Better & better

Posted by Anita on 08.16.06 11:07 AM

logo courtesy bourbonandbranch.comFrom Cocktails with Camper English comes word that The City is about to get a new cocktailian venue: Bourbon & Branch. We’re big fans of the drinks at Cortez, so we’re looking forward to seeing what Todd Smith’s crew comes up with.

I’m a little leery of the notion of “molecular” and “lounge” occupying the same space, but I’m willing to lay aside my prejudices to experience cocktails made by people who appear to be true mixology enthusiasts, rather than opportunistic cynics looking to cash in on a craze.

bar culture, downtown SF, drinks
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Julie of all trades

Posted by Anita on 08.10.06 1:12 PM

julie's ktichen (c)2006 AECI hate my lunchtime choices. I have the option of pricey chow at the Ferry Building, a long hike to decent places like The Toaster Oven or Cafe Madeleine, or an endless variey of cheerless crap right at my doorstep.

Across the street at 50 Fremont, for example, you’ll find these ‘appetizing’ choices: San Francisco Soup Company, Subway, Baja Fresh, and the new girl on the block, Julie’s Kitchen… located in a space that used to be a Mickey D’s.

As I stood on the corner at Market Street, I remembered a couple of co-workers telling me that Julie’s was a decent place to go when you couldn’t decide what to eat. It’s a pay-by-the-pound ($7.50 per, that is) “gourmet” buffet joint, with a focus on salady stuff and Asian-American food.

The options look pretty good as you walk in, but on closer inspection the various tables feature multiples of the same dish. I passed no fewer than three bowls filled with shrimp-avocado salad along my winding path, and that was far from the only duplication I noticed. Not many takers for that squicky-looking marinated tofu, I guess…

Limited options aren’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as what’s on offer is good. Unfortunately, by trying to be all things to all appetites, Julie’s manages to satisfy none. Make-your-own-salad options are weak, premade salads are overdressed and marred by odd flavor combos, and the Chinese items I tried — including an especially disgusting eggroll — were outright bad. High points included a subtle Japanese-style seaweed/noodle salad, hard-boiled egg halves, and freshly carved roast turkey. And I guess that the pre-tossed Caesar salad wasn’t terrible. But when I pay $8+ for a small box of food, it needs to be much, much better than passable.

Julie’s Kitchen
50 Fremont Street
San Francisco, CA 94105

downtown SF, lunch
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Sí of Cortez

Posted by Anita on 07.14.06 9:33 AM

After our first dinner at Cortez few months back, we were pleasantly surprised. The food was creative without being avant-garde, the cocktails were both well-planned and well-executed, and the service was warm but professional. We’ve gone back a couple of times for drinks at the bar. We love the rosemary popcorn, and the house Manhattan — made with Hirsch bourbon and brandied cherries — is one of my favorite drinks in town.

When we had dinner there last night, the food didn’t seem as inspired (maybe the novelty’s worn off?), but everything was at least good. The hanger steak was a little liver-y for my taste, but the accompanying onion rings remained truly divine. Other standouts included lemon verbena ice cream (which was an accompaniment to a lackluster apricot dessert), and a salad garnished with wafer-thin slices of manchego and serrano ham. The katafi-crusted crab cake was fairly pedestrian and a little heavy, and exterior of the lobster ravioli a bit chewy — although they put the hockey-pucks we had at Mamma Maria to shame. On the positive side, the service was just as wonderful as we remembered.

The decor manages to be modern-contemporary without feeling the slightest bit sterile. The light fixtures are works of art, and the noise is subdued by beautiful cork wallcoverings on the structural columns and doors leading into a private dining room.

All in all, a fabulous pre-theater option, and a great place to have a cocktail.

Cortez Restaurant
550 Geary Street (inside the Hotel Adagio)
San Francisco, CA 94102

downtown SF, restaurants
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Un trés grand Boulevard

Posted by Anita on 03.15.06 10:02 AM

Boulevard (c)2006 AECBack in the ancient days, before I was Mrs. — yea verily before the dot-com boom — Boulevard was the place we always went for special occasions. We dined here Monday night to celebrate Cameron’s newfound employment, and it tickles me to no end that Boulevard is just as good as ever.

The service has gotten a little more sniffy, the clientele noticeably more swank, and the prices (never a bargain to begin with) have climbed proportionally. But the Beaux Arts decor is still gorgeous, the wine list is still deep without being impenetrable, and — most importantly — the food’s still creative without being too far out in left field.

