Friday, November 26, 2010

The Rotunda at Nieman Marcus

If there truly are ladies with leisure time "who lunch", then this is the perfect venue for them. Because of the demands of preserving architectural heritage, Neiman Marcus worked their remodeling around the dome and mezzanine of this venerable old San Francisco building, formerly occupied by City of Paris that originally sold goods out of a chartered ship during the Gold Rush. The building, built in 1896 was the finest example of a Beaux Arts commercial building in the state and I for one was pleased to be able to sit in this beautiful space for an Afternoon Tea, something the ladies would most assuredly approve.

Finger sandwiches and pastries reigned supreme and lorded over the table on a two tiered tray. How shall we work this, from the top down or should we start at the bottom and work our way up?

As a fan of a Cream Tea, and having worked my way around a tea table  or two, I went for the gusto and picked up a scone. Unfortunately, there was not a lick  of clotted cream in the place, so I settled in on butter and strawberry jam. Close but no cigar. I must say, the madeleines were buttery, rich and sweet. The petit fours were a delight. What little girl hasn't fallen in love with these mini cakes?

Besides those, the lower tier of the tray held mini brownies, raspberry tartlettes and mini lemon cupcakes. These lilliputian sized portions of sweetness and light barely needed one bite to consume, but we did save them for eating after sampling some of the more savory offerings.

It's amazing how much food is really served with an Afternoon Tea. Even when sharing and eating only one of everything the portion is still 10 small items and that adds up.
So, here we have them lined in a row for easy identification. In front is the crust less (how genteel) cucumber and cream cheese finger sandwich, followed by the egg salad finger sandwich, then a shrimp salad in puff pastry, and finally tuna. The little girl who loves petit fours would turn up her nose at every single one, if they had been  served in a normal portion, but would consider these "cute". All in all, this became a nice afternoon on a holiday weekend and the ladies at this table, both fully employed, enjoyed the snippet of leisure. One downside, the napkins are full of lint, so don't use them over dark clothing.

150 Stockton St
San Francisco CA
(415) 249-2720

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Harris', the San Francisco steak house, has been serving prime beef to generations of San Francisco patrons. Along with House of Prime Rib, it is the restaurant most of us think of when needing a steak fix. While we don't indulge often, when we desire quality beef, we know that a reservation at this restaurant guarantees our satisfaction with prime grade, Midwestern, dry aged beef.

We could do without the little cheese toasts, but it was a nice gesture to offer during cocktails. Even when you haven't ordered one.

Oysters on the Half Shell make a great start to the meal and the sauce selections were all very good. There was the standard cocktail sauce, a mignonette, and an outstanding Asian inspired sauce. I believe it was made with rice vinegar, toasted sesame oil, sesame seeds, chives and ginger. The oysters were briny, plump, and very fresh.

Ask for a Porterhouse cooked to perfection and this is what you will get. We were so preoccupied enjoying the meal, no photo was taken of the perfectly rendered medium-rare interior. The herb butter was a nice detail. You receive a smattering of vegetables on each plate, I suspect to decorate the burnt offerings with a little color, rather than to nutritionally balance the meal. You have a choice of potatoes, either baked or the potato of the day. Our option was potatoes au gratin.

The bone-In Ribeye was also medium rare, but cooked a bit more in its own heat, while resting on the plate waiting for its close up. All in all, this was an excellent meal that any carnivore would be pleased to consume.

For those who would prefer to forgo the potato for lighter carbohydrates, the Caesar salad was nicely interpreted, with anchovies placed on the top rather than dispersed throughout the salad.

2100 Van Ness Ave
San Francisco CA 94109
415 673-1888

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bill's Place

Another hold back from a bygone era is Bill's Place out on Clement St. When you make a good burger or many of them in this particular case, it's difficult to close your doors. Bill is long gone, as is the former second location, but the person taking over the restaurant knew how to capitalize on the reputation and good will that preceded him. Thankfully for those of us who are nostalgic about the burgers, there were no menu changes, except for the Don Burger named after the new owner. So you can still order what you ordered on your very first visit. With names like Herb Caen, Milton Marks and Carol Doda, you just know these are the original combinations, some of them going back as far as 1959 when the restaurant opened.

It's a matter of pride for me to try new items when returning to a restaurant, but I continuously reorder the Jack Shelton burger from Bill's Place, probably because the red relish reminds me of the relish used on Bob's Big Boys, the burgers of my particular youth. McDonald's stole the Big Boy and renamed it the Big Mac. My blood boiled when I found one of the last remaining Bob's Big Boy restaurants in Georgia and they had changed the red relish to an imitation of the glop used on a Big Mac. It was like seeing the king bow to the pretender on the throne! I must have seemed like a raving lunatic as I complained to management about it. Sometimes you have to stand up and be counted. What's right is right, but let's get back to burgers.

