San Francisco’s Ongoing Culinary Evolution
San Franciscans live with an abundance of food harvested fresh near their doorsteps year around. Nowhere is this profusion of delectable delights more visible than at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market open three days a week and situated along the Embarcadero, at the very edge of the city where the tall downtown office towers end and the sea begins.
On a recent Saturday morning the sun succeeded in burning off the fog that enshrouded the Golden Gate Bridge, and the water sparkled. Commuter boats chugged, bound for Sausalito or Tiburon. The seagulls and sea lions splashed about, competing for fishy morsels. By nine o’clock buskers and circus artists arrived to work the crowds that were otherwise preoccupied filling their grocery carts and knapsacks with collard greens, beets, leeks, Meyer lemons, and an array of baked goods.
Mingling amidst the masses are several of the city’s best-known chefs, like Hotel Nikko’s Philippe Striffeler, who frequent the market each week. In the last five or six years, these chefs have transformed the culinary scene in San Francisco into one with an artisan global reputation. The chefs shop here and then trundle off to kitchens all around town to produce hand crafted sauces, house cured meats, and colorful vegetable dishes, all of them using the produce harvested at organic farms that practice sustainable agriculture.
(There are at least another dozen farmer’s markets scattered throughout the city, according to the California Farmer’s Markets group.
During my three-day visit, I met chefs and restaurateurs, and was invited to dine at their establishments. What I witnessed and tasted was nothing short of culinary alchemy.
Here’s a report on a gastronomical adventure that began at Ferry Plaza.
Oysters and champagne at Hog Island
Victoria Libin, a friend since student days in Boston, who co-founded and co-owns A16 and SPQR, two popular San Francisco restaurants, served as my guide.
"Meet me at Hog Island, for oysters and champagne at six p.m.," she texted, and I was flooded with memories of the times when we used polish off Blue Point and Wellfleet oysters by the dozens at the Union Oyster House in Boston.
It was easy for me to get there on time: home base during my stay was Hotel Nikko, the very comfortable and centrally hotel located near Union Square, a twenty minute walk to the Embarcadero. The hotel is also near the Powell Street station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) light rail that connects to all parts of the Bay area.
Hog Island air freights oysters from the east coast and raises other varieties, since the early 1980s, at their aqua farm in Tomales Bay in Marshall, California, around an hour and half north of the city near Point Reyes National Seashore. We sat at a bar inside the renovated ferry building that houses shops and food emporiums that reminded me of the Chelsea Market on 9th Avenue in Manhattan.
Hog Island also sells their wares during market days outside the building.
"We won’t order the Atlantic oysters," Victoria said, "let’s stick to the Pacific ones."
The shucked bivalves arrived on a bed of ice all sweet and briny, needing no condiment, but I asked for horseradish and it arrived homemade and freshly shaved in a small cup, spicy and biting. We spent the next hour or so devouring them, and then hailed a cab for the Marina district.
Dinner at A16 in the Marina
Victoria and A16 co-owner Shelley Lindgren met by happenstance: they were both dining at the same restaurant ten years ago, and became fast friends. They soon became business partners, and identified that San Francisco lacked a restaurant that remained true to the hand crafted, slow cooking methods they preferred. Libin wrote their business plan naming the restaurant after the highway that runs from Naples to Canosa, Puglia, in Italy.
A16 is in the Marina district. They opened a second restaurant, SPQR, in the Filmore neighborhood, in August 2007.
Lindgren, a native of Marin County, spent several years at a fine-dining restaurant before earning her sommelier certificate. San Francisco Magazine has lauded her as the Best Wine Director among other accolades. She greeted us at the restaurant’s foyer with a warm hug and a bright smile, and seated us near the open kitchen and wood-burning oven. I marveled at the chefs who busily prepared the thin-crusted Neapolitan pizza, which arrived warm and bubbly, and without a trace of oiliness to which we Americans have grown so accustomed.
