Seeing this stylized lunch truck in The Haight told me it was time to head back to the hotel. This vehicle may have been plucked from the TV screen of the Food Network, but in the mix of modern day psychedelic consumerism, it was just too much. Plus, my legs were starting to throb a little. I’d clearly earned a decadent meal. So, I headed back.
Back in the Union Square shopping district, I made a bee-line for Millennium, one of San Francisco’s premier vegan restaurants. They sat me at the bar, where I could watch some of the plating and drink-making. Among the beer list, a few had asterisks, denoting “large format” brews. The beer I chose was a tall-boy of the local (Santa Cruz made) Uncommon Brewer’s Siamese Twin Ale – a Belgian style dubbel, with Thai spices of corriandre, lemongrass, and kafir lime leaves. Does that sound too cool, or just cartoonishly Californian?
The beer was mild and kinda flat. Smooth, and lacking any of the promised flavors other than coriander contributing to the aroma. But, it was uncommon, and that’s what matters in a culinary counter-culture. I resolved to amuse myself watching the other diners, most of whom were cooing audibly over their food. The dim lighting and the stunningly plated food whizzing past me (relative to your average vegetarian food arrangement), both fueled my assumption that I was about to have some really good food
Rather than spend $23-29 on an entree, I opted for three small plates totaling in the same range. The roasted beets couldn’t have been a better start. They were dressed with hazelnut oil, fresh thyme, balsamic and hazelnuts. Though I didn’t see any caramelization to indicate that they’d been roasted, these fleshy looking beets melted in in my mouth with a softness and a fresh subtle sweetness that made me think these out-sexied figs. Not quite carnal. More in the foreplay arena. But, I digress. Put thyme and nut oil on beets. That’s the takeaway here.
I could hardly begin to summarize this grilled chick-pea flour flat-bread, the list of featured ingredients is so extensive and pretentious. Before I get into that bit of cynicism, the flavors were hugely satisfying. This was a $12 vegetarian tapa that warranted the price tag, flavor-wise. And that’s one thing I pine for from restaurant kitchens. Vegetarians’ money is still green, so make our food taste good for christ’s sake. We don’t want everything to come across like a delicate salad, and Umami/savory are still options when cooking for us. Millennium gets that, maybe even too much, as the dish in the foreground was over-the-top decadent, probably better shared (no, definitely. My bad there.) The roasted king-trumpet mushrooms probably made this experience the meatiness that impressed me so much. But there were also black olives and a nettle-cashew “cheese” (their quotes) to anchor everything. I liked the green color, but I take issue seeing “spring onion confit” listed. Can you really confit onions? They render no fat. Weren’t they just sauteed in oil? And about the oil, the dish was greasy. It happens when you make vegan cheese and then cook it again. The oil separates out. But they also listed Olio Nuovo. What’s that? More than just a first cold pressed olive oil, it’s supposed to be the freshest possible, least adulterated kind of EVOO. They’d dressed the bit of arugula-herb salad underneath with it, but I couldn’t tell. It just seemed like gilding the lily to amp up the description. Nonetheless, I would eat that $12 plate over again daily, or until 821 offers their Billy Philly with green pepper and onion confit.
Behind it was a side of escarole (that day’s fresh greens) with garlic, chili flake and pistachios. Although nuts go along way to making vegetarian fare more hearty, these were really a garnish and for texture. The depth of flavor was all good to go. Again, this should really have been shared (burp!). The greens had wilted and made a little broth with the garlic. Perfectly tender, reminding me how some people really like sauteed lettuce. I need to try that more. Escarole isn’t quite as delicate as most lettuces, I don’t think, but that’s what I’d relate this to.
In talking to the only willing person around, my server/bartender. It seems a lot of people just order a bunch of the sides. Later in my trip, I found a lot of the better restaurants weren’t on the main drags, but on side streets (not really a revelation – since the rent is cheaper, allowing places to better fund the food and service and offer fair prices). So, I had a little idea: Side StrEAT. A restaurant on a side street that only sells side dishes – but really eff’n good ones. Anyone wanna go in on that with me? You bring the money, and I’ll design the menu and interfere with stuff I no nothing about. Okay. Just had to give voice to that one.
