Among the many sobering statistics available to today’s Americans, none are more jolting — at least to this American — than the numbers on consumption of sparkling wine vis-à-vis the French. They enjoy bubbly about 47 times a year, on average, or nearly once a week, while we manage just three or four times: Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, somebody’s birthday. We tend to pop the cork only on special occasions, in other words; the French make a habit of it. Of course, they also make a good deal of the world’s stock of sparkling wines, so this must help boost their tally. Still.
In my own small way, I have been trying to right this imbalance. I buy, for $2.99 each — a pittance — those splits of Spanish cava (from Segura Viudas) that add a bit of effervescence to an everyday dinner for two. I also serve sparkling wine at every conceivable gathering, regardless of the time of day, though the sad truth is that the enfeeblement of the dollar has made authentic French champagnes uncomfortably expensive.
Fortunately, there are alternatives, from American sparkling wines of various characters to European bottlings, such as cava, that are made in the méthode champenoise (with the second fermentation occurring in the bottle) but whose labeling cannot mention that fact, per the rules of the European Union. There are even French sparkling wines, made in the traditional way and quite competitive in quality and appeal with champagne, that fall under this bureaucratic ban. These are called crémant wines and, costing a half to a third of what their pedigreed cousins do, are among the wine world’s great bargains.
Some of the better-known of these little-known wines come from the Loire Valley — St. Hilaire is a fairly big name in this country — but one of the most convincing comes from Burgundy, a northerly viticultural region not far from Champagne itself. The wine is Louis Bouillot’s crémant de Bourgogne Grande Reserve Brut, costs in the $15 to $17 range, and in its bright, lemony crispness is comparable to a good blanc de blancs from Champagne. Very similar in sunshiny character is the Aimery Sieur d’Arques “1531” crémant de Limoux, produced near Carcassonne in the south of France, from chardonnay, chenin blanc, and Mauzac grapes. Did I say “sunshiny”? Mais oui!
Food & Drink
Middle East–ward the course of empire takes its way these days — a sorrowful and futile operation that does at least confer onto some of us the benefit of being able to look the other way without feeling quite the same pangs of dread. At the edge of the city, the rays of the westering sun glint on the churning waters of the Pacific, most eminent of gray eminences, and if the Pacific has now become mare nostrum, as strongly implied by the president’s recent creation of a “national monument” along a sprinkling of lonely islands halfway to Japan, it also seems quite … pacific, at least as considered through the soaring windows of the refurbished and expanded Cliff House by people who have decided to enjoy the view and their dinner and forget about the wacky North Koreans and their missiles for a while.
The Cliff House has stood since the Civil War at what is, more or less, the city’s westernmost point, a rocky promontory wearing slippers of sea foam. The building has been rebuilt and tinkered with several times over the years, but the most recent redo (completed in 2004) is perhaps the most aesthetically radical; its major feature is the Sutro Wing, an addition to the north side of the original building and the home of Sutro’s, grandest of the Cliff House’s restaurants. The most striking physical aspect of Sutro’s is its vertical spaciousness, the multistory vault of air that opens over the dining room floor. There are also shiplike railings and other maritime details, while the room’s western and northern walls consist largely of glass, lightly clad with louvered blinds that can be adjusted to manage the sunlight. For there are those magical moments, yes, when the fog remains offshore, a line at the horizon like a threatening but for the moment thwarted army, and the summer sun actually shines at the coast, long into evening.
Opinion divided at our table (in the dining room’s northwest corner and commanding vistas in two directions) as to whether the basic look was more Miami or Malibu. I thought the latter, but my sense might have been affected by glancing at chef Patrick Clark’s menu, which is a California-cuisine document (“California coastal” seems to be the house term) in both its around-the-world-in-80-days mélange of influences and its emphasis on local, seasonal, organic, and sustainable ingredients, the now-familiar mantra that until recently wasn’t much chanted at the Cliff House.
The latter makes the place worthy of serious consideration by locals, while the former is a kind of culinary broadband for tourists, the offering of a little something for every taste. How about Southern? Clark sets out a fine gumbo ($10.75), a thick, smoky-brown broth studded with bits of full-throated andouille sausage and lapping a lone Dungeness crab fritter that resembles a giant gold nugget. For those not in a bayou mood, there is a decent papaya-shrimp salad ($11.75) or perhaps a plate of falafel ($18.75) with warm pita triangles, tahini sauce, and tzatziki (with cucumber chunks instead of the more usual gratings). I love falafel, but it can get pretty ordinary, indifferent preparation resulting in hardened projectiles suitable for loading into muskets. Clark’s falafel, on the other hand, is a world removed from musketry, consisting of a set of delicately crusted spheres that seem light enough to float into the ether overhead.
Back on planet Earth, a kurobuta pork shank ($26.75) struck me as caveman food: a fist-size club of bone and glazed meat — magnificently tender, it must be said, if enough to satisfy two consequential appetites — served with shreds of braised cabbage, applesauce, and a lovely squash risotto. A soup of asparagus and corn ($8.50), elegantly puréed and drizzled with chili oil, was like the passing of the seasonal torch from spring to summer and clearly a pitch to local sensibility, which possibly was stunned by the giant porcine shank. And one of Clark’s most successful cross-cultural innovations must be his Thai-style bouillabaisse ($26.95), a collection of clams, scallops, large prawns, and large pieces of Dungeness crab still in the shell — all this looks like a seafood junkyard — swimming in a coconut–red curry broth that replaces, rather spectacularly, the traditional fumet (an herb- and saffron-infused seafood stock) and provides a blast of chili heat one does not typically associate with tourist spots.
Given the scale of the portions — of course I am thinking of the lethal-weapon shank, but nothing else is small either, just as at Starbucks the smallest size is “medium” — dessert is for the hardy few. I did enjoy my stolen samples of banana cheesecake ($9), though the roasted banana was tough. Aficionados of postprandial liqueurs, on the other hand, won’t be disappointed; the wealth of possibilities here includes the usual cognacs and ports but also several Armagnacs, beginning with an entry-level pour at an affordable $9. The cordial was of a caramel color deeper than the typical cognac’s and of a surprising, rustic fieriness reminiscent of, but distinct from, that of Calvados.
I do have a few complaints. The sun, if any, can be nearly blinding at certain times of the day. The noise level is at the high end of acceptable, in part because of a live jazz quartet that sometimes plays in the lounge on the mezzanine. And the service, while friendly and knowledgeable, can be a little sluggish if the restaurant is full, as it often seems to be. Tourists or locals? Both, no doubt. SFBG
Lunch: Mon.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.–3 p.m.
Dinner: nightly, 5–9:30 p.m.
1090 Point Lobos, SF
CHEAP EATS The chicken farmer has a high tolerance for surreality …
Woke up on a strange couch with a strange cat on my arm that was not Weirdo the Cat. It was a strange time of morning. I could tell it was morning by how badly I had to go, but it wasn’t the slightest bit light out. Went, came back and made love to the cat, but could not fall asleep.
I thought about things.
Things were pretty fucked up, almost everyone would have to agree — with the possible exception of me. Things are not fucked up, things are not fucked up, I said to myself, like a little engine, and the cat rubbed its dewy black nose against my white one. I knew it was going to be a kind of a day, but still could not sleep.
The instant it got the slightest bit light out, I bounced off the couch, found some coffee in the freezer, rinsed the French press, and made my new favorite cup of coffee. Wish I knew what kind, but the bag was blank.
Not a clock in the house, no phone. The radio on top of the refrigerator told me, eventually, that it was 5:55, the fog would roll off by noon, and traffic was not yet an issue. In a strange bathroom, I dumped one of the strangest loads of my life, a Dairy Queen Dream with a slight, spicy curry goat afterbite, followed shortly by two Solid Gold encores, pause, applause, and a lingering bouquet that could have raised Bukowski from the dead.
The cat seemed interested.
Put on my weirdest pants, with red, orange, and yellow flowers and big pineapples, a not-weird-enough shirt, watered the cat, played bite-my-finger-no-don’t-bite-my-finger with her, packed up my sleeping bag, and went across town to wake up my sister-in-love, Diane.
After breakfast we helped line Market Street for the Pride Parade and waved and went, “Woo!”
Diane became more interested in footwear. I lost her somewhere between the Shoe Pavilion and that other one, and wandered wonderingly until lunch, looking for someone, anyone I knew, and smiling a lot, even though I never found them.
I had already made a lunch date at Little Delhi on Eddy and Mason, just a block off of the parade. There were billions of beautiful, interesting people decorating the streets and sidewalks, but I like to be unfashionably early for things, so I sat inside at the counter and watched some soccer on TV while waiting for my new friend Elliott.
Gotta love an Indian restaurant with a counter.
Elliott showed and we sat in a booth and ate butter chicken ($7.99), saag paneer ($6.99), roti ($1.50), naan ($1), and rice. Everything was great. We talked a lot about a lot of things, including punk rock and bagpipes, but one subject we did not touch on at all was Mr. T Cereal, because that had already been covered in an e-mail. In which I apparently displayed such mastery of the subject of the obscure ex-delicacy that Elliott presented me a trophy, an old Yoko Ono 45 with a plastic lobster glued to it and the typewritten words: “you win.”
I was proud.
As they were clearing away our plates, a cockroach, to everyone’s embarrassment but mine, dashed from under one and paraded across the table. I waved, went “Woo!” and squashed it.
Then, instead of playing baseball, I rejoined the party. Called Earl Butter from a pay phone (50¢) and said, “Butter, get your straight ass down here and be proud with me.”
“Coming,” he said.
And he did, and we found a few things to dance to before the prospect of warmth, pork chops, and rum called us back to the Mission.
On Van Ness, trying to chase down a 49 that wasn’t even close to moving, we walked into an old pal who hadn’t seen me in a while. He’d heard, but had assumed it was a prank. My clownishness haunts me.
Our old pal’s married, having a girl, and he gave us both business cards. “You always seemed so masculine,” he said to me. Amused, like I like it. Not challenging.
“Yeah,” I said. Felt drunk, and left it at that. I’ll write to him, say: You know, no matter how fucked up and tangled things can get around you or just outside of you, one of the easiest things in the world to do is to close your eyes and take another breath, forget every single thing you know except aliveness. Something like that. Or: Baby, your body talks, you listen. SFBG
Daily, 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m.
