HiLo Cuisine Continued

lafolie_roland.jpgI serve on the board of an organic farming organization, and there are members of the board who are incredulous that we charge $150 a ticket to our annual five or six course fundraising dinner which is held at one of Maine’s four-star restaurants. I always argue that many people will spend $150 a person on a dinner that is NOT expected to raise money for a non-profit organization. The same board members are also incredulous that anyone would spend more than $50 a person for a dinner…actually, we also hold an informal buffet lunch fundraiser charging $50 a person and some board members complain that THIS is too expensive.

It’s ironic, because many of these board members are also farmers who charge premium prices for their produce and don’t see anything wrong with that because they know that the price reflects the value and the work the goes into the product.

During my recent vacation in SF visiting the folks, I had a 24 hour peak food experience that illustrated how good food can cost $5 per person (Shanghai Dumpling King) and cost $25 per person (Yuet Lee) and cost $110 per person (La Folie), all of which can be justified and equally satisfying.

The Right Food At The Right Time

At 10pm, after an advanced screening of “Happy Feet” in Japantown where I got to brush by director George Miller (most famous for “Babe” and the “Mad Max” movies) in the theater aisle, we were ready for a good dinner. It’s not impossible to find a decent meal after 10pm in San Francisco like it might be in most smaller cities (including, unfortunately, Boston), but you have to know where to look. In fact, my Dad now keeps a list of late night restaurants he hears about just in case. However, we already knew where we were going because we’d been looking forward to it all week: Yuet Lee seafood restaurant on the corner of Stockton and Broadway. It’s appropriate for our late night visit, too, because Alison was told about the restaurant by the cooks at Campton Place when she worked there in 1984 because it was open LATE so you could get a good meal after doing your own service and clean-up at the restaurant. Most cities have late-night spots where the cooks and chefs hang out after their service, and this is one of San Francisco’s best.

yuetlee_corner_2.jpgAfter stopping at Bank of America for enough cash for dinner and BYOBeer (cash only, no liquor license), parked about four blocks away in Chinatown and got to Yuet Lee by 10:30pm…and it’s a good thing because by 11pm the place was PACKED. But when we arrived it was about half full with a 50-50 mix of asians and non-asian looking people, and surprise-surprise — they now take credit cards!!! Unfortunately, despite many large round tables that were empty in back, the waiter chose to seat us right next to the door. My Dad complains that this happens to him all the time, which keeps him from visiting more regularly. Luckily a table one step further in, next to the warm kitchen, freed up right after we ordered, so we moved our tea glasses and pitcher over and didn’t have to suffer from door-wind for the rest of the meal. The next surprise was that they now also serve beer and wine! Dad and Alison ordered a Tsing Tso as a result, but I had not prepared myself for that and stayed with the hot tea in the plastic water cups that I had been looking forward to enjoying.

We ALWAYS order the pepper-and-salt-fried-squid when we visit Yuet Lee because they are famous for it, and because it never disappoints, even when they have to use the thick rubbery squid that kind of looks like fried white snow tire bits. It is ever so delicately breaded in their pepper-and-salt coating that we’ve tried to replicate at home (rice flour and egg white comes close), plus fresh cilantro and a slice of lemon. PERFECT!

yuetlee_er.jpgWe almost always order preserved duck egg congi soup, which is a thick rice soup that we’ve also tried to replicated at home by cooking a whole chicken in a pot of rice for six or eight hours or until the meat falls of the bone and disintegrates into what has turned into a gluey porridge. But spoon some into a little bowl, add a bit of sulfury-earthy duck egg, and top with a splash of soy, of fish sauce, and a drop of the hot pepper oil (all available in the table top dispensers), and that will warm you to the bone on the coldest of a San Francisco summer night. However, tonight I wanted to branch out, so I nixed the congi.

Instead I asked for chef special Wor Noodle with broth, which comes as a soup, served by the waiter who portions an equal amount of noodles (thin wheat with a little curl to them), veg, seafood, and broth to them. It was faintly spicy which focused on the rich seafood bits, and the noodles were toothsome with a little fight in them. It was a good choice that the Soup Man (Marc) gave the thumbs up to.

