Thursday, November 20, 2008

Only in Berkeley? - 18th & 19th November

18th November: Today was a day dedicated to shopping (which I have decided is relaxing in its own way). Back to a couple of bookshops to pick up books I had seen earlier, gifts etc.

I have to tell you about The Wok Shop on Grant St in Chinatown. In amongst the restaurants and myriad gift shops lining the streets, this tiny little place is absolutely jam-packed to the rafters not just with woks (although plenty of those) but cooking implements of every type: I cam here to pick up my microplane grater and also came away with a couple of timber moulds for making buddha cookies (I had never heard about them before, but couldn't resist them). The lovely lady owner of the shop also provided me with a recipe for the cookies and her card- a wooden spoon with the shop details on it - brilliant!

Wandering around town, preparations for the holiday season are well-advanced, with the famous Union Square christmas tree slowly taking shape. Out the front of the Ritz-Carlton hotel, their tree had just arrived and in these incredibly narrow and steep streets a crane was slowly lowering it into position:

19th November:

Today a last minute decision to rent a car a day earlier than planned meant I was able to whip over to Berkeley in the afternoon to see my boy one last time. He had told me about his favourite pizza place called the Cheese Board across the road from Chez Panisse. I have been reading Alice Waters biography while over here, in which the Cheese Board features, so I just had to visit. The back story is that the Cheese Board is a cooperative (only in Berkeley) established in 1967. Based upon the principles of a kibbutz, the business is owned by collective members who are all paid the same. Check out their story at http://http//

Yes folks, everything in that cabinet is a cheese. They also sell their own bread. Below is the blackboard showing the varieties on sale - this is serious cheese heaven.

The Cheese Board Pizza Collective was started in 1990. The business model is simple - they serve only one flavour of pizza every day, slices are $2.50 each. They also have drinks and a salad available. Today's pizza was four cheese and three onions and can I say it's the best pizza I have ever tasted. The base was perfect: thin, crispy on the bottom chewy on the edge, and the topping of Four Cheeses (Mozzarella, Asiago, Gorgonzola & Parmesan Cheese), Three Onions (Yellow, Red and Green Onion), Garlic Olive Oil, Fresh Herbs was superb. I have bought the Cheese Board's book for myself, and will share the recipe for this pizza when I return.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Thomas Keller franchise: Bouchon and the Napa Valley

Picked up a rental car this morning for my drive to the Napa Valley. First I dropped Jonathan off at his frat house ( still no tour, folks) and he brought out a box of goodies for me (mostly cookbooks he has accumulated for me and books he wants sent back to Australia). Using the trusty GPS I had no problems finding my way around. I stopped off in Napa and found some gorgeous cookie cutters in an Antique Market. The weather was beautiful and driving through the valley's vineyards reminds me a lot of the Yarra Valley - miles of vineyards and lovely buildings:

After a brief stop at the Napa Outlet Mall I made my way to Yountville, home of French Laundry, Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery, all part of the Thomas Keller franchise (with others in Las Vegas and New York). Yountville was probably a pretty, character-filled village once upon a time, but lots of new development and sterile refurbishments have made the main street resemble something between the town in The Truman Show and Stepford. There are some exceptions to this in the back streets:

French Laundry is another exception, the original building (once a laundry), has been sensitively renovated, and is unassumingly positioned a couple of blocks from the main part of town:

It is clear in this building, as well as Bouchon where I had lunch, that Keller puts an emormous amount of thought into the aesthetics of his restaurants, and the attention to detail is impressive. Against the autumn colours of the street trees, Bouchon looked very welcoming. People were enjoying the sun and a galss of wine at tables on the sidewalk, and in the courtyard attached to the Bouchon Bakery next door.

Inside the bistro is cool and classic - high pressed tin ceilings, wood and etched glass, the huge mirror behind a traditional bar on one side of the room bringing the outside light in. Tables are set very traditionally, linen covered with butcher's paper and set with heavy silverware. Lots of waiters buzzing around. I ordered a goats cheese salad (like the one I had at Chez Panisse this alos had a beautiful dressing - I have made a note to start epxerimenting with vinaigrettes, they add so much to a very fresh salad.)
This was followed by crispy pan-fried striped sea bass, served with green beans in a light tomato sauce. The bass was beautifully cooked - a thick fillet still a tiny bit pink on the inside, the skin perfectly crisped. The accompanying beans were not a great foil for the fish - over-salty and chewy. I really enjoyed the fish, but around me most people were tucking into what looked like fabulous steaks with pomme frites - and I am a sucker for a good steak.
This was followed by a sublime lemon tart: very tart (!) in a pine nut crust with a touch of meringue piped on top followed by a so-so latte (can't wait to have a good coffee at the Deli when I return)
I also had a glass of Gemella, a beautful wine from a very small local winemaker called Scholium Project - very unusual, clean, crisp and really suited to the bass. Final bill around $100 including tax and tip was the same as lunch for Jono and I at Chez Panisse. Of the two meals I think Chez Panisse was more my style, I felt much more 'at home' there, which is probably a result of the Chez Panisse ethos. I've been trying to find a way to justify a quick trip over to Berkeley for another visit before I leave, but don't think it's going to happen.
I'm leaving San Francisco on Thursday morning (Friday your time) for a trip down to LA to catch my plane on Saturday night. There's another couple of opportunities for some good food on the way down, but the next two days are going to be dedicated to shopping, so I might not get a chance to bog before I get down there.

