19 April 2007

Lunch at Il Fornaio, Carmel, CA

After our wonderful, carefree, and relaxing long weekend in San Francisco (see following posts) in early March, we rented a car and drove down the coast to Carmel. I was attending a conference there, and we wanted to have lunch on our own before joining the group.

My wife and I have stayed in Carmel before … actually many years ago. So when we pulled into town, we had a general idea of where we were, but no specific idea about where we would eat. We did have a couple of specific goals, however.

First, we wanted to eat outside. When we left Minnesota, we had just experienced the biggest snow storm of the season. And the weather we had in San Francisco was marvelously, luxuriantly, fabulously warm and beautiful. It was even more so in Carmel. So we definitely wanted to eat outside.

Second, we wanted to see the ocean.

So we found a parking place on the street and started to walk down toward the beach, all the while checking out menus and appearances of the cafés we passed. As we neared the end of the block, we walked into a little courtyard to check the menu of an Italian restaurant. As we looked at the menu posted outside, a very pleasant woman walked by, then turned to us and asked if we needed any help.

We commented that we didn’t really know our way around and we wanted to find a nice place for lunch where we could see the ocean. She very helpfully mentioned a few places further down the coast. They sounded intriguing, but we didn’t really want to get in the car again and start driving. So we decided to stay where we were. We thanked her for her help. As she turned to go into the restaurant, she turned and said, “Oh, by the way, I’m the mayor of Carmel.”

So we followed her example and went inside after her. We requested a table on a narrow deck where we could catch glimpses of the ocean through the trees. The sun shone brightly. Two different servers came and offered us tables inside because they were afraid it would be too hot for us. But we basked in the sunshine, knowing it would be many weeks before we’d have weather like this in Minnesota (even in Edina).

We ordered a couple glasses of wine. I had a barbera; my wife had a pinot grigio. As we sipped our wine and looked over the menu, I began to feel that there was something oddly familiar about the place. Suddenly it struck me. Il Fornaio! We had eaten in an Il Foraio in January in Beverly Hills.

I ordered a risotto with beef and mushrooms. It was bold and flavorful. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I make risotto at home. I tend to go for savory combinations of vegetables, cheese, and fresh herbs. When I eat risotto out, it often is with fish or seafood. So this was a very unique dish for me. I enjoyed it immensely.

My wife had the daily fish special of branzino. It was tenderly sauted and served with a light wine sauce and red grapes. It was accompanied by a beautiful medley of vegetables and white beans. While we loved all of the fish and seafood we ate in San Francisco, it might have been the best fish we had the whole trip.

11 April 2007

Breakfast at Al’s in Dinkytown

We interrupt this discussion of California restaurants to bring you this late-breaking post on Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown. I’ve mentioned Al’s in several of my past posts. My son has worked there. In my next post, I make major comparisons between Snow’s Oyster Depot in San Francisco with Al’s. This morning, I met my brother at Al’s. And I realized, I’ve never actually written a post on Al’s.

Al’s is a long, narrow space, literally built in an alley between two buildings. There are 14 stools at a counter for diners. Waiters (that its, hungry people who are waiting for a stool) squeeze in behind the diners until the space is full, and then the line will snake out the door. Cooks/servers/wiseacres work behind the counter, taking your order, preparing your breakfast, serving your food, providing on-going sardonic comments, observations, and occasionally abuse.

I walked into Al’s at about 7:15 this morning and received cheerful greetings from people behind the counter who recognized me as the father of one of their co-workers. There was a single stool open, and I let the next person who came in take it since my brother hadn’t arrived yet. Fortunately, just as he walked up, a couple at the other end of the counter left, and we got their spots.

Some people get annoyed at the fact that there are only 14 stools, that you have to stand and wait for a spot, that while you’re waiting you’re squeezed between the backs of the diners and the wall, and that while you’re eating, someone may very well be standing right behind you waiting for a spot. It also might happen that halfway through your breakfast, you’ll be asked to shift to an empty stool next to you so that a group of two or three can sit together. It’s all just part of the shtick at Al’s.