In addition we got Seschzuan Shrimp, Stir fried Chinese Broccoli, and Fried Oysters. All were good: semi-spicy but saucy shrimp and veg goes good with rice; the broccoli were mostly cigar-thick stems with wilty leaves attached in an oyster sauce, but the stems were so tender and tasty I had to shake my head in disbelief that I still can’t find seeds to grow this kind of broccoli in my Maine garden (all my broccoli, even the stuff labeled “Chinese Broccoli” has stringy tough stems); and the oysters were hot and huge, which seemed to intimidate the other diners, but I managed to polish them off despite the insipid Heinz ketchup-like dipping sauce that came with it — I preferred to use the hot pepper – soy dipping sauce that came with the squid.

All of that, with white rice, beer, and tea cost us $75, or $22 a person with tip. Considering that we walked in at 10:30pm, were immediately served tea and beer, the food came fast and hot, and it was ALL good, it’s hard to picture us getting out of Safeway with the ingredients (even IF we could get them at Safeway) for much less than that. Plus we get the expert cooks, their fine woks and stoves, their dishwashers, and attentive service for $90 — that’s a bargain. Could I replicate that meal in my kitchen? Never. So I also get a chef’s expert touch guiding me to new delights (Wor Noodle), and market highlights (tender flavorful broccoli stems). More than a bargain.

That said, the downside is the Caucasian factor (getting sat by the door more often…), a rush rush service even at 10:30pm (you order, you get it, no rhythm, just order-eat-out to turn over tables), and the un-romantic fluorescent lighting and tight seating (don’t stand up too fast or the diner behind you might spit his Wor noodle…!). I find that charming; my Father is less amused. Differn’ strokes, I guess. Total time spent in the restaurant: just about 1 hour.

Chinese Chow-down

…or, how I finally ‘got’ the Lazy Susan.

I read about Shanghai Dumpling King on the back of a SF Chronicle special series on the Industrialization of organic agriculture that I asked my Dad to clip and send to me. It was an unintended discovery, but I had been reading about Soup Dumplings in various NYTimes and SFGate articles on eating in Shanghai, a city I hope to visit one day. In the meantime, there in the Richmond (north of Golden Gate Park, one of SF’s “outer boroughs” as it were) was a kick-ass example of a new food I would otherwise have to fly another eight or ten hours to experience. I wrote it in my Palm Vx and made sure that we WOULD Soup Dumpling on our next visit to the Bay Area.

Many iterations of a spreadsheet schedule followed this introduction, and Soup Dumpling got shoehorned into Tuesday night, when Alison would be visiting some of her Campton Place buddies north of the Bay Area. Alison didn’t like that, but I promised her that we would revisit later in the week so that she could also know Soup Dumpling. Instead, the Gods intervened and Shanghai Dumpling King is closed on Tuesdays…who’da thunk? We had Union St. takeout pizza instead on Tuesday night while watching Emmett and Mario reach the finals on Dancing With The Stars at the folks crib and rescheduled Soup Dumpling to Friday lunch with “THE GANG” after visiting the new and much anticipated De Young Museum of Art in Golden Gate Park which was only twenty blocks east and two blocks south of the intended destination. An assortment of younger palates (three girls aged 8 to 12) would have to accommodate MY needs…

The appointed day came, and the De Young was De Lightful, if a bit brief after a soulful examination of African American quilts by the adults (the Gees Bend exhibit), and photographs of naked ladies by the three girls…we exited into the sculpture garden cum backyard of the museum, and were then ready for lunch. After much deliberations about directions (“…can you turn left on Balboa from…?”) we were off.

