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San Francisco: no famine in sight

I’m no jet-setter, but when it comes to planes, trains, and automobiles, I generally aim for the first, funds permitting. For someone who lives only an hour and a half by car from Vancouver, three hours from Portland, and a dozen or two (depending on your route) from San Francisco, I’ve put relatively few miles on the odometer. My road-trip record is what some might call tragic, and about a week ago, with summer in full bloom and my second-floor apartment feeling stuffy, we began to agree. So we packed our bags and crammed my old, bruised cooler against some freeway famine that was surely looming, and we sped south. It was as simple as that. First there was I-5, a six-lane concrete plain; then there were the little towns, the runaway truck ramps, the stands selling salmon jerky and ice cream; and around a corner, there was a damp, salty wind, and then the coast.

Eighteen hours, one night in a Super 8, and four score switchbacks from Seattle, we found San Francisco, all hills and fog and farmers’ markets and no famine in sight.* It's a city I've long loved, but with the proper partner, I went from smitten to very, very serious. Acme Bread to Zuni Café, we ate it up.

And thank goodness there were two of us, because sharing was a necessity if we were to have room for it all, from Aladdin Market and Deli (thank you, Hillel) to Berkeley Bowl, Blue Bottle Coffee Company, Breads of India, Boulangerie, Café Fanny, Ferry Plaza, Las Camelias, La Taqueria, and XOX Truffles; and from pain au levain to sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi, falafel, Okinawan purple sweet potatoes, coffee from Yemen, naan with shredded coconut and fresh dill, cannelés, Belgian sugar tarts, fresh morels and French macarons, agave margaritas, tacos filled with shredded chicken in a tomato and chile sauce, and the tiniest, most sigh-inducing chocolate truffles to ever cross these lips. We flitted here and there in search of this and that, meeting with such success that I believe I might have actually uttered the words, “I’m tired of eating.” But only once or twice.

No amount of food fatigue, however, could keep us from Tartine, a bakery worth a thousand miles. Perched on a street corner in the Mission District, Tartine’s walls are bulging at all hours with an eager cult following of customers lined up for morning pastries or hot, crusty country bread at four in the afternoon, or haggling for tables on the sidewalk outside. Its offerings straddle old-fashioned Americana and French country-chic, from coconut cream tarts to a cake aux olives, each perfectly messy or neat, as the case requires. Brandon flew into a frenzy the moment we stepped up to the counter, overwhelmed by the sight of an open-face croque monsieur with melting slices of summer tomato and a lemon meringue cake the size and shape of a shoebox, covered with burnished spikes. Clearly, one visit would not suffice. There was too much to taste—and to photograph. There were meringues studded with Scharffen Berger nibs, each little mountain-shaped cookie craggy and light, its sweetness delicately balanced by the light bitterness of roasted cacao beans.

And there was the lemon cream tart, a pool of puckery lemon curd in a sweet, crunchy shortbread shell,

and its frumpy stepsister, the the banana cream tart, an über-flaky crust coated with caramel and dark chocolate and filled with vanilla pastry cream and sliced bananas, the whole topped with barely sweetened whipped cream and thick chocolate curls.

We ogled the shortbread, tight-crumbed and buttery 1”-by-4”s,

and the morning buns, knots of flaky dough perfumed with cinnamon and orange. And when it came time to turn the car around, I took a bag of muesli for breakfast on the road and Brandon seared his thighs with a lapful of straight-from-the-oven country bread, possibly the best use of flour I’ve tasted anywhere: thick-crusted, with a moist, chewy crumb full of dime-sized air holes.

The hours fly by when you’re well-fed—whether in a city on the coast or in a car, or later, at a keyboard in Seattle, a crumb-filled plate at your elbow.

*There was also no consistently available Internet connection, so I appreciate your patience, gentle reader.


Blogger Clare Eats said...

Wow Molly, I was already hungry... but looking at those bakery treats was PAINFUL *sigh*... I wonder what I can scrounge around for lunch?

8:52 PM, July 18, 2005  
Blogger Winnie said...

Yum, I love Tartine. My husband surprised me one Sunday morning when he sneak out before I woke up to get me a fresh, warm croissant from Tartine for breakfast. Nothing like waking up with the sweet smell of croissant. =)

10:08 PM, July 18, 2005  
Blogger Sam said...

Molly - I think you know more about SF than I do now! Please tell me more about naan with shredded coconut and fresh dill. I am so sorry we missed you by a whisker otherwise you could have told me to my face. Next time!

(PS - do you like those tartine meringues? I find them really bitter myself, but I love a lot of their other things instead, esp their pickled carrots and their bread)

10:27 PM, July 18, 2005  
Blogger Pille said...

Hi Molly - never been to the US, but SF is on my 'definitely visit soon' list. I will make sure that I'll check out all the places you mention in case I happen to travel there in the future. You do make it sound all so yummy..
Beautiful pictures!

2:03 AM, July 19, 2005  
Anonymous Conny said...

