The Bay Area is home to so many fabulous local spirits that it seems almost impossible to single any of them out for special attention. For gin alone, we’ve got 209 and Junipero right here in the City, and Sarticious over the hill in Santa Cruz. We’re close to two top-tier artisan vodka companies — Charbay in Napa and Hangar One on Alameda — both of which also make a variety of other liquors and liqueurs, including St. George Absinthe and Single-Malt Whiskey, and Charbay Rum and Pastis. We’ve got a local brandy-maker, an old-school whiskey distiller, and even a bierschnapps haus.
But honestly, San Francisco’s best local drinking resource may be its bumper crop of creative mixologists. As Camper pointed out (and I keep harping on at every chance I get), Food & Wine Cocktails 2008 includes an unmatched 17 recipes from SF’s watering holes. The bartenders in our City aren’t just great at mixing up other peoples’ recipes, they’re tops at creating new drinks, too.
San Francisco’s bragging rights as a cocktail-creation mecca can be traced to an illustrious heritage, arguably starting with Jerry Thomas‘s 1880s invention of the Martinez, running through the 1920s with Duncan Nicol’s creation Pisco Punch, and Trader Vic’s Bergeron‘s (oft-disputed) introduction of the Mai Tai in 1944. And — just as today — the City’s always been full of canny restaurateurs popularizing drinks that were invented elsewhere, bringing signature drinks like Irish Coffee to the masses.
All by way of saying: This month’s episode of Mixology Monday — Local Flavors, hosted by Kevin at Save the Drinkers — has got our name all over it.
Now, I’m generally not a fan of tampering with the classics. But here’s one exception: The Cable Car, a clever Sidecar variation with a decidedly local angle. Created by Tony Abou-Ganim in 1996, the drink became the signature cocktail at Harry Denton’s Starlight Lounge, the iconic nightclub perched at the top of the Sir Francis Drake hotel “between the stars and the cable cars”. The Starlight’s specialty drink menu leads off with the Cable Car to this day… no mean feat in a town where cocktails are forgotten before the publicity even hits the presses.
So the Cable Car’s got a good back-story, and a gorgeous home bar. But how’s it taste? Frankly, the sample we sipped last weekend was unworthy of its lofty setting, not to mention its illustrious pedigree. Captain Morgan may be the 900-pound gorilla in the spiced-rum category (not to mention a pop-culture icon), but he’s no friend of my palate. And really, a drink with its roots in France deserves a better orange liqueur than Marie Brizard. I know it gets busy at the Starlight, but I’d like to think that the cocktail world has evolved past the point where a reputable bar resorts to sour mix, even its own house-made stuff.
So let’s bring this one a little closer to today’s standards: Fresh lemon juice, quality rum, a dash of real spice, and a top-shelf orange liqueur. A true San Francisco treat.
Cable Car Deluxe
– inspired by Tony Abou-Ganim‘s modern classic
1-1/2 oz gold rum (such as Appleton V/X)
scant 1/4 tsp allspice dram
3/4 oz Grand Marnier
1 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz simple syrup (highly optional)
Shake with ice, and strain into a chilled, cinnamon-sugar-rimmed cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange or lemon spiral.
Other featured cocktails with a San Francisco twist:
- Bee’s Knees – Our version, made with 100% local ingredients
- The Soiree – SF Cocktail Week’s signature drink for 2008
- Martinez – Jerry Thomas invented it here in San Francisco
Drink of the Week from our local bars:
This week’s stop on our Summer of Cocktails tour finally hit the bullseye: A solid cocktail in a superlative setting.
Bar Drake is the lesser-known of the Sir Francis Drake hotel’s watering holes, but this chic spot is no second fiddle. It may lack the stunning skyline views of Harry Denton’s Starlight Lounge — not to mention its swanky scene — but the lobby lounge offers an abundance of glamour, centered on a dramatically lit back-bar soaring almost to the top of the second-story mezzanine.
Bar Drake’s sumptuous elegance surrounds a mix of couches and comfy chairs, settled around the lobby at clubby intervals. The service is impeccable, and the prices — $10 for most cocktails — are downright affordable by downtown standards. You might not expect that a hotel lobby bar would be the place to find an innovative cocktail menu, especially with some of San Francisco’s trendiest clubs within stumbling distance. But with a drinks program led by master mixologist Jacques Bezuindenhout (better known for his work upstairs), you’re in capable hands at Bar Drake.
Bearing more than a passing resemblance to the venerable Sidecar (also invented in a hotel bar), Bezuindenhout’s Cocktails 2008 entry — the Tommy Gun — somehow captures the familiar taste of a drink you’ve enjoyed for ages. Despite not one but two ingredients borrowed from the pastry kitchen, it has none of the “gosh, aren’t we clever” oddness of some modern creations. A pleasant balance of tart and sweet, spice and heat — it’s a lovely, timeless drink.
