Special Section: San Francisco Dining Guide
Chocolate in San Francisco
Headed to the "City by the Bay"? There are a huge number of
eating establishments in San Francisco, and choosing between
them can be difficult. On a recent trip there, I ate at a number
of widely differing restaurants, and below are my opinions (in
no particular order). A note: making reservations in advance
can really pay off, particularly if you're dining out on a weekend
night, at a normally busy time, or at one of the more popular
restaurants. Restauants in the Union Square area, especially,
are often crowded. All restaurants below are in the 415 area
code as of this writing.
The Terrace (in the Ritz-Carlton, 600 Stockton St. at
Pine St., 296-7465).
I showed up here for a late lunch on a whim, dressed in jeans
and a sweatshirt, but despite the upscale nature of the place,
my attire wasn't a problem. The room is rather busily decorated,
with comfortable booths and chairs. I almost never notice flatware
or dishes in restaurants, but the plates here were absolutely
beautiful. The menu listed a good number of choices for lunch
(a macrobiotic appetizer, entrée, and dessert are also offered
daily). I opted for a smoked turkey sandwich on toasted nine-grain
bread, with spinach, avocado, and pear chutney. It arrived with
a miniature jar of mayonnaise and a mound of very ordinary potato
chips on the side. The sandwich was enjoyable, with generous
amounts of component ingredients, but it was too expensive considering
the accompaniments. Service here is leisurely but very polite.
Hyde Street Bistro (1521 Hyde St., between Jackson St.
and Pacific Ave., 292-4415).
I had to eat here; I had never heard of a restaurant described
as "Cal-Austrian" before. There's even an Austrian flag hanging
outside this small but pretty place. Lots of blonde wood went
into the décor here, and nothing is too fussy, so the effect
is calming and charming. Choices tend toward standard bistro
items, such as escargots, lamb shanks, oxtail, etc. From a modest
selection of entrees and appetizers, I selected one of the former,
a roasted salmon filet with mashed potatoes, served with spinach
and beurre rouge (a red wine sauce). The potatoes, on the bottom
of the dish, were ringed by the sauce; atop them was the spinach,
and the roasted salmon rested on that--a nice presentation.
While the potatoes, spinach, and sauce were all very good, the
salmon had been overcooked, and was somewhat dry and chewy.
I finished with a tarte tatin aux pommes with a scoop of vanilla
ice cream on the side. The slightly warmed tarte consisted of
a completely soggy pastry topped by mushy apples, although the
flavor of the apples was excellent. The wait staff is attentive
Village (4 Embarcadero Center, Lobby Level, 781-8833).
Last year, I ate at a place famed for dim sum and was disappointed.
This year, I ate here, and it was a far better choice. Located
in the midst of an upscale shopping center, this restaurant
fills up very quickly on a Saturday--even at 11:15 in the morning.
Service is brisk, as you'd expect in a dim sum restaurant, but
not rude or unpleasant. I can recommend the outstanding steamed
spinach dumplings (which include shrimp), the flaky barbecued
pork buns, and the deep-fried but greaseless shrimp dumplings.
Harbor Village also features a full dinner menu; on weekdays,
there's a place outside the restaurant to get a quick lunch.
This is an attractive restaurant, but my guess is that you'll
be too busy eating to pay attention. Go!
Citizen Cake (399 Grove St. at Gough, 861-2228).
I ate here twice. This is a small café renowned for pastries
and desserts, but the first time I showed up (on a Saturday),
an anti-Bush-inauguration protest was breaking up down the block,
and it was just after the brunch hour, so things became crowded
as some protesters drifted in and the pastry cases were rather
empty. All told, I tried two pastries here, a gianduja cake
and an After Midnight Cake. Both were beautiful; everything
here looks gorgeous, from the chocolates to the breads to the
ice creams. I particularly enjoyed the Gianduja Cake, a thin
round of spongecake glazed with chocolate, topped with a thick
layer of hazelnut mousse and garnished with 2 hazelnuts. The
mousse was a bit sweet for me, but the dessert was very good
overall. The cake part of the After Midnight Cake deserves kudos
for a full, rich, chocolate flavor. In addition, you'll want
to try the S'More Brownie and the Almond Tea Cake. This is a
pleasant, modern-looking spot. Dinner is served a few nights
a week; it's lighter fare for the pre-theatre crowd. Call for
hours, which vary by day. I'll return to try breakfast or brunch
here...and more pastries!
Venticello (1257 Taylor St. at Washington St., 922-2545).
