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MARCH 2001

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Special Section: San Francisco Dining Guide

Sweet Spot



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 and cheerful.

Harbor 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.

Farallon (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 St., 392-5373).
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, was good.


Chocolate 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.

XOX 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.

Double 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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