Dining at One of the World’s Top Restaurants

For my holiday this year I went to prison.

Alcatraz is not a foodie destination but a grim, solitary contrast to the gourmet, friendly bohemia of San Francisco. Per capita this city has more Michelin star restaurants than grande dame New York. We ate at four winners including one often cited as the best in the country – and sometimes the best in the world.

Whatever the season the weather can have the wind of Wellington, the caprice of Auckland and the temperature of high summer in Antarctica. Beautifully curled around a bay, the position means icy gusts and the famous fog can swirl in and depart as quickly. Travel sites advise dressing in layers and bringing lined jackets. As Mark Twain reportedly once said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was one summer in San Francisco”.

Many top restaurants and events require booking two months in advance. Online we organised two 3 hour food tours through In the Kitchen with Lisa.  In the Taste the Mission Tour we were guided by the hospitable Mary who is Anthony Bourdain’s go-to when in the city. The Mission district is poor and over 70% Latino with most residents from Mexico, Peru and Guatemala. Since properties and rents are cheaper there is the interesting mix of a lot of greenie non-Latino food businesses. Some of these are collectives where each member has a vote and the emphasis is on business ethics as much as food standards. We walked from one business to another pretending to work off the calories, listened to each proprietor on their philosophy and history and enjoyed generous samples.

Mission Minis only makes miniature cupcakes. Their Cinnamon Horchata version (named after a popular milk drink) is sweet and fragrant from rice milk squeezed through cheesecloth. At a busy worker’s tacoria we enjoyed prepared-to-order tortillas zingy with fresh coriander and lime. Most diners intently watched soccer on the all Spanish station – naked customers could have entered and been ignored. The Juicebox Collective gave us plates of soft, moist cornbread just pulled from the oven, half covered with warm black beans and even hotter salsa.

The Zen of Elvis

Nearby Humphry Slocombe offered endless licks of their innovative ice-creams: Balsamic Caramel; Breakfast (Bourbon and cornflakes); and Peanut Butter Curry. It is psychologically suspicious and soon oddly dull when novelty is used as an attention getting technique. But this was gleeful mad science that worked due to well balanced combinations – though a Zen-like mental clearance of any established concepts is best done first. True again with something Elvis might have approved of: Dynamo Doughnuts’ maple glazed bacon version. 100 dozen are sold daily (and they offer Frequent Fryer loyalty cards). Made with quality ingredients, the dough is kneaded by hand and allowed to prove without high tech stimulants. The final sweet glaze was dotted with tiny, crisp, salty bacon pieces which aroused no political protest from the palate’s receptors.

The Gourmet Ghetto tour went through Berkeley with host Lisa Rogovin, formerly of Gourmet magazine. We started at Saul’s Delicatessen and heard how Jewish delis as a café-style had no history in Europe or the Middle East. They started in New York in the late 1800s as immigrants longed for the age-old foods of home and a shared meeting place. Saul’s keeps to tradition in the truest sense and refuses to stock the many additive laden modern versions of Jewish classics. They make soda (we tried a refreshing celery version) without corn syrup or preservatives for instance. Huge, moist, pastrami (from free range meat) on rye were offered which required unhinging your jaw to physically encompass.

Next at Alegio Chocolates we were paced through an analytical tasting of chocolate from an island near Madagascar. Starting with 100% cocoa (no sweeteners of any kind) we were instructed not to chew but to let it dissolve, and again with 80% and 75% varieties. The process was repeated with South American chocolate to observe the differences (the African dry heat gave grunt, compared to mellow from the humid Americas).

Also memorable was Café Gratitude which has numerous offshoots in other suburbs. The food is all vegetarian, mostly vegan and raw (purists allow heat up to 120° so a dehydrator can be used such as to produce their lengthily dried and convincing crackers made from soaked, ground nuts and seeds). I gave vegetarian cooking classes for almost thirty years and honour its dynamics. Too often this style gets interpreted as earnest crunchiness plus cheese. Nuances can be as rare as steak. Here each item was distinct, vivid with flavour and clearly the product of cooks in love with their domain. Tables are set with colourful game cards so patrons can discuss suggested questions such as, “What is great about your life? What did you learn most from your mother?” This may sound affected but was playfully integrated into their cultural context, and no more arbitrary than glasses on one side and bread plates on the other (especially for us lefties).