Monday, November 17, 2008

"Most beautiful Bridge"

Well, we're both exhausted, but lived to tell the tale.Today, on a beautiful, cloudless, 80 degree day, Jonathan and I caught a Muni bus to the car park on the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate bridge and walked across it, down to the lovely village of Sausalito on the other side. A trip of approx 8 kms. It wasn't a strenuous walk, although very windy and we're both a bit sunburnt.

The bridge is one of my favourite things about San Francisco, and I hadn't noticed before a plaque on its first column which says that GG was awarded in 1937 "Most beautiful steel bridge' very fitting it is too. Because it was such a beautiful day, there was a lot of traffic across the bridge, under the bridge, even over the bridge:

On the other side of the bridge we took a detour to some old bunkers in the Fort Baker precinct:

We had one wrong turn when we thought that the Bay Trail was a walking track and headed down what turned out to be a barely formed path on a steep slope along the edge of the bay. Turns out the Bay Trail is a bike trail and is actually a paved road. Never mind, we avoided the Poison Oak which apparently is prevalent around here and created a new path up the slope back to the road.

We had a very late breakfast at the Lighthouse Cafe which is on the waterfront away from the porsche and mercedes drivers of the main part of Sausalito. As in most diners, the cooks were Hispanic, and produced a fabulous meal. I'm always amazed to watch diner cooks working their magic in a very confined space with a limited number of tools and pots. The key seems to be keeping everything very organised, and each cook working their own part of the kingdom. These guys work very hard for not a lot of pay, so if you're ever eating at the Lighthouse - tip well!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Friday and Saturday - Pacific Heights and the Castro

Hi all, it's Saturday night in San Francisco (Sunday afternoon in Aus) and Jonathan and I have spent a couple of days catching up with each other and also with a family friend who I last saw in 1978. On Friday night we had dinner with Harry, Sherry, Shanna & Kyle at Left Bank, one of a chain of French brasseries in the East Bay. Think intimate Parisian bistro magnified many times: white-tiled walls, lots of large French advertising posters, wood panelling and wrought iron seating 100+. The food was quite authentic and I chose Lentil de Puys from the current regional menu which focuses on Lyon. Friday was also a long hike for me through Pacific Heights - possibly the most expensive area in San Francisco. The only people you see on the streets of stunning multi multi million dollar homes are construction workers, gardeners and nannies. After yesterday another reminder of the disparities evident in the city.
Today, Saturday, Jonathan and I went down to the Ferry Terminal Farmers Market again so that Jon could take some good photos of the produce - look for some prints on the shop walls when I come back. Here is a sample:

After the farmers market we decided to take the F Train to the Castro district - best known as the gay centre of San Francisco. Our train stopped about 2kms early because today also happened to be a day of protest and action against the controversial passing of Proposition 8 in California - a ban on gay marriages which had recently been approved by the Constituional Court. We hopped off the train and walked the rest of the way, encountering lots of groups along the way. It's a very emotional and contentious issue around here still, and has put a dampener for a lot of people on the election of Barack Obama. Jon tried out his photojournalism skills and got in there with a couple of the marches:

This afternoon we headed to the movies to see the latest Bond movie, and thne took a couple of cable cars around town just for the hell of it. Pizza and now an early night (Jon has a roll-out bed in my room) becasue tomrrow we are going to walk across Golden Gate bridge to Sausalito - around 8km- and then catch a ferry back to San Francisco. On MOnday I'm off to the Napa Valley for lunch at Bouchon - still no movement on the French Laundry waitlist.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A dirty, poorly lit place for books

And I thought nobody cared - apparently the blog was set to accept comments only from registered users - a regular pain I know. I've now changed it so comment away. BR

