San Francisco Page Added

One of my joys at moving my blog to WordPress is the ability to build a proper website, organizing my years of blogging content into a coherent, navigable space. While there is a lot of work to be done, I took another step in the right direction this weekend by finally creating a page about San Francisco.

GG BridgeMy home town and a place I always enjoy returning to, San Francisco is a delightful city to visit. It is an especially good place to eat. In addition to listing some of the “must see” activities for visitors, I provide links to entries I’ve written about a dozen or so restaurants that are worth eating at.

If you are planning on visiting San Francisco or know someone who is, I hope this will be a valuable resource. Even if you aren’t, please stop by and provide your comments and feedback. The link to the page is here.

Romantic Dinner at Cafe Jacqueline

For our final dinner in San Francisco, Tawn and I returned to Cafe Jacqueline, a charming restaurant in North Beach that specializes in soufflés, both savory and sweet. We first went here a dozen years ago and the place remains as charming as ever.

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The restaurant is not very large – a dozen tables, perhaps – and reservations are strongly encouraged. Reviews on yelp.com and other sites sometimes complain that the staff is rude to walk-in customers, but I think that perception is understandable when you consider that their style of restaurant is very different from the average well-reviewed restaurant. They serve only one thing (soufflés) made by one person (Jacqueline) and so the pace of service is very leisurely. People – especially foreign tourists toting their guide books – arrive without reservations and confrontations ensue when their expectations differ from reality. Because of this, the wait staff interrogate walk-in customers in a brusque manner: “Do you know what kind of restaurant this is?”

If you have reservations – or if you are a walk-in and pass the interrogation – you are treated with old world courtesy by friendly, professional waiters who have worked at the cafe for years. It is an old-fashioned kind of place, in the best meaning of that term.

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This is a restaurant made for romance. Next to several tables are small plaques commemorating special occasions that happened there. Our table had two such plaques: “George & Laura Vidalia – First Date… Married…” and the more interesting “Dav and Kate – Handshake of Monogamy, MLK Day 1997 – Proposal, MLK Day 2001”.

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There is a small selection of soups, salads, and appetizers, all of which are very French. Escargots, onion soup, caviar, and our choice: a spinach and bacon salad.

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It took some forty minutes for our savory soufflé to arrive, but this was totally expected and we kept ourselves occupied with an amazing bottle of old vine Zinfandel from Lodi, California. We had the prosciutto and cheese soufflé, which was a thing of beauty.

So that you don’t muss it up, the waiter serves the first portion for you.

Truly, the soufflé is a dish whose tremendous beauty is dashed just as soon as you cut into it. But despite its deflated appearance, the taste is tremendous and the textural contrasts energizing: rich and light, salty and eggy, crispy and smooth – all at the same time.

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For dessert, we took advantage of the season and enjoyed a fresh strawberry soufflé. This, of course, was another forty minute wait or so, but that meant that by the time it arrived, we actually had some room in our bellies to enjoy it. I’d say that this soufflé was ever so slightly undercooked, but to such a minor degree that it remained very enjoyable.

Cafe Jacqueline is one of those restaurants that is a must-visit and very appropriate for a special occasion. I hope we’ll make a return visit sooner than another dozen years from now, for I fear that once Mme Jacqueline reaches a certain age, she will decide to retire. As the cafe is a one-woman show, her retirement would likely mean the end of an era, and that would be a truly sad thing.

 

Chloe, Ella, and Savor – A Trio of San Francisco Breakfasts

During our final pass through San Francisco, we set out on a small project to revisit a trio of our favorite breakfast restaurants from when we lived there. San Francisco is a great city for breakfasts – the same cannot be said for Bangkok, at least for Western style breakfasts – and we were excited to indulge in some early morning reminiscing with a few cups of coffee and plates of eggs, pastries, and meat products.

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Our first breakfast was at Savor, a southwestern themed restaurant located on 24th Street in Noe Valley. In addition to Miss Millie’s, a now-defunct restaurant that was located on 24th at Castro Street, Savor was a frequent stop for breakfast when I first moved to San Francsico in the late 1990s.

