By Molly Gore
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Lou Bustamante
By Pete Kane
By Ashley Goldsmith
By Pete Kane
By John Birdsall
In my recent paean to guidebooks, I said that at the very least you need a Zagat, even if you only use it as a phone book or memory-jogger, and regardless of your opinions of its faceless-hordes common-denominator methodology. (The increasingly ubiquitous Zagatguides -- the company has now gone on to shopping, theater, and nightlife surveys -- were satirized by cartoonist Mark Alan Stamaty in the New York Times Book Review as the "Howzat Guides," started by accident when Madame introduces herself as "Howzat" in a restaurant and gets the response, "Oh, um, you mean the chicken marsala?! Not quite up to par. And the broccoli rabe is overcooked." Whereupon another diner interjects, "You should have ordered the shell steak. It's a must!" And from another: "And the endive salad. Always reliable." And an industry is born -- eventually, in Stamaty's imagination, to encompass slim, reader-generated volumes on politics in 2008, issues in 2010, religion in 2016, and "your classy, innovative" Guide to World Orderin 2020.)
Satire aside, Zagatdid help me find a restaurant that suited my needs one night, when I had to feed eight people at a reasonable cost in a comfortable, pleasant setting. And, reminding us that guidebooks become obsolete the moment they hit print, it turned out that the place I chose, though it served our purpose perfectly well, was in transition from one identity to another.
There's a second kind of guidebook, however, that can change your life. I've just read one that absorbed me completely, engrossing me as much as if I were reading a novel, that got me excited about eating in San Francisco and the Bay Area in a whole new way. And when I put myself in the writer's hands and followed her recommendations, I had two dazzling meals.
San Francisco, CA 94131
Region: Castro/ Noe Valley
Spinach and polenta soup $6.50
Rabbit three ways $18
Handkerchief pasta with pork sugo $14
Olive oil cake $5
Salt-and-pepper crab $25
Brisket and turnips $13
Secret Sauce Beef $9
Incanto, 1550 Church (at Duncan), 641-4500. Open for dinner Wednesday through Monday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Tuesday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: fairly easy. Muni: 24, J. Noise level: moderate.
R&G Lounge, 631 Kearny (at Clay), 982-7877. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: two hours validated in lot after 5 p.m., otherwise difficult. Muni: 1, 15. Noise level: moderate.
The book that I fell in love with is the just-published third edition of Patricia Unterman's San Francisco Food Lover's Guide (Ten Speed Press, $18.95). Unterman, of course, has written about local restaurants for three decades as a critic at both the Chronicle and the Examiner; she's also, in a unique pairing, the chef/owner of the Hayes Street Grill and Vicolo Pizzeria. I've read her work before. But as I perused the Guide, I was enchanted by the generous, omnivorous (well, nearly), cosmopolitan, exacting personality present from its first page ("... I'm willing to go to the ends of the earth for a taste of the extraordinary") to the last (where she describes an expensive yellow-and-green Italian pottery bowl she bought at the Niebaum-Coppola Winery Store in Napa Valley and says the "bowl has paid for itself in the thrill I get every time I put something in it." And I believe she does get that thrill every time).
Unterman encapsulates my feelings about the absolute necessity of guidebooks in her introduction, when she writes, "Some travelers I know argue that arriving cold in a new place, completely open to any adventure, is provocative, but this argument does not convince me." I think that if a guidebook leads you to one experience, one meal or museum or store or vista that you would not otherwise have found, its cost is justified. You'll have the adventures of discovery anyway, often on your way to find the places the guidebook is leading you to.
Very early on in my reading, I knew that Unterman was extremely particular about her espresso, fond of a well-made cocktail, and the mother of a teenage boy. (I worried a bit about the absence of a partner until "my husband's beloved home-style spaghetti and big soft-textured meatballs" showed up on Page 215, in an entry on Chow.) She's sensitive to the nuances of a neighborhood, its architecture and history and inhabitants as well as its gustatory possibilities; she makes the streets at the same time mysterious and familiar.
Within days of beginning the book I put its usefulness to the test: I had to come up with two restaurants for meals involving out-of-towners over Memorial Day weekend. Julie was driving up from Los Angeles to move her daughter Anna out of her Berkeley dorm, and Anne and Howard were flying in with their son Tristan to celebrate his 10th birthday with his best friend Chester.
We needed a good, restorative dinner after loading up the rented van with the truly impressive number of possessions Anna had managed to fit into her half of a none-too-spacious dorm room. Earlier I had inquired if she and Julie thought they would be in the mood for French, or Italian, or American comfort food (they had already vetoed Asian, and they get plenty of Mexican and other Latino food in L.A.), and was told "Italian." ("Pasta!" Anna sighed.) I checked through Unterman's index of more than two dozen Italian restaurants (about a hundred fewer than Zagat's list), but I had already been intrigued by her description of Incanto as "bringing together an appealingly simple Delfina-like menu with a Bacar-like wine program," referencing two of San Francisco's best restaurants, so that's where we reserved.
I don't think I could have made a better choice. We loved the neighborhood, the airy, high-ceilinged room with arches that looked like they were made of creamy-colored stone, the simple yet sophisticated dark wood tables and chairs. The menu offered only 10 starters and seven main courses, but we had difficulty choosing, because everything sounded so enticing. We dealt with the overwhelming and exciting Italian wine list, approaching a couple hundred choices, by selecting two of the featured flights: the "mystery flight" for me, "three well-made Italian wines" for $11, and "I Dream of Piedmont" for Julie, also $11. (The restaurant has cleverly had little circular paper tags printed that fit around the base of each glass so you know what you're drinking.) Our favorite that night was the Barbera d'Asti Tabarin Icardi, a soft, juicy red.