There were a couple of missteps in our recent dinner — a desperately over-dressed salad, a server who left us sitting without water or drinks or so much as an “I’ll be right with you” for nearly 15 minutes, an awkward gap between the appetizers and the mains — but all was forgiven when our entrees arrived.

My heirloom pork chop was easily the best pig I have eaten in the states, perfectly cooked and richly porky with a perfectly salty, herbal flavor. And the accompanying pyramid-shaped raviolo was like a minature meal in itself: mascarpone mashed potatoes on the bottom, with shredded wild boar ragu in the top. Yum!

It’s nice when old standbys age well. I hope that Boulevard will still be around serving excellent food when we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary.

1 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94105

downtown SF, restaurants
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Coco no-no

Posted by Anita on 12.07.05 5:35 PM

coco500 logo
Tonight, Cameron and I are going to COCO500, one of SF’s hot new restros, so I peeked at the menu.

I’m sending it straight to the editorial penalty box for the following infractions:

1) Pretentiousness:
You’ll find items in all the categories that could be starters, but there’s also a “small starts” category. The listings are sort-of organized by cooking method, but sort-of not. The word “dirt” has no place on a menu. And seriously, how can a dessert be noncommital? Is it sort of a brownie, but not really? Sort of dessert, but more like a kick in the ass?

2) Confusion:
Some of the items have dollars and cents, some don’t (why “6.0″ but “11″, for example?). it’s like someone decreed: “all prices must have 2 digits”, or maybe or maybe they thought that if they didn’t add the “.0″ it would look like “6 fried green beans” (which would be a pretty scrawny appetizer). Of course, all of this would be moot if they put the price AFTER the item, instead of before it. The way it reads now, it looks like an essay outline written by someone with poor counting skills.

3) Narcissism:
Any time the word “coco(a)” is used in a menu-item name (which, in and of itself, is a minor infraction) it is rendered in ALLCAPS. And, for the love of Pete, what the hell is a ‘ COCOmole “taco” ‘ ?

4) Ignorance:
Among the choice typos…
- seasame tuile
- balsalmic

Hello, get a dictionary. Or, better yet, an editor.

downtown SF, restaurants
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Hao Ling Lee awful

Posted by Anita on 11.01.05 5:51 PM

chinatownSF (c)2005-AECLast spring, we took a Chinatown Food Tour with an outfit called Local Taste of the City. It was so eye-rollingly bad — incorrect facts, overt pushing of unrelated purchases, and ever-so-gently racist commentary — that Cameron and I are still making jokes about it, 6 months later.

All you have to say to one of us is “durango melon” — the guide/owner’s name for durian — and we will bust out laughing. We also get a kick out of reminding each other that the reason why the buildings in Chinatown are built so close together is because the women had bound feet and couldn’t walk very far.

Think these are bad? They’re the tip of the iceberg, I assure you.

Edit by Cameron:

Our guide (aggressively shaven eyebrows and questionable personal hygiene) began our food tour of Chinatown with a 40 minute sit down at the Viansa tasting room, where we were subjected to a brief and yet amazingly incoherent history of SF. While being encouraged to taste and purchase wine that, “you’re just not going to see in stores.”

Yeah. Viansa. You know, you’re right. I’m not going to see that in the store.

The next stop on our our food tour was one of the hysterically cheesy “antique” shops that line Grant Street just inside the Chinatown gate. Here, our guide misidentified a large, labeled, stone statue of Kwan-Yin (female) as the Buddha. And then rattled on about various artifacts as we slowly drifted past a huge glass case of erotic statuary and appurtenances. Not a problem for us, but this is the kind of tour that someone from the Heartland might take their kids on.

Things sort of become a blur until we arrived at our first food stop of the day, supposedly the oldest Chinese bakery in Chinatown. Or something like that. I can vouch for the fact that neither the floors nor the tabletop had been cleaned since the 19th century, and the food stuck under the plastic covering the menus looked to be just as old. Just different cultural ideas about sanitation? Wrong. We received a tasting plate of n-a-a-a-sty little bites (think dim sum), one of which contained shrimp that was distinctly rotten. I discreetly (I hope) nudged my fair wife under the table and urged her not to eat that particular morsel.

Out into the street for more gibberish, puncutated by sudden stops in the middle of the street by our guide, who remained oblivious to the human traffic that would then pile into all of us.

More blur, then a quick visit at a fortune cookie factory. After a quick look at the machines, we were treated to an excruciatingly long shaggy dog story from our guide (who had tipped over from harmlessly eccentric to actively irritating) about both the San Francisco and Oakland airports requiring all travelers leaving the Bay Area to each have…A BAG OF FORTUNE COOKIES!!! Said bags were then presented with great flourish.

