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Feast of the Senses 

The films may have been silent, but the food spoke volumes

Wednesday, Aug 4 2004
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A year ago last spring, in this space, I somewhat incautiously said that though moving to the Bay Area had improved my life in all sorts of ways (the availability of really excellent cheese, for example), my moviegoing life had gone all to hell. I knew that I just hadn't learned how to work the system yet, but it was a cri de coeur, and it was heard: Helpful readers e-mailed me with lists of their favorite theaters and other venues, and a couple of friends took me in hand, dragging me hither and yon to obscure programs and festivals. Eventually I realized that there is more to see than even I can manage, with my one pair of eyes, especially because in the meantime I had discovered the $10 standing-room tickets to the opera, and the half-price theater pavilion in Union Square, and "First Thursday."

In fact, I've had a couple of moviegoing experiences peculiar to the Bay Area that rank with the very best I've had anywhere. Lee introduced me to the annual Broncho Billy Film Festival in Niles, near Fremont, and it was delightful to watch movies that had been shot in the surrounding hills and then walk outside and see those same surrounding hills, remarkably unchanged, with the same gray-green live oak trees dotted among the same grasses burnt gold by the sun. We enjoyed browsing Niles' picturesque Main Street, lined with antique shops, too. The only thing that would have improved our sojourn would have been discovering a great place to eat: We skipped the festival's offer to order catered lunches and ended up lunching on sandwiches in a cute little cafe that had perfected the art of turning freshly made toast soggy. "Look," I whispered to Lee when we returned to the hall for the afternoon programs, "I know where they catered lunch. I'd recognize that limp toast anywhere."

But I'm still glowing from immersing myself in the ninth annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, two days of extraordinarily thoughtful programming accompanied by superbly performed live music before an appreciative and enthusiastic audience. I even enjoyed lining up outside the Castro: "Look at all these people," the man behind me exclaimed, "waiting to see silent movies on a beautiful Saturday! Isn't it great?" For some reason the people in front of me, who'd flown up from L.A. just for the festival, waited until the doors opened and we were being swept into the theater to ask me if there were any good places to eat in the neighborhood. I managed to point out A.G. Ferrari, right across the street, for decent Italian takeout (and a few tables, too); the N.Y.-style deli (Rossi's Delicatessen) closer to Market that makes amazingly big and inexpensive sandwiches to go; the upscale Japanese place near A.G. Ferrari (Osaka Sushi), with its long sushi bar and varied menu; and the more inexpensive one a block away (All Season Sushi), for a quick lunch. I also mentioned Chow, down on Church Street, for a more leisurely dinner. (Because part of the thoughtfulness of the festival is that it programs a two-hour dinner break into its days, thereby urging its patrons to emerge, blinking, into the sun, for some needed fresh air and sustenance.)

I'm sure the L.A. visitors found something good to eat. ("This is San Francisco," I said as they moved away in the search for seats, "and standards are high. It's a demanding clientele!") But I found myself wishing later that I could have told them about the two places I ended up having dinner at during the weekend -- one planned, the other unplanned, both perfect in their way.

I'd run into Hilary in line on Saturday, with her partner, Martine, and we sat together for the first three movies. I knew where I wanted to have dinner, at Home, a few blocks away, and invited them to join me. We buzzed about what we'd seen as we strolled down Market toward the place: I was surprisingly moved by Maurice Tourneur's sentimental and magical version of Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird, especially because I'd been singularly unmoved by two subsequent remakes, the treacly 1940 version starring Shirley Temple ("lavish Technicolor fantasy ... has everything but charm," Leonard Maltin writes) and the misconceived 1976 one starring Elizabeth Taylor ("Unbelievably draggy," according to the same source). Tourneur's rendition created a high that lasted through the charming Reginald Denny comedy (who knew he'd been so buff?) and the tear-jerker with Sessue Hayakawa, stunningly shot on location in a pristine Yosemite.