The interior space is pleasant. You walk past the kitchen at the front of the restaurant and find a large dining room and a bright but shaded patio behind the restaurant. The interior is, as mentioned, southwestern and a fireplace lends a cozy atmosphere to the high-ceilinged space. We visited on a weekday morning and the restaurant wasn’t crowded. A friendly bear was our server and he had an amiable, almost maternal manner.

Tawn ordered the Coronado frittata. Years ago, frittatas were on the menu but have been removed and only omelettes remain. Tawn enquired with the waiter, though, and he said they’d be happy to make any of the omelettes as a frittata. This was a nice touch. The Coronado has avocado, sharp cheddar cheese, and onions and is topped with black bean chili, salsa fresca, and sour cream. 

I ordered the Santa Fe, one of Savor’s many crepe selections. The Santa Fe has grilled chicken apple sausage with scrambled eggs, green onions, provolone cheese, and salsa fresca. The side of home fried potatoes was disappointing as they are under seasoned and would benefit from the use of some herbs.

One treat at Savor is their spicy cornbread, which is toasted and served with jalapeno jelly. This is what I remembered about the restaurant and was eager to try it again. Like the potatoes, I found the cornbread underseasoned, begging for a little more salt.

Overall conclusion was that Savor remains a comfortable place with friendly service and decent food, but the food seems more about quantity than quality. The quality isn’t bad, mind you, but it doesn’t stand out from the crowd. If they could reduce portion sizes slightly and improve the flavors, then they would have something really special.

 

Ella’s

The second of the trio is Ella’s, a self-described “neo-classical American” restaurant located on Presidio Avenue where Laurel Heights meets Lower Pacific Heights. More upscale, Ella’s has a sophisticated but inviting look. Waits can be long on weekends but on a weekday morning, we were seated immediately.

One of the two dining areas. Banquettes line the windows and tables are tightly spaced. On a busy morning, there is an energetic vibe and service is very prompt, encouraging a quick turnover. Service was detached and while employees were not outwardly rude, they also weren’t very friendly.

We started by sharing one of Ella’s famous cinnamon pecan rolls. These gooey delights are generous enough for a quartet to share but not as overwhelmingly sweet as, say, the rolls from Cinnabon.

Perhaps the most famous item on the menu is the chicken hash. (Which, unfortunately, is hidden under the eggs so you can’t see it!) Made with a combination of Russet and Yukon Gold potatoes, their hash is an immensely satisfying breakfast. The lumpy mashed potatoes are combined with sage, thyme, parsley, sauteed onions, and mustard, then formed into a patty and fried. My only complaint with this dish is that they garnish it with a heap of raw green onions, which give it a “grassy” feel. I just brush them to the side and enjoy the hash ungarnished. 

Tawn tried some French Toast, which was nicely battered and cooked to that perfect point where the bread is rich with the eggy custard but not soggy. Portion sizes are more moderate than at Savor, leaving you feeling satisfied but not stuffed.

One of Ella’s charms is that they bake their own, very good bread. The entry area shows off their baked goods, which are available for takeaway purchase. Overall, Ella’s hasn’t changed in the years since I left and remains a nice place for a special breakfast.

 

Chloe’s

My final morning in San Francisco, I headed down Church Street to Chloe’s while Tawn slept in. Arriving a few minutes before the restaurant opened, I browsed the newspaper and waited on the seats outside. A long-time neighborhood attraction that occupies a small space, Chloe’s quickly has a queue and waits can be long on weekends.

Not fifteen minutes after they opened, most of the inside tables were full. The space is cozy and the staff is buzzing about, refilling coffee, taking orders, and keeping things moving without ever making you feel rushed. Only open for breakfast and lunch, the restaurant’s daily specials are written on the chalkboard and always include a scramble of some kind as well as a soup of the day.

I decided on buttermilk blueberry pancakes with scrambled eggs. Most breakfasts come with the option of toast, a pastry, or a bowl of fresh fruit. Obviously, I took the healthier option. While simple, the food is made with top-notch ingredients and is well-prepared. Your cup of coffee never gets cold thanks to the attentive employees who keep filling it up.

