I was excited to drop into Tommy’s Joynt for an afternoon bite. Touted as San Francisco’s original Hofbrau, it has been serving a menu centred on carved meat sandwiches since 1947. They take pride in a no frills attitude and keeping prices low. In fact, the only three menu items over ten bucks are the famous Buffalo Stew, braised oxtails with pasta (served Monday) and braised lamb shanks with vegetables (served Thursday and Sunday). The hunks of meat sitting in the cafeteria style chafing dishes right inside the door while the rest of the place is a seating area complete with a bar serving local craft draught, international bottles and cheapish cocktails. The cast of characters ranged from young to old, regulars to tourists and hipsters to those with with artificial hips. The decor is a reminder that it’s been open for almost 70 years. Hundreds of knick-knacks fill the walls, shelves and any other square inch of available space. It’s like a yard sale on steroids. They’ve never changed their style, they just added to it. It’s like a timeline of post WWII Americana scattered all over the place.
Apparently Tommy’s is “Where Turkey is King” so I strolled to the counter and ordered the roast turkey sandwich for $6 along with a side of mixed pickled beans for $2.65. The guy behind the counter pulled out the bird, carved some meat off the bird and slapped it on a fresh baguette with a side of au jus. As magical as Tommy’s was, they still couldn’t solve the dry poultry issue. You can’t keep a turkey in a chafing dish and expect it to stay moist. That said, the au jus added flavour and moisture to the sandwich. The bean salad was pretty typical. I thought things like the barrel of complimentary pickles (complete with a sign telling you not to abuse the pickle pecking privlegdes) to the strategically placed mustard jars were a nice touch.
Tommy’s Joynt is a west coast version of a Hofbrau, a casual German eatery with focus on beer and food. Having no idea who the place is named after, I figured it might be Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong fame). Ironically, Cheech is the Californian (Chong is a good old Canadian). I mean, the psychedelic paint job on the outside, the easy access to copious amounts of food, some clientele that look like they have hot boxed a few million times and even the fact it has “joynt’ in the name makes my theory somewhat viable. In fact, after a drag one might relish staring intently at the numerous trinkets which populate the walls and shelves. That said, the food was reasonable, the vibe was good but it just didn’t give me the “high” some of the other Diners, Drive-ins and Dives did.
A visit to San Francisco wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Gary Danko. This top 5 tripadvisor, Michelin star destination and Zagat juggernaut hasn’t wavered despite the cyclic nature of food trends which have hit the bay city over the years so I was excited when I secured a reservation for a Friday evening. I invited a few colleagues to come along.
The cab ride over was led by a conspiracy theorist who, while driving the winding roads of San Francisco, showed us how he protected his ipad from the government with it in one hand while the steering wheel occupied his other. We also got a history lesson of the neighbourhood which surprisingly didn’t include taxi cab fatalities. Thankfully, after a few blocks, we arrived at our destination (probably due to some autopilot device monitoring Mel Gibson as Jerry Fletcher’s car or maybe my numerous prayers to the ultimate alien deity in the sky).
We had a small wait in the bar before being seated at a round table of six in the middle of the restaurant. Well dressed waiters, white table clothes and silver plates at each setting were classic reminders of a upscale dining experience. As for the menu, one of the unique aspects is the fact that one can enjoy a choice of a wide array of appetizers, mains and desserts for one set price. The number of courses is also variable and portion sizes are adjusted accordingly. One option is a trolley offering an extensive choice of cheeses which is navigated throughout the restaurant like a streetcar on Powell St.
We all opted for the 3 course menu for $76. Before that, we were treated to a curried carrot soup as an amuse bouche. It was very earthy, silky and subtly spiced. A nice start to the evening.
I was set on the Dungeness Crab Salad with Avocado Mousse, Hearts of Palm and Madras Curry Vinaigrette but asked the waiter for his opinion. Perhaps I was wooed by his professionalism, but he highly recommended the Seared Ahi Tuna with Avocado, Nori, Enoki Mushrooms and Lemon Soy Dressing instead. The presentation looked like an Orval Reddenbacher Chia Pet with a nori bow tie, avocado arms and mushroom legs. The tuna was seared beautifully. The dressing was fairly acidic but blended nicely with the protein.
