San Francisco

Image result for Fisherman's Wharf San Francisco historical photos

The coldest winter of my life was the summer I spent in San Francisco – Mark Twain

Isn’t it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live there? – Herb Caen

Is there anyone who doesn’t love San Francisco?

Yes, but most of them live in Los Angeles.

Los Angelenos hate ‘Frisco because San Franciscans have spent the last 150 years looking down the state and their noses at them.

San Franciscans see their bigger, richer, more politically powerful younger sibling the way a Boston Brahmin sees a Jewish mobster: tacky and money-grubbing, bereft of class.

Angelenos think of their northern relatives as a bunch of cloistered snobs.

Both have a point.

I’ve spent so much time in each city that I feel a kinship with these two Californios with nothing in common. Next to New York City, they  are where most of my urban education has taken place, and after dozens of trips to both (for business and pleasure), I feel comfortable walking or driving the streets like a native. (Driving in ‘Frisco is not for the faint of heart; driving in L.A. causes afflictions still being catalogued by mental health professionals.)

(BTW: I call it ‘Frisco, especially when I’m in ‘Frisco, because San Franciscans are a bunch of insufferable elitists who hate their precious city being referred to with a slang term.)

Image result for 1960 ford station wagon wood panel

My memories of San Fran go back to 1960, when we froze our asses off on Fisherman’s Wharf ….in July. We ate Dungeness crabs out of little paper cups and went to DiMaggio’s (when Joe DiMaggio was still a big deal) and screamed as our dad navigated the steep hills in our three-seat Ford station wagon — like the one above, only in red. It had a seat in the way, way back that pointed backwards.

With every incline, we were sure our car was going to tip over backwards. To this day, it takes a bit of trust in the laws of physics to point the nose of your sedan straight up Hyde and gun it…when the only thing(s) you can see is blue sky and the nose of your car.

Then, there was the walking, up and down Powell, Mason, and Taylor streets: trekking so angled it felt like we could touch our noses to the pavement while standing up. I have no idea how many precipitous hikes we took that first day, but I’ve taken many since, and these elevations still fascinate me. The only other city I’ve seen with such abrupt ascensions is Lausanne, Switzerland.

The Food Gal® and I will be taking off for San Francisco this morning. We’re going there for a day trip to celebrate our birthdays. (It’s a big one for her, just another in a long march towards oblivion for moi.)

It will be 12 hours of walking in the fog and rain and straining our calves and trying to touch our noses to the pavement, and no doubt freezing our asses off the whole time.

We’re going to love every minute of it.

A Random List of Favorite ‘Frisco Food Memories

Image result for Dungeness Crab fisherman's wharf

That crab meat in 1960.

DiMaggio’s – sadly Joe was nowhere to be seen. Like Joltin’ Joe, it’s long gone.

Fournou’s Ovens – shuttered in 2008, it was way ahead of its time in 1981.

The Mandarin – Celia Chiang’s seminal restaurant taught America there was more to Chinese food than chop suey and egg foo yung.

Fleur de Lys – being wined and dined by Hubert and Chantal Keller – when this place was at the top of its game – is a food memory I will never forget. Closed in 2014.

StarsJeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. What a crock of shit.

Chez Panisse – the first time (in 1983), it was a study in simplified perfection; by meal #3 (two decades later) the place bored me to death. Alice Waters is still boring me to death.

Image result for Tadich Grill

Tadich Grill – Calvin Trillin sent me here in the late 70s; I’ve been a dozen times since. “The Original Cold Day Restaurant,” serving the best sand dabs and tartare sauce on the planet.

Jack’s – best sourdough ever. The place made you feel like a Barbary Coast freebooter.

Aqua – where the world, and yours truly, first discovered a young Egyptian-American chef named Michael Mina.

Michael Mina – where that not-so-young Egyptian chef still rules the waves.

Le Centralcassoulet to die for; it’s been bubbling since 1974.

Postrio – my very nice, very good, very not-heterosexual waiter tried to pick me up here. Not many men have tried to pick me up, but when it’s happened (the attempt, not the pick-up) it’s happened in San Francisco. Closed in 2009.

