The last and only time I had been to San Francisco was in 1968, a year after the so-called summer of love.
My then-husband John Kane had a friend living in Haight Ashbury which I recall as a hotbed of head-shops, tie-dye T-shirts, peace symbols and crunchy granola. I also recall buying my first item of vintage clothing in that lively neighborhood: a fur jacket that I wore until it fell apart and was the bellwether of a sartorial style that is my chosen one to this day.
On my recent visit to San Fran – a magical five-day stay in late March complete with sun and balmy temperatures – it looked as if not much had changed in what Hunter Thompson once dubbed Hashbury. The place has been cleaned up, corporatized in spots but there are still head-shops and funky stores specializing in Grateful Dead T-shirts and garments made from home-spun fabrics. Noted: Pipe Dreams, The Anarchist Collective Bookstore and a charming retro diner called The Pork Store that dates back several decades and where I had a tasty salad.
And whaddya know? I dropped by the large thrift store on Haight St. only to find a gorgeous 1960s black velvet coat with fur cuffs that is a wondrous addition to my wardrobe.
I was dazzled by the beauty of this city of steep hills, Spanish-style architecture painted in pastels and slightly nutty but friendly people. Pity about the earthquakes. As the chatty waitress at The Pork Store told me: “The word on the street is that we’re due for a big one but there’s no point worrying about that.”
Then there’s the food – and Jim Dodge.
Jim comes from a family of innkeepers in New Hampshire. His celebrity status in America is the result of a stellar career as a pastry chef, teacher and the author of several important cookbooks. He has a wealth of knowledge about food and a disarming personality. I had met him on a few occasions when Bonnie Stern invited him over the years to teach at her Toronto cooking school. The three of us were wont to break bread together and to have some great times talking shop.
Jim is currently director of culinary programs for a large restaurant management outfit called Bon Appetit based in Palo Alto that takes charge of high-end foodservice for large companies and universities. He is well-known and and respected among chefs and foodies and was good buddies with Julia Child. His story about taking her out for lunch near the end of her life when she was living in Santa Barbara is my favourite. When asked where she would like to eat, she replied in her inimitable plummy voice: “I’d like to go to Costco for a hot dog.” And so they did.
There were more Julia stories, interesting recipe tips (how to make jam and preserves without pectin among them) and plenty of culinary world gossip during my day with Jim who picked me up in his van at the stunning Fairmont hotel at the top of Nob Hill (built in 1906, year of the really big earthquake, it survived albeit with damage from the fire that followed) that recent beautiful morning. Our plan: To do a bite=by-bite tour of a few key neighbourhoods in the city using a list I had compiled with his help, winding up in the early evening in nearby Berkeley, at what is considered by many to be the dining mecca of America: Chez Panisse.
First, it was off to the historic Mission District. Big wide streets lined with palm trees, this is the location of the original Spanish Mission and a diverse ethnic neighbourhood that has become a hot-spot for great, inexpensive food and a decidedly trendy enclave, in a good way.
Tartine Bakery & Cafe: This hugely popular spot for breakfast, lunch and delectable baked goods, was packed when we arrived at about 10 a.m. The voluptuous gougere – a savoury cream puff encasing gruyere cheese – is delish. Even better is the olive bread: tender, eggy brioche dough inundated with olives. Knowing the day of dining we had ahead, I resisted the temptation to sink my teeth into a big croissant, slice of quiche, bread pudding or the round, puffy coconut cream pie that was enticingly calling my name.
Bi-Rite Market is a grocery store landmark a few doors away. Jim and I cruised the aisles of this compact store with its naturally raised meat, array of local fish and tasty take-out offerings. He pointed out a jar of Tazah molasses made of pure cane sugar imported from Egypt, a product he advised the owner of Bi-Rite to sell because it is the best molasses out there.
Across the street is Bi-Rite Creamery to which we returned that afternoon as it wasn’t open. I can still taste the divine salted caramel ice cream that is a specialty here.
Back downtown, not far from Union Square, Jim stopped at a place called Candy Darling on Sutter St. As we pulled up outside, two women came out to greet us, a mother-and-daughter team called Maria and Carla Stacho. This exuberant pair have been in the chocolate biz for many moons and have down-sized operations to produce caramels, truffles, a yummy Almond Rocha-like bar and a few other sweet and simple goodies. They use Guittard chocolate and attribute their passion for their chosen metier to a love of this confection: “Chocolate is in our blood,” said Maria adamantly.
After valet-parking the car, Jim and I headed into the Ferry Building, a market-place that comes alive on Saturday and Sunday but is open in a smaller way on weekdays like the Tuesday when we visited.
Boulette’s Larder is a lovely French-themed cafe with tables outside that overlook the water. I was pacing myself so tried the Kohlrabi Soup with Browned Butter. Wow, what a creamy, luscious, delicately-flavoured taste sensation! Note to self: Try making this at home.
Meandering around the building after our mini-lunch, Jim pointed out the Cowboy Creamery, a lavish-looking take-out selection of sushi at Delica and some appetizing cured meats and salami at Boccalone. Also a high-end emporium with a great selection of California wine.
The next evening, I headed out by cab to Zuni Cafe, a famous San Fran dining spot that’s been around for several decades. Judy Rodgers, author of The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, has been chef and co-owner of the landmark restaurant since 1987. I had been anticipating sinking my teeth into that eatery’s renowned roast chicken with bread salad for days. So imagine my disappointment when I discovered it is “for two” and my hopes were dashed as I had no fridge in my hotel room and cannot bear to waste food.
My skills in vicarious eating – a skill I’ve honed watching others chow down on tiramisu, doughnuts (my weakness) and other rich food that applies itself directly to my hips if I eat more than a soupcon – came in handy when both couples at neighbouring tables ordered the yummy chicken that came piled on top of its side-kick bread salad in a large bowl. Judging by their expressions while savouring it, I’d give it a high rating. Note to self: Order it on my next visit with Ross.
By the way, my flat-iron steak with “Richard Olney’s white puree” was underwhelming. Oy vey!
See the next post for my dinner with Jim at Chez Panisse.