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San Francisco Strikes Back – Day Three

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March 31, 2011

I woke up and discovered that Dynamo has two more flavors I’d not yet tried, so I made the early morning call and asked them to put aside a box. ‘Twas a small box. What followed was a full-blown donut melee. I won. Well, Sara Spearin really won, having not only scored my donut money but $20 for a t-shirt. But I felt like a winner, and that’s all the really matters, right?

Loria was scheduled to help her sisters set up the WonderCon booth, so Ainsley and I had an afternoon of cuddle time on the docket. Her sisters arrived in town and declared themselves in need of a dim sum fix, so I was off like a shot to a lunch spot that, after reading a bit, I decided I must try and discovered that this was probably my last chance on this trip to do so due to some upcoming renovations.

Naked Lunch – Artisan Foie Gras Torchon & Duck Prosciutto Sandwich, Smoked Pork Loin and Chorizo Sandwich, and 4505 Chicharrones

Read that first sandwich name again. Take a second to reflect.

Add to it that it is served with a slice of heirloom tomato which reminded me all over of what an actual tomato tastes like, butter lettuce, and black truffle salt, an ingredient that I have come to appreciate the power of in my home kitchen. I loved this sandwich so much that had I not been scheduled to take care of the little girl, I might have run back up to see if I could score another one. And I nearly strapped her into the baby Bjorn and did so anyway. It defines the word unctuous, with just enough herb from the lettuce and acid from the tomato to balance things out. And as over the top as foie gras on a sandwich sounds, duck prosciutto is even more so, in a good way.

I’d read a few reviews talking about the sandwich being very rich, so we decided to venture a try on chef Ryan Maxey’s latest brain child, a smoked pork loin and chorizo sandwich. It seems odd to call a pork and sausage sandwich light, but it certainly felt light next to the foie gras. Very thinly sliced pork loin with the perfect amount of smoke, just a touch of chorizo, and a creamy sauce. If I’d gone back for another foie gras, I might have needed to grab one of these to throw in the fridge and eat later on.

I’d also read nice things about 4505 Chicharrones, so I grabbed a bag.

Quick side note: after some hard-won weight loss over the past few years, I am a diet-controlled diabetic. When I was first diagnosed, I turned to pork rinds as a low carb snack for my Friday night game nights. Although they provided me with something to cram in my gob to help me avoid eating the other snack delights that generally grace the gaming table, even the hot variety that I could find locally available had the personality, texture, and flavor of packing peanuts. This goes by way of saying that my expectations for what a chicharron could be were fairly low – I figured I’d done my time in that particular circle of gastrointestinal hell and they just weren’t my thing.

Here’s to my sweet pork skin. I was so very wrong.

These little crunchy treats are light and airy. They coat the inside of your entire mouth from the first bite with a pleasant film of porky goodness. The seasoning on them is at once spicy, sweet, and happiness inducing. Had I gone back up with Ainsley to grab another couple of sandwiches, several bags of these would have been acquired, too. Fortunately, although I didn’t make it back up to North Beach for food, we did run across the 4505 booth at the Ferry Building just as they were closing down on Saturday and snagged another couple of bags, including a big one that I shared with my gaming group this past Friday. I was crushed to find out that FDA regulations prevent them from shipping out of state, but plans are in the works to have locals acquire a life-giving box of them to be smuggled across state lines.

Like Dynamo, Bi-Rite, and Out the Door, Naked Lunch has entered my list of places that I’ll need to hit at least once during a trip to San Francisco in order for the trip to be complete. There is some crazy alchemy going on there and I wish I could make myself a regular customer. Hear that, universe? Move the Naked Lunch madmen to Utah, please.

Naked Lunch on Urbanspoon

Ainsley and I played away the afternoon. Mom arrived back at the room hungry, which was good because we had reservations for dinner. We had every intention of hitting this spot during our last vacation in San Francisco, but every time dinner rolled around and I looked at that one, lone map marker way south of everything else, the will to travel left me and we opted for something closer to the hotel. Hungry and excited, we hit the Muni J line and, a rickety train later, we were in Noe Valley.

Incanto – Porchetta di Testa, Handkerchief Pasta and Rustic Pork Ragù, Pork Cheeks, Cippolini and Polenta, Sticky Toffee Pudding and Spice Ice Cream

Many pigs died to bring us this meal. They were appreciated by the diners and honored by the chef.