Sam’s Seafood Grill – like Tadich, a classic. Get the petrale sole.

Image result for Trader Vic's San Francisco

Trader Vic’s (above) – long before anyone had heard of Asian fusion, Vic Bergeron was mixing and matching his food metaphors.

Mike’s Cantonese Cuisine – back in the day, New York and San Fran were the only places in America where you could find anything approaching real Chinese food.

Campton Place HotelBradley Ogden single-handedly rejuvenated hotel dining back in the 80s with his destination restaurant here.

Masa’s – ruled the roost of San Francisco dining in the 80s and early 90s. The founding chef —  Masa Kobayashi — was murdered. I’m not sure the crime was ever solved. Julian Serrano took over the kitchen and was considered San Fran’s best chef until he was lured to Sin City by Steve Wynn in 1997. The restaurant adjoined the Vintage Court hotel. It was way better than the hotel.

Nob Hill Restaurant – the first place I ever had nouvelle cuisine. In the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Salmon with vanilla sauce anyone? Anyone?

Cafe Mozart – tiny and exquisite. Sadly, gone.

Caffé Sport and Trattoria – loud and colorful….and apparently still in business serving food I fear I have long outgrown.

JardinièreTraci Des Jardins blew me away, back in the day. Two lesbians (at the adjoining table) wanted me to go home with them. I was either too drunk or too sober to go along with the plan.

Greens at Fort Mason – America’s first famous vegetarian restaurant, staffed by real cooks, not people with fear of food.

Boulevard – I’ve never had a bad meal here, and I’ve had lots of meals here.

Image result for Sears Fine Food

Pabu – Mina does Japanese! And does it extremely well.

Acquerello – Italian food the way its supposed to taste. Fabulous wine list.

Image result for State Bird provisions

State Bird Provisions (above) – an early acolyte of the small plates revolution.

Tartine Manufactory – good, but, like a lot of things these days, not as special as it thinks it is.

The Slanted Door – made Vietnamese food safe for white people. Which means it’s a lot more impressed with itself than it ought to be. They have threatened to come to Las Vegas. They were supposed to open 6 months ago. Yawn.

The Ferry Building – we were there when it first opened as a foodie mecca (in 2003), and have returned many times since. The last time (a couple of years ago) it was mobbed and filthy. I liked it a lot better when every tourist in the world didn’t want to be a food expert.

Swan Oyster Depot – no frills west coast seafood worth waiting in line for.

Farallon – stunning undersea fantasy decor; designed by Pat Kuleto; was there when it first opened (a client dinner if memory serves), haven’t been back since.

Kuleto’s – right off Union Square. Closed two years ago. Like all Pat Kuleto restaurants, it never disappointed.

John’s Grill – when I want to feel like Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon.

The Cliff House (below) – stunning views, lots of tourists, surprisingly good food. Literally perched at the far western tip of the United States. How cool is that?

And those are just some of my faves, pulled off the top of my head, after 5 decades of eating everything in sight. There are scores of bistros, bars, destinations and dives that have faded from memory. There’s one bachelor party in the early 80s I wish I didn’t remember, and birthday parties, a wedding or two, and multiple business meals forever suspended in the recesses of my taste memories, waiting to be revived as soon as I see those beautiful hills.

I love San Francisco the way some people love Las Vegas: as a playground, full of sights and sounds and tastes and smells no other city in America can match.

I love all of those taste memories, but what endears San Francisco to me most is what set it apart from other western cities a hundred years ago, and what sets it apart today: it is civilized. Existing in a very special sphere of its own sophistication that other western cities can only dream of.

‘Frisco may have a world of problems, and be filled with snobs and terrifying streets, but San Franciscans know how to live.

And they know how to eat.

