In coffee shops throughout San Francisco each morning, diners read about the city’s top chefs in the same way people in other cities read about the achievements of professional athletes.
Executive chef George Morrone’s assignment as head chef at Redwood Park in the Transamerica Pyramid is treated as if he were an athlete being traded to another team. “Morrone heads to the pyramid” a San Francisco Chronicle headline reads. Another Chronicle story tells of Melissa Perello’s ascent, at 24 years old, to become head chef at Charles Nob Hill restaurant. Even on local Internet sites, you get the impression that dining is sport. Traci Des Jardins, owner-chef of Jardiniere is described on [http://www.sanfranciscochefs.com] (a Web site that reports about San Francisco’s top chefs) as exuding “the grace and peace of someone at the top of her game.”
It’s easy to understand from these descriptions why the San Francisco dining scene is the big leagues of American cuisine. With 3,500 restaurants serving a population of 732,000, San Francisco has more restaurants per person of any city in America and the most critical audience of diners in the country. Here, dining out isn’t about convenience or indulgence. It’s part of the city’s cultural pulse and lifestyle.
Other cities may claim one or two great chefs as local celebrities, but in San Francisco greatness in the kitchen is legion. Countless restaurateurs here, the likes of Jeremiah Tower and Vic Bergeron, have achieved mythic stature, but San Francisco’s difference is that beyond the super-luminaries of its food scene, a meteor shower of great chefs constantly sear across the City’s culinary heavens.
However celebrity-chef-focused or trendy dining in San Francisco may be, it is never about pretense. It’s always about taste. You can’t disguise ordinary cooking or lesser ingredients with pomp or circumstance here. San Francisco’s temperate climate and proximity to fertile growing areas and the sea have set expectations that only the freshest produce, ripest fruit, tenderest meats and most succulent seafood will be served. The City’s multiethnic society has similarly encouraged culinary cross-fertilization and experimentation resulting in unexpected combinations of flavors, textures and presentations, called fusion cuisine.
Surprising a San Franciscan’s palate has seemingly become an obligation of its chefs. Imagine the mountainous task of operating a Chinese restaurant in a city full of them and with a population a quarter of which are Asian. Tommy Toy undertook that challenge at his restaurant on Montgomery Street where diners enter a magical world that recreates the royal grandeur of the Empress Dowager’s 19th-century sitting room, creating the expectation that dining at Tommy Toy’s will be an experience to remember. To meet those expectations, Toy presents Chinese food in a French style with daring executions that take traditional dishes and elevate them to haute dining in tantalizing fashion, such as his vanilla prawns or winter melon soup that unlike the traditional Chinese dish is prepared in smaller melons to satisfy contemporary palates.
To be fair, Chinoise cuisine was not Tommy Toy’s invention. That honor goes to another Californian, Wolfgang Puck, who at Spago’s in West Hollywood invented the style in 1985. At the time Puck made his breakthrough, “it was unheard of to open a Chinese restaurant if you weren’t Chinese,” says renowned Sacramento chef David Soo Hoo who credits Toy for keeping the style fresh and evolving. Back then, he admits, one wouldn’t have expected a French-trained Austrian chef to be a master of Chinese cooking. Today in California, all those culinary limitations are gone. You can be of Chinese ancestry, preparing a French-styled marinated chicken breast with Thai lemon grass and Mexican chili peppers, as Toy does, and no one finds that unusual.
The unexpected has become the norm within California cuisine; a style of cooking that has often been questioned if it truly exists. Unlike other regional styles, California cuisine cannot be categorized by a specific flavor or technique. Though now copied worldwide, the style is still difficult to define. California cuisine is perhaps best embodied by its inventive approach that emphasizes the use of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients in light combinations. Taste, quality (often organic), freshness and innovation are hallmarks of the style. With its emphasis on experimenting with taste, it was natural that California cuisine led to fusion cooking. This fusion trend has now existed in San Francisco for nearly 20 years and has now evolved into combinations yet untried elsewhere.
In the recently refitted Clift Hotel, Asia de Cuba chef Maria Manso combines her Cuban heritage with years of experience in Chinese cooking in new concoctions designed for sharing, like Tunapica, a tuna tartare picadillo-style on wonton crisps. Aziza on Geary unites chef Mourad Lahlou’s refined Moroccan dishes with seasonal ingredients found in the Bay Area, creating a new statement that is fresh and organic compared to the often-overcooked style associated with Moroccan cooking. Absinthe Brasserie and Bar on Hayes St. brings together Southern French and Italian fare from executive chef Ross Browne such as his golden chanterelles and braised chestnuts with poached leeks and stuffed artichoke. At Arlequin, Provence meets the Mediterranean with everything house-made from the cranberry bean with marscarpone soup to basil sorbet. Chaya Brasserie on the Embarcadero combines French and Japanese cooking in the Pacific Rim style. Nuevo Latino cooking, updated versions of traditional recipes, are presented by Johnny Alamilla at Alma in the Mission District and by Richard Sandoval at Maya on Second Street, south of Market, who transports American palates from culinary stereotypes of Mexican food to artfully presented delicacies, such as his delicate sopa de elote, a creamy roasted corn soup with a huitlacoche (a corn “truffle” with a sweet, smoky flavor) dumpling or pipian de puerco, pork tenderloin marinated in tamarind vinaigrette served with a flavorful roasted corn purée and traditional pumpkin seed sauce.