An F-Market car passes Chloe’s, heading up Church Street to start its day. There’s enough housing the in neighborhood to support a restaurant twice Chloe’s size, but they keep it small and are able to stay on top of the details. Chloe’s really has a neighborhood charm to it.

 

Conclusions:

Of the three restaurants, Chloe’s remains my favorite. While the food at Ella’s is a little fancier, Chloe’s has the scale and charm of a true neighborhood restaurant. Ella’s, located on a busy corner, seems more isolated. Although not a bad choice, Savor is a distant third when compared with the other two restaurants. Its service is friendly but its food isn’t as good as at the other two restaurants.

 

An Attempt at San Francisco Stuffed French Toast

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Back in June we enjoyed a tasty breakfast at Starling Diner in Long Beach.  They serve this amazing dish called San Francisco Stuffed French Toast, which is a baguette filled with mascarpone cheese, dipped in creme anglaise, and broiled – not fried! – until golden and crisp.  (Full entry about that meal here.)  Ever since that visit, I’ve been curious to try making that dish, just to see if I can understand its mechanics.

Finding myself with an extra half of a baguette last week, I turned to the internet for potential recipes.  While there wasn’t an exact recipe, I was able to piece together a few recipes to guide me.  I had to resolve three key issues: make a creme anglaise, create a tasty mascarpone cheese filling, and then figure out how to construct and cook the baguette so it came out with a crispy exterior and moist but cooked interior. 

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The ingredients were pretty simple: a slightly stale baguette, mascarpone cheese, milk, cream, egg yolks, and vanilla, and some fruit to serve on the side.

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A creme anglaise is basically a custard sauce.  In and of itself, it isn’t terribly complicated, although I suspect that my technique would improve if I had more experience making it.  I whisked three tablespoons of sugar into three egg yolks until pale yellow.  Ideally, you would use ultra-fine sugar rather than regular granulated sugar, to make it easier for the sugar to dissolve.

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Next, you heat a mixture of half cream and half milk until it is not quite to the point of boiling.  Then, pour the milk into the egg mixture slowly, whisking constantly so the eggs do not scramble.  The mixture is then returned to the stove and cooked gently (stirring constantly) until it reaches 160 F. It can then be strained through a wire mesh to remove any clumped bits of egg and then allowed to cool.

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While the creme anglaise cooled, I whipped the mascarpone cheese with a little sugar, a tablespoon of juice from some canned peaches, and a pinch of salt.  Something about that caused it to coagulate a bit, so next time maybe I’ll just stick with a splash of honey and leave the salt out. 

The big challenge was figuring out how to stuff the baguette.  Slicing it open seemed problematic as the cheese would easily ooze out while cooking.  I tried sticking a serrated knife into one end of the bread, cutting a small pocket.  Then, I piped the mascarpone mixture into the bread.  All in all, this worked fairly well although it makes the dish a little more complex and dirties a few more kitchen implements.  

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Next, I let the stuffed baguette rest in the creme anglaise, turning about once a minute, for a total of about four minutes.  I then place the baguette pieces on a parchment lined baking tray and put under the oven’s broiler, turning once, for a total of about eight minutes or until crispy and golden. 

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While the bread broiled, I whipped a little cream to use as a condiment.  You could also prepare any fresh fruit – berries, bananas, peaches, etc. – to go with the dish.  I opted for canned peaches as I had a jar open in the refrigerator.

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The finished product.  The mascarpone filling melted, which I recall being the case with the original, and gave the interior a rich sweetness.  The outside was crispy, although I’m not sure the baguette was really stale enough to get the right texture; it was still a little soft when I started this process and not as dry as would probably be best.  All in all, I think it turned out nicely and would be worth playing around with a bit more.  However, it definitely takes more effort than other versions of French toast I’ve had!

 

SF

Okay, I said I would write less, but I didn’t say I wouldn’t write at all.  We’re in San Francisco today, a damp and drizzly San Francisco that has me reconsidering why in the world I bother to come back to the US at all.  We’re having fun, though.  This evening we had dinner with Jason and Giuseppe, a very pleasant chance to meet another Xangan with whom I’ve corresponded for a few years and his partner in person.  In truth, Tawn and Giuseppe have met before, years ago at a volunteer training for the Asian Pacific Islander Wellness Center in SF.  And now they’ve met again.

