Thursday, May 1, 2014

Week 17 - Zoe's

When human features, in a robot, or animation, look nothing like an actual human, we're not very accepting of them.  As they start to look more and more convincingly human, we become more and more accepting of them.  And then, when they look almost, but not quite, exactly human, our acceptance of them plunges, only recovering and reaching its peak once the facsimile achieves perfection.  Within the field of human aesthetics, that trough of rejection is known as the "uncanny valley".

Nalani has a similar response to food quality.  I call it the "bistro valley".  When food is not very good, Nalani doesn't like it.  As it gets better and better, Nalani likes it more and more.  And then, somewhere around "really good" but short of "ass-kickingly delicious", Nalani's enjoyment of the food plummets, only recovering on the other side once we're within view of Michelin Star territory.  When a meal lands squarely in the bistro valley it's as if all Nalani can see (or rather, taste) is the bar it just missed.

Zoe's rests at the bottom of the bistro valley.  Which is to say, the food was really good, and Nalani just thought it could have been so much better.  Personally I was delighted to be eating mussels in white wine sauce while sitting in what is essentially a dive bar.  Well, a San Francisco dive bar, which means it had lovely art deco interior design touches, and finely crafted boutique cocktails.  I mean, look at this array of house-made bitters:

 I got the fries with my mussels for an extra three bucks.  Nalani had the Bacon Sandwich, which was very good (but Nalani wants you to know it could have been much better with just a little effort!).  We also had some buffalo wings which were pretty fine.

And our cocktails were delicious.  It was a warm night, positively sultry in fact, and I wanted something refreshing, so I got the Vermont Mule (like a Moscow Mule, but with bourbon instead of vodka).  But the cocktail menu is full of intriguing possibilities which I'm looking  forward to sampling.  How about an El Mariachi (mezcal, yellow chartreuse, cointreau, lemon juice, orange bitters) or a Trouble and Strife (gin, ginger syrup, lemon, lime, egg, orange peel, orchid - wait... orchid?).

Plus it's walking distance to us, and was just a really comfortable place with a nice vibe.


Would We Go There Again

What can I say.  There's a Pugilist (Irish whiskey, scotch, lemon, orgeat, egg, black walnut bitters) with my name on it.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Week 16 - La Traviata

I am distantly related to Suzanne Adams, an opera singer who lived from 1872 to 1953.  She was, according to her wikipedia entry, "known for her agile and pure voice".  She was one of the Metropolitan Opera's leading sopranos at the beginning of the 20th century.  She also performed throughout Europe, including for Queen Victoria.  At that performance she received an autographed photo of the Queen, which has been passed down through my family over the years, and which now sits on my father's desk.  All of this is just to say that despite my almost totally unblemished ignorance of opera, I was able to secretly feel like a bit of an insider while dining at La Traviata.

Zef Shilaku opened La Traviata in 1973, and it's fair to say he may have cared more about opera than he cared about restaurants.  To this day, opera music plays softly in the background, the walls are covered with photos of opera stars, and many well known opera names have dined within those very walls, including Pavarotti, the one opera star I can name, other than Suzanne Adams.

The roses on the tables are real.

And I'm sure none of those vocal luminaries went away disappointed.  Nalani and I sure didn't.  It's a cozy place, and a bit worn around the edges, though I'd say it feels more worn in than worn out.  The food was delicious and reasonably priced, and the service was super friendly.  (We were waited on by two distinguished gentlemen who, I dare say, may have started there originally on opening day back in '73.)

Nalani had the Pollo Alla Beverly Sills (chicken breast rolled with pancetta, mozzarella, sauteed mushrooms & white wine) and I had the Melanzane Alla Vaness (layered eggplant, mozzarella, parmesan & tomato sauce).  Neither one was flashy, but both were wholesome and tasty.  Our shared salad was good too.

While Nalani can be counted on for dessert, I usually skip it, but tonight we actually got two desserts, and two dessert wines.  Nalani got the pana cotta, about which she used the word "terrible" and I got the spumoni, which was also really for Nalani, if we're being honest, and which she declared "awful".  Desserts are so often the Achilles heel, which is one of the reasons I usually give them a miss, but where Nalani and desserts are concerned, hope springs eternal.  The wines were good though.