My one quibble with Bar Drake: The bartender the night of our visit was rather haphazard with his measures, free-pouring his spirits and mixing multiple drinks at a time. Predictably, this led to fairly significant variation among the dozen or so Tommy Guns our group ordered throughout the evening. Looking around the room, spying drinks ranging from deep orange to palest yellow, you could tell at a glance that everyone’s drink was quite different. Still, we all loved what we got; perhaps it’s a testament to the strength of the recipe that it can be so broadly varied and still pleasant.
When properly made with a keen eye on the jigger, the Tommy Gun can more than hold its own among the year’s best drinks.
- Jacques Bezuindenhout, Bar Drake
published in Food & Wine Cocktails 2008
2 thin slices fresh ginger
1 tsp apricot jam
1/4 oz fresh lemon juice
2 oz Irish whiskey
1/2 oz Grand Mariner
Thoroughly muddle the ginger with jam and lemon juice. Add ice, whiskey, and Grand Mariner; shake well with plenty of ice. Double-strain (through a Hawthorne strainer into a fine-mesh sieve) into an ice-filled rocks glass; garnish with lemon twist.
My Dark Days Challenge cohorts, please avert your eyes: With the exception of two or three breakfasts, there was absolutely nothing sustainable, local, or even organic about the way we spent our long Presidents Day weekend. Que lastima — we traded local for loco, spending a crazy four days eating nothing but Mexican food.
Since time was limited on Friday morning before work, we headed to an old standby. Los Jarritos has been the scene of more Sunday breakfasts than we can count, and one or two dinners over the years. The coffee is terrible, so stick with the Mexican chocolate, and the chilaquiles are limp and over-egged. But it’s hard to complain too much about a place that serves homemade tortillas, and the service is always so adorably welcoming that we’re more than a little forgiving of Jarritos’ shortcomings.
Maybe it’s was a case of diminished expectations, but I have to say that my lunch at Frontera Fresco on the lower level of Macy’s Union Square was not nearly the dreck-fest I was expecting after reading some early critiques. Yes, it’s corporate chain food — think Wolfgang Puck Express goes to Mexico — but it’s certainly no travesty.
It might be too strong to say that I enjoyed my meal, but I was served a thoroughly decent, well-garnished bowl of tortilla soup, and an unorthodox (but not unpleasant) chicken torta. I laughed out loud at the sandwich’s sundried tomato garnish, and its lettuce seemed to be dressed in Good Seasons Zesty Italian. But everything else was in the ballpark: rich frijoles, tinga-style chicken, and a chunky slab of queso añejo. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not fabulous, and it’s definitely not worth a special trip, but there are certainly worse ways to spend your $10 downtown. And I’d be downright ecstatic to find a Frontera Fresco branch in an airport.
Friday afternoon, I hopped a southbound CalTrain after work. Cameron picked me up at Mountain View station and in just a few moments we were pulling into the parking lot of our favorite Mexican restaurant, Fiesta del Mar. Our friends Jason and Margaret introduced us to this fabulous place way back in the day — more than a decade ago, now — and we’ve been coming here religiously ever since. Sure it’s crazy to drive an hour to go to dinner, but such is our devotion.
And we’re not the only fans: Plaques on the wall attest to the restaurant’s enduring popularity: They’ve been voted “Best Mexican Restaurant” by the local paper every year but one since the early 1990s. They’re justly famous for their shrimp dishes — Cameron loves their Camarones Alex and the Camarones a la Diabla — but I love them for their great margaritas (El Jimador, rocks, salt… thanks!) and their unbattered chiles rellenos. There’s almost always a line out the door, but the tables turn quickly and you won’t regret the wait.
Saturday morning found us at our usual spot: The Ferry Plaza farmers market, and specifically the Primavera stand. Although this market favorite offers chilaquiles nearly every Saturday, they mix things up a little by varying the sauce; one week it’s a green tomatillo-serrano blend, the next it’s a tomato-chipotle salsa, and the next it might be a puree of guajillo chiles (as it was that weekend).
A plate of salsa-sauteed chips served with Cameron’s all-time favorite soft-scrambled eggs and some pretty delicious black beans… ahh, brunchly perfection. Of course, we couldn’t resist ordering a plate of tacos al pastor — and its perfect pairing, piña agua fresca. Weighted down by our mega-breakfast, we wandered our way around the market, vainly trying to work off our stuffedness while finishing our weekly shopping.
Not surprisingly, we weren’t hungry again until dinnertime. After the sun set, we made our way to the Daly City border to check out a little hole-in-the-wall we’d heard good things about. Lisa’s Mexican Restaurant looks like a biker bar from the outside, with its microscopic windows, spotlit sign, and ugly burglary bars facing Mission Street.
