Why I still love San Francisco


A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. 

Jancis writes I apologise for far too many pictures of me recently on the site, but I thought the many friends of Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards (to the left of Nick in this picture, with Maureen Draper at Zuni) would like to see how incredible it is that he is now 80. 

The four words at the bottom of the bill one Saturday lunchtime from Zuni Café in San Francisco are as relevant to that city’s vibrant eating out scene as they are political.

The brief statement reads Immigrants Make America Great and in less than 24 hours in this enchanting city I had no doubt of what had prompted restaurateur Gilbert Pilgram to write these words.

It had been at 4.30 the previous afternoon that I had first met Julio Bermejo in Tommy’s Mexican restaurant, the ethnic hangout his father had opened in 1965. Then it had served pretty good tequila, the vital ingredient in the margarita cocktail that retains its supremacy as the favourite cocktail in the state.

But when Julio took over 30 years ago he took a conscious but vital decision: to serve only top-quality tequila. The result, a 50% hike in the cost of the house margarita, was almost too much for many customers, and for filial relations, but over the long term it has proved the correct decision.

Tommy’s, next door to a Thai restaurant and a small factory producing Polish sausages, is today a magnet for margarita drinkers while Julio has become a world expert on the drink. That is despite the restaurant's interior, which, with sombreros on the wall and Tommy’s well-coiffed mother at the cash desk by the front door, does not seem to have noticed the changing of the century.

Julio’s lecture on tequila, illustrated by the map shown above, and a couple of margaritas set us up nicely for the journey into Chinatown, albeit to a very different setting and location.

In fact 37-year-old chef Brandon Jew’s brave decision to open here, after a three-year wait for his backers, was inspired not just by his desire for Chinatown to be the setting for his interpretation of Chinese cooking but also as an attempt to breathe new life into an area that appears to be losing its appeal.

In fact, from our modern, round wooden table complete with in-built lazy susan it was possible to see the two faces of this city. Out of the window are a plethora of fire escapes; opposite, across the street, were rooms full of clothes from Chinese laundries; while down below are such long-standing operators as Kan’s, The Snow Garden and The Floating Sushi Boat Restaurant. All of which are names the late Dashiell Hammett would undoubtedly have recognised.

But Hammett would be bemused by the restaurant’s interior. This is very modern, complete with cast-iron columns, an open kitchen that reveals plenty of young chefs in action, and attractive sculptures on the walls. Although there is admirable space between tables, the non-stop disco music (that seems to be played for the staff rather than the customers) makes conversation difficult. We did our best with wine writer Evan Goldstein (extreme right) and his mother food writer Joyce and wife Barbara at the table below.

The menu, the result of Jew’s travels around the kitchens of San Francisco and Shanghai, is an easy-to-read, three-page fold-out affair. We began with a couple of dishes from the snacks, both excellent if very different: savoury Dutch pork buns as well as his particular take on Brussels sprouts, currently every modern chef’s favourite ingredient, here served sautéed with garlic, chives and red XO sauce, a combination that left their outer leaves charred and sweet.

From there we moved on to two dishes from the dumplings section, potstickers filled with chicken and rainbow chard and wontons overlaid with pork and squid, before finishing with two main courses, a whole salt-baked trout from McFarland Springs and half a portion of Peking duck, served with unusually small pancakes and a peanut butter hoisin dipping sauce. Both dishes showed off the kitchen’s virtuosity. The trout, sustainably raised in Susanville, California, had been baked in salt and was served with trout roe while the duck, the neatest serving of this often messy bird I have encountered, was crisp and tender, its meat enhanced by a serving of duck mousse.

Sugar puffs, Macau-style egg custard tarts and an excellent, if unlikely sounding, combination of chocolate, beetroot ganache and chicory meringue highlighted the talents of Michelle Chou, Jew’s pastry chef. Despite the enthusiasm of the sommelier, the wine list’s rather tentative approach to the selection and order was the only disappointment.

Tentative is the very opposite of the approach to wine taken by partners Michael Ireland and Vietnamese-born John Vuong in their new wine bar with food which they have aptly named High Treason. It opened a year ago on Clement Street, in an area that was once heavily dominated by Russians but today seems broadly Asian.

High Treason takes its name from the fact that the two partners met as sommeliers in fine dining restaurants, Ireland at Meadowood, Vuong at the St Regis Hotel, and chose this name to highlight the fact that they have today turned their backs on this more formal style of service. The interior of their new place reflects this: a wide selection of vinyl along the wall; hard interiors; and old wooden wine boxes above.

But it is with the wines on offer, and their highly knowledgeable staff, that Ireland and Vuong really score. Obscure California grape varieties; whites from the Loire Valley; young but ready-to-drink burgundies; and a fantastic range of sherry and vermouths make High Treason an easy place to visit and a difficult place to leave.

Zuni Café 1658 Market Street; tel +1 415 552 2522

Tommy’s Mexican 5929 Geary Boulevard; tel +1 415 387 4747 

Mister Jiu’s 28 Waverley Place; tel +1 415 857 9688 

High Treason 443 Clement Street; tel +1 415 742 5256