No pictures of the dinner, though.  You’ll just have to imagine it.  (Matt – Jason really is six feet tall!)

The main purpose for us being in SF was for the opening night of the SF Int’l Asian American Film Festival.  Our friend Chi-hui Yang, the director of the festival, is leaving after ten years there.  I worked with the festival for many years and so this particular gala was like a family reunion – all the people who have worked with Chi-hui over the years, all back together again.

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Mabel Chung, who started as a volunteer and eventually took over my operations role, myself, festival director Chi-hui Yang, and Tawn at the Asian Art Museum.

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We also ran into Taro Goto, another festival alum who is now living in Tokyo.  Last April we were there for a visit and he graciously spent several days showing us around.

Chrome Kursk

Today, I got some shopping in, buying two pairs of Chrome shoes.  I’ve wanted some very sneakerish sneakers and Sion recommended these.  Durable construction, comfortable fit.  Stylish look.  Maybe I should buy one more before I leave San Francisco.

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We entered the United States in Los Angeles, taking separate flights and arriving just a few minutes apart.  After a long wait to clear customs we met my cousins for dinner, our first opportunity to meet their new son, Thomas James.

So far we’re still suffering from some jet lag, but I’m sure over the next few days we’ll get adjusted.  Hope everyone on Xanga is doing well.

 

Return to the Big Mango

After two full weeks in the United States, Tawn and I departed Friday afternoon from San Francisco en route to Taipei and, eighteen hours later, Khrungthep.  The heavy drizzle which had greeted our arrival to San Francisco on December 18th had returned to see us off.

In the morning, we met with Brian and Keng (who had arrived the night before from Khrungthep) for breakfast at Chloe’s, a Church Street diner that has long been a favorite of mine.  Below, a view of this cozy breakfast spot.

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Chloe’s has a Thai connection.  Several, in fact.  Over the years there have been many Thai servers and it turns out that the man in the apron, above, lived in Thailand with his partner for many years, speaks Thai, and is planning on moving here again in 2009.  I gave him my card and we’ll see if you end up seeing him again here in this blog.

Below, the pumpkin ginger pancakes and the tomato, basil and brie scramble.

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It was fun to see people from home (Khrungthep) in SF, especially as we had gone to see a show with Brian and Keng just two days before we left on vacation.  Below from left: Brian, Keng, Tawn and me.

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The drizzle cleared as we returned the rental car to the airport.  We checked in a bit early since the car was due back at 1:00 even though the flight wasn’t until 4:10.  That gave us some time to browse around the largely empty SF Int’l Airport and then sit and read while waiting for our plane.  Below, our EVA 777 taxis to the gate on still-wet pavement.

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The flight out was on-time and smooth.  We had a beautiful view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge as we climbed to our cruising altitude.  While the flight was long (13.5 hours to Taipei, another 3.5 to Bangkok) our connection in Taipei was short and so we didn’t feel like any time was spent lingering.

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We landed just after 2:00 this morning and were at home and in bed by 4:00.  I managed nearly eight hours of sleep, although Tawn was up several hours earlier.

There were probably be some more reflection on this trip as I sink back into my normal routine over the next few days.  For now, though, I’ll just say that it is good to be home.

 

Last Bites of SF

P1130304 As 2009 came to a start, our trip to the US came to an end.  Wednesday morning, Jenn and Kevin and the girls drove us up to the airport for our flight back to San Francisco. 

The girls had been moody all morning, their usual reaction when we are leaving them.  Emily wasn’t willing to get out of the van when we reached the airport, right. 

Seems mighty stubborn to me, especially since her sister was willing to get out of the van and join us on the curb of the terminal for one final photo, below.  But then, Emily is a “cut off your nose to spite your face” kind of person.

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The three and a half hour flight back to the West Coast was smooth.  There was a heavy layer of fog over the bay and we actually didn’t pull out of the fog until we were crossing the runway threshold, something that appeared to be near the limits of acceptable landing visibility.