But when you step inside, you’re entering another world. Every surface but the floor is covered with goofy stuff — photos of old Mexican movie stars, life-size parrots, oversized sombreros, and creepy paintings of big-eyed children. The overall effect is like dining inside some crazy abuela’s closet, but somehow it feels cozy, not chaotic. The welcome is friendly, both from the staff and the other patrons. And the food…
Well, honestly, I don’t want to get your hopes up. Lisa’s is decidedly not gourmet, and it definitely isn’t in the same league as Fiesta del Mar. But if you’re a homesick Southern Californian pining for the cheesy combo-plates of your youth, Lisa’s will fill your heart and belly in a way that you’ve never experienced north of the Grapevine. Their chile relleno sauce is just right (it’s the kind with chunks of celery like you see absolutely everywhere in L.A.) and their crispy tacos are dynamite. The best thing we’ve had at Lisa’s — and I am embarrassed to admit, we’ve been back almost every week since we discovered it – is their chile verde. Cameron likes to ask for it in their Lisa’s Especial, a football-sized ‘wet’ burrito stuffed with everything a homesick Angeleño needs to feel right again.
Sunday we crossed the bridge for brunch at our East Bay fave, Tacubaya. The spinoff of Temescal’s oft-lauded Doña Tomás, this taqueria — tucked behind Sur La Table and Café Rouge on Berkeley’s Fourth Street restaurant row — lures breakfasters into gorgeous skylit space decked out in tropical-fruit colors and natural wood surfaces. It’s a neighborly place, albeit one with a very calculated and upscale vibe, and though the crowds come out in force, the line moves fast and there’s never much of a wait for a table.
No matter what time of day we visit, we can never resist an order of churros y chocolate; other breakfast fare mostly starts and stops with so-so chilaquiles and decent variations on huevos, plus menudo on weekends. Like its O-Town sibling, Tacubaya bases its menu on local produce and sustainable meat.
Later in the day, we took a long-overdue tour of Oakland’s taco-truck scene. We used to love planning day-long taco crawls with our Seattle crew, and when we first moved back to San Francisco, we tried to get our new friends to follow suit. Various circumstances conspired against us — ranging from a surreal bout of foul weather to half the group catching one of those pandemic colds — and eventually we gave up trying to get everyone across the bay at the same time. But I’d kept my notes, adding a truck here or a cart there from time to time, and waited for the right day. And now that day had come.
We started out at the corner of 22nd and International, at a former A&W Drive-In that’s now home to not one but two taco trucks. Tacos Sinaloa features the usual assortment of meats — carnitas, chorizo, carne asada, and such — ensconsed in the eater’s choice of tacos, burritos, tortas and more. Across the parking lot, Mariscos Sinaloa offers all these plus fish tacos, tostadas de ceviche, and other seafood-based items. I opted for a taco full of deliciously meaty carnitas; Cameron had a muy sabroso shrimp taco from the other truck. Off to a good start, we ate our way up and down the boulevard, stopping at any truck where we saw more than two people in line. Our favorites: El Grullo’s tacos al pastor, Tacos Guadalajara’s shredded carnitas, and the cabeza at El Novillo in the shadow of Fruitvale BART.
Monday is a hard day to find Mexican breakfast in the City; many family-run businesses take the day off after their weekend rush. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves, so we headed to Green Chile Kitchen over in NoPa. It’s the kind of storefront cafe you find in nearly every San Francisco neighborhood: Wood tables, tall windows, a chalkboard menu, and a tall counter where you place your order.
Sadly, the food’s no better than average, and it’s definitely Southwestern rather than Mexican. But they use quality ingredients (mostly organic produce, Niman Ranch meats, and Fulton Valley chicken) and there’s good coffee, easy street parking, and a pleasant little vibe.
As we were leaving NoPa, the once-cloudy day turned sunny, so we grabbed the dogs and headed back to the Mission. There’s nothing better on a bright winter afternoon than a lazy meander down the eastern stretch of 24th Street, where you can walk and shop for hours without hearing a single word of English. When we’d finally gotten our appetites back, Cameron entertained the pups while I popped into Tortas Los Picudos, a cheerful slice of chaos where they sell grilled Mexican sandwiches and licuados (which many shops translate as “milkshakes” although they’re really more like smoothies).
Fillings at Los Picudos run the gamut from basic ham-and-American or turkey-and-Swiss to belly busters like the Cubana. A very distant relation to the medianoche you may be used to, Los Picudos’ porcine homage to La Isla includes roast pork, ham, queso fresco, lettuce, jalapeños, mayonnaise, butter… and a foot-long hotdog! We wisely chose to split a spicy pulled-pork torta, and picked up a Mexican Coke at Casa Lucas on our way back up the block.
By the time we were hungry again, our options on a Monday night had diminished to a handful of late-night taquerias. Wanting to make sure we ended our weekend of gluttony on a high note, we popped down the hill to our nearby favorite, El Gran Taco Loco. Sandwiched in between a hard-liver bar and our local branch of Cole Hardware, Taco Loco has won our hearts despite its interrogation-room lighting, uncomfortable booths, and goofball murals.
