Dining in SF: Craftsman and Wolves

Our trip to San Francisco included visits to a number of bakeries and pastry shops. This time, we stopped by a new place, the interestingly named Craftsman and Wolves. Located on Valencia Street, they describe themselves as a “contemporary patisserie”. 

Compared to the homier looks of Tartine and Thorough Bread, Craftsman and Wolves is distinctly modern. The interior feels very large and a little cold. Nonetheless, the staff is welcoming and a large communal table at the front, next to a picture window, makes for a comfortable place to run into people unexpectedly over a cup of coffee and a pastry.

The selection of baked goods (this picture is just a sample) is wide, ranging from your standards (croissant) to something called The Rebel Within, which is akin to a baked Scotch egg. Again, comparing to some of the other bakeries that we visited in San Francisco, the display of goods here looks less bountiful and more austere.

We shared a gougere (baked cheese puff) and a croissant, both of which were well made and delicious. The croissant isn’t cooked to as deep a brown as at Tartine, but some consider that very caramelized exterior to be an acquired taste. 

Curious, I also ordered one of their muffins. I don’t recall what variety it was but remember that I enjoyed it, although wasn’t particularly overwhelmed. It was a good muffin, but not earth-shattering in its goodness.

For something more substantial, we ordred the frittata. Filled with vegetables, this frittata was remarkably underseasoned. We had to ask for some salt and having no salt shakers handy, they filled a small pinch bowl with some salt for us.

Overall, Craftsman and Wolves is another nice place to add on the list of bakeries and pastry shops to visit in SF. I think the minimalist interior, which would work well for a chocolate shop or somewhere selling fancy cakes, isn’t as welcoming as I would enjoy. That said, the food is good and that’s ultimately what matters. 

 

Dining in SF: NOPA

NOPA stands for “North of the Panhandle,” the neighborhood north of the pan-handle shaped easternmost stretch of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It is also a restaurant located in that neighborhood. Focusing on California-Mediterranean cuisine, NOPA delivers a menu that isn’t staggeringly original but it does deliver dishes made with great attention to quality and detail. They describe themselves as serving “urban rustic cuisine” with an emphasis on organic wood-fired food. We had dinner there with another couple and enjoyed the experience.

The atmosphere inside the restaurant is lively but not unbearably loud. Located on the corner of Divisadero and Hayes Streets, the large windows look out on the bustling city and let in lots of afternoon light. A large communal table is located near the entry and the bar, a comfortable place to have a drink and wait for your table.

The main dining room is a combination of booths and tables, again with lots of light. The open kitchen is at the back of the restaurant with the large wood burning oven visible to all. Service was friendly but not intrusive. I didn’t feel like the server was constantly hovering over my shoulder.

An amuse bouche of asparagus tips and sea salt. Simple, right? Perfectly ripe asparagus, gently cooked to bring out what’s best about them. Nice to see an amuse bouche that didn’t look like a sculpture or piece of modernist art. Instead, the chef let the ingredient speak for itself.

An appetizer of warm goat’s cheese with Asian pear and fuyu persimmon, with crostini on the side. Really nice combination of flavors, very rich, and much too satisfying.

A casserole of wood baked butter beans with feta cheese, tomato sauce, oregano pesto, and bread crumbs. Hearty and very flavorful.

The rotisserie chicken with bok choy rapini, quinoa, golden raisins and romesco sauce. Rotisserie chicken is present on so many menus and yet so often it fails to inspire, often having rubbery skin and bland, mushy flesh. Not the case at all with this flavorful chicken with crisp skin.  

Grilled pork chop with Brussels sprouts, rutabaga, and maple-date butter. Just as with the chicken, the meat had a lot of flavor and remained nice and moist.

Flatbread of spicy fennel sausage, pickled onions, goat’s cheese, and chicory. Good example of how on the one hand the menu offers nothing particularly new but manages to deliver some really wonderful food. Another observation: all of the dishes are nicely plated without being artistic and overbearing. 

The first of the three desserts we shared was a chocolate mousse with praline cream, biscotti, and candied orange peel. It was a very nice version of a common dessert, rich chocolate flavor, not heavy, and complimented by the praline cream and orange peel.

The second dessert was a Meyer lemon curd tart with buttermilk ice cream and candied thyme. Again, a common, very simple that can be so-so or surprisingly good. This was the second sort of tart, bright and refreshing.

Final dessert: Sopaipillas (similar to beignets or doughnuts) served with a cinnamon vanilla caramel. Light, not the least bit oily, and very enjoyable to eat.