83 Eddy, SF
Takeout and delivery available
If fantasies are about transcending limits, then it’s no wonder the la Cornue range is the dream love of so many kitchen fantasists, yours truly among them. Here we have a line of stoves whose cheapest model costs about $17,000, and I do not know what the upper limit is or even if there is an upper limit. Buying a la Cornue is, one supposes, a little bit like buying a Rolls-Royce or a Maybach. The buyer is consulted on all matter of minutiae, including color (a wide palette is offered), and the finished product — assembled by hand by a single worker in France for a certain sort of manufacturing authorship that is increasingly, vanishingly rare in our shabby world of mass production — features a brass plaque emblazoned with the buyer’s (or, to be polite, client’s) name. The burners are also of brass, a corrosion-resistant alloy long used on seagoing vessels, and this is a real advantage to the working cook, who knows that tides of salty fluids are constantly sloshing and slopping across the top of any range. Do brass burners justify the price? Your kitchen-minded Lotto winner might well say yes; check back with me after I’ve won.
Recently a neighbor with inside information told me that a la Cornue could be had for just $10,000 or $12,000. He wasn’t quite sure of the exact figure, but it was surprisingly less than expected. The range in question was a floor model at Cherin’s, the appliance Valhalla at 18th and Valencia. After checking my money clip — $18, in small, unmarked bills — I hurried over to Cherin’s, and I did indeed find a la Cornue range on the floor there. The sales rep, moreover, had news even better than I’d hoped. No, they weren’t giving the stove away, but it cost a mere $8,000, leaving a deficit (for me) of only $7,982 plus tax. There was, alas, a slight catch: The la Cornue in question was a member of the new la CornuFé line — authentic looking and in stock but not made to quite the same standard. Also, no brass plaque with one’s name on it. A worthy but lesser la Cornue, in other words, that owes its existence at least in part to la Cornue’s acquisition, in the autumn of 2004 by Aga, the British stovemaker eager to acquire market share. Is this wise, I wonder, or a fantasy?
It is safe to say that when city people talk about going on a jaunt to the country, the country they are talking about going on a jaunt to qualifies as the country mostly by virtue of not being the city. Jaunters are not proposing to leave civilization; city people do not drive to Healdsburg on a tranquil Saturday afternoon in June, braving bridge traffic and 101 traffic, so that they can milk cows or pull weeds at a biodynamic winery. City people go, one suspects, largely in hopes of escaping the city’s fog and wind, of seeing the sun and being able to wear short-sleeve shirts without shivering or looking like foolish tourists.
If these simple graces are what you have in mind, then you will find Healdsburg an accommodating place in early summer. Later the weather will grow torrid, and even the lush, arboreal green of the quaint town square will not be enough to banish the faint fear of heatstroke. But the square will still cast its 19th-century spell, and if you are seated in Bistro Ralph, on the north edge of the square, you might find yourself looking out the plate-glass windows to the shady prospect and imagining that you are beside a cooling pond somewhere in Monet-land, at Giverny itself, perhaps.
Ralph Tingle opened Bistro Ralph in 1992, and I remember peering inside the restaurant on a mid-1990s jaunt with European friends and thinking, How chic, how citified! At that time, Healdsburg still seemed to me to be mostly a dusty, sleepy country town — a more relaxed version of day-trippy Sonoma — and Bistro Ralph an aberration arresting in its sleekness, not a harbinger. But … it turns out to have been a harbinger. Today the town square on a warm weekend afternoon is like Union Square, aswarm with expensively dressed pedestrians and honking, bumper-to-bumper traffic: late model cars furiously getting in one another’s way. The wealth of spanking-new or just-renovated buildings — there is one for Gallo, another for a restaurant called Zin — look as if they belonged on the set of a Spielberg movie.
In this transformed locale, Bistro Ralph is no longer quite so striking. You could walk right by it, in fact, if your thoughts were elsewhere (it’s narrow and midblock, unlike Gallo and Zin, a pair of cornerstones), and once inside, you might find yourself paying less attention to the restaurant’s kinship with Zuni and Mecca than to its resemblance to an old Roman storefront: narrow, deep, and cool under a high tin ceiling. Toward the rear of the dining room stands a longitudinal bar, while at the very rear is a semi-exhibition kitchen — not big, but then the restaurant itself is quite snug, not much larger than the original Delfina.
The wine list consists exclusively of bottlings from the Healdsburg vicinity, and this bias gives our first hint as to what Tingle’s food is going to be like. Although California wines have their virtues, they do tend to be fruity and a little boisterous — not the food-friendliest qualities, unless the food is equally assertive. And Bistro Ralph’s is. The only dish we could find on the shy side, in fact, was a Caesar salad ($8), which lacked anchovies, used a mild aged–jack cheese from Vella instead of the traditional parmesan, and was tossed with a dressing in want of more garlic. On the other hand, the spears of romaine were immaculate, and a pair of croutons smeared with a loud red rouille gave a nice murder-mystery twist.
But let us forgive and forget the salad. The rest of the dishes were notable for their muscularity, beginning with a heap of calamari ($11) dipped in a peppery batter before being flash-fried. The pepper was enough to carry the day, but just to make sure, the kitchen provided a pot of gingery sesame-soy sauce for dipping. A bowl of tortilla soup ($6), thick and glossy like velouté, was the most intensely flavored such soup I’ve ever tasted: a liqueur of roasted corn. There was visual and textural interest here too, from crispy strands of fried tortilla and drizzlings of cilantro oil, but, as with the calamari, the soup could easily have stood on its own.
Liver raises a flag for some of us — calves’ liver especially; chicken livers are manageable. Tingle’s version ($12) presents the latter sautéed in a rich yet nicely acidic bath of balsamic vinegar, caramelized onions, and pancetta, with a block of fried polenta to one side, a golden promontory over a moody brown sea. If you’re inclined toward the reddish orange end of the spectrum, you will like the lamb burger ($9.50), whose spicing appears to include (sweet) paprika. Of at least as much note, though, is the pile of sublimely crisp matchstick fries on the plate.
The dessert list is largely a choco-fest. An exception is the “best” crème brûlée ($7.50), whose custard is flecked with vanilla bean to reinforce the claim of superlativity. As for chocolate: It gets no more chocolatey than the marquise Taillevent ($7.50), two petite slabs — rectangles, not squares — of a substance our server described as “a cross between a mousse and fudge,” adrift in a puddle of crème anglaise. Like any great dessert, this one disappears quickly but leaves you with a memory, a pleasurable tingle. SFBG
Lunch, Mon.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
Dinner, Mon.–Sat., 5:30–9 p.m.
109 Plaza, Healdsburg
Can get noisy
CHEAP EATS It was Pride month so I was proud. In my own small chicken farmerly way, I celebrated the T and the B — mostly by lying in my hammock, looking at trees and birdies, and going, “Woohoo!” But also a little bit in this column, no?
Well, in any case, it’s all over now. It’s time once again to bow our heads in shame and shuffle around with our hands in our pockets looking for doo-doo to step in.
July, as longtime readers of this column may recall, is supposed to be Poo Poo Pride month, in celebration of my yard-long expulsion of 2005.
Now, before you groan yourself blue in the butt, listen to the rest of what I have to say: This year, I am canceling Poo Poo Pride. And not because it isn’t ladylike to celebrate all things brown and stinky. Some of my favorite ladies in the world just love to talk about poo poo, and last year of all the two or three people who weighed in in support of Poo Poo Pride, almost every single one of them was in fact a lady. And the other, as I recall, was kind of faggy, so …
No, the reason I am canceling Poo Poo Pride this year is because I want there to be an uproar. It’s all very maneuveristic and manipulative of me. It’s strategy, and I know it’s not very strategic to explain your strategy to the world up front and out loud, but otherwise how will everyone know what to do?
I want three or four people to sign a petition, and one or two to write letters to the editor saying how the hell are we supposed to take a crap and feel good about it without Leone’s lovingly described 40-inchers and philosophical contemplation of floaters, and, and — I want to turn on the TV one night and see an animated children’s special with a feel-good ending called “A Year Without a Poo Poo Pride Month.”
I know this is a lot to ask. But asking a lot seems to be what I do best these days. So ask I will, and may the universe ignore me if it dares.
Crawdad’s new squeeze wants her to start farting in front of him. She’s reticent. I’m with him. Nothing facilitates intimacy like intra-couple flatulence, I always say. I didn’t say this at DeLessio’s, sitting outside with them on the cool, colorful, partially walled sidewalk patio; I waited until after.
“Nothing facilitates intimacy like intra-couple flatulence,” I said.
The new squeeze said, “What?”
“Bullshit,” quoth Crawdad de la Cooter. “We farted in front of each other all the time, and look where we are now.”
I looked. We were in the garage at our old place on York Street, sorting through the last of our stuff, new guy mediating our little squabbles very nicely and with humor. He’s also got the only practical mind among us, which comes in handy.
Another thing that comes in handy: He loves chocolate. That’s great! I know this now because I’m getting a sweet tooth, and I worry about my girlish figure, and you gotta love a pal who loves chocolate, because you can say, no, no, I don’t want any dessert, and then eat at least half of whatever they order.
In this case: a chocolate-filled brioche with more butter in it than a lot of people keep in their refrigerator. And a sampling of these cool sort of sheets of various styles of chocolate they call bubble-wrap. Because it looks like bubble wrap.
All of which is well and good, but the real reason I call DeLessio’s my new favorite restaurant is for the sandwiches. And my saying so should astound you. It does me. They cost like seven, eight bucks, and they’re all premade and shrink wrapped and shit, so you can’t even say no mayo, no mustard. Speaking of bullshit.
But … and this is one of the biggest buts ever, they do have muffulettas, the old New Orleans specialty, with three kinds of meat (mortadella, ham, salami), two kinds of cheese (provolone, mozzarella), and, by definition, this super-delicious olive spread stuff instead of mayo or mustard. Not as good as Central Grocery, but … even better, in a way, because it’s here. Right here, at the corner of Market and Valencia.
Also haves: red snapper po’boy, Cuban pork, cupcakes, and buffet tables full of hot things and cold things for $7.95 per pound. From which I can only vouch for the mac and cheese: excellent. SFBG
DELESSIO MARKET AND BAKERY
Mon.–Fri., 7 a.m.–7:30 p.m.;
Sat.–Sun., 9 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
1695 Market, SF
Takeout and catering available
Beer and wine
The imminence of a determined pork eater raises certain questions in the porkless kitchen. The largest of these is, Can pork be faked? Meat fakery has come a long way in the past few years, as anyone who’s eaten a Boca burger knows — but if some entrepreneur has come up with a porkless pork roast that would nonetheless convince a pork connoisseur, I have not heard of it.
