on his mother's originals. The tamal criollo, a giant slab of steamed ground corn stuffed with olives and shreds of pork, is down-home cooking, South-American style, as is an empanada filled with a mixture of beef, raisins, eggs, and olives. Dinner, $55. At 3316 17th Street; 415-252-0918.

Down to Earth

I scheduled my arrival at the most talked-about new place in town for one-thirty in the afternoon because that was when the specialty of the house would emerge from the oven. Forget foie gras and $1,000 bottles of Screaming Eagle—the San Francisco gold rush is over. My destination was Tartine Bakery in the Mission district. What people want now is a good honest loaf of bread.

At Tartine, that's exactly what they get. On the day that I visited, both the "Campagne" white country loaf and the walnut bread were chewy and dense. Made with locally milled organic flour and seasoned with sea salt, the bread is the responsibility of Texas-born Chad Robertson, 33. His wife, Elisabeth Prueitt, 38, a native of Brooklyn, makes the pastries. After having met at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, the couple married in 1994 and spent the following year training in France. In 1996, they established a wholesale bakery in Point Reyes Station, more than an hour's drive north of San Francisco. "It's lovely, but it was too remote for us to live there," Prueitt says. They moved to the Marin County suburb of Mill Valley in 2000, then quickly outgrew the space and arrived in the city last year.

The Northern California provenance of all the ingredients at Tartine is proudly trumpeted: raspberries from the Sebastopol Berry Farm, stone fruits grown at Kashiwase Farms, smoked ham for the croque monsieur from Niman Ranch, chocolate for the brownies from Scharffen Berger. The diverse crowd of hip slackers, lesbian couples, and parents with infants seemed blissfully happy. Tucking into a perfect rendition of banana cream pie, with generous chunks of hard chocolate contrasting smartly with the flaky crust and creamy filling, I thought about how we get nostalgic for the America of our childhood because we remember it—inaccurately—as having been this delicious. Breads, $5-$6.50; desserts, $4-$40. At 600 Guerrero Street; 415-487-2600.

It's worth the drive to the outer Richmond to investigate the personal-sized pizzas at Pizzetta 211, a tiny café (20 seats indoors, a dozen outdoors) distinguished by an artisanal spirit and farm-fresh products. Business partners Ria Ramsey and Tamar Peltz opened in July 2000, in an old-time bakery. They change their menu weekly, but there's always a pizza on which they quick-roast a couple of organic eggs—like the Moroccan-style pizza that I had, strewn with paprika, cumin, cilantro, and slow-cooked peppers. If you have a hearty appetite, there are several (almost) irresistible desserts—a chocolate-and-hazelnut torte with chocolate sauce simmering in a pan on the stove gave me serious pause. Dinner, $40. At 211 23rd Avenue; 415-379-9880.

San Francisco's legendary Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market is scheduled to move on March 22 from the Embarcadero and Green Street to the magnificently renovated Ferry Building, at the bottom of Market Street by San Francisco Bay. The 1898 landmark building will house permanent shops of some of the finest food purveyors in the Bay Area, including Acme Bread, Cowgirl Creamery's Artisan Cheese, and Michael Recchiuti chocolates.

The focus, however, will be the seasonally changing bounty that an East Coaster regards with ill-disguised envy. Check out the $12 bags of delicate organic salad greens kept behind the counter for the cognoscenti at White Crane Springs Farms. Raise your cholesterol level just by sniffing the cheese at Cowgirl Creamery, Andante Dairy, Redwood Hill Farm, and Point Reyes Original Blue. Try the fruit or the fruit tarts at Frog Hollow Farms, the almonds at Lagier Ranches, the tomatoes of more hues than you can imagine at Stony Farm, the equally colorful peppers at Tierra Vegetables, the quail and Muscovy duck at Hoffman Game Birds, the brownies at Miette Cakes, the June Taylor preserves, the Hog Island oysters, the offerings of the aptly named Fresh Fish Company—you won't know where to stop shopping. Bottom of Market Street at the Embarcadero.

Arthur Lubow wrote about new Barcelona restaurants in the last issue of Departures.