First, about Golden Gate Perk. Ok I'm partial to this place because I helped paint the toilet here (as in, I gave useless advise to the people who were actually doing the painting), but I've been coming here long before that. Basically, it has great tea, and great value in tea. This is no teabag destination - here you get real leaf, teapot, hot water, the whole deal. Each pot makes two cups, but if you're shameless enough you can ask for hot water to make another round for free. And, there's table service if you're nice to the people behind the counter. You get herb and special teas too, including a rather nice ginger tea topped (Korean style, I'm told) with pine nuts. They even have coffee, but I've never really gotten that far.
In addition to Golden Gate Perk, San Francisco has its share of character tea houses. I found another favorite hidden away a gruelling bicycle-ride away from downtown - in Noe Valley. The gruelling part was my fault - I chose the steepest way to get there - but Lovejoy's Antiques and Tea Room turned out to be a very British tea room filled with antique sofas, antique china and of course, tea service. Sure, its all pink-cuddly and very babyshower, but it's got an attitude all its own (I mean, where else do they have doilies any more). It's also full of adorable women who mother you whilw you select one of the great tea choices (but only the regular English kinds - no jasmine or white tea there). The tea service comes with in a three-tiered tray with tiny tea sandwiches, incredible scones, clotted cream and jam, plus all the calm lethargy that should surround a true afternoon tea service. I believe they've shifted locations of late, become larger and now host more baby showers than ever before, but I hope they're still as - ok lets say it - cute.
And then, there's Samovar - russian teapot meets california hippie - quite different from the decidedly retro Lovejoy's. The whacky furniture promises fun, while the walls promise a long list of exotic teas from all over combined with interesting food choices - definitely the place to bring that interesting date when I do finally manage one. It's also somewhere that people just lounge around for hours on some very quirky seating, not all of which is as comfortable as it looks. It's full of people reading, so grabbing one of those places isn't always the easiest thing in the world but there's snough exotic tea and teafood choices to keep one entertained for some time. It even makes a respectable masala chai (though Dolores Park Cafe a few blocks down does a better job of that).
And so I went after work one day, bright and early in the evening since I had no reservations. I need not have worried; I was the first person in and had the pick of tables, waiters and newspaper. I'd resolved to stick to the simple and within budget but when the menu card came filled with drooling descriptions, temptation took over. I ordered the whole deal, a seven-course degustation thingy. Then I sat down with the day's news and waited.
A progression of very interestingly plated dishes followed. Pied-a-Terre is very modern; chocolate walls, thick square glass slabs as serving plates and small rectangular china topped with exotic dishes. But of course, the real test - the food (Michelin stars incidentally, are given only for food, not the ambience). Some interesting amuse-bouche landed up in the beginning, followed soon by the food. The first three courses - a pumpkin soup, a scallop ceviche and a foie gras in a sweet wine reduction - were absolutely stunning; some of the best food I've had anywhere. Yes, pumpkin soup was quite memorable - somehow a world of flavors had been persuaded into the orange mash. The ceviche was a startlingly lively green and seafood concoction, while the regulation foie gras came in floating in an out-of-the-world sauternes reduction. The remaining four courses (this was a degustation menu, remember) were just as beautifully presented and very good, but none reached quite the heights of ecstasy of the first three. The next thing worth swooning over were the petit-fours with the coffee. Still, 60% of a meal being heavenly is not to be sneezed at. The final bill was a bit of a lump even for someone steeled to degustation menus - GBP90 without wine; we're talking $150 for dinner here (without a drop of wine to soften the blow) so I strongly recommend an expense account.
Bottom line - I'll be back once I've filled the hole where my pocket used to be.
I also tried some poorer cousins - two restaurants with just one tiny Michelin star each. The first was a middle-eastern restaurant called Noura in Belgravia that had the most amazing shawarma (and I do really mean amazing). The stuff is miles better than your average streetside thing, tender, melting, complex spices and all that kind of thing. Shawarma, in my experience, is usually closer to backyard barbecue than gourmet - often satisfying but usually not transporting. This one was at least a leave-the-ground if not actual transport. There were a lot of mezzes there that looked like it had the potential to amaze. Desserts (many kinds of baklava, what else) were competent, but unexciting. I'm in some confusion, though, about which Noura got the Michelin star (there are four in Paris and one in Lebanon).
Another single starrer was Greenhouse - all cool modern elegance with touches of wood and green. The degustation-with-wine lunch, presented with great style and a GBP60 bill was very nice (maybe even very very nice), defnitely the sort you remember with a great deal of satisfaction but, well, no ecstasy.
So here's my take on Michelin stars (or at least the four under my belly button). One star - it's going to be very good food but you may not remember it a month later. Two stars -you'll remember both the food and the bill that came with it. Three stars - haven't got that far yet.
Incidentally nothing in the USA has a Michelin star; not because food is bad here but because Michelin does not review American cities yet (they're planning their first New York office, I hear). They did give Nobu's London version a mere single star, but I haven't been there.
It is, like so many things American, a chain - leading to the usual touches of 'traditional' decor, slicked up homecooking look (down to handwritten menus), and all the staples on offer. The working fireplaces (there are two) and the outdoor seating was nice, though. The food (I had a fish burrito) was not bad. Character is too much expect in a fast food chain, but this was definitely tasty stuff; a nice tomato and chipotle sauce that had all kinds of smells and tastes leaping out of a slightly leathery burrito. Not quite the standard (or genuine local attitude) of La Taqueria in the Mission District, but satisfying enough if you want to avoid a bad meal.
Of course, not to say the every chain is boring. Chipotle Grill, for instance, is as fastfoodchain as they come - it's even owned by McDonalds. However, there's something distinctly infectious about their burritos, enough even to brave the lines and occasional fast food jibe - but how excited can you be about food that's pretty much at every doorstep. La Taqueria is quite a different animal, though; it sells very specific food to a fussy local population, and whoever hates their food can shove it elsewhere. That makes for character, but it also means there will never be a branch in Hong Kong. Taco Bell is Mexican only in the sense that Smirnoff is Russian; La Taqueria on the other hand, is a single malt scotch.
So what makes La Taqueria good? Don't bother too much with either location (bang in the middle of Mission's discount shopping) or decor (nice white stucco on the outside, but school cafeteria and long lines on the inside). Unpretentious is something that definitely comes to mind. They don't even hang reviews telling everyone how great people think they are. The tacos and burritos are cheap ($3+), don't come with much by way of frills. No rice, beans, cheese, guacamole or fifty seven other toppings - just meat meets tortilla in a very satisfying fashion. And we're talking serious meat here; once you chuck the rice out there's space there enough to make a pastrami sandwich jealous. Also, for a change, tortillas that don't stretch.The most popular choices are carnita or carne asada, but the tongue was great too.
Stand in a long line, eat at a crowded communal table, and burp loudly with satisfaction at the end of it all.
The magic hour of dinner looms. I sit in all nicely tead up (early grey, if you must know) at my favorite cybercafe searching for where to eat. This cybercafe has some claim to a food blog too; Golden Gate Perk sits hidden in a corner of Bush and Kearny, serving free wireless and some great great tea.
I think I'll go mexican. This is california, after all...