Picnic in the City

Forget the burgers and brats; we're packing roast beef sushi

This is San Francisco, celebrated more for fog and damp than al fresco dining. While our true summerlike heat never really blooms until calendars have already declared the season kaput, the next few months promise to be a great time for a grab-and-go picnic, according to long-range weather forecasting Web site www.dryday.com.

When we get a day worth seizing in this multicultural, epicurean city, it's ridiculously easy to put together a well-balanced picnic without spending long hours over a hot grill.

"I love the summer, because I use lots of fruit in everything, from salad to fish," says Mari Takahashi, owner of Mari's Catering. Takahashi's small Bernal Heights kitchen creatively fuses Japanese and Californian ingredients in the style known as sozai, the Japanese take on small-portioned and healthful deli food.

Takahashi sells boxed items at various specialty grocery stores throughout San Francisco, for between $2 and $6 per portion. Your picnic basket will thank you for items ranging from the vegetable gyoza, grilled tofu-vegetable skewers and inari (rice balls in sweet tofu skin) to the truly stunning Treasure Box of unusual vegetarian nigiri, including brie with raspberry and lotus root offerings.

Whether or not your meal-to-go includes sozai, Takahashi advises that dishes containing lemon or vinegar stay fresh and tasty even if the weather turns as sour as those ingredients may be on their own.

Sozai on a slightly larger scale is available from Delica rf-1, a Japanese delicatessen located in the Ferry Building. The brainchild of a successful Japanese food company, it creates take-away dishes using fresh ingredients from its neighboring Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market growers and food companies for an intercontinental twist.

Artful pre-prepped bento boxes come in four- or five-item or vegetarian ($9.50) and a summer ($11) version. Or you can pick your own quantities of items like the wasabi garlic potato salad ($8 per pound) and roast beef sushi ($2 each). Go on Saturday to take advantage of all the summer produce at the Farmers' Market, from luscious stone fruits and colorful heirloom tomatoes to nutty white asparagus and big brown bags of English shelling peas, to enhance any picnic theme.

Where to go

Actually, with all the seafood, poultry, meat, pastry, sandwich, and other pre-made meal choices and snacks housed on the premises, it's never a bad option to have an impromptu picnic right there in Ferry Plaza with its compelling view of carefree sailboats and careless Bay Bridge construction. But there are lots of great picnic spots in town. Picking the right place is limited only by one's imagination and tolerance for hills, dirt, or other people.

Picnics that are intimate (by virtue of group size or inclination toward romance) fit nicely in Walton Square. With its calming water sculpture, it's a serene place to sup where maybe — just maybe — those famous wild parrots of Telegraph Hill will present themselves in all their green-and-red glory. Or check out Hayes Green, part of the Octavia Boulevard redesign that places a picnic right in the hustle and bustle of this new-energy neighborhood.

Sporty climbers can work up an appetite toting their food up the endless winding stairs leading up to the tiny treasure that is Grand View Park. It's a no-frills spot hovering over the Sunset District that boasts a show-stopping view of the Pacific Ocean — which, despite conventional perceptions of the neighborhood, should not be entirely shrouded in fog all summer long.

Whether it's by the ocean or the bay, eating near the water is likely a chilly and windy option, but it's always fun for all ages. Hardy families might bring their meal to China Beach in order to appreciate the Golden Gate Bridge in a way that always escapes the tourists. Or they can bundle up and sidle on over to the wooden pier just east of the Fort Point parking lot for a real up-close-and-personal commune with our city's enduring landmark.

Of course, if it ain't broke, don't fix it: There's a reason why people love such classic picnic spots as Dolores Park, Alamo Square, Crissy Field, Stern Grove, and Golden Gate Park. Those are the places where picnics can roam wide and free, with big blankets and boundless hampers of food. What one sacrifices in creativity and privacy, one receives in classic comfort and views. With a little planning you can get free music with that, too.

Do-it-yourself sozai

Want to do more than just pick up picnic fixins? Mari Takahashi put together this Japanese summer picnic especially for SF Weekly's Summer Guide. It's healthy and simple to prepare in less than an hour, with an abundance of easily procured items, and packs well for outdoor enjoyment. Even the relatively "out there" ingredients such as agar-agar (a vegan substitute for gelatin) may be found on the shelves of many local stores.

Up for an even greater challenge? Beginning in July, Takahashi will resume teaching her small, specialized sushi classes. She will also add new courses for other Japanese foods (the schedule is available on www.marisfood.com). A creative, homemade sushi and bento box picnic could be within reach before the end of the summer.

Now that's urban living, S.F.-style.

PICNIC RECIPES FROM MARI TAKAHASHI OF MARI'S CATERING

Makes four servings.

BAKED CHICKEN WITH WASABI AIOLI

4 pieces of chicken thigh

1/2 cup mayonnaise with 1 teaspoon of lemon juice added (if using Japanese brand of lemon juice; if using American brand, add an additional 1 tsp of rice vinegar and a pinch of sugar and salt)

1 tsp wasabi paste (or 2 tsps wasabi powder mixed with 1 tsp water)

1. Preheat oven to 425¡F.

2. Mix mayonnaise and wasabi well to make the aioli.

3. Place chicken onto baking sheet and bake, covered with foil, on middle rack for 10 minutes.

4. Take off the foil, put the wasabi aioli on top of the chicken, and bake for another 10 minutes until thoroughly cooked brown on the top.

OVEN-BAKED ASPARAGUS AND RED PEPPERS WITH SOY SAUCE BUTTER

1 lb asparagus

1 big red bell pepper

1 tsp butter or sesame oil

1 tsp soy sauce (Japanese brand such as Kikkoman or Yamasa)

1 tsp lemon juice

Pinch of salt

1. Cut asparagus diagonally into thirds.

2. Julienne the red pepper.

3. In a small bowl, mix together soy sauce, butter or sesame oil, and lemon juice.

4. Salt the asparagus and peppers lightly, wrap them with foil, and put into the oven. If you're making the chicken dish above, the veggies go in when you take the foil off the chicken.

5. After 10 minutes, take veggie packet out of oven (when the chicken is done).

6. Brush veggies with soy sauce, butter or sesame oil, and lemon juice, then wrap them back up for travel, adding an additional foil layer if necessary.

GREEN SALAD WITH PONZU DRESSING

1/4 lb pre-packaged green salad mix or mixed greens

About 10 nasturtium edible flower buds

4 tsp ponzu (or 2 tsp soy sauce, 1 tsp lemon juice, 1 tsp grapefruit juice)

2 tsp sesame oil

1. Wash salad greens and nasturtium well and decorate them nicely in a bowl.

2. Mix ponzu and sesame oil together and put into a container.

3. Dress the salad just before serving.

PLUM WINE JELLY

Agar-agar jelly firms up without chilling and will not melt once it is set, making it a good weather-resistant picnic dessert.

1 stick of agar-agar

1 cup of Choya brand plum wine

1 1/2 cups of water

Sugar to taste

1. Soak agar-agar stick in 1 1/2 cups of water for 30 minutes.

2. Heat it up in a saucepan over medium heat until it completely melted.

3. Add plum wine and turn off the heat when it is mixed.

4. Add sugar if desired, making sure it melts.

5. When it cools down a bit, put it into the container you want to serve it in (could be a big square baking pan).

6. Place it into fridge or cooler with ice.

7. Cut into individual serving pieces.

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