Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Foreign Cinema


The concept of a restaurant that offers movie watching to its patrons is quirky and fun, yet while the industrialized space is well laid out into separate dining rooms, something seems to be missing at Foreign Cinema. Perhaps going for brunch was the problem,  as the menu seemed ill defined. The style of food served was thematically all over the place; it seemed to lack direction, but then, I’m not a big fan of brunch and would also have great difficulty in putting together a cohesive menu.

The iced tea ordered by my friend came in a unique carafe that allowed one to add more water to the tea. As it sat there getting stronger in taste, because the teabag was still present, you could decide to dilute it with more ice, water, or both. That was inspired thinking and must have come from someone very knowledgeable about drink service. Why would a restaurant wish to make their own rendition of a commercially inspired, unwholesome, junk food? The answer may be, because they can. My friend really liked her selection of the “Pop Tart” (the restaurant is known for them), but having avoided them after one bite, for lo these many years, I found the idea confusing; sure the taste could be improved, it had to be, but why bother? One would think this would be a “hard sell” menu item, but maybe the novelty of it was the idea.

My own selection of a fruit salad with fresh ricotta cheese, hazelnuts and balsamic with a chiffonade of mint  was much more appealing to me, obviously. Besides appearing to be a healthy option, it had nice eye appeal with all the colorful ingredients, while being both flavorful, and refreshing. It also went well with my mango juice.

I have to say, the ceviche was good enough to encourage me to give Foreign Cinema another try. My snapper was outstanding. The citrus provided plenty of acid, the olive oil added depth, and the wasabi “caviar” provided a punch of spice that elevated this simple dish. It also offered a wonderful textural contrast as I bit down on the fish eggs. However, the garnish of Swiss chard micro greens was the real “jewel in the crown”, since their mild flavor was still undeniably like chard, adding an unexpected earthiness to this wonderful fish dish.

The smoked salmon carpaccio looked just as delightful and my friend assured me that it was delicious as well. The addition of shaved fennel seemed like a fine idea, creating a smoky sweetness to the dish. It was balanced with a small amount of bitter frisee and cilantro, and finished off with beet micro greens. Yes, this restaurant demands a return visit because it has elevated my experience of a fish course and created a delightful twist on the expression “dinner and a movie”. Popcorn, move over; your reign is coming to an end.

Foreign Cinema Website

2534 Mission St
San Francisco CA
(415) 648-7600

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Swan Oyster Depot

After all these years of passing Swan's going hither and yon, I finally walked in for a quick lunch and it was a revelation. Being short, counters, marble or not, and bar stool are not appealing to me for dining. It does, however, bring one back in time to another era, where people did not have the luxury of lingering and savoring their lunches. Primarily a seafood outlet, I suspect it was started by the Sicilian family that still owns it, as a way to sell what they caught from their Monterrey fishing boats, a boat design that is definitely Mediterranean, and peppers the wharves in Northern California to this very day. Next visit I'll have to ask. One great advantage of sitting at the counter was my proximity to the fish case. Everything looked very fresh including Sandabs, Rex and English Sole, and smoked salmon. The staff was gregarious and in-your-face with a welcome greeting; such a pleasure in this day and age. When was the last time a restaurant employee asked you what your name was?

The restaurant itself is vintage by default, since no one saw fit to change it over the years, but why change what clearly is a successful venture? I think my grandparents may have come here in the 20's or 30's. Except for the "rubber duckies" of the 60's, it looks like it's a few decades short of a century old.

Truly, the clam chowder tasted more like clams than any other I have ever ordered. My only regret was not ordering the bigger bowl. It's a simple recipe, but it doesn't need anything else; this is coming from a person who loves bacon and bell peppers mixed into her clam chowder. I suspect Swan's recipe had nothing more than clams, onions, potatoes and cream or milk. When I told Jimmy, one of the five sons of the original owner, that this was the "clammiest clam chowder" I had ever eaten, he asked if I could guess the secret. My response was "fresh clams" and that was indeed the answer. I asked if they sold jars of shucked clams and he said he could make a container for me, if I wanted one. It was obvious that they do not use cans of Snow's chopped clams at Swan's.

Crab cocktail is the biggest menu item at Swan's, but I ordered the shrimp cocktail. It was a classic, but shrimp is so less dramatic than crab that I've vowed to order the crab next time around. The parfait dish was jammed with shrimp and it was drizzled with a seafood sauce that may have been nothing more than thinned ketchup. It should have been more, so I found myself adding Tabasco sauce, to gave it the little zip that it needed. As I walked out, I saw large cooked prawns in the window. Another missed opportunity as they also offer prawn cocktails. They would have made a superior choice to the shrimp.

1517 Polk St
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 673-1101

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Sometimes nostalgia is as important as the food, when it comes to selecting a restaurant. An old San Francisco establishment, Alfred's provides one with a sense of place, and recreates a time when elegance in dining was exemplified by red flocked wallpaper and dimly lit crystal chandeliers. It's the type of place that appealed to our parents' and grandparents' generations. The decor was overdone, but the food served was familiar, yet better than home made. They were meat and potato people and this is a meat and potato restaurant. Frankly, they would be confused by what we call fine dining today, minuscule portions, unidentifiable ingredients, tasting menus, fusion. Alfred's food was and still is unintimidating.