Here's a photo of the Jack Shelton Burger. I think it can be ordered with cheese, but I never bother gilding this particular lily. I appreciate it's simplicity and can testify to the fact that "relish" is the perfect name for this condiment. Its sweet and sour, spicy flavor is the perfect foil to the rich, fatty meat. Our pantry was never without this relish while Bob' Big Boy was still marketing it in grocery stores. Ketchup and sweet pickle relish are a poor substitute for that sauce, but I suspect it was not much more than those two ingredients.

This photo depicts a double cheeseburger, if ever I saw one, and I've seen plenty of them over the years. However, this was the first to ever appear to be looking back at me. I suspect someone in the kitchen had a sense of humor. The burger was cooked medium rare to order and you can see how juicy it was. There are more convenient burger joints in San Francisco, there are more sophisticated burgers, but Bill's Place is our place for a burger.

What's a burger without a classic Chocolate Malt chaser? Bill's has to be one of the very few remaining restaurants that know intuitively how to make a perfectly executed chocolate malt. The ingredients are key in achieving the right taste. With the milk you need chocolate syrup, not chocolate ice cream. Vanilla ice cream is essential as is malt powder, not malt syrup, which has an almost molasses like aftertaste if it's too plentiful. Best of all Bill's knows the serving ritual. It must come in the stainless blender container, so you can get every last drop, that on a good night means 1 and 3/4 glasses full.

2315 Clement St
San Francisco, CA 94121-1919
(415) 221-5262

Open: Sun-Thurs 11am-10pm Fri-Sat 11am-11pm

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Cafe at Filoli


If you ever get the chance or desire to visit Filoli Gardens in Woodside, I hope you do and if you do,  rest assured, you can find decent food at their cafe. A friend and I drove down from San Francisco and were hungry by the time we arrived. As anxious as we were to see the gardens, we just had to eat a quick bite before we did. The Cafe at Filoli just happened to be situated very close to the ticket office, in a sun filled room overlooking the gardens. It was a very lovely start to a day of garden walks and looking to see how the other half lived during the early part of the 20th century. As it happened, the family that owned Filoli also purchased and developed Muckross House in Killarney Ireland, as a wedding present for their daughter.


Never expecting a great pastrami sandwich from anywhere west of the Hudson River, I ordered one anyway. It was a very satisfying pastrami and emmentaler  on dark rye, that was sliced too thin, but tasted good all the same. It was accompanied by a fresh green salad with a few shredded carrots added for color. The cherry tomatoes were ripe, so most likely were added for actual flavor. As good as the sandwich was, it was secondary to the Red Velvet cake, though it was, in accordance with tradition, eaten first. Not the all time best, it came in a close second. My friend settled for a chocolate caramel cheese cake that was excellent.

86 CaƱada Road
Woodside CA 94062
Open: Tuesdays - Sundays

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

San Wang


After all the times I've been to San Wang, It seems impossible to not have a photo of the restaurant itself, but there you have it, no photo. Until one is shot, the kim chee will have to do. For me, the two will forever be linked, because I have never sat down at San Wang without the waiter placing a bowl of it on the table in front of me. I love this fermented, spicy cabbage, and am pleased to receive it, but still have not figured out a link between this Korean condiment and a Chinese restaurant. I'm certain there's a good story there.

After years ordering the Walnut Prawns, I have never tired of it, perhaps because the walnuts are always sugar glazed to order and they give off a fragrant, nutty aroma when they are still hot. Or perhaps it's because I just love the fried, shoe string, potato basket it has been served in. Wait just a minute, what happened to the potato basket? When I inquired, the waiter told me I just needed to specify that I wanted it the next time. A slip up like that could keep me from returning. Since when does one have to specifically ask for an integral part of well known recipe? I know times are lean, but this was like ordering a "taco" sans the tortilla. If the battered fried prawns weren't so beautifully cooked and tasted less divine, I may just take this off my list of items to order. Since another of my favorite dishes, a plump, fried oyster extravaganza, covered in a complex sauce, that was filled with julienned vegetables is no longer available, my list is short enough. Okay, I'll ask for the potato basket next time. The trauma of not finding one on my plate during this order will keep it ever fresh in my memory.

Needing a replacement for the fried oysters, I perused the seafood section of the menu and found "Dry Fried Squid". It was quite good, battered and mixed with mushrooms, red peppers, green onions and lots of garlic. I had no expectations about it, so these turned out to be a very satisfying surprise. Sometimes you just have to try something new without giving the waiter the 3rd degree about how it is made, unless you have some type of food allergy.


