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.

Local critics have likened Caiazzo's impeccable ingredients and unfussy compositions to what diners find at Chez Panisse and Zuni Cafe, two Bay Area standard-bearers. I concur. His dishes -- tender Marin County snails braised with fennel and tarragon and served in their delicate shells, winey goat shoulder arranged with rosemary-laced polenta and biting greens -- coax lovely performances from sometimes humble purchases. Caiazzo also has a sly sense of humor. When the chef recently had one supplier bring him veal and another show up with tuna, he put two and two together and added vitella tonnata to his menu. Meanwhile, the idea for putting oysters on pizza comes from the practice of diners eating the bivalves with crackers. (And because seafood and cheese aren't ideal partners, creamed leeks stand in for mozzarella.)

Like all good chefs, Caiazzo uses every scrap of what he buys. So in addition to getting legs and loins from a lamb, he retrieves the animal's heart, brains, kidneys and other parts. (Don't think too hard about the "two-ball ravioli.") Caiazzo knows that chicken breasts are more popular than thighs, but thighs pack more flavor and cost less. So braised thighs nestle with celery root and kale in a main course priced at $17.

The restaurant's signature dessert is an ice cream sandwich that takes note of the season. The wildly popular Meyer lemon ice cream served between spicy gingersnaps recently gave way to honey-ginger ice cream supported by oatmeal-currant cookies.

Caiazzo says the best compliment he gets is from his suppliers, many of whom are regulars at Osteria Stellina.

The curious don't have to go to his restaurant to experience a slice of the chef's magic. At the Saturday farmers market in Point Reyes Station, Caiazzo can be found at a stall making grilled cheese sandwiches from locally baked bread, locally made cheese and locally churned butter, all wrapped up in brown paper. He calls the enterprise GBD, which is short for "golden, brown and delicious."

Osteria Stellina, 11285 Highway 1, Point Reyes Station; 415-663-9988; Entrees, $14-$20.

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As the wine director for the Mina Group in San Francisco, Rajat Parr is perhaps an obvious fan of wines from Burgundy. But the guy also loves trains, a passion that pops up everywhere a diner glances in the youthful RN74, a new wine-themed bar and restaurant that takes its name from a highway in France's Burgundy region.

The sofas would look at home in a chic train compartment from yesteryear. Lighting comes by way of train lamps salvaged from England, while napkins are bound with what resemble train tickets. If there were porters instead of waiters bustling about the warehouse interior, which occupies the ground level of the posh Millennium Tower, you could easily imagine yourself at Gare de Lyon in Paris. Indeed, the French train station turns out to be Parr's source of inspiration for RN74, which he co-owns with celebrity chef Michael Mina and a local venture capitalist.

The piece de resistance, what looks like a train schedule, sounds like a gimmick but inevitably stops conversation whenever the big board is animated. Instead of displaying the times of arriving and departing wheels, however, RN74's clackety "schedule" announces the availability of the last bottle of a select label from the restaurant's 2,000 or so selections, often at a bargain. This list is a worldly one that makes room for reds from the Loire Valley and Rieslings from Slovenia.

RN74's chef comes with sterling credentials and more than a casual interest in grapes. Jason Berthold, 30, previously cooked for Thomas Keller at both the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York City. Since 2006, Berthold has also made his own wine, relying on single vineyards for fruit, under the Courier label.

The result of all that experience is food that is pretty to look at but doesn't shout to be heard. On my visit, I encountered grilled peaches -- the essence of summer -- in a memorable salad combining roasted beets, almonds, watercress and Dijon mustard, the real deal from Burgundy. Berthold also makes pork belly taste like something new by pairing the common cut with Manila clams in a Portuguese-inspired stew that picks up some heat from a broth that's both rich (with butter) and bold (with smoked paprika). Of the bar snacks, the one that stands out is vegetarian. Local maitake mushrooms dredged in a light tempura batter and fried to a lacy crisp get a nice kick from yuzu salt made in-house. Gilding the lily: a verdant mousseline created from yuzu-flavored mayonnaise, scallions and whipping cream.

RN74, 301 Mission St., San Francisco; 415-543-7474; Entrees, $25-$29.

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