Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ristorante Bacco

Ristorante Bacco is my favorite San Francisco Italian Restaurant. I can think of none better on the basis of consistently well prepared offerings that are seasonal and exactly what your expectations had primed you for, authentic Italian cuisine. The service is personal and efficient, a difficult balancing act for many other restaurants, but not with Bacco's warm and gracious Italian staff. The setting is intimate and walking through the velvet curtains at the door really sets up the romantic mood. It also serves to keep the room warm.

This is the kind of restaurant and type of menu that begs for more than 2 courses. I easily give in to this impulse every time I order a dinner at Bacco. My partner in crime for this meal was willing to go for four courses, if we split the pasta selection. I was a willing accomplice. We started out with a burrata salad with arugula and tomatoes. As you can see by the photo to the right, I once again failed to take the photograph until my antipasti plate was almost finished. Each cured meat was perfectly moist and not too salty.

The pasta course would have been perfect had it not been for the fact that the vegetable supplier delivered the wrong potato and the gnocchi was not light as a feather, the way they are normally prepared at Bacco. The consistency of perfect gnocchi at this restaurant is quite an accomplishment, no matter what the recipe. These particular gnocchi were heavy and gummy. Even the creamy truffle sauce couldn't redeem them.

Had this not been served at a restaurant the excels in making this dish, I would have said nothing. I vote with my patronage when it comes to restaurants. But when the waiter asked how every thing was, I felt compelled to speak up. He thanked me for saying something, even if it was not positive. Five minutes later the owner came by our table. I explained that I loved his restaurant and because of that I had to let him know that the dish he makes so perfectly was "off" tonight. That's when the potato story was told, a very reasonable explanation. He even comped the dish.
While my dining companion ordered the flank steak in a balsamic sauce I went for the lamb, since Bacco never fails to cook it perfectly medium rare. Simple pan juices were delicious, but that balsamic sauce looked very appealing too. Roasted potatoes and steamed broccoli worked for both plates.

The desserts were not only beautiful but generous in size and not cloyingly sweet. The chocolate torta sat in a bath of perhaps zabaglione (sorry, I didn't taste it) and the apple tart was drizzled in caramel sauce. It was a very creative execution of an old standard. A square of puff pastry had the middle cut out and replaced with apple slices to create a cup for the vanilla ice cream; simple, yet impressive.
(415) 282-4969
737 Diamond St
San Francisco CA

Sushi Groove

If we didn't have friends living around the corner from Sushi Groove, we may never have found this sake bar and sushi restaurant. The sushi itself is as modern and inventive as the name, with a twist of fresh vitality lacking in many traditional sushi restaurants. It's an East meets West approach at its sophisticated best. Our first time there was only for a drink, but we sat at the bar to watch the making of a foie gras nigiri. That told us enough about this restaurant to bring us back. They offer specials along with their regular menu every night and that makes it enticing for repeat business. I'm hoping to find the foie gras again on another visit.

The first dish ordered this time around was an Eel Salad reasonably priced at $7.25. The unagi was beautifully dressed with the traditional sweet sauce that usually accompanies it, sitting on a bed of pickled cucumbers. One could make a meal in itself of it. Next was a platter composed of sushi of varying complexities and prices.

Spicy Tuna Maki in the lower range of complexity and priced at $6.75 was still more complex than at most other restaurants. It came with avocado, a nice creamy foil to the heat of the hot sauce employed on the ahi. California Maki for $5.75 was equal to any other and the crab was very fresh. West Coast Roll at $13.00 was particularly good and may be a regular on the menu. It is basically a California Roll topped with ahi tuna and a dollop of hot mayonnaise. It was rich, creamy and hot, just delectable. The Lahaina Roll priced at $13.00 may have been a special for the night as I believe it was topped with Hawaiian Ono. I'm sorry to admit that I don't recall the other ingredients, but I could easily order it again because it was delicious. Judging by the photo, I might guess it was ahi, cucumber and avocado inside, but it very well may have been spicy tuna and not ahi.

1916 Hyde St
San Francisco CA 94109

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Palazzo Giuseppe in San Luis Obispo

If you ever find yourself spending the night in San Luis Obispo, this restaurant would be a good bet for dinner. As we walked around town, there were not a large number of fine dining establishments to select from, but since Italian is high on our radar, we took a chance and ate a very decent meal here. Palazzo Giuseppe must be very popular as there were no tables available inside, so we settled for al fresco dining in what can only be described as a mini mall with shoppers passing by as we attempted to enjoy our meal, trying to become oblivious to our surroundings.

Their Cesar salad passed muster with its dressing and they get credit for the presentation of placing the leaves of Romaine in an upward tepee like configuration. there must be an aspiring architect or anthropologist in the kitchen; not so unlikely in a college town. The goat cheese and pecan salad with strawberry dressing gets points too, although I would have liked to see more pecans on the dish as well as a bit more goat cheese.

The dressing was a vinaigrette with some of the strawberries macerated into it and it provided a beautiful color to the dish as well as a bright, fruity, sweet flavor to the dressing itself. The fruit also helped to make the dressing a thicker and silky in texture. I could barely take my eyes off of this presentation, since the butter lettuce was again placed in an atypical manner on the plate, as though it were still an entire head, instead of purposely arranged leaves.