In my everyday cooking, I have found that turkey, in its various forms, nicely fills in the gaps left by the pork we more or less stopped eating when Bill Clinton was still president. The breast slices make good scaloppine. Turkey bacon creditably substitutes for pancetta. And the whole tenderloins (really adjuncts of the breast in turkeys, rather than of the back, as in hogs) are marvels of adaptability: They can be butterflied and quickly grilled or cubed for vindaloo, among many other applications.
But would the tenderloins, I wonder, accept the arista treatment, as so temptingly laid out by Bruce Aidells in his Complete Meat Cookbook? Arista means “the best” in Greek, and the dish is said to have originated as an herb-rubbed, spit-roasted piece of pork served to a contingent of Greek prelates visiting Florence in the 15th century. Their verdict? Aristos!
Acclaim and applause are lovely, of course, but I was hoping just to pull off my bit of subterfuge without being caught. Turkey tenderloins are not large (less than a pound each), so I would need several to make the equivalent of a four-pound pork roast. Their smallness invited direct grilling — a blessing, since I have no spit, though even fast grilling of a lean meat like turkey poses the danger of desiccation. Aidells’s rub (of fennel seed, sage, rosemary, and salt) is fabulous, but I also took the precaution of cutting a deep, narrow slit in the side of each tenderloin and filling it with a pat of butter and a clove of peeled, smashed garlic. One additional precaution: a buttery port-cognac sauce derived from the one Wolfgang Puck offers for tuna au poivre in Live, Love, Eat! (My modification: adding dried thyme.)
The guest list included no prelates, and no one was heard speaking Greek, either before or after the appearance of the forged arista. But the meat was juicy and tasty, and most of it disappeared.
“I thought it was pork,” the pork eater said later, when informed of the deception. Bravo!
Judging a book by its cover might be a sin, but how about judging a restaurant by its name? In most cases this is probably at least premature, if not quite a sin, though the name Mecca presents a strong temptation. Here we have a restaurant that opened a decade ago on a stretch of mid-Market that wasn’t exactly Shangri-la; the neighbors included a Ford dealership, one of the tattier Safeways, and, a bit later, the sex club Eros. On the other hand, the location was about midway between Zuni and the Castro, and it is along that vector that Mecca — which became Mecca SF last fall under new ownership — has found its enduring identity.
When I first stepped into Mecca 10 years ago, I thought: Studio 54. There was the glam underground feel, the distinct homo vibe, the tall curtains of purple velvet hanging like regal robes and serving as partial screens while also soaking up, in grand fashion, some of the noise reverberating from the many hard surfaces, the concrete and stainless steel, that gave the space its urban edge. As it happened, I had visited Studio 54 in the early 1980s, when the place was senescent and overrun with bridge-and-tunnel folk but still recognizable as a onetime theater of some kind, with an extant stage and balcony — along with fabulous curtains. Mecca, it seemed to me then, wasn’t a direct clone of but was definitely inspired by Studio 54; the drugs, sex, and exclusivity might not be as overt and intense, but in compensation there was food — good food — and a conspicuous valet service, which not only took care of patrons’ fancy cars but also alerted passersby that happenings of note were occurring within.
On a recent visit, we arrived in a Prius — holy of holies for today’s rich liberals, with plenty of rear legroom — and parked directly across the street. Inside, the layout seemed unchanged from my last tour, 3 years ago, or for that matter from 10 years ago. The gigantic, horseshoe-shaped bar still dominates; there is still a cluster of tables under the front windows (which are screened with steel mesh — a Jetsons touch) and another cluster in a curtain-screened alcove behind the host’s station. The curtains did seem to me to be a different color now — camel or cappuccino rather than purple or claret — but that could be a trick or fault of memory.
The change of hands last fall has resulted in, among other things, a new chef, Sergio Santiago. He was born in Puerto Rico, and he describes his Mecca SF menu as incorporating “certain tones of New Latin cuisine.” Maybe, but what most struck me was the richness of Santiago’s cooking. In this sense he has more in common with his recent predecessors, Michael Fennelly and Stephen Barber, than with the restaurant’s opening chef, Lynn Sheehan, whose style of well-polished Cal-Med rusticity was very much in the tradition of Zuni and Chez Panisse.
True, you can still find that sort of dish on Santiago’s menu. The Mecca french fries ($6), served in a paper cone with a ramekin of homemade ketchup, leave nothing to be desired and are nicely sharable. Just as plainspoken is the whole artichoke ($9), baked with parsley and bread crumbs and served with a side of garlic butter for dipping — an important procedure, given the leatheriness of much of the flesh. (Artichokes steam much better than they roast, in my experience, unless they are baby artichokes.)
But it is impossible not to notice the infiltration of luxe onto the bill of fare. Caviar. Lobster. Foie gras. Very Campton Place and expense-accounty, and please have your statins ready. Oysters provide a balancing tonic and reaffirm the Zuni connection; they are available raw on the half shell or, as a quartet ($12), fried and doused with a mignonette. Crab cakes ($13) are good, if out of season — a beurre blanc emboldened by tasso (prosciutto’s poor cousin) is a nice flourish — and they are also noticeably spherical, as opposed to the more typical patty. Among the simplest of the smaller choices is a salad of mixed baby greens, though $12 seems a little steep for what you get.
As is so often the case now, the main dishes seem to sag a bit when compared with the smaller but more glittering starters. It is like going to a play that sets up spectacularly in the first act, then doesn’t quite make it up the mountain. At Mecca SF, this phenomenon has to do at least in part with the usualness of the offerings: There is chicken, beef, lamb, catfish, and duck breast. (No vegetarian choice.) I liked a pork tenderloin ($27), roasted to perfect succulence and presented with mashed sweet potatoes and a tangy chutney of Granny Smith apples; I liked too a roulade of salmon ($26), the disk of fish wearing a top hat of pickled cucumber and radish tissues. But these dishes seemed to be wanting some of the subtlety of the earlier courses.
Desserts (by pastry chef Mie Uchida) are mainly of the modern-art school: for example, a flange of chocolate bread pudding ($9) flanked by small globes of chocolate and peanut butter ice cream — the overall look that of a miniature public sculpture — and a trio of crèmes brûlées ($9), chocolate, coconut, and vanilla, lined up on a narrow platter that resembles a railroad cross tie. The F train, incidentally, stops just about at the front door. No valet needed. Wave as you pass. SFBG
Dinner: Tues.–Thurs., 5:30–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.; Sun., 5:30–9 p.m. Lunch: Sun., from 1 p.m.
2029 Market, SF
CHEAP EATS Years ago when I haunted the other edge of this continent I lived in a chickenless shack under the bridge between New Hampshire and Maine. Me and Bikkets kept our bed on the screened-in porch in order that there would be room indoors for the Ping-Pong table.
From the other side of our see-through dream-through blow-through walls at night came the lights, sounds, and smells of a cross-river gypsum plant, Boston-bound 18-wheelers, seagulls, lobster boats, and salt water. At high tide the Piscataqua River flowed right up under our little fish house and deck and slapped rather romantically against the cement block foundation of the shack proper. At low tide you could follow the pipes from the toilet through the mud under the fish house, and out a little ways to a river-bedded mosaic of toilet paper and brown things.
I’ll never forget the mix of horror and delight with which I discovered, one low, low tide, that rich tourists, seacoast summerers (including the family Bush), and fancy-pants restaurant-goers who could afford to order Maine lobsters were in one manner of speaking eating my shit.
But my favorite memory from that era (late late ’80s) was waking up one weekend morning in the middle of the afternoon, putting on my glasses, and seeing my big buddy Carl camped on the roof of the fish house with a book and a bag of chips, respectfully waiting to see me stir before booming, “SKINLESS FRANKS!!!!!!”
All caps, six exclamation marks. This, from the rocking voice of Boston’s best newscaster by day, the Charm Dogs’ shirtless drummer by night. And, more importantly than all that, the only one I know who can beat me five games out of ten at Ping-Pong. Or six.
The reason I bring this all up, when I do have a new favorite restaurant to tell you about, is because this morning when I rolled out of bed at six in the morning, being a chicken farmer now, not a rock star, I put on my glasses, fired up the computer, and had an e-mail from Carl saying, “SKINLESS FRANKS!!!!!!”
Through the years, as we have slid in and out of touch with each other, this is our way of picking up where we left off, with our old skinless franks greeting. I don’t remember where it came from, except that in those days, before I moved out here and became soft, that was what was on the grill. Hot dogs. Chicken thighs. Not all these prissy, highbrow things I live on now, like pork butts.
Hey Carl, my skinless franks brother, I think the reason I let us lose track of each other this time is because it’s hard to say to the guy you used to hang out in sports bars with that you’re going around now in capris and lipstick. Even when you know it’s going to be OK.
So, OK, since it’s still Pride month and not quite next month, let’s let this be about poop and pride. All mixed up. If you’re an old friend or great-aunt of mine, and you haven’t seen me in a couple years, and if you’re just tuning in, or if you’ve been tuned in and still don’t get it, get it: I’m trans!
To review: hormonally female, gonadically male, and in every other way somewhere in-between. That’s the easy part. The hard part is semantics. I think of myself as “me,” and I prefer to be thought of from the outside as “she.” So, hell yeah, if you ask, she me. Sister me. Humor me.
Watch what happens.
But you know, San Rafael is hard up for Chinese food. I know because I had some serious time to kill there the other day while they scraped up a body or something from the road.
I don’t know where to eat in San Rafael. Don’t think I’ve ever eaten in San Rafael in my life, have I? So I had to do a thing that I of all people should know better than to do: I had to look at the restaurant reviews in the windows.
House of Lee, of all the downtown places I saw, had the most positive write-ups. Glow glow glow, tea-smoked duck, salt and pepper prawns, green onion pancakes. . . Cheap, cozy, the place had new favorite Chinese restaurant written all over it.
Except you can’t believe what you read, see, even if someone else besides me wrote it, because they don’t have tea-smoked duck, the green onion pancakes are lame, and the prawns didn’t make much sense to me. How do you eat fried prawns with the shells still on, without losing all the deliciously seasoned breading?
A: Use your hands, lick your fingers. SFBG
HOUSE OF LEE
Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m.; Sat.–Sun., 10:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
885–887 Fourth St., San Rafael
Takeout and delivery available
If revenge is a dish best served cold, then paella is a dish best served … not in a restaurant. Yes, if it’s good paella you seek, you are well advised to start inquiring among your friends as to which of them has a paella pan and might be prevailed upon to use it, perhaps at a summertime party. For paella could be summer’s ultimate party dish: Not only is it one of those rare preparations in which the home cook has a distinct advantage over commercial short-order kitchens, but it is also easy to make in party quantities, and it affords considerable spectacle if made the traditional way, over an open fire.