Mu Shu Shrimp was new to me. Mu shu is on just about every Chinese menu in the city, but always in the form of pork and sometimes chicken. This combination was every bit as good as pork. There were shredded green onions and hoisin sauce to spread on the pancakes. My idea is to use up the entire amount of hoisin sauce on all the pancakes. It's sweet/savory taste really adds to the experience of eating mu shu.

San Wang is known for its hand made noodles. If you've ever seen a video on noodle making, you know how labor intensive it happens to be. I have to really admire the fact that this San Wang Soup Noodles was only selling for $6.95. It made for an extremely filling one dish meal.

San Wang Menu from

1680 Post St (in Japan Town)
San Francisco CA 94115
(415) 921-1453

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Al's Cafe

If you're up for a trip down Memory Lane, not your memory, but your grandmother's, Al's will help to transport you there. Shockingly familiar, even after my 20 year absence, I finally remembered why I used to come to this funky diner in the hinterlands of Mission Street. It wasn't because the waitress was charming, she's always been gruff, but in a very amusing and unselfconscious way. Unlike the actresses whose ageing photos line the walls, she doesn't play, but truly is an iconic character one would have seen during the heyday of Hollywood musical comedies. Thelma Ritter would have played her in the 1940's, Joan Blondell in the 1950's. But I digress, I came for the pancakes.

In this particular case, I ordered the Pancake Sandwich that came with a poached egg and bacon sides, but the stars of the show were the pancakes. Tender, light, and fluffy describe the texture, but the taste description remains elusive to me. You just have to try them. The batter sits in a large pitcher next to the grill, so it's handy for pouring the next order, but that's all I know about it. I want to think it is a longtime family recipe shared by the the 2 octogenarians who own the cafe. One sister is always behind the counter, so she acts as chef, and the other is the front man, so to speak, the waitress I could never forget, the source of historical information about Al's, which we always referred to as Jim Al's. Now I know why. Al, the "girls'" father opened the cafe, Jim the son-in-law devoted his life's work to it and when his father-in-law died, he encouraged the sisters to keep the cafe, thereby earning himself a place in the name. Maybe that's confusing, at any rate, the "girls" changed it back to Al's sometime during the last 2 decades, so it's officially Al's once more.

Al's excels at making a big, hearty breakfast. This plate of eggs over corned beef hash should attest to that. The potatoes were definitely a generous portion and I could easily be satisfied with those alone, or perhaps with pancakes (a bad combination I developed a craving for in my early teens; I still hope to outgrow it one of these days). The coffee is ever flowing at Al's but a connoisseur would wince at the taste. Then again, what would a coffee snob be doing in the outer Mission?

Lunch and dinner are also served, so I suspect they make a mean patty melt if one is actually on the menu and I'll bet this is the place to come for comfort food like meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy. I hear their burgers are also a throw back to a bygone era. I'm hoping to try one soon. I wonder if they come with pancakes?

Al's serves it's Bernal Height's neighborhood well and faithfully, providing service 7 days a week including dinner on week nights. I dred the day the "girls" decide to retire, but I suspect their family of regular customers is what keeps them motivated to stay.

3286 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110-5007
(415) 641-8445
Open Weekdays 7am-10pm; Weekends 7am-4pm

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Anchorage 5

Anchorage 5 was a restaurant of last resort, because our first choice, Fish, had lines out the door and a long wait ahead for anyone joining the line. We had gone over to Sausalito for crab sandwiches and hated to go home empty handed. Luckily I was with an "old salt" who knew his way around the area, and with a quick walk out of the parking lot and across the street, we found ourselves at Anchorage 5 Restaurant, a homey, modest American & Mexican restaurant that serves crab in season. You wouldn't choose this place for atmosphere, just go for the food. It's primary business is breakfast and lunch, since they are open from 7 a.m. - 3 p.m. daily except Sundays when they open an hour later. They have every Benedict on the menu except Arnold, including crab, salmon, avocado, vegetable, and corned beef to name but a few.

The old salt selected the crab melt with fries, a reasonably good choice that had plenty of crab to please his desire for the crustacean. For my taste it was too much like a tuna melt, which will forever remind me of the Jolly Roger restaurant at Disneyland and a child's disappointment at a perfectly good grilled cheese being ruined with tuna.

I had a better fish to fry, and decided to go for the special of Crab Enchiladas. The full plate including rice beans and a small salad cost all of $11, less than half of a crab roll at Fish.

The corn tortillas were filled with fresh Dungeness crab meat, barely layered with a green salsa and then covered with Monterrey Jack cheese. A Mexican recipe for crab was just the right choice.

475 - Gate 5 Road
Sausalito Ca 94965
(415) 331-8329

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Bacon waffles bring back wonderful memories of childhood for me. Never a child of the South nor even a visitor, my Italian grandmother made these for me. When the opportunity arose I made them for my niece, while telling her stories about her great grandmother. When I read that they were on the Stack's menu I had to try them. They were very good, but the bacon was a bit too crisp for my preference. After an anointing of butter and a baptism of maple syrup they did take me to the promised land of a hearty, delicious breakfast.