Ideas Can Free or Imprison

When the tour ended we were steps away from legendary Chez Panisse where we went for a late lunch. The food was quiet excellence as my main dish salad epitomised with garden greens, bacon and raw figs. If anyone could regularly cater my meals I might choose Chef Alice Waters. But we already get wholesome and delicious at home – I prefer enchantment when dining top tier. Waters is considered the originator of Californian (and thus Pacific) cuisine with its emphasis on fresh, local and organic. While she is lauded as queen of the scene there are mutterings about the crown and its unquestioning supporters. San Francisco is probably the liberal epicentre of America. But give any group of human beings enough power over time and they can become about as tolerant as the Medieval Church.

In the 1970s when Waters started Chez Panisse she was a hippie who rebelled against being obsequiously haute Parisian. She preferred the honesty and olive oil of the Provencal. Those days in the US – and among its culinary cousins – if every item wasn’t covered in cream and butter, it wasn’t fine fare.

As history cautions, over time ideas can progress from ridicule to reception to rigidity. Values can be wielded like weapons against those who stray from the Approved Path – just as previous standards were before being overthrown. Now chefs who dare to question the theme of simplicity (such as at the sometimes vilified, zany Humphry Slocombe), or who use produce from outside a 100 mile radius (defended by Locavore Border Patrol?) get attacked by outraged food column inches. If what we eat is what we are, then part of that is wisely orienting as global citizens. Communication, travel, trade and food help us digest and absorb other cultures. This fosters cellular connection and a sense of place that is differentiated, yet shared. Balance not absolutism brings harmony to the plate and the psyche.

Philosophising requires fuel and I was keen to try other Michelin star attractions. In 1900 Andre Michelin’s tyre company published a guide on where to eat, stay and journey for French travellers. The dining section was so popular it soon dominated. Anonymous inspectors – whose precise standards are still unknown – toured the nation and then the globe offering a one to three star ranking. Only 81 restaurants in the world have achieved the dream of a triple star.

Gary Danko has one star and a menu daunting with its variety of fascinating options. There is a tasting menu, or dinners are priced according to the number of courses, whatever your selection. We started with their vaunted glazed oysters (making large New Zealand ones resemble athletes on steroids) studded with black caviar, accompanied by zucchini pearls and all in a sea of pale green lettuce cream. It slipped down like a river of silk. Other courses showed groomed professionalism, structural nous, but few acts of magic. This is a banker-set rather than artist-set venue. Upon leaving ladies are given a small, beautifully wrapped blueberry cake. Another gracious touch was at Jardiniere – touted but no stars (getting spoilt, I know) – which is conveniently next to the Opera House and the Symphony Hall. When my husband ordered a starter and I did not, I was served a gorgeous two-bite moulded, marinated salad.

Michael Mina has had two Michelin stars until recently. The demotion is hard to reason: this was excitement on a plate. Auckland’s high performance The Grove is owned by Michael Dearth, who used to work here as a sommelier. Mina originated the trio concept. Whether you order duck, rabbit or seafood it will be presented in three styles on a rectangular plate of three divisions. Each style has accompaniments that are conceptually meticulous and vigorous, yet harmonise with all other players. This is high skill and high impact.

Bargains are Fun Too

Using a contrasting scale of cost reference, most bars and restaurants in San Francisco have generous Happy Hours with nibbles (portioned as if starvation, not obesity, was the national problem), cocktails and wine such as robust, regional Zinfandel at $3 each. Although the city is the originator of the martini, and the fortune cookie (invented by a local Japanese), margaritas and Cal-Mex dominate the late afternoons. With a nod to California’s high Latino population and the state’s early ownership by Spain, fries are dusted with chilli, paprika and dipped in aioli streaked with jalapenos and salsa. Crab cakes are served with deep fried lemon and sometimes shredded raw, sweet jicama: a Mexican tuberous root that resembles daikon radish in texture and taste. As it gets older and starchier it can be baked like potato.

Popular Fisherman’s Wharf is the equivalent of a suburban mall with a view. As an indicator of sophistication, this is the third most visited US tourist site after Disneyland and Disney World. It confirms that Americans can deep fry any object and the crab chowder remains good – though no more satisfying than my mother’s (Disclosure of Interest: my mother may read this).