We placed our orders. Mike picked an omelet and hash browns. I picked corned beef hash with poached eggs. We both had coffee. I had a glass of grapefruit juice. I introduced him to a few of the people behind the counter who I knew. We chatted about his recent trip with his family and our parents. I brought him up to speed on plans for up-coming weddings of both my kids.

Doug, one of the co-owners, walked by. I introduced him to Mike. Then I said to Doug, “I’m glad you’re not on the griddle today. Last time I ate here, you didn’t cook my hash browns crisp enough.” Doug good-naturedly (out of character) replied, “We took an aptitude test, and I failed, so I’m not allowed to make hash browns anymore.” You see, the rule is at Al’s, you might be the target of a sarcastic comment, but you have the right to launch an attack yourself.

Mike’s omelet came. He started eating. I continued sipping my coffee. Finally Mike asked, “Where’s your breakfast.” I said, casually but loud enough for them to hear, “I guess since I’m related to one of the help, they figure they don’t have to worry about when I’m served.” Without missing a beat, Doug turned around and said, “It’s taking longer because we wanted to make sure your hash is crisp enough.”

My meal came, and I started eating. The hash was done very nicely – a good balance of potato, onion, and corned beef, crisp on the edges, hot, very tasty. The poached eggs were just the way I like them with the yolk flowing smoothly over the hash when I broke them, but not runny. Mike’s omelet looked great, and his hash browns looked like they were nice and crisp as well.

“Doug,” I said. “Can you do me a favor?” “No, I won’t do a lap dance,” he said. All I wanted was for him to take a picture. He snapped one with M.R. (another worker) looking on. “No,” she said. “You need to get more of the counter in the background.” She took the camera and snapped another shot. Then she and Mike and I spent several minutes talking about what kind of digital camera she should buy.

As we finished up, I noticed that there were about 4-6 people waiting for a spot. “I’m sorry it’s taking us so long,” I called out. “The service this morning is real slow.” I paid for breakfast and we got up to go.

Al’s is a restaurant, sure. But it’s also part improvisational theater with the audience sometimes participating in the performance, sometimes involuntarily. If that annoys you, I have a suggestion – don’t eat at Al’s. We’ve got several good places where you can sit and read your paper and eat your food and be left alone. Try Keys. If you go to Al’s you’ve got to be patient, you’ve got to be open to talking to your neighbors or the people standing behind you, and above all, you’ve got to maintain a sense of humor.

Al’s is an acquired taste. But I’ve acquired the taste, and it’s not just because my son has worked there. Even when he moves on, I’ll still be coming back.

10 April 2007

Lunch at Swan’s Oyster Depot, San Francisco

We left Minnesota early on a Friday morning in March following the heaviest snow storm of the season. I had worked from home on Thursday in order to avoid driving in the mess. I cleared the driveway four times, getting up at 6 a.m. on Friday to clear it one last time before the taxi arrived.

The nice think about taking an early flight to California is that you gain time flying west. So we arrived in the City late morning. We had plenty of time to get settled in our hotel and head off for lunch.

As I explain in one of my later posts, for this trip to San Francisco, my wife and I had picked out a few restaurants that we definitely wanted to check out. (In contrast to our usual practice of just wandering about and eating at whatever place strikes us as interesting.) So we had a couple of places in mind for lunch when we arrived. Swan’s Oyster Depot was the one we picked.

I’m not really sure what we read that signaled to us that this was a place we shouldn’t miss. It was located about a mile from our hotel – a nice way to stretch our legs after being cooped up in an airplane all morning. When we arrived, we both had the same reaction. This is just like Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown!

There’s something about joints like the Swan and Al’s that stimulates intense loyalty by people. There’s nothing fancy or pretentious about them, just good plain food prepared well. At Al’s, it’s eggs, hash browns, pancakes, and waffles. At the Swan, it’s oysters, seafood cocktails, chowder, and salad.