My server offered dessert, but I told her that I was saving room for tequila, as I’d just bought a bottle. Oh! What kind. Turns out she’s tequila fan and takes full advantage of her boy-friend’s bar. Well, I found Cazadores for $32. A bit cheaper than back home. Then, she wrote down her favorite tequilas for me to investigate:
- Casa Noble organic reposado
- Fortaleza organic
- El Tesoro
- Chinaco reposado (oaky)
Where can I find these in Richmond?
The Ferry Building was a destination the next day with @kelleil, who’d recently relocated from Richmond to the Bay Area. I’d never heard of it, but it’s basically a foodie wonderland. The best and worst things about modern epicureanism under one roof, as Kelly put it. I’m gonna keep these next bits short, as I overwrote up above.
Kelly said this was the hipster coffee company. An organic micro-roaster. They do ristretto shots, but the product you’re buying here, but not seeing is… minimalism. You can taste it, if you try hard enough (to fit in). Thanks to my recent coffee education in Richmond (hi Stephen, Noelle, and Kimmy), I thought I knew how to order. One breve quad macchiato. “We don’t use half-and-half in that drink. It uses up too much product for just a little foam.” Well, however you think it should be served. I’m sure it’ll be delicious.
About this drink. Wow, was it intense. That dot of foam in the middle didn’t too much to tone down the espresso, but apparently the barista had a thing for me, judging by the imagery. Joking aside, the best macchiatos I’ve ever had were all made by Noelle at Lamplighter, and any that came close were made by people who work for her. That still hasn’t changed with this trip, but this was some damned good espresso with some clearly intentional strength.
Next door, Kelly and I split a pork bun. Okay, she probably would have preferred it that way. This one actually had wild mushrooms in it, but the pork bun is their house specialty. There’s nothing like the fluffy/chewy texture of a Chinese dim sum bun. Okay, actually, there is something. Stay tuned for the next installment for an unlikely culinary twin.
I have to fess up about something. Salami has been one of my favorite meat foods since I was a kid. It really seems like the right way to eat meat (assuming it was treated responsibly – ethical quicksand just uttering that phrase, I know). You intensify the flavor with curing and spices and you eat it in very small amounts. You savor it. Otherwise, it’s veggies and carbs, and long days in the fields (or a sedentary lifestyle behind a desk as a government bureaucrat). But, we’re so far removed from being able to subsist on craft foods while plying our own trade. Well, that’s how it feels anyways.
A couple piers down sits a Peruvian restaurant I saw on some food TV show. They specialize in ceviche in a spicy citrus juice they call “leche de tigre.” I’d imagine that it might make you feel like Charlie Sheen for a moment. By that I mean, you gotta throw $18 or more at the ceviche, and then make lines out of it on the table and snort it up your nose. Creative food, I’m sure, but I wasn’t game for another restaurant splurge. Supposedly the Slanted Door is somewhere near here, but I didn’t find that out until later.
As a child, my mother was involved in the theatre scene in San Francisco and later in DC (hello, Dupon Circle). So, I feel a kinship with both city’s significant gay communities. That’s what made me drag Kelly to The Castro. That and the moving movie, Milk.
If the previous day was filled with headshops selling glass bongs, this trip was a bout bulbous bulges and windows with dildo displays. The Haight is one big homage to the drug scene, and Castro is just a little preoccupied with thrusting phalluses. I’m not judging, just generalizing. Hey. We’re only human. San Francisco just accentuates the recreational aspects of life.
Harvey Milk was a community organizer and human/civil rights advocate, even after he ascended to elected office. We need more courageous people like him in government. It was an honor to pass through his subway stop.
Next up: The vegetarian mecca known as Berkeley.