They make a decent sandwich too. This ham and turkey club sandwich was proof of that. Since it was almost time for lunch when I ordered the waffle, my "usual suspect" of a dining companion was less nostalgic and ordered something more time appropriate, the aforementioned club sandwich.

On our second visit we both ordered eggs, that came with a small portion of hash browns and a small cup of fruit. The egg dishes themselves were very large portions and more than enough to fill a person. The Eggs Benedict were just as expected, but the Crab Benedict was the real stand out with a generous amount of crab and avocado slices. We had swift courteous service and judging by the line of people waiting to get in this is a very popular restaurant. Not being great breakfast or "brunch" fans we will probably not be returning soon, but someone who does prefer those meals would like Stack's. It's an upscale diner of the 21st century providing old fashioned comfort food.

Stacks' Website

501 Hayes Street 
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 241-9011

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Nopalito is a treasured neighborhood restaurant North of the Panhandle in San Francisco, and luckily for me, it's located in my neighborhood. That privilege affords me the ability to go there on a regular basis, so this review can be broader than many. My familiarity with it may also afford me the courage to be more candid with criticism, since no negative comment is going to stop me from returning there, nor should it discourage others from trying it. Like a relative, it may have it's short comings, but you gotta love it all the same.

One never knows where to start at Nopalito, so let's just go with the Gordito de Picadillo. For under $5 you can't go wrong with this solid little starter made of a crispy tortilla pocket, grass fed beef, refried beans and home made queso fresco.

One of the first items I ever ordered from Nopalito was the Pozole, because I like hominy, but this version was and remains too thin for my taste. I had to add all the condiments and tortilla chips to get anything close to a thicker soup. I prefer the Pozole served at Green Chile Kitchen a few blocks away.

No one, however, could fault the Carnitas that were so very flavorful and fall-off-the-bone tender, after being slowly braised and caramelized with orange, bay leaves and beer. They were excellent and are a dish I return to without hesitation. They came with corn tortillas, cabbage salad and a tomatillo salsa, so they're easy to make into a do-it-yourself carnitas taco.

Here are two variations of Nopalito's citrus salad. The first came with watermelon radishes and blood oranges, the second was made with pickled onions and blood oranges along with cara cara oranges and grapefruit segments. Both were christened with the house made queso fresco, lime and chili; both were refreshing and worth ordering again.

On the ever changing menu, you can usually find a variation of Panucho, a corn tortilla with beans, Chicken Pibil and pickled red onions; another tasty starter or small plate for under $5. Many patrons stick to the tapas, but I really find the entrees enticing, so ordering one of each works to create a full meal.

This blue corn tortilla was an item that only appeared on the menu when we first encountered the restaurant. I admired that the tortilla was house made. the Jack and fresh cheeses worked with the mushrooms and made a nice vegetarian option.

Potato Taquitos were an option one evening with respectably crunchy corn tortillas cradling the potatoes, with salsa verde and cabbage as accompaniments. There was very little guacamole, but sour cream came in a small bowl. I'd rather have more guacamole. Still it was a good vegetarian option.

Taco de Pescado al Pastor always comes with citrus fruit. The fish changes and on the occasion when I took the photograph on the right, it had been made with sturgeon with ancho chili and chimichurri sauce.

Birria de Chivo was an unexpected pleasure. It is seldom that I see goat on a menu and when I do see it, most often in Mexican restaurants, that's what I order. This was a decent recipe, but a bit skimpy on the meat, even though they did make up for that with the beans.

The best $4 ever spent at Nopalito was on the Tamal de Frijoles con Hongos y Huitlacoche, a blue corn tamale with black trumpet mushrooms and corn smut, sometimes called Mexican Truffle, because it's a fungus that grows on the corn. It was served with a guajillo salsa and crema. I have Nopalito to thank for introducing me to so many different chilies in the form of sauces.

Mole Manchamanteles con Pato has been my favorite entree to date. The roasted apples and sweet potatoes went so beautifully with the mole and duck leg. Their sweetness paired with the rich duck and complex mole was inspirational. I tried this combination on a cold evening and it was an extraordinary comfort food. Well priced at $12. I have never, before or since, been served duck in a restaurant for such low a price. I think this was a "loss leader".

Who could resist a Mexican Paleta for dessert? These traditional ice cream bars are something we are lucky enough to see on a regular basis in San Francisco. It was a simple but satisfying end to a very good meal.

Nopalito Website

306 Broderick Street San Francisco, CA 94117 (415) 437-0303
Open Daily 11:30am-10pm