Soon a dizzying array of plates arrived, each paired with a wine Lindgren recommended for us. We were served a fabulous local albacore with a dried fava bean puree; a selection of house cured salami with pickles and grissini; freshly made goat sausage. The highlight, for me, was the maccaronara with ragu napolentana, dreamy in its complexity and richness. All of the produce served at A16 is locally grown. They import a special olive oil newly pressed from Italy. And each wine that was served to me was more flavorful than the one that preceded it.
Bar Tartine and Tartine Bakery
If there is any doubt that San Franciscans revere their restaurants, pay a visit to the Mission district (again, a short light rail ride to Mission stations via BART from Hotel Nikko), and look at the people queuing up to sample the pastrami at the newly opened Wise Sons Deli. The San Francisco Chronicle even ran a photo spread of their grand opening.
The same queuing up takes place at Tartine Bakery and Café, on Guerrero Street in the Mission, one of two dining establishments owned and operated by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson, who were awarded the James Beard prize in 2008.
Victoria chastised me for nibbling on a croissant earlier during my visit to a Ferry Plaza bakery.
"You haven’t lived until you taste Tartine’s croissants," and she admonished me for my earlier grazing at Ferry Plaza, when, she insisted, I should have saved myself for what she promised would be a sublime experience.
She was right. We stood in line for a half hour, and one nibble of the croissant was like being transported back to Paris: the pastry was delicate, flaky, warm and buttery.
Bar Tartine on Valencia Street has no signage etched onto either its door or windows, which I found a bit quirky, but that doesn’t deter the crowds from coming here, either. The dishes - spiced egg salad, beef brisket, Russian style beet salad, smoked rainbow trout -- are hand crafted with an eye toward artistic perfection, and served on a wooden tray with house baked sprouted rye.
I watched as one of the line chefs prepared our order: carefully constructing each layered piece so that it arrived as a feast for the senses.
Later I was given a tour of the larder where the chefs are preserving their own picked red onions, sauerkraut, and collecting regional herbs and flowers to be later used for teas.
In the Mission, Commonwealth Restaurant calls itself a "progressive American restaurant" but that description hardly does justice to the imagination of executive chef Jason Fox, who previously worked at Bar Tartine.
Each plate the chef put together arrived like a tone poem. There was attention to detail I have not seen anywhere, and the food was carefully constructed with an eye toward balance, elegance and color.
I nibbled on fois gras served with fresh locally harvested greens, chopped figs and nuts; I sipped a puree of broccoli that was neon bright and so exquisite it made me forget my aversion to it. Other highlights include Jerusalem artichoke, served with an onion cooked in hay, quinoa, chickweed and quail egg, and a fabulous abalone salad, served with Asian pear, radish, tapioca, horseradish, and dashi gelee.
There is never a sense of being rushed at Commonwealth, or, for that matter, at the other restaurants I visited. You are invited to dine, to converse, to listen, to watch, to let your senses become fulfilled. Chef Fox frequently returned to chat, as did the affable and charming waiter, Adam, who made sure our glasses were never empty. Xelina Leyba, who also previously worked at Bar Tartine, added additional warmth to the experience. It was more akin to being invited into someone’s home than visiting a restaurant.
Before returning home, I chatted again with executive chef Philippe Striffeler at the Hotel Nikko. A native of Switzerland, he has worked in restaurants all over the world.
"I have a small plot of herbs growing on the fifth floor of the hotel here," he told me, "but the climate in this part of San Francisco is not so good for growing herbs, it’s too foggy and damp. Still, whatever grows there I use in my recipes, and the rest I get from the Ferry Plaza marketplace."
Chef Striffeler recently was awarded silver at an international competition in Taiwan. Like many of the chefs I met, he preferred not to accentuate the accolades he has received.
"The awards are always welcome, but the most important thing is delivering quality, each and every time," he said. "We have our fish flown in to Hotel Nikko from Japan; we take pride to serve the best sushi. We import our beef so that it truly melts in your mouth with each bite. We serve a magnificent prime rib. It’s about quality and service, and striving for perfection."
Sentiments, I discovered, that are enthusiastically shared by his fellow San Franciscan chefs.