When we arrived at Swan’s, there was a line of people waiting that extended out the door and down the block for 10-15 feet. That’s common at Al’s, and was no problem for us. We were on vacation and had nothing better to do than enjoy the California sunshine (quite a contrast to the cold, ice, and snow we’d just left) and chat with others in line.

Inside, just like Al’s, diners sit on stools in front of a long counter. There’s good-natured banter between the diners and the servers who are behind the counter. (At Al’s sometimes the banter gets a little acerbic.) But everyone’s there for the same reason – to experience good food carefully prepared.

We split a seafood cocktail consisting of squid, octopus, shrimp, and crab. It was marinated in a light dressing of oil and lemon juice. Then we each had a bowl of clam chowder and several slices of delicious San Francisco sourdough bread. The only negative – the butter was not Land O’Lakes. I kind of wished that I’d ordered some oysters. I do like them, and Swan’s reputation is for absolutely the freshest and best. But I decided to forego them. I had an iced tea. My wife had water. That was it. Simple, tasty, a fun experience to start our visit.

We left Swan’s satisfied and ready to explore our favorite city in America.

09 April 2007

Lunch & dinner on Fisherman’s Wharf – Fisherman’s Grotto and McCormick & Kuleto’s

My wife and I have been going to Fisherman’s Wharf for nearly 33 years. We spent our honeymoon in San Francisco and enjoyed a romantic dinner at one of the Wharf restaurants with a view of the fishing boats docked a few feet away. When we lived in San Francisco for a year, the Wharf is where we went for special occasions. On our many return trips to the City, we always make our way down to the Wharf for some shopping, for the view, for the funky mix of people, and always, for the food.

When you read reviews of Wharf restaurants on-line, you’ll find quite a range of opinions. Some people, like us, love it, as much for the memories of past visits and maybe in spite of some of the present realities. Others will rant about a bad experience or dismiss it with a curt comment like “you can find better food elsewhere.”

I actually don’t disagree with that observation. Many of the swank, classy, celebrity chef restaurants in San Francisco will astound you with their creative food and delightful presentation. And you can be disappointed on the Wharf. But if you want fresh fish, nicely prepared, and you’re willing to pay a small premium for the view, I still recommend it.

On our trip in March, we had two meals on the Wharf. We started with lunch at Fisherman’s Grotto No. 9. This is the modest, romantic setting of one of our honeymoon meals. We don’t always eat here when we come to San Francisco, but it is a place we come back to regularly.

On this visit, my wife had a crab Louie salad. It was a simple pile of lettuce mounded with iced crab meat. Her preference is always to have the salad dressing on the side so that she can control how much is on the salad. In this case, that was a wise choice. If all of the dressing had been poured over the salad, it would have totally overwhelmed the crab and the greens. Following my own advice, I had the fresh catch of the day, broiled, served with small potatoes and steamed vegetables.

The history of Fisherman’s Grotto traces back to an Italian fisherman’s family. Our waiter was Italian all right, but he sounded like he was from New Jersey, not California. And our maitre d’ was Asian. No matter. We got what we came for – nostalgia and good seafood.

For dinner, we went to Ghirardelli Square, to McCormick & Kuleto’s. So I admit it, this is part of the McCormick & Schmick chain. And I know that means that it's basically the same as the McCormick you could eat at in Minneapolis.

But we really had a good meal. The restaurant overlooks San Francisco Bay. The view is outstanding. We had very good service. The fish was very tasty and prepared wonderfully. We were there on a Sunday night. It wasn't too busy, and we chatted up the server and the house manager. He gave us the recipe for the fish that my wife ordered. We promised to send him the recipe for the guacamole that was served in Senior Pico's a Mexican restaurant that occupied the same space 30 years ago when we lived there.