Well I've finally made it to the bookshop in the Tenderloin (mentioned below) and have to say that it suits its environment. It advertises itself as 'A dirty, poorly lit place for books' however having been inside I would describe it more as 'A filthy disgrace'- the very bottom of the barrel in bookshops (worse than McLeods, Meryll). I was directed to a side aisle for the cookery section and had to step on and over boxes of magazines. Glancing down to make sure I didn't fall over, I realised these magazines were, shall we say, of the hardcore variety? The owner seems to provide a drop-in centre for the local down-and-outs and in a back aisle was a young man beavering away on a computer (probably trapped in there). Anyway I came out of there (perhaps appropriately) with a first edition of Alice's Restaurant Cookbook. No return visit planned.

On my way back to my hotel I came across a queue about 100 people long and followed it around the corner to the Williams-Sonoma store where they were waiting for a book-signing by Ina Garten who has a cable cooking show called Barefoot Contessa. I wasn't interested in the book-signing but thought I would share some photos of this amazing foodies heaven. I always schedule a visit here when I'm in the US. This place is top shelf and stocks everything you can imagine for cooks and a lot of things you can't. Most of it's food products are aimed at home cooks looking for short-cuts (viz Pumpkin Bread mix, pre-prepared mulled wine base all very expensive) but their cookware range is amazing - check out that range of Le Creuset.

I've also visited a few other cookware shops today to track down good prices on microplane graters. They retail at $22 - $35 in Australia, around $US12 - 20 here. Put in your orders before next Thursday!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wednesday: Down on the water (and more bookshops)

So today was another walking day: a cable car down Ghirardelli Square and then walked miles: around Fort Mason, along the Marina, and Chrissy Fields and then through the Presidio. I've included a few photos which I took because they show a different side to the city and its landmarks. I also found THE BEST bookshop so far. Fort Mason is a former naval base and shipping yard which has been reclaimed for community arts purposes. Lots of theatre groups, art galleries and a bookshop run by Friends of the San Francisco Library - boy these people could teach our local libraries a thing or two about fundraising. All books for sale are donated, not ex-lib (well none that I saw) and reasonably priced. These are not $1 books but they had some of the absolute classics of cookbooks - Pellaprat, Larousse, Julia Child, Escoffier for $10 - $15 (US not Australian so not as reasonable as at first glance). Because I was on foot I only bought a couple of books - Julia Della Croce's Salse di Pomodoro - a book of tomato sauces and Neset Eren's Dleights of Turkish Cooking. Definitely going back there before I leave.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bookshops! Some stereotypes brought to life

A couple of times today I had to question the lengths us booksellers will go to to track down gems for their customers - no bookshop can be ignored, no thrift shop unfossicked, no garage sale passed by. The first time was following breakfast at the Golden Coffee Shop again ( French Toast & awful coffee $5, thank you for asking). I headed down Leavenworth St to a bookshop which had been recommended to me by a local:"the area is a bit rough, but it's well worth a visit".

The area is the Tenderloin, home to a disproportionate share of San Francisco's strip joints, flophouses and people down on their luck. The bookshop in question was sandwiched between a welfare agency and a cheque cashing/payday loan office, and the street was lined with people in various states of distress. This really is the dark side of a beautiful city, and of course an example of the fundamental inequities always evident in this country - there are some who have so much and many many more who have nothing. It is a sight I can never get used to.. Now I never at any stage felt unsafe, and noone even approached me, but it did make my hunt for books and culinary experiences a little vacuous.

As it turned out the bookshop was closed, so I hopped on to a bus heading towards the Mission district where I had been told there was a cluster of bookshops near Mission Dolores - famous for its appearance in Vertigo. The Mission district is vibrant and colourful, predominantly Hispanic. The bookshops are an eclectic mix - Adobe was a treasure trove of all sorts of books (including lots of cookbooks), scruffy, comfortable and with the stereotype of an achingly hip bookstore clerk/aspiring novelist tapping away on a manual typewriter at the front desk. When asked what he was writing he answered " A letter at the moment, but I am writing a novel". Forest bookstore was up another level, not quite antiquarian, but lots of first editions, very carefully chosen in a welcoming and organised store. Aardvark was a lot of fun, reminded me of some of the Carlton bookstores, lots of choice, a little messy, friendly. There were several others, so all in all a fun day of bookhunting.

