We constantly seek and find comfort in people, places, spaces, memories and so on, consciously or subconsciously. San Francisco is one such connection for me. It’s a city I’ve come to truly love and appreciate for it’s free spiritedness that is infused all around in varying degrees. Over the last two years, I’ve been splitting my time between Bangalore and SF – due to the nature of R’s work at the moment – and it’s been such a lovely opportunity to get to know another city intimately. We’ve stayed in at least four neighbourhoods and I’ve explored the city happily on foot and by local trains. There’s something so endearingly childlike about SF, as if the artist within is unafraid to play. Doesn’t that sound like the freedom we yearn for ? Maybe that’s why the resonance.
The whole maybe greater than the sum of it’s parts, but when exploring a place, that couldn’t be further away from the truth. It’s the little lanes and hidden nooks, forgotten graffitis, hidden notes inside aging books that quietly tell the real stories. And so, there’s a magical little locally owned bookstore by name of Dog Eared books located in the heart of Mission which does exactly that. I spent hours buried in a mountain of carefully curated books, while admiring the charming touches of quirkiness and quaintness evident throughout the place, much like the city itself.
There’s a precious collection of Antiquarian books and I found a gorgeous copy of an 1870 edition of HW Longfellow poems for a friend. The telling sign of goodness at any bookshop is usually tucked away in the less conventional sections. There’s an aisle dedicated for the Noir genre alone. And there’s lots of SF Noir to be found there. Goes without saying, but there are a couple of carefully curated out aisles – among the first few in fact – dedicated to LGBT and sexuality, replete with some antiquarian selections even !
Just how does time pass like that in a bookshop ? Or maybe it doesn’t and just is. There’s a book trilogy that goes by the title ‘Forgotten cemetery of books’ by author Carlos Ruiz Zafon that comes to my mind as we speak. All the plots lead to labyrinths of ancient libraries, book mazes et al. I wouldn’t mind finding myself in a similar plot. My hardworking imaginative head does wander to see if quaint bookshops have hidden labyrinths stowed away mysteriously. And then, just like that, I know that I need to get myself a coffee, wake up and finish my errands :) But I hold on to the wanderings and always will. In an era where books are no more than a pieces of digital files, bookshops like these are treasure troves that infuse the romance back into real bookshelves. I can’t wait to go back to Dog Eared and get lost again. Surface, get a coffee, and scour for other haunts.
Between bookshops and other daily adventures, eating is not just a simple daily need but one that is sacrosanct. I love my Indian food, but once the traveler shoes are on, I’m craving just about everything else. That’s not too much, is it ? Oysters are usually up on the everythingelse list, and this time around, and on my 31st birthday, we made it to Swan Oyster Depot, after having given up on half-a-mile-long waiting lines, last two times.
I might add that while I was a happy camper at Swan, somehow the mystery of the super long lines remains unresolved. After having done some reasonable Oyster tasting over the years, I thought this wasn’t exactly above all else though it was really good, particularly the Kumamotos. The seafood chowder was apparently divine, the partner said. And I noted steaming bowls being supped on by almost every other diner. So perhaps therein lies the Swan secret ? And, the family that runs surely add to the charm and warmth. Sometimes, that really does make it all worth it. no ?
After having dined and lunched and brunched fairly well in the city, a little hole in the wall tucked away in Cole valley called Zazie got my heart. What’s not to fall in love with a place where warm wooden tables are filled with freshest of local abundance ? Zazie is tiny in size but glorious in the warmth it exudes in the food, staff, the loud cacophony of conversations and most of all, simplicity. This is where the several-star rated places fail. In keeping the food simple (read uncomplicated), the surroundings unpretentious.
zazie, warmth and...
I love the French inspired Californian fare at Zazie. They have beautiful brunches with the best blueberry pancakes and the poached eggs cannot be more perfect. Their secret pancake flour is also available for sale in small batches.
And sometimes, usually on Sunday mornings a bacon craving sets in like a strong current and one such day, the we followed the current to a cute little bacon ONLY cafe called BaconBacon in Ashbury. Not only are you met with the mouthwatering aromas of the cafe’s namesake commodity but also a crazy impatience to harass the staff to dish out one of the ‘bouquets’ which essentially mean a tasting bacon bunch. Yum. I’m never going to be able to forget the pepper crusted strip of bacony goodness. Needless to say, every.single.thing on the menu and otherwise is bacon or derivative thereof. I didn’t blink an eyelid when grabbing the much coveted jar of the signature bacon jam (so good!) or for that matter even the bacon flavoured toothpaste for my bacon worshipping brother-in-law.