Last week my intrepid brother entered the party-paella sweepstakes, the party being the graduation from high school of his stepdaughter and the paella suggestion being mine, since I like paella and have a good recipe for it (adapted from Pierre Franey’s invaluable 60-Minute Gourmet) and have made it successfully over an open fire, though not for 80 people, many of them overexcited teenagers stoked on mojitos. My pan is just 14 inches across; the one he procured for the party was three feet across. It looked like something that had fallen from a jet passing overhead.
My thoughts went out to him, across two time zones, on the evening of the party: Now he must be laying the fire in the steel drum, now he must be softening his onions and peppers. We had discussed ingredients, quantities, shortcuts, possible problems, and remedies beforehand — too much fire and too little fluid were paramount in my mind — but in the end, he was there, he was the wielder of the long-handled spatula, and he would have to pull it off. I would only hear about it, for better or worse, the day after. And, the day after, I did hear, and he did pull it off, and the crowd cheered, then accepted leftovers.
Other graduation parties, he told me, offered cocktail wieners or burritos ordered in en masse from Chipotle’s — the latter being, perhaps and sadly, the way things are done now in affluent exurbia: Write a check and let somebody else do the work. I’m sure the graduates enjoyed their burritos, but I’m even more sure they will never forget their first sight and taste of a dish made for centuries in the centuries-old way of making it, by someone skilled and interested enough to make it for them.
The popular imagination supposes that restaurant writers are Olympians, dispatching thunderbolt justice to places that scorch their garlic (a sin smellable from several blocks away) or fail to refill the water glasses, or whose restrooms are in a state of untidiness that would make the White Glove Lady shriek. But the real powers of restaurant writing, at least as I have understood it, are more subtle and have to do with bringing attention to worthy spots that might otherwise languish unnoticed. A kind word or two might help a small place breathe — or not. One hopes, but at the same time one develops a certain aversion to glancing in the rear-view mirror, there to see a restaurant one had liked and written about, sometimes just a few months earlier, with windows now newspapered over and one of those change-of-ownership placards taped to the door. It is a little bit like seeing balls of sagebrush tumble through a ghost town.
A slightly less chilling variant of this transformation is the restaurant that, in the wake of a favorable notice or two, changes its name but not much else. This is a mystery to me. If you got a good review and you change the name, people who come to you because of the review may well be confused and a little suspicious. If you acquire a well-reviewed restaurant, what do you gain by changing the name but not the essence of the place? Food writers might be likely to review anew if a barbecue spot becomes a temple of raw cuisine, but they will be considerably less inclined to do that if a Chinese-Vietnamese place becomes a straight Vietnamese restaurant or a pan-Mexican place a Yucatecan one.
My examples are neither random nor hypothetical: The Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant called Lucky Time that I wrote about just over a year ago (on March 9, 2005) did indeed become, in recent weeks, a Vietnamese restaurant called either Will’s or Will’s House, depending on whether you consult the menu card, the awning over the door, or the records of the county clerk; while the Noe Valley restaurant favorably reviewed in these pages as Mexico City (on Dec. 24, 2003) became a branch of Mi Lindo Yucatán the following July, after some ownership juggles. (I wrote about the original Mi Lindo Yucatán, on Valencia near 15th Street, in March 2004.)
Last things first. I have eaten at Mexico City/Mi Lindo Yucatán a number of times before and after the change of name and slant and am not sure I notice much difference other than that a hand-lettered sign proclaiming “the art of Mayan cuisine” now dangles over the sidewalk. Inside, the look is still Daliesque, with bright blues and reds, rectangular panels slanting away from the walls near the ceiling, and paintings (presumably in the style of the Maya) on the walls. The salsa is still smoky and excellent; the chips crisp, well salted, and reliably replenished. I was surprised to find less turkey on the menu than at the Valencia Street location, for the turkey (despite its associations in American consciousness with the Pilgrims and all-American Thanksgiving bloatoramas) is native to the Yucatán and has long been central to Mayan cooking. (There is an excellent discussion of all this in Jared Diamond’s recent book Collapse.)
The nightly specials menu did offer a pair of turkey tamales ($11.95), served like an open-faced sandwich on a square mat of corn husk and dressed with a slightly sweet tomato salsa. The turkey itself was a little tough, like the Thanksgiving leftovers that get made into sandwiches, but our expectations for turkey are fairly modest in this country, so it didn’t matter much. Otherwise, the food was what we think of as Mexican: a wonderfully smoky tortilla soup ($3.25), a fish taco made with grilled (rather than batter-fried) catfish ($5.50) — healthier, no doubt, but lacking the sinful rush of crunchiness — and a quesadilla mar y tierra ($10.95), with shrimp and strips of grilled steak whose tenderness amounted to a polite rebuke of the turkey.
A neighbor recommended Will’s House to me.
“It’s right on 14th at Market,” she said.
So it is. So was Lucky Time, which served an agreeable hodgepodge of Chinese and Vietnamese dishes in the very same space from the fall of 2004 until late this winter. One of Lucky Time’s owners was Billy Deng; the proprietor of Will’s House is named Will … something. I called, wondering if Billy had become Will. At first I was told by an employee that Will’s surname was Lee, then someone else got on the line to say the surname was uncertain. So, a mystery wrapped in a muddle.
The food, on the other hand, is a simpler matter. It is now “authentic Vietnamese,” according to the menu card, with pho, lemongrass, Saigon salads, lotus root, and vegetarian options well represented. There is one of the better Vietnamese sandwiches in town ($5), with a choice of lemongrass chicken, grilled beef, or pork on a first-rate baguette and rounds of fresh jalapeño pepper for some real flaminess. Grilled five-spice chicken over rice ($8) has the butter-tender quality of confit, while grilled barbecue lemongrass pork rolls ($6.50) sound more heart-unfriendly than they turn out to be, with lean meat wrapped with fine noodles in uncooked rice paper.
Design-wise, not much has changed. The restaurant’s interior is still cool and softly lit, and the ribbon of mirror still encircles the dining room. Plus ça morph … SFBG
MI LINDO YUCAT
CHEAP EATS You’re probably tired of hearing about my dehumidifier. What? No? You can’t get enough of it? Well that’s great because it’s kind of like my curse, or part of it, to have to call ’em like I see ’em, no matter how boring or embarrassing. And I know this is embarrassingly boring, but I gotta tell you: Dehumidifiers are where it’s at, man.
I can dry my hands on a towel now and they actually get less wet. Things like salt once again work. I can write with pens, on paper! My keys aren’t rusty. I no longer have to squeegee the mirror every morning just to see my mildewy face. And best of all I can once again cook spaghetti without having to put on my bathing suit.
The timing couldn’t be better, because I just got the results of my latest blood test and my testosterone level has dropped below the normal range for men. After months and months of popping the little blue-greenies, I am finally running on “E,” so to speak. I’ve decided, almost arbitrarily, that eating lots and lots of pasta now will help me to have boobs, and that having boobs will help me to have a boyfriend, or a girlfriend who’s into girls. And chickens.
Speaking of which, it’s been four weeks now since I published my funny little personal ad right here in Cheap Eats, and the responses have slowed to a trickle. Let’s see, all said there were one, two, well, one response, technically, and our exchange of e-mails and phone calls ended in him asking me to fuck off. But not in those words. His exact words, I believe, were "go fuck off." The italics are mine. The fault being mine too, I had no choice but to eat my bandana and fuck off. Which I did. But I didn’t go fuck off. I just fucked off. I still have my pride.
Anyway, so, OK, online dating . . . check. Done that. Done with that. What was I thinking? I’m not in a hurry. I actually love being alone. I love people too, all of them — but not equally. My personal preference leans toward those who aren’t stomping on my fingers or kicking my shins.
Oh, and, duh, I don’t need to place personal ads in this column. That was stupid. Cheap Eats practically is a personal ad. People write to me all the time, entirely unsolicited, and say, "I feel like I know you. I have this new favorite restaurant, and if you’re ever in the neighborhood, and hungry . . ." Which I always eventually am and am, respectively. In the past, I have not always been the best corresponder; but I’m trying, and getting better.
Give you an example: Around the same time, around four weeks ago, I also received an e-mail from a fan of my old band who wanted to send the chicken farmer a book about chickens. I gave her my address, got the book, which was written for 9- to-12-year-olds, and cried at the ending.
She mentioned in the letter her new favorite Indian restaurant in Berkeley, which I should probably review, and if I was ever in the neighborhood, and hungry . . . And she asked, in passing, for the name of my new band — so that she could more easily stalk me, she said. She tried to make a joke out of it, but I took this very seriously. As a public figure, you have to. Someone uses that word, you have to err on the side of serious.
So I wrote back and said, in effect, "Complete Stranger, you don’t have to stalk me. I’ll come to you!"
Made a date, she bought me lunch, and I have this to say about her new favorite Indian restaurant: Mine too! It’s south Indian style, which is dosas and stuff. In case you don’t know what a dosa is, it’s yet another style of flat bread, like roti, which I love, and naan, which I love.
I love dosa.
But get this: no meat. We’re getting down with this awesome okra curry dish and dosa, and this other thin, crispy crepe-y crackery thing and all these other dip-into’s, a white one, and a soupy one with carrots, and probably you gotta figure some other things I’m not remembering . . . The point is: no meat. And yet: delicious, filling, fun. And cheap! Our little lunch came to $15.
All we talked about was food, mostly Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, and cupcakes, and curry goat, and Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. My new friend Carrie is not no vegetarian, and yet her favorite restaurant really is a vegetarian one. So let that tell you something. SFBG
Daily: 11:30 a.m.–10:00 p.m.
1901–1903 University Ave., Berkeley
Credit cards not accepted
Marin is not my favorite county — it is the police state, bristling with bored and predatory officers of the law, that must be traversed to reach the wine country — but it does have its glories. Among these is Sabor of Spain (www.saborofspain.com) in San Rafael, a kind of Spanish Table of the North Bay selling various foodstuffs, ceramics, glassware, and a stupendous selection of Spanish wines. Last summer Sabor sprouted a tapas restaurant, Vinoteca, in an adjoining space that has the Barcelona-modern look of glass, chrome, dark wood, stone, and mirrors. The restaurant offers by-the-glass service of many of the bottlings for sale next door at Sabor, and if you want to spring for a whole bottle, you’ll pay about an $18 markup over retail. This doesn’t mean much at the lower end of the scale, but it does mean that a magnificent $75 Priorat can be had in the restaurant for under $100 instead of the $150 or more you’d likely pay at a place that uses the more typical, and lucrative, method of tripling the wholesale price.