We long ago discovered that the burritos and other semi-Americanized offerings at Taco Loco aren’t much to write home about, but their tacos — and most specifically, their carnitas tacos — are a thing of beauty and a joy forever. (Or at least the next 4 to 6 hours.) Cameron’s a huge fan of their birria, — a goaty, dark-chile-flavored soup that’s good for whatever ails you on a Sunday morning. But for our last meal of the long weekend, we kept it simple: A carnitas super-taco for me, and a buche taco for the bald guy. It certainly wasn’t the best meal of the bunch, but a late-night snack at our neighborhood favorite was definitely a fitting end to a gastronomical journey that spanned three area codes.
901 South Van Ness
San Francisco, CA 94110
170 O’Farrell Street, Macy’s basement level
San Francisco, CA 94103
Fiesta del Mar
1005 N. Shoreline Blvd
Mountain View CA 94043
Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (Embarcadero at Market)
San Francisco, CA
Lisa’s Mexican Restaurant
6582 Mission Street (near John Daly Blvd)
Daly City, CA 94014
1788 4th Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
Tacos Sinaloa / Mariscos Sinaloa
International Blvd & 22nd Avenue
Oakland, CA 94601
International Blvd & 26th Avenue
Oakland, CA 94601
International Blvd & 44th Avenue
Oakland, CA 94601
Tacos El Novillo
1001 Fruitvale Avenue
Oakland, CA 94610
Green Chile Kitchen
601 Baker Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
Tortas Los Picudos
2969 24th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
El Gran Taco Loco
3306 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
The descriptions of the food, physical locations, and presidential travel are either factual or based on our own experiences. The rest is best described like this…
Once upon a time, there was a restaurant named Hawthorne Lane. It was a very fine restaurant, with white tablecloths and brightly polished silverware. The restaurant was quiet and serious, with well-mannered waiters who would ask if you cared for another glass of iced tea—served with a miniature pitcher of sugar syrup—or perhaps some more wine.
The restaurant lived on a little stub of an alley that was also called Hawthorne Lane. Hawthorne Lane (the alley, not the restaurant) wasn’t a very large alley, but it was also very fine, with tall brick walls covered with ivy, and arches to walk through.
Hawthorne Lane (the restaurant, not the alley) was successful. It served delicious food to people who dressed well and enjoyed being asked if they cared for another glass of iced tea, or perhaps some more wine. Everyone thought very highly of the restaurant and told it so. One day, the president of the entire country came for lunch, and his big Southern laugh could be heard echoing through the ivy-covered arches.
But one evening—as it watched the light glow through its windows and listened to the thousand tiny clinks of polished silverware—the restaurant noticed something that it had never seen before. While everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, they also seemed to be working very hard, not just the waiters and the cooks, but even the guests. When they talked, they were careful to keep their voices evenly pitched. Even when they laughed—which happened often, because the restaurant was truly pleasant—they seemed to catch themselves, as if everything that they did needed to be as brightly polished as the wine glasses, as crisply starched as the linens.
When the restaurant realized how hard its guests were working, it became sad. It wondered if being fine and well-mannered made everyone just a tiny bit uncomfortable. And—after much thought—it decided that it would rather be a restaurant where people felt relaxed when they visited.
Away went the white tablecloths and the elegant dining room. In came dark wood paneling and light fixtures that looked like grass skirts made out of tan suede. There was also a chandelier that looked like it was made out of real antlers, because the restaurant thought that it ought to have one thing that was very silly, and the chandelier was very silly indeed.
The waiters were outfitted in T-shirts and sleek trousers. The service was a bit less polished, but it was undeniable that everyone was having more fun, which helped the guests to feel comfortable. The host dressed smartly in a suit and tie, but he also wore canvas sneakers, knowing that it was important to be just a little bit silly. Instead of quiet music, the restaurant played rock-and-roll, including Emotional Rescue by the Rolling Stones, because it liked the part at the end of the song where Mick Jagger talks about riding a horse across the desert.
The restaurant created an interesting cocktail list with lots of inventive drinks. One of the best was a hold-over from the restaurant’s past, a Greyhound-like drink called the Royal Hound with very tiny, very delicious pieces of dried grapefruit stuck to the rim of the glass. The restaurant found a clever wine expert, who created a new wine list with a section of 50 wines priced less than $50 per bottle, because it wanted its guests to feel like they could try different things without worrying about the price.
The restaurant thought that the food on its new menu should be less proper than before, but still interesting and exciting. It greeted each guest with a plate of crunchy, cheesy crackers and small, rich chive biscuits that disappeared so quickly that the restaurant wondered how anyone could possibly eat them so fast.