A magician on an open air stage had some quips for his international audience, “Wherever you’re from, our governor (then Schwarzenegger) can beat up your governor”. Just before swallowing swords on fire he cautioned, “Pregnant and nursing mothers should not try this at home. And since we’re in San Francisco that also goes for pregnant and nursing fathers”. Shops offer T shirts captioned, “I got crabs at Fisherman’s Wharf”. Avoid, unless wanting an ironic tableau on dissolute consumerism.

While shopping at Macy’s and benevolently assisting national fiscal recovery, I went to their upmarket food court for lunch. Next to a sourdough bakery was an outlet owned by Wolfgang Puck. Once strictly high status and now mostly populist, Puck oversees every level and location of eating establishment (from theme parks to Vegas), sells cookware and possibly a line of grandmothers. At modest cost I had Caesar salad (mock), tortilla soup (punchy), and Italian sausage and sage wood fire pizza (sigh-worthy). In litigious America, Puck doesn’t just have a philosophy, he has it trademarked: “Eat, Love, Live Well”. Hard to disagree.

Excellence or Elitism?

Planning our trip online we read many daunting tales of how difficult it was to achieve my goal of dining at The French Laundry. Google has over 200,000 listings solely on how to make a reservation there. Prayer could dominate. Chef Thomas Keller is an international celebrity, also owning the equally touted Per Se in New York. Anthony Bourdain – not known for excessive niceness – worshipped at the Laundry table as captured in his macho TV food and travel show. This restaurant is the only one in the region with three Michelin stars and Keller the only American to have two Michelin three star restaurants. For many years it has placed highly – often among the top ten and twice reaching number one – in the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants (listed annually after polling the world’s top chefs and food critics).

Bookings are taken no sooner than two months in advance to not just the day but the hour and usually fill at once. I rose at an absurd pre-dawn; my husband used the suggested Open Table online service (dependable for other reservations); and we primed my credit card concierge facility. In all cases we were immediately informed, “Sorry. Full”. A few days before our hoped-for visit though we had the booking suddenly confirmed. Was this a ruse to enhance exclusivity and desirability? The restaurant is in the Napa wine growing valley almost two hours drive from the city. Forget public transport – we tried exhaustively. This is rural and it’s car country. By the time we arrived I despondently wondered if all the fuss would merely be a tribute to elitism. And accompanied with a moral lesson billed at $US 250 per person.

In a word: wow. The quiet setting, landscaped and vegetable gardens, tastefully unassuming building (originally a saloon then a steam laundry run by a French couple in the early 1900s) and subdued décor all encouraged restful appreciation and a discard of big city rush. Service was superb, not just knowledgeable and friendly but with a talent for connection. The restaurant is not large but has a staff of 100 (50 in the kitchen). They look and dress like attractive, young lawyers out of Boston Legal. When a position is available a novitiate must work for free for three months. Such dedication was manifest throughout.

There is one set menu and a (mostly) vegetarian version. Allergies are asked about and catered for. Four introductory morsels precede nine listed courses – a few having one option – served over three hours. My husband chose the alternative selections so we could try everything. I am petite and left comfortable, not bloated and regretful. The process started with a whisper. Tiny mouthfuls sublimely vaporised upon contact. Keller still serves a favourite from his first 1994 menu: savoury tuilles flecked with black sesame and shaped into Lilliputian ice cream cones, filled with creme fraiche and dill, and topped with seamless scoops of smoked salmon. Keller’s culinary foundation is French; his execution Japanese influenced; his produce and whimsy, American.

One of the simplest arrangements to describe was the cheese course. A tiny round of unguent goat cheese had its top beaten and puffed into a soft pillow. It was accompanied by barely cooked celery jaunty with angled caps of white truffle, beside immaculately crisp toasted pecans and a poached apple no bigger than my thumb. To further discourse on the essence of apple-ness, inside this intact looking fruit was the tiniest dice imaginable of raw apple.

Also on offer were four types of bread and discs of two types of butter – one so rich it tasted like caramel cheese. Both we were told came from a small organic dairy in Vermont with only seven cows. My amused comment of, “I bet you know them by name” was met with, “Of course”. In fact a calf had just been born and named after Keller. It’s funny and it’s impressive. In terms of work hours from conception to completion, all this attentiveness is probably a bargain. Having been raised by foodies who once owned a restaurant, since my teens I have wanted to experience a three star achiever.

Hey, we also walked away with two packs of shortbread, rhapsodic memories – and some souvenir laundry pegs.

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