Posted in Dinner, Food, Lunch, San Francisco

Bar Tartine Is Worth the Wait

Brunch nirvana. That’s what this was.

First off, I’d like to say that it’s so nice to see a restaurant that’s totally deserving of all the hype it’s received.

Second, I feel like I’m the last foodie in the Bay Area to go to Bar Tartine. Regardless, this is now my favorite brunch place in San Francisco, despite it’s location in one of the most hated parking neighborhoods in town. Fortunately, there’s a parking lot on Hoff and 16th Street that you can take advantage of, or just arrive before 11am and park on Dolores. You’ll do just fine.

With places like Delfina, Bi-Rite Creamery, Delfina Pizzeria, Farina, Luna Park, and Andalu all within a four-block radius of both Tartine Bakery and Bar, it’s no wonder this part of the Mission/Valencia is swamped with cars.


It started with the welcoming and gracious host. He was so welcoming it felt like we’d just come to his house for brunch. Even our waiter, once we were seated, was genuinely and surprisingly friendly.

We debated for a while and then finally decided on the French Toast with Marinated Apples and Walnuts, the House Cured Bacon Tartine (like a panini) with Roasted Potatoes, and the Eggs Benedict on Brioche with Arugula and Ham.

Awesome. Just awesome.

When a place is this famous for its bread products, it’s really the cornerstone of all their dishes. Fortunately, it’s also what makes them phenomenal.

And the elements on the plate were deliciously simple, fresh and perfectly prepared. Nothing was overcooked even a smidge, undercooked even a second, carelessly plated even an inch. And what was truly amazing was that this was true from the service to the food.

But what’s even better is that it’s all served up casually, effortlessly, and without pretension. It feels like your neighborhood cafe, but the food, the ingredients and the styling all taste like they came out of a 4-star kitchen.

The poached eggs on my Eggs Benedict were wonderfully runny and a bright yellow, the arugula superior in freshness and the brioche was soft, fluffy and subtly sweet. It was prettiest, simplest and far and away, the best version of this dish I’ve ever had (and I order it A LOT).

I also got to try some of the French Toast, which was amazingly light and only subtly sweet, letting the excellent bread shine through. The accompanying apples were still firm, not mushy. A great way to highlight the beauty of the fruit.

And the Bacon Tartine was the perfect blend of smoky meatiness. I loved how it wasn’t too salty, which is how 80% of the bacon I’ve ever eaten tends to be. And a less than crispy, crunchy panini is always a disappointment. No problem here. And a little ripe avocado added the perfect creamy textural contrast and freshness.

And the dessert was literally the icing on the cake for our dining experience. I was almost afraid it wouldn’t live up to the rest of the meal. I also appreciated how honest our waiter was, telling us the sorbet with prosecco was a little on the sweeter side for a brunch dessert. We promptly decided on the Lemon Pudding Cake with Huckleberry Compote and Hazelnut Biscotti. Again, just divine. The texture of that cake was a cross between the creamiest cheesecake and a moist lemon cake. I don’t know why or how they do it, but it was “just” tart enough, “just” sweet enough, and “just” the right portion.

It was simply the best brunch I’ve had in years. Period.

Bar Tartine on Urbanspoon

Posted in Dinner, Food, For Kids/Parent, Lunch, Peninsula, San Francisco

Shanghainese Food: What to Get and Where to Eat

For most Americans, Chinese food is about Fried Rice, Chow Mein and the occasional Kung Pao Chicken. But China’s a big country, and just like in the States, each region has its own specialties.

For example, the food in Northern China is very different from Southern China. You’ll find a lot of stir-fries and rice dishes in the South, which is much more common in American Chinese restaurants.

Up North, though, the winters are longer and colder, hence their food is richer and tends to be a little heavier (braised meats and doughy noodles and dumplings). It’s good comfort food.

The food from Shanghai is no exception. Here are some tried and true favorites you’ll find at a typical Shanghainese restaurant. If they do these dishes well, you’ll be golden.

Lion’s Head Meatballs are named aptly for the way this dish was supposed to look. The dish usually has three ginormous pork meatballs, and is served on a bed of greens, which resembles the lion’s mane.

You can usually find this dish as a soup or braised. I prefer it braised, personally. The sauce is much richer and deeper in flavor. They start with ground pork and add in some finely chopped shiitake mushrooms and sometimes water chestnuts for texture. But a truly good version of this dish will also have the addition of anise, cinnamon and cloves, usually from a five-spice powder blend. The meatballs are then fried and braised. The flavors are very different, yet the ingredients are totally familiar. It’s such a fabulous dish that has a lot of warmth from the spices and goes great with some steamed white rice.

