But there is a San Francisco. Ashleigh Brilliant wrote this, and quite honestly no truer words were ever penned. Every time I arrive in the City by The Bay, my soul simply sings.
When my singing soul needs sustenance, there is no shortage of bistros, grills, and eateries of all sorts to fuel the symphony within. Just wandering through the streets – which are teeming with life from pre-dawn hours to well after Midwestern bedtime – presented me with global fare and delicious options that made my choices difficult. I had the feeling, however, that no matter what my choice I would have no regrets.
My gut … as usual … was right.
My first stop was for a late lunch at the lovely bistro, Le Central. It was late enough in the afternoon to have the lunch crowd gone. There were a couple of regulars and a cheery bar tender who was happy to have me sit at the bar. I ordered my favorite French lunch of escargot and big glass of red wine, and relaxed into the atmosphere.
One of the most fabulous characteristics of San Francisco is the unabashed openness of the people. Whether they are native to the city or travellers, like me, there is little fear of striking up conversation and enjoying the community that sharing a meal provides. At Le Central, Toni the bartender; Gloria, the executive who heads up global HIV/AIDS initiatives for a bioscience company; and Sandra, her vibrant, funny, lifelong friend, scooped me up into their conversation. They told me about a trip they’d taken to Bali. We shared a “St. Louis Connection.” They told me about the majesty of Yosemite and the Ahwahnee Hotel. We talked about idealism and the real-world practicality of it all. We talked about cancer and we talked about living.
It was like I was supposed to be there, with them, on that glorious day.
When my escargot arrived, complete with half a baguette and full-fat French butter, my senses were electrified. The perfectly tender snails were basking in little pools of butter and garlic. The splash of Pernod gave them a signature sweetness and edge that makes the escargot a must-have dish. And good God; mopping up that divine sauce with the baguette was an act of pure decadence.
I was so very thankful to have my ad hoc lunching companions. Our spirited and convivial conversation kept me from eating so fast as to embarrass everyone and exposing myself as a glutton.
As my late lunch came to a close and my merry group said our goodbyes, I walked on clouds back to my hotel relishing in an afternoon that was better than anything I could have hoped for. I was grateful and my soul was humming a happy tune.
Never one to skip a meal (seriously, have we met?), I set my sights on a late-ish dinner. My destination for this meal was no mystery. Armed with a recommendation from Paul*, a foodie Facebook friend from Phoenix, I got ready to make my way to the Tadich Grill in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District. Paul’s instructions were simple: Order the cioppino and a cold beer, you won’t be sorry.
The Tadich Grill is a little bit old-school. When you go the website, there is only a page that says it its “website is coming off the grill soon.” So, not knowing quite what to expect (Is it a fancy place? Will it be weird if I’m dining sans companion?), I decided to go for a casually cool look, packed a book, and hailed a taxi.
As I walked through the door, the hustle and bustle let me know that I’d arrived as just my kind of place. The waiter behind the bar hollered out, “ONE!?!?” I similarly hollered back, “YES!,” and he directed me to a seat at a long, art deco bar. It seemed as though nearly all of the restaurant were flying solo.
(Note to file: The book and taxi were both unnecessary!)
Although I glanced at the menu, which was extensive, I simply followed Paul’s directions and ordered the cioppino and a Stella Artois. The meal that came to me was out of this world.
To start, when you take your seat, there is a huge hunk – yeah, HUNK – of sourdough bread waiting. It might make you think that the grill skimps on its portions. Rest assured, that is not the case. When the main attraction arrived in a trough-sized dish, this stew was packed with sea food: Clams and mussels; scallops and shrimp; halibut and Dungeness crab. It was perfect.
Here’s something to know. Often the various components of a mixed-seafood anything can be uneven in the cooking which can make for tough scallops, rubbery shrimp, or all-around blandness. This was definitely not the case with the Tadich Grill cioppino. Whether or not every piece of seafood was cooked individually I do not know. What I do know is that every bite was tender and sweet and flavorful in just the right way. It was amazing.
As I took each bite, a hint of heat punctuated the brilliant flavor. At no time did I run out of the “good stuff.” As a matter of fact, I got full before the magnificent trough was empty and failed to finish my meal.
Um … that never happens. I was sad to leave such goodness behind.
With a heavy heart, and a full tummy, I settled up my tab and walked back to my hotel, mostly uphill, and as always, in high heels. My soul was beginning to sing a sweet lullaby.
As the sun was coming up on the next day – a real work day for me, as I was there as a freelance marketing representative for Elsevier, the world’s largest STM publisher – I had a bit of a food hangover so breakfast was out of the question. It was an easy pass, however, because I knew what was ahead for the evening: Dinner at Ame, the Michelin-rated restaurant in the chichi St. Regis Hotel.
First, the St. Regis is so deluxe that the only sign is a small white plaque near the entrance. I loved it!
My dining companions for the evening were Cynthia, an executive publisher and a mentor with Elsevier; Dr. Doug Zipes, editor-in-chief of HeartRhythm Journal and author of the thriller, The Black Widows; and his lovely wife and managing editor, Joan. It was an evening filled with smart chat, big laughs, and great food.
My meal began with a beet salad, which was presented in the most artistic way. These lovely roasted baby beets, both sunshine yellow and vibrant red-purple, were positioned around the plate vertically and also sliced and placed horizontally. Goat cheese crème fraiche dotted the plate and made for a perfectly delicate dressing (if you can call it that). Plus, it looked really pretty when I dragged the red-purple beets through the white and little trails of pink were left behind.