Wow, Molly! I'm going to SF in August and now know exactly where I'm headed as soon as I land. Fantastic photos! Thanks for sharing.

4:23 AM, July 19, 2005  
Blogger Michèle said...

There are vowels and consonants falling out of my mouth but they are not forming coherent words. And no, Im not eating alphagetti. Sounds like a fantastic trip. And again, Im very jealous. I'd love to hear what you had at Zuni, do tell..

8:28 AM, July 19, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Je t'adore ma biche et Brandon! I miss you wildly I will squeeze all the good stories out of both of you as soon as I see you. Gin and tonics are in order as soon as you're in the city limits - Kate

1:22 PM, July 19, 2005  
Anonymous keiko said...

Hi Molly - I can tell you were well fed :) I'm getting hungry now, such a great post and gorgeous photos as always. Thanks so much for sharing!

1:09 AM, July 20, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Clare Eats, I hope you found something to lunch on. As for me, I'm still recovering from our trip, so it may take weeks before these photos arouse any rumbles in my stomach...

Winnie, you are one lucky woman. I really regret having not tried one of Tartine's croissants! I saw a few of them being eaten, and they looked perfect--flaky layers and a chewy middle, and of course, plenty buttery.

Sam, fear not: you are most definitely the reigning queen of the SF restaurant-review blog scene! In fact, I may have originally heard about Tartine from your post. As for their meringues, I loved them! I'm a great fan of cacao nibs, so that helps. I think they're much more interesting in the meringues than a normal chocolate chip or something of that sort. I found their slight bitterness to be an ideal foil to the sugar-rich meringue. Mmm. And yes, those picked carrots were a wonderful surprise. Wish I could replicate them...so peppery, really unusual. And lastly, the naan: we ate it at Breads of India, at Dwight and Sacramento in Berkeley. A great little place with a short menu that changes daily, wonderful curries (meat and non-meat), and, as you'd guess from the name, terrific breads. The naan was different from any I'd had before; wonderfully puffy, moist, and chewy even after it had cooled to room temperature, and with a slight tang, almost like yogurt or buttermilk. Maybe we should plan to chat over naan the next time I'm down in the Bay Area? My treat.

Thank you, Pille. As a foodie, you would love San Francisco and the surrounding areas. Get yourself there soon, definitely!

Conny, have a wonderful time in SF! Take lots of photos, and, of course, do share them with us...

Michele, I'll say it simply: I love Zuni. From the copper bar to the enormous windows, airy space, beautiful wood-burning oven, seasonal food, and refined but casual service, it slays me every time. Brandon, my aunt Tina, and I started with chilled sherry (Brandon) and Lillet (Tina and yours truly) at the bar (along with some Acme pain au levain and delicious cultured butter), and then we split several dishes: a simple green salad with garlic croutons and Banyuls vinaigrette; a minutina salad (looked like grass) with golden beets, sieved hard-boiled egg, and fried breadcrumbs; housemade lamb sausage with tzatziki and crackerbread; Bellwether Farm's sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi with yellow and golden carrots; onion and mustard green soup with a poached egg; a slice of Royal Blenheim apricot tart with ice cream; and a slice of gateau victoire (dense chocolate cake) with whipped cream. Ahhhh. Ahhhh.

Kate, on est la! Mais ou sont les gin and tonics? Hmmm? [P.S. Je t'adore aussi, ma puce.]

And thank you, Keiko! We were alarmingly well fed. Since our return, our mantra has been "salad, salad, salad."

1:06 PM, July 20, 2005  
Anonymous stephanie said...

We are about to visit SF in the next few weeks, and since I'm a pastry chef in seattle, I also have Miette Patisserie on my hit list. It's in that new Ferry Terminal food thingy. I'm from SF and haven't been back in 5 years! A lot has changed, but Zuni seems to be still around. I guess we'll have to add that to our hit list as well! Happy eating!

5:45 PM, July 20, 2005  
Blogger Michèle said...

Molly, thanks so much for indulging me in that description of your Zuni meal! Sigh worthy, definitely.

12:36 AM, July 21, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Stephanie, thanks so much for stopping by! I read about your bakery in Sara Dickerman's piece in the Stranger, and I've been dying to try your sweets--especially that chocolate brioche she described so lusciously! Do you, by chance, ever sell at the U District farmers' market? I feel as though I've seen a big "SUGAR" sign there. And about SF: you should most definitely pay a visit to Miette--that's where we bought the macaron pictured above--and Tartine. Very inspirational, no doubt.

And Michele, you're very welcome!

10:41 AM, July 22, 2005  
Anonymous Julie said...

As always, Molly, you have exquisite timing. G and I are going to be in SF for a week in August, and now I know we won't starve. BTW, if and when you're in NYC with a minute or so to spare, let me know...

8:18 AM, July 23, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Julie, you definitely won't starve in San Francisco! Have a wonderful, wonderful time. And as for NYC, yes, I'll let you know. It looks as though I'll be swooping in for a visit in early September...

11:44 AM, July 25, 2005  

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