Wanting to serve food that made people feel comfortable, the restaurant offered an absolutely delicious chopped salad, and a tasty wedge of iceberg lettuce with St. Agur blue cheese dressing. There were richer starters, such as potato skins with very good housemade bacon, and deep-fried clam strips with tangy aioli. The appetizer list also included unusual foods like headcheese and marrow bones, both of which were well prepared indeed. One of the visitors didn’t like the tomato sauce that came with his bones, but he happily ate all the marrow anyway.
The restaurant struggled a little bit with its pasta courses; the pappardelle with peas and ricotta was heavy and bland, and the rock-shrimp linguine was rather ordinary. However, the guests liked the spaghetti dressed with uni and breadcrumbs, remarking on how comforting and homey the dish tasted, in contrast to how unusual it sounded.
The restaurant recovered its balance for the main courses. The pork schnitzel was perfectly fried, juicy, and not the least bit greasy; braised lamb cheeks on polenta had at least one person licking the plate. If the hamburger was somewhat dry, at least it was cooked medium-rare all the way through, just the way the guest had asked.
That only left the dessert menu, and the restaurant had to admit that it was puzzled, as one couple absolutely did not like any of their desserts. On one night, they complained that the jelly doughnuts were overfilled. On another night, they said that neither the ice cream nor the cookies in the baby ice-cream sandwiches tasted at all good. The restaurant understood that not every person would like every dish, but it couldn’t understand why these two were so upset when so many other people said nice things about the desserts. But the restaurant was a very wise restaurant and understood that these were small problems. And that there’s no pleasing some folks.
The restaurant has been busy for several months now, content with its new look, new mission, and new name. It is quickly winning new friends, as people visit and tell others that they should go. Some diners are drawn by the buzz, as restaurant-goers often are. Others hold memories of what the restaurant once was, like the young lady who popped in one day looking for the old, elegant, white tablecloth restaurant. Maybe she wanted some of the iced tea served with the little pitcher of sugar syrup. The host in his suit and basketball shoes smiled at her.
“We used to be Hawthorne Lane, but not anymore,” he said. “Now we are Two.”
22 Hawthorne Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
We haven’t been writing a lot of restaurant reviews lately, mostly because life has kept us from eating anywhere new or noteworthy. We’ve also both come to the conclusion (separately, we might add) that writing a negative review, or even a so-so one, is exhausting. You feel the need to justify every criticism, and defend every quibble. And, really, who wants to read our bitchy moaning, especially when it comes to a place that so many other foodies adore?
But a number of people have noticed our Perbacco shots on Flickr, and asked when we were going to post, so it’s getting to be more work ducking the question than it is to just… come out with it.
Let’s start out by saying we had high hopes for Perbacco. Not unrealistic ones, we hope, but strong expectations buoyed by heaps of affirmative press plus an early report that the chef, a former butcher, spends his weekends curing his own salumi. Truly, a man after our own hearts.
Our initial visit left us disappointed but convinced that the food was worthy if you steered clear of so-so main courses in favor of pastas. We both decided that it was only the colossally amateurish service that prevented us from having the sort of night that we’d gush about. But after a second visit yielded significantly better service but much worse food, we just can’t join the chorus of adulation being sung in Perbacco’s key.
To start with a positive note, the salumi options improved between our first and second visits. Our first time around, the starter menu offered only a single house-cured sausage plate and a large sampler platter, which forced a frustrating choice between a one-note (and, dare we say, stingy?) sampling and an appetite-spoiling array. On our second visit, we were happy to see some more-interesting options: both greater variety and a selection of smaller assortments, each with a different stylistic focus.
But uneven notions of scale and surfeit extend beyond the salumi at Perbacco. All through both meals, the theme continued: Too much, not enough, too much, not enough… like some practical joke played by the kitchen at our expense.
First: Overkill. On our initial visit, Anita loved the taste of her burrata appetizer, but quickly tired of its unctuous, truffled intensity. Cameron’s strongly flavored salad was another tastebud-killer: All the components hung together well, but by the time he was halfway through, the richness of chestnut honey, gorgonzola, and hazelnuts exhausted his palate. On our return trip, Anita’s beet-and-arugula salad offered just too much of the same flavors, over and over, without relief.
Next: Underflavored. Although the feta-like Castelmagno cheese on Anita’s beet-and-arugula salad provided more of a salty kick than was pleasant, the beets themselves were flat and nearly flavorless. On our second visit, Anita’s pasta didn’t appear to have any salt in the dough, and had been dressed with unsalted butter. A cauliflower passata presented a perfect, velvety texture, but didn’t actually taste like its sponsor vegetable — a cauliflower soup for people who dislike cauliflower.
We always feel sorry for chefs who present a traditional Italian three-course menu of appetizers, pastas, and mains. We Americans are so attuned to the pasta-centric dinners we grew up on that it seems almost futile for chefs to run the antipasti-primi-secondi route. We do our best to support the traditional flow when our appetite allows, but the too-variable portion sizes at Perbacco made this an exercise in futility.