Pork Chop Rice With Greens is a very traditional homestyle meal. What makes this dish different is that chopped bits of baby bok choy and smoky ham are all cooked together with white rice to get a wonderful melding of all three flavors and a stickier rice. Add to that some golden fried pieces of pork chop and you’ve got a one-pot meal, Chinese style.

This is a wonderfully unusual take on veggies. Here, soybeans (edamame) are stir-fried with preserved mustard greens that add a nice tang and crunch. For protein and even more texture, tofu skin strips are thrown into the mix. It’s a dish that’s both mild and flavorful at the same time. It’s great mixed into a bowl of soup noodles, too.

Soup Dumplings (or Xiao Long Bao) are probably the most recognizable Shanghainese food item to those even remotely familiar with the cuisine. They’re called soup dumplings for the pocket of meat juices that end up on the inside of that delicately thin dough. If the doughy exterior is too thick, that’s a restaurant you don’t want to go back to. Getting the perfect mix of thin dough and flavorful meaty interior is an extremely difficult task. And you want to eat these babies when they’re fresh out of the steamer, otherwise they get gummy.

For novices, just place one dumpling very carefully (so you don’t rip the dough) onto your Chinese spoon. Take a small bite out of the skin and let the soup spill into your spoon. Yummy soup is another good sign of a great dumpling. After you slurp that up, dip the dumpling into the accompanying black vinegar and ginger sauce.

Enjoy…and if it’s good, you definitely will.

So if you love Chinese food, you might want to think outside the takeout box and look for more regionalized Chinese fare. You’ll never look at Kung Pao Chicken the same way again.

Shanghainese Restaurants I’d Recommend:

SHANGHAI DUMPLING SHOP (Michelin recommended in 2010)
455 Broadway, Millbrae
(650) 697-0682
Must try: Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao), Braised Lion’s Head Meatballs, Stir Fried Rice Cake

250 South B St., San Mateo
(650) 340-7138
Must try: Pork Chop Rice, Spicy Dry Cold Noodles w/Cucumbers & Pork, Boiled Chicken w/House Dressing

3319 Balboa St., San Francisco
(415) 387-2088
Must try: Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao), Lion’s Head Meatballs Soup, Soup Noodles w/Pork and Preserved Vegetables

*This post is cross-posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

Posted in Food, For Kids/Parent, Lunch, Peninsula, San Francisco, Street Food

With JapaCurry, It’s All About The Food

From SF Weekly to the Wall Street Journal, the JapaCurry food truck has been getting a lot of press lately for ruffling feathers with San Francisco restaurants located in the areas where the truck is parked.

But one question hasn’t been asked much through it all…How’s the food?

Well, fortunately for owner Jay Hamada, it’s damn good.

Japanese curry is different from Indian or Southeast Asian curries. It is sweeter and has a deeper, richer, meatier flavor base and color than those from other cultures.  It’s also one of the most common meals at dinner tables across Japan because it’s rather inexpensive to prepare.

Hamada’s recipe is purely his own.  He starts from scratch with 80 pounds of onions a day as the basis for each day’s batch of curry, caramelizing them to give the sauce a rich depth of flavor and adding thickness. A day’s batch of curry can take 6-7 hours to make. Just like with a homemade soup or stew, Hamada says homemade Japanese curry is better the next day. Many of these restaurants in his native Japan, let their curries sit for up to a week before serving it so the flavors have time to meld and develop.

Some have talked about their Chicken Katsu Curry lately, but using chicken is a variation of the original and more traditional Pork Cutlet, or “Tonkatsu” Curry served in Japan, so that’s what I opted for.  I was instantly impressed when I open the clamshell box.

The cutlet was breaded and fried to a perfect shade of golden brown and had streaks of brown katsu sauce over the top that not only added flavor, but made for a lovely presentation, especially considering the food came from a truck.

I was even more pleased once I bit into the pork. Despite a 10 minute drive back to my office, the breading was still crisp and never separated from the meat; a true sign of good tonkatsu. The meat itself was juicy and tender, not at all dry. It was obviously a good cut of pork because there was enough fat to ensure juicy meat, but not too much to seem greasy.

The curry was more of a sauce than a thick gloppy stew like you’d see at many Japanese restaurants around town. Hamada says that’s because many Japanese restaurants in America don’t make their curry from scratch. Many times they use curry stock cubes that you buy from an Asian supermarket.

