Urban Explorer

Some of the best things our critic consumed in a year of eating around a constantly evolving town

I may never need to find a restaurant near the zoo (you can bet on it, actually), but once I discovered that there are $10 standing-room tickets to the opera, I found myself haunting the eateries around Civic Center, and being haunted by what I ate there. At Jardinière (300 Grove, 861-5555), Traci Des Jardins did a smooth, chilly, classic duck liver mousse, but also an unexpected, and unexpectedly brilliant, combination of duck confit with candied kumquats, Medjool dates, and pistachio. Midori Mushi (465 Grove, 503-1377) excited with precise and unusual changes wrung on fresh raw fish. Wild salmon on a rectangle of rice, moistened with yuzu (a sour citrus) and garnished with spider-web strands of mildly salty kombu (processed sea kelp), and a rosy tuna-and-avocado tartare covered with thin pounded circles of ivory scallop were the highlights of an excellent omakase meal there. It's hard to choose just a couple of highlights from Absinthe (398 Hayes, 551-1590), but silky chilled Dungeness crab, with a small crock of white truffle-scented butter and the witty touch of crisp, briny house-pickled sea beans, was one, and another was a poached beef tenderloin with baby turnips, carrots, and leeks, served with a creamy marrow sauce and a bowl of crunchy sea salt, the most delicate pot-au-feu imaginable.

I had fabulous meals not just in neighborhoods where there weren't restaurants before, but also in places where there weren't neighborhoods before. When I used to live in the Bay Area, you couldn't drive into the Presidio without being challenged to produce identification by an armed guard, but a few months ago I drove in unmolested, parked easily, and had one of the most delightful, peaceful, relaxing breakfasts of my life in a charming little place called Desiree (39 Mesa, Suite 108, 561-2336), tucked away in one of the old barrack-y office buildings. My eggs were scrambled with green onions and sided by smoky house-made gravlax, strong coffee, and fresh-squeezed orange juice, and I lounged on a high banquette, admiring the ocean breeze. At Acme Chophouse (24 Willie Mays Place, 644-0240), on a site where people once parked their cars, I had a superb grass-fed rib-eye, a plate of leaf spinach swimming in cream, and a glass full of butterscotch pudding, followed by a baseball game upstairs in Pac Bell Park, a combination I intend to repeat yearly, no matter what damn name gets pinned on the stadium (next time the Giants can feel free to win in the standard nine innings, although we did enjoy watching them do it in 11). And nothing could have been more urbane than the setting and the food at Baraka (288 Connecticut, 255-0370), the French-Moroccan tapas spot perched on Potrero Hill, where the bright-green falafel were made from fava beans, dates came stuffed with chorizo, cabrales, and serrano ham, and you shouldn't miss the plump, eggy sugar-crusted beignets fragrant with orange-flower water, to be dipped in orange marmalade and tangy yogurt.

But my favorite new neighborhood is the Embarcadero, happily freed from its dark prison of concrete by the Loma Prieta earthquake, an unwitting aid to the best bit of urban redevelopment in the city. The Marketplace at the beautifully restored Ferry Building (Embarcadero & Market, 693-0996) is not just a transportation hub but a transporting one, full of delicious things to eat and drink from all over the world. You can quaff wines from New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and Austria, as well as France and Italy, at the popular wine bar in the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants; drink exotic tea like an emperor or empress perched on teak thrones at the Imperial Tea Court; buy handmade cheeses from English, Spanish, and Greek farms as well as its own Point Reyes dairy at Cowgirl Creamery's Artisan Cheese Shop. And these are just three of the more than two dozen food purveyors in permanent residence. (Several days a week, farmers' markets surround the place with fresh produce.) I'm looking forward to pho and crab with cellophane noodles at the new Slanted Door outpost there, and a cheeseburger with extra onions and a chocolate shake at Taylor's Automatic Refresher, both due to open in 2004. Welcome to the neighborhood!

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