We loved the tajarin (hand-cut tagliatelle) with pork-and-porcini sugo as a middle course on our first visit, but an entrée portion that we ordered on our second visit was only a smidge larger — nowhere near sufficient to serve as a main course. Likewise, the sides accompanying all three of the main courses we ordered (two the first visit, one the second) were so skimpy that you wished the chef would just offer his entrees a la carte and be done with it.
And frankly, Perbacco’s entrees are its weakest link. Anita loves milk-braised pork and she’s ga-ga for grits, so Perbacco’s pork shoulder al latte with whole-grain Anson Mills polenta and shredded Savoy cabbage seemed like a shoo-in. But the unappetizingly symmetrical chunk of pig — plated like Lean Cuisine on a small oval dish — lacked the cut-it-with-a-fork tenderness that’s the hallmark this traditionally braised dish. And again, the sides were laughably meager, a criminal offense given their peasant-like affordability. (Could there be anything cheaper than corn mush and cabbage? Why such tiny nibbles?)
Both times we opted for a trio of gelati for dessert. Presented in adorable ceramic dishes made to look like partially crushed Dixie cups, the flavors ran the gamut from delightful (a fleur de sel caramel that tasted identical to a version we made last year) to unpleasant (an overwhelming pistachio).
Sadly, we doubt we’ll take another stab at dinner at Perbacco. We can envision returning for a plate of salumi at the bar, alongside one of their well-made cocktails… especially the Rosmarino. And certainly, if friends suggested we meet at Perbacco, we wouldn’t decline. But for the price — dinner both times hovered near the $200 mark for a full complement of food but minus any blow-out wines or other additions — we can’t afford the gamble of another hit-and-miss meal.
230 California Street (near Front Street)
San Francisco, CA 94111
San Francisco is my adopted home, and I have sworn that the day that Barry Bonds leaves the Giants is the day that I’ll buy a cap and cheer for Los Gigantes. But my sports roots are still on the East Coast, with the New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox.
As a transplanted fan, I’m always on the hunt for places to watch my teams. I haven’t truly embraced the Connecticut Yankee yet, mostly because it’s so far away from both my office and my house. With the Pats coming up against the Vikings on Monday Night Football, I thought I’d give the Hi Dive a try.
The first thing to get straight is that while the Hi Dive used to actually be a dive, it is a dive no longer. That section of the Embarcadero used to be a bit sketchy, but as soon as the Giants baseball park was built the late 1990s, SOMA started turning into condo-land. Now the Hi Dive is clean and comfortable.
It seems like a fine place to catch a drink after work, but I can’t recommend the food as anything but a sponge for alcohol. The fried calamari was strangely soft, and the burger could have been from a cafeteria steam table, even though they advertised Niman Ranch beef. Top it off with a completely uninspired draft beer selection–come on, five taps and two of them are Coors Light and Stella Artois?
I can’t recommend it as a sports viewing venue, either. There’s a large flat-panel television at one end of the room. But only two tables and one end of the bar have a truly unobstructed view.
The staff, however, was very friendly. And the Pats administered a beat-down of the Purple People Eaters. Bring on the Colts.
(Embarcadero at Bryant)
San Francisco, CA 94105
I’ll cut to the chase: I think Pearl’s — the newish SF outpost of a Mill Valley icon — has a lot of potential, especially if you order correctly. Someone’s obviously put a lot of thought into the menu, where you’ll find gourmet-ish upgrades like buffalo burgers and natural beef (for an extra $1.25-$1.50) and seasonal fresh-fruit shakes, alongside Pink’s-style gutbombs like The King: “A 1/4 pound burger crowned with a hot dog, cheddar, American cheese, and thousand island dressing.” Whoa.
The place is clean and crisp, without feeling sterile. Counter service was on the ball, and the prices seemed in line with similar joints: We paid a bit more than $20 for the two of us. You could see the fresh fruit for shakes in pourable containers in a little fridge near the register, and everyone backstage looked like they knew what the hell they were doing. They even offered frings, so I didn’t have to choose between two equally appealing side orders… sa-weet.
Unfortunately, I was so distracted by the surprise option of fries with rings that I didn’t specify what kind of cheese I wanted on my Pearl’s Deluxe, so I got some particularly nasty American technicolor-orange stuff. The theoretical 1/2-pound patty was flat, machine-made, and downright industrial. It came with a decent, but obviously store-bought bun, plus nice leafy lettuce, cardboardy tomato, and sliced onions. The meat was cooked to medium — as they said it would be by default — but tasted manky enough that I don’t think I’d dare order it again.
