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Cook's Tour 

Sharing a taste of our town with L.A. chefs results in a serious case of Bay Pride

Wednesday, Sep 8 2004
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Often when people ask me for restaurant recommendations, they preface their requests with an apology: "I know you must be sick of this, but ...." No, I'm not, I tell them; I love helping people find good places to eat. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't. I'm happiest when folks give me some idea of what they need, such as when a colleague wanted a handful of reasonably priced ethnic places for the week his father was visiting. And his father likes veal. Before I knew it my list included more than a dozen ideas: four Eastern European restaurants, a taqueria, two Italian establishments, and Japanese, Chinese, Peruvian, French, Indian, and Greek places. He e-mailed me back: "My dad'll love this. In Champaign-Urbana, remember, a nice meal out is a double with fries at Steak and Shake."

I was pleased to get a report afterward: "You were two for two." They'd enjoyed dinners at Kabuto A&S and Estia (where I'd even laid out a game plan for them -- a list of my favorite cold and hot appetizers, the best things on the menu -- and suggested the fried smelts, which were a hit).

Another request turned out to be even more pleasant: I got an e-mail from a woman in Los Angeles, Annie Miler, who runs one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, Clementine, a cozy eatery that also does a brisk business in baked goods and takeout. (It was sweet that she wrote in her e-mail, "Remember Grilled Cheese Month?," an annual April celebration during which Clementine offers a different and delicious sandwich every day. How could I forget? My dream was to try every single one, with Annie's perfect deviled eggs, topped with radish curls and tiny peppery sprouts, and a glass of fresh ginger limeade.) She said that she was planning to bring her store manager, pastry chef, and kitchen manager up to S.F. for a day trip to check out the Ferry Building, and wanted to know if there were any other places they should go for inspiration: specialty food stores, prepared foods, bakery-cafes. They would come on a Sunday, and, as she said, charmingly: "I know one day is nothing, but we're ready to hustle and see and taste as much as we can."

My first thought was that they should come on a Saturday, so as to be dazzled by the full force of the Farmers Market, including the many stalls dishing up prepared food (they could try everything on the delicious Mexican menu at Primavera, and get grilled steak sandwiches from the booth that sends out entrancing smells on the south side of the building). Plus, some of the ideas I had were for places that are closed on Sunday, such as tiny Desiree, hidden away in the Presidio, and Swan Oyster Depot, on Polk. But Saturday is Clementine's busiest day, so I wrote back some suggestions that included Tartine (600 Guerrero, 487-2600), Mitchell's Ice Cream (688 San Jose, 648-2300), and Bombay Ice Creamery and Chaat (552 Valencia, 861-3995).

As Annie and I e-mailed back and forth, it evolved that her crew would go directly to Tartine from the Oakland airport, swing by Bombay and Mitchell's, drive over to the Ferry Building to explore on their own, and then I'd meet them at Tsar Nicoulai Caviar (what better place to celebrate?) at 1:15 for a collation. Annie, Alfredo, Stefani, Jessica, and Jessica's East Bay-based brother, Erik, who drove the crew around for the day, arrived stuffed full of pastries and ice cream (some favorites: Tartine's cheesy bread pudding, Mitchell's coconut ice cream, Bombay's cardamom ice cream), thrilled to be up north on a gorgeous day, and hungry for anything and everything. We started with caviar and champagne at Tsar Nicoulai (and considered the Premium caviar sampler -- featuring five different sturgeon caviars, both Caspian and domestic, carefully arranged on blini -- a better bargain at three times the price than the $15 American sampler, whose rainbow-colored assortment of seven kinds of whitefish, trout, and sturgeon featured four caviars flavored with wasabi, ginger, truffle, and beet and saffron, which we tasted with more curiosity than genuine pleasure).

Afterward we wandered into Taylor's Automatic Refresher, whose Napa Valley outpost was familiar to Jessica and Erik (whose dream is to open a hamburger place). We agreed that the bucolic St. Helena setting has greater appeal than the Ferry Building location, but every seat here, inside and on the vast Embarcadero patio, was full (the place is so popular that it now opens half an hour earlier and closes an hour later than when it opened). We lined up for a shared snack of a patty melt (we admired the use of marble rye, but the bread wasn't grilled, as the menu has it, but cold), six mini-corn dogs served atop french fries, a bowl of rather characterless Manhattan clam chowder (my pick, and we should have tried the potato-bacon soup instead, even on such a warm, sunny day), good chili-dusted sweet potato fries, and a terrific thick chocolate milkshake.