(Historical note: The dot-com-era restaurant Elroy’s followed a similar fixed-markup policy for bottles of wine, but the numbers were even more dramatically skewed in the customers’ favor. The restaurant’s markup was only $10, and that was over cost, and for pricier wines this was such a good deal — better than in any wine shop — that people were said to be coming to the restaurant just to buy bottles of wine to take home. Distributors and winemakers eventually rained on this parade, and, perhaps not coincidentally, Elroy’s is no more.)
Despite the extensive selection of Spanish wines, the staff at Sabor rather glumly confided to me that the restaurant’s patrons overwhelmingly prefer familiar varietals — chardonnay and merlot, to name a pair of the all-too-usual suspects — to wines made from such difficult-to-pronounce Spanish grapes as tempranillo or verdejo in such oddly named Spanish regions as Rueda or R??as Baixas. In a predictable response, Spanish winemakers are now turning out chardonnays and merlots — with those names conspicuous on the labels — for what I can only hope is export to us. At least some of the chardonnay vines, I was reassured, were brought to Spain from Burgundy and presumably would give their Iberian offshoots some Burgundian character, though whether that character will play in California, land of the butterball chardonnay, remains to be seen, alas.
Of the great Mediterranean islands, Sardinia is probably the least well known. Crete has its Minoan past and the mythic connection to Atlantis, Sicily its mafiosi; Corsica was the birthplace of Napoleon — but Sardinia is best known for lending its name, after a fashion, to a small member of the herring family, the sardine, which is abundant in the island’s waters and usually ends up being salted, boiled in oil, and packed in tins for export.
The sardine does not, interestingly, loom large on the menu of la Ciccia, a restaurant serving Sardinian cuisine that Massimiliano Conti and Lorella Degan opened toward the end of March in a storefront space at the foot of Church Street. The place isn’t hard to find: Picture a southbound J-Church train not making the sharp left onto 30th Street but instead flying off the tracks straight into a building — as if in some Keanu Reeves movie, perhaps Speed X? — and the building would be la Ciccia’s. If that is too dramatic, look for the sign, with its handsome orange lettering.
The address was the longtime home of Verona Restaurant and Pizza, a homey neighborhood spot serving Italian and Greek dishes — and, of course, pizza. Verona’s dimness has vanished, and the smallish dining room has been discreetly swabbed with modernity — the walls are an elegant pale green now, and there is a new sense of airiness — but a certain charming rusticity persists. The menu card is written in Sardinian, a Romance language closely related to Italian but plainly distinguishable from it, and the kitchen continues to turn out pizzas — some of the better pizzas you’ll find around town, in fact.
If you see the pizza as a splittable or sharable course among courses, rather than a meal unto itself, you will have begun to discover one of the central charms of la Ciccia. Those who want the standard American meal of starter, main course, and dessert will find what they are looking for, but those who seek to replicate one of those lovely European intervals of deliberate grazing, of a series of courses shared without hurry, will find la Ciccia’s variety of offerings, from pizza and pasta to "antipastusu e is inzalaras," rich enough to satisfy them too.
The pizzas are thin of crust and made to order, and the only bad thing I can say about them is that sometimes the points are droopy. But this could have been at least partly our fault, since the pies were presented to us unsliced (in accordance with Sardinian practice), and, in a pleasurable echo of certain kindergarten projects, we cut them up ourselves, with steak knives. The Sarda pie ($10) featured, in addition to a delicate smear of tomato sauce and several blobs of melted mozzarella, a Grecian punch of oregano and capers, while the margherita ($10), that trusty old friend, was fitted out with basil chiffonade.
Mozzarella recurs in a deconstructed salad ($8) of julienne roasted red bell pepper (like a heap of tiny, glistening snakes) and tongues of zucchini, the plate drizzled with balsamic vinegar. So far, so good for vegetarians, who will want to avert their eyes when the plate of salume ($9) appears: Here we have, in addition to crackerlike Sardinian flatbread (curled as if from the heat of the oven), slices of testa, lardo, and two kinds of salume. I liked it all, though the creamy white lardo seemed to be pure pork fat.
Seafood tends to be a natural principal of island cuisines, and while the preeminence of animal husbandry on Sardinia is reflected in the meatiness of la Ciccia’s cooking (and in the name itself, which means "belly" in Sardinian), the restaurant does have its treats from the sea. Prominent among these is octopus ($10) braised in olive oil with chili peppers, basil, and mint and presented with quartered oven-roasted tomatoes. The oily sauce is dark, exotic, and luxurious, while the octopus itself has something of the character, firm and slightly salty, of preserved fish.
As for meat: You’ll catch a nice whiff of fennel from the pork sausage that enriches a lively saffron-tomato sauce for gnocchetti ($13), a pasta variety that resembles half-split soybean pods. True carnivores might want something like the lamb stew ($17), a hearty but rather somber bowl of tender meat cubes, potatoes, and peas in a sunless brown sauce purported to contain saffron. It is good but not especially interesting, just as the lasagnette ($10), a kind of loose-leaf layering of semolina ribbons and shredded cabbage under a cap of melted pecorino cheese, is interesting but not especially good — a kind of sauerkraut pasta, tangy-salty with an odd glimmer of sweetness.
A word on the wine list, which, being replete with Sardinian bottlings both white and red, is probably one of the more striking ones in town at the moment: Because Sardinia is a world unto itself in many ways, its viticulture, like its food, is diverse. Its most famous wine is produced from a white grape, vermentino, whose best examples grow in dry, windswept conditions in the northeast part of the island. Argiolas’s Costamolino bottling ($26) is a little rich by this standard, with plenty of tropical fruit, but quite seductively drinkable. A crisper white, for my taste, is the little-known nuragus de Cagliari (another Argiolas, $8 a glass), a seafood-friendly wine produced in the southern part of the island, around the provincial capital, Cagliari. There are even excellent reds, among them monica de Sardegna (yet another Argiolas product, $7 a glass), a svelte but tight wine, like a good pinot noir and definitely a cut above pizza wine, though good with — good — pizzas. SFBG
Nightly, 5:30–10 p.m.
291 30th St., SF
Beer and wine
CHEAP EATS I had pretty much settled on spending a quiet night at home with a big bowl of popcorn and my new dehumidifier, but then I accidentally called Earl Butter and he said, in effect, "Do you know what time it is? What are you doing home? Get the hell in your pickup truck and get here."
"OK, yes," I said. "Bye."
It was Friday night. Almost all our friends in the world were playing at the Make-Out Room, for the Mission Creek Festival. Everyone was going to be there. I don’t know what I had been thinking, but I stopped thinking it, grabbed my toothbrush, patted Weirdo the Cat on the head, turned the dehumidifier all the way up, kissed the chickens on their beaks, and drove to the city with a big bowl of popcorn in my lap.
It’s an hour-and-a-half ride. I tried to think of it as a movie, an expensive and dark movie. About traffic. That may sound dull, but if you think of it in comparison to a date with a dehumidifier … well, it’s still pretty dull.
Anyway, I’m not a movie reviewer. I made it to the Mission in time to catch the back half of the show and to hug everybody and smile a lot and talk too much until my face hurt and I was losing my voice again.
And then when the live music ended (early), we all went to Little Him’s house and called it a party, and there were more songs, and tacos for me, from 24th Street, because I was all done drinking. When I can’t drink anymore, I start eating tacos. And in this way the party in my mind never stops.
It got late, Jolly Boy carted me and Earl back to 611, and I made me a cozy little nest in the closet and slept like a little baby bird, my dreams all a-flit with flowers and trees, butterflies, and other enchanted forestry. I’m going to tell you something: Love was in the air. At the Make-Out Room, at the after party, in the darkness in this closet. It had nothing to do with me, but it did have to do with my dearest friend in the whole wide world and my new favorite old friend, and the whole evening, in the songs, in the beer, in the blah blah blah — even in the tacos — there had been this sort of sizzle.
Compare that to dehumidification.
I was on Cloud 8. Still am, and I would like to tip my bandanna to Bikkets and the Neverneverboy, bless their big big goofy grins, tired eyes, and infecting electricity.
But I’m not a gossip columnist, so I woke up with an oniony tacover, extricated myself from the closet, and mumbled to Earl Butter, who was in the big room watching cartoons, "Coffee."
He turned off the TV.
We knocked on Jolly Boy’s door on our way out and he joined us at Java Supreme (Coffee: still a buck. Still!) Well, you can only leaf through a newspaper for so long on a Saturday morning in the Mission before you start thinking of Chava’s.
Jolly Boy broached the subject: "Whatever happened to Chava’s?"
Burnt down. Reopened between 24th and 25th on Mission, Earl and I answered in little bits and pieces. Disastrous atmosphere, basically a taquer??a, still great food. Almost in unison, we all stood up and started walking in that direction, with the understanding that it was a long way to walk and we would keep our eyes open for any better ideas along the way.
A better idea: La Quinta, my new favorite Mexican restaurant, on Mission between 20th and 21th. It has the feel of what Chava’s used to feel like. Family, old-school, everybody’s smiling, huge plates of food, cool, colorful, fruity paintings on the wall, a counter … A counter!
We sat at a table and fell in love with the place. I got birria ($7.50), and the goats were tender and less gristly than usual — not that I have anything against gristle. But I know you do. Jolly Boy got huevos rancheros ($6.50), and Earl ordered some kind of thing with softened tortilla chips all scrambled up with eggs and stuff. I got to taste everything and everything was great. The tabletop chips were fresh and the salsa was delicious.
You know what, I think it’s cheaper than most places this day and age too. Check this out: Weekdays, between 7 and 11 a.m., you can get huevos rancheros, or other egg dishes, for $4.75. That’s with rice, beans, and homemade tortillas, and that’s just freakin’ beautiful.<\!s><z5><h110>SFBG<h$><z$>
Daily, 7 a.m.–<\d>7 p.m.
2425 Mission, SF
The server who performs from memory is either a virtuoso or a show-off — and more likely the latter, experience suggests, with muffs and miscues an almost certain result. On Saturday last, we shepherded some out-of-town guests to the Napa Valley, where, between stops at the Hess Collection and the Mumm champagne works, a latish lunch was had at Bistro Don Giovanni, a 13-year-old Italian restaurant on the north side of the town of Napa, in a roadside building that, from 1991 to 1993, housed Jonathan Waxman’s heralded but troubled Table 29.
