Thursday, 21 February 2013

Food Over....California - Part II

This is the second part of our Californian foodie journal, from a different perspective this time. Owen did a great job of covering the more typically American food in the last post, so in this one I'm going to cover some more cosmopolitan restaurants, including Mexican (lots of tacos!), Japanese, Chinese... and Modern Californian, which to me is basically Mediterranean-style cooking done with the excellent local produce available in the region.

Fresh MXN Food (@freshmxnfood)
Fresh MXN Food on Urbanspoon

In London, unfortunately we just don't get good tacos. It's just a fact (I liked Bodega Negra's, but at £7-8, it runs pretty steep!), and it's a great shame because I'm a huge fan of Mexican food. For that reason I went a bit taco crazy in San Diego. Due to its proximity to the border and incredibly strong Mexican influence, I'd heard a lot about the tacos here, and fish tacos in particular.

MXN was actually recommended to us by our hotel receptionist on the day we arrived. So it would be fair to say we stumbled across it by chance, but we were very hopeful after hearing that the staff at the hotel went there pretty much every day for tacos.

We ordered two types of tacos here, the Fish Tacos and Carne Asada, and washed it down with some horchata (the Californian version is quite sweet with a load of cinnamon... an acquired taste I suppose you could say).

Fish Tacos (with natural sunlight in our pics for once!)
The fish tacos were superb. Featuring grilled unnamed white fish (hey, it's fast food... at least it's unlikely to be horse), salsa, lettuce, mayo and two soft tortillas (good idea!), it was just amazingly comforting and a great start to our Californian trip.

Carne Asada
The Carne Asada, featured grilled steak meat, with salsa, doubled up tortillas and guacamole. This one was not as good as the fish tacos admittedly, but still nice, fast, cheap, street food. If I went again (for a third time!) I would probably try out their Carne Asada fries. Now that sounds like something worth having a go at!

Lucha Libre Gourmet Tacos (@luchalibretaco)
Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop on Urbanspoon

Tacos again! I know, I know... maybe we did overdo it slightly on this one. But hey, when in San Diego, right? So this was one that appeared on Man vs Food some time ago (yes, him again) because of its quirky lucha libre (that's those famous masked Mexican wrestlers) theme, which I have to say was really fun, especially with the special ''Champions'' table where you get to wear a gold belt and wear a wrestling mask. Yeah, I was a little jealous at that one... :-P

Fish Tacos
Again, I ordered that most famous of San Diego dishes, the fish taco. Similar in format to the MXN one, except heaped with melting cheese (Giulia, our favourite resident Italian, for one was aghast at this). In this instance, I'd say I have to agree. That's not to say I'm against the fish and cheese concept completely. Niki Signit makes a good case for the combination in her brilliant ''Flavour Thesaurus'' book. Anyways, the tasty grilled mahi mahi was completely dominated by the melted cheese. It was not quite up to the cheaper, and less frilly version at MXN, which is a shame.

Carne Asada
The Carne Asada, again was good, combined with guacamole, salsa, coriander (sorry, I just can't say cilantro, I just can't!) and onions. I can't say it was out of this world though. I think that pretty much sums up my experience of Lucha Libre, I really enjoyed the theme and all but when it came down it to it the food didn't really match up to the vibe of the place.

So on we went up the coast to the great city of San Francisco. So whereas we were attracted to the more Mexican-themed options available down South, we thought we'd give some more Asian themed options up in the North.

Sanraku (
Sanraku on Urbanspoon

To start with we checked out Sanraku, a Japanese place in the heart of the downtown Union Square area (amusingly called Nob Hill actually, but I digress...). I've heard that San Francisco is very famous for good seafood, so I figured what better way to enjoy it than raw, right?

California Roll
First thing I had to try was the California Roll. I don't really care what sushi purists say, I've had some fantastic sashimi and nigiri at all sorts of kaiten-zushi restaurants in Tokyo, but there's still a place in my heart for the Californian interpretation of the sushi roll. The version you find in San Francisco is quite something, and really quite different from what we get in London. The rice was much more tender here for one, yet still firm enough for chopsticks to handle. On top of this, the crab was minced really nicely so that the entire dish had a real comfort food factor that's missing somewhat back home.