For these final two days in SF, we rented a car.  With the New Year’s holiday, we knew that parking enforcement wouldn’t be much of an issue and as we had some engagements in the East Bay, having a car would be very helpful.

Wednesday evening, New Year’s Eve, I surprised Tawn with tickets to see The Phantom of the Opera, which is showing right now at the Orpheum Theatre.  I have seen this show three times before but Tawn never has, so it was a nice treat.  John Cudia made for a very effective Phantom but overall the show’s production was just okay.  I think the audio system at the Orpheum is not very good, more like listening to an AM radio than is okay for such expensive tickets.

Still, it was fun and we spent the evening together, which is what is really important.

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We preceded the show with an early dinner at Little Star Pizza.  With two locations in SF, we walked to the Valencia and 15th street branch.  They do deep-dish Chicago style pizza, along the lines of what Zachary’s in Berkeley provides.  My one complain with Zachary’s is that their crust isn’t very good.  Sure enough, Little Star has this problem solved with a buttery, cornmeal-laden crust that is much more substantive and tender than Zachary’s. 

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Click on a thumbnail for a larger version.  From L to R: Caprese salad with tomatoes and wonderful fresh mozzarella cheese; a deconstructed garlic bread with bread, butter and a roasted bulb of garlic – spread it yourself; a “small” pie, half with the Little Star special (spinach, onions, feta/ricotta/mozzarella cheese) and half with the Classic (mushrooms, sausage, peppers and onion).   Heavenly.

New Year’s Day we awoke relatively early since we were just climbing into bed when the fireworks went off the night before.  We walked down to Tartine for one more taste of their lovely pastries.  Below, a view into their kitchen with Guererro Street reflected. 

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Above, the best croissant I’ve tasted outside of Paris with a bowl of latte.

The Mission District is a fascinating neighborhood with lots of little gems like Tartine.  Another gem, just down 18th Street from Tartine, is the Bi-Rite grocery store.  Lovingly maintained, it has a retro feel but a very contemporary selection of foodstuffs.

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Above, Tawn ponders the selection of fresh fruits and veggies.

We walked back through the Castro and then back down Market Street to Anita’s in order to get some exercise.  There was a pretty side street with leaves that looked autumnal, strewn in the gutters and on the cars.

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Speaking of cars, we rented a Toyota Prius hybrid, the first time I’ve ever driven one.  What a weird and wonderful vehicle!  No ignition switch; just a on/off button.  I spend the drive watching the efficiency display, moderating my speed and trying to keep the efficiency as high as possible.  So far we have driven 120 miles and have a 44.3 miles per gallon average.  The needle on the gas gauge has barely moved.

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After Tartine we drove over to the East Bay, stopping in a my aunt and uncle’s house for a New Year’s brunch.  Everyone was there, including my cousins Alex and Bill who had flown up from Long Beach the night before.  Below, my cousin Patrick holds Logan, the son of family friends and a frequent topic of Alex’s blog.

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After a visit to Bruce and Howie’s in San Ramon, we returned to the city to face the most difficult task: packing.  The last item we purchased on our list was a new comforter at Macy’s.  There was a sale and we paid a nice, low price, but getting a comforter into our suitcase is proving to be a challenge.  One that has not been solved eight hours before our plane departs.

We enjoyed some mid-afternoon bottles of champagne with Anita, Lilian and Tanya, then set out for Cha Cha Cha, the “all-powerful” Cuban tapas restaurant that is always on our to eat at list.  The Mission District location was busy but the wait wasn’t too long, a wait shortened by a pitcher of sangria.

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From the left: Tawn, Anita, Tanya, Lilian and me.

We ordered all of the usuals.  From upper left, clockwise: fried calamari, fried new potatoes with garlic-chili aioli, chicken paillard, sauteed mushrooms, fried plantains with black bean sauce, warm spinach salad.

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We had a wonderful time and once we returned home, were too exhausted to do any further packing.  Which is why, as soon as I finish this paragraph, I’m going to return to tackling the comforter problem.  We leave this afternoon.