We’d loved our visit to Chris Cosentino’s Boccalone in the Ferry Terminal last trip and vowed that we’d make it to his restaurant Incanto this time around. Judging by the pictures on the website, we figured it was upscale enough that we ought to call ahead to make sure that Ainsley would be welcome there. The staff were enthusiastic in their positive response, but we booked an early reservation, figuring that on the slim chance that she might get fussy, there would be fewer diners around to be disturbed. We timed our arrival well: the doors opened as we walked up, and Ainsley had conked out on the train ride over.

“Are you adventurous diners?” our server opened his introduction of the menu by asking. Looks like we’re in the right place.

Porchetta is a lovely boneless pork roast constructed with layers of pork flesh, fat, and stuffed with herbs and spices. Porchetta di testa is basically the same thing, only instead of using various parts from the entire pig, it uses an entire pig’s head with the bones removed. Alternately, think of it as a very sophisticated and intricate head cheese without the gelatinous bits. The dish was presented with a salad of greens dressed with an acid-heavy vinaigrette. Loria discovered something interesting early on about the dish: the balance was so well-conceived that there were parts of the thinly cut meat that were relatively bland without a bit of the salad to accompany them, but that lit up with flavor with the addition of the acid and herb. I’m really glad we ordered this to start.

Our entrees arrived and we eagerly devoured both. The ragu had some particularly light and enjoyable pasta. The standout for me, however, were the pork cheeks. The meat was fork tender and had a deep, deliciously meaty flavor and the onions a sweet note that paired well with it. The polenta was perfectly cooked, creamy and rich. The star of the dish was the sauce. A dark, rich concoction that I bore no shame in mopping every drop of from the bowl.

If I have a complaint, it was about dessert. The sticky toffee pudding wasn’t bad, really, just not up to the standard of the rest of the meal. The cake portion of ours was a bit dry, even with generous application of the toffee sauce and ice cream. It also felt a bit small for the $8 price.

That small quibble aside, we loved our evening at Incanto. Between our mains and dessert, Ainsley woke up and one of the servers wandered by to play with her a bit. I really got the sense that we were welcome. It’s a warm space with warm people in it. One of my real regrets from the trip is that had we stayed an extra night, we might have been able to make Cosentino’s annual Head to Tail dinner. Maybe it’ll happen the week before the convention next year and we’ll be able to attend. In lieu of that, we’ll invite nine friends there to do one of his whole pig evenings.

Incanto on Urbanspoon

Up next: somewhere Ainsley ain’t so welcome.

San Francisco Strikes Back – Day One

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March 29, 2011

WonderCon and a host of new food experiences have beckoned us back to San Francisco. Among the experiences: we’re new parents, our daughter Ainsley having joined the family in October. So we not only attend a bit of the convention, but had our first family vacation.

Ainsley was her usual sweet self on the plane trip, so much so that I launched into the ambitious version of the first day’s eating: we checked into the hotel, dropped the bags, and hit BART to visit

Mr. Pollo – $15 Chef’s Tasting Menu

We left the hotel around 2pm, and I was worried that we may not arrive in time. Not only did we make it, but we’re rather lucky to have gotten there so late after lunch. Two of the four tables were already taken; a couple on what appears to be a first date had to slide over to another table to accommodate us. This place is tiny. The draw of a four-course tasting menu for $15 seemed worth a try, though. And chef Manny Torres Gimenez didn’t disappoint. Even considering how veggie-heavy the menu ended up being, it was high entertainment watching him through the lexan screen as he prepared labor-intensive food for six people simultaneously. All of the dishes were very much hands on. The couple next to us were also eating the chef’s menu, and they didn’t appear to get the same dishes, so I’m under the impression that Manny might just have been making this all up as he went.

Every dish was absolutely delicious. And, while there is only a touch of animal protein here and there, it’s clear that ingredients are important to the chef. I think in the dish descriptions we hear the phrase “farmers market” paired with “this morning” at least five times. We were served an empanada to start, followed by a soup, fish, and main course.

I officially declare this the closest I’m likely to come to enjoying vegetarian food.

Mr. Pollo

Mr. Pollo  on Urbanspoon

Great start to the trip, and Ainsley had managed to charm both of the couples in the small dining area as well as the chef. We paid, left, and decided that we were still pretty hungry. I pulled up my SF Food map on the Droid X and we started a very long walk to a very tasty street that contains both ice cream and a bakery.

