For Chocolate Lovers only

Special Edition: Food in San Francisco and Environs

I had the privilege of spending a week in San Francisco in July and August. Despite the large and often annoying crowds of tourists, the food scene there remains breathtaking. Here’s some of what I found:

In San Francisco:

--Farmers’ Markets. The finest I’ve ever seen. There’s a Wednesday Market in the Civic Center Plaza (don’t miss the couple who sell different kinds of dates) and a bigger Saturday Market in and around the newly-remodeled Ferry Building (I believe there are Markets on other days at the Ferry Building, too). At the Saturday Market, you’ll find unbelievably gorgeous produce (some of it organic), baked goods, fresh fish, smoked fish, meats, cheeses, eggs, preserves, honey, olive oils, orchids, cacti, even granola. If you can only get to one, make it the Saturday Market, and do yourself a favor by getting there early. As of this writing, that market opens at 8 am and is already a zoo by 10 am. Inside the Ferry Building are a few more permanent stores, including McEvoy Olive Oil (and olive oil products—make sure you smell the citrus-scented soaps), Lulu Petit (products from Restaurant Lulu—check out the killer white truffle honey and blood orange marmalade), and Acme Bread. More stores, including an outlet of my beloved Ciao Bella Gelato, are slated to open soon. Take a tote bag and/or a small cooler. An easy walk from the end of the California-Market-Van Ness cable car line.

--Greens, Fort Mason, Building A, (415) 771-6222. Now in its 24th year, this vegetarian restaurant is very well known. I’d never eaten here before and wanted to try it, and that turned out to be a fine decision. There’s a beautiful view overlooking a marina and the Golden Gate Bridge (at least I think it’s the Golden Gate). Polite service and good sourdough bread to start a meal are always two promising signs, and they were borne out by the rest of my dinner there. Recommended dishes: corn pudding, fresh pea ravioli, summer berries with rose geranium crème anglaise and almond praline cookies. The menu reflects the season perfectly, the food is well-prepared and well-presented, and I’ll make it a point to return next time I’m in the area.

--Farallon, 450 Post Street, (415) 956-6969. I keep hearing mixed things about Farallon, but honestly, the experiences I’ve had here have been mostly positive. The décor still looks like the place was designed by Jacques Cousteau on acid, but it’s not unpleasant, and I’ve found most of the food to be very good. Recommended dishes: mixed County Line Farms baby lettuces with white balsamic, Frog Hollow peaches, and bleu d’Auvergne; chocolate bing cherry tart. I also had the truffled sweet corn ravioli, but they were difficult to eat. Served in a soup plate in a parmesan broth, they were extremely slippery, and the dish was not hot when it was served. But even then, the combination of broth, ravioli, and levain croutons was a nice combination of textures and tastes. Service is professional and thoughtful.

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--Solea. I’m not going to tell you where this restaurant is. You can find it if you look, but please read the rest of this paragraph first. I walked into the hotel where Solea is located just before 12:45 on a Wednesday afternoon. As I was clad in jeans and a t-shirt, I took care to ask at the front desk if my outfit was OK, and was told by both women working there that it was. The dining room was completely empty. The sole waiter didn’t even seat me, just put a menu in front of my face and asked me if I knew what I wanted. I had questions about the white corn soup—what was the base? Cream or milk? Chicken stock? Water? Not only did the waiter not know, but he was evidently unwilling to ask; he told me he wasn’t sure and offered only the unhelpful suggestion that the soup was “pre-made”. Well, no kidding. After I ordered the soup, the waiter sat me down, gave me a glass of water, then vanished for just under 15 minutes (remember, I was the only person in the dining room and had ordered just a bowl of “pre-made” soup). Eventually, he reappeared, bearing my soup and some rather soggy toast to go with it. The soup wasn’t bad, but it was overwhelmed by black pepper, which destroyed its delicacy. This isn’t a cheap diner; it’s meant to be an upscale restaurant in an upscale hotel. I was later told by a concierge I met that she no longer recommends Solea because she’d heard so many complaints about the service. Go elsewhere.