One side note: this is the 16th restaurant we've been to so far this year as part of this project, and the third where they accidentally left something off the bill.  Tonight, when I pointed out that they had not charged us for either of our desserts, or either of our dessert wines, one of the waiters shouted, "Charge him double!"  Needless to say, they did not.  In fact, they didn't charge us for the wine at all, and actually topped up our empty glasses.

Would We Go There Again

Heck yeah.  It's close, comfortable, and delicious.  We'll skip dessert though.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Week 15 - La Mar

Today we went to La Mar, a schmancy Peruvian seafood place.  They have a big, fancy restaurant, which we didn't set foot in.  But out front they have a separate bar, which was small and sun-filled, and had a happy hour (daily, 3:00 to 6:00).

We had a nice time and the happy hour prices were very reasonable, but the food and drinks were hit or miss.  The Passion Daiquiri was meh, the Pisco Punch was OK, the Prickly Pear Margaritas were fantastic.

We got the Cebichin Mixto (catch of the day, very good), Chicharrón de Pollo Antichuchero (fried chicken, Nalani thought good, Ben thought OK), the Causa Limeña (potato and Dungeness crab, great), the Pancito con Chicharrón (pork belly sandwich, Ben thought great, Nalani thought OK), and the calamari, which was the only thing we got that was really not good, we didn't finish it.  (Nalani wants to know: how do you screw up calamari?)

Not the place for you if you don't like red onions.

Would We Go There Again

We wouldn't go out of our way, but La Mar is down on the Embarcadero, a pleasant stroll from the South Beach Marina, and we would totally come here again for happy hour after a day of sailing.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Week 14 - Griddle Fresh

Breakfast used to be my favorite meal out, but Nalani is more of a dinner girl.  Plus our east-facing deck overlooking San Francisco Bay makes for such a nice, sun-warmed breakfast spot.  None the less, we do go out for breakfast on the weekend not infrequently, and when we do, we usually end up at Serpentine, which has been our untoppled favorite for a while now.  So, can Griddle Fresh in Noe Valley mix things up for us?

The service was competent, though not exactly what I'd call warm, and the ambiance was unremarkable, mixed with just a touch of self consciously quirky.

But the food.  The food was so very good.  Nalani got the Spicy Pop Pulled Pork Scramble, which was great, though she wished it came with BBQ sauce.  As did I, though to be honest, I wish pretty much everything came with BBQ sauce.  I got the Sea Board Benedict, which was excellent.  The crab and the shrimp were very salty, too salty really, but they were also really fresh and flavorful.  The eggs were perfectly done, and the hollandaise sauce was dolloped on in just the right amount.  Nalani and I both really liked how the hash browns were super flat and crispy, and how the english muffins had been done on the grill.

But forget all that.  What we really need to talk about are the pancakes.  They have a couple varieties, but we got the Lemon Ricotta Souffle Pancake.  On the outside they look like regular pancakes, but on the inside they're filled with puréed unicorn, or something.  They were divine.

Would We Go There Again

It hasn't knocked Serpentine from the top spot, but we'd go back just to try the other pancake variety, the Banana Mascarpone Souffle Pancake.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Week 13 - Paprika

Various sources online alternately refer to Paprika as German, Hungarian, or Czech.  The term "gastropub" appears more than once.  The restaurant's own Facebook page calls it "Modern European".  I call it "mighty good".

We got a cute little corner table which was lovely and romantic, despite the fact that some jackhole had tagged the windows.  That's what you get for having your restaurant on Mission and 24th.  The service was so, so friendly, and the food was really good, and especially comforting on a cool San Francisco night.  Nalani had the Szeged Goulash which she described as, "my favorite, tangy, sour, rich, and awesome."  I ordered the Chicken Paprikash, solely because of that line in When Harry Met Sally, "Waiter, there is too much pepper in my paprikash."  There was not, however, too much pepper in my paprikash, it was perfect.

We also ordered a small plate to start, your choice of gourmet sausage.  We had the delicious German Spice Sausage.  I think we could happily make a meal of just the sausage plates.

