San Francisco is Sydney’s sister city and while both have an iconic bridge, they have more in common than I realised. San Francisco seems to share the same obsession with food: where is the best coffee, who bakes the best bread and where can you get wonderfully fresh seafood? During a recent trip, I went to one of the world’s most famous restaurants (in the Napa Valley), was spoilt by two of the best chefs on the planet, tucked into Mexican, modern Californian and Chinese cuisine, drank great coffee, tasted amazing bread and managed to fit in a few glasses of fine wine. Add visits to extraordinary art galleries and – according to my wife – great shopping and you have the makings of a holiday of a lifetime. But let’s drill down to the great food…
For big-ticket dining
The French Laundry
Thomas Keller is a driven man. The chef has spent the past two years and $US10 million renovating and expanding The French Laundry in the Napa Valley. Always in pursuit of perfection, he has created one of the most famous restaurants in the world. It’s also one of the most beautiful. The courtyard, where you can enjoy a pre-dinner drink, looks into a kitchen filled with immaculately dressed chefs. Then there’s the prep kitchen, butchery, pastry area and magnificent cellar that houses one of the world’s great wine collections (including the best half-bottle list). And we haven’t even started eating yet! The avocado and buttermilk soup with pickled lotus root was incredibly balanced. It was followed by yuzu granita with young coconut purée, tuna tartare with tofu and caviar, and more delicious canapés. Then came the bread course – a crisp, buttery pastry that was to die for. The gnocchi was light and delicate and the Australian truffles in the macaroni and cheese filled the room with a wonderful fragrance. Pork jowl and tempura morels with chanterelle cream, Wagyu with cep mushrooms… everything was so beautifully cooked and seasoned. It was one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.
For classic San Francisco
A meal at Zuni Café is always relaxing. For lunch, we shared four awesome dishes. First up was the Caesar salad with crisp cos leaves, big, crumbly croutons and the right amount of dressing to make the salad sing, not sag. Next came one of my favourite pizzas in the world: a sweet tomato purée is spread on a thin base, which is cooked in a woodfired oven until it’s golden brown and blackening on the edges; it’s topped with ricotta salata, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and scattered with oregano. This was followed by their famous grass-fed beef burger with the sharp hit of Zuni pickles. We finished with an affogato – the ideal way to combine dessert and coffee. It had been more than 25 years since my first visit to Zuni Café and everything here was still perfect.
For something different
With its rustic dining room and small kitchen, Rich Table reminds me of Zuni Café in the early days. It has a simple approach: quality produce and knowledgeable servers who seem to float through the place. The food is an intriguing mix of Chinese and Mediterranean flavours. If the housemade ricotta and grilled nectarine is on the menu, be sure to order it, as the fruit here is full of flavour in summer. The pea, bean, cherry and chicken-skin salad was also delicious; the fresh peas and sweet cherries were a great match with the dry, salty chicken-skin crumble. The pork chop char siu was heavily glazed and served with charred bok choy and a peach mustard. Make sure you don’t skip dessert – the strawberry shortcake was superb.
For great Chinese
Hong Kong Lounge II
This Chinese restaurant on the edge of San Francisco’s Japantown is nothing to look at but I promise you the food is better than good. The Peking duck was Beijing-standard and came with hoisin sauce, cucumber and spring onion, as well as pickled ginger, which cut through the richness of the duck. I love that it was served with steamed buns rather than pancakes. The classic crab claw featured a mousse with a lovely crab-and-prawn flavour and the perfect texture. The pipa tofu, moulded into the shape of a Chinese lute, was a standout. It all went down well with a half-bottle of Joseph Drouhin Pouilly-Fuissé.
For a whole lot of fun
State Bird Provisions
We got lucky with a seat at the bar at State Bird Provisions, where we could watch the kitchen in full swing. It’s a hip, busy place that features Western-style yum cha served on trays and trolleys but you can also order some dishes. We had the sourdough, sauerkraut, pecorino and ricotta pancakes and the California valley quail (the official state bird) with “provisions”, which change frequently. Our sides included sweet stewed onions – the perfect match for the juicy, flavour-packed quail. We also tucked into carrot “mochi” with brown butter and pistachio dukkah; green-garlic yuba noodles with marinated oyster mushrooms and rosemary almonds; and fried rice à la plancha with bacon, shrimp and nameko mushrooms. For dessert, the blackout cake with black-sesame mousse, matcha crumble and blueberries was a great choice but the World Peace Peanut Muscovado Milk was the winner. True to its name, this tasty beverage puts a smile on the face of all who try it.