The overall experience was a positive one. NOPA does the basics very well and at a price that, for San Francisco, is pretty reasonable. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that NOPA is just as good as its spin-off restaurant, Nopalito, that I visited last year. While the menus are entirely different, the core commitment to quality, value, and attention to detail is consistent.

 

 

Food in San Francisco – From Fried Chicken to Salt and Pepper Ice Cream

There was a fair amount of eating while we were in San Francisco, much of it good. Here are a trio of spots we visited.

Little Skillet

While still in Bangkok, Tawn and I had developed a hankering for fried chicken. Despite the preponderance of grilled chicken, there is very little fried chicken in Thailand outside of KFC (which isn’t that bad, actually). Doing some research, I stumbled across an entry on public television and radio channel KQED’s food blog about the best fried chicken in the Bay Area and planned on visiting Little Skillet.

This “restaurant” is just a walk-up window in an alley not far from the Caltrain station and AT&T Park. An offshoot of the “neo-soulfood” farmerbrown restaurant, Little Skillet is open only for extended lunchtime hours and keeps a short and simple menu. Fried chicken features prominently. You order at the window and wait for your name to be called. Eating options include sitting on the loading dock of a warehouse across the street or, if you buy some of their coffee, the java joint next door lets you use their tables.

The biscuits are tasty and buttery, although more crumbly and less flaky than the ones I make. Still, they were pretty good.

Tawn, who prefers his chicken drier than I do, opted for the fried chicken po’boy sandwich. Made with chicken breast, he exclaimed that it was the best fried chicken he had ever had. 

Aiming to evaluate Little Skillet by its ability with the classics, I ordered a two-piece fried chicken with waffles. Tawn’s exclamation was well-placed: this was amazing fried chicken. The meat was flavorful and extremely well-seasoned. The coating was crispy and adhered well to the skin. The homemade honey jalapeño hot sauce is a perfect foil for the juicy, crispy, deep-fried goodness of the chicken. While I’ve never understood the combination with chicken, the waffles were light with just the right amount of crispiness.

Little Skillet is on the must return to list!

 

Wise Sons Delicatessen 

Speaking of the must return to list, we made a return visit to Wise Sons Deli, located on 24th Street just east of South Van Ness Avenue.

After our first visit last June to this relatively new entrant to the San Francisco deli scene, we were eager to return. Exiled New Yorkers have long bemoaned the lack of good deli food in San Francisco but that has recently started to change, not least of all by the entry of Wise Sons’ proprietors Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman. Their meats are cured in-house and the quality of food, homey atmosphere, and friendly service make the place feel like it has been on this corner for decades.

On my last visit, I enjoyed a tasty pastrami sandwich. This time, I tried their corned beef Reuben. I’ve had a lot of Reubens in my life, many of which were made by my mother. This was simply the best one I’ve ever had, the one that came closest to recapturing my childhood memories, except that this corned beef was much better than any my mother ever made. Wise Sons cooks the brisket until fork tender and cuts it relatively thick. To say it “melts in your mouth” is accurate. Unlike a lot of brisket, this beef isn’t at all tough or chewy.

We also shared a plate of sinful pastrami cheese fries, minus the pastrami since Tawn isn’t a beef eater. The fries are loaded with Swiss bechamel sauce, caramelized onions, pickled cucumbers and jalapeño peppers, with a side of Russian dressing. Couldn’t eat this every day so that’s why we ate it this day!

 

Humphrey Slocombe Ice Cream

While San Francisco isn’t known for its pastrami, it does have a great reputation for ice cream. Swensen’s, the global ice cream chain, was founded in San Francisco, and there are many small ice cream parlors that make interesting and innovative flavors from. One of the most prominent of these parlors is Humphrey Slocombe. Located just around the corner from Wise Sons, Humphrey Slocombe opened in 2008 and quickly gained notice for flavors like salted black licorice, hibiscus beet, and Jesus Juice.  

We were pretty full from lunch but Tawn ordered a Tin Roof Sundae: three scoops of Tahitian vanilla ice cream, hot fudge sauce, candied peanuts, and a sprinkle of sea salt. Oh, boy!

Enjoying calories I didn’t really need. I also tried a taste of their salt and pepper ice cream, which tastes amazingly of… salt and pepper!

Well, hope that’s enough food porn to get your weekend off to a good start. There’s more to come!