Soft Shell Crab
California has some great quality crab (see more on that later), and this was no exception. Served with chili on top to cut through the batter, it was as deliciously tender as the name implied.

The sashimi was a selection containing salmon (already eaten above!), tuna and yellowtail tuna. Yellowtail (hamachi) is somewhat ubiquitous in these parts of the world. Which is really cool since it's my favourite sushi fish! Really good sashimi.

Teriyaki Chicken
So we went for two varieties on that old Japanese staple dish: the Teriyaki. First up, the chicken. I thought the chicken was the superior of the two. I think I preferred this permutation as I find the flavours a bit too rich at times with red meat. What was really cool here was that the meat was properly charcoal grilled, rather than stir fried. This dish is so much better when it's been maillard-ed up!

Teriyaki Steak
The steak was very good too. Especially the fact that they gave us a proper rib-eye steak (none of this ''skirt/frying steak'' stuff), charcoal grilled to medium-rare. Just the way we like it! It was really nice, like a proper Japanese steak dinner as opposed to tough, fatty, sinewy off-cut meat, which doesn't really suit the dish at all.

Creme Caramel with Green Tea Ice Cream and Berries
We just couldn't choose between the two main dessert options, so...we just took both! The first was the crème caramel, really nice. Of course, slightly sweeter than what we might be used to back home but that's accounting for the difference in palate I suppose.

Green Tea Ice Cream with Mochi and Red Bean Paste
The green tea dessert was the real star for us. I can never resist the combination of green tea ice cream, mochi and azuki, the red bean used in abundance in Japanese pastries. This was really a delectable combination of the three stars of Japanese dessert, and a perfect end to a very impressive (and reasonably priced to boot) Japanese meal.

Mission Chinese Food (@Missionstfood)
Mission Chinese Food on Urbanspoon

San Francisco is famous for having the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, so we decided to keep with the Asian food theme. The only thing is that one of the most acclaimed Chinese restaurants in San Francisco isn't actually *in* Chinatown. It's in the Mission district. So we made the journey over post-wine tasting in Sonoma Valley (well worth the trip, even if you don't enjoy wine).

The restaurant itself has an interesting story behind it. It's part of the Mission Street Food project, a sort of philanthropic food movement, consisting of a food truck, burger stand and the eponymous Chinese restaurant. They donate 75 cents per entrée to feeding the homeless. All of which is really awesome of course, but we were on a mission to check out what San Francisco had to offer in terms of Chinese food.

I should mention that it's almost possible to miss the restaurant completely. It's quite unassuming, with the original old school Chinese takeaway shop-front and steel bars running down the windows. It's also in an area which you wouldn't normally associate with trendy dining. However, looks can be deceiving, and the queue of well-heeled foodies queueing up outside underlines that truly great food cannot be defined by its surroundings. A lot of love in the kitchen goes a long way.

Mapo Tofu
We ordered four entrées between the four of us diners. Above is the mapo tofu. It's the stuff of dreams, this. I really mean that, as I was dreaming about it at night afterwards. For me the balances between the umami richness and the sharp, but not burning spiciness was extraordinarily well judged (I should mention that we asked to tone down the chillis in this one). The freshly torn coriander just rounded it off beautifully.

Tiger Salad
This was not one of the most exciting dishes I have to say. It did look quite cool though. I'll be honest, I mainly wanted it just to have some greens with all the meat dishes....

Smoked Beef Brisket Noodle Soup
I do love beef brisket. It's my favourite of dishes out of this whole Smokehouse/BBQ craze that's been going on in London. Here, it's a perfect combination with ramen noodles. The broth was also amazingly rich, with a dash of cardamom rising above the umami creating a wonderfully fragrant, comforting noodle soup.

Salt Cod Fried Rice
Another favourite of mine, I must admit salt cod with fried rice sounded like an unusual idea at first, but again this was absolutely delicious. The salt cod was flaked up inside the dish, which was covered with (again) copious amounts of coriander and spring onions. Brilliant.

The other dish we ordered, not pictured here, was Beef Cheek A L'Orange, probably the most outlandish sounding of the dishes we ordered. It was also brilliant, as with all the other main courses. The idea of taking a sweet tasting, slow cooked piece of red meat with a texture not too dissimilar from duck and combining it with the famous ''a l'orange'' sauce of French cooking was inspired and a big hit from everyone at our table.

