I made a quick trip to San Francisco last week to check out a couple of food-centric destinations that I’ve been reading about. After years of experience making day trips to the city, I’ve learned not to try to overdo it—just picking a couple of places I must visit, then adding a few spots to my list in case I have time.
I haven’t spent much time in the Western Addition neighborhood, but wanted to check out The Mill, a bakery on Divisidero Street. Parking was surprisingly easy in this area in the middle of the city between Japantown and the Haight. The Mill is a bright and airy coffee house featuring Four Barrel Coffee and Josey Baker Bread. The pistachio croissant was a little heavy on the pistachio mix, but tasty none the less with a nice little hit of sweet blackberry jam. Next time I’ll try to get there earlier for a better selection of pastries. However, the real draw of The Mill is the bread. Many of the flours for the house-baked breads are milled on site (hence the name). My favorite was the Cornmeal Rosemary. The crust was pleasantly chewy with a hint of caramel/char. Inside the loaf, the crumb was stretchy, chewy and pocketed with uneven holes in just the right way. The flavor was nutty with a hint of rosemary and tartness from the sourdough culture. The Black Pepper Parmesan loaf was also delicious. I enjoyed it the next morning lightly toasted with a smear of mashed avocado and smoked flaked sea salt (more on that later). Dark Mountain Rye, in a traditional loaf shape, was dense and hearty and perfect for a ham and cheese sandwich. They even offered a gluten-free loaf called Adventure Bread made with seeds and nuts and held together with psyllium husks.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a new Bi Rite Market just down the street. I learned that it opened at around the same time as The Mill–about two years ago. Like the Mission District branch, this market does urban grocery right. There’s a great selection of local produce, house-made prepared foods and charcuterie (I got some delicious lamb merquez sausage), carefully selected wine and beer, coffee and a multitude of distinctive local products like bread, baked goods, chocolates, salsas and jams.
At the crest of a hill in the neighborhood just a block from The Mill sits the large, green, dog-friendly Alamo Square Park. Bordered by iconic Victorian row houses, the park offers great panoramic views of the city–from the top of one of the Golden Gate Bridge’s towers to the downtown skyline. The beautiful weather made the park the perfect place to break bread (literally) and enjoy some cheeses and house-made duck pate from Bi Rite Market
Spice Ace, a source for hundreds of spices, herbs, salts, spice blends, chilies, flavored sugars and extracts is just a few blocks away on a quiet, residential street. This place is amazing! Tester jars of everything on offer are available for smelling and tasting. You could spend hours exploring this neatly organized shop. However, your nose and palate get exhausted after a while. Some highlights from the shop include a huge selection of curry blends from all over Asia as well as the recently trendy Vadouvan blend used by French cooks. The selection of salt varieties and blends was mind-boggling. I couldn’t leave the shop without the Halen Mon smoked flake sea salt from the UK. It’s lightly smoked and delicately flakey with a slight sweetness—delicious on avocado, fried eggs or a just about anything.
With my top spots checked off the list, I had time to tackle the “if there’s time” list so I dashed across the Bay Bridge toward Berkeley for stops at two old standbys: The Spanish Table and Berkeley Bowl West. After that and knowing that I wasn’t going to beat rush hour traffic anyway, I decided to treat myself to some ice cream at the Oakland branch of Smitten Ice Cream. Smitten features made-to-order ice cream using a kitchen mixer-like setup with an injection of liquid nitrogen. In addition to creative, delicious flavors featuring local ingredients, it’s entertaining to watch your ice cream being made in just a couple of minutes while a haunted house’s worth of fog rises from the mixer bowl. Freezing the ice cream at such a low temperature (-321° F.) in such a short period of time makes an incredibly smooth and dense final product. I had the seasonal flavor of the month—Blood Orange with Pistachio Cookies. It was light in flavor with a tart kick from the blood oranges and little crispy texture from the cookies. An excellent way to end a great day—fortified to face the traffic.
One of the great things about living in Monterey is its proximity to the San Francisco bay area and all of the culinary exploration opportunities that it offers. I decided to take a day trip to SF with my friend Blair yesterday to revisit some old food-favorites and embark on some new culinary adventures.
I always love the drive up Highway One past those vast fields of artichokes with the morning sun reflecting off the dunes on the ocean side of the road. Though there’s always the risk of a traffic back up, I like going up to the city through Santa Cruz and up over Highway 17. It’s definitely a prettier drive than the straight shot up 101. The traffic demons did not disappoint as we encountered snarls in at least three spots which delayed the culinary indulgence that was about to ensue. Fortunately, traffic karma was kind to us when we finally reached the Mission district by providing a just big enough parking space a couple of blocks from our first destination, Tartine Bakery.
