leave your inhibitions at the door
The eight years I lived in the heart of San Francisco were some of the best of my life. I met and married The Dude and started a family in San Francisco, spent more money than I should’ve eating out there, and learned how to cook in San Francisco—from brilliant, world-class chefs.
Nope, never worked in their kitchens. But for much of the ‘90s as young and childless urbanites, we did sit at their tables—many of them—and half the fun was trying to dissect the ingredients and preparations of those chefs’ creations, in order to create at least a passable version of them at home.
That exercise, repeated again and again in our San Francisco apartment, elevated my game from an adequate regurgitator of cookbook recipes to someone that had found the courage to really learn about food, using my own tastes and senses. I drew inspiration from such dishes as Chef Tracy Des Jardin’s seared scallops on truffled mashed potatoes with tarragon beurre blanc at Jardinière, Reed Hearon’s rustic, Ligurian-style grilled halibut at Rose Pistola (now under the incredible talent of executive chef and friend Mark Gordon, who made his mark at Terzo), Wolfgang Puck’s wood-fired pizza with gruyere, truffle oil, and prosciutto at Post Trio, and the party-in-your-mouth tofu larb at a favorite restaurant in our ‘hood, Little Thai. The experience of trying to figure out what went into certain dishes, while adding my own twists, was the turning point in my relationship with food.
I travel to the Bay Area regularly for work, and I always try to make it into the City for one really great meal. Oftentimes, dishes such as a bowl of deconstructed clam chowder are so perfect, I’ll literally get teary. Such sublime experiences are far more rare at restaurants in Ann Arbor. A huge part of it is that we don’t have year-round access to the superior produce found in the temperate Bay Area, which is also bordered by an ocean that delivers the daily fish-boat-to-table catch. And as a major tourist (and thus eating) destination, San Francisco attracts the best of the best chefs. The result is such creations as this simple bowl of clam chowder at Hog Island Oyster Co., which I enjoyed on the deck of the Ferry Building overlooking the Bay at sunset last July, and from here on out will consider all other clam chowders muddled and pasty by comparison:
My dining companions in San Francisco are often my brother J. and sister-in-law K., both fantastic cooks, having lived and eaten out in San Francisco for more than 20 years. For my last visit, we chose to eat at Bar Agricole, featuring Chef Brandon Jew’s farm-to-table, Italian-leaning creations in a space that manages to be both cozy and urban on a gritty stretch of street in the SOMA district.
From the thoughtful, hand-picked wine list (you won’t find any Kendall Jackson Chardonnay at Bar Agricole), we chose a lively white from Vittoria, Sicily. Called SP68, by grower Arianna Occhinpinti, it is named after a local road and is a blend of the native Sicilian grapes albanello and zibbibo. When first opened it gave off a slight tang of sulphur (soil described as iron-rich sand over a substrate of chalk), but after a little while it settled down into a delicious floral number. I loved it—the perfect pick-me-up after a long and busy work week.
We started out with a respectable country style pork pate with coarse mustard. But it paled next to a warm bowl of goodness that represented the most wondrously earthy flavor profiles—a terra firma taste explosion. Smoky hedge hog, yellow tail and black trumpet mushrooms—the latter, when roasted, mimic the heady perfume of truffles—nestled in a bowl with Tuscan kale and a generous portion of soft polenta, drizzled with soothing fonduta. All of this topped with a soft poached egg that you burst open with a fork tine and let runneth over. Oh my. It doesn’t get more hedonistic than this, my friend.
Next up was butter lettuces with Dungeness crab, chioggia beets and kishu mandarins, a tasty salad with fresh chunks of San Francisco crab. We also shared a frito misto of salt cod, anchovies and piracicaba (a type of broccoli). The anchovies were plump and the size of smelt, crunchy and slightly fishy in a good way. They benefited from the acidity of deep fried lemon wedges.
The third course included an oven-roasted duck breast with farro, savoy cabbage, burdock and chestnuts—with the bitter cabbage balancing the other ingredients’ deep earthy flavors. Delicious.
We were less impressed with the white sea bass. It was overcooked and lacked seasoning—even the garlicky salmoriglio couldn’t save it. The roasted baby organic thumbalina carrots were the tastiest treat on the plate, spicy and bright.
For the dessert course, my fav was a phenomenal chocolate cremeaux with candied kumquats. The date cake with blood oranges was moist and delicious, but even dressed up in those gorgeous orange slices it was a wallflower next to that flashy chocolate number.
I’m writing about this memory of a great meal on a plane back from San Francisco. When I get back to Ann Arbor, I have several missions: hunt down and roast some black trumpet mushrooms, experiment with different combinations of the earthy ingredients in that bowl-of-goodness dish, and use savoy cabbage and farro in more poultry and pork dishes I make at home. San Francisco, once again delivering inspiration.