San Francisco gems

A couple of old favourites and three very satisfactory newcomers.

San Francisco as a city is changing pretty quickly. The traffic is far worse than I remembered it. The number of homeless is deeply distressing. And the cost of buying a property has skyrocketed, fuelled by the fortunes being made to the south in Silicon Valley. 

But a great deal of its charm and its natural beauty remains, particularly anywhere facing the ocean. As the chef Mark Miller once said to me, ‘What you have to appreciate about this city is that the next stop west is Asia.’

And so the best restaurant we visited in our two short days there last month was to prove. Although, having said that, we also had two memorable meals at two long-standing favourites, Zuni Café and Cotogna.

The former was certainly improved by the weather. It was a gloriously sunny day as we walked in and it remained so until we left, showing off this building with its tall windows to their natural advantage.

Nothing appears to have changed. The waiting staff is still dressed in their black and white uniforms. There are long white, paper tablecloths throughout. There is the long bar on the ground floor that constantly seems to glisten and charm, and the tables carefully tapered to fit the exact dimensions of the mezzanine above. A smiling South American confidently shucked oysters behind the oyster counter. The bread oven in the middle of the ground floor continues to add a certain indefinable something to the numerous roast chickens, for two, that they serve every day. Everything is as it was, has always been and will remain for many years to come, I hope.

anchovies at Zuni Cafe, San Francisco

And the menu! As I wrote in my profile of Gilbert Pilgram, Zuni’s owner, in The Art of The Restaurateur, here the menu is the obverse of so many others: while most menus have a few specials, here they create a menu around the specials. Favourites however remain: a super-simple plate (above) of cured anchovies with celery of which the five of us ordered three to share; the hanger steak; the shoestring potatoes; and the gloriously sticky bowls of polenta with Parmesan. I knew from all this that I could only be in San Francisco.

I feel the same way about Cotogna, Michael and Lindsay Tusk’s more relaxed sibling to their highly rated Quince next door, although perhaps now not quite as relaxed as their more recently opened Verjus wine bar, a couple of blocks away in the extremely smart Jackson Square district of the city.

The big difference is the acoustics. While Zuni has the advantage of tall ceilings that seem to dissipate the noise, Cotogna does not have this advantage and the restaurant’s food and wine, as well as its pricing, ensure that this sunny corner site is busy, and therefore noisy, all the time.

Cotogna (Italian for quince) has a straightforward menu, like many in this city, printed on a single sheet of paper with its wine list on the other side. From this we ordered plates of prosciutto with gnocco fritto; a slightly too bitter salad of frisée with anchovy; plates of spaghetti alle vongole; and their enormous, single raviolo fiiled with an egg and brown butter (below); and finished with a dish of fior di latte ice cream. A bottle of Luigi Pira Serralunga Barolo (US$92) bumped the bill up to US$320 for four excluding service.

Raviolo at Cotogna, San Francisco

In Verjus the Tusks have been ably assisted by Reading-born Englishman Matt Cirne to create this busy wine bar specialising in natural wines (naturally) that features a more bistro-like French menu. We neither ate nor drank (much) here but I was impressed by its relaxed nature in a corner site that has been extremely well thought out and designed.

However the two old favourites of Zuni and Cotogna were surpassed on this visit by our most exciting dinner, at Nari in the Kabuki Hotel in the city’s Japantown. Named after the Thai word for women, this restaurant is the latest from Pim Techamuanvivit, the exciting chef whose Thai food I first enjoyed, and I wrote about here in 2015.

That was at Kin Khao, her first restaurant in the rather unassuming setting of the first floor of the Parc 55 Hotel, close to Union Square. Since then Pim has not stood still. In addition to opening Nari, which she describes as her ‘grown-up restaurant’, she has also taken over from David Thompson at Nahm in the COMO Metropolitan Hotel, Bangkok, while also opening Kamin, an exceptionally useful spot serving Thai fried chicken, noodles and curries in the international departure area of Terminal One in San Francisco airport (see below).

Pim's counter at San Francisco airport

At Nari, six of us began with three starters: gaeng gradang, fried bites of northern Thai headcheese; pla haeng, Asian pears topped with sweet and salty trout; and some rich, succulent veal sweetbreads. Perhaps best of all was a dish of yum yod maprao, fresh hearts of palm in a coconut-chili jam dressing alongside a combination of squid and sticky pork jowl in a chilli lime vinaigrette.

Of the main courses, two again stood out. A dish written as ‘gaeng bumbai aubergine’ was a luscious curry of aubergines, shallots and that distinctive Thai herb, lemon basil. Better still for any carnivore is gaeng rawaeng, a turmeric scented curry of a whole Cornish game hen (a small chicken) served with the irresistible roti. The juices from this dish proved to be so popular we soon resorted to a second order of the roti (pictured below). Pictured at the top of this article is Nari's eye-catching miang, a traditional Thai snack served on or wrapped in betel leaves.

Roti at Nari restaurant in San Francisco

We ended with three desserts: wan yen, pomegranate and pumpkin jellies; pumpkin sangkaya, kabocha squash topped with a coconut custard; and the intriguingly named ‘dreaming of lod chong’ a pandan parfait with a salted coconut cream. For this I paid a bill of US$330 that excluded a generous tip for some excellent, thoughtful and friendly service.

Our final gastronomic experience was to be taken by one of the women who have collectively provided the entire financial backing for The Riddler, a classy champagne bar in Hayes Valley, where most of the management team are women too.

Here, and in their branch with the same name in New York’s West Village, they have 150 different grower champagnes including dozens by the glass. We began with a bottle of Gonet-Médeville NV Brut before settling down to take in what else was on offer.

The first thing that struck me is that they have approached the purpose of this small champagne bar with the obvious intention of putting a smile on their customers’ faces before they even turn their attention to the wine list or the menu. There is an old, framed film poster on the wall showing a most inviting Jacqueline Bisset from the 1967 film of Casino Royale (which our hostess said was the single most expensive item in the place). There are the fictitious table cards that reveal inter alia ‘Reserved for Tina Fey’. Then there is the menu, with the short wine list, which reads ‘Hello, Old Friend’ on its opening page. 

The left hand side reveals some interesting dishes: some very tasty devilled eggs; a cheese and charcuterie board; and, most originally, so-called tater tot waffles that come with three different toppings, salmon and crème fraîche, Parmesan and rocket, and prosciutto with honey mustard. Our delicious potato-based savoury waffle was served on the dish that it had been cooked on straight out of the oven and only lasted a few minutes.

Potato waffle with smoked salmon at The Riddler champagne bar in San Francisco

Inviting, exciting, but expensive – three words to describe the restaurant scene in San Francisco at the moment.

Zuni Café 1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102; tel +1 (415) 552 2522  
Cotogna 490 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133; tel +1 (415) 775 8508 
Verjus 528 Washington Street, Jackson Square, San Francisco, CA 94111; tel +1 (415) 944 4600
Nari 1625 Post Street, San Francisco, CA 94115; tel +1 (415) 868 6274
The Riddler 528 Laguna Street, San Francisco, CA 94102; tel +1 (415) 589 7002

Miang dish from Nari restaurant in San Francisco