And then there's the beer.  Ah, beer.  Nalani had the Weihenstephan Hefe, which claims to be from a brewery first licensed in 1040, making it the oldest working brewery in the world.  Antiquity aside, the beer I got was our favorite, the Krusovice Dark, surprisingly light and refreshing for a dark beer, with no bitterness.

If I hadn't had to work the next day, I'd have had another.  Did I mention that the place is cozy, and the service is crazy friendly?  All in all, we were sad to leave.

Would We Go There Again

Absolutely.  We'd go out of our way for this place, and happily, we don't have to, one 10 minute bus ride takes us door to door.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Week 12 - Old Jerusalem

Many years ago I house-sat for my parents in Saint Paul while they were living in Italy for a year.  A few blocks from their house was a Middle Eastern restaurant called Mim's Cafe.  Not everything at Mim's was good, but the Shawarma was out of this world.  At least once a week for that year, I got take-out from Mim's (alternating the Shawarma with the Chicken Muraf, which was also stellar) and I've been looking for the equal of that Shawarma ever since.

Tonight we went to Old Jerusalem Restaurant on Mission and 26th.  I regret to report that my Shawarma quest is still ongoing.  The Shawarma (I got the lamb version) at Old Jerusalem was dry and uninspired.  But the Shish Taouk (grilled chicken) was delicious, and Nalani declared her Stuffed Falafel appetizer to be the best falafel she's ever had.

Also in the plus column was the mint tea (containing large sprigs of sparkling fresh mint) and the assortment of dips, olives, and mysterious pink things that tasted like horse radish.

Speaking of the mint tea, they forgot to charge us for it, and when I pointed that out, they said, "On the house."

Would We Go There Again

Based on the chicken and falafel, Nalani believes that this place has tremendous potential if you order right.  And everyone does need a Middle Eastern place in their repertoire.  But there's another well-reviewed Middle Eastern place a bit closer to us, so I'm going to have to check it out before I render a judgement.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Week 11 - Whiz Burgers Drive-In

Whiz Burgers Drive-In has a cool sign.  That's why we wanted to go there.  They just have a scattering of tables out front, so you want to go on a beautiful day, and we picked a good one.  We were already in the neighborhood for an afternoon cheese-making class, so we walked over.  To the drive-in.  Does that seem right to you?

We got the stuff that you get at a basic burger place.  Burgers.  Fries.  Onion rings.  Strawberry milkshake.  (Someone later asked me why on earth I would get a strawberry milkshake.  Answer: strawberry milkshakes are awesome.)

There's nothing fancy about these hamburgers.  Whiz Burgers is never a place you'd bring up when trading "best burger" stories (you do that, right?).  You wouldn't take out of town guests here (take them to Chez Maman).  But you know what, these burgers ain't bad.  I think Nalani put it best: "This is a classic American hamburger.  The kind of burger you wish you could make at home, but you really can't."

Would We Go There Again

I wouldn't go out of my way to go here.  But if I were over on Valencia, browsing Paxton Gate and Dog Eared Books, and it was around lunchtime on a beautiful day, I would totally walk the two blocks over to South Van Ness and get me a burger.  Hey, maybe I'd bump into the two guys we met here today, who were both shooting pictures with Voigtlander Bessa rangefinders.  Cool.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Week 10 - Taqueria Vallarta

There's something about Taqueria Vallarta that reminds me of Mexico.  Is that an idiotic thing to say about a Mexican restaurant?  I don't just mean the food, I mean the place itself.  Sure, the murals on the walls depict the Golden Gate bridge, and the 49ers, and so on.  But there's something about the vibe, the open, high-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit, faintly grimy space that calls to mind the upper floor of the Central Market in Mérida, the first place I ever dined in Mexico.

There's a line out the door for the taco bar.  Just tell the nice man what you want, and he dishes it right up for you.  (Actually, he wasn't a nice man, he was sort of surly, but hey, he's slingin' good tacos, so who cares?)  They do serve other things at this place, but did I mention... taco bar?

