san francisco, california

san francisco has been on david and my list of places we’d love to visit for ages. for me this is linked to so many things including the beat writers, amistead maupin’s tales of the city, the creative and culturally active community and the thriving food scene.

our visit was fleeting – we only had a week and had decided that we wanted to spend some of that time driving down the coast-hugging highway 1 to los angeles – but we fitted a lot in including some great food. apart from a booking at chez panisse we’d left everything open, wanting to eat in more casual places and try to avoid breaking the bank.

pagolac, a vietnamese café that offered a very friendly face and delicious food to a pair of newly arrived and jetlagged tourists, was our first stop. we kept things simple with some wonderfully tender and smoky bbq pork, a fresh flavoured prawn, pork and lotus leaf salad and the familiar comfort of chicken noodle salad.

similarly comforting and a perfect way to set ourselves up for a day of exploring, was breakfast in the marina neighbourhood at the grove café – heuvos rancheros for me and a very filling breakfast burrito for david. the café had a friendly relaxed vibe and we sat outside, in the sun, watching people go about their business in this pretty neighbourhood. equally casual was a noodle supper at katana ya which was almost next door to our hotel (hotel diva, which was great) – my only tip here would be that the large portions mean you really don’t need any starters, just head straight for the ramen!

our final day in the city turned out to be the best foodwise – lunch at zuni café, ice cream at bi-rite creamery and dinner at chez panisse.

our zuni café lunch happened simply because we were walking past as the hunger pangs started kicking in. forgoing the infamous roast chicken, we shared a lovely light starter - ricotta-stuffed bresaola with shaved beetroot and garden lettuce; a perfect summer dish. david followed this with a burger (delicious, i barely got a mouthful!) and i had a lovely pizza, made in their wood-fired oven, with local wagon wheel cheese, parmesan, red onion, radicchio and balsamic vinegar (lots of sweet and sour flavours which was a nice change from the usual cheese and tomato combination).

we eschewed pudding as i wanted to check out bi-rite creamery’s ice cream. i can’t remember what flavours david chose but my scoops of earl grey and salted caramel were mind-blowingly good, both separately and together. so good in fact that i ate the lot, which is unusual as david normally gets to eat at least half my ice cream portions (as well as his own)!

so, that just leaves supper at chez panisse. i was so excited about this and felt even more so after i emailed anna, who used to work there, for advice about which part of the restaurant to eat in. we ended up eating upstairs in the more casual cafe which meant we could try more things – it has an la carte menu whereas the restaurant has a set menu of more complex dishes.   

anna’s advice was to load up on starters, which we did - cauliflower, radish and carrot salad with proscuitto and fava bean toast, halibut ceviche with blood oranges, avocado and ancho cress, and pozole with braised beef, cabbage and lime (i had hoped to try their pizettas too but we decided it would be excessive after my lunchtime pizza). all of these were amazing - the flavours were fresh and each stood out within the finished dish whilst also working together to create a very delicious whole. the things i remember most were the rough texture of the broad (fava) beans which had been crushed with an abundance of garlic, mint and olive oil (it made my broad bean bruschettas and dips look prissy in comparison) and the citrus and chilli tang which contrasted wonderfully with sweetness of the halibut ceviche.

for my main i chose roasted rock fish with fennel, tomatoes, green olives and capers – a classic combination of flavours, all oomphed up to the max in this gutsy dish. david’s pork loin with green rice, rebosero beans, scallions and adobo sauce was a gentler experience with wonderfully comforting flavours and textures.

by this point we were both feeling very full but managed to squeeze in a shared portion of a tangerine flan with candied kumquats and caramel, which was a delicate custard served with a sweet pastry twirl and candied citrus slices.

it was a wonderful meal, made all the more so when i thought about the culinary tradition which chez panisse created, represents and now influences how so many of us like to cook and eat – local and seasonal ingredients of the highest quality, produced sustainably and allowed to shine in simple dishes which are created with great care and consideration. everything we ate that evening was delicious. nothing was ground breaking or challenging and that is, i think, the enduring power of chez panisse – their approach was innovative 40 years ago (alice waters founded it in 1971) but their approach now permeates our food culture and is the standard to which so many restaurants and home cooks aspire. it was wonderful to have the opportunity to think about this whilst eating there – a fitting end to the san francisco leg of our trip.

pagolac, 655 larkin street, san francisco

the grove café, 2250 chestnut street, san francisci

katana ya, 430 geary street, san francisco

zuni café, 1658 market street, san francisco

bi-rite creamery, 3692 18th street, san francisco

chez panisse, 1517 shattuck avenue, berkeley