Cameron wisely opted for the natural-beef upgrade on his mushroom-bacon burger; his Jack cheese tasted a little less processed than the American, the ‘shrooms were good (although they paled in comparison to those at Joe’s), and the patty looked like it had been formed by human hands. Unfortunately, they’d cooked the living daylights out of it. Medium? Nononono… this poor patty was scorched to fare-thee-well-done. Still, it remained reasonably juicy and definitely worthy of another try.
How ’bout those sides? Both fries and rings were from a bag, but actually tasted like someone had bothered to find the best premade versions they could get, rather than the cheap, sugar-coated nasties you find most places. Similarly, Cam’s vanilla malt — although made with soft-serve ice cream — was actually creamy and malty, without the gloppy texture you usually find with extruded dairy.
Will we go back? Probably, yeah. But I’ll stick with the natural beef, make sure to specify real cheese, and ask for my burger to be cooked medium-rare.
Pearl’s Deluxe Burgers
780 Post Street (at Jones)
San Francisco, CA 94109
After waiting expectantly for word of the Bourbon & Branch grand opening, we made reservations a few days ago. We received an email moments later with the speakeasy’s top-secret address — but alas, no secret password. We arrived a bit early for our 8pm reservation last night, and found the location without much trouble, thanks to an amusing sign. After buzzing the doorbell, we were admitted to an incredibly dark space and greeted by the bartender; a hostess asked for our reservation details and seated us after some initial confusion.
As our eyes adjusted, we saw that our booth’s table was actually a tapered, foot-wide plank with an inset mirror. It was difficult to read the menu — a multipage tome housed between wooden covers with the new B&B logo laser-etched into the grain — by the light of the small oil candle, but we recognized a few worthy favorites from our Zig Zag days, including the Aviation and the Drink with No Name.
Once we fully got our bearings, the space felt more than a little hokey, like a community-theater set for a working-class ’20s bar. We both loved the pressed-tin ceiling and the multilevel layout, but the red flocked brothel-style wallpaper seems rather twee, and the whitewashed brick wall behind the bar, garnished with votives in glass holders, feels more Southwestern than speakeasy. Even the bathroom design was more than a little off: black walls, black floor, black loo, black basin… lit by four candles and a single dim bulb. Honestly, is it too much to ask for a little light?
After a thorough perusal of the menu — accomplished while twitching every time my eyes lit on one of a dozen typos — I opted for a drink called The Avenue: Bulliet bourbon, Calvados, passionfruit juice, grenadine, and orange-flower water; Cameron asked for an Aviation. Our waitress (a laconic Latina sporting a plunging neckline and an utterly unnecessary push-up bra) returned a few moments later, letting me know that they were out of the juice for my drink. I reverted to my standby, the Old Fashioned, heartened by the menu’s claim that B&B uses the original recipe. I also asked for a glass of water, and she offered still, sparkling, or tap. Maybe I don’t get out enough, but this was a first for me: Paying to stay hydrated in a bar.
Drinks arrived promptly, and we started to notice the table’s flaws. Even with only two of us at a four-top, it seemed impossible not to find something — a glass, a candle, a bulky menu — to knock, nudge, or otherwise propel into the darkness. Cam pronounced his Aviation heavy on the juice; I thought it tasted good, if not particularly balanced. My OF was served in a properly sized glass, a diminutive single-rocks number. As I sipped it, it became apparent that its only fruit was the wide lemon-twist garnish… no muddled orange!? Believe you me, I despise those fizzy messes of mash that most bars pass off as Old Fashioneds, but this vintage version was a bit too austere for my tastes. (Still, it’s hard to complain too much about a barkeep reverting to an antique formula.) My water was refilled as needed; Cameron was never even offered his own glass — a mortal sin in my book. Good bars serve water without asking, and keep glasses full; you’re happy while you’re drinking, and you’re even happier the next morning.
Our second round included a Vesper for Cameron — not listed on the menu, but properly concocted (with perhaps a gilding of orange bitters?) and served in a petite v-glass — and a Spanish Rose for me. The latter was noted in the menu as one of the bar’s signature “drinks from people we like,” credited to a former Enrico’s cocktail-slinger. The recipe included Plymouth gin, Licor 43, lemon (juice, presumably?) and a sprig of rosemary. Sounds good so far? Picture it served in a tip-prone red-wine glass, over an astounding amount of ice. It tasted pretty good, but I was utterly embarrassed to drink this foofy pink monstrosity in a place that’s so damned cocktailian that they prohibit patrons from ordering a Cosmo.
We gave up our table well before our two-hour slot elapsed, having run out of excuses for staying. We’ll come back and give B&B another whirl some night at the bar — the folks up there definitely seemed to be having a more interesting time.
Bourbon & Branch
a secret location near Jones & O’Farrell
San Francisco, CA 94102
As I’ve mentioned before, the lunch options near my office are pretty grim. But even though I’ve known about Cafe Madeleine since late last year, for some reason I never seem to remember it when hunger strikes.
I’m officially resolving to remember.