Now we come to the best part, the pasta course. It's difficult to pass up home made pasta and when shape is something unusual, it's absolutely mandatory to give it a go, so Strozzapretti was my selected option. Mouth feel is so important in fresh pasta and the "priest strangler" did not disappoint. It was both tender and slightly chewy and was dressed in a sweet combination of peas and cream, with some pancetta, parsley, mint, and Gorgonzola Dolce. Adding the mint was a classicly Italian approach that makes a perfect compliment for the young peas.

For all the spaghetti and meat ball fans, this was much better than it looks. The meatballs, besides being the size of meat loaves, were juicy, tender and highly flavorful. They did in fact, taste like what one might reasonably expect an old world grandmother to make; perfetto. The tomato sauce was better than most and although the spaghetti does not seem plentiful up against the meatballs, the dish was very filling and satisfying. No room for desserts this time, but coming back to this restaurant to try one is on my short list of things to do in San Luis Obispo.
1010 Court Street
San Luis Obispo Ca 93401
Phone: (805) 541-9922
Fax: (805) 541-9929

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mission Cafe in San Juan Bautista

Mission Cafe is the real deal. Having no idea how long this restaurant has actually been in business, my guess would be 60 years and counting. Even if it only opened last month, it hearkens back to a time when diners first started. All the patrons seemed to know one another and the wait staff. It was one big happy family from what I could gather, but this iconic, small town, gathering place welcomed strangers. And that was a good thing for two San Franciscans traveling down the coast and hungry for breakfast.

Pancakes, these were also the real deal, tasting homemade instead of like a commercially manufactured restaurant mix. No matter how many pancakes I have eaten, most of them have been made from packaged mixes and few of them were exceptional in taste. Mission Cafe makes exceptionally good pancakes, so good, we are planning on making Mission Cafe our first stop on our next journey to Southern California.
300 3rd St
San Juan Bautista, CA 95045
(831) 623-2220

Monday, January 19, 2009

Tea Rose Garden in Pasadena

On my own one afternoon in Pasadena, California, I was walking toward my hotel when I spotted Tea Rose Garden. It was quite obviously a tea room, but until I walked inside I hadn't noticed that it was also a flower shop. Quirky, yes, but the selection on the menu of classic British high teas looked broader than many I've seen at home so, I stayed for lunch.

Each table was already set with plates, cups and saucers, and a sugar bowl, all looking mismatched, which seems fairly traditional in most American tea rooms, but charming in a girlish sort of way. I cannot see a man being comfortable in this setting. Having a florist shop on the premises assured that the flower arrangements were real as well as a nice fragrant addition to each table.
The specific selection that I chose from the menu, the English Tea ($14.95) included a salad that was resplendent with edible flowers. Oh how I wished I had a small girl along, so I could see her face when this salad arrived. Having on many an occasion made use of my grandmother's flowers to mix a "flower goulash" in her garden, this element of the salad would have started me giggling with no end in sight.

Being a fan of British cream teas, my selection included a scone with the necessary accompaniments, as well as fresh fruit and a rose sugar cookie, along with small cucumber and mint cream cheese finger sandwiches. I enjoyed every single bite and felt sublimely young and feminine in this fantasy, albeit odd environment. Every woman should treat herself to an Afternoon Tea on occasion.

To my delight the scone was very generous in size and came without currants. The simpler the scone the better, as it makes the best canvas on which to paint the whipped cream and jam. It may not seem very artistic, but the result is as uplifting as viewing fine art.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Fiesta Grande in Pasadena

We stumbled upon this restaurant while taking a walk in Old Town Pasadena. It was beyond the crowds of Old Town towards the east and looked quite predictable, but since most Mexican food we eat in Southern California is more complex that what we can find in San Francisco we walked into this modest establishment for an early lunch. We only tried two selections from the menu, but they were both very well executed, so it was a pleasant dining experience.

Mole will forever be on the top of my list for Mexican food. The vibrancy of the sauce is what makes my mouth water and Fiesta Grande had an excellent Mole sauce, complex and made in the Puebla style. Those are just words to me, since I do not know one Mexican style from another, but this was an exceptional Enchilada en Mole with the chocolate being palpable, no need for me to guess that it was part of the sauce.
Sesame seeds brought flecks of light to the very dark, visually deep and rich Mole, and they also added a nice textural element. The chicken within the corn tortilla was very tender and had been stewed with onions and bell peppers for a flavor boost. This dish was so good I really didn't miss the rice and beans, although if the truth be known, I rarely order them anyway.

Rice and beans did come with the shredded beef Machaca that my dining companion ordered. This was again another well executed offering by the restaurant and a much more traditional choice for what really amounted to a brunch. The peppers added just the right amount of heat to the beef, tomato and onion scrambled egg. Originally my selection would have been Huevos Rancheros, but the minute I saw the Mole my course was set and there was no turning back.

Fiesta Grande has no website, but this one shows their menu sans prices.
624 E Colorado Blvd
Pasadena, CA 91101
(626) 795-5577