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APRIL 2000
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Special Section: San Francisco Restaurant Reviews and More

Your greatest difficulty in San Francisco may be deciding where to dine; the number of choices is overwhelming. On a recent trip, I selected four of the better-known restaurants (and one that is not so well-known, Firefly) for meals; my reviews are below, along with some other information. Try to make reservations wherever you choose to eat, particularly if you'll be there on a weekend, and recognize that you might not be able to get in to the latest dining "hot spot".

Firefly (4288 24th Street at Douglass, 415-821-7652). The first thing you'll notice here is the lack of a sign out front; you'll know you're in the right place when you see the giant firefly. This is a plain, neighborhood restaurant, a long cab ride from Union Square. The eccentric decor, which includes a white cloth ceiling and the occasional plastic dinosaur, is mirrored in the menu, which hopscotches through many cultures. Your server will likely be an energetic twenty-something, but don't expect an attitude to go with their unusual hairstyle, because there's no pretension here. I started with Baby Beet Salad with Blood Orange Vinaigrette and Walnuts. This was a mound of fresh greens, nicely dressed, atop sliced red and gold beets, with walnuts sprinkled around the perimeter--a nice combination of colors, textures, and tastes. I was told that Shrimp and Sea Scallop Potstickers with Sesame Soy Dipping Sauce was more or less a signature dish here, so I ordered it. Four large, fried potstickers were garnished with scallions and served with a cold, marinated vegetable medley. Unhappily, the dipping sauce was too salty, and the marinated vegetables proved too acidic and peppery; the potstickers themselves were good, though. The Meyer Lemon Cake with Strawberries and Mascarpone Cream was a disappointing dessert. The mascarpone cream was delicious, but the cake was dry and lacking in good lemon flavor.

Pacific (500 Post Street, in the Pan Pacific Hotel, 415-929-2087). This was the prettiest dining room I saw in San Francisco. It was a comfortable atmosphere, with lots of greenery and flowers. I chose the tasting menu, which included an amuse bouche and five courses. All of the dishes had good points, but not all worked well. For example, Crab, Artichoke, and Black Truffle Gratin contained respectable portions of the title ingredients and had a good flavor, but the artichoke was undercooked and the dish was utterly unappealing in appearance. The meat in the Roasted Colorado Lamb on Golden Lentils with Yogurt-Mint Coulis was of first-rate quality and had been cooked perfectly, but the dish was marred by the lentils, which had been cooked only to the al dente stage. When will chefs realize that nearly-crunchy legumes just aren't pleasant to eat? The best courses were the assortment of artisanal cheeses and my dessert (Rustic Apple Tart with caramel, creme anglaise, and vanilla bean ice cream). There were no salt shakers or mills on the tables here; unless this was an oversight, it smacks of a presumptuous attitude.

Rubicon (558 Sacramento Street, 415-434-4100). I liked Rubicon. It's an unpretentious, friendly, very urban restaurant with an efficient and polite wait staff. As is the case with many restaurants in San Francisco, some effort has been made to provide dishes suitable for vegetarians. I began my meal with Mixed Field Greens with Roquefort, a large plate heaped with fresh greens with a good, acidic dressing. A generous amount of roquefort made the salad more interesting, and overall it was very good. The Braised Rabbit and Wild Mushroom Tart was similarly well-prepared, with cipollini in addition to the pieces of rabbit and mushroom. The earthy, deep flavors in the tart were satisfying and filling. My dessert, Chocolate Chiffon Cake with Hazelnut Ice Cream and Chocolate Soup, was not up to the standard set by the rest of the meal. It was amusingly and artistically presented, and the hazelnut ice cream was excellent, but the cake, though chocolatey, was dry and tasted slightly burnt.

Postrio (545 Post Street, attached to the Prescott Hotel, 415-776-7825). Noisy and modern and very much a place to see-and-be-seen, Postrio is not the place for a quiet dinner. The atmosphere tends toward the informal, especially at the bar. My appetizer, Mixed Lettuces with Sherry Vinaigrette and a Bread Stick, was the largest individual salad I've ever seen. The greens were fresh, and the dressing provided a nice, tangy accent, but the portion was big enough for at least two people. I selected another appetizer, Foie Gras Terrine with Shaved Apples and Sauternes Jelly. The buttery-smooth, if very small, portion of terrine was surrounded by three ultra-thin slices of apple, topped with the jelly and sprinkled with fresh chives. Fresh toast points were very properly served with this dish. The combination was terrific, though the terrine was a bit salty. For $19, however, it was overpriced. My dessert, Assorted Cookies and Candies, was a plate filled with miniature sweets, all very pretty, including biscotti, chocolate chip cookies, and a number of other varieties. Everything was good, though there were no standouts in the bunch. Postrio will prepare a sampler of their desserts, but only for two or more people; what about single diners? Don't they count? I thought the service was a trifle patronizing. The paintings and decorations here are as bold and modern as can be wished, but, unusually for me, I quite liked them.

