The newest addition to the ever-growing list of Bernal Heights culinary resources can be found at 331 Cortland, both the name and the address of a conglomeration of food-centric stalls in a single storefront. After longer-than-expected delays for construction and permitting — apparently, nobody in city hall knew quite how to handle a multi-unit setup under one roof — the six marketplace vendors held a soft opening today for their Bernal neighbors.
We stopped in around 3pm and found a good-sized crowd full of happy folks getting their afternoon snack on. Bernal Cutlery features Japanese whetstone knife sharpening, plus a beautiful assortment of knives both culinary and otherwise. El Porteño, a familiar vendor at many local farmers markets, carries their full line of sweet and savory Argentinian empanadas. Paulie’s Pickling sells pickles, of course, as well as a rotating selection of sandwiches and deli salads.
On the other side of the shop, Wholesome Bakery features vegan and low-glycemic treats and breads. ICHI Lucky Cat Deli, the new home of ICHI’s itinerant sushi-makers, offers nigiri, maki, and sashimi, as well as some specialty snacks (katsu-sando sliders, oh my!). In the front window, Della Terra Organics sells a pretty assortment of fresh produce from local farms. Each of the vendors will set their own hours, but the marketplace as a whole plans to be open 7am to 7pm every day.
It’s a plethora of options, and a welcome addition to the area. The new marketplace joins the small but quite comprehensive Good Life Grocery, the much-lauded Avedano’s Meats down the block, and newcomer Sandbox Bakery at the other end of the Cortland shopping district. You can stroll a few blocks and pick up pretty much everything you need for a picnic in Holly Park, or a home-made dinner. Surprising as it seems, once-sleepy Bernal could actually become food-lover’s shopping destination.
The Marketplace at 331 Cortland
331 Cortland Avenue (x Bennington)
San Francisco, CA 94110
@331Cortland on Twitter
ICHI Lucky Cat Deli
@ICHIsushi on Twitter
El Porteño Empanadas
@ElPorteno on Twitter
@PauliesPickling on Twitter
@wholesomebakery on Twitter
@BernalCutlery on Twitter
Della Terra Organics
Sometimes, we just don’t post because we’re not eating anything interesting, and there’s just nothing to talk about. But I can assure you, that has NOT been the case these last couple of weeks. We’ve been eating our way around the bay, scheduled to the breaking point: Out of the last 11 evenings, we’ve had nine social engagements. No wonder I’m exhausted!
Our little foodie death march all started back on Tuesday the 15th, with my second of four sessions in Kasma Loha-unchit’s Thai cooking classes. I’ll post a complete wrap up at the end of the series, but suffice to say that if you’re looking to learn more about Thai cooking, look no further.
Then that Wednesday, we met up with DPaul and Sean to say farewell to our mutual friend Matt (who’s taking a sabbatical from San Francisco for a while) over a sangria-soaked supper at Piqueo’s, Bernal Heights’ new Peruvian cevicheria and small-plates joint. Although the impossibly long menu was nearly entirely different from our first visit a month or so ago, we enjoyed almost everything we’ve tried there so far.
Thursday of the same week found us stuck in traffic on the Bay Bridge approach, on our way to The Blue Door at Berkeley Rep. A car-snarl from hell — more than an hour from SoMa to the Bridge, thanks — meant we missed our Downtown reservations by more than an hour (we called!) and our consolation snack at North Beach Pizza was grim in every way possible. Truly, we were expecting mediocre but fast, and ended up with slow and barely edible.
Saturday we hit the Ferry Building market in the morning, running into Tea at the Rancho Gordo stand. Farmer Steve’s sure the popular boy these days, with dozens of folks stopping by to congratulate him on his much-publicized (and bilingual!) defense against Carlo Petrini’s ill-mannered slagging of the FPFM’s farmers and customers alike. Everyone must’ve bought a bag or three of beans as they stopped by to say “Good on yeh!” to Mr. Sando — many varieties were already sold out by the time we strolled up.
That same afternoon, we hosted two sets of friends and their 2-year-olds for a summer supper of bacon-cheeseburgers, mac salad, and red cabbage slaw, with complete strawberry crisp for dessert. The junior guests had as much fun as their mommies and daddies: Little Toby rocked out on guitar with Cameron, and Miss Martha endeared herself to everyone with sweet hugs and adorable curiosity.