 

StrEAT Food Park in San Francisco

One of the more interesting dining experiences on my trip to the United States was the StrEAT Food Park in San Francisco. The renaissance of street food trucks – no longer the “roach coaches” of my youth – has swept many major cities and San Francisco has been no exception to this foodie trend. In June 2012, a permanent street food truck park opened in the city’s edgier South of Market district.

The park is located just beneath a freeway overpass across the street from the Costco warehouse store. Each day, up to ten different vendors park, following a rotating schedule. The range of options is overwhelming: from Spanish-Filipino fusion to Japanese sushi, gourmet Vietnamese sliders to Korean tacos, Italian word-fired pizzas to Indian curry. The website and twitter feed lists which vendors will be present and the park is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

The facility includes plenty of tables and chairs, restrooms and sanitary stations, and a 100-seat covered seating pavilion for those days when the weather is inclement. The crowd is varied but local high tech and bio tech firms are well-represented. Free bicycle parking is provided, encouraging environmentally friendly transportation.

Spoiled for choices, I finally settled on Roli Roti, a truck specializing in rotisserie chicken and porchetta, crispy roast pork. Open more than a decade, Roli Roti claims to be the country’s first mobile rotisserie and their focus is on sustainably raised meats and organic produce. While the chicken looked and smelled amazing, I opted for the porchetta and arugula sandwich.

The sandwich offers a generous – hearty, even – serving of juicy pork with very crispy skin, an onion relish with a tanginess that cut through the richness of the pork, and huge mound of baby arugula that looked like it has climbed out of the field a few minutes earlier, it was so fresh. 

The sandwich was served on a wonderful roll that sopped up all the juices. Sure, it was too big to eat like a real sandwich, and I had to take it apart and eat with a knife and fork. But it was a pretty tasty lunch, all for about $12 including a side of potatoes.

The roast fingerling potatoes sit underneath the rotisserie, where they are bathed in the drippings from the chicken and the porchetta. Sprinkled with rosemary sea salt, they are addictive.

No doubt, the StrEAT Food Park will be a destination to which I will return again and again on future visits. After all, there are so many different types of food to try and so little time. Many thanks to SF-based Xangan Jason for introducing me to this gem.

 

Thorough Bread and Pastry – San Francisco

Our trip to Kansas City for my grandparents’ 70th anniversary lasted just three days. Bright and early Monday morning (after an 80-minute mechanical delay), we were on our way to San Francisco for a few additional days of rest and relaxation before returning to Bangkok. Arriving late in the morning, we headed around the corner from our friend Anita’s house (where we were staying) to a newer bakery we hadn’t yet tried, the cleverly named Thorough Bread and Pastry.

The bakery is housed in the space formerly used by Just Desserts. It has a lovely brick wall and an open ceiling (which you can’t see in this picture). Lots of light comes in from busy Church Street, making it an inviting and warm place to stop for a while.

The selection of baked goods is wide and all of them look tasty. We arrived late in the morning so some items were down to just a handful of remaining pieces.

In addition to pastries, Thorough Bread and Pastry lives up to the “bread” part of its name. The baguettes were beautiful and the olive and sourdough loaves had me want to go on a carbohydrate binge.

For snacks with our coffee, I selected a cinnamon roll. Upon request, the bakers will put you food into the oven for a few minutes to reheat it. Of course, that is a must with a cinnamon roll because you want the topping to be just a gooey and molten as possible.

Tawn opted for an almond croissant, which tasted plenty good even if it wasn’t the most beautiful croissant in the world. That reminds me, I’ve been meaning to try my hand at croissant making again, just as soon as this crazy hot season eases off a bit and I can actually cool my kitchen to a workable temperature.

Feeling the need for something passing as healthful, Anita oped for the quiche, which was also very nice. With lots of fresh vegetables, you could almost forget the loads of fat.

In the past several years, there has been an explosion of artisinal, small-shop bakeries and patisseries. From Tartine to Craftsman & Wolves to Thorough Bread, San Franciscans are spoiled with many fine choices for baked goods. It is something we miss about living in the City and I am glad there is yet another place to visit when we are next in town.

 

Dining in SF: Nopalito

While in San Francisco, I met up with fellow Xangan Jason to try Nopalito, a Mexican restaurant that made it into the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants listing earlier this year. The genesis of Nopalito reportedly came from the staff meals prepared by chefs Jose Ramos and Gonzalo Guzman at owner Laurence Jossel’s nearby California-Medierranean restaurant, Nopa. The conceit is that in a city chock-full of taquerias and inexpensive burrito shops, Nopalito delivers Mexican food with an unusually high level of attention to detail and quality.