The sauce had a definite kick, even though I ordered the “regular”, not that I’m complaining. The flavors were also much more robust and had a definite warmth that came from the variety of spices, including cumin, coriander, cardamom, mustard seed, turmeric, and a little bit of apple or peach, when in season, to add a touch of sweetness.

Hamada’s recipe is one he developed on his own, after stints at Tanpopo Restaurant in San Francisco and Wakuriya Restaurant in San Mateo. But his background is actually in technology. After getting laid off, he decided to give his passion for food another shot. He even returned to Tokyo to become a trained ramen maker.

But once he returned to the States, he noticed the food truck trend taking off. “I saw food trucks in downtown San Francisco and decided it was a better option because real estate was so expensive. And I used to work at an office, so I know that people want a quick lunch. I thought curry was better for that reason, and it’s easier to serve off a truck than ramen.”

The menu is extremely short with only pork or chicken cutlet, pork Kurobata sausage, veggie and veggie croquette curry options, plus the occasional bento box.  But this curry is the real deal.  The quality and flavor of my meal was excellent considering it came from a truck.  And eight dollars will get you a healthy portion that’ll satisfy your lunch craving.

Hamada says he has no plans to expand outside of San Francisco, for now, but he does want to expand his menu to possibly include a seafood and beef curry.  And he hasn’t abandoned his love of ramen, either. “I miss ramen!  That’s still my goal.  I’d love to have another truck, or maybe I’ll do a ramen restaurant.”

As for all this hoopla he’s been experiencing lately with the restaurants he’s offended downtown, he regrets not doing things differently in the beginning. “I would’ve introduced myself to the businesses in the neighborhood to explain what I do and let them know before I went out there. Overall, some restaurants are skeptical, but many want to try my food and are supportive.”

He admits, though, all this press attention has actually helped business. “My foot traffic has been great because people are curious.  Customers have been very supportive and say good things to me like, ‘Keep it up!’”

Some brick and mortar restaurants may not want a food truck in their neighborhood.  But the reality is if the food is good, people will come back, and the public will ultimately get to determine who stays and who goes.

JapaCurry Food Truck
Various locations in San Francisco, including Sansome and Pine, Howard and 1st St., Mission and New Montgomery, and 8000 Marina Blvd. in Brisbane.
11:30am – 1:30pm

*This article is cross-posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites website.

Posted in Dinner, Food, Lunch, San Francisco

A Classic Yet Modern French Bistro: Chez Papa Resto

Sometimes it’s hard to find a classic French meal. In a town where every new restaurant is trying to outdo the other, simplicity can be hard to find.

But the folks at Chez Papa Resto have it down pat. Yes, the portions might be a little bigger than those you’d find in Paris, but I’m not complaining. The decor here is also very San Francisco with deep colored walls, modern and sophisticated decor and rich purple drapes. But the food and service is very French, meaning the staff knows their stuff. But let’s not mistake that for pretentious. This is not that kind of place. The crowd is very hip San Francisco.

This is true right from the get-go. The waiter was friendly, accommodating, and slick, but not sleazy. We ordered the Prix Fixe menu, which included the Butternut Squash Soup, Steak Frites and Profiteroles for dessert. See, I told you it was classic French!

Butternut Squash Soup

Everything was just as you would expect. It was delicious, richly flavored, yet never too bold that the flavors were overpowering or in your face. It was a perfectly smooth and fresh soup, an expertly cooked piece of meat with delicious buttery garlic flavor and perfectly tasty fries, and the profiteroles were rich and delicious, but never too sweet.

The meal may have set me back a pretty penny, but it was an expertly crafted meal and a wonderful experience that took me back to Paris, so I’d say it’s worth it. Plus the fact that the location is so conveniently located close to San Francisco Center and the Mission and 5th Garage, certainly helps.

I had forgotten to take my credit card with me after we left the restaurant, so I returned shortly thereafter to retrieve it. The Manager who was also manning the host’s station was charming and funny. He even gave me a hug! And his heavy French accent was nothing short of adorable. The classic charming French man :). Even when I arrived, his dapper and nicely suited self was so accommodating, he asked if I liked my table or if he could do something to shade me from the sun that was shining in from the window in front of me.

All that attention to detail is what makes this place better than standard and different than just “simple”. It makes you appreciate the finer things that take a little extra effort. When someone cares about what they do, how they treat others and what they serve, it shows.

This is one of those places.