Today’s lunch was a gorgeous slice of ham-and-asparagus quiche. Serviceable asparagus meets chunks of good ham, all bound up in a creamy custard and surrounded by a better-than-decent crust. The side salad’s good too… mixed greens tossed in a nice mustardy vinaigrette. All this for $4.50.
Add another couple bucks and you get a Pellegrino soda, or a French lemonade. If you can manage to resist the gravitational pull of the dessert case — and really, I promise not to mock if you can’t… those pastries are almost pornographic in their glossy perfection — you’ll be scrumptiously lunched for about $7.
300 California Street (x Battery)
San Francisco, CA 94104
Finding ourselves without dinner plans — and seriously in need of both comfort food and cocktails — we decided to try out farmerbrown. (Or is it “farmer brown”? Even they can’t decide: it’s farmerbrown on the sign and the site, and farmer_brown on the door.)
Anyway… Our man Brown — or his real-life counterpart, chef-owner Jay Foster — seems to be a heckuva guy, and we figured we’d like his stuff. Any place that boasts of “farm-fresh cocktails” can’t be all bad, and Foster makes a big deal about supporting local and African-American farmers. Cool beans.
Realizing that fb is a hot ticket, we called ahead to make sure we could get in. Cameron tried first, and got no answer… even though it was 5:20 and the restaurant opens at 5. I tried a bit later, and got an answer on the first ring. I said that I realized it was late, but wondered if they had space for 2 at 6:30; the hostess said they did.
I arrived at 6:25 and was asked to take a seat at the bar until the rest of my party arrived. Which would have been a lovely idea, as I spied some vodka infusions that looked interesting, except there were no seats to be had. Luckily, Cameron walked in just at 6:30. The hostess seated us at a 2-top table right in the doorway, and asked “Is this OK?” I asked if we could get something a little less in the middle of traffic, so the hostess checked the books and seated us along the banquette near the door — good enough.
But then, just as we were settling in with menus and napkins, she came back and, with no apology, tells us that, oops, she made a mistake, that table’s reserved for a large party. We followed her to the rear of the restaurant where two different tables had to move so that we would be shoehorned into our seats. Harumph.
OK, so… menu at last. Looks like it does online: Hopped-up versions of soul-food classics. We snarkily pointed out multiple typos to one another (like “dungenss” and “pickeled”) but otherwise liked what we saw. Water arrived in cute little canning jars, with a mint-spiked carafe for refills. The cocktail list is short, but balanced and in tune with the theme. The beer list is impressive — only five taps, but the closest thing to a generic brew was Anchor Steam — and mostly local. We chose a bourbon sidecar and a mint julep, which both were reasonably well made, served in stemless cocktail glasses over far too much ice.
After placing our food order, the runner brought us a plate of mini-breads: a pair of nice cornbead muffins and two dinner roll-ish biscuits, plus a small serving of runny berry preserves. We both ordered Wedge salads, which were fine but rather uninspired for a place that boasts of its farm connections: a quarter-head of iceberg, good bleu-cheese dressing, a sliced radish and a few cherry tomato halves. It needed something more to make it feel special; as it was, it felt like something you would whip up in 5 minutes at home.
I ordered the much-praised fried chicken for my main, which was possibly the best rendition I’ve had in San Francisco. The accompanying side of mac-and-cheese was measly — no more than a half a cup — and not very well made. The macaroni was overcooked, and the cheese sauce tasted overwhelmingly like a prepackaged spice blend: Tony Cachere’s or Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, perhaps? The accompanying sad, dead pile of arugula shouldn’t have left the kitchen.
Cameron’s crab po’ boy sandwich was similarly problematic. The overstuffed crabcake interior and too-chewy bread made it impossible to eat without a knife and fork, and its flavored-mayo spread was tooth-achingly sweet. On the upside, there was plenty of crab, although it didn’t taste especially fresh and crabby. The dish’s highlight was its accompanying slaw: a chunky cabbage-and-cuke mixture lightly dressed in mayo touched with Chinese mustard.
Service was distant and scattered, and gave us the distinct impression that they really wanted us out of there: We ordered nearly the identical meal as the table next to us, who ordered before us, but we got served first. And instead of asking us if we wanted more drinks, the server just took the empty glasses; we had to hunt her down to order a round of beers. She also brought us the check as soon as our plates were cleared, and half-assedly added “Any dessert?” Gosh, no… we wouldn’t want to put you out.
Despite all of our whining, we managed to make a number of pleasant observations. First: whoever runs their fryer knows their business; neither the chicken nor the po’ boy stuffing was the least bit greasy. And it’s not expensive: We barely spent $60 between us. The decor is a trainwreck, but the ambiance feels cozy despite the amateurish design. But the initial fumbling by the hostess, the crappy table we ended up in, and the mad rush through our meal all rattled us so deeply that we had a hard time enjyoing ourselves.
25 Mason Street
San Francisco, CA 94112