Monday night, an impromptu get-together chez nous. Tea was in town for the week, so we invited her, plus DPaul and Sean (are they sick of us yet?) — and their sweetie-pie girl Reese — over for dinner. We snacked on pencil-thin asparagus dipped in homemade aioli while we tried out yet another recipe for grilled pizza. I’m still not convinced we’ve found a keeper in the pizza department, but the season’s first peach cobbler proved a hit all around. And when we saw Tea later in the week, she declared that the chopped salad we served with the pizza had earned a slot on the menu of foods she expects to find in heaven. (Flattery like that will get you invited back!)
Tuesday was Thai cooking class again, and Wednesday another dinner to-do: Cameron’s cousins and their 2-year-old (we’re toddler magnets!) were in town from Houston, on their way to Yosemite for the long weekend. Little Camden gobbled a Prather Ranch hot dog while the grownups feasted on tri-tip grilled up Santa Maria style (rubbed with an equal mixture of salt, pepper, and garlic powder moistened with oil), sliced thin and served with guacamole on Rancho Gordo tortillas, with a side of beans a la charra. And yes, another quickie dessert: Pear-rosemary crumble, and vanilla ice cream.
Tonight we met up with a gaggle of cool food bloggers from SF, the East Bay and beyond for dinner at Berkeley’s stalwart O Chame. We loved every appetizer we shared — especially the seared ahi cubes and their lovely horseradish drizzle, the grilled shiitake mushrooms with fresh asparagus, and the snackalicious green-onion pancake blocks. Our soba and udon bowls were so-so (flavorful broth, but overdone noodles) but scoops of balsamic vinegar caramel ice cream were hauntingly good… and rapidly gone.
A short stroll down 4th Street led us to Cody’s Books, where we listened to the charming Clotilde speak about her progression from software developer to food blogger to published cookbook author. She gave us all a chuckle when she spoke of the oddness of being a Frenchwoman writing an English-language food blog — to the consternation of some of her compatriots, she confessed — and her passion for ‘dangerous’ recipes like souffles and gougeres, where a cook never knows whether she’s destined for dinner or disaster. (Clotilde’s signing books Saturday afternoon in San Francisco, in case you’d like to meet her and get a copy of her lovely new book.)
Tomorrow? Ugh. I’m more than a little bit sick of cooking, and yet I don’t think I could bear the pressure of going out somewhere new, or even someplace fancy. So… we have reservations at Range, our delightful standby, where they know us just well enough that we can all relax, but not so well that we have to be social. I’m liking that idea a lot. I wouldn’t have missed a single night of the last 2 weeks, but I am sure glad that it’s done.
I’m half hoping that the bounty of the farmers market on Saturday snaps me out of my apathy, but I won’t be surprised (or even too sad) to find that I’ve burned out on planning, prepping, and putting food on the table… at least for a while. We’ve got a freezer full of incredible leftovers from the last six weeks of new-kitchen cooking frenzy, so it’s not like we’ll go hungry.
As we slow down a bit, I’m aiming to do a better job posting here on a more-regular basis. I’ve got a backlog — five posts’ worth and counting — of recipes, photos and stories that should last through a week of diminished cooking capacity. In the meantime, I’ll tide you over with a recipe for an simple (but apparently impressive) salad that’s quick enough for everyday, but with a just enough company-class touches for a weeknight dinner party on the fly. You can vary the vinegar, the cheese, the herbs, and even the olives to complement your main course.
Heavenly Chopped Salad
(adapted from Food & Wine, September 2006)
2 T mild vinegar (such as cider, champagne or sherry)
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 small shallot, chopped fine
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups chopped lettuce or baby greens
4-5 small Belgian endive (preferably red) halved, cored and coarsely chopped
1 English or Japanese cucumber, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
2T to 1/4 cup coarsely chopped chives (or other herbs, as you prefer)
3/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, halved (or other olives)
1/2 pound feta (or bleu) cheese, crumbled
Whisk the vinegar, lemon juice, and shallot in a medium bowl. Whisk in the oil until emulsified, and season the dressing with salt and pepper.
Combine the remaining ingredients together in a large bowl. Add half of the dressing, season to taste with salt and pepper, and toss. Add the remaining dressing (or less, to taste) toss again, and serve.
If there is an edible gardening art more arcane or mysterious than successfully growing fruit trees, I don’t want to know what it is. The landscaping consultant whose professional advice I regularly seek is the representative of Friends of the Urban Forest in Bernal Heights and maintains an “experimental garden” where he coaxes fruit trees of all descriptions to flourish in our odd local microclimate. But even he is often reduced to a shrug. Who knows if they’ll even survive, let alone bear fruit? They’re living things, and they don’t read rulebooks — they just grow. Or not.
