Sunday, November 25, 2007

Pomegranate madness, lumache insanity, and the ubiquitous persimmon: autumn in San Francisco

This is the first time I've been in San Francisco during the fall, and I must admit it's quite pleasant. It's still sunny most of the time and fairly warm during the day, which is certainly more than can be said of Minneapolis at the moment. Menus are featuring fuyu persimmons, pomegranates, stinging nettles, truffles (for a stiff supplemental fee), game birds, fresh porcini, braising greens, heirloom apples and pears, winter squash and so forth. Our Thanksgiving was a blow-out feast: butternut squash soup with creme fraiche and lemon thyme, apple and watercress salad with kurobuta pork belly (braised with the porchetta mixture from Roli Roti, then sliced and pan fried), gingery sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce (with grapefruit zest, ginger and star anise), swiss chard gratin, roasted cauliflower (with chilies, capers and toasted breadcrumbs), yukon golds (with lots of bacon, shallots, garlic, lemon zest and parsley), stuffing with Italian sausage from Boccalone, Chinese roast duck (better, easier and even cheaper than turkey!), buttermilk biscuits, and apple crisp with ice cream. Food coma ensued!

In no particular order, some selected dining experiences....

A few days ago Zuni thankfully redeemed itself from what what was a pretty poor lunch experience several months ago. Good oysters, friendly service, a killer bloody mary (every bloody should have fresh shallots!!), pizza with a good crust, and a truly standout salad of juicy, seared rabbit loin and thin strips of belly on frisee with pomegranate seeds (see?) and shockingly sweet and flavorful pecans. The nocino pot de creme was pretty wonderful, too.

Although not completely perfect, Incanto once again provided a great meal. The biggest disappointment was that they were out of the roasted lamb's neck, the item we had come specifically for on this visit. A crepinette of pork and sweetbreads was so-so in and of itself, but the aioli on the plate was stellar, as was the little watercress salad dressed with a tasty and elusively flavored vinaigrette. Chicken liver ravioli were a bit undercooked (floury raw dough was visible at the seams), but the mousse filling was lushly decadent. The accompanyng balsamic brown butter sauce was perfectly balanced and emulsified, providing just the proper acidity to cut through the rich sweetness of the liver. But the real stars of the meal were the lumache, aka large, tender burgundy snails, which were simply warmed and served atop two purees, one vibrantly green and grassy with parsley, and then a sweetly mellow white garlic one that I suspect contained bread. Atop it all were fried slices of garlic whose slightly bitter edge pulled everything into focus. It was the perfect trinity of snails, parsley and garlic, but without the usual triple helping of butter that you get in France... not that I have anything against garlic butter. Once again we both had different wine flights (northern reds and Tuscan reds, respectively), which I think is a really nice option, especially for a wine philistine such as myself. Finally, moist, warm ginger bread with butterscotch and ice cream was a comforting last indulgence.

We ate crab in two different Chinese joints, the first of which being Chinatown's Great Eastern Restaurant (very very good dim sum, albeit cart-less), the second of which being at Superior Seafood Palace in the outer Richmond. We ordered our crab sauteed with scallions and ginger at Great Eastern, and although it was extremely good, towards the end we couldn't help but covet the crab of the guy next to us, which had been fried and jazzed up with something or other. Plus that guy didn't have to share with anybody... a decided bonus. We ordered a similar preparation at Superior Seafood Palace, and though it was less flavorful it was still very good, plus it cost about five bucks less AND came on a absurd amount of saucy fresh egg noodles.

Little Sichuan in San Mateo is as spicy as I remember it... crimson chili oil bathed tender ribbons of cold shaved honeycomb tripe and beef, and dumplings came literally floating in a big bowl of the stuff. The cold noodles also had no small measure of kick from the oil, although the coolness of the shredded cucumber served to mitigate the heat slightly. Szechwan pepper tied another common thread, numbing the lips and providing floral undertones. A scallion pancake rounded out the spread, but it was not as good as some others I have had (mm, Shanghai Dumpling King....).

Good old Okazu-Ya in the Sunset was as tasty as usual (although our hotate nigiri left something to be desired), but the oysters proved to be one of the best deals in town: $6.95 got us a half dozen Fanny Bays on ice, each topped with a bit of crunchy tobiko, along with a savory-sweet scallion mignonette that we guess must have included soy, mirin and rice vinegar.

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