Needless to say, everyone was satisfied
This is not Michelin dining, it's just authentic flavours combined in very original ways combined with a very laid back vibe. This was certainly some of the best Chinese food I've tasted outside of Asia. I had nothing but praise for the place. The only disconcerting thing was the presence of iron bars on the windows next to our table.

Having said that, a restaurant which attracts higher income clientèle and donates money to homeless charities is probably not the worst idea for the local community. A lot that we can learn from in London surely. On top of everything, as with most restaurants in San Francisco you can pay a corkage fee (about $10 here) to bring your own bottle of wine. Handy when you've just been schmoozing around wine country, I assure you!

You can check out any time you like, but you can never, ever leave
State Bird Provisions (@statebirdsf)
State Bird Provisions on Urbanspoon

This was a slightly tricky one to get a table at. Despite turning up at 6 pm (restaurant opens at 5.30 pm), we were told that the next available table for walk-ins would be 8.30 pm. As this place has quite a strong reputation amongst foodies, we thought that we would try waiting it out (there is a standing-only table as well, which frees up sooner).

State Bird Provisions' unique selling point is that they serve modern Californian cuisine, in tapas portions on trolleys akin to the authentic way of serving dim sum in Hong Kong. There is an a la carte menu, but we thought we'd chance it with mostly trolley dishes, with a couple of a la carte dishes as well. This seems like the usual way to go here.

Duck Liver Mousse with Almond Bread
So the first dish that came up was duck liver mousse with almond bread. I've been reliably informed that foie gras is banned in California, so I assume this is a more ethical take on the dish. The texture was luscious, and the taste was deliciously rich, but not quite as fatty or gamey as foie gras or foie gras de canard typically is. The almond bread, almost madeleine-like, but with a slight brioche taste was a great combination.

Trout Roe with Egg Salad
Next up was the trout roe with egg salad. I never knew that Trout roe was consumed, let alone combined with egg salad. The dish was good, but I wouldn't really be able to spot the difference between trout roe and let's say salmon roe, so I'm not sure why it was used in particular here.

Garlic Bread with Mozzarella Burrata
Burrata has become quite in-trend again in recent years, perhaps helped by Giorgio Locatelli stellar endorsement in his Made in Italy cookbook. I'm not sure where they obtain their mozzarella from (given their heavy focus on local sourcing), but it was rich, creamy and slightly musky in taste, just like good mozzarella should be. The garlic bread was also very good, slightly oily but gloriously puffy and airy, giving some lightness to contrast with the rich, dense mozzarella.

Hen Dumpling with Mushroom Broth
This dish was their most obviously Asian influenced, combining the classic earthy flavours of chicken and mushroom, along with spring onions and an almost dashi-like light broth. The chicken was encased in a dumpling similar to that of the shanghai dumpling or gyoza, where the casing becomes slightly caramelised post-pan frying.

Mendocino Sea Urchin Pancake with Ginger/Scallion Pancake and Soy-Lime Glaze
This was one of the highlights of the evening for me. I love sea urchin, as I've said in a previous post, and the combination with savoury pancakes was somewhat of a revelation for me. I loved the little hints of Asian influences, using the classic base of sesame, ginger and scallion (spring onion) as well as a soy-lime glaze, which gave the dish a sweet, salty and acidic lift all in one. It was a wonderful combination of flavours, and something I would love to try to cook one day (if I can ever get hold of sea urchin in London).

Oysters with Sesame
The Oysters in the Northern Californian and particularly the Pacific Northwest coast are really brilliant, and cheap to boot. Here, an oyster was served with a light almost tempura-like batter with sesame. It's a flavour combination I'd never come across before, but it was good.

State Bird with Provisions
''State Bird? I really hope it's not condor,'' we heard one punter remark when reading the menu. Thankfully the state bird of California is actually quail (who would've thought?), and appropriately forms up the signature dish of the restaurant. Crisp and deep fried in lovely, coarse batter, its rich taste was complemented by the sweet-sharp onions cooked with lemon and rosemary. Again, all familiar flavour combinations but brought together in a really unique way.