--Tartine, 600 Geurrero at 18th Street, (415) 487-2600. In the Mission district. This little bakery/café is all the rage right now, and it’s immensely popular even at off-peak hours. I tried a Scharffen Berger chocolate pudding (decent, but no big deal), a peach summer fruit tart (good, but the streusel topping was salty and the almond flavor too pronounced), the Valrhona chocolate cake (a very good, tall, chocolatey cake, not dry as is too often the case), a chocolate cookie (very good—dense and chewy/fudgy), and a Mexican wedding cake (good). Savory foods are also served and sold here.

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--Boulangerie Bay Bread, 2325 Pine Street (closest cross is Fillmore), (415) 440-0356. About as close to Bakery Heaven as I’ve ever gotten. They use only butter, it’s a little neighborhood spot with people who genuinely care about each other and what they’re selling you, and the variety is terrific. The Gateau au Chocolat is dense and chocolatey enough even for my tastes; the chocolate macaroons are chewy and fresh and not too sweet; and the cheese puffs are flavorful and light. And don’t forget the Gateau Basque aux Cerises, with its lovely lemony accent and good cherry filling! I’d like to try the croissant pudding next time I’m here, and perhaps a couple of their savory breads and a fruit tart. But the single best thing I tried was recommended by “San Francisco Magazine” in their annual food issue. Boulangerie Bay Bread makes canelles. These are a traditional French pastry that bear slight resemblance to a miniature bundt cake. They are a deep cinnamony brown outside (very appropriate, as they’re cinnamon flavored); inside, they are eggy and moist. These must be the ultimate in breakfast pastries. Absolutely glorious. Buy a few things here to munch as you stroll along the interesting shops on Fillmore Street, or do what I did and make this your last stop in San Francisco before heading to the airport. No tables.

--Artisan Cheese, 2413 California Street, (415) 929-8610. I stumbled across this tiny shop in my wanderings, and was glad I’d done so. This is the lactophilic equivalent of a fine art gallery, but this is art you can eat. There’s a very good selection, and the staff is genuinely clued in about what they’re selling. This is a real cheese shop, so don’t expect to find lots of pre-cut wedges in plastic wrap. For people who appreciate exceptional cheeses or would like to learn more about them.

--XOX Truffles, 754 Columbus Avenue, (415) 421-4814. I’m delighted to see that this chocolaterie/coffee bar is still going strong. It isn’t a big place, but Jean-Marc Gorce makes delicious and properly delicate truffles in a rather astonishing array of flavors. The truffles sit in large bowls in a refrigerated case, and I swear you can hear them calling you through the glass. You select the flavors for your purchase, which is just as it should be. There are plain white cartons or fancier boxes/containers for the truffles; you get to choose. And this is the only place I know that offers truffles for vegans; there are one or two types of soy truffles, though I haven’t tried them. Forget those silly cable car key chains; bring home some good truffles, and the people who couldn’t come with you might just forgive you for going without them.

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--Nob Hill Lambourne, 725 Pine Street, (800) 274-8466 or (415) 433-2287, This is a wonderful base from which to explore San Francisco. Despite being on a busy street, my room (on the third floor) was quiet. Only 20 rooms comprise this hotel, and there’s no restaurant, although there’s a lovely complimentary “healthy” continental breakfast every morning. My room was larger than a standard hotel room and contained a kitchenette (decent-sized fridge, microwave, two burners, and plates, flatware, etc.), which was incredibly useful. Union Square, Nob Hill, Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Ferry Building are all within a 15 minute walk; cable cars and cabs are (at most) a walk of two blocks. Rather minimalist, but not too modern, décor. Rooms include your own personal fax machine, deep bathtubs, a wonderful temperature control on the shower/bath faucets, ceiling fans, and windows that actually open. The staff answered my innumerable questions politely and patiently. Minor downsides here were the bad television reception and the rickety old ironing board in my quarters. San Francisco is not a cheap city, and hotels are priced accordingly, but this place is a good value. One note of caution: this hotel, like many in the area, has no air conditioning. Occasionally, it does get hot in San Francisco during the summer months, as was the case this year. Be aware that this can happen.

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In Oakland:

On College Avenue:
--La Farine Bakery, #6323, (510) 654-0338. A communal table sits in the front of this French bakery; what a great idea! The Plum Frangipane Tart had a nice short crust, with a good and not overwhelming almond layer; the plums atop the slice provided a visual and flavor contrast. The Orange Cornmeal Cookie was excellent, although the Chocolate Cookie, not too sweet and quite chocolatey, was dry.