My wife had salmon stuffed with crab and shrimp. As I noted above, she liked it so much that she asked for the recipe. (I don’t know if we’ll ever make it.) On the menu, my fish was called ‘bluenose.’ It was prepared with sauted peppers, tomatoes, and celery. Turns out, bluenose is the same as wahoo or ono. I had ono at the wharf restaurant we ate at in Los Angeles in January.

I have a theory about Fisherman’s Wharf. When we first went there on our honeymoon, it was a fun, eclectic blend of people – tourists to be sure, but locals, artists, street artists, musicians, the whole gamut. Then, for a while, it got out of balance and the tourist crowd dominated. When that happened, a lot of the stores started carrying cheap junk and I think many people quit coming to the Wharf during those years. Lately, what I’ve observed is that the real touristy stuff has moved a few blocks away to Pier 39. And the old, original Wharf is gradually making its way back. I think the restaurants are getting spiffed up a bit. After all, they’ve got to get people to walk a few blocks from Pier 39, so it has to be worthwhile.

We had a great day and two memorable meals. I call that a success.

08 April 2007

Dinner at Isa, San Francisco

Usually when we go on vacation, we find our restaurants just by wandering around. If we’re out shopping or sightseeing or just roaming and we see a place that looks interesting, we’ll see if the menu is posted. If that looks promising, we’ll make a note and stop back later for a meal.

But on our last two trips to California, we modified our strategy a bit. For our trip to L.A., we made an advance reservation at A|O|C. And for our trip to San Francisco, we actually made two reservations before we left home. On the day we arrived, we had a late reservation at Piperade. But after a long day of travel and hiking San Francisco’s hills and a little bit of jet lag, we canceled it and went to Café Claude. We could get in a little earlier, we’ve eaten there a couple times before, and they have a jazz combo that performs most evenings.

The other reservation we made from home was on Saturday night at Isa. It’s located in the Marina District, a part of the City where we’ve never spent much time, so chances are we never would have just stumbled upon it. Despite having a reservation, the place was packed when we arrived, and we waited more than a half hour for our table.

The dining room is … shall we say “cozy?” There isn’t much of a waiting area, and you can’t even have a drink at the bar because all of the bar stools were being used by diners. Inevitably, we struck up a conversation with an elderly couple who were waiting like we were. They were staying with friends who lived in the area. They said they’d eaten at Isa before and never had to wait. So maybe our experience was unusual.

When we finally were seated, there was a pretty boisterous group at the next table over. So it wasn’t exactly a quiet meal. Our server was friendly, but he had a little bit of a smug “I live in San Francisco” attitude. (I’m sure I’d have an attitude, too, if I lived in the City.) He explained to us the way they serve dinner at Isa.

1. Isa does NOT serve small plates. Our server emphasized it, and the menu repeats it. But all items are meant to be shared. “We simply like eating this way,” the menu explains.

2. You pick the items that sound good to you, and the kitchen decides what order to prepare them and bring them to you.

Since we had researched the restaurant before we arrived, we knew that was the schtick. We asked a few questions, our server made a few suggestions, and then we ordered. Our server suggested four items. But we decided we only wanted three.

We started with baked goat cheese topped with pesto, tomato, extra virgin olive oil & pine nuts. It was very tasty, and it was about the right size for the two of us.

The next two items were brought out at the same time. One was an order of scallops with black truffle jus and potato purée. The other was potato wrapped sea bass with brown butter, capers, lemon and parsley. Both were very creative and very tasty. My wife liked the scallops the best.

But I really liked the sea bass. The preparation was very unique. Thin slices of potato were overlapped to form sort of a large sheet. The sea bass was placed on the sheet, and it was wrapped over the fish. Then the whole thing was sauted and served with the brown butter sauce, capers, lemon and parsley. After our meal, we watched it being prepared in the open kitchen. It really was fascinating.