Did I mention we also cook a lot more when in SF ? it just somehow happens more organically. I suppose when in India, there’s so much more work related stuff that as much as I want to cook, I give in to the lame excuse of being tired or just get lazy. There’s also one other thing, however. The local farmers markets. These are big on inspiration and the smallest one is good enough to incite even a noncook to have a go. I wish we had more farmers markets here in homeland. We do have those, but I mean in a more organized, accessible-to-all kinda local produce amalgams. R & I go on farmers market overdrive when in SF. This is where our staple shopping happens and we get totally greedy on greens, sourdoughs, cheeses, fruit, eggs and honey. After the initial greed is dealt with, we get more greedy on lapping up beer and some delish and no frills truck food. Given that we are more than normal eaters, we try hard to earn the ticket to sin by way of good long runs, by the piers, or R’s favourite running track by the Marina. One of the things I miss most about the US when in India, is being able to run outdoors.
We were living in the Marina district last time around and so, very close to the historic Fort Mason port which has beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Alcatraz. Fort Mason, aside from being a former US army post (for over 100 years) and a historic landmark, is also a cultural/convention center. Lots of art festivals, artist meets, markets happen here, and there was a really nice Women Crafter’s Festival which I could go to, last time around and also the super fun Bark and Whine ball – fundraiser organized by San francisco SPCA for homeless dogs, the very best of it’s kind and educational in it’s own right, given that dogs are among the greatest loves of my life.
Many a weekday nights when work (my work tends to follow me everywhere i go) would precedence over experimenting in the kitchen for my favourite lab rat, R., we’d head over to Roam to grab a beautiful artisan burger and then make a quick dash to our favouritest bar in the city – the Alembic on Haight street.
Nothing I say here will do justify our obsession of this little gem of a spot. I’m sure the boys here know how to get the old fashioned right the way nobody else can. So I rest my case. :) oh, and those blistered Shishito peppers touched with a dash of EVOO and coarse sea salt. What can I say. Somewhat like Alembic, ambience wise, but just as spunky and stylishly rustic is Trick Dog tucked away deep in Mission. We didn’t quite haunt it as much as the former, but loved the vibe and the super creative cocktails. How does Olive Oil Martini sound for a start ? It really was exquisite. On a separate note, there’s such a charm to tucked away, rustic-industrial spaces and there a many of these to be found SF. Maybe it’s a style I’m drawn to but it surely but it’s good to see that our design sensibilities are moving away from the over crowded, embellished victorian madness to the contemporary rustic with an old world charm still intact. Like the Bluxome street winery below. A beautiful, sprawling winery that makes incredibly good Pinot Noirs among others – all on site. We kind of stumbled on this place, but I have no doubt we’ll be going back!
Another restaurant which charms exactly as I have just described above is Piccino in the Dog Patch neighbourhood. So chic, small, warm and wonderful.The Burrata or the Buffalo mozzarella salad maybe my favourite ever salad given that I am not really into salads. Give me a smoothie any day! Anyhow, this just maybe the very best Burrata salad on the west coast, or so I have heard from fellow SF foodies. I love that the drinks at Piccino are served in lovely little mason jars and would also blame these beauties for enticing an already drunk girl into more sin. The artisan ravioli tossed in some beautiful truffle oil still has my heart.
There is one place however, where we choose to abstain from alcohol. That place is called Lavash in the Outer Sunset district. Persian and unbelievably well made food. We’d fool ourselves about going to Lavash on the pretext of “eating healthy” (apparently by sticking with just the kebabs) but obviously that cannot be. As I’ve suggested, the beef kebabs might kill you. They are that good. As are the signature stews and the most exquisite pistachio-rosewater icecream like a big juicy cherry on top. Again, coming from someone not so crazy about icecream – that P&S icy creaminess is a trip to heaven and back. Over time, we’ve figured out that Lavash will be a place to aim for only when we’ve earned the opp to binge shamelessly.
lavash (top left)
Alongside Lavash, our other favourite Asian food (read binge) place is Betelnut on Union street in Cow Hollow. Classic with a gentle twist. Perfect and sweet. If a restaurant can get their Roti canai right then I’ll give them full marks. But only if they are well equipped with happy, friendly bartenders as Betelnut does. Happy bartenders always make me happy. And they are a strangely comforting sight, no doubt.
As you see, I can and will go on if not for time constraints at the moment. In this SF essay thus far, I have tried hard to condense as much as I could and as they say, less is more. Despite all the subtractions, it looks like I’ve ended up with a 1700 plus word post so I’m far from the less is more idea :) But I had to share my love of this city, spill it out and share away before it overflows and slips into the bad box of unspoken love. I trust those of you visting will find mostly good suggestions here in this post, and here. If you have suggestions for me, please chime in as I have an upcoming trip to my favourite city.
a glorious morning at fort mason and my favourite kinda day at a favourite kinda place - dog beach at crissy field
I will be back with a third installment of my SF food etc chronicles in a few months. This time perhaps I will touch a bit more on the non edibles as well. :)