So I feel incredibly blessed that the trees we’ve planted in our backyard all appear to be thriving. Our Meyer lemon is loaded with eight or nine fruits, our bergamot has two or three orbs of its own and has absolutely exploded with fresh growth, and if our itty bitty Makrut lime tree keeps growing the way that it has, I’m going to be able to build a house in it.
Right now, I’m the most excited about the Santa Rosa plum tree that last week sprouted what seems like hundreds of little green/white buds. A thin, whippy thing when we planted it a year ago, it seemed to limp through the year, leaves shotgunned by some unnamed brown fungus. But it kept growing all the while and now, after some judicious pruning, it looks strong and beautiful.
The conventional wisdom is that flowers fortell fruit. Maybe. There are so many things that can happen or not happen between now and a midsummer harvest. Not enough water, too much water, pollination failure, heat, cosmic rays, or even an injudicious application of soft jazz at the wrong moment could send things horribly astray. I hope that this summer we’ll be soaking plums in brandy, but for now it’s enough to live in the moment and love the beautiful buds and flowers as a harbinger of spring.
Joni Mitchell Syndrome is one of the hazards of having lived in several different neighborhoods in the same city. The main symptom is the unconscious romanticization of old stomping grounds (see “Both Sides Now (Clouds)”). It’s particularly frustrating around mealtime, when the first option that pops into your mind–and will not be dislodged–is a favorite nook that used to lie within walking distance but now entails a 30-minute trek by car, motorcycle, or public transit.
With that in mind, you’ll understand how excited I was on Friday night. I was suffering from an acute case of JMS, longing for a quick, informal dinner. “Oh, that I still lived in the Lower Haight,” I moaned (to…to myself. Like Mick.), “I could grab a falafel at Ali Baba and wash it down with a few pints at the Toronado.”
Happily, at that moment I remembered VinoRosso, a wine-bar-plus-nosh that had opened recently on Cortland, the high street of Bernal Heights. Wine instead of beer…salumi instead of chickpeas…sold!
It was awful.
The space was cute enough, and I thought that I’d scored when a couple along the banquette got up to leave just as I walked in, opening a cozy nook that seemed ideal for a light, relaxed, dinner (I’d brought a book). I remember noticing a couple of babes-in-arms at other tables but didn’t give it much thought, as it was early. I could not have been more wrong. I’d only just ordered a glass of pinot grigio and a caprese salad when the little one to my left started screaming…followed by a chorus from the three at the table of parents in a window seat. Mind you, this is not a large restaurant. My table in the back of the main seating area was no more than three or four strides from the door.
I’ve watched very young children melt down in restaurants. Once the volume goes up and the tears start, the civilized thing to do is to gather the bairn up, walk outside, and commune with the night air until the tantrum has waned. Playing airplane, making whooshing or cooing noises, and offering favorite toys or foods are all acceptable variations, so long as they occur outside.
But while the parents at VinoRosso were in full distraction mode, it was all happening inside the enoteca. Everyone was determined to plow through whatever bottles of plonk that they had just overpaid for. The din was horrific. It was so loud that I couldn’t taste the wine. Much to my dismay, I did taste the caprese when it was delivered: rock-hard supermarket tomatoes accompanied by mozzarella so old that it had developed a rind.
A rind. On mozzarella. Ew.
629 Cortland Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94110
After 8 months of keeping The Liberty Cafe in the penalty box, we decided to give it another whirl. See, we talk a good game as unforgiving food snobs, but we’re really good sports. (Actually, we’re just desperate for better food close to home…)
Here’s a review I wrote on Yelp last year:
Food was good, but not amazing. The butter lettuce salad’s bleu cheese was bland, hazelnuts were a touch rancid, but pears were lovely and the vinaigrette perfect. On the other salad, the too-tough mache was garnished with grapes, walnuts, pecorino.
I’d had the chicken pot pie before, and I also make it at home from the recipe that the Chron published a few years back. It was just like homemade — decent, nothing special — only I don’t burn my puff pastry. The “fancy mac-and-cheese” was short tubes (nice) with arugula (nice, but skimpy) and pine nuts… which sounds like a good idea but ended up tasting like uncooked peas. Bleh.
There wasn’t anything wrong with our pale caramel pot de creme, but it would have benefitted from deeper, richer caramel flavor.