--Ver Brugge Foods, #6321, (510) 658-6854. A gorgeous-looking butcher shop, featuring homemade sausages. I wasn’t able to try anything from this place, alas, but everything I saw looked very fresh. Some frozen specialties (pastas) as well.

--Great Harvest Bread, #5800. I wasn’t able to try anything here, either, but I’ve enjoyed bread from other Great Harvest locations in the past.

--Rockridge Market Hall, #5655. I’m not certain, but I believe this is a group of small food businesses united under one roof. In any case, you ought to go inside to look around. Truffles and Villettes from Lisa Lerner (hurrah!), a coffee bar, a bakery (I tried a square of fudge cake, but it was not laudable), a fabulous prepared foods section, produce, a beautiful meat counter, a little cheese area, and lots of specialty preserves/honies/condiments.

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On Piedmont Avenue:
--Fenton’s Creamery, #4226. A hugely popular ice creamery and café. Expect to have trouble parking, because you will; find a lot down the street and wander up. Many different ice cream flavors made on the premises (you can watch a bit of the process through a window). Decent black raspberry ice cream.

--Le Boulanger, # 4039. Bakery and café. Locally popular, especially at lunchtime. I didn’t get to try anything from them; there was too long a line!

--A.G. Ferrari. I’m not certain of the street number, but this is in the 4000 block; there are other branches of this establishment throughout the East Bay area. An Italian specialty foods store. Beautiful-looking prepared foods, plus they make sandwiches. Immensely popular at lunchtime. Imported pastas, sauces, nougat, etc. Don’t miss the Baratti & Milano chocolates, available here in bars or delightful two-bite-size squares.

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In Berkeley:

On Oregon Street:
--Berkeley Bowl, #2020. From the outside, it looks like nothing you haven’t seen before. When you go in, it appears to be a regular upscale market—prepared foods, a nice dairy section with some organic milk/eggs, different interesting breads from small-scale bakers (look for Vital Vittles Bread), lots of bulk foods. But none of this prepares you for the fruit-and-vegetable section, which appears to be the work of several fairy godmothers who have simultaneously granted wishes to a number of produce-loving foodies. I lost count of the different types of heirloom tomatoes. Fresh black, white, and red currants for sale under one roof. About eight kinds of radishes, half a dozen kinds of fresh basil. Melons I’d never heard of. Raspberries red, yellow, and tangerine (a sunset shade of orange). Mushrooms I’d never seen before. Greens beautiful enough to sing about. My awestruck friend and I walked slowly around this Paradise of Produce, trying to take it all in. An amused customer, noting our reactions, guessed that we’d never been here before and smiled as she declared, “Yeah, this place kicks ass!” ‘Nuff said.

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On Shattuck Avenue:
Find a place to park if you can, and wander around for a couple of hours. Many interesting cafes and stores, including The Other Change of Hobbit, #2020, a science fiction and fantasy bookstore. Also:

--Mondo Gelato, #2106, (510) 883-1568. A small but upscale gelateria. Products superbly displayed. Try the straciatella (chocolate chip) or the coconut. Large selection.

--The Phoenix Pastificio, #1786, (510) 883-0783. This is both a café and a wholesale/retail outlet, chiefly for pasta. The café is open for lunch only, Monday to Saturday, and has a very nice-sounding, pasta-based menu (my companion and I were too full to eat anything, alas). The retail and wholesale end of the business appears to have very long hours, six days a week (closed Sunday). Fresh egg pastas are cut to customer specifications in 4 widths; varieties include corn, rose petal, garlic parsley, and beet. Eggless pastas made with organic semolina are another option here. There are no fewer than 8 kinds of ravioli (including sweet pea with sauteed leek, smoked chicken, and butternut squash). Cheese, pasta sauces, soups, breads, and sweets round out the roster. Beautiful-looking offerings.

--Andronico’s Market, #1550. A nice upscale market. Look for Sconehenge scones (Sconehenge may be available elsewhere, too).

Special thanks to Marie H. for driving up from Salinas to meet me and for our “East Bay Foodies Tour”!

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