The good news is that I've discovered that the wonderful USPS ($US2.80 to post a large book across the country to a customer in New York) still offers the equivalent of the old M-bag - 30kg of books posted for around $75. SO I'll be going back

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chez Panisse

Today I travelled across to Berkeley so that Jonathan could show me 'his' town ( funny I always think of him as in SFO, but of course Berkeley is its own city as well as being home to a VERY large university). UC Berkeley is a beautiful campus, with much character and the sorts of beautiful buildings that lots of money and generous alumni can buy. As Jon pointed out, every second building is named after a generous benefactor. We took a stroll through the frat district and were offered a brief tour through the magnificent Arts and Crafts building which houses the Sigma Phi fraternity.

I was very impressed not only with the young man who proudly offered us the tour when he saw us admiring the building from the outside, but with the fact that the young men in this fraternity do all cleaning and maintenance on this historic building themselves, and it is in beautiful condition. We also walked past the frat house where Jonathan is staying - sadly (Or perhaps thankfully) I was not offered a tour inside, so cannot report on the state of his room!! We then headed down to North Berkeley - a very chi-chi neighbourhood - for the highlight of the day, lunch at the cafe at Chez Panisse. Now I apologise that I am no John Lethlean, so my description can't do it justice.

To start with, the building that houses Chez Panisse is gorgeous - an Arts and Craft style former house, set back from the road, with a Wisteria covered verandah out front. The restaurant proper is located downstairs, and when we passed by on our way to the cafe upstairs, it was a lovely sight, lots of people working together to prepare the evening's masterpieces.

The cafe is beautiful, quiet and calm, lots of wood panelling, and beaten copper lights. The open kitchen runs through the centre of a long room, and is very low-tech, no rattling order machine here, a computer is hidden away beneath the servery. The wood-fired oven was fired up and producing pizza and pizzetta. The service was perfect - attentive but not over the top, the servers friendly and helpful. Chez Panisse has broken away from the pack to include a 17% surcharge in the bill and paying their staff a proper wage, but like many people probably do I chose to top this up becasue I was so impressed with them ( Jonathan says I am defeating the purpose but never mind).

So to the food: Jonathan had the prix fixe menu, a simple garden lettuce salad with a magnificent dressing: apparently sesame oil, red wine vinegar, and lime, orange & lemon juice. This was followed by an eggs cocotte dish in a flavoursome stew of white beans & capsicum & a platter of biscuits. Like everything we had today everything was so fresh and perfectly cooked. Chez Panisse sources as much of its produce as possible locally so the time between farm and plate is very short and you really can tell the difference this makes.

I also started with the garden lettuce salad, followed by duck leg confit served with braised cabbage and crispy potatoes (probably also cooked in duck fat - well there goes the diet). I followed up with a creme fraiche pannacotta with pomegranate - this lovely fruit is too under-utilised in Australia.

So all in all a wonderful lunch, well worth the $100 bill not only for the perfect food, but for the whole experience. The only lowlight was the two 'valley girls' sharing a pizza at the next table for the first half hour we were there. It wasn't their strident voices or lack of consideration for other diners that floored me though - it was the Starbucks iced tea that one of them had with her. To their credit, the wait staff treated them with exactly the same courtesy and deference as they did everyone else- despite the fact that the girls basically ignored them.

Monday, November 10, 2008

San Francisco on foot

It is a truth universally acknowledged (well it should be anyway), that the best way to see a city is on foot. Today was a walking day. 1st off this morning a walk to the Golden Coffee Shop- a Russell family favourite - Scrambled eggs bacon and hash browns freshly grated onto the grill together with toast and orange juice for all of $8 (including a very generous tip). The Golden is a hole in the wall run by the same brothers for decades (and the prices are still the same I think). It's a classic and well worth a visit.

Then it was a walk down to the SFO city hall to check out yet another Farmers Market - this one much more low key than the feryy terminal and frequented by locals rather than tourists. A long queue led to a truck where poultry of all sorts were being purchased and shoved into brown paper bags (I presume they were live because the truck was full of cages, but they were very quiet!?!). Produce here not as diverse as yesterday, but still lots of great things like fresh dates being sold on the stem, pomegranates for $1.99 per lb and lots of Asian vegetables.

Another walk next down to the Ferry building again, this time to catch a ferry to Sausalito. What a beautiful little town it is, magical views of SFO and charming houses dotted throughout the hills. It is unfortunately very touristy on the main strip, but a few steps away from the main drag you could be a million miles away from the Lexus and Lincolns and the sailing types. I had a terrible latte (always hard to get a good coffee here) with a beautiful view and then got the ferry back, before walking back to the hotel via Coit Tower and Russian Hill - around 4.5 very steep kms.

Tomorrow Jon and I are off to lunch at Chez Panisse. I shall be taking many discreet photos and reporting back in full asap.