Our server knew that much, at least. Years ago we had eaten at Table 29 but couldn’t summon the name from memory; he pulled it from the top of his carefully coiffed head. On the other hand, he couldn’t remember what we had ordered; he nodded attentively as we spoke in turn, but petitions for soup (a puree of roasted tomatoes and red peppers, as I recall) and a mojito vanished into the ether, which was pleasantly scented by the wood-burning oven and did have a mollifying effect, it must be said. An iced coffee was produced only because we were given an opportunity to ask for it a second time, when he prodded us to order coffee or liqueurs with dessert. To his credit, he picked up on the iced-coffee flub and did not put it on the bill, but he seemed quite unaware of his other two misses, and we let them go, in part from fear that we would seem to have been keeping score. But then, we were keeping score, for that is what people do when they order this or that in a restaurant and the service staff forgets to bring it.
Writing orders down doesn’t automatically eliminate this problem. The server returning to the table to clarify an order — due to illegible handwriting or having written down the wrong thing, or nothing — is not an unfamiliar experience. It is embarrassing and sometimes a little irritating, but at least the server in question has a script to work from. The would-be memorizer who returns for a refresher ought to be handed a notepad, but at least there is the return. Setting plates of food before the wrong people is an easily corrected faux pas. The would-be memorizer who forgets having forgotten, on the other hand, is a blithe idiot, a discredit to servers everywhere.
A friend from LA said, upon stepping into Lettüs Café Organic, "I feel like I’m back in LA. On Rodeo Drive somewhere." Ah, Rodeo Drive, home of the Polo Store, haunt of Nancy Reagan. Lettüs isn’t quite the kind of place where you’d expect to see Mrs. R. — she seems more like the Spago Beverly Hills type — but the Rodeo vibe was palpable and even I caught it, though Lettüs’s Marina environs, its urban density of souls, have always seemed more Chicago than LA to me, more Lincoln Park. Of course, I once lived in Chicago; I have never lived in LA but have been to Rodeo Drive.
"Everything is good for you, and expensive," my LA friend continued, apropos the LA-ish menu at Lettüs. Ah, I thought, we could be talking about the Newsroom Café, that West Hollywood haunt (on Robertson, near Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, nowhere near Rodeo Drive but just across the street from the Ivy) of alfalfa sprouts, fat-free yogurt smoothies, and youthful pretenders to movie stardom, everybody wearing their fancy sunglasses inside — which of course is not necessary at Lettüs.
The good-for-you part I could accept, for Lettüs, as its full name suggests, deals almost exclusively in organic food and relies as much as possible on local produce. The pricey part, on the other hand, I balked at; Lettüs isn’t exactly cheap, but it isn’t expensive, either, for what you get, with only a handful of items costing more than $10. Plus, you are afforded an opportunity to ponder the umlaut, a flourish that puts one in mind of, perhaps, a Swedish delicacy like pancakes with lingonberry sauce, though the menu is devoid of Scandinavian influence (except for smoked salmon); most of the culinary cues are either Medi-Cal or East Asian, which leaves one with a general impression that an outpost of Chow has collided with one of the ZAO noodle bars.
The most Scandinavian element of Lettüs (other than the umlaut) is probably the interior design, walls and ceiling of slatted, pale wood, with interstitial bars of fluorescent lighting and sleek, spare furniture. There is a certain saunalike feel to the look, or perhaps it is vaguely Japanese. Either way, it manages to be both rustic and urban, cool and warm, an appealing casual-sophisticated setting for the casually sophisticated food of executive chef Sascha Weiss. (His partners in the endeavor are Matthew Guelke and Mark Lewis; the restaurant opened near the end of last year.)
If Weiss’s food has a theme, it might be "when worlds collide": chipotle-scented black bean soup ($4) with avocado salsa on the one hand and, on the other, mango chicken or tofu lettuce cups ($8) — shredded napa cabbage, a Thai-ish blend of ginger, cilantro, basil, and sweet-hot chili-tamarind sauce, and either baked tofu or grilled chicken bundled in swaddlings of Bibb lettuce for easy finger feeding. And if you have a third hand, how about some bruschetta ($5), points of grilled levain topped with white butter beans, roast garlic, cherry tomatoes, and basil?
Bigger dishes are available, of course, from various sorts of panini and open-faced sandwiches — including an entrant of grilled chicken breast ($9.50) with marinated peppers and pesto quite as potent as anything you’d get at Chow — to noodlier choices. Here we have a pasta ($8), fusilli sauced with arugula, sun-dried tomatoes, broccoli, and chickpeas, with a layer of olive slivers and gratings of parmesan cheese on top, a concoction surprisingly hearty despite the absence of animal flesh. There is also a plate of brightly acidic soba noodles ($7) — warm or cold, your call — tossed with julienne zucchini, carrot, and red bell pepper and a lime-sesame vinaigrette dotted with sesame seeds.
But in the main, the happiest course is probably to nosh. Most of the food lends itself to splitting and sharing, in particular the spring rolls ($6), rice-paper wraps stuffed with rice noodles, carrots, and lettuce, sliced into bite-size cylinders, and presented with dipping sauces of spicy peanut and sweet chili. Only slightly more cumbersome to divvy up is a salad of avocado and grapefruit ($7.50) nested in a carpet of peppery-nutty arugula and dressed with a grapefruit-juice vinaigrette; this is about as simple as it gets, and about as good, with butteriness, fruit, bite, and nose brought into a powerful harmony.
Given the confident eclecticism of the savory dishes, the desserts are surprisingly flat-footed. A pair of hazelnut shortbreads ($1) dipped in dark chocolate were not dipped in dark chocolate but presented to us naked. They were fine, crisp yet tender of crumb, but I felt obliged to ask after the missing chocolate. "We don’t have those today," our hapless server reported. Coffee cake ($4), meanwhile, was on the dry side despite an interspersion of blackberries and a streusel topping. Only the chocolate mousse cake ($5), served on a plate piped with raspberry sauce, was "dense" and "rich" as promised by the menu card — moist, too, they could honorably have added.
A word on the table service, which is of the semi variety: You order at the counter, are issued a placard with a number, seat yourself (displaying numbered placard), and wait for the food to start arriving. The system is fairly efficient, though cafeteria-esque, and the placards aren’t the usual cheap plastic numbers but cast steel, with numbers handsomely embossed in gold. Nancy Reagan might not buy them if she saw them in a window on Rodeo Drive, but she would at least look. SFBG
Lettüs Café Organic
Mon.–Fri., 7:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m.; Sat.–Sun., 8 a.m.–10:30 p.m.
3352 Steiner, SF
Beer and wine
CHEAP EATS I was sitting outside in the bathtub with a barbecued pork rib in one hand and a jar of wine in the other, watching the sun go down through apple blossoms and redwood branches when the thought occurred to me: If Albert Einstein, our smartest example of a human being, a cat so smart his name has come to mean smart, is capable of saying something as profoundly stupid as "God does not play dice," then might not the chicken farmer, the clown, the fool, the imbecile, one day, by accident, say something completely fucking wise?
Is that a Shakespearean thought?
I don’t know, but it’s a long sentence. To make up for it, here are a bunch of short ones:
Shirts are so anal.
It’s a beautiful day in hell.
There were other dreams.
Oh, great, now my house is haunted.
This is the part of the poem where punctuation does all the work.
Touch me, or I will cry.
Building blocks, broken pieces, shards of tinkling colors . . .
Thank you, thank you. The above poem is not a poem, or wasn’t intended to be. I randomly picked one of my several thousand little pocket memo books and randomly chose a handful of out-of-context scribblings of mine from seven random pages, in search of hidden wisdom. Not there. Not yet. I think it makes a decent accidental poem, but none of the thoughts, in and of themselves, I don’t think, are smart enough (or dumb enough) to do Einstein’s justice. I’ll keep looking, and I’ll keep filling up little notebooks, I promise — but not on your time.
Al, you übereyebrowed genius you, you were all over your e‘s and mc‘s, but (a) god? And (b) even assuming god, god most certainly would play dice, dude. And did, according to Darwin. And cards, according to me, and basketball, I believe, until that thing with His ankle.
That’s it. I’m done studying physics, and even doner with metaphysics. I’m moving on to karaoke. Encore Karaoke Bar, to be exact, on California near Polk. It’s my new favorite restaurant, and it’s not even a restaurant! They just happened to have a table full of free, help-yourself chicken wings, Einstein, and meatballs and duck bones. Lasagna. Other stuff. I think it was someone’s birthday. Not mine.
I was all dolled up for dancing, because that’s what I thought I was doing last Saturday night. Now this. Earl Butter and me had already eaten even, at Memphis Minnie’s — again. I can’t seem to stay away from that place all of a sudden. Reason being they make fried barbecued chicken wings now, just like me and Wayway only Minnie smokes hers first, then fries them, then serves them drenched in this special zingy sweet hot barbecue sauce that’s better than any of their tabletop sauces.
And they have sweet tea.
And afterwards we were supposed to meet up with Yo-Yo and Georgie Bundle and some of their friends and shake our booties or groove thangs or some such. Except they all decided to go to this karaoke bar first, and we agreed to meet them there.
I might have sang, or sung, an Elton John song, or two, except my mouth was too full of free chicken wings, free meatballs, and free duck bones, etc., the whole time we were there. Had we known, we wouldn’t have gone to Memphis Minnie’s first, and then the wings, at any rate, would have tasted a lot better than they did. But the ducks were great, and the lasagna had meat in it, and it sure was cheap eats, and the bar was great and there were lots of colorful people there, including drag queens, and some really good bad singers, and even some good good ones.
I meant to ask someone where all the food had come from. If I had, my reviewing it might actually make some sense. But that didn’t happen, and neither did dancing. Yo-Yo and Bundle and their friends sang their songs, got bored, and left.
Me and Earl ate too much, and left.
What do you think? I can give you the scoop on Memphis Minnie’s, but technically I already reviewed it, nine years ago when it was in the Mission. Now it’s on Haight Street, everybody knows, and the three-way taster is almost exactly twice what it cost then ($16.95). Is that bullshit?
I don’t know, but just in case … SFBG
Encore Karaoke Lounge
Daily, 6 p.m.–2 a.m.
1550 California, SF
Not wheelchair accessible
Marion Nestle’s hefty new book, What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating (North Point, $30), is on one level the successor to The Supermarket Epicure, Joanna Pruess’s 1988 book about managing to eat well with foods bought at places like Safeway. This was tricky enough 20 years ago, and as Nestle demonstrates, it has become more so.