For the main, I like the sound of the Juniper Crusted Bison with King Trumpet Mushrooms, Cipollini Onions and Wild Nettle Spätzle as a package. It was a hunk of meat which was nicely prepared but a little too much. I quite enjoyed the noodles from both a taste and appearance perspective.
For dessert, I ordered the highly recommended Strawberry Soufflé with Strawberry Sauce and Strawberry Sorbet. That’s a lot of strawberry! The pillowy, warm and fluffy texture had me at the first bite. I was hoping that the sorbet would have a tartness to cut through the sweet souffle but I couldn’t quite finish it.
The meal ended with an array of cookies for the table which were a delicious finish. The ladies also received a parting gift which ended up being banana cake filled with a delicious cream cheese filling (no…I’m not a lady but dined with one who didn’t see bringing the bread home worth an extra 20 minutes on the hotel tread mill the next day).
Dining at Gary Danko is a San Francisco rite of passage. The unique menu structure is a blessing, especially when in group with diverse palates. The service was sincere and professional. It was almost as if they were paid actors and actresses in a swanky movie. The food was solid although I found the bison and the souffle to be a little overkill. The amuse bouche and after dinner treats were a testament to the attention to detail which has been synonymous with the name Gary Danko for years. If you think the high Zagat ratings, repeated Michelin stars and smitten tripadvisor reviewers are a conspiracy…just ask the cab driver.
I was listening to Russell Peters on Sirius radio the other day. It was a replay of his classic rant on arranged marriages. I thought a little about it and tried to imagine being in that situation. In a universe filled with energy flow and frequencies, I can’t imagine being attached to a woman who would nag me about my food desires, affinity for a pint or the fact that I sit up at weird hours documenting the trials and tribulations of my culinary journals while watching HBO shows.
That said, it was at that point that I realized I have had an experience almost as excruciating…the “arranged lunch”. Let me explain. While in San Francisco, I sent out a general invite offering to bring any of my colleague’s customers out for lunch. I had a few bites and arranged to bring out a group. I had no idea who they were but figured lunch at the Slanted Door, the well established Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco’s pier would be a safe call. I met the first of the four at the convention centre for a walk to the pier. I had met her once before so it wasn’t hard to strum up some conversation. We arrived at the rather large and very busy restaurant about twenty minutes later. It has a wide open concept with tables offering various views including the kitchen and bay areas. The rest of my group hadn’t arrived yet, so we waited by the door (I never noticed if it was slanted or not) so we could be seated. Much like a blind date, I watched people stroll in trying to predict who I’d be meeting. Finally, three ladies walked in who seemed to the fit the bill. After some quick introductions, we were seated around the corner in a half circular booth against the wall.
I’ll be the first to admit the menu is a bit long but these ladies made it look like they were reading the bible. The scowls and whispers trying to identify any dishes somewhat recognizable. I quickly realized the extent of their Asian experience was limited to chicken balls and fried rice. My fears were further confirmed when the table seemed either confused or appalled when the waiter suggested we order family style. To avoid further hardship, we agreed to choose a dish each. My dreams of trying some of the more innovative offerings of the James Beard recognized iconic eatery was going up in smoke.
In addition, my guests continued to make various observations including the fact that most of the waitstaff were males and they need more women on the floor. Nothing like a gender equality talk to spice things up. That said, I did find the service a little arrogant.
The scowls continued when we were notified that diet coke was not a menu option. The non-alcoholic drinks mainly consisted of spritzers and juices. So, a couple of them ordered lemonade. I had a a ginger soda.
I decided to be a bit greedy and order the gulf shrimp and pork wonton soup ($7) to start. I don’t think anybody cared. After all, the combination of seafood and pork might have thrown things into array. Fragrant, light broth housed noodles and dumplings which were tender and perfectly cooked. It was a large bowl but didn’t care much that I didn’t have to share.
The vegetarian rolls ($12) served with peanut sauce were stuffed with mushroom, tofu and cabbage. They hit the mark although nothing spectacular but seemed to be acceptable at the table.
