Features 15 July 2019

Brief encounter: San Francisco

San Francisco, that most European of American cities, is dense with restaurants reflecting the extraordinary cultural diversity of its inhabitants

Words by Andy Hayler

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San Francisco, blessed with Californian weather, lovely natural scenery and fascinating and varied districts to explore, is my favourite American city. It’s the setting for Armistead Maupin’s charming and highly successful Tales of the City, and countless other books, films and plays, from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. You can’t turn a corner without recognising a famous landmark. I particularly like the walk along North Beach from Crissy Field to Fort Point, or if I have more time I head over the Golden Gate bridge to the tranquil sequoia forest of the Muir Woods National Monument, the first such monument in the United States.

With its liberal culture and distinct local neighbourhoods, San Francisco has perhaps the most European feel of any US city. Its food scene is wonderfully varied; you can explore everything from lengthy tasting menus at high-priced multi-starred restaurants to casual dining of almost every nationality imaginable, reflecting the truly diverse nature of the city’s residents.

Atelier Crenn
Geoduck sea urchin and citrus (Atelier Crenn)

The restaurant scene here is vibrant. San Francisco has more restaurants per square mile than any city in the USA; 37 of them have Michelin stars, four have three stars. The latest of these, promoted in the 2019 guide, is Atelier Crenn. This is run by French-born chef Dominique Crenn and is located in the rather obscure Cow Hollow district. Ms Crenn is a charismatic character; her daily menu is a poem written by her, with each line representing a course. The dishes – for example the lightly marinated horse mackerel with tempura turnip and coconut and coriander snow – are similarly esoteric. The menu is heavily skewed towards vegetables and seafood, reflecting the chef’s upbringing in Normandy. Ms Crenn is one of just four female chefs currently heading three-star restaurants globally, and her modern and creative food very much reflects the feeling of city she has made her home.

Pizza tossing at Cotogna
Santa Barbara spot prawn, pear butter, seaweeds, yogurt, whey and ginger (Atelier Crenn)

If you fancy something less ambitious than a Michelin-starred tasting menu then you can consider Cotogna, the casual sister restaurant of the much grander Quince nearby. There are piles of logs dotted around the dining room for the large wood-fired oven, from which appear terrific focaccia bread as well as high-quality Neapolitan-style pizzas. The kitchen shows plenty of skill in making pasta too: tagliatelle with a rich, intense duck ragu, and gnocchi with excellent texture. Perhaps finish with a bomboloni with limancello sauce. The dishes here are executed to a much higher level that you are likely to find in your neighbourhood Italian restaurant, and represent very good value.

The bar at The Slanted Door

The Mission District of San Francisco is a lively area in the east of the city with Victorian mansions and – like the rest of the city – a very diverse population, a high percentage of which is Hispanic. As well as plenty of authentic taquerias, you can find some excellent Asian food. A long-established culinary landmark is The Slanted Door, which started on Mission’s Valencia Street in 1995 before moving north-east to the Ferry Building. This serves mostly Vietnamese food such as crispy spring rolls and stir-fried bok choy with mushrooms, along with some fusion dishes like seared tuna with chillies and rocket. It is a sprawling place, seating over two hundred customers, and as a bonus you have a lovely view of the harbour. After your meal can stroll around the Ferry Building, perhaps treating yourself to an excellent cup of coffee at the Blue Bottle Coffee shop.

 

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