Here and There
Sometimes you have to visit other food cultures to understand your own more clearly. Dish practices a decorous patriotism on culinary matters and believes that food in San Francisco is as good as anyplace in the world.
Why do local restaurants charge so much for wine? A glass of good, ordinary wine in most San Francisco bistros costs at least $4 or $5 — lately even more. And rare is the bottle for much under $20.
The Europeans charge a lot less for wine. In Florence, Dish had a half-bottle (that's three glasses) of good Soave at a modest trattoria for less than $6. Even in Paris, which is always pricey, wine with dinner remains a bargain. At La Bastoche, an excellent bistro near the Place de la Bastille, Dish and a friend split a half-liter (four glasses) of vin blanc de maison for about $6.50. An additional quarter-liter of house red ran about $4.
The tawdry secret is that even in food-proud San Francisco, wine remains a profit center rather than an integral part of the meal, as in France and Italy. It doesn't help when restaurants fail to offer house wines — or, by using cheap jug wines, perpetuate the American superstition that the only good wine is a costly brand-name varietal. There are plenty of excellent table wines produced locally that could be sold to restaurant patrons for a lot less than $20 a bottle.
Then there's the food. Dish has noticed that the endearingly bumptious critic who fills up the rest of this page often complains that food “needs salt.” Even first-rate local kitchens seem to have developed a phobia about properly seasoning the food they serve. Yet anyone who cooks regularly knows that many flavors need salt to develop, and that salt needs to be added while a dish is being cooked. Adding salt afterward will simply not produce the same result.
European chefs are not afraid of salt. Dish after dish reached Dish's table in need of no seasoning at all. (The one mysterious exception: a flat vegetable soup in a Parisian bistro. It came alive with a modest sprinkling.) Often there aren't even salt and pepper shakers on the table, because the chefs know you won't need them. They've tasted the food as they've cooked it, as all chefs are supposed to do, and they know when it tastes right.
As for the barbarous practice of tipping: The Europeans have a better way. Menu prices reflect a 10 to 15 percent service charge — which is another way of saying that restaurants treat their waitstaff as valued employees rather than indentured servants, and pay them accordingly. Good service is simply a given. As it should be.
By Paul Reidinger