So, you'll be getting the tacos.  We got the Chorizo, the Al Pastor, the Pollo Asado, and the Carne Asada.  Also two agua frescas, a cantaloupe and a hibiscus.  (We ordered that hibiscus out of a sense of obligation to try as many different things as possible.  But seriously, when you can get a cantaloupe agua fresca, don't order anything else.)

Usually when I order up some Pollo instead of some Carne, it's because I'm trying to eat less red meat, and I want to be good (insofar as eating tacos can be considered dietarily "good" at all).  Then I gnaw on some dry, stringy chicken, and gaze with envy at other people's delicious tacos.  But Taqueria Vallarta turns all that on its head.  Nalani and I both agreed that the Pollo Asado was hands-down the best, by far.  The Chorizo was a distant second, but Nalani says she'd just go back and order four chicken tacos.

Would We Go There Again

It's walking distance.  It's open late.  They have two-dollar tacos.  Why are we still talking about this?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Week 9 - Goat Hill Pizza

Two words: "Neighborhood Night".  Every Monday night, Goat Hill Pizza serves all-you-can-eat pizza and salad for twelve dollars.  Seven bucks if you're between the ages of 5 and 12.  The appeal of this, for us, was not so much that we could stuff our faces until we hurled, but rather that it offered the opportunity to try a slice of every pizza on the menu.

We went to their Potrero Hill location (you can also find them in SOMA and West Portal) and it has a wonderful, neighborhood-y, family-friendly feel.  We got the best seat in the house, looking out at a rainy, Bladerunner-esque San Francisco skyline.

The salad bar is self-serve, but the pizza, fresh from the oven, is proffered on trays by roving waitstaff.  They come by your table, tell you what they have, and you say yea or nay, and then someone else comes by a minute later with yet more options.  Oh, and the staff is ridiculously friendly.  Seriously, there was one guy in particular we just wanted to box up and take home with us.

I believe that goat is campaigning for Obama.

In fact, the only flaw in this pizza paradise is the food.  It certainly wasn't bad, but the salad bar was perfunctory, and the pizza, for the most part, was merely average.  Nalani thought that most of the pizza was too garlicky, though I didn't have that problem myself.  In fact, the roasted garlic and goat cheese pizza was perhaps my favorite.  We both agreed that the salami pizza was damn fine.

Would We Go There Again

If we lived in the neighborhood and had kids, we'd probably be down there every Monday night.  It's hard to beat the comfortable feel and the value for money.  But we don't, and don't, so we probably won't be back any time soon.  To be honest, we don't actually feel like having pizza that often, and when we do, we usually want someone to bring it to us at home.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Week 8 - Tadich Grill

My dad took us here last weekend, it had been recommended by a friend of his.  Tadich Grill, as it turns out, is something of an institution.  It has an old school feel when you walk in - bustling waiters (all men, and all wearing what I can only describe as lab coats), wood paneling, a feeling of history lending it a certain unassuming elegance.

Actually, "something of an institution" might be and understatement.  The restaurant was established in 1849 (before California was a state) and, according to their website, is believed to be the third oldest continuously run restaurant in America.  (Not to be confused with the Old Clam House, which claims to be the oldest restaurant in San Francisco which has been operating continuously at the same location.  A location which, incidentally, we can see from our house.)

It would be a great place to take out of town guests, but maybe for a very early dinner.  Tadich Grill does not accept reservations, so if you show up wanting a table at a regular dinner hour on a Saturday, be prepared to wait.  You could probably be seated pretty quickly if you wanted to sit at the long bar, but that doesn't work very well with more than two people.  We eventually got a table, hidden off in a little alcove, it was really wonderfully cozy.

The menu is expansive, but the focus is all seafood.  We ordered the Seafood Cioppino, the Dungeness Crab Cakes, and the Dungeness Crab and Prawns a la Monza and everything was delicious.  In fact, I wish some of that a la Monza right now.  No idea what that means, but it was tasty.

We ordered the rice pudding for dessert.  The Tadich Grill take on rice pudding could perhaps at best be called "unconventional".  Between the three of us we ate about half of one order.  Next time I'll skip dessert.

Would We Go There Again

With out of town friends who like seafood and don't mind a wait, yes.  Just the two of us, if we happened to find ourselves downtown on a weeknight, yes.