The first thing we noticed was a very well stocked bar. The restaurant was almost empty at the time of our early reservation, but still we were asked to wait in the bar. Old habits apparently die hard, as this felt like the traditional ploy to get a patron to order a drink. It works but I personally find it to be transparent and off putting, so I chose to merely wait for our table. We were called within a minute of my dining companion's drink being placed on the bar.

This photo does not do the room justice, since it is really elegant in a mid-century sort of way. The banquettes we sat on were comfortable and being a party of two prevented us from sitting at a table in the middle of the room, because the larger tables had been set up for parties of four or more.

We came here for the dry aged beef, but that wasn't going to stop us from ordering a few side dishes or starters. The Cesar salad looked a bit anemic and one cannot help but notice that not only are there no croutons, but there doesn't appear to be any Parmigiano cheese either. Thankfully it was loaded with anchovies, so it passed muster, but didn't win any medals. The fried calamari turned out to be a much better choice for an item to whet our appetites.

The tenderness of the fried calamari was stunning, in the sense that I haven't had any cooked that perfectly for over half my lifetime. No one made fried calamari like my grandmother did, or even came close to hers until this moment. Instead of the frozen "rings", so irritatingly common today, she would fry them whole after flouring them. They always curled up, no matter how little time they spent in the hot oil, but they were always tender and sweet, never rubbery. Someone in Alfred's kitchen is channeling my grandmother! These fresh calamari were outstanding and the price was so low, I would have gladly paid double and still thought it was a bargain for the quality of the dish.

Here's the "money shot", creamed spinach and a huge rib eye steak on the signature Alfred's plate. I should have taken another photo after it was sliced so you could see that it was cooked medium rare as ordered. The flavor of this cut, even in a lower grade of beef without dry aging, is always outstanding. Alfred's cooks their steaks over a mesquite charcoal grill to create an even greater complexity of flavor. The high heat from the dense mesquite also serves to sear the meat and help it to retain it's natural juices. This is a big plus in my opinion. Another big plus, besides the prime grade, dry aging, and mesquite grilling is the fact that Alfred's beef is primarily grass fed with some corn not all grain fed. Why have we been going to New York for a Peter Luger steak with Alfred's in our own backyard?

The steak on the left is the same steak as in the large photo above, a 30 ounce Chicago Rib Steak with the bone left on. The steak on the right is what was described as a 16 ounce rib eye steak. Do they look much different to you? Even the original pound would have been too much beef for me to eat at one sitting, but what I received was a steak that must have weighed in at 24 ounces. I was already planning what might be done with this bonanza of meat, when my first slice stopped me cold. My medium rare order arrived more medium than rare and had no marbling in it. As I looked more closely at the steak, it occurred to me that it didn't even look like a rib eye, so I called the waiter over. The manager got into the act and both tried to convince me that it was indeed a rib eye, but it didn't even taste like one.
The accommodation to my dilemma was a new steak that was definitely a rib eye, definitely the right size and definitely medium rare. I couldn't have been happier with the service. The next time I need a steak fix, I will not be buying an airline ticket.
San Francisco CA 94111-2505
Get Directions
(415) 781-7058

Monday, March 1, 2010

Secret Garden

Until walking into The Secret Garden, I hadn't thought much about the British domination of and influence on Hong Kong. This chintz laden tea room is as British as they get, serving a range of classic British teas and scones, sandwiches, etcetera, but Chinese operated. Instead of the mismatched linens, chairs and china we have become accustomed to in small tea room operations here in America, as opposed to formal teas served in high end hotels, this business is more intentional than haphazard. All the linens matched, appealing to my sense of order, and they used Royal Albert Old Country Roses patterned fine china teapots, contrasting them only with the cups in a matching pattern with a blue background. Serving plates were white which alleviated the need to keep refocusing your eyes on all the patterns. In most small tea rooms I feel as though I have AADD, but this room was relaxing by comparison, as it should be.

For an adventurous eater, I constantly fall back to the tried and true in a tea room. I'm a Cream Tea sort of gal, happy with just a scone or two and clotted cream with jam. This always brings me back to my first cream tea in Burton-on-the-Water in England, a bucholic little town in the Cotswolds. Reliving that experience makes for a wonderful afternoon break. My second was in a small tea room in Woodstock England, where to my delight, a Miss Marple episode had been filmed afterward. In both places I was served two large scones made with currants, a very large dollop of clotted cream and strawberry preserves. This was close, but the size was half of what I'd previously experienced with very little clotted cream. No matter, I could do with less calories. However, it has inspired me to learn how to make clotted cream.

My dining companion ordered a scone and tea cake plate that came with fruit. It was a bit disappointing compared to the cream tea and more expensive. We expected small, individually made tea cakes, but ended up with small slices of larger cakes. Even so, we would both like to try the tea sandwiches one of these days to compare them to other tea sandwiches we have had. Even though I think cutting off crusts is wasteful and rather dilettante, I'm willing to forego them for this comparison.

The range of teas seems broader than most, so trying several more is going to be a treat. This outing we ordered Earl Gray and toasted coconut. At least I could be more adventurous in the tea department and the toasted coconut was a perfect match for the cream and scones.
721 Lincoln Way
San Francisco CA 94122-2414
(415) 566-8834