In the past two decades, food companies have become even bigger and their marketing tactics even more sophisticated, which means, more or less, that when you step into a supermarket today, you are like a lab rat entering a maze in some elaborate experiment. You must have your wits about you if you hope to negotiate the maze to your advantage, and while Nestle’s book isn’t exactly a pocket-size guide, it can profitably be examined beforehand, so when you finally do set off to do the food shopping, you will have a pretty good idea of what you can expect to find — in particular, how the marketing machine will attempt to manipulate you, and why.
In the largest sense, of course, the why isn’t difficult, for it is the job of food companies and supermarkets to sell you as much or as many of their most lucrative products as they can, and their most lucrative products are likely to be full of inexpensive, highly processed ingredients (i.e., corn syrup), bundled up in gaudy packaging, and not especially good for you — surprise!
There isn’t much revelation in How to Eat, but Nestle is an attractively peppery writer, and she brings a good deal of lore — about nutrition, marketing, agriculture, politics — to her scrutiny of a routine chore too many of us think too little about. She repeatedly makes a point, too, that’s worth repeating: The true value of organic agriculture isn’t that it might result, here and there, in slightly higher levels of certain nutrients or even that it definitely reduces the presence of pesticides and other chemical dangers in the food we eat. What really matters, she writes, is that organics represent "a political choice. When you choose organics, you are voting with your fork for a planet with fewer pesticides, richer soil, and cleaner water supplies … for conservation of fuel resources and the economic viability of local communities, along with freshness and better taste." By Jove, I think the forks have it!
Tea might be yang to coffee’s yin in the morning land of Caffeination Nation, but despite the presence, in yin as in yang, of humankind’s favorite stimulant, tea is surely one of the most soothing ingestables known to us. It is what you have a cup of when it’s raining, or you’re feeling blue or a little achy; as with chicken soup, its healing powers are legendary. The very picture of a cup of tea, wreathed by wisps of delicate steam, tends to set the mind at ease. And, of course, this isn’t just some gauzy, sentimental picture, since scientific investigation has found tea to be ample in the antioxidant compounds that help human beings resist disease.
It is beautifully appropriate, then, that we should find both chicken soup and a wealth of teas on the menu at Modern Tea, a gorgeous tea emporium and restaurant — rather in the mold of the Castro’s Samovar Tea Lounge — that opened recently in a gorgeous Hayes Valley space, of exposed brickwork, plate glass, and warm wood, that once housed Terra Brazilis. After that Brazili-Cal bistro closed, there was a brief and misplaced intermezzo of South Asian cooking under the name Tandoori Grill, but with the advent of Modern Tea, all is again as it should be: a distinctive and worthy endeavor in a strikingly stylish setting.
Not many changes have been made to that setting, except that the steam tables for the Indian buffet have been removed from the area in front of the elevated exhibition kitchen and the walls have been painted the color of green tea ice cream. The layout is the same, the taverna-style wood tables and chairs the same — or, if not the same, so similar to their predecessors as to seem the same in memory. What has changed is the mood, the tempo; what was, not too many years ago, a bustling station of the night now has the slightly calmer, sunlit affect of a café, though a café that serves tea instead of coffee and is much better looking than its fellow cafés.
The animating spirit of Modern Tea belongs to Alice Cravens, whose pedigree as a teamonger is lofty. She has run the tea service for places like Chez Panisse, Delfina, and Zuni, and it is not surprising that, in opening her own place, she would adopt the ethos of those distinguished spots as her own, with an emphasis on sustainability, seasonality, and a certain earthy simplicity that manages to be consistent both with elegance and with tea. "We buy our ingredients direct from local farmers and businesses whenever possible," the bill of fare announces, "with preference towards organic and earth friendly farming methods."
I am a little surprised that there are no sandwiches on offer, even at lunch — but perhaps this reflects a fierce determination to avoid any echo of English-high-tea, hotel-lobby cliché, such as cucumber sandwiches on white bread trimmed of its crusts. On the other hand, the soups are uniformly excellent, from the Tuscan-style chicken soup ($5.95 for a bowl at lunch, $6.50 at dinner) — really almost a kind of minestrone, rich in carrots, onions, and chard, with shreds of chicken meat added — to a gratifyingly thick "old style" French lentil soup ($5.95/$6.50), made with Puy lentils. (These are the terriers of the lentil family: They are small, gray green, and tough, though they turn a rich camel color when cooked and, if cooked long enough, become appealingly toothsome while producing an almost gravylike broth.) For sheer dietary virtue it would be hard to beat the quinoa chowder ($5.95/$6.50), which floats the pebbly Inca grain in vegetable broth with chunks of potato and, if you like, a sprinkling of feta cheese on top for a bit of salty sharpness.
Although the menu offers no sandwiches, bread is not completely absent. It turns up in an excellent strata ($8.25 at dinner), a savory pudding with goat cheese and roasted tomatoes, and in the lemon bread pudding ($4.50), a tiramisu-like layering (in an open-topped jar) of bread crumbs, whipped cream, and intense lemon custard. Other starches also appear, including rice noodles as the bed for a carrot and kale "coleslaw" ($8.25), leavened with hijiki seaweed and a sesame vinaigrette; this is one of the few Asian-influenced items on the mainly Euro-Cali menu. Potatoes turn up, in gratin form, as an accompaniment to chicken and sausage meatloaf ($11.75), three hefty slices of ground, herbed flesh, mixed with Italian chicken sausage and topped with streaks of a barbecuey sauce, that will do justice to the heartiest appetite.
A cautionary note on this last point: Modern Tea is probably not the place to go if you’re in the market for a heavy-duty, high-calorie dinner. Lightness and delicacy are central themes, and even the most substantial courses are meant to keep harmony with such fine teas as osmanthus silver needle ($5.25), a gently floral white leaf from China, or the barely richer sevan blend ($3.50), an Armenian herbal mix of chamomile, lemon balm, oregano, basil, bean core, hawthorne berry, linden fruit, and St.-John’s-wort. If you find you do need some last-minute ballast, an opportune choice is the chocolate sheet cake, a moist sponge cake sold in brownielike one-inch squares, dusted with powdered sugar, for $1 per. Goes well with yin or yang. SFBG
Tues.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m.; Sat., 10:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m.; Sun., 10:30 a.m.–7 p.m.
602 Hayes, SF
Beer and wine pending
CHEAP EATS I was sick. I couldn’t get out of bed, and I couldn’t sleep either. If I tried to talk on the phone, I sounded like Don Corleone smoking helium. People didn’t know who I was, and after a while I didn’t know who I was either.
Weirdo the Cat remained Weirdo the Cat and tried her best to keep me oriented.
Weeks in the woods are not very conversational for me, anyway. I express myself, cry out to the universe, assert my existence, and endear myself to my neighbors by tapping on steel with an eight-pound sledge hammer. When that gets old, I clack plastic and make a little poem or Cheap Eats happen. Sometimes I talk to myself. Sometimes I laugh out loud, which weirds out Weirdo and makes me feel crazy — which, in turn, helps me to know that I’m not.
Now I had no way to know. I couldn’t hammer, clack, or blabber, and nothing was funny. I’m not a sickness reviewer, but laryngitis I find to be every bit as discombobuutf8g, almost, as an inner ear infection. Pretty much, more or less.
Well, I’d asked for it. I hadn’t been sick, really, in two years. Which was long enough to notice, and so I noticed and then started to talk about it.
"I haven’t been sick in two years!" I said. Out loud. To people.
Bad medicine. This is not a matter of juju; it’s mental and physical and automatic: You start bragging, you let your guard down. Bam! No voice, no sleep, no energy, no soup, no NyQuil, no more Jane Austen novels to read, no one to go to the library for you, and nothing to watch on video except The Deer Hunter.
Ever watch The Deer Hunter? Bad medicine. Good movie, bad bad medicine. Now even if I could’ve slept I couldn’t have slept. Me!
But enough about me. Eventually you just get tired of being sick, and you realize that lying around in bed isn’t going to get you better, so you kiss Weirdo the Cat on the lips, drag yourself out to your pickup truck, drive down to Balboa Park, tie on your spikes, strike out twice, ground weakly to second, ground even weaklier to third, take a shower, and go look for a bowl of duck noodle soup.
There you have it. All better. New favorite Vietnamese restaurant: Pho Ha Tien, just down the road, toward the Sunset, on Ocean. Duck noodle soup ($4.95/$5.95). Jalapeños, hot sauce, that other kind of hot sauce, and . . . you can talk again, if you’re me.
"Blah blah blah, blah blah," I said. "Blah blah blah."
There was even someone there to hear me. Yay! My cousin the Choo-Choo Train and his boyfriend, Ding-a-Ling-a-Ling, meaning I can also tell you these things: goi cuon chay ($4.50). Bun bi thit nuong ($6.50). And com ca nuong sa ($6.75).
Got that? That’s cold vegetable spring rolls, which were good, shredded pork and barbecued pork over vermicelli, which was good, and a charbroiled sole filet, over rice, which was also good. Allegedly. I didn’t get any. Choo-Choo eats so fast his plate was clean by the time I’d finished applying all the proper hot sauces, cilantro leaves, bean sprouts, jalapeños, and other medicinal touches to my soup.
And letting Ding-a-Ling-a-Ling taste some before I infected it, which favor he kindly and gentlemanlikely returned by chopsticking some of his pork and pork onto a little plate for my particular pig-partaking pleasure.
"Thank you, sir," I said.
"Thank you, Chicken Farmer," said he.
Meanwhile, the loco locomotive is licking his plate, wondering what’s for dessert.
Anyway, the soup was good, but not as good as my old favorite duck soup because the noodles were overdone, one, and, two, it had too much slimy bamboo in it that could have been ducks. And the ducks that there was didn’t have skin, just bones. A lot of bones. You have to eat with your hands and leave a big pile somewhere on the table.
Other atmospheric touches: general quaintness, funny little 3-D paintings, TV, and my personal favorite: side-by-side, the requisite Buddha shrine and a gratuitous wooden plaque of Mickey and Minnie Mouse saying, Welcome.
You know what I say to that, Mickey, Minnie, now that I have my voice back? I say, "One shot." SFBG
Pho Ha Tien
Wed.–Mon., 10 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
1900 Ocean, SF
Beer and wine
"People will sleep better not knowing how their sausage and politics are made," Otto von Bismarck said — and he might have added wine to the list, though one sees the Iron Chancellor as more of a beer man. The production of wine grapes in recent decades has become a festival of chemicals — pesticides, fertilizers — from which many of us instinctively avert our gaze; we like wine, we want good wine, and when we get good wine, we are not inclined to ask any questions.