Service was all over the map. One server was sweet and clueless, the other was sharp but snarky.
Maybe it’s just a matter of ordering well. Or that they do better with summertime produce. Or we caught them on a good night. Or lowered expectations… But we had a pretty good dinner last night. Still not worthy of the endless praise that gets heaped on this place from near and far, but good, solid neighborhood chow.
I started with the heirloom tomato salad ($9): Ripe but not perfect tomatoes, solid slices of mozzerella (which needed more salt), fresh basil leaves and a cloying basalmic reduction. In theory it was supposed to be garnished with grey salt, but I only noticed it on one bite. Cameron opted for the mixed greens ($8.50), which featured hazelnuts — happily, not rancid this time — nectarines, and a fromage-blanc crouton, which he said were very nice.
Cameron’s main course — a pizza ($10) with taleggio, proscuitto and arugula, plus a small scattering of Sweet 100 tomato halves — was tasty. Although the crust (like all of the bread products) was heartfelt but a tad amateurish, the toppings and preparation were spot-on. My flank steak was cooked to a perfect medium rare, but its presentation was rather scary: the entire plate was covered by a quarter-inch pool of (very tasty) infused oil. Slices of steak scattered with herbs sat atop a small stack of sauteed spinach and a few potato halves. Needless to say, it’s a good thing I am not on a low-fat diet… and I still was taken aback.
Overall, the food was good, if slightly homespun. It’s the sort of thing that if you cooked it at home, you’d be delighted. You’d turn to your partner and say “Hey, that’s pretty good! Let’s make that again.” But it doesn’t feel like restaurant food, which is a blessing and a curse. I’m not sure I’m willing to regularly spend $75 for a dinner that I (or most of my friends) could make at home just as well. On the other hand, if they can keep the food as consistently good as it was last night… well, I’m obviously torn. But I am glad to have had a nice meal there, if only because now I see why everyone says we’re so lucky to live so close.
Service, once again, was a bit off the mark. One of the waiters (the snarky one) was familiar to us; the other may also have been the “sweet but clueless” lad of our previous visit. Although there was no snarkiness on offer tonight, the older waiter did seem to be a bit bossy to his co-workers; the younger one was having a rough night, coming back to ask us our order after having forgotten what starters we ordered, and then again with the wine. I heard him do the same to the people at the next table over. And then at the end of the meal, he bumped the table and sent a glass of ice water sailing toward Cameron’s lap.
Which brings us to the setting: It’s cozy in there, to be sure. But it’s also a tad cramped and not a little unfomfortable. The chairs are hard and awkward, and the tables placed just a touch too close together. Liberty’s well-known for its tolerance of smaller patrons (notice the stack of highchairs in the bathroom), and our dinner was interrupted numerous times — even approaching 8pm — by shrieks and howls from a tot seated across the room. I realize this isn’t strictly the restaurant’s fault, but it is something to keep in mind. If you have a low tolerance for screeching during dinner, this probably isn’t your place.
The Liberty Cafe
410 Cortland Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94110
Last night after work, we interviewed Architect #3 for the kitchen/bath/laundry remodel (more about that later, and elsewhere). At the end of the meeting, we realized that it was already almost 9pm, and we really had no desire to cook, or to wait around for food to be delivered. We originally were going to go to Valentina, but when we got there, there were only 2 tables occupied, and both of them looked to be near the end of their meals. Not wanting to incur the wrath of the waitstaff — or eat in an empty restaurant — we turned back down Cortland and headed to Chez Maman.
We’ve ended up making Chez M. our default on the hill. The food rates 3 stars, maybe even 2 on a bad day. But the manager, Olivier, is such a sweetheart, and the ambiance is so appealing that you can’t help but be won over. (We haven’t seen Monsieur O. lately, but a co-worker who eats there even more often then we do says we must be going on the wrong nights…) I’m a sucker for their hachis parmentier — who doesn’t love shepherd’s pie with a french accent? — and their croque monsieur. Neither one of them are life-changing, or even worth a drive across town, but that’s beside the point.
It’s maddening when they send out a crepe with the cheese still cold and unmelted in the center, or a salad missing one of its key ingredients. But, on the other hand, at these prices I’m willing to put up with missteps in the kitchen; I just wish they were more of an exception than a rule. They always make it right…. eventually. And you have to love a place that’s open nonstop from coffee through nightcaps.
Every neighborhood needs a bistro, and I’m glad that Chez Maman is ours.
803 Cortland Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94110