The evening wasn’t perfect. Having to wait when you have a reservation always is annoying. I wish it had been a little less noisy in the dining room. And the California attitude could have been toned down a bit. But the food was very creative and delicious. We found that three items were just about right for the two of us; we didn’t get too full and it wasn’t too expensive. But I think Isa might be better to go with a group of four or six. Then I think you’d get to sample more items without having to order too much per person.

07 April 2007

Serrano Hotel, San Francisco

When I started Krik’s Picks, I said it would be mostly about food – restaurants, recipes, general food info. Lately, all I’ve written about is restaurants, and I’ve got a bunch of ideas about other posts that I’d like to write. This post is in conjunction with reviews of several restaurants that my wife and I went to in San Francisco. During our trip in early March, we stayed at the Serrano Hotel. We had such a fantastic experience, that I felt compelled to include it in my blog.

The Serrano is part of a small chain of ‘boutique hotels’ called the Kimpton Hotels. I’ve stayed at a couple of them in Washington, DC. When we started planning our trip to San Francisco, I checked the rates at the Kimpton Hotels there. I was pleasantly surprised to see that several fit into our budget. We were tempted by the Sir Francis Drake. We’d previously been to the Starlight Room at the top of the hotel for dancing and cocktails. We’d also eaten at Scala’s Bistro on another visit a couple of years ago. So the Sir Francis Drake had familiarity going for it.

(Brief side notes: One night during our stay we went up to the Starlight Room, and we were very disappointed. Rather than a jazz combo with dancing, it was a loud rock band, and they were charging an outrageous minimum to get in. On the other hand, if we had stayed at the Sir Francis Drake, and if we had gotten a room that overlooked Powell Street, we would have had a wonderful view of the Chinese New Year parade that took place while we were in SF.)

But the Serrano looked interesting on the web site. It was in the same general vicinity (the theater district, only three blocks to Union Square), so we decided to give it a try. Absolutely no regrets.

We loved the staff at the Serrano. From the moment we walked in the door, they were upbeat, friendly, and very accommodating. At the registration desk, the clerk informed us that the theme of the Serrano is ‘fun and games.’ After receiving our room keys, we were presented with a basket of novelty items and invited to pick one each.

“If nothing else, you’re already done with your souvenir shopping,” we were told. I picked an Alcatraz shot glass. My wife picked a large fuzzy dice.

The fun continued upon entering our room. In the closet hung guest bathrobes – one zebra stripe, the other leopard spots. In the armoire, combination entertainment center and dresser, besides the TV and honor bar, there were a deck of playing cards and an Etch-A-Sketch.

As we were unpacking, there was a knock at the door. It was housekeeping, delivering to us a box of truffles and a chilled bottle of organic ale.

The Serrano was ideally located for us as inveterate walkers. We walked everywhere in San Francisco, up hills and down. But no matter where we walked, we were never far from our friendly ‘home’ in the City.

Every afternoon for an hour, the Serrano holds a complimentary reception with wine, beer, and salty snacks. Back to the ‘fun and games’ theme – the lobby is full of fun, old board games like we used to play as kids, and like we played with our kids. So each night, we grabbed a glass of wine, introduced ourselves to different people, and played a game. One night it was Yahtzee. The other two nights it was Sorry.

Everyone who we met at the Serrano had the same delighted reaction that we did. And we met such an interesting array of people. Probably our favorite were a young Irish couple. We actually have stayed in touch with them by e-mail. Twice we played Sorry with another young couple from Miami. They were so excited about the hotel that they decided that they would make a point of staying in a different Kimpton Hotel once a month until they’d stayed at them all!

Who knows what those youngsters (not much older than our own kids) thought of two old grandparents playing kid’s games and drinking wine in a faux Spanish hotel lobby. But we didn’t care. We’re young at heart, and the Serrano brought out our playful spirits. It’s a hotel we’ll always remember.