Another small restaurant, this is less well-lit than some. A
lot of wood and copper are in the décor, and the wallpaper is
on the dark side, too. From where I was sitting, though, I could
see a piece of the Golden Gate Bridge, which looks lovely when
illuminated. The menu consists of antipasti, pizzettas, salads,
pastas, and meats, and I think almost anyone could find a choice
here. I began with the barbabietola, a salad of red and yellow
beets, greens, and a shallot-tarragon-caper dressing. This arrived
so quickly I didn't even have time to eat a slice of the herbed
soft bread that was brought to the table after I ordered (along
with the bread, there was olive oil with olives in it and a
whole bulb of roasted garlic). A large plateful of greens was
heaped atop very sweet, perfectly cooked beet chunks; the dressing
was pleasantly acidic, and the whole combination was very good.
Less successful was my main course, gnocchi ai funghi porcini
e gorgonzola. A large plateful of gnocchi peeked through a brown
sauce with many visible mushroom chunks and gorgonzola crumbled
on top. Unhappily, the gnocchi were overcooked, the sauce was
bland, and the gorgonzola was too strong for both. Upon a recommendation
from one of the waitstaff, I tried the tiramisu for dessert.
A decent-sized square of very heavy, custardy tiramisu was served,
with a cool "polka dot" effect from layered ladyfingers. I enjoyed
the dense creaminess of the mascarpone custard, and the flavor
overall was good.
(450 Post St. between Powell and Mason Sts., 956-6969).
The meal I had here last year was so good I returned to see
if it could be surpassed this time around. Well, not quite,
but it was one of the two best meals I had in San Francisco.
The décor still makes me think of Jacques Cousteau on some serious
narcotics, the crowd is still well-heeled, and prices are still
high, but by way of compensation service is excellent and most
of the food is inventive and delicious. The menu features a
lot of seafood; of the 8 entrees, only two are non-fish. There
are also raw appetizers, warm appetizers, and cold/salad-like
appetizers. I began with a poached arctic char and sweet shrimp
terrine, with sorrel sauce, leeks, and fines herbes; to my astonishment,
this was aspic-based, something I haven't seen in years. Layers
of chopped leeks alternated with a layer apiece of very sweet
shrimp and the char, and the whole was encased in an aspic,
probably of jelled fish broth. To me, this dish was more novel
than successful; the leeks were too crunchy and I didn't think
the aspic's appearance, taste, or texture were attractive. I
moved on to the cardamom roasted comice pear and bleu d'auvergne
cheese salad, with arugula, treviso, toasted walnuts, and a
cider vinaigrette. This colorful composition featured green
arugula and red treviso, with the bleu cheese melted into the
very tender roasted pear--what a great combination! This salad
would be interesting with an additional acidic note (perhaps
a citrus vinaigrette or coulis), but that's just culinary speculation
on my part. My dessert, lemon-lime crepes suzette with Meyer
lemon custard, Rangpur lime beurre blanc and candied pomelos,
was rich and yet refreshing, in part because it wasn't too sweet.
Two crepe "purses", each held together by a caramel band, contained
the lemon custard, while a thin layer of the beurre blanc accented
with candied pomelo chunks graced the bottom of the dessert
plate. The textural contrasts in this dessert were terrific,
as were the various citrus flavors. As usual, service was polished,
and the waitstaff was professional and genuinely warm. Ask to
be seated so you can watch the partially-open kitchen. Definitely
worth a visit.
Baldoria (2162 Larkin St. at Green St., 447-0441).
Under the right circumstances, I'd think this could be a good
date restaurant. It's small, with wooden floors and white tablecloths,
and has been spiffed up a bit with a judicious use of lights.
Gnocchi are a specialty here, and theyand the pastas are house-made.
Along with half a dozen meat and fish entrees and some specials,
antipasti round out the menu. I chose the sugo al abbachio,
potato gnocchi with a lamb bolognese sauce. A big soup plate
full of gnocchi and sauce arrived in under 10 minutes (it was
about 6:15 on a damp Tuesday evening, and the place was empty).
The gnocchi were incredibly light, but they had been slightly
overcooked. The lamb bolognese, though, was excellent and a
good foil to the lightness of the gnocchi. Among about 6 desserts,
I chose the torta di mele (apple tart). A whole individual-sized
tart arrived, drizzled with peach sauce and another unidentifiable
fruit sauce (perhaps cherry?), with a small scoop of vanillas
ice cream on the side. The tart was served cold, which was OK,
but the pastry was completely soggy, which was not. The filling
had a good tart apple flavor but also tasted a little of starch.