The grilled organic chicken with vermicelli ($16) was one of the safer bets on the menu so I wasn’t surprised to see it ordered. It went pretty fast but I did manage to get a bite or two. Nicely seasoned and nicely cooked but once again, nothing remarkable.
Sticking with the safe poultry theme, we also had lemongrass chicken ($18). A few mumbles about the spice levels circulated the table but I found it had a nice level of heat.
The woman I walked over with ordered the trout served with green mango and a chili sauce. It was easily the best dish of the meal. The fish was moist and the accompaniments were a great contrast.
My choice was the cellophane noodle with dungeness crab ($20). Very disappointing. I probably could have had all the crab in the dish on a tablespoon. It was so torn up that the pieces looked like specks in the abundant heap of noodles.
Vegetables included boy choy and snowpeas (each $11) from local farms. They were fresh, simple and nicely prepared.
Slanted door is likely the most well known Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco. It’s location and reputation makes it a popular destination for lunch and dinner. Personally, I found it a bit overpriced for very good but not spectacular food. The lack of crab in a San Francisco restaurant overlooking the ocean is the ultimate and sad irony.
In the end, I don’t recommend arranged dining, especially at a place that revolves around family style dining. I walked back to the convention centre with the first woman I met and couldn’t help but ask if that was the most painful dining experience she ever endured. She enthusiastically agreed and I felt a little better. If the success of “It’s just lunch” or other dating sites hinged on a dining experience like this, there’d be a lot more single people in the world.
By definition, a speakeasy is an illegal establishment which housed alcohol during prohibition. Since then, it is often included in the lexicon of terms used to make words like restaurant, drink and food sound cooler. Speakeasy 21 has recently opened in Toronto’s financial district and according to the webiste “is a Resto-Bar serving Contemporary Bistro fare with a large selection of custom crafted cocktails and spirits.” It sounded like an interesting concept so I coaxed a colleague into joining me for dinner.
Any difficulty finding the place among the concrete jungle of Adelaide St. was negated by the loud music which emulated from the smallish confines of the bistro. The tunes were audible from the sidewalk and got louder as we approached the front door. After checking in using my reservation, only remnants of the after work business crowd remained along with a spattering of random people including some creepy guy who sat by himself drinking what looked like diet coke while scoping the crowd. We were seated near creepy guy at a small bar table close to the open kitchen. The waitstaff consisted of a mosiac of men and woman who obviously took various lengths to mimic the retro looks of the 20’s and 30’s. For example, one waitress was sporting the curly blonde locks and make-up reminiscent of Mae West. Others wore the same outfit but looked more like they were attending a Jersey Shore prohibition party.
The music continued pounding which even made ordering difficult. Nonethesless, I started with a libation. Whether you want a martini, a mason jar or a drink on the rocks, it will run you $15.04. I opted for the Brown Derby and the result was a mediocre attempt at this bourbon based drink.
From the menu I started with the Bulgogi taco for $6. My first thought was that this better be a damn good taco, especially if you have the balls to charge me $6 for it. It didn’t live up to the price. It was seasoned nicely but was pretty safe. Although served with house made hot sauce, the small amount of condiments were a bit of a let down.
Next was the foodie mix salad (aka kale and arugula) for $14. It was James Bond at a McDonald’s….tasty and nicely but over dressed. There could have been a few more treasures hidden within the forest of greens although I liked the radish.
The tuna crudo ($14) was seasoned nicely with citrus and heat. It was arguably the best dish of the evening. The grapefruit, jalapeno and coconut atop the buttery fish created a bit of an orchestra in the mouth.
I was interested in the construction of the shrimp and chorizo sandwich so I ordered it. It was a $17 filet-o-fish topped with a hot dog. I don’t know what possessed me to order a sandwich with cheese on top of a formed shrimp patty but it really wasn’t appealing.
Finally, we ordered the butter chicken balls for $14. A bowl of three meatballs arrived swimming in a delicious gravy. I enjoyed the coriander and mango flavours as well.