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Located in the Western Addition, close to the Golden Gate Park panhandle, Nopalito buzzed on the weekday evening when Jason and I visited. While the restaurant was busy, we were able to score two seats at the counter overlooking the kitchen with no wait.

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The restaurant’s interior has an unfussy, minimalist decoration that is warm and inviting. Tables are close together but the volume doesn’t reach unbearable levels. The staff, including the cooks, are friendly and engaging.

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Within moments of being seated, our server had placed a dish of spicy fried corn in front of us, given us menus, and brought water. The menu follows the “small plates” style that has become de rigueur in the San Francisco dining scene, with selections that were inexpensive (about $4.50 to $16) and easy to share. We glanced at surrounding tables and across the kitchen to identify dishes that looked interesting and quickly settled on five.

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For refreshment, we ordered a bottle of the house-made sangria. With white wine, Chartreuse, lime, orange liqueur, and thyme, this aromatic sangria was a refreshing departure from the usual red wine version to which I’m accustomed.

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Our first dish was ceviche verde de pescado y calamare – fresh fish and squid marinated in a sauce of lime, tomatillo, jalapeno, and cilantro, served with avocado and freshly fried tortilla chips. Ceviche, which relies on the acid of the dressing to cook the seafood, is a favorite of mine and every element of this version was super-fresh. My only complaint was that the verde sauce was so thick that it overwhelmed – masked, even – the flavor of the seafood. There was no denying the quality of the ingredients, though. They were exceptional.

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The next dish was tamal de amarillo con calabaza – a tamale of home-ground masa with butternut squash, pasilla chilies, and Oaxacan cheese, with a mole made with dried chilies, tomatillos, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and spices. This was a standout dish with intricate flavors and none of the greasiness I often associate with tamales.

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We were seated right next to the counter where dishes were expedited, so continued to be tempted by all the things we hadn’t ordered. The cook on the left chatted with us several times, answering my questions about the various ingredients. You could sense that everyone working at Nopalito takes pride in the food they serve.

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The empanada con deshebrada de res – fried masa pastry with grass-fed beef, tomato, jalapeno, cabbage, avocado, queso fresco, and salsa frita de guajillo. Empanadas, fried meat-filled pastries, can be a pleasant, if sometimes heavy, treat. This version avoided all oiliness and was light and flaky. The filling was tender but the seasoning was underwhelming. There was no doubt it was expertly prepared, but the technique didn’t compensate for the bland flavor.

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The next dish visually exceeded my expectations, so much so that when it arrived, I thought we had mistakenly received someone else’s order. The quesadilla roja con chicharron, a crispy pork belly quesadilla, featured a mulato chile-corn tortilla, and salsa made from the cascabel chilies, which have a nutty flavor. Being a fan of pork belly, I was eagerly anticipating this dish. The tortilla had an enticing crunch but the pork and salsa were again underwhelming. Like the empanada, I was left wondering who had turned down the volume on the use of seasonings.

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Our final dish was an impulsive order based on what we saw coming out of the kitchen. The carnitas, pork braised in orange, bay leaf, milk, cinnamon, and beer, are served in a brown paper wrapper with a side of cabbage salad and tomatillo salsa. The pork had loads of flavor, but was a bit stringy and tough to chew, almost as if it needed to be cooked a while longer. The accompanying tortillas, which we watched being made not five meters away, were so good I wanted to swear off the store-bought version forever more. 

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With the bill (and the box of leftover carnitas for Jason to take home) we received a pair of Mexican cookies, a sweet way to end the meal. Looking back at everything we ate, it is abundantly clear that chefs Ramos and Guzman bring a level of sophistication and mastery to Mexican cooking that I’ve never seen before in the Bay Area. Quality and attention to detail are apparent in each dish.

When it comes to the question of flavor, though, some dishes were more successful and others were less so. That said, I look forward to making a return visit to Nopalito to experience more of their cooking and their staff’s hospitality, and to see whether the depth of flavor is perhaps hiding elsewhere on the menu. 

 

Over San Francisco

While flying from Seattle to San Francisco, we approached over the west side of the city, giving me a great view on this almost cloudless day.

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Golden Gate Bridge with the Marin Headlands to the left and the Presidio to the right.

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Downtown with Treasure Island, the Bay Bridge, and Alameda on the top side of the picture.