Monday, July 20, 2009

Road Trip Days 6-9 / Eating famously in San Francisco / Chez Panisse

I’ve been to the Bay Area a few other times in the past to visit friends, to hang out, to cook Thanksgiving dinner, but never with the explicit purpose to eat as much local cuisine as possible. I could have pretended that this most recent trip was planned to visit friends and to look at colleges (for my sister), but, really, I wanted to eat more; and, in a touristy fashion, I wanted to eat as much of the talked-about, famous food as possible.

As Sally and I were staying in a friend’s apartment in Berkeley, we woke up extra early on Saturday to get on the BART and head to Ferry Plaza to experience the farmers market in full force. On this visit, the market was awash in stone fruits – cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines, and, Sally’s new favorite, pluots. We walked around, sampling these fruits as well as olive oils, honeys, pickles, almond butter, peas (…) before deciding that we didn’t want to carry around fresh produce through the city all day. I picked up a pound of Rancho Gordo flageolets (awesome, by the way, and will probably pop up here again soon), a couple of pluots, and a (very strong) cup of Blue Bottle coffee, and we headed inside the ferry building for some (famous) Acme sourdough and Cowgirl Creamery cheese for lunch.

The bread itself was a bit too chewy for my taste (I like as many air bubbles as possible); flavor-wise, it was a bit bland, actually, for sourdough. I much preferred the olive rolls we grabbed as well. The cheese was delicious, but the bigger surprise was the store’s guest cheese of the day – a tarentaise made by Thistle Hill Farm in Vermont by one of my fellow Reedie’s family. Totally cool.

For the next day and a half, we wandered around San Francisco, visiting famous places, like the Williams-Sonoma mothership (10 pound bars of chocolate!) and Bi Rite Creamery (I had strawberry balsamic and ginger ice cream – epic),

and less famous, but no less authentically San Franciscan, locales like Four Barrel Coffee, Isaac’s new place of work,* and Heaven’s Dog restaurant (a hip take on Chinese, delicious, but too dark for visible photographs … sorry).

Sally and I also ventured over to the Cheeseboard in Berkeley for their Bastille Day special pie. Not only was this pizza an awesome deal for two small girls ($20 fed us for 2 ½ meals!), but also the quality of ingredients used was so fresh that I could taste summer in every bite. I could overlook the too-chewy crust (I like mine thinner, with more char and bubbles) and embrace the sharp notes of the Comte cheese and shallots, and the sweet heirlooms and thyme. The first night we ate the pizza at the apartment, with their Niçoise salad, still warm, but away from the crowds. It held up well, cold, for lunch, the next day as well, and as a snack on the road (and, now that I think about it, I can’t say the same for other famously delicious pizza like Apizza Scholls in Portland).

None of this, however, compares to our most famous meal, the lunch for which I made a reservation a month in advance, at the awesome but perhaps not too surprising,

Ben, our Berkeley host, and Joanna, my friend from high school, joined Sally and me for the meal. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed in the beginning – the place was packed and the hostess was spacey and a bit rude, and once we were seated (about 10 minutes after our 2pm reservation), our waitress seemed to want to rush us into ordering our meal. Things improved dramatically, however, when the food arrived.

My salad, baby romaine with raw zucchini and mint, was every bit as light, crisp, and refreshing as I desired, almost like a cool glass of ice water.

My sister had a pizzetta with goat cheese, shallots, and green onion. It was a bit heavy for a lunchtime appetizer, but it tasted great and Sally enjoyed it.

Ben had a beet salad served with avocado and cucumbers. The picture doesn’t do justice to the excellence of this dish. I certainly never would have thought to pair these three vegetables, their flavor profiles seemingly too disparate to complement. Yet the flavor and texture contrasts – at the same time crunchy and creamy, crisp and rich – brought by each element recall a more complex, deconstructed cuisine, yet without the assistance of foams, gels, or liquid nitrogen. This is Alice Waters/California cuisine at its best – a celebration of seasonal ingredients in all of their unadorned glory.

Sally and Joanna both ordered the roasted chicken breast, served with grilled polenta, summer veg (corn and peas, mostly), and a tomatillo sauce. All of the flavors here were good, and the chicken very moist, but I think there was a little too much on the plate – it was almost a three-course meal in itself.

Ben ordered a pizza with housemade sausage and nettle leaves. The leaves were a new taste for all of us, and lent surprisingly creamy note, still with a lingering bitterness, which complemented the sausage nicely.

My favorite entrée was my own – oricchette with a lamb ragu. The pasta was super fresh, with just the right amount of chew, and its crevices were the perfect vehicle for the shreds of tender lamb.

For dessert, Joanna had the espresso-chocolate pave, a dense, flavor-packed brownie of a dessert – a few small bites were enough for me.

Ben had a beautiful black mission fig tart, which was surprisingly not sweet – the pure subtle taste of fig shone through.

I had roasted apricots with raspberry couli and sabayon – orgasmic. Just sweet enough, with a little crunch provided by the crust on the apricots, caramelized and warm, the best possible flavors intensified by the oven. While I wish there had been a higher ratio of apricots to accoutrements, I still licked my bowl clean.

Sally chose the most Alice Waters-y dish of the evening for her dessert – a bowl of summer fruit (Santa Rosa plums, a Suncrest peach, and local raspberries). The plums and raspberries were good (sorry, Isaac, not quite as awesome as you described), but the peach was the greatest surprise. Being from Georgia, I am a self-admitted peach snob, and thus rarely enjoy a west coast peach. But this peach was just as good as the best of the early season Gaffney peaches my mom picks up on her way back from Charlotte every summer. Juicy, sweet, slightly creamy, and golden yellow all the way through – this was what peaches are supposed to taste like.

We finished the meal a bit confused about what time of day it was (I don’t think I’ve ever eaten like this for lunch – 3 courses with a bottle of wine – but I could get used to it. Anyone out there want to fund a Gourmet lunches for Kate campaign?). Sally and Ben went home to take a nap, and Joanna and I wandered down to the Edible Schoolyard for a bit more Alice Waters time before she headed back to Carmel and I back to the apartment to pack for the last leg of the trip.

With not much famous left in us, Sally and I drove up to Ashland the next day to visit Sunya, my freshman year roommate, and then on to Portland on Friday. I’ve settled in to my temporary summer house, looking for jobs, ** cooking, and eating for myself again.

* We did sample an apple maple bacon donut here, which we later discovered while vegging out in front of the Food Network is one of their star’s “best thing I ever ate (with bacon).” Small world.

** Want to hire me? I’m a bright college grad who will do anything and everything, preferably around food. References available…

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