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Our early responder finds some good things to eat among some chaff at S.F.'s new retail paradise

Wednesday, Oct 11 2006
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If left to my own devices, I wouldn't be walking into the Westfield San Francisco Centre at this moment: before 10 a.m. on its first day of business, otherwise known as its grand opening. Scary! But, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, I eat for myself and strangers, and the Westfield had trumpeted itself as the place "where foodies and fashionistas unite," giving foodies pride of place, as it were, in this hungriest of cities. Since numberless locals and tourists will descend upon the place while it's still the new new thing, and because virtually all of the purveyors are branches of local chains, it seems silly to wait the several weeks we usually do to let a new place find itself.

I figured it was my duty to check out the Centre's food court — excuse me, the Restaurant Emporium — consisting of a basement — excuse me, the Concourse Level — ringed by fast-food stands and a branch of Bristol Farms, an upscale grocer, ASAP, saving the full-service places—excuse me, the Restaurant Collection — for another time.

I'd read about the lineups curling around Market onto Fourth Street for the pre-opening invitational events at Bloomingdale's, so I was pleasantly surprised to be able to walk right into the place and wend my way easily up to the very top level. The Century Theatres was inaugurating its nine screens with an all-day festival of movies set in San Francisco, for a $5 ticket that admitted you to all of them — quel bargain. I planned to intersperse my smorgasbord of movies with trips to the smorgasbord of edibles five flights of escalators beneath.

I was stopped dead in my tracks by one of the most astonishing sights I'd ever seen: seven daredevil aerialists, in skin-tight red leotards, performing tricks, singly and in tandem, on ropes that descended from the top of the space to four stories below. Their slow, sensual routines were mesmerizing. I felt giddy and happy watching them. But that soon dissipated when the acrobats were finished and a clutch of black-and-red attired cheerleaders positioned at Bloomingdale's entrances started shaking their pompoms and loudly exhorting the shopping hordes to begin the retail dance.

At 10 a.m. the employees of the Century Theatres were ill-equipped to greet us: Nobody seemed to know which movies started when, so I grabbed a cup of Starbucks coffee at the concession stand and descended to the Food Emporium.

A similar feeling of chaos greeted me there: None of the eateries seemed to have realized that people would arrive hungry at 10 a.m., and I was greeted by shiny stainless steel bins devoid of food at Amoura Cafe ("Mediterranean fare," aka sandwiches, salad, soup, hummus, falafel, and tabbouleh) and Andale Mexican Taqueria ("health-conscious," i.e., lardless), a cream puff-less and lineless Beard Papa ("our water isn't hooked up"), drywall surrounding Charles Phan's latest modern Vietnamese outpost Out the Door reading COMING SOON, and a general air of happy confusion. My fallback position — grab something to go at Bristol Farms — had been co-opted by the mob, and the queues there were astonishing. People were lining up to get into the lines.

In the sea of humanity, I spotted the beautiful Edie Ichioka, filmmaker and food blogger (www.bunrab.com), who had been featured in the Chron food section the day before, in an article about bloggers taking pictures in restaurants. She told me she was checking out the place before meeting a clutch of foodies for lunch at 'wichcraft, oddly isolated in its location next to the back-door entrance of Bloomies on Mission. It's the first local outpost of star chef Tom Colicchio, now more familiar because of his stint hosting Top Chef than his famed tour of duty at New York's Gramercy Tavern and his burgeoning empire of Craft, Craftbar, Craftsteak, and 'wichcraft. A little birdie, fed by viewing innumerable episodes of the Fine Living Channel's Opening Soon, in which the only constant is restaurants going over budget and not meeting their opening date, told me what was going to greet us around the corner on Mission: 'wichcraft not only wasn't open for business, but the dusty piles of construction materials inside also looked like its opening wasn't exactly imminent.

That day I managed to smuggle some quite delicious vegan smokey split pea soup from the San Francisco Soup Company into It Came From Beneath the Sea, whose illicit guzzling improved the already delightful experience of watching as a Ray Harryhausen-constructed giant octopus crushed the Golden Gate Bridge in its tentacles. The half-sandwiches I also purchased (egg salad and ham-and-cheese) tasted mostly of the Saran Wrap they were encased in, alas. "Isn't this exciting?" a woman standing in the soup line said to me. "Honey," I replied, "in a week it's going to be just a mall."

At 10 p.m., when I staggered out of Basic Instinct, the Food Emporium was locked up tighter than a drum, and to my surprise both of the full-service restaurants open on the fourth level, Straits and Lark Creek Steak, were doing a land-office business. Where did all these brave, happy, shiny, rich people come from?

I returned on Monday with Ruby, who was ostensibly more interested in her Peet's macchiato, which she had wrested with difficulty from the stand, than in dining. But when she tasted the delicious spicy green beans and pork that was part of my combination plate from Coriander Gourmet Thai, she couldn't stop eating them. The combo offers jasmine or fried rice and your choice of two of the dozen or so steam-table but frequently replenished stir-fries and stews. The fried rice was unremarkable, but the tom kha chicken, in a creamy coconut and lemongrass sauce, was rich and soothing. I was bemused when the fresh-looking lemonade I pick up from Pasta Moto ("a quick taste of Italy") turns out to be Minute Maid. Our friend Vera walked by, unexpectedly, with her rice bowl topped with bulkogi (grilled beef, with crispy edges, sweet from its sugary marinade) from the Sorabol Korean BBQ and Asian Noodles. Vera, who's spent at least half the year in Japan for the past decade, was glad that Westfield has colonized a formerly forlorn stretch of Market, but, prompted by the pot of lucky bamboo taking up too much space on all of the Emporium's too-small tables, observes that the Japanese food courts are much more chic and inviting than ours. Still, the interesting mix of cuisines and less-familiar chains makes the food court in Westfield's connected Nordstrom space, home to Rubio's and Jamba Juice, look tired.

A day later, I bring two colleagues here for lunch. We brave horrendous-looking lines that actually move along rather swiftly. Frances, who's a day or so into a cold, opts for tomato bisque served in a sourdough bread bowl from the San Francisco Soup Company, while Eliza gets decent skewered mango lime mahi mahi (a little cool, a trifle dry) on tasty garlic mashed potatoes from the Asquew Grill ("quick sticks"), with an order of the side of the day, which is a huge quantity of really delicious grilled asparagus — big fat spears.

I go for a Niman Ranch Cheeseburger Royale (paging Quentin Tarantino!) from Bistro Burger. It's quite tepid and rather dry when I pick it up, despite my being summoned by one of those vibrating pagers, and if I'd known that the $2-extra avocado was going to be a little condiment cup of mashed fruit rather than slices, I'd have forgone the pleasure. The "frings" (mixed fries and onion rings) are similarly underwhelming, as are the various chocolate chip cookies we try at Tom's Cookies. The star of our lunch is Bistro Burger's thick mint-chip shake.

As we walk past 'wichcraft, I am surprised to see that it is not only open for business, but that Edie and her husband and fellow blogger David are sitting in a table right by the window, finishing their lunch. "How is it?" I asked. Edie winces. "The servers know how to make a sandwich pretty, but they don't know stuff like the cheese should be melted. Give it a couple of weeks."

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Meredith Brody

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