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Trying to eat something delicious, each and every day.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

NOPA

Another checkmark taken care of on the ever-growing list of "To hit" San Francisco restaurants: NOPA. We had a wonderful birthday meal tonight with S & E, at a very reasonable price to boot. NOPA has been described to me as the younger, hipper alternative to Zuni. I wouldn't say it's quite up to Zuni's standards, but it is more reasonably priced and quite delicious!

We started off with drinks. From the left: "The last drop" was a lot like a Revolver (bourbon with a hint of coffee), there was a sherry and huckleberry cocktail, and I had a glass of Nebbiolo Barolo that was actually quite disappointing. I should have stuck to the cocktails and let our server suggest something: all her suggestions were great. In addition to being incredibly helpful, she was also exceptionally nice. One of our drinks took awhile to come, and when we mentioned it she brought it and comped it. In this economy? That is service with a smile!

Amuse bouch: very thin, crackly toasted bread topped with tomato and zucchini. It was a tiny bite, but tasty.

Grilled sardines with fresh English peas and deep fried garbanzo beans ($10). The garbanzo beans were dusted in cumin and some other spices. Nice dish, but not exceptional. We only had one appetizer at the table, but from what I saw at other tables NOPA might be one restaurant where entree quality far outpaces appetizer quality. At a lot of SF restaurants, the opposite is true.

J had the chicken. He rarely orders chicken, but he saw it at the next table as well as spinning on the rotisserie in the open kitchen and the size of the birds sealed the deal. This is half of what is at least a four pound bird ($18). Herbs are stuffed under the skin, which is crispy and salted. The sides included pickled red onions and lightly dressed green beans. J gave half a chicken breast to our friends and a drumstick to me and was still left with enough to fill him. Lovers of roast chicken, listen up: this is a moist, flavorful, nicely seasoned chicken that would be a good meal for two. This was the least exciting dish, but by far the best bargain.

Our friends both had the duck ($24). WOW! I love duck, but not many restaurants prepare it perfectly. I have to say, NOPA came close. The breast piece I tried was juicy and still a little rare in the very center, and the leg bone was somehow cooked so it had a completely different texture and flavor. The polenta with corn and peas, on the other hand, wasn't great. It was oddly sweet to me, though maybe it would have tasted good with the duck.

I had the grilled pork with grilled peaches ($23), which was the biggest surprise of the evening. I'm not sure if they glazed the pork with honey, sugar, or something else, but it took on the sweet charred flavor of Taiwanese pork jerky. This enormous, two inch thick pork chop with a bone at least seven inches long took all my willpower to finish. But finish it I did, right to the tender medium rare bits clinging to the bone. The summer peaches were grilled just long enough so they had grill marks but not be mushy. There's something about pork and fresh fruit that just works.

I was told not to miss desserts at NOPA, but I didn't pick well tonight. The chevre ice cream was good but not great, and the stone fruit galette fell flat for me ($9). The crust, even the part not touching the sauce or ice cream, was soggy and bland, and apologies to pie lovers but I just cannot get behind warm cooked fruit. Fruit, especially peaches right now, are so delicious. Baking it just destroys fresh flavors and turns the texture mushy.

Our friends, on the other hand, scored with their ice cream sandwich ($9). The two chocolate-dipped chocolate cookies had a light airy texture that prevented them from freezing solid, and the cherry almond ice cream went beautifully with both the chocolate and almond milk. Stellar idea and execution on NOPA's part.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

1550 Hyde and Swensen's

Another destination checked off the list: 1550 Hyde!

Let's step back for a moment, though. 1550 Hyde isn't what I'd call a destination restaurant. It's very good California cuisine, but it's only one of at least a dozen restaurants in SF that offer seasonal, local cuisine prepared in a way that highlights color, freshness, and delicacy of flavor. Price points, menu items, and ambiance tend to be very similar at all these places. It becomes almost a matter of picking which one is closest to you and has a table available: tonight, that place was 1550 Hyde.

I started with a watermelon salad because I saw another table get it and wanted to eat yellow watermelon for nostalgia's sake. The salad also had purslane and cucumbers in it, and a generous topping of feta. Very nicely done. Compared to my watermelon salad, I'd say it had less acid and more olive oil.

J started with the salmon tartare. Yum! The salmon was cut into rather large pieces for a tartare, which was great because we could taste the fish. There was parsley and just a hint of alcohol in the dish to take the edge off the salmon's fishiness. Arugula and yellow cherry tomatoes were a decorative touch.

