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.