As limitless as the number of inventive dishes concocted in San Francisco’s thousands of restaurants, so too are the number of chefs trained here each year. Many of the City’s chefs begin their training at one of dozens of exceptional cooking schools in the area. Included among them are the California Culinary Academy, Tante Marie’s Cooking School, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena and the recently opened COPIA, Robert Mondavi’s celebrated American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa, but undoubtedly the runaway bargain in culinary education in the area is also the granddaddy of San Francisco’s culinary arts schools… the hotel and restaurant program at City College of San Francisco. At $ 2,000 for tuition, books, uniforms and tools, it’s a fraction of the $ 25,000 plus a cooking student may pay at any of the area’s private schools and its distinguished alumni are a who’s who of executive chefs, pastry chefs and restaurateurs.
To the new graduates of programs such as City College’s, fusion still reigns, but now in more subdued ways. The whole-world menus of some San Francisco restaurants have become so fused that it’s impossible to define what type of food is being served. Begin with Japanese sushi, dine on a Thai entree, complemented with an Italian side dish and end your dinner with an updated version of traditional American strawberry shortcake. The one trend that is consistent about San Francisco dining is that if it’s “hip” and “happening” on the dining scene, San Francisco will be tasting it.
Food as show is always popular, though at Foreign Cinema, one of San Francisco’s most popular restaurants, theater is platform for food. A stylish indoor dining room with large fireplace looks out on an outdoor courtyard with communal dining tables where foreign classics and independent features are screened nightly as diners enjoy appetizers like house-cured sardines with roasted peppers, steamed Alaskan halibut in tomato saffron broth with onions, fennel, potatoes and aioli and grilled broccoli rabe with olio agrumato. What! No popcorn with the movie?! Not to worry, the film is mostly for background effect and considering the economy, dinner and a movie seems a bargain.
In response to economic downsizing, San Francisco restaurateurs have pared down menus to keep people dining out and invented a new trend, called “affordable dining.” At Joe Jack and A. J. Gilbert’s Luna Park on Valencia Street, though the food is remarkable the prices aren’t. Nothing on Luna Park’s inventive menu costs over $ 13.95. Diners line up to enjoy warm goat cheese fondue, pot au feu, mussels with French fries and gourmet S’mores (a traditional American camping dessert upgraded with fondue-styled dark chocolate, a ramekin of toasted marshmallow and flaky, house-made graham crackers). Andalu, a tapas-styled bar and restaurant at 16th and Guerrero, continues the less is more trend. The portions are modest here, but so are the prices. Andalu even goes so far as to divide its menu into two sizes of plates, small and smaller. Try spicy cashews at $ 3 (a smaller item) or Ahi Tartar Tacos with Chili and Lime complemented with Mango Salsa. (a small plate item for $ 10). Who says you have to pay a lot to dine well?
One of the best dining deals in the City by the Bay are the “Taste Of San Francisco” charity events. There, for a single donation, you can walk from booth to booth and taste the specialties of various restaurants across the City. Or, visit the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market at the foot of Green Street on any Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Up to 100 farmers display organic produce and sell their homemade items at food stands. There certainly isn’t a week (let alone a day) that goes by in San Francisco without some food or wine event occurring. From farmer’s markets, to tastings, to food festivals, to behind-the-scenes dinners with chefs, San Francisco is a foodie’s paradise. A thorough list of these events as well as a primer on wine paring, recipes and other food guidance is found at http://www.sfvisitor.org in the “Special Programs” section.
With so much fine food being prepared each evening, one might worry that a lot of it might go to waste, but leave it to a San Franciscan to let no food go uneaten. Local foodie Mary Risley founded Food Runners, delivers prepared and perishable dishes from San Francisco restaurants and hotels to agencies feeding the hungry. Like the true San Franciscan and appreciator of food that she is, Risley, says “We should not call ourselves a civilized society or take pride in being a prosperous country until every man, woman and child has enough to eat.”
Given the City’s love of fine dining and the social responsibility of its restaurants, having enough to eat doesn’t seem to be a problem for San Franciscans, where dining is more than a three meals a day experience. It’s a way of life.