Campton Place (in the hotel Campton Place, 340 Stockton
St. at Campton Pl., 955-5555).
I ate here for breakfast. This restaurant is expensive, and
the dress code is semi-formal, so be warned. On the other hand,
service is absolutely correct and yet friendly, and some of
the choices are quite imaginative. I had beignet-style French
toast with huckleberries, syrup, and whipped cream, and it was
outstanding, as was the glass of organic apple juice I chose
to wash it down. I don't know what the kitchen does to the French
toast, except that it is obviously deep-fried (although not
greasy), but the result is a great texture, identical to that
of a beignet. I did not try my companion's breakfast, but we
lingered for some 2 hours talking, and not once did we feel
rushed. I would absolutely try this place again, perhaps for
another breakfast or lunch.
Anjou (44 Campton Pl. between Grant Ave. and Stockton
If you stand facing the main entrance to Campton Place, you'll
notice a little alleyway to your right. A very short walk down
that alleyway will bring you to this bistro, which was hopping
at 7:20 on a Wednesday evening when I showed up. It's a cheerful,
albeit narrow, restaurant. The menu is quintessential bistro,
from the onion soup gratinee to the sauteed calves' liver. The
kitchen offers a special category of large appetizers/small
entrees, an absolutely wonderful idea more places need to adopt.
I started with a heart of romaine salad with grated roquefort,
walnuts, and vinaigrette, and it was flawless. Perfectly fresh,
crisp lettuce, a good amount of cheese, a restrained amount
of vinaigrette, caramelized walnuts, and a few tomato halves
all melded beautifully. My large appetizer/small entrée was
shredded smoked chicken and poached leek with sauteed wild mushrooms
and mixed herb polenta. This turned out to be a bed of poached
leeks with a mound of shredded, smoked chicken atop them. The
mushrooms and a wedge of polenta in sauce were on the side.
While the leeks and chicken were cold, the mushrooms were warm
and the polenta was hot, and it seemed as though the kitchen
had never decided on the proper serving temperature for the
dish. The leeks were quite good, as were the mushrooms, but
the polenta was too heavily herbed and the sauce too salty.
The chicken had a nice, smoky flavor, but in summation the dish
was not successful. The signature dessert here is anjou pears
in warm cointreau sabayon, but in yet another attempt to find
a good tarte tatin in this town, I ordered it here. Out came
a wedge of a tarte piled high with apples, that had been cleverly
caramelized on top, with a thin layer of pastry underneath.
A generous use of orange zest in the apple mixture helped to
contribute a really nice flavor, and the apples were cooked
perfectly. Unhappily, the bottom crust was soggy and tough and
partially burnt. The accompanying French vanilla gelato, though,
in San Francisco:
There's a lot of chocolate available in this town. While much
of it isn't worth writing home about, there are some exceptions.
All places listed are in San Francisco, in the 415 area code.
Citizen Cake (see listing above, in the Dining Guide).
There was nothing in this little café/shop that looked less
than spectacular. Try their own chocolates (especially the gianduja!),
but don't be surprised if you find it impossible to bypass the
cookies, pastries, cakes, ice creams, and breads.
Truffles (754 Columbus Ave., 421-4814).
In the North Beach section of the city sits this tiny shop/coffee
bar, where Jean-Marc and Casimira Gorce work their chocolate
wizardry. Twenty-seven varieties of handmade truffles are the
big draw here, along with some very creative packaging. The
truffles, unlike those offered by most American companies, are
quite small and irregularly-shaped, but they are marvels of
richness and good flavor.
RoCocoa Faerie Queene Chocolates (415 Castro St., 252-5814).
Part tea room and part chocolate shop, this is another small
space into which owner Geoffrey Douglas has managed to cram
an amazing variety of chocolates and other goodies, from his
own line of fudge (including an orange Oreo flavor!) to the
fabulous Manon chocolates he somehow coaxes that Belgian firm
to export. If you are of a conservative bent of mind, take note
that a couple of the chocolates have PG-rated names, and that
this place is in the heart of the city's gay district.
Rainbow (519 Powell St. between Bush and Sutter Sts., 982-3097,
and several other locations in San Francisco).
If you're from the East or Midwest, forget about the big-name
brands of frozen desserts you know from home; go for some Double
Rainbow instead. While they're most famous (and deservedly so)
for their heavenly chocolate sorbet, you'll find other very
good flavor choices in ice creams and sorbets as well. The Powell
Street branch is especially convenient if you're staying in
the Union Square area.
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