Still, there is growing evidence that a paradigm shift is under way, to judge by the public relations emphasis that winemakers around the world are placing on organic and biodynamic grape production and on the broader if slightly hazier theme of sustainability. Whether people will pay a premium for wine that’s produced in environmentally sensitive fashion is still largely an open question, since at the moment eco-friendly wine represents a tiny fraction of the world’s overall wine production. But if people are willing to pay more for organic produce, as seems to be the case, it is likely they will be willing to pay more too for wines produced in an environmentally responsible way — providing they can figure out which wines those are.
At the moment, the labeling practices of the wine industry are of little or no use in helping wine buyers figure this out. At a recent forum sponsored by the Sonoma Vintners Association, I found myself examining a bottle of zinfandel I knew for a fact to have been produced at a biodynamic winery — but the label breathed not a word of that noble story. One longtime Sonoma winemaker admitted to me that labeling was an issue and that winemakers, even beyond issues of certification, need to do more visually to let buyers know what they’re up to.
Meantime, you label-scanning wine hounds might look for the following (usually in uncomfortably fine print) on bottlings you’re interested in: "CCOF," which indicates compliance of some sort (most likely organic grapes) with the California Organic Foods Act of 1990, and/or "Demeter," which is the certification agency for biodynamic agriculture. I found the latter recently on a bottle of 2003 Côtes du Rhône from Château de Bastet (for more info go to www.organicvintners.com), along with organic certification from Quality Assurance International and Ecocert, another pair of word patterns to look for, in lieu of logos, which for once are actually called for.
Polk is a many splendored strasse, with lower lows and higher highs, socioeconomically speaking, than practically any other road in town, with the possible exception of Market Street. Below California, there is still an agreeable crunch of urban grit under your feet, you still see the occasional boy hustler, and the restaurants tend toward the ethnic and cheap — but this neighborhood is the western edge of the Tenderloin, after all.
Above Broadway we are in chi-chi-land, cheek to cheek with some of the town’s swellest swells (but what cheeks do I mean?) and gazing upon the menu cards of such redoubts of swankery as La Folie and Le Petit Robert. Is this, then, a bipolar story, a tale of haves and have-nots or -littles, grit and glamour, worlds apart? Have I forgotten the stretch of Polk north of California and south of Broadway, the transition zone? I have not.
It is on this very stretch of street, in fact, that we find Indian Aroma, a nicely middle-class South Asian restaurant in a middle-classy neighborhood in a city whose middle class seems to be disappearing in our drive for third world–style stratification of wealth and status: a handful of chubby-cheeked plutocrats and masses of the disenfranchised. The place is far from a dive, with handsomely set tables, a paint scheme of sponged ochres and umbers, a huge round mirror mounted in one wall like a giant’s monocle, a nonperfunctory wine list (including several selections by the glass), and professional table service. On the other hand, it’s not particularly pricey (most main dishes are within a tick or two of $10), it’s easy to glide into, and there is the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet — at $8.99, not the cheapest buffet of its kind in town, but pretty reasonable all the same and with better-than-average food.
Indian Aroma is a reincarnation of sorts of Scenic India, which, until it closed three years ago owing to loss of lease, was one of the better Indian restaurants on the Valencia Street corridor and held a strategic location near the corner of 16th Street. The new location can’t match the old for hipster-central cachet, but it does have its charms, mainly of variety: The Civic Center and Tenderloin are within walking distance, as are the hillier, tonier precincts of Nob and Russian Hills and the human parade a block west, along Van Ness.
There is also the stabilizing presence of owner and head chef Tahir Khan, whose Bangladeshi-influenced cooking features spices ground and blended in-house — hence the Indian aroma, which wafts onto the street and helps drifting pedestrians distinguish between the restaurant and the Christian Science Reading Room next door — halal meats, and for those averse to meat (halal or otherwise), a wide variety of meatless choices.
Khan’s kitchen does a decent job with flesh — there is a good lamb curry ($8.95), with cubes of boneless (and reasonably tender) meat in a tomato-based sauce, and a nice, slightly sweet version of shrimp bhuna ($12.95), large prawns sautéed in a stir-fried spice mixture with tomatoes, ginger, and garlic — but really, if the only nonvegetarian items on offer were of chicken, you wouldn’t complain. Chicken is possibly the meat most compatible with, even in need of, strong spicing, and the tandoori chicken ($8.95 for a half bird) is marvelous, tangy-tender with an edge of char, while the chicken tikka masala ($10.95) met with the enthusiastic approval of the CTM aficionado, who spent several minutes wiping up the remnant gravy with shreds of cooling naan. Even the plain chicken tikka ($10.95) — chunks of boneless, marinated meat cooked on skewers in the tandoor — met the highest standards of moistness and tastiness despite an absence of sauce.
The vegetable dishes too are solid, if stolid, citizens. Spinach, the bane of many a childhood but a cherished source of antioxidants for adults, appears in two guises: cooked simply with tomatoes and a curry blend (saag bhaji, $5.95) and with chunks of white cheese instead of tomatoes (saag paneer, $6.95). Mutter paneer includes cubes of the same fresh white cheese but replaces the spinach with peas for a touch of sweetness that nicely smooths the edge of the curry sauce, while chana masala ($5.95) lets chickpeas be chickpeas, with gentle spicing that bolsters rather than competes with the beans’ naturally nutty flavor.
Many of these dishes turn up at the lunch buffet, along with a mild, though dramatically yellow, mulligatawny soup (a close relative of dal, the famous Indian lentil stew) — the presence of turmeric was strongly suspected — and fabulous pappadum, the wrinkly, crackery disks of flash-fried lentil flour still carrying a slight sheen of oil. Lunch also includes pakora, the fritters of shredded vegetables, though like forensic examiners studying the evidence of an especially baffling murder, we were unable to establish which.
The naan, of course, is splendidly pillowy and warm. At lunch it’s free and abundant — so go then if you’re hooked — but even at dinner, when you have to pay by the piece, you get a disk the size of a medium pizza for just $1.50. Adherents to a variety-is-the-spice-of-life philosophy might opt instead for the puri ($1.50), a naanlike round of dough that’s puffy, golden, and slightly crisp from a turn in the deep fryer rather than the oven; like its distant relation langos (the fried bread of Hungary), it resembles a pizza crust made of pastry. But enough pillow talk. SFBG
Dinner: Sun.–Thurs., 5–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5–11 p.m.
Lunch: Daily, 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
1653 Polk, SF
Beer and wine
CHEAP EATS My first two girlfriends were boys. My next three were girls. My wife was a crustacean, and it’s hard to tell with crustaceans. Crawdad and I have been divorced now for closer to two years than one, and I’m starting to get to be about ready to squeeze someone, maybe. Question is: procedure. I’m in a funny position, and I talk about it, and my friends say, "Online dating. Online dating."
In the world, there are not a lot of people lining up to date chicken farmers of ambiguous gender and weirdo ways. There are some people, but not a lot of people. There are five people. And probably in general they are not hanging out at my new favorite restaurant, or haunting Bay Area scrap yards and baseball fields. No, they’re at home in front of their computers, online, looking for love. Cool. Because while the world is beautiful, exciting, fun, unpredictable, unimaginably immense, and inspiringly odd, the Internet allows you to type in exactly what you’re looking for.
Of course, the big huge question on everyone’s mind right now, online and off, is: Well? But which kind is the Chicken Farmer going to go for? M. Male, I think, probably, this time. But it’s been a while, and I’m scared. So a man with a small penis. And a sense of humor. And, since I may as well shoot myself in the other foot too while I’m at it, a 1990 Ford F-150 pickup truck, lime green. Oh, and an open mind.
I see the wisdom in online dating. I do. You can’t pack all this information into the creases on your forehead, or what color shirt you wear, or the world’s best pickup line. Even if you manage a long conversation, there are some things you’re not going to be able to say — unless you drink a real lot, and then you run the risk of not being understood or, worse, wetting your pants.
In print you can be very clear. You can be sober. You can know exactly who you are and exactly what you want, and, in exact American English, you can spell it out: "B W MTF TG CF seeks M w/SP (or F w/SSOD) for F, F, and maybe F. No V!" … where V = vegetarians.
This column will appear on the World Wide Web along with a valid e-mail address that I will no doubt have to change soon due to a deluge of four or five offers. There. I am officially online dating. But I still don’t have a cell phone. Does this make me eccentric?
(Oh, btw, F = fried.)
How about if I start hanging out all the time at Café International, my new favorite coffeehouse in my new favorite neighborhood, the Lower Haight? I went there on Saturday afternoon to see my new favorite band, the Mercury Dimes. Earl Butter (of my new favorite band, the Buckets), was with me, and we ran into Mike and Tom from my new favorite band, the Shut-Ins. What a place!
Earl ordered a Turkish coffee, and the Chicken Farmer ordered a chicken turnover with salad. The Mercury Dimes were taking a break. Then they started to play again, and they were my new favorite band. Old-time music. Two fiddles, banjo, guitar, bass, no mics. And when they sing, they just all belt it out together.
I’m not a music reviewer, but the chicken turnover was great. It was perfectly turned over, and the salad had grapes on top of it, and olives with the pits still in them, and all kinds of other stuff. Nice, big salad. I forget what it costed. Probably exactly what you’d expect it to cost. Otherwise: sandwiches, bagels, soup, Middle Eastern things, a Cuban thing, um, international things. Eclectic, good, friendly, artsy. Reminds me of the Mission District’s beloved Atlas Café (only friendlier) — and not necessarily because that’s where I’ve usually seen the Mercury Dimes. The layout’s very similar, counter to your left, music all the way back. Then beyond that there’s an outdoor patio.
And lots of very beautiful, cool-looking, real live people hang out there, just like at the Atlas, having coffee, reading newspapers, and thinking about sex or sports, probably for all I know wondering where their next eggs are going to come from. But what’s a chicken farmer supposed to do? Talk to them?
No lie. This is the truth: I have laryngitis right now, but I’ll be back. Meanwhile, imagine me on a gorgeous day like today, in front of my computer, eating lemons and drinking tea. SFBG
Sat.–Thurs., 8 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fri., 8 a.m.–midnight
508 Haight, SF
Takeout and delivery available
Beer and wine
Credit cards not accepted