By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Lou Bustamante
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By Max A. Cherney
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By Alex Hochman
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Human beings don't want to eat in airports. We find ourselves in airports, wanting to eat, but we don't always go away happy. Of course, it doesn't have to be that way, and now travelers at SFO have more than a dozen new gustatory alternatives at the recently opened International Terminal, a gorgeous space where clean, flowing, industrial sparseness meets the quiet, cavernous feel of a cathedral. To investigate a few of the more promising locales, my friend Alexandra and I spent two evenings at the terminal. We admired the brilliant green bamboo trees; we checked out a Native American basket exhibit; we got lost, but not for too long; and, of course, we ate. Since I like to state clear opinions in these reviews, I came up with a criterion for the five places we visited based on my own secret to dining while flying -- I make a sandwich ahead of time, and if I can't find anything better in the airport, I eat it. Thus, to earn a passing mark, the following eateries had to equal the satisfaction of a low-cost, zero-hassle sandwich from the Hugunin kitchen. And for the record: I make a mean tuna salad. Let the games begin.
1283 Ninth Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94122
Region: Sunset (Inner)
Ebisu, located in the food court near the entrance to Boarding Area G, departures (top) level, (650) 588-2549. Open every day from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Parking: two hours free with purchase of $20 or more (same at all food court locations).
Willow Street Pizza, located in the food court near the entrance to Boarding Area G, (650) 589-3978. Open every day from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
· Willow Street combination pizza $8.95
Harbor Village, located in the food court near the entrance to Boarding Area A, departures (top) level, (650) 821-8983. Open every day from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.
· Harbor Village Mongolian beef $8.95
Burger Joint, located in the food court near the entrance to Boarding Area A, (650) 583-5863. Open every day from 8:30 a.m. to midnight.
· Burger Joint cheeseburger with fries $5.95
· BJ chocolate shake $3.95
Originally, I was going to begin this review with restaurateur George Chen's tony Restaurant Qi and Water Bar, the only one of SFO's new eateries to have potential as a "destination" restaurant. The setup was stunning, chef Bruno Chemel's French-Japanese menu shone brightly, and the wine list contained a staggering number of three- and four-figure bottles. But Qi's customers were few, and the restaurant has already closed due to a little problem called not paying the rent, according to airport officials.
Thus, if you'd like a bona fide sit-down dinner at the new terminal, drop by legendary party guy Harry Denton's new digs, a smallish alcove located just past the metal detectors in Boarding Area A. I set off every alarm security had and was frisked extensively before reaching the restaurant proper, where a kindly hostess ushered us into one of two lushly upholstered, high-backed booths. (Other options include standard tables or a seat at the bar.) The vibe was soothing, with carefully focused lights trained on gleaming, polished wood as a soft rock soundtrack emanated from the sound system. A trip through the cocktail list yielded a marvelously fruity Bay Breeze (vodka with pineapple and cranberry juices), followed by a blisteringly tart Harry's 'Rita that made us wonder why on earth anyone would blend top-shelf spirits such as Patrón Añejo and Grand Marnier with cheap, pre-mixed sweet-and-sour.
The dinner menu proved more consistent, offering a selection of moderately priced California-style dishes (a seafood brochette, grilled ahi, grilled portobello mushroom, among other things). Our waitress told us she orders the crab and artichoke dip -- and apparently she's been eating well. A hulking round of crusty sourdough brimmed with a warm, scallion-flecked, cream-rich ambrosia that took smashingly to a side of blue corn tortilla chips -- easily a meal in itself. Not everything was flawless, though. A Caesar salad arrived untossed, gobbed with huge, sludgelike smears of dressing, but despite the presentation it still pleased the palate by combining crisp romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, olives, and Parmesan with a sharp, salty anchovy bite. Equally tasty was the grilled chicken sandwich -- served on a warm, flaky white roll -- which weighed at least a pound and fused layers of tender chicken, grilled onions, crisp bacon, and red bell peppers with a delicate, smoky tang.
Then came what you might call an interesting culinary moment. As we began our main course -- skewered, juicy gulf prawns and surreally melting chicken tenders in a lifeless kalamata olive/sun-dried tomato marinade -- we noticed that the manager had begun watching a documentary on E. coli on one of the bar's two televisions. Though I'm all in favor of food service professionals educating themselves to better protect the public, I also believe there's a time and a place for everything. At first we tried to ignore it, but then the documentary began showing photos of young E. coli victims and microscopic close-ups of wriggling, writhing bacteria rods, which definitely put an end to our appetites.
In all fairness, I doubt anyone else will encounter such a problem, and the food we tried was definitely satisfactory. Had I been traveling to Hawaii, my sandwich would have survived, and it might even have joined me on the beach.
Reassuringly, we found no televisions in the two food courts near the entrances to the boarding areas. Instead, the courts host restaurants such as Ebisu, an offshoot of the much lauded, perpetually crowded Inner Sunset sushi emporium. The airport setup is a bit more modest -- a half-dozen or so stools set before a small sushi bar where slightly cloudy glass frames a selection of raw fish. You can get 10 sakes, seven udons, or the standard bento box: a tasty seaweed salad, Japanese-style pickles, decent shumai (pork dumplings), and -- the huge disappointments -- warmed-over chicken and salmon teriyaki that may well have been transported from the real Ebisu.
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