Two DC Fish Restaurants: D’Acqua & Trattoria Etrusco

My travel to Washington, DC, is picking up again. I went there three times in March, and on two of the trips, I ate in fish restaurants. They both happened to be Italian restaurants.

The first was D’Acqua. The restaurant is relatively new. It’s located in the space where a restaurant called Signatures was previously. Signatures was renowned because it was founded by Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist.

I did eat at Signatures once. It wasn’t my choice. One of our associations had a group dinner there. This was before the Abramoff scandal had really taken off. After Abramoff, DeLay, and that whole sordid crew went down, the restaurant failed. Seems that nobody wanted to be seen eating there, even after Abramoff was out of the picture. Funny town, DC.

Walking into D’Acqua was a surprising contrast to Signatures. Instead of cool and modern, it’s all warmed up with wood and soft lighting. I was greeted by a hostess who obviously was more comfortable speaking Italian than English. I took a seat at the bar to wait for my guest. I asked the bartender for a sidecar cocktail. She got all flustered and admitted that she didn’t know how to make one. She said she made a great Manhattan, so I said, “OK.” She wasn’t kidding.

By the time I got my drink, my guest had arrived. He ordered a margarita, and we were seated.

The shtick at D’Acqua is that if you want, you can personally select your fish or seafood from an iced display. Then it’s either grilled, oven roasted, or salt-crusted. Tom Sietsma’s review in the Washington Post, March 11, 2007, recommends this as the best way to go. I might try that someday. But for my first visit, I wanted to order a specialty off the menu.

(Note: Don't ask me why the waiter held the camera at an angle when he took our photo. But I liked how it turned out, so I'm using it.)

My guest started with a frittura mista – seafood fritters. They were nicely done in a light batter. I went with a salad of fennel, endive, radicchio, celery, and pecorino cheese. I thought my salad was very good. The flavors blended nicely, and the pecorino was top quality.

For entrées, I ordered cartoccio di pesce – whole dorado fish cooked in parchment and served with mussels and clams. My guest ordered monkfish. Both meals were outstanding.

It probably would be fun to do the ‘seafood market’ someday. But I liked my meal, and I’ll definitely be revisiting D’Acqua in the future.

Trattoria Etrusco is a different experience all together. It’s located near Dupont Circle, away from the hustle (double meaning) and bustle on Pennsylvania Ave. Which is not to say that Dupont Circle is a quiet little neighborhood; it has its own style of hustle. It’s just that it’s away from the horde of lobbyists and executives dining on expense accounts.

My usual trip to DC involves leaving on a very early flight, arriving before noon, and often making a lunch meeting. This time, I needed to be there for a breakfast meeting the next day. So I arrived in late afternoon, got checked in to my hotel, did a little work, and then started looking for a place to eat. The listing I found for Etrusco was on www.Frommers.com. It sounded appealing. It was about 5 blocks from my hotel, so I walked over.

I got there a little early, probably about 7 p.m. There really weren’t very many people at all in the restaurant. The interior is laid out like a piazza café, the outdoor feel created by arched skylights, brick walls, and potted plants. Since I was dining alone, I’d brought along some reading and I asked to be seated near a light so that I could see. That moved me to a table at the other end of the room away from the handful of other diners.

I’d had lunch on the plane so I wasn’t overly hungry. I decided to skip the starter and just order an entrée. All three of the fish dishes on the menu that night looked great. The waiter described each of them. There were two kinds of rockfish. I decided on one described as ‘alla ghiotta’ – with currants, olives, capers, celery, and tomato. I thought it was excellent.

By the way, the bread was served with olive oil. As is my practice, I asked for some butter. The waiter accommodated my request with a plate with pieces of butter in various, irregular shapes. It appeared to me that they only use butter for cooking at Etrusco, and that’s what they brought me.

Like D’Acqua, Etrusco also stays on my list of restaurants to try again. This is one that I’ll bring my wife to for a quiet, romantic dinner, rather than the expense account restaurants on Capitol Hill or downtown Washington.