In Paris you check out the new clothes. In London you seek the new plays. In San Francisco the game is chef-hunting: Where are the city's most celebrated chefs cooking at the moment?
Thus, on a quick trip through San Francisco, I felt constrained from returning to the tried-and-true. No Chez Panisse for me, nor Alain Rondelli. Not even time for the unforgettable whole roast chicken at Zuni Cafe. I was seeking news.
This season, news equals Farallon. Few restaurants have had a more active publicity machine than this new seafood restaurant ("Coastal cuisine," it's dubbed). But even without that, Farallon would have opened with a buzz. Its chef is Mark Franz, emerging from 10 years as the working chef at Jeremiah Tower's legendary Stars. He brought along the restaurant's award-winning pastry chef, Emily Luchetti, and snagged designer Pat Kuleto to create the underwater-theme dining room. Thus, while Farallon opened only last summer, by July it had already spawned instant raves from local critics. By fall, though, the buzz was beginning to turn to a hiss. "Can't we go somewhere else?" my friends whined when I called to invite them to lunch.
Farallon looks like a Union Square aquarium, with jellyfish lamps and sea urchin chandeliers, banquettes curved like rose plush clam shells and a staircase faced with giant beads of black caviar, 50,000 of them. I felt like Alice walking into an underwater wonderland, except that the music had a cha-cha beat.
I should have taken a cue from the fantasy mood and ordered just caviar and dessert. The caviar is cured in this very kitchen, and is presented as an assortment of coral-pink salmon roes in two sizes and a pinkish-white roe as fine as sand, accompanied by slices of buttery-textured house-cured sturgeon. They are arranged on a crisp and custardy buckwheat pancake, buried in creme frai^che and afloat in butter. All soft and oozy, it feels like grown-up nursery food, sparkling with salty and creamy flavor. To further the sense of childhood delights, Luchetti's pastries include a dreamy assortment of miniatures. Tiny tartlets, nougats, ice cream sandwiches, fruit jellies, madeleines, sandwiched cookies, phyllo triangles look like party fare for a Barbie doll. And each is among the most delicious bites you'll savor all year.
In between, though, Franz seems to be lost in a maze of mistakes: dry and chewy grilled prawns, scallop-salmon mousse as soft as air and no more flavorful, halibut that's spanking fresh but pan roasted until it's fit for use as a paving stone. There's something amiss when the best thing on your seafood entree are the lentils. And the signature "pyramid" of shellfish gelee looks as if it was designed by Kuleto, but tastes as if it were made of architectural materials -- salty, bitter, acrid. It would serve better as a lamp.
The Slanted Door was an antidote. A cavernous two-story warehouse-chic storefront in the Mission district (which my taxi driver warned me to avoid at night), the Slanted Door serves Vietnamese food fashioned from locally grown and often organic vegetables.
At lunch the dishes are traditional: noodle soups, imperial rolls, papaya salad, caramelized shrimp, curry duck and various stir-fries. They don't taste much different from Washington's Vietnamese standbys, but at Queen Bee and Nam Viet you don't see youths in tongue studs and triple lip rings swirling and sipping wine with their lemongrass tofu.
At dinner, tradition vies with invention. Among traditional dishes, soups are best, or maybe anything in a bowl. The hunks of chicken in the chicken noodle soup, for instance, taste as if the birds had been fed on star anise and cinnamon in preparation for their future as broth. Duck curry is creamy and gilded with a slick of coconut oil, its pepper building in the mouth. And the crisp-edged Vietnamese crepe is more golden and custardy than any I've encountered, even though its filling is as bland as usual.
The seafood here is nothing special at lunch, but with every disappointing bite my friends told me of another fabulous fish dish at dinner -- steamed sea bass with lily buds and shiitakes; filet of salmon with spinach, dill onions and tomatoes; fried whole pompano with ginger. You'd never know it from the routine stir-fried squid or caramelized shrimp (which are also on the dinner menu, though at much lower prices than the specialties). So just remember, soup or soupy curry for lunch, glamorous fish for dinner. And tropical, light nearly-sorbet ice creams of jackfruit, lychee or coconut to finish up either.
If you're ever to be stood up for dinner, make sure it's at Jardiniere. A table upstairs, overlooking the first-floor bar, is so entertaining you might even regret having company to distract you.
The bar scene, under the enormous domed ceiling, is a parade of romantic couples, some men, some women, a few even men with women. They're nuzzling, sharing dishes, feeding each other, celebrating life with great California wines, accompanied by live piano music. This new restaurant, named for its much-revered chef, Traci Des Jardins (formerly of Rubicon), is a stage set, a fashion show and a serious kitchen. As soon as I gave my taxi driver the address, he informed me it was the hot place.
The menu is short, and offers such exotica as Virginia wild striped bass (whereas I'd crossed the country to try Santa Barbara shrimp or petrale sole). For an Easterner, the fruits and vegetables are the magnets: roasted quince salad with the foie gras, Fuyu persimmons with the duck confit. The menu is surprisingly meaty for California, but you can't argue with a gamey rare stuffed squab browned in a veil of caul fat on a bed of long, thin baby carrots -- carefully peeled -- and sweet peas, with brussels sprouts and bacon. And that Virginia sea bass is as silky as a Southern accent, in a lobster broth with braised fennel and peeled, barely cooked tomatoes. Among the pates here, rabbit rillettes far outshines even foie gras. And nobody should skip the cheeses -- nor should anybody eat them with the silly, too-sweet raisin apricot bread that accompanies them.
Desserts are quietly refined. And the wine list is lovingly constructed and thoroughly studied by the staff. Dining alone? You'd be glad for the chance to polish off the entire half-bottle of Spain's Ardanza '89 reserve all by yourself.
Jardiniere is not yet a great restaurant, but it shows signs of heading in that direction. Of course, by then, we'll be off investigating that year's restaurant news.
Farallon (450 Post St., 415-956-6969); lunch entrees $11 to $17, dinner entrees $19 to $26. Open for lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner daily.
Jardiniere (300 Grove St., 415-861-5555); dinner entrees $19 to $25. Open daily for dinner only.
The Slanted Door (584 Valencia St., near 17th Street, 415-861-8032); lunch entrees $5.50 to $6.75, dinner entrees $9 to $16.50. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday.
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