For a quick lunch
El Molino Central
Heading to the Napa Valley? On the way, pop in to this casual Mexican joint with outdoor seating. El Molino Central in Boyes Hot Springs, just over an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, offers fresh enchiladas, tacos and tamales that are crazy-good value. We tried the tortilla chips with guacamole and salsa chipotle; one was creamy and very tasty, the other was spicy hot. The Bohemia-beer-battered fish tacos and the chicken enchiladas with green salsa were delicious – and incredibly more-ish.
For authentic Italian
Cotogna – the name means “quince” in Italian – is a simple restaurant with a woodfired pizza oven at its heart. Owner-chef Michael Tusk also runs three-Michelin-starred Quince next door. Whether you order pizza, pasta or the bistecca alla Fiorentina cooked over wood, you can’t go wrong. I had an incredible focaccia with taleggio and truffles – basically a cheese toastie with shavings of Australian truffle. What a way to start! The tortelloni, filled with broad beans and a light pecorino cream, were a masterclass in pasta: firm to the bite and delicious. And the raviolo with farm egg and brown butter took me to another place. When you break through the pasta and the warm yolk mixes with the butter, you understand why it’s Michael’s most famous dish. We finished with the nectarine and cherry crostata, which was so crusty and deep in flavour that it was impossible to resist.
Image: Bonjwing Lee
For fresh seafood
Swan Oyster Depot
Back in San Francisco, Swan Oyster Depot is a fifth-generation business focused on fresh seafood. Diners sit at a long marble counter while guys in white aprons move along it, taking orders. My favourite dishes were the crab salad, served with iceberg lettuce and a thousand-island-style dressing, and the prawn cocktail with a tomato-based sauce that came in a glass coupe. Expect to queue at most times of the day.
For a casual bite
A multistorey culinary and retail space in Chinatown, super-cool China Live launched in March last year. Upstairs is the fine-dining Eight Tables, while the ground-floor Market Restaurant has eight food stations, making it a great place for a wander and a casual bite. At the latter, the Kurobuta pork char siu was tender and juicy – the quality of the meat shone through – and the Hunan cured bacon, garlic-chive buds, peppers and fermented black bean was a knockout. The Sichuan Working Hands Dumplings with sesame butter and peppercorn-chilli broth were excellent. I was short on time but I’ll be back to try more of the 50-odd items on the menu. ￼
For a market experience
Ferry Plaza Farmers Market
If you visit this lively market in spring, summer or early autumn, you’ll see an incredible array of seasonal fruit and vegetables in every shape, size and colour. I tasted sweet, succulent stone fruit (peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, cherries), as well as blueberries, strawberries and blackberries. There were also zucchini, tomatoes, green garlic and lots of fresh salad leaves. In short, a visual feast. Plus, you can eat at the various restaurants and food vendors.
And for coffee that satisfies an Australian…
We’re all familiar with the flat white, piccolo and macchiato in Australia but there’s a completely different coffee language to learn in the United States, from the Americano (espresso diluted with hot water) to the cortado (“cut” with milk, like a mini flat white) and the San Francisco-born Gibraltar (similar to a cortado but served in a glass). So, where to find a good brew in San Francisco? Thanks to Andrew Hardjasudarma at Room 10 café in Sydney’s Potts Point, I had a list to work through. Here are my top picks.
◖ Sightglass Coffee is a cool café and roastery in the SoMa district. The espresso machine set-up is pretty impressive and the mezzanine level offers an awesome view of the open bar and roaster. The coffee was great and the cinnamon apple turnover wasn’t bad, either.
Image: Michael Oneal
◖ Saint Frank at Russian Hill is a sleek, light-filled café with a fun vibe, despite all the serious young coffee drinkers sipping while surfing the net. My coffee was caramel-like with a delicious, long flavour. It was right up there with Australian brews and my favourite of the trip.
◖ Tartine Bakery & Cafe does an okay coffee but the real reason to visit is to watch the staff make and dress the tasty cakes while you queue to order. The croissants are also worthy of a mention and, if you rock up after 11.30am, hot sandwiches are on offer. The amazing bread is baked on site.
Top image: State Bird Provisions
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