Postcard From Tom: San Francisco Bay Area

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

In San Francisco as elsewhere in the country, hard times tend to bring out the best in cooks. I observed that again and again during an excursion last month to the Bay Area, where some of my favorite restaurant meals relied on the fewest ingredients, and seemingly no part of an animal or plant was left unexplored.

Flamboyance, in terms of food and service, is out; frugality, on the part of chefs and diners alike, is the watchword. Says chef Thomas McNaughton, who has worked at some of the top restaurants in the city but now devotes himself to simple but sensational pizzas and pastas in the Mission District: "It's the way people want to eat right now."

Austerity never tasted as good as it did when I dropped into town.

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This is how laid-back Flour + Water is: Servers are encouraged to wear street clothes at work. And once your bottle of wine has been "nosed" for quality by the bartender, it's up to you to pour it at the table.

This is why you want to make a beeline for the new storefront with the bare tabletops anyway: pizza that's gently blistered from a brief encounter with an intense wood fire, then scattered with the likes of heirloom tomatoes, tender squid and rich aioli. And possibly the best (lamb's) tongue you've ever tasted, partnered in a warm potato salad with a perfect poached egg and zesty salsa verde. But don't take my word for it. On any given night, a quarter of the crowd might be industry insiders. Who cares if the waiters are in jeans? They're very good at educating and pampering their charges.

The restaurant's straightforward name refers to "the root of a lot of what we're doing here," says McNaughton. He's only 25 but has already packed such impressive area restaurants as La Folie, Gary Danko and Quince into his portfolio. At Flour + Water, just about everything is made from scratch, "even the olive oil," says the chef, who also butchers his own goat, wild boar and pig, the recent inventory of his cooler. There's more to consider than (cooked) flour and water, by the way. The entree I'm still dreaming about brings together roasted pork leg with mellow shelling beans, sweet figs, wild broccoli and a faint crunch: pork rinds!

Flour + Water, 2401 Harrison St.; 415-826-7000; Entrees, $12-$22.

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The big difference between chefs on the East and West coasts? The former tend to be driven by technique, goes the thinking, while the latter are more focused on ingredients.

Abundant, and often mouth-watering, evidence supporting half that axiom is found on the tables at Osteria Stellina, whose chef, 41-year-old Christian Caiazzo, has toiled in such diverse restaurants as the late Postrio in San Francisco and Union Square Cafe in New York. For him, what's best is just a farm or a garden or a bay away from becoming a memorable meal in his modest, 57-seat dining room, soothing in sage and dressed up with bowls of produce. Consider a designated driver: It's a scenic and sometimes hair-raising (the twists! those turns!) 90-minute drive from San Francisco.

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