J had the Berkshire pork tenderloin, which surprisingly was beaten flat and batter fried in an oregano-heavy breading. He'd been toying with the idea of going to Suppenkuche tonight for schnitzel, so it was the perfect coincidence. If I were being extremely picky I'd say the dead center piece of the pork could have been less cooked, but I'm really grasping for straws with that one. 99% of this was delicious, and the juicy fatty parts near the bone were out of this world.

I had the short ribs in red wine sauce with a gremolata of parsley and lemon rind. That gremolata was a surprise! I couldn't stop picking at it because lemon with beef was so unexpected. Also delicious were the tomatoes, which were warmed just enough that they exploded in my mouth, but not enough so that any tartness had been released. And the polenta had a fresh corn flavor and a lot of whole corn kernels mixed in. Not to detract from the beef, which was fork tender even though it was quite lean, but I think it was the sides on this dish that really stood out. Total bill for both of us was $90 after all was said and done (two appetizers, two entrees, and a glass of red wine). Not cheap, not expensive, just a very typical example of what San Franciscans enjoy eating on any given Friday night.

We hiked up the hill after dinner to check another destination off our list: Swensen's. It's one of San Francisco's old-time scoop shops. We shared a cone of the chewy chocolate, one of their most popular flavors. I enjoyed it a lot. Deep chocolate flavor with a hint of malt. I think I like their ice cream more than Mitchell's, which is too sugary and uses a lot of fake tasting flavoring. Plus, Swensen's is a veritable bargain at $2.50 for a small scoop in a sugar cone. Thank you to my lovely hand model: it was a great date night!

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bushi-Tei

Bushi-Tei continues to be one of our favorite restaurants in SF. We don't go for dinner because we can't afford it, but we have been twice for lunch/brunch and plan to go a lot more! It's pricey, but a great value for the overall experience.

First off, the space and service are both lovely. The restaurant is a combination of sleek modern furniture and rustic traditional wooden Japanese walls. The servers are all incredibly knowledgeable and very nice.

Brunch comes with an assortment of fresh baked goods from the house oven. From the left: something that tasted like a regelach, a berry pound cake, chocolate croissants, and little almond and marzipan tarts.

Here are my four treats along with my fresh grapefruit "mimosa." The drink was lovely, but not something I'd necessarily order again.

Soup of the day: Yukon potatoes and corn chowder. It's so creamy you won't believe there's no dairy in it! The flavors really pop, just like they do in almost every Bushi-Tei dish.

Arctic char salad. If you want something light and refreshing, this is your dish. Cold, sweet slices of fish and a lightly dressed mix of delicate greens.
Maison salad with bacon and a poached egg. This is more like a Cobb salad, but less heavy-handed.
The winning entree of the day: red crabcakes! I couldn't believe how big these patties were. They were probably the size of a small fast food burger, and had very little filling. The crab flavor was so intense my mouth started watering at first bite. The perfectly poached farm fresh eggs and Hollandaise only heightened the experience.

A second look at that egg: WOW! Deep orange, thick, creamy, delicious. And since there were two, this dish was really filling.

I had the fish of the day, which was seared amberjack. Beautifully done, slightly reminiscent of mackerel, but not on the same level as the crabcakes. What I did notice was that the vegetables were super sweet. The polenta on the side was just okay.

Scallops and spaghettini in a broth with mushrooms and chrysanthemum leaves. Yum! The dish looks run of the mill, but the homemade pasta and richly flavorful broth were not something that can be achieved at home. I firmly believe Bushi-Tei has earned it's Michelin star because its best dishes have the most mundane descriptions.

We barely had room for dessert, but we had to make an effort. This is the apple dumpling wrapped in pasry dough and topped with vanilla ice cream. The best part, in my opinion, is the pool of burnt caramel at the bottom.

Our favorite dessert is the black sesame blancmange. The texture is like that of panna cotta, but slightly more grainy because of the tiny bits of sesame still visible in the sesame powder used to make it. They top it with a thin layer of coconut reduction and a strawberry and pineapple "salsa" with tiny bits of jalepeno and a mint garnish. Not only is it beautiful, the strawberries today were intensely sweet.

In addition to being hands down one of the best tasting lunch spots in San Francisco, Bushi-Tei is quite reasonably priced compared to the other hard-hitters on the dining scene. Lunch entrees are about $!15, and brunch is $25 for your choice of soup/salad and entree. And if you're armed with a $50 restaurant.com coupon, choosing Bushi-Tei becomes a real no-brainer.

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