The cookies weren’t even all that good.

Somewhere in here, we were treated to the information that the buildings in Chinatown were, indeed, built closely together so that the poor Chinese ladies with their bound feet could walk easily between them.

In what we desperately hoped would be the climax of our day — meaning that we could part company with this very strange, very confused man — we began to tour a few food markets. As we toured, our guide helpfully misidentified oh so many wonders. Durian became durango melon. Burdock root became taro. After a while, my brain stopped functioning and I just nodded and smiled.

After five hours of this, we managed to break away, saying that we had made plans with friends for dinner and really needed to get back to our hotel. The alternative was to accompany our guide to dinner, which was part of the tour. I don’t know where we were to go, and I really don’t want to.

Edit by Anita:

You forgot the part about how he repeatedly answered personal phone calls on his cell throughout the tour.

And the part where every last shopkeeper who saw us coming rolled his or her eyes and muttered under their breath.

And the stops outside numerous retail establishments that were, alas, closed. (None of them had anything to do with food, so I suppose this is just as well.)

And the part where we were told not to mind the smells in a certain butcher shop because “…These People just don’t have the same hygiene standards as we do.”

And how “the Buddha” had coins in her lap… because you know the Buddha is all about money.

downtown SF, levity, travel


How now, Town Hall?

Posted by Anita on 09.10.05 10:12 AM

Another unfortunate instance of a Top 50 restaurant that isn’t even close to hitting the mark: Town Hall.

Our server was nowhere to be found for the first 15 minutes we were seated. We weren’t even offered water or drinks. When he finally did appear, he brought the cocktail list (oh, so they do have one! why wasn’t it left with the menus?) that listed some pretty bizarre combinations, including a gin-based drink called The Big Easy — um, gin? New Orleans? — and a margarita-like tequila concotion made with cointreau, lime juice, and Falernum. They all sounded so poorly conceived that we stuck with wines by the glass.

My starter was Smithfield ham and cheese toast with jalapeno cream…. which really tasted like something you’d get at TGI Friday’s. It was positively sodden with pepper-infused bechamel (interesting but about 10 times the amount needed) and sprinkled with cold, flabby rings of jalapenos that had been breaded in the style of fried green tomatoes. Cameron’s appetizer, billed as “barbeque shrimp” was also served on toast, also with a drenching of sauce. He definitely got the worse end of the deal: his pool of brown sauce tasted of nothing except salt and worcestershire. Ew.

My main was a peanut-and-tasso-crusted Niman Ranch pork chop. The chop itself was brined to within an inch of its life… it was overcooked but still eerily moist…. spongy, salty, blech. The elements of the crust were so large that they fell off as soon as I cut into the chop. The accompanying mashed potatoes were good, but such a small serving that I literally had to lift up the pork chop to see if they’d been forgotten.

Cameron had a a trio of rabbit: hilariously tiny frenched rack of ribs, roulade of breast with unidentifiable stuffing, and another roulade of leg wrapped in bacon. What was billed as mustard spaetzle were scattered across the top as garnish. The vegetable was lightly-mashed peas and a celeriac puree. All of the meat was completely unsalted and basically tasteless, and the breast roulade was utterly overcooked and dry. Needless to say, neither of us ate much of our mains aside from the vegetables.

Since we were still hungry at this point, we split a butterscotch-chocolate pot de creme, garnished with buttercrunch. Sadly, this as the highlight of our meal, and it wasn’t even good. The “pot” was actually a two-layered cereal-size bowl of pudding (nothing creme-y about it) and the top layer tasted exactly like butterscotch pudding from a box.

Service never improved from the early missteps: Plates were dropped off uncerimoniously — it might have been nice to have an explanation of what the trio of rabbit included, for example — and we got the distinct impression that our server would have rather been somewhere else for the evening. At least we had that in common.

The high-ceilinged space is decorated in an eclectic vein that feels historic without degenerating into old-timey kitsch. The light fixtures in particular — including a Rube Goldberg-esque chandelier over the bar — are particularly striking. The entry area was jammed with people waiting for tables and having drinks at the ill-placed bar, but the restaurant tables were only a little bit crowded. On the downside, the lack of booths and window coverings combined with brick walls makes for a very loud space with unforgiving acoustics — there’s no prayer of ignoring the coversations of the people on either side of you. Still, it managed to feel warm and urban and inviting… I only wish the food had been the equal of the space.

Town Hall
342 Howard Street
San Francisco, CA 94105

downtown SF, restaurants
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