Home, which renamed itself in 2002 from JohnFrank when it changed from an elaborate, high-priced menu to a moderately priced comfort-food one under chef Lance Dean Velasquez, recently announced a change of chefs and ownership, but the menu looked reassuringly familiar, as did the room, already quite full less than half an hour after opening for dinner. We were there in plenty of time for the Early Bird Special, served from 5 to 6, and amazingly a dollar less than before -- now $10.99 -- for a salad, entree, dessert, and glass of wine, but we didn't feel like having the vegetarian pasta that was that night's main course. Instead we shared an order of duck and vegetable spring rolls with a spicy chili dipping sauce as Hilary and Martine daringly quaffed margaritas (which would have rendered me too groggy for the screening that awaited, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) while we decided what to eat. We all wished it were Thursday, when the nightly special is country fried chicken, but skipped Saturday's barbecued ribs served with grilled corn slaw and fries in favor of a grilled pork chop, pot roast, and roasted halibut (though Martine was sorely tempted by the red curry and coconut milk eggplant stew).

Home has always shone in its careful pairing of interesting vegetables with meat and fish, and tonight I loved the combination of still-toothy braised romano beans in fresh tomato sauce and tons of crispy onion shreds that came with the silky, pale halibut slicked with basil oil, and the fat little wild rice pecan pancake and braised green beans that accompanied the sturdy, thick grilled pork chop with its mildly sweet wild cherry sauce. I didn't finish all of my knowingly cooked, luscious Niman Ranch pot roast, but the leftovers came home without any vestige of their sides of gravy-drenched garlic potato purée and tangy horseradish cream -- I'd seen to that. (The menu changes daily; on another occasion, the pork chop was molasses-glazed and came with baked beans, grilled corn on the cob, and a sweet potato pecan biscuit, while the pot roast's accompaniments were buttermilk smashed potatoes, glazed baby carrots, and a roasted onion jus.) My favorite dish of all on the table was the side order of tender sprigs of broccoli napped in a delicious, sticky cheddar cheese sauce. I ate more than my fair share.

We finished with a bright-tasting Home-made melon sorbet served with shortcake cookies and a half-portion of banana bread pudding, returning to the Castro in time to hear the aforesaid Leonard Maltin announce that the Silent Film Festival was, in his opinion, the best place to be on the planet at that moment.

I was sufficiently in agreement to return eagerly the next day, when the pace was again set by the first movie, the beautiful tragedy The Goddess, starring the equally beautiful and tragic Ruan Lingyu, whose life, cut short by suicide, was limned by Maggie Cheung in 1992's The Actress. Five hours and two more movies later, I happily followed Hilary and Martine across the street to Thailand Restaurant, a second-floor eatery where they'd booked a table for six. Two extra friends joined the group, which the busy place handled with aplomb: Staffers brought two more chairs, and we all squished in. Ordering was mildly haphazard, as everybody chose a favorite dish to be shared, family-style. When Hilary mentioned twice that the fish cakes were her favorite dish, I added another order, and I was glad I did: The big, pale orange, spongy discs, full of chopped green beans and onions and served with cucumber salad, were the best things we had. I wasn't nuts about the pad thai (we got two versions, one with sautéed pork, the other with tofu), and a more perceptive server might have pointed out that the "bar-b-q chicken" was essentially the same dish as the chicken satay we'd gotten as an appetizer, just a larger portion of the pounded turmeric-yellow chicken breast rather than the on-the-bone bird we expected. But the bright-red salmon curry was unexpectedly succulent and sophisticated in its smooth sauce of cream of coconut, chili, and lemongrass, under a thatch of crispy flash-fried basil; I also loved the pad ga prew -- crumbled pork, onions, and bamboo shoots in another good, highly flavored sauce with lots of garlic, chili, and basil -- and the meaty, slippery eggplant sautéed with bean sauce. The table was covered with dishes, more than we could eat, and we got out for just about $20 a person, all in.

We returned to the fray refreshed and ready to take on Charlie Chaplin in The Circus. I've never been to a more carefully planned, well-run festival (down to the informative cards flashed on the screen during intermissions, offering what amounted to a seminar on the work of the artists we were about to see), and certainly never one where you could be so well fed within minutes of the venue. I'm already looking forward to next July. But I'll be returning to Home or going to Thailand the next time I'm at the Castro. Maybe for meatloaf after seeing Superstar in a Housedress or for garlic calamari and noodles (I'm stretching a bit) after La Dolce Vita.

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Meredith Brody

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