Maybe I’ve been watching too many episodes of Boardwalk Empire, but my impression of a speakeasy does not consist of overpriced food and blasting music. Sure the show is set in New Jersey but I don’t think it means that your waitstaff can look and act like Snooky or Bow-Wow (or whatever her name is). The $6 taco, $15 cocktail and $17 dollar sandwich were disappointing. The butter chicken balls and tuna crudo were decent but still priced in the echelon of Steve Buscemi’s pocketbook. This place needs to decide what it wants to be; a retro hangout for overpaid suits with classic cocktails or a loud Moxie’s rip-off with half ass food served by pretty girls . Right now, it’s the latter. Perhaps it should be called Speakloud 21 because it’s the only way you can hear a damn thing.
There seems to be something about offering breakfast in a hotel. I’ve stayed in numerous hotel across Canada and the United States and can make a few general observations about the most important meal of the day:
1. Free breakfast usually involves a large common room populated with sports teams, messy haired kids wearing butterfly wings and hungover parents. Some will settle for a cold boiled egg and plain bread because the line up for the waffle machine and the toaster is too long. If you do get the the waffles, it’s a complex process of pour, fill, rotate and wait. While waiting, you look around and make conversation with a family member, a stranger or the orange juice carafe in an effort to avoid the jeers and dirty looks of the 15 people in line waiting for Belgian deliciousness. Kids are allowed to have free reign at the breakfast apparatus confirmed by the crunch of fruit loops beneath the feet of morning zombies.
2. For those who prefer to eat a croissant while blow drying their hair, there is the room service option. Fifteen bucks will get you a choice of baked goods (with preserves of course), a shot glass of orange juice, a carafe of house coffee and a individual tub of Activia yougurt delivered sometime between 6:45-7:00. An extra 10 dollars will get you a “hot” breakfast with some eggs supposedly kept warm by the use of a plastic cover. Either way, the tray ends up on the floor outside door and the faint smell of ketchup fills the halls along the walk to the elevator.
3. For those adventurous enough to leave their quarters, breakfast at the hotel restaurant is a third option. Similar to an amusement park, the convenience of proximal eating comes at a premium. The biggest decision is the choice between the $30 buffet which allows for the dried fruit and nuts as well as the bacon, the $15 continental buffet which the excludes pork products and the premade eggs benny or the a la carte menu which frequently involves a double take at the prices. That said, at least there’s free refills on the coffee.
Attached to the Hotel Zetta in San Francisco, the Cavalier offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. Intrigued by it’s honorable mention in this years James Beard nominations, I wanted to experience at least one meal so I went for breakfast, especially given its proximity to the convention centre. It is constructed to look like a high end pub one may frequent after a game of polo or a fox hunt. It’s a small menu with 4 or 5 standard morning items. I opted for the breakfast sandwich consisting of eggs, crisp bacon, pepper cress and a mustard dressing for $13. I was promised the crispy potatoes were worth it so I added them for another $6. I finished off the order with a $4 stumptown decaf coffee. The sandwich was delicious; all the components from the bun to the red onion, cress and mustard condiments hit the mark. The potatoes, as promised, complemented the sandwich and the coffee was probably the best I had in San Francisco. That said, it ended up being a $23 breakfast.
I’m not saying that I expect to get a breakfast sandwich combo at a hotel for the price of an egg McMuffin combo. Don’t get me wrong, the food was delicious and the service was pleasant but $23 is a little steep. I would have liked to try lunch of dinner to assess the vibe (it was a bit dull and sleepy during the morning hours), but one can only hit so many places while in town. Maybe James Beard wasn’t a morning person but hell, at least there were free refills.
When I think of Seven Hills, a few things come to mind:
1. It sounds like the name of an ABC sitcom that involves some washed-up actor or actress who chose a TV career for a change of pace instead if admitting their last five movies have made less than 25 million combined in theatre revenues.
2. It might be the title of a country song which describes the trials and tribulations of the contours challenging a John Deere tractor in the attempt to harvest a bumper crop of wheat.
3. It could describe the geography of the walk from O’Farrell to this Hyde St. eatery in the Russian Hill district.
In fact, it is a relatively quaint Italian joint located between the pier and the bustling, tourist-ridden O’Farrell street. It doesn’t get the fanfare and hype of the more visible eateries but regularly sits in the top 25 of the 5000 San Francisco restaurants on tripadvisor. We booked a table for six which seemed to take up a good portion of the restaurant as we were seated in the back corner. The menu changes regularly but focuses on classic fare in a classic setting. It’s evident when you read the menu that the place pledges allegiance to locally sourced food. The vegetables, herbs and proteins come from a guy named Jim or Bob or Jim Bob and from places like Full Belly and All Star farms.