The evening we were there, Ame’s special was sea bass – a personal favorite – with grilled octopus. Really … I eat snails … how could I say “no” to grilled octopus? This is, after all, one of the primary reasons it is fun to dine at fancy-schmancy restaurants: you get good stuff.
To be certain, the sea bass was perfection. The grilled octopus, however, was the star of the show. A visual treat and a tasty nosh, it had a delicate smoky quality from the grilling that refined the usually sweet sea treat and elevated it from mere calamari.
The experience at Ame was made a little extra-special-wonderful because of the deluxe service. Let’s face it, Michelin stars aren’t handed out willy-nilly. No, they are earned through a combination of innovative cuisine and well-trained, attentive-but-not-intrusive staff. The team who took care of our table – we asked lots of questions, switched up described preparations, and bantered shamelessly – was accommodating, light-hearted, and put the exclamation point on our evening.
At the end of our meal, our entire party felt indulged and pampered.
Replaying the night’s repartee and repast as I taxied back to the hotel, the pace and volume of my soul’s concert changed as frequently as a newly licensed 16-year-old changes the radio station. I was giddy and bubbly and happy to have been included in such a lovely evening.
On my last full day in San Francisco, my colleague, Matt (who’s a delightful foodie, too!), and I decided we would venture out of the usual downtown area and try a restaurant that @Kimberly9938 (one of my fabulous foodie Twitter followers)* had recommended with great enthusiasm: Nopa.
To quote Usher, “wow, oh, wow!”
At the onset, it was great to hit up a neighborhood. Nopa is located in the heart of the Northern Panhandle – hence the name – area of the city. Modest homes (although not likely modestly priced … it is San Francisco), markets, delis, and shops lined the busy streets. Young families were out and about carrying on life that was different from Downtown.
When we arrived at Nopa – and yes, if you’re downtown a taxi is totally necessary – we were welcomed into a warm environment where community was clearly intrinsic to the philosophy of the restaurant. A large community table is situated by the bar, and the places there quickly filled in with diners and drinkers who shared easy smiles and exchanged hearty, “hellos!”
Matt and I chose to sit at the Chef’s Table, which looks directly into the kitchen. As colleagues, we could “talk shop” all dinner long. Sitting in this place, however, at this time, we were able to engage with the sous chef and talk about … what else … food and our love of it.
Rather than stick to a traditional dinner, we jumped right into the community atmosphere of Nopa. We got twice the bang for the buck by agreeing on two appetizers and two entrees and sharing them between us. Matt chose the flatbread with bacon and shallots. I chose the giant white beans, tomato, feta, oregano and breadcrumbs. Both the flatbread and the beans were baked in a wood-fired brick oven.
Now, those of you who know me know one thing: I don’t like bacon. Yes, I eat pork. Yes, I LOVE sausage. I really just don’t care for bacon. As we were watching the flatbreads come from the oven, I found that I couldn’t resist and I was glad that Matt had ordered one up. It was divine. The bacon was perfectly done – not too crisp, not too limp — and full of amazing flavor. The sweet tang of shallot complemented the meaty pork. And the finish of olive oil made it just perfect. My, oh, my! (Another Usher reference.)
My giant white bean bake (for lack of the better descriptor) hit me in my giant comfort food spot. Simple and beautiful; warm and thick; aromatic and bubbly, the dish came straight from the brick oven. While I know we’d agreed to share our dishes, I was a little sore that I’d promised to share this one. It was the kind of dish that you eat a little too quickly because you’re afraid someone might take it away.
For the entrée, Matt ordered the grilled pork chop and I ordered the 9-hour Bolognese with house-made pappardelle. Let me be clear: The pork chop was the way to go.
Way too often, whether I’m at home or in a restaurant, pork is always overdone. A little too white all the way through; a little too dry.
At Nopa, the grilled pork chop, which had to be at least an inch and a half thick, is just a little pink in the middle and juicy. So juicy, in fact, you’d think they injected the chop with jus. But no, the pork chop is simply a superstar example of perfectly grilled meat. It brings out the Fred Flinstone in the daintiest woman; it speaks to the unapologetic carnivore within; it makes you want another portion even though you know it’s preposterous.
My Bolognese was good. Very good, in fact. But I really wanted my very own pork chop. And one to go!
The evening of incredible food, communal dining, and awesome people (my colleague, our cool and edgy waitress, the sous chef, and the patrons on either side of us) created an experience that was at once chic and unselfconscious. My soul was in the San Francisco swing of things, singing out in happy, hippy, poetic tones that felt like the shining sun.
San Francisco is my heaven, and I’m so lucky to have been there time and time again. I feel like a better, brighter version of me came home. For me, that feeling comes from the meals I shared, the people I met, the adventure I charted for myself and the beautiful music that the whole experience created within my soul.
I wish I could share the happy song I hear with all of you; but, I’m tone deaf. So please, go find – or revisit – your heaven, venture into a new place, chat up the folks next to you, engage your waiter or waitress, listen closely to what happens in your soul, and Eat It, St. Louis!
* Thank you to Paul and Kimberly, a Facebook friend and Twitter follower respectively, who guided me to great places in San Francisco. I love social media and how it enables people with similar interests to connect and share. Thank you for pulling your chairs up to my table and being part of the conversation. Without you, this post would have been only half as long … and half as interesting!