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Nosh Till You Drop 

Union Square noshes

Wednesday, Dec 6 2000
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Undulant masses of gloved, capped, parka'd people in pairs, trios, and alone edge forward with grim determination. Mounted police stand at the ready. New-millennium mimes in gold or silver or rusted-tin body paint distract and spook the captive passers-by. A weird aural admixture of "Silent Night," street fiddle, Stevie Wonder, and Bavarian techno-punk. The remaining hundred San Francisco Republicans straggle up Geary and protest l'affaire chad with counterrevolutionary fervor. Cabs drop fares above the Stockton Tunnel and back carefully away. Beggars and buskers and department store magnates ply their respective trades side by side. Gimpy-legged pigeons feed off the detritus of it all: just another late-November weekend in Union Square, San Francisco.

Only an idiot would shop Union Square on the day after Thanksgiving, but I wasn't there to buy gifts; as usual, I was looking for something to eat. Getting something to eat takes on a singular importance during a hard day of Christmas shopping -- particularly around Geary and Stockton, where high claustrophobia and low blood sugar come with the territory. Luckily for all concerned, the big department stores (microcosms of abundance that they are) provide on-site sustenance in several varieties, obviating the need to (shudder) leave the premises when hunger strikes: a club sandwich is as close as a Hermes scarf. Feeling dizzy? Drop your shopping bags and nosh.

First stop is Macy's basement, aka The Cellar, one section of which has evolved into a sort of high-end international food court. Once you step off the escalator, the gustatory fires get stoked by a fine selection of copper skillets and balloon whisks and pasta machines and Veuve Cliquot and Carpathian caviar and an acre or so of chocolate bonbons from Perugina, Godiva, Neuhaus, Joseph Schmidt, and Ghirardelli. The snacking section itself is a lively gathering spot with illuminated pillars in gold, purple, and green, triangular fixtures of cut metal and gemstones, low ceilings (for that basement ambience), and a full spectrum of neon to guide you to a Ben & Jerry's ice cream cone, a Jamba Juice smoothie, a Boudin Bakery sandwich, or a slice of Wolfgang Puck pizza. The Puck nook is one of the classier cafeterias you'll ever see, with bistro-esque blackboards, elegant black plasticware, a wood-burning oven, and individual sandwich and salad stations. The thin-crusted pizza is rich and tasty, especially the smoked-chicken variety, and the spinach salad is tossed to order before your eyes with fresh baby leaves and strips of red chard dressed in a light vinaigrette. Slices of tart green apple, candied pecan halves, and dollops of goat cheese add their particular accents. Also available is roast chicken by the half and whole bird: moist inside, moderately crisp outside, with pleasant hints of onion and rosemary and, best of all, a hillock of dense, rich, creamy garlic mashed potatoes and a heavenly pan gravy redolent of mustard and tarragon.

Puck also oversees a fun little sushi bar a few yards away, complete with draft beers and a happy hour that runs from 5 to 7 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Though the rolls don't approach the best in town (especially for the price) -- the fish lacks that refreshing, cool texture one associates with exemplary sushi, the rice is too loose and dry, and the all-important presentation is unimpressive -- the atmosphere makes up for a lot. Meanwhile, the sakatini (icy sake and Ketel One vodka, shaken and served in a chilled martini glass) is certainly sushi-friendly. A few steps away is a fine dessert option -- an impressive selection of Tom's Cookies, everything from your basic chocolate chip to sun-dried cranberry-orange-walnut-oatmeal and another variety studded with blueberries and white chocolate.

If the Cellar's ambience is too frantic for your jangled nerves, head a couple of blocks east to Armani Cafe, where the surrounding cabinets of silk ties, cashmere sweaters, and impeccably tailored suits create a more tranquil setting. The monumental ceilings, enormous pillars, and intricately carved folderol of this one-time bank building look down upon a large circular counter where you can lunch in burnished, starched-napery splendor. (You can also take your meal one floor up, at mezzanine level.) The food matches the surroundings: a series of elegantly designed edible mosaics in rarefied Italian. The insalata di gamberi, for instance, dresses its selection of very fresh baby greens in a low-impact vinaigrette enlivened by garlicky grilled zucchini fillets and huge, smoky-sweet prawns. The filet- to panini features sliced filet mignon sandwiched between crispy slices of Italian bread with earthy strips of spinach, strands of sweetly caramelized onion, and a thick slab of melting, pungent Brie. The highlight, though, is the improbably summery fettuccine al sapore di mare -- al dente egg noodles cushioning tender slices of asparagus, sweet little cherry tomatoes, and half a dozen of those big, succulent, grilled prawns, all wrapped up in a light, sparkly white wine sauce.