Sweetbread Meatball with Quince
Sweetbread is one of those love it or hate it dishes, on account of its very, very rich, fatty flavour.  I do love a bit of sweetbread in moderation (the portion size is appropriately small here, although it did still feel very filling). Thankfully, the quince brings an acidity and sweetness to cut through the fattiness, which probably goes some way to satisfying the sweetbread sceptics.

Buttery Dungeness Crab
Our other favourite dish of the night. Bang in the middle of season, we couldn't resist trying some of the West Coast's most famous species of crab. Served in a fragrant broth, and sitting on top of creamy farro spezzato (a very underrated type of grain), it was superb. It was refreshingly modern, yet still comforting and satisfying. Maybe best enjoyed in season, but this is what it's all about isn't it?

Chocolate Mochi Rice Pudding with Maple Syrup and Banana
Lastly we decided to round off our great meal with some dessert. Again, going for chocolate mochi (see Sunraku above), this time turned cleverly into a sort of rice pudding in chocolate sauce, with chocolate crumbs. It was served with bananas drenched in maple syrup. It tasted great, but I have to admit we were very, very full by this point!

Busy kitchen
I should mention that the service was spot on at this place too. Stuart Brioza, the owner kept coming by to talk to us and discuss the dishes without the slightest hint of pretension at all. The hands on touch is great and was very much appreciated. The only thing is that when that trolley came round full of another dish, it felt almost bad saying no to the head chef directly, but I think the look of absolute glee at the dishes we did try must be so satisfying from the other side.

The only thing I would say is that even though the portions are smaller than normal USA and even Californian standards, I would say they were a tad big for us. This was only a problem because there were so many incredible dishes coming round on the trolley, I would have liked to try even more! I suppose this restaurant does benefit enormously from economies of scale when enjoyed with friends.

Another fine night of dining
Overall, we had some of the most inventive, well-executed dishes I've had anywhere at State Bird Provisions, and the beauty of it is that on a future visit we would probably get some completely new dishes. Which must remain quite a remarkable challenge for any chef. Luckily, this place seems to be on a fine run of form. Definitely recommend visiting this one if in San Francisco.

ZUNI Cafe (
ZUNI Café on Urbanspoon

We decided to spend the last afternoon of our trip having lunch at what is somewhat of a brunch institution in San Francisco. ZUNI Cafe, the haunt of many a local celeb, is headed up by chef Judy Rodgers, who is a bit of a local celebrity herself and one of the pioneers of modern Californian cuisine. I thought it was only fitting to finish this post with something more ''traditionally'' Californian.

I decided to start off with oysters, as San Francisco is famous for them. I enjoyed the oysters a lot at State Bird, but felt that the taste of them was somewhat suppressed by the sesame and batter. I ordered Kusshi oysters (pictured on the left), one of my absolute favourite types from British Columbia in Canada and Point Reyes Kumamoto (on the right), which is a more local breed. The oysters were great, especially the Kusshi again, with its slightly saltier, Iodine-rich taste which I do love.

Polenta with Parmesan
The polenta was a bit of a misstep unfortunately. We felt it was more suited as a side dish rather than as a main course. It was a bit plain, which is a shame because you can really do a lot with polenta. I wouldn't particularly recommend this dish, unless you have it as a (rather large) appetiser perhaps.

Zuni Cafe Burger
The Zuni Burger was better. It was definitely a very original take on the burger, heaped with cinnamon and cloves to give an almost Indian-like taste to the dish. In fact, I was remembering Bhangra Burger back in London which has similar spice pairings. The meat here was really good though. They mince the grass-fed beef on site and it really comes through. The accompanied pickles were also really tasty, reminding me of a finely shredded version of the kind you get in Lebanese restaurants rather than your typical gherkin. All this was housed inside a rosemary focaccia, which is an original idea but I felt it was slightly oily to use as a burger bun as the burger and cheese themselves already contain a fair amount of fat. I suppose it fits the general ambience of the cafe though, with its sophisticated, modern interior and smart-looking clientele.

Overall, we really enjoyed our trip to California and all the food involved. We certainly felt that the food was lighter (and easier to finish!) from a European perspective compared to some other regions in the USA we have visited. I think the only thing we found difficult was that generally the service is a bit more laid back and easy going than we're used to in, say, London. I guess that's just the way of life here, and who can blame them when you have beautiful beaches, weather and most importantly food to enjoy?

- Shahz

Photos by Nathalie.

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