Image result for Cliff House restaurant san francisco
P.S. When we get off the plane tomorrow morning, we’re heading straight to Swan Oyster Depot. Happy Birthday Food Gal!
Image result for swan oyster depot

Strip Restaurant of the Year – MICHAEL MINA

Ed. note: This year’s Desert Companion award for Strip Restaurant of the Year goes to an old reliable with a new format.  No matter how it’s presented, the seafood is always impeccably fresh, while the 20 year old restaurant itself has aged like a fine wine. As usual, click here to read about this award in its original format. Bon appetit!

Restaurants grow old in one of two ways: They either stick with a formula that works or they reinvent themselves. Somehow, the new Michael Mina has managed to do both. It is a testament to Mina as a chef, and his team, that it’s been able to do so both seamlessly and swimmingly. In doing so, Michael Mina the chef has returned to his roots, and his restaurant has re-announced itself as our finest seafood emporium.

At first glance, you can be excused for thinking not a lot has changed. It’s always been one of the prettiest restaurants in Las Vegas (thank designer Tony Chi for that) with lighting that flatters both the customers and the food. Mina made his name by treating big hunks of pristine fish like land-locked proteins. He popularized pairing pinot noir wine sauce with salmon, and marrying tuna and foie gras.

These sorts of land-sea fusions are everywhere these days, but they were a very big deal in the 1990s, and Mina’s Aqua (first in San Francisco, then in Bellagio) was an early trendsetter. Even now, he and his crew see marine proteins as umami-rich sea meat, rather than as delicate swimmers barely to be trifled with. Where the Italians and Greeks dress their seafood with little more than a squeeze of lemon, and the French subtly nap theirs with wine and butter, Mina looks at a fish as something to be celebrated with sauces and spices.

The new Michael Mina has gone large-format, and it’s a sight to behold. Every night, six to eight whole fish are displayed before you, each begging to be grilled over applewood, broiled and draped with black beans, or deep-fried and adorned with coconut-green curry. The lighter-fleshed varieties (snapper, sea bass, and striped bass) do well with this spicy coating, while fresh-off-the-boat John Dory and kampachi get dressed in more intense ways.

(Smoked trout with caviar cream)

In keeping with the times, things have lightened up a bit — the only French sauce offered is the mustard beurre blanc (with the phyllo-crusted sole), but Mina can’t resist coating a strongly-smoked trout with a river of Meyer lemon-caviar cream (above). If those aren’t filling enough, his old-school (and justifiably famous) lobster pot pie awaits, bathed in a truffled brandy cream sauce.

(Caviar parfait)

The only problem is there may now be too many great choices on this menu. Executive Chef Nicholas Sharpe and General Manager Jorge Pagani (who’s been with the operation for 17 years) suggest toggling back and forth between Mina’s famous dishes and these new fresh fish offerings to build your best meal. Pagani says there would be a revolt among his legions of regulars if certain standards (e.g., the tuna tartare, caviar parfait (pictured above), that pot pie, or phyllo-wrapped sole) were taken off the menu. And why should they be? They are classics for a reason, and just like this superbly re-imagined restaurant, they will never go out of style.

Dim Sum Dilemma

Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting and indoor

What should you do about mold on your food?

To complain or not complain? That is the question.

And does it matter whether you’re in a Chinese restaurant (where they may or may not speak English that well) or a less “foreign” one?

Allow me to explain.

Here’s the scenario:

You’re driving to Los Angeles.

Part of your tradition is always to stop in the San Gabriel Valley (Monterey Park, Alhambra, etc.) for some dim sum fun.

You’ve been doing this since 1991 — decades before Instagrammers and Yelpers discovered the place, and long before Jonathon Gold made it cool to go there.

In other words, you know what to expect: huge, open rooms, packed with Asian families of all stripes, and rolling carts (or menus) filled with a mind-blowing assortment of small bites, steamed, fried, and baked goodies straight from the Cantonese playbook.

You also know that kitchen hygiene can be a rather flexible concept in certain Asian restaurants. But no matter, the food is usually spectacular (especially compared with the meager dim sum offerings of Vegas), so you look past these shortcomings.

Every time you come to the SGV, you try to hit a new joint. On your last trip you made it to Sea Harbour and it was spectacular.