Serious grazing and shopping ensued. I am pleased to report that for the entire six hours, we never stopped looking at, tasting, talking about, or buying food. We sampled Red Hawk at Cowgirl Creamery, exquisite chocolates filled with creams scented with tarragon and lemon verbena at Recchiuti Confections, and assorted jerkies at Potter Family Farms. We ogled the layouts at and picked up menus from the Slanted Door, Mistral Rotisserie Provencale, the Imperial Tea Court, and LuLu Petite. And bought just about one of everything from Frog Hollow Farm's tempting pastry display, each piece made with the farm's own fresh fruit (when I found out that the day-old galettes were marked down from $20 to $10 each, I got both cherry and peach-and-frangipane-cream versions).

After two attempts, we despaired of finding six seats together at the Hog Island Oyster Bar, so we looked across the bay (since Annie's crowd was flying out of Oakland). I phoned the new Pearl Oyster Bar, on College in the Rockridge neighborhood's gourmet block, across from Oliveto and Market Hall: closed on Sundays, alas. My next call, to César, the first and still one of the best tapas bars in the Bay Area, had a happier result: open daily! We piled into Erik's Jeep and crossed the bridge.

On the way to César, I decided that we had to do a quick tour of the Berkeley Bowl (2020 Oregon, 510/843-6929). Inside, the girls moaned -- not just at the astonishing variety of produce in almost unbearable profusion (multiple heirloom tomatoes in a rainbow array; tables covered with berries, including gooseberries and red and white currants; an abundance of stone fruits, including unfamiliar types of peaches and plums; curious vegetables), but also at the reasonable prices. Retail in Berkeley, it seems, trumps wholesale in L.A. "I didn't bring you here to make you sad," I said.

Back on the road, I suggested a stop at Zatar (1981 Shattuck, 510/841-1981) to get a couple of seductive, refreshing, and unusual beverages (lemonade with ground spearmint from the garden, and the sexy jalab, heady rose water mixed with date syrup), but the place was closed on Sundays, too. At César we scored a couple of tables at the wooden banquette, in the rear, our preference over those at the big central communal table. The place was pleasantly full. After we'd chosen a number of plates, I rushed off (like a madwoman, I now realize) to Grégoire, a Frenchy takeout place around the corner (2109 Cedar, 510/883-1893), to get an order of potato puffs. (Which is where the madwoman comes in -- bringing outside food into a restaurant! What was I thinking? That the puffs would make a good contrast with César's fried potatoes, is what I was thinking, and that they were uniquely delicious: "crispy on the outside, soft on the inside," as Grégoire's Web site has it. But what did I think I was going to do -- hand the little cardboard box around under the table? Pretend they were giant mints?) But it was not to be; Grégoire was closed for an August vacation -- perhaps luckily for maintaining proper restaurant decorum, but a loss for the palate.

I returned, chastened, to the feasting: sweet seared sea scallops; crostini piled high with tiny, silvery anchovies; a bocadillo sandwich stuffed with fried pork; tender, garlicky razor clams sautéed in the shell, so succulent that we immediately ordered round two. I was slightly sad that the day's version of papas fritas was thick, loglike, herb-dusted fries rather than the signature haystack of paper-thin chips usually on offer, though the shiny yellow aioli that accompanied them was divine. We washed things down with a variety of tipples: a couple of César's signature cocktails (an Andalusian Sidecar made with Spanish Lustau brandy and a Cuban Manhattan made with four-year-old Flor de Caña rum), sherry, beer, Madeira -- in true tapas style. César has a truly well-stocked and well-researched bar. The roasted quail never arrived, so we were treated to a sticky bread pudding with orange-caramel sauce, on the house. I secretly yearned to try César's own ice creams, rum and cinnamon-orange with burnt sugar, but it was time to head to the airport. (If the Cheese Board Pizza Collective across the street -- 1512 Shattuck, 510/549-3055 -- had been open on Sunday, I would have picked up one of its vegetarian pizzas of the day to snack on in the car en route.) We were all giddy, not just from the wine and the food, but from the foodie talk. Plans were floated for future gluttony tours, including one to Bakersfield (yes! Breakfast, barbecue, and Basque restaurants!). I've always enjoyed grazing the Ferry Building and showing off the best of the bay, but never as much as the day when I got to tag along with five greedy gourmands from down south.

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Meredith Brody

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