Chez Papa Resto on Urbanspoon

Posted in Dinner, East Bay, Food, For Kids/Parent, Lunch

Vegans, Vegetarians and Carnivores Dine Together at Gather

Can vegans, vegetarians and carnivores really share a foodie-worthy meal at the same table? They certainly can at Gather in Berkeley. And that’s just the way Esquire Magazine’s 2010 Chef of the Year, and Gather’s Executive Chef, Sean Baker, likes it.

“We want to show the same enthusiasm for every dietary preference, whether it’s lactose intolerance, gluten-free, or veganism. We want to make sure they all get to have the same experience.”

Chef Baker may be a classically trained chef who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, but he’s always been personally interested in being meat-free, even becoming vegan for a time, before he went to culinary school. Now with his fiancee being vegan, he’s even more personally invested in making dishes everyone can enjoy.

“It’s frustrating,” he says. “We eat out a lot and sometimes she can’t have the same experience that I can. Veganism is not an eating style that is embraced by a lot of culinary folks.” Fortunately, Chef Baker says that thinking of a 50/50 vegan/meat menu comes to him quite naturally these days. Must be from his previous stints at Millennium Restaurant, San Francisco’s premier high-end vegan restaurant, and Gabriella Café in Santa Cruz, where he oversaw a meat-heavy menu that sometimes offered offal options.

Chef Baker says, “I read obsessively, eat out obsessively, and I cook obsessively. I love what I do. It’s never a struggle to come up with menus that appeal to everyone.”

But that doesn’t mean it requires less work.

He says, “Vegan food is much more labor intensive in the kitchen, but you can do a lot of great culinary techniques when preparing it. We spend hours and hours doing vegetable stocks. We smoke our tomatoes and caramelize our onions until they can’t be caramelized anymore. We blanch our cardoons and then sous vide them for six hours until they come out perfect. We’re always messing around with things to improve the flavor of food and improve our craft.”

Chef Baker believes in offering comfort food in unpretentious surroundings that are not only beautiful, but eco-friendly. For example, they filter all of the water in the restaurant themselves, used recycled pickle barrels to create the back bar and cabinetry in the open kitchen, and even re-used old leather belts to make the seat cushions in the banquettes.

But this is no tree-hugging, alfalfa-loving hippy eatery. The menu here is inventive, surprising, and worthy of a four-star chef.

On a recent visit for brunch with some friends, we had the Egg Sandwich with bacon and mushrooms; the Acme Walnut French Toast with blood orange confit, cranberries and walnut sauce; and the Burrata salad with chicories, walnuts, anchovy and bruschetta.

We loved the Egg Sandwich with its fresh torpedo Acme roll, smoky salty bacon and those fabulous braised Portobello mushrooms! Apparently they’d been cooked with red onions, smoked chopped tomatoes, their own veggie stock and something they call “tomato condiment” which is like a housemade ketchup. It’s the basis for many dishes and the Chef was nice enough to offer up the recipe below.

We also ordered two pizzas for the table, including the vegan Spicy Tomato with capers, olives, cashew garlic puree and herbs; and the Farm Egg Pizza with bacon and caramelized onions.

The vegan Spicy Tomato pie was the highlight of our entire meal, and I say that surprisingly because we were a table of hearty meat-eaters. We were skeptical that any vegan dish could satisfy, let alone surprise us, the way this pizza did. The flavor combination of the salty capers and olives with the zesty sauce and creamy nut puree made for a winning combination. And texturally, the crust on both pizzas was stellar. It was thin and crispy on the bottom, and the dough around the edges was soft and tender, like the perfect breadstick.

Each and every plate was fresh, bright and alive with flavor, thanks to all the fresh produce from the folks at Lindencroft Farms. And it’s not just high quality ingredients we tasted, it’s the obvious care in preparation.

“I don’t want the vegetarians to know they’re eating vegetarian food. I want you to feel like you’re eating something that tastes like steak,” says Chef Baker. “My goal when cooking is for people to try a whole new array of flavors every time they come in and make it fun for everyone at the table.”

Tomato Condiment
(Yields 9 quarts so scale down!)

12 qts red onion (1/4 inch dice)
3 qt apple cider vinegar
6 cups tomato paste
5 cups Sucanat (or natural cane sugar)
2 Tbsp. dried thyme
3 Tbsp. ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. ground clove
2 Tbsp. ground allspice
1 Tbsp. cayenne
6 oz pure olive oil
1.5 cups Tamari/Dark Soy Sauce
3 qts Water

Caramelize the onions and then fry the tomato paste. Add all other ingredients and reduce to slightly looser than ketchup consistency.

You can use this as a basis for braising vegetables and meats or as a condiment.

Gather on Urbanspoon

*This piece is cross-posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.