This time, you decide to try a place that’s received some buzz called Lunasia Dim Sum House.

You get up early so you can get there when it opens, because these places get nuts around lunch time, especially on weekends.

You’re super excited (and starving) when you drive up, especially when you score a parking spot right in front of it.

Right away, you see it checks all the boxes:

Giant crowded room full of Asians – check

Fish tanks brimming with crabs and other creatures of the sea – check

Smells like soy, steam, shrimp, and Shanghai – check

People scurrying about with trays full of delicious looking dumplings – check

Everyone smiling as they stuff their maw with har gow, shu mai, don tot, and char siu bao – check

Chopsticks flying across tables in a pitched battle for the last bite — check

All of this gets you very excited. But then, just to pee in your cornflakes, The Food Gal® — a clean freak but also someone with (slightly) bendable standards when it comes to certain, hyper-delicious Chinese food — notices the sign on the front door:

Image may contain: sky and outdoor

“Are you sure you want to go here?” she asks. But you are undaunted — you wade right in, confident it was simply the kind of misdemeanor that would fade from consciousness as soon as your table was swamped by a tsunami of dim sum umami.

And it did, and for a while, it was.

For a while, you were transported by golf ball-sized sui-mai:

Image may contain: food

Concupiscent spicy clams:

Image may contain: food

Sticky/terrific/thick/sausage/turnip cake:

Image may contain: food

…and delectable don tot:

Image may contain: food

It wasn’t the best dim sum we’d had by a long shot. But it hit the spot, even if it fell short of Elite, Ocean Star or Sea Harbour excellence.

As you know, dim sum can be a willy-nilly eating experience. Everything shows up in random order, and you might find yourself slurping a beautiful almond milk-puff pastry sweet soup — or those warm-from-the-oven Macao-style custard cups — before you’re done with the savories. No matter, when it’s all good, it’s all good.

Right up until it isn’t.

Because of that delicious chaos, sometimes you circle back to a savory after a sweet. Which is what we did with these peppery stuffed peppers:

Image may contain: food

They were hot — that innocuous-looking black pepper sauce was a scorcher — but they were also real good, so you want to tackle one more before pushing away from the table.

Big mistake.

One bite and you know something is wrong. Where before there was pillowy minced shrimp on bright green, herbaceous pepper, now there is an moldy, old, damp and musty taste in your mouth. The textures are still right, but the aftertaste is of dank cardboard — as if you’d just licked a fuzzy petri dish.

It turns out you had.

Tearing the top off of the pepper, there was the culprit: staring at you like a fungal funhouse of funky mold — the kind you grow in labs, the kind vegetables grow by themselves when they’re left too long to their own, organic devices:

Image may contain: food

Is this a cardinal sin for a restaurant? Not really. But it shows a certain sloppiness. The kind that gets a “C” grade from the health inspector.

Does it give your wife a gigantic “I told you so”?

Of course it does. And she ain’t lettin’ you forget it for a long time to come.

Was it worth pointing it out to the management? Ah, there’s the rub and the dilemma.

Would it have resulted in them taking $7.88 off the bill? Maybe, but only after discussions, delays and sideways glances, and having to convince them you weren’t trying to get a free meal out of the ordeal.

There might also be debate over what it was. No restaurant is going to willingly admit it serves moldy food, so you’d have to be ready for an argument…an argument that could be won if they’d take a bite out of that musty-dusty pepper….which, most assuredly they would not.

Then you have to consider: will your complaint cause them to clean up their act?

Probably not. If the “C” grade didn’t do it, showing them some fungi fuzz tap dancing on their produce won’t.

So you pay the bill in silence….all $76.28 of it.

But you won’t be back, even though you were probably never going to go back anyway. And now your California food fantasies are a little less fanciful. There is no dim sum Santa Claus in San Gabriel, and you’ve learned no matter how rave-worthy some of it is, some of them are cutting the same corners as everyone else.

And it’ll be a cold day in hell before your wife lets you walk into another low-rated restaurant.

(Sigh)