Tartine Bakery & Cafe – various baked goods

We stopped in here to quickly grab some cookies and other treats for dessert later that night. The place was absolutely packed to the rafters, with every table being taken and a long line going from the register along the display case and almost to the door. It was so long that rather than try to angle the stroller in, Loria sent me in on a solo mission and hung back by the door to entertain the baby. Having arrived in the later afternoon, I tried to peek through the line to see what is left. The cases were full of cookies, tarts, and breads, and each looked very inviting. For some reason I was feeling rushed, so I started pointing at random cookies without really getting a good sense of what looked best. I decided to skip the $6.50 miniature banana cream tart and ended up with a variety of cookies. As the line moved along the case, I inevitably saw this chocolate chip doodad or that walnut butter whatever, eventually requiring the patient woman helping me to bag my selections three separate times.

Later that night, we dug in and are fairly disappointed. Nothing tasted bad, per se, but it all felt like pretty standard bakery fare. It all looked much better than it tasted, unfortunately, and a few of the cookies went unfinished. It’s only later that I remembered that the place is renowned for its double pain au chocolat, but given how the rest of the cookies ended up, I didn’t feel terrible that we missed out.

Tartine Bakery on Urbanspoon

Just up the street from Tartine was our real destination.

Bi-Rite Creamery – Roasted Banana, Orange Cardamom, Salted Caramel, and Brown Butter Pecan Ice Cream

This was high on my list of places we missed last year, so I was rather excited on arriving here. It’s doubly exciting because this was to be Ainsley’s first taste of ice cream.

I started with Roasted Banana. Intense banana flavor, dark brown flavor, and it is just beautiful. It’s one note played perfectly. Next was Brown Butter Pecan. I love butter pecan ice cream in general. I’ve been anticipating what nice dark notes browning the butter might accomplish. I was slightly disappointed on that front: if the butter was browned much before this batch was made, it doesn’t appear to change the taste of the ice cream much from what I expected. Still, it’s a really good incarnation of butter pecan.

Next up, Orange Cardamom. There are floral notes to the orange flavor that pair very nicely with the cardamom, which is fairly understated by comparison. I would absolutely order this again, though, as it’s a lovely counterpoint to the fourth flavor, Salted Caramel. The first bite of this flavor had me hooked. It is intensely burned sugar with some surprising and welcome bitter notes. In fact, this is probably the most intense caramel flavor I’ve had, bar none. Some of that is likely due to the salt, but it’s seems mostly intended. That they get a flavor that strong to show up in a frozen dessert is impressive enough, but it showing up in a dairy dessert, which has a tendency to dampen the intensity of most flavors, is absolutely noteworthy. And, although Ainsley clearly enjoyed the banana and orange cardamom flavors, she really seemed to enjoy the caramel. Mom and I agreed.

Bi-Rite Creamery
Bi-Rite Creamery and Bake Shop on Urbanspoon

After a return to the hotel for some rest, we take a trolley up Market to First Street and then walk the rest of the way to

Spice Kit – Bánh mì Sandwich

With names like Thomas Keller and Ron Siegel on their resumes, Will Pacio and Fred Tang present well-cooked and easily understood Asian fast food at Spice Kit. I’m glad we hit this place our first night, as it would become a go-to choice from the rest of the trip. The concept is simple: choose a sandwich, wrap, or salad as the platform and then choose a protein. We had two bánh mì sandwiches, one with roasted pork and one with beef shortribs. This was my first foray into bánh mì territory. It’s a Vietnamese sandwich traditionally garnished with liver pate, mayonnaise, a slaw of pickled carrot and daikon, cucumber, and cilantro. The shortribs weren’t bad, but the roasted pork was perfect. The acid in the slaw cuts through the fat of the pate and pork and adds a nice, bright note. I have had dreams about that pork bánh mì since then, and have already located a recipe for pate that I want to try making soon. If Out the Door didn’t have proximity going for it, I suspect Spice Kit would have become our default choice for a quick meal.

We also ordered some steamed pork buns. My experience with the dish in the past has been a soft, pillowy dough which completely surrounded a chopped pork filling similar to what you might find in an egg roll, only a bit sweeter. The Spice Kit take on them is a grilled slab of pork belly basted with hoisin and some veggies. They were delicious, but I’ll admit that I was far too enamored with the bánh mì to get terribly excited about them. For those keeping score at home, roasted pork + pate > pork belly alone.

We also got an order of the ginger peanut slaw to share. It was fine, though barely registered compared to pork buns and other porky goodness.

Spice Kit on Urbanspoon

Next up: a walk through Thomas’ garden.

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