Farallon (450 Post Street, 415-956-6969). Unquestionably, my dinner here was the best meal I had in San Francisco. The decor here is novel if not arresting; it looks like a dream a deep-sea diver might have when afflicted with a very high fever, though it isn't unpleasant. The wait staff seems to fairly fly during busy times, but service remains polished and professional. I began with Truffled Peekytoe Crab and Blood Orange Salad (with pickled red and gold beets, mache, and satsuma mandarins). The crab was gloriously sweet and fresh, though I detected no taste of truffle and I thought the seafood rather overwhelmed the beets. French Kiss (seared Hudson Valley foie gras with Cognac-laced prunes and pears) was simply perfect, a decent portion of perfectly- seared foie gras balanced atop the deliciously poached fruit. Only the knowledge that licking one's plate publicly is considered bad form stopped me from doing so. Eleven different samples of the pastry chef's work formed my dessert, called Small Endings; it was fun to taste all of the petite cookies and candies, which ranged from a chocolate truffle to a square of intense fruit jelly to sesame brittle. If you sit in the Nautilus section, you'll get a view of the kitchen while you eat. My only problem with Farallon is the knowledge that there are no restaurants like this where I live. Go!

Accomodations in San Francisco:

I have just one recommendation here, the hotel where I stayed on my recent trip.

Kensington Park Hotel (450 Post Street, 415-788-6400). The Kensington Park's location, half a block from Union Square and next door to Farallon, is unbeatable. The building in which the hotel is housed, an Elks Lodge built in the grand style of the 1920's, also contains a working theater on the second floor (hotel rooms start on the fifth floor). Rooms are spacious, comfortable, and nicely decorated, with extras like an ironing board and iron. A Continental breakfast, available on each floor between 7 and 10 am , is included in your room rate, as is the morning paper delivered to your door every day except Sunday, when you must ask for it at the front desk. Afternoon tea/sherry and cookies in the lobby are also gratis. The staff and concierge are helpful, knowledgeable, and genuinely nice. Be warned that rooms on the Union Square side of the building can be noisy. Closet space in some rooms is limited, and I found the old-fashioned heating system hard to control. If you have young children, you might be better off at a hotel that has a kids' activity center. Similarly, if your budget is tight, recognize that service and location do not come without a price. However, if you're looking for something other than another cookie-cutter hotel room; if you want a small hotel with personality and a nice staff where you can be comfortable; and if being mere steps from Union Square fits in with your plans, check out the Kensington Park.

Chocolate in San Francisco:

So much chocolate, so little time! I couldn't get to a lot of places I wanted to try, but I can still give you some suggestions. Except where noted, all places are in San Francisco.

Bernard C. Chocolates (75 O'Farrell Street, 415-781-2601). Forget about San Francisco's more famous chocolate names, and go here instead. Very good bonbons, molded chocolates, and truffles, with a nice selection from which to choose. Conveniently located in Union Square.

Lyla's Chocolates (417 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley, CA, 415-383-8887). Nice assortments of prettily-designed bonbons. Chocolate roses and fudge, too. I have spoken out against large truffles for years, but Lyla's might just convert me.

Double Rainbow Ice Cream (various locations in San Francisco, one store on Powell Street near Union Square). Double Rainbow is most famous for their fabulous chocolate sorbet, but they make a number of other varieties of sorbet and ice cream, including some flavors you'd be hard pressed to find elsewhere. Great for both kids and adults.

XOX Truffles (754 Columbus, 415-421-4814). Jean-Marc and Caimira Gorce produce small but delicious truffles in 21 varieties, both with and without liqueur, with several different types of coatings. There's even a vegan soy truffle! Definitely worth a visit.

RoCocoa's Faerie Queene Chocolates (415 Castro, 415-252-5814). An eccentric establishment that doesn't even open until 1 pm. Nonetheless, the staff knows whereof they speak, and the proprietor has a genuine love of good chocolate. Promise me anything, but give me the Manon bonbons! Note that some chocolates have names that are PG-rated. By now, the owner may have dropped the "RoCocoa" part of the store name.

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