I can’t say enough good things about this extraordinary bakery. The out-the-door-and-into-the-street line was efficiently moved up to the cash register by a patient and friendly staff. Blair and I shared our pork and cheese-centric breakfast treats at one of the tables out on the street. For her it was a ham, Gruyère and olive savory bread slice, and for me, the ham and cheese croissant. This croissant was absolute perfection—delicately crisp, flaky layers on the outside, giving way to a moist and tender interior. We also purchased a few treats for later consumption including a frangipane tart with huckleberries (delicious with coffee for breakfast this morning), one of their beautiful and tasty gougeres and a slice of lemon pound cake. We broke off a little piece of the pound cake before moving onto our next stop. It had this amazing dichotomy between density (it felt quite heavy in its waxed paper bag) and lightness. It felt like biting into a lemony cloud. Mouth-wateringly delicious! Everything in Tartine’s cases looked amazing, from the delicate little cookies on the top shelf to the banana cream tarts and meringue and coconut covered rectangular cakes on the bottom shelf.
We made a quick stop at Bi Rite Market on the way back to the car to pick up a loaf of Della Frattoria Rosemary & Meyer Lemon bread…amazing! I’ll need to get over to Bi Rite’s new location on Divisidero soon.
Our next destination was Berkeley Bowl West. But rather than take a straight shot over the Bay Bridge, I wanted to check out Onigilly, an onigiri place on Kearny. However, my trusty GPS seemed to have other plans. Okay, full disclosure, I may not have been giving our little dashboard companion my full attention since Blair and I were waxing rhapsodic about our Tartine experience. Happily, while trying to remember if the Tomtom said left or right in 200 yards, we drove past a newish looking izakaya place called Izakaya House in SOMA. No easy parking near Onigilly, as expected, but both of these spots are definitely on a future city trip list.
Aw, Berkeley Bowl West–where do I start? Well how about with the first thing I saw when I walked in the door–the amazing olive baguette from The Phoenix Pastificio. I always grab a loaf of this delicious, crusty bread with lots of juicy black olives in its chewy interior. This bread is just one of the large number of local products throughout the store from beverages to cheeses to baked goods and prepared foods to artisanal products like the Bowl’s cucumber kimchi that Blair picked up. It would be difficult to pick a “best thing” about Berkeley Bowl. My favorites include the massive selection of produce (divided into organic and conventional sections), the pre-packaged bulk items (I like the dried veggies, snack mixes and grains), and of course the amazing beer selection. Some of the items I picked up on this visit were:
- A selection of onigiri – I ate one of these delicious rice balls with a crispy tempura shrimp filling in the sunny parking lot to keep the blood sugar level at an even keel while Blair enjoyed her spicy tuna onigiri.
- Yosemite Gold mandarins – a later harvest tangerine that’s really juicy and has a nice sweet-tart balance that was delicious after the onigiri
- A bunch of Cincinnati radishes – They’re an heirloom variety that is long and tapered like a carrot. Crispy and mild. (photo below right)
- Buffalo milk butter – A rich, creamy butter with a rustic finish imported from Italy. The same company (Delitia) makes a product called Parmesan butter (also carried at BB), which I like a little better. It was, however, really good on that olive baguette with a sprinkle of coarse sea salt.
- Asian Snack Mix – I can’t leave BB without a bag of this salty, crunchy goodness from the bulk section.
- Organic Farro – Also from bulk and a bargain at $3.59/lb.
- January Barbecue Smoked Cider from Tilted Shed Ciderworks – Haven’t tried it yet, but it sure sounds interesting.
Next up was a quick trip over to The Spanish Table. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but always like perusing their great selection of cookbooks, salts and spices, wines, cheeses, grains and beans, cured meats, and canned and jarred goodies. Blair and I picked up a couple of cans of stuffed manzanilla olives. I’m also looking forward to trying the inexpensive bottle of red displayed at the counter.
We had a hankering for dim sum when we began our trip, and normally I would head for Yank Sing in the Financial District or over to one of the dim sum shops on Irving Street in the Sunset. However, we were already on the other side of the Bay, and I thought it might be nice to explore something new. Oakland Chinatown seemed intriguing and turned out to be a great find. Covering an area of a several blocks near downtown, it’s a district jam-packed with restaurants, dim sum and pastry stores, herb shops, and housewares stores filled with inexpensive dishes, kitchen tools and gadgets. Greens of every description along with boxes filled with bitter melon, daikon, mushrooms, mandarins and heaps of other fruits and veggies spilled out of produce markets and onto the sidewalks.
Of the multitude of dim sum pieces that we purchased for next-to-nothing , our favorites were the pork and taro dumplings from Tao Yuen Pastry on Franklin and the barbecued chicken skewers and shrimp rolls at First Cake on Webster. I also picked up some fresh noodles, marinated tofu, and preserved pork belly at Yuen Hop Noodle Company, also on Webster.
As rush hour and the promise of bumper-to-bumper traffic loomed, we decided to delay the trek home and headed over to nearby Lake Merritt to enjoyed some of our goodies on a sunny bench—washed down with a little brown paper bag sake!
We returned to Monterey with our shopping bags and stomachs pleasingly full.