The service staff was cordial but a bit confused. They had a couple of waiters taking care of our table who had different levels of understanding. For example, I was offered a unique white wine by one waiter whereas the other had no idea what I was talking about when I ordered another glass. That said, there was a definite and rightful pride in their demeanor when describing the rustic dishes.
The table agreed on an array of first plates to share which ranged from $9-15. First, we were treated to an amuse bouche which was a delicious melon soup. The duck liver pate was a bit unorthodox in that it was served chunky country style instead of smooth like the surrounding eateries. That said, it was pretty decent. Other choices were the meatballs, arancini, burrata with tomato and prosciutto and carpaccio. In summary, none were remarkable but none were bad either. If I had to pick, the meatballs won the battle.
In the meantime, as more people crammed into the small quarters, the temperature rose to the point of slight discomfort. With more of a crowd the service got a little choppier. For the main I ordered the squid ink (or neri) pasta. Like the Italian cliche, it was delicious in it’s simplicity but became a little monotonous even with the addition of a generous amounts crispy breadcrumbs. I found the portion size quite ample and of good value for the price.
Seven Hills is the quintessential small family run bistro within a very diverse and vibrant dining scene. It’s simple in it’s theme, decor and food. There are no major surprises and I imagine no major inconsistencies. There’s a true commitment to partnerships with local farmers which comes out in the food. If you’re looking for adventure, there’s a hundred other places. However, if you want a safe haven for traditional fare or have a table full of people who thinks Joe Bastianich should be canonized and lament the fact that Mario Batali will never open a restaurant in San Francisco, this could be your place. Sure, there are service hiccups but it lacks the phoniness of chains and smiling hostesses who seem way too excited over the fact you might have a coat to check. After dining at Seven Hills, I think it can be described as a sitcom about an all American small Italian ristorante frequented by Al Pacino and Tony Danza with cameo appearances by Ray Romano and Robert DeNiro (playing local farmers Jim and Bob) and lovable yet confused waitstaff including the likes of Joey Tribbiani.
When it comes to the restaurant scene, San Francisco is a well-oiled machine. It is a mecca for receiving culinary awards such as Michelin stars and James beard nominations. As a result, there is unity among eateries in this posh destination. For example, seemingly every restaurant website in the city has an sf on the end of the restaurant name on their website domain. It’s a badge which lets the world know that “we are in San Francisco and you’re not”. Take http://www.coquetasf.com for example. It’s the brain child of celebrity chef Michael Chiarello and aims to bring trendy Spanish tapas to the tourist-ridden piers of the city by the bay. This effort was awarded with a nomination for a James Beard award for best new restaurant in 2014 although in the end it was edged out by Pêche Seafood Grill in New Orleans. I anxiously awaited the one month window to arrive so I could vigilantly get online and make a reservation. Since the lunch and dinner menus are similar, I booked at noon to take full advantage of a sunny San Francisco day by the pier. The decor follows the mold of many other San Francisco eateries in that it’s well decorated in a rustic yet modern fashion. In the kitchen area, shelves of jars and bottles sit beside pots that I’m not sure are ever used. Place settings are available along a long marble bar while the rest of the restaurant consists of nice, high hardwood tables. There is also area outside as well which provides protection from the sun but a nice view of the bustling pier and sparkling water.
Like most tapas menus, temptation is plenty. There are hot and cold plates with an array and meets, cheeses and vegetables. What immediately caught my eyes were the pintxos; bite-size skewers carried around by the staff in an effort to challenge will power. The platter was an attractive mix (from left to right) of quail egg, asparagus, boquerones, chorizo and Serrano ham. AT $2.50 a pop, they were well constructed with a nice combination of salt, sweet and acid. To my surprise, the quail egg was the least enjoyable, while the Serrano ham with Manchego cheese and the apricot conserva was fantastic, offering fundamental spanish flavours and textures all in one bite.
