Dining with Saint Francis

about San Francisco, CA, USA

Vir Sanghvi has described in his column in yesterday's HT supplement his dining experiences in San Francisco, which got me to thinking. I know San Francisco quite well, having spent generous amounts of time there cycling up hills and running down reviews in the SF Chronicle. Indeed, this blog started four years ago in San Francisco, while I was wondering what to eat and no one had any good advice for me. I''ve just realised, however, that the two reviews written, "Salsa Time" and "Afternoon and tea" are my only two posts in so many years about that city. That put me to wondering...

What are my favourite places to eat in San Francisco?
Mr Sanghvi had a very different set of choices (some did not even exist when I was there), but below are my Fav Five, rated mostly on the wow factor of the food. This is not intended as a comprehensive list, just a personal list of favourite places to have a meal.

#1

Number one is easy - its the place I head to every time I'm in San Francisco. Hard to find and widely reviewed is an unusual combination, but Saigon Sandwich Shop's tiny storefront in the oddly-named Tenderloin district fits the bill. Something transcendentally soul-satisfying about biting into their roast pork and pate combination bahn-mi (or any of the others, really) makes it zoom straight on to the top of the list. Why it beat San Francisco's best culinary wizardry is difficult to explain but basically I use my infallible "island test" of greatness; if I were allowed to take along only one meal made in San Francisco to a deserted island, it would be a Saigon Sandwich Banh Mi. You could say the Beatles beat Mozart here.

#2

Having already chosen fast food over gourmet I debated briefly if value-for-money should be considered in selecting number two, finally deciding that sheer merit triumphs merit-cum-means. The finest overall meal I've had in San Francisco (and one of the best anywhere) is at the bar at Gary Danko. Fancy food with waiters dressed better than you are isn't the same, soul-satisfaction as Saigon Sandwich but one of the few high-dining meals that I actually remember for the food and not the lighting. Nothing is simple or unfussy - this is the temple of culinary complexity. High technique, complicated ingredients and wonderful execution all ends up worth the huge tab. Not what you would want to eat every day, but this is definitely on the memorial meals list.

#3

The merit-cum-means candidate that got edged out by Gary Danko is Delfina. Still moderately expensive and nearly as hard to get a table in but unlike Gary Danko, Delfina is all about unfussy cooking with wonderful ingredients. Every visit yielded a winner - the best simply-grilled fish I ever had (Copper River Salmon), wonderful salad (a simple bib lettuce), incredible ravioli (wild nettle) ... you get the idea. Unlike Gary Danko, I wouldn't mind going there every day.

#4

If rankings were measured by the length of the lines outside, Swan Oyster Depot would win hands down (they ply the queue with free wine to make the interminable wait bearable). Swan isn't really even a restaurant; actually a shop selling fresh seafood wholesale while a thin strip of customers gobble seafood along the side counter. Outstandingly fresh oysters and seafood (some outrageously good smoked salmon too - this from someone weaned on Jewish delis in the big apple) makes this my fourth pick. It is also the city's best place to taste its famous crab in basic fleshy sweet simplicity - huge lumps of the stuff piled onto lettuce is my preferred option. Open store hours only (8am-5:30pm), so be warned.

#5

This is the toughest one. I find here that I have trouble deciding on a fifth, because many interesting ones vie for attention. A crowded French bakery for breakfast (La Boulange on Polk), a desi restaurant that reminds me of the best Mumbai kabab joints (Shalimar), a sophisticated place where I had great lunches (Town Hall), wonderful ravioli at a tiny place in the Mission (Il Cantuccio), uplifting yuppie Vietnamese near the ferry (The Slanted Door), simple American and salads beside a nice used bookshop (Chow), great nuevo-latin small plates (Destino), satisfying neighbourhood Italian (Acquerello or Nob Hill Cafe) or a cute-as-button tea room (Lovejoy's) - all are in consideration for #5 and I can't pick a favourite. Plus, I also have run out of adjectives so, the few others that might have made the list have to be undescribed - Tartine, Zuni Cafe, Boulevard and Ti Couz among others.

Ok so I cheated and put not five but eighteen names. Go enjoy...


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