Sunday, June 27, 2010

What I did on my holidays - part two.

Our time in San Francisco wasn't devoted entirely to food  but where you are going to eat and what you are going to have become serious preoccupations when you are away from home. One of our first stops was Wholefoods on 4th Street to stock up on some basic bits and pieces.
 I was excited about having a look around here but in the end it was just another supermarket - albeit with an extensive range of organic products and high prices. I don't quite know what I had expected but  the diverse and interesting cheese counter and the bakery and the displays of vegetables,  the demonstrator sampling barbecue flavoured organic chicken sausages, the shelves lined with boxes and packets of processed foods looked pretty much like Coles or Woolworths to me.
Nor was it necessary to trudge all the way to Wholefoods to find organic products. Because we were intrigued we purchased a tub of 'Wallaby Organic' Dulche de leche creamy Australian style low fat yogurt which claimed to be "as delicious and distinctive as the Australian yogurts which inspired it". Apart from not approving of their spelling of yoghurt I was more than a little surprised that the manufacturers had spent their holidays in Australia studying our product.
According to the label "Wallaby's signature style comes from a small batch cooking process that includes long culturing and gentle handling" and the tub we sampled (which was classified USDA organic) contained
organic cultured pasteurized reduced fat milk (sourced from pasture-based family farms in Northern California)
organic evaporated cane juice
organic tapioca syrup
natural flavour
organic caramel colour
organic locust bean gum
organic vanilla extract
Clearly it is important not to confuse 'organic' with 'natural'. I don't really think I felt any better about eating this than I would do about eating any other  flavoured yoghurt - which now I am no longer on holidays I am not likely to do.
For me it wasn't possible to be in San Francisco without going over to Berkeley and eating at Chez Panisse.

I have to admit to being a little concerned that the reality might not meet my expectations but I was oddly reassured from the beginning when we actually walked right past without realising we had arrived. We ate lunch in the cafe upstairs - timber floors; simple chairs and booths opposite the long narrow open kitchen; paper covering the white table cloth, linen serviettes; not full but busy and tables turn over quickly; lots of friendly and very knowledgeable floor staff; a simple photocopied menu with plenty of choice - 9 'starters', 5 main courses and 7 desserts; smallish, manageable portions presented on small coloured plates - cream and mushroom*; no fancy cutlery or other doo-dads on the table. A relaxed and comfortable atmosphere, with no hint of  international notoriety, which obviously belies the careful thought which has gone into its creation.
The open kitchen was a revelation - long and narrow, with the wood fired oven blazing away - not only could you see what the chefs were doing but many of the raw materials were on display, so close that you could reach out and touch them - should you want to of course.
The food was excellent, unfussy, fresh and tasty. The Terra Firma Farm grapefruit and avocado salad with ginger vinaigrette and the Monterey Bay sardine toasts with cucumber salad and anise hyssop were followed by Sweetcorn pudding souffle with morel mushrooms, spinach and cipollini and Northern halibut baked on a fig leaf with snap peas, carrots, little turnips and herb butter. And then we squeezed in Bing cherry tart with pistachio ice cream and a plate of Meyer lemon puffs with Lucero Farms strawberries and kirsch cream . The former was the best cherry anything I have ever tried. The latter translated as three profiteroles filled with a mixture of lemon curd and creme patisserie served with macerated strawberries and a dob of cream - the pastry was magnificent (not hard and chewy, not soggy) and the balance of the lemon tang was swoon-worthy.
I was a bit surprised to find that the majority of the wines were imported - from Italy, France, Germany, Spain and even Austria. We stuck to local product and even tried the Natural Process Alliance Sauvignon Blanc from the Russian River Valley which apparently comes in 750ml reusable stainless steel containers. This wine is so virtuous that it has no added sulfites  and is unfiltered which means that the glass comes to your table looking like a sample you might take to the doctor with some trepidation  - unfortunately it didn't taste as morally uplifting as it sounded.
So no disappointments or downsides at all although this restaurant does have the smallest 'ladies' I have ever encountered (even this can be forgiven because of the fabulous handbasin - you need to see for yourself).

Another must-do eating experience was to visit a taqueria in the Mission District. We made our way to La Cumbre, because this was the most convenient for us, and waded through an enormous plate of puerco with all the trimmings. How anyone eats one of their burritos without wearing most of it is a total mystery. Chez Panisse this is not but lots of fun all the same.

Other food related experiences involved eating freshly cooked Dungeness crab with our fingers down at Fisherman's Wharf and hunting for recipe books. I had most success at Green Apple Books on Clement Street but loved going into City Lights  - the only bookshop which has a category headed 'muckraking'.

And we didn't eat here but it did put me in mind of  our garlic lunch at Sunnybrae!

* The dinnerware  at Chez Panisse is made by Heath Ceramics, based in Sausalito. The colours of the Chez Panisse range are in fact jicama, ginger, cardoon and forest! The food actually filled the plates which brought to mind Gay Bilson's ideas about the isolation of food on a white plate with a wide rim. Here the food tended to blend into the dish it was served in, making it seem more interesting and less intimidating, much less 'restauranty', altogether more approachable. Heath Ceramics have an outlet at the Ferry Building and if I had had a way of getting some of their plates home I would have been very tempted, even though it is cheaper to have the menu de jour at Chez Panisse ($26US for 3 courses) than to buy just one of the plates on which it is served ($42US for the dinner plate).

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