It’s a daunting task taking four people with very different tastes to agree on a tapas spread, especially with a menu as complex as Coqueta’s. Anybody who has dined with me knows I’ll go for the eggs every time, especially with memories of the Huevos Cabreados I had in Barcelona a few years back. I went for the “Sunny side-up” Huevo With Shrimp, crispy potato, and chorizo dressing ($13). The egg was cooked nicely and shrimp, despite the size and skimpy portion, were seasoned and cooked well. The potatoes were white and a bit flaccid and literally paled in comparison to their Barcelona counterparts. I think if you’re going to mash an egg into matchstick potatoes, they need to be able to hold their integrity to a degree.
A tapas meal is not complete without some Spanish poutine, also known as patatas bravas $8. Although in some ways I’m a conservative when it comes to adherence to traditional dishes. It’s rare that I make any food the first time without adhering to the traditional way of doing things. So, I’m a little skeptical when I get a haute cuisine version of a very traditional dish. Hand dug potatoes replaced the wedges I’m accustomed to. The normally messy presentation of a piquant sauce and creamy alioli was subbed for a tomato base in a side dish and a white dollop atop a freshly dug potato.
The Croquetas de Pollo Chicharon (crusted Chicken and English pea croquetas with cured cara-cara orange) for $9 were ok. Keep in mind I’m impartial to croquetas to begin with and these were no exception. Decent taste. The cara cara orange tried to cut into the creamy fried mix but it’s still a croqutea.
The Ensalada de Remolacha (Roasted baby beets with Sausalito watercress, beet vinaigreta, tierra and cabrales blue cheese snow $9) was a pretty dish which combined purple and gold beets with the green and white of watercress and cheese respectively. It tasted pretty too.
The Calamares a la Plancha (Whole Monterey calamari on the plancha with onion jam and squid ink alioli) $10 was a creative yet authentic dish. The calamari was tender and the ink allowed for a little fun and tasty play time. The jam was a surprising but delicious addition to the mix.
I love deviled eggs, so my vote was for the Huevos Nacional (deviled eggs ﬁlled with spring pea, smoked pimentón alioli, on pickled saffron potatos and olive oil poached Bonito $7). Beautifully presented, it was easily the most complex deviled egg I have eaten. It was almost confusing although using a pickled potato as a pedestal is a tasty and practical idea I not might use myself the next time I make the picnic favorites myself.
The generous use of delicious fish highlighted the salmon ahumado (Smoked salmon queso fresco and trufﬂe honey-$8). Piled on top of fluffy cheese and sweetened ever so slightly, it was an interesting spin on bagel and lox. Thankfully, the truffle was subtle and didn’t overpower the star of the dish and I found the sweetness from the honey instead of the normal use of salt from something like a caper worked well.
Another pretty dish was the Esparragos Trigeros con Romesco (Wood grilled green and purple Delta asparagus with coal roasted romesco salsa, raw Manchego and Marcona almonds $14). There was a smokiness to it that was tamed by the colourful accents. The salsa was delicious.
The most carnivorous tapas order was the Albondigas a la Feria (Grilled duck and pork meatballs with tart cherry and tempranillo salsa and crispy shallots $12). I really enjoyed the flavour of the duck and pork together although a little greasier than I would have liked. The chefs were stingy on the shallots which was a bit disappointing because it would have added a crunch to the meatball.
Eating at a restaurant is like watching a movie. First, you need a plot. Coqueta entered the already bustling San Francisco dining scene by offering Spanish fare with a Californian twist. Second, you need a director, preferably a big name. Michael Chiarello certainly fits the bill. Next, you need to enhance the plot with a combination of a great setting and cast. Coqueta’s decor and service were excellent. The waitress, for example, modified the size of the standard order to accommodate the four us (so we had enough but didn’t need to order two servings) with no issues at all Since the James Beard awards are like the Academy Awards of all things food, I was excited to dine in a restaurant who was shortlisted for best new restaurant nationally. However, sometimes when I watch a Oscar-nominated movie, I get lost in the complex plot and end up missing the point. A few dishes at Coqueta were like that; it was a good experience but a few dishes were confusing and overly complex. The experience was helped by great service and a good location. Like the movies that don’t quite win an Oscar, I was curious to experience those who were just honored to be nominated.