Simpler fare is available in the San Francisco Centre at (believe it or not) Nordstrom, where the four floors of circular elegance are not unlike some towering, marbled cathedral in white and gold. Up top is Cafe Nordstrom, a sleek cafeteria that's all glass, chrome, track lighting, and hardwood floors. The low, slanting roof gives the room a garret feel that goes with the fifth-floor views up Powell Street to Nob Hill. Unfortunately, the food borders on the perfunctory. The Cobb salad features lots of big fresh greens of various shades, but the avocado's bruised, the bacon bits are positively industrial, and the chunks of chicken are overcooked. The tedious portobello in the portobello burger needs to be marinated in something or other, but the accompanying mozzarella is fresh and tart and there's nothing wrong with the caramelized onions. The spicy, heavy Santa Fe chicken sandwich has that distinctive institutional flavor despite (or perhaps because of) the presence of Jack cheese, roasted peppers, avocado, and something called "jalapeño cheese bread," but the warm apple dumpling is worth ordering for its cinnamon-edged sugar sauce, its soft, buttery pastry wrapping, and its sweet, not-too-soft stewed apple. Skip the gummy lemon bar, though.

The great Union Square nosh stop is the Rotunda, up there on the fourth floor of Neiman-Marcus. You still wend your way up around the spectacular Christmas tree, just like in the old City of Paris days, and the former occupant's stained glass dome (recently refurbished at great expense) still lets in plenty of California sunshine to lunch by. The dome's sailing-ship design is matched by two enormous, carved wind gods at either end, blowing the clipper ship on its way, and elaborate white-and-gold accents decorate every nook and cranny. In short, it's hard to choose between the two views, the first of the dome and the ornament-dripping tree beneath it, and the second a lovely vista out across Union Square and the hills beyond. We solved the conundrum by trading seats halfway through our meal.

The food's good, too, if not spectacular. The baby spinach salad pairs the fresh little greens with creamy pear slices, roasted peppers, shiitake mushrooms, crunchy pine nuts, and a warm, tangy balsamic vinaigrette. The potato-leek soup is marvelous cold-weather food: piping hot and smooth as silk, with a Gorgonzola-topped crouton adding texture and pungency. The high-rent lobster club sandwich comes white-glove style in vertically impressive, neatly triangulated form, with a dozen or so layers of bacon, avocado, shallot mayonnaise, and chunks of sweet lobster, all of it served between delicate slices of toasted brioche. The artichoke risotto isn't particularly artichoke-y, but it's nicely cheesy, dense, and lemony, and its bed of pesto sauce is light and fragrant. For dessert, the gingerbread cake, hollowed and filled with a holiday amalgam of Granny Smith apples, raisins, and spices, is comforting enough, but its finest feature is the crystallized ginger that infuses its syrupy bed. In any case, the setting is spectacular and elegant, and the service is impeccable.

Of course, there are more proletarian noshing options available around the Square. The hot dog wagon at Post and Stockton offers up not only the three or four basic varieties of frankfurter, hot and fragrant on a soft, warm bun with your choice of condiments, but also a Sausage of the Day. On one recent occasion, the special consisted of Aidell's smoked turkey/sun-dried tomato sausage, crackly skinned, juicy, sweet, and spicy -- the perfect meal on a chilly day. Pick up the ideal dessert at the Giacomo coffee stand at Stockton and O'Farrell: a tall container of rich hot chocolate topped with whipped cream that slowly melts into the sweet dark steamy cocoa ... yum. Who said Christmas is all about the gift wrap?

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Matthew Stafford

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