My car (with the Shedds) was one of the last to arrive, and anticipating a Berkeley Bowl scene in front of the restaurant, we parked a block away when we saw an open space. The Richmond is an odd hyphen of a neighborhood, somewhere between urban (all the buildings abut and the streets are a grid) and suburban (primarily two story residential buildings interspersed by the occasional relaxed retail district) without many shade trees on a humped slope that leads to the western beaches fronting the actual fucking Pacific Ocean. Look down any avenue after 10th St. and you can see the shimmery blue of a real ocean because the buildings are short, and the sidewalks are bare. The pretty pastel of the stucco exteriors are bleached by the unabated sunshine. Burnt-out beauty — another unique SF characteristic like good cheap food.

Once we had walked the block down to the the King’s storefront, I looked in and saw three tables in front of a take-out counter, and all of the tables were full. ‘Out of luck’ I sighed, until I got a few steps closer and saw a second room beyond with the rest of THE GANG sitting at an impossibly large round table with a Lazy Susan in a corner. Cool.

It was twelve of us (the Rectors, the Shedds, the Morrisons, plus one Bungen) already blissing out on fried scallion bread and pot stickers. “Have you ordered Soup Dumplings yet?” “No, we didn’t know what they were called.” “OK” So I found the waitress and asked her, which were the Xian Long Bao (the lingo was printed in the Chronicle article I had clipped and saved)? “Number 5.” “Please, three number 5 for us.” I said, unnecessarily slowly. She nodded and went back to the kitchen. Then I went back to the table, sat down, poured myself a glass of tea, and started reading the rest of the menu.

We ended up getting more pot stickers, more fried scallion bread, a random order of fried sweet dough, chive and pork dumplings, chef special noodle (thick and twisty), and lots more soup dumplings. Soup dumplings are simple but profound. A steamed wonton skin surrounding a whipped lump of pork sausage and HOPEFULLY a dollop of soup broth. The dumplings come, $5.95 for each bamboo steamer of 10, sitting on cabbage leaves and must be gently lifted off the cabbage leaves and placed on your spoon or directly in your mouth so you can pop them and have the rush of hot meaty broth precede the salty lump of pork that you chew up with the mush of dumpling skin into little peak food experience, repeated as carefully as you can and as often as you can order a new bamboo steamer of dumplings.

endofmeal_2.jpgTwelve people cost the same as four people at Yuet Lee: $75 plus tip. Wow. Lots of hot good food spinning around that Lazy Susan so that everyone can get a little bit, or a lotta bit, of everything (so THAT’s why Chinese restaurants all have Lazy Susans on the big tables!), while everyone talks next to and across from themselves, sipping tea, sucking on chopsticks, sneezing from the hot sauce, wiping chins with an already greasy thin napkin, reaching across the Susan for another paper napkin, ordering more dumplings, and grabbing a dipping saucer off the Susan for your own for a GOOD TIME.

Minimal service at an “outer borough” spot at an odd hour. I’m sure the ingredients are “value picks” from the wholesale market, and the labor is possibly “imported” and skilled at quickly turning out lots and lots of dumplings: four a minute? 200 an hour at $7/hour = $0.04 a dumpling labor cost? or less? In addition, a greater number of diners smoothed the dish cost against the variety of things we could try — two people probably would probably have cost $25…total time spent in the restaurant: 1 1/2 hours.

A Temple of Taste

Polk Street is one of my favorite streets in all of San Francisco, and not just because I used to live on Polk Street, or because the Rectors live six doors up (REALLY up!) from Polk Street, but because it is lively and almost continually active from bottom to top, a caesarian scar across the underbelly of SF’s cultures that touches and connects them all. Its source is Market Stree as the front yard of San Francisco City Hall then immediately becomes lined with store fronts and retail goods as it ambles up a gradual hill that peaks around Washington Street, then heads gradually down to Fisherman’s Wharf. The storefronts pause around Lombard St. as it passes by a large high school on the west side until it dips sharply past Ghirardelli Square then runs into Beach Street just before the opposing Aquatic Park piers pop out into the bay toward Alcatraz like a skinny stone crab claw. Polk Street TEEMS with action and energy almost 24 hours a day, a great mixing cruet for most of the North of Market cultures: the homeless mix with asian businesses and city workers in suits around the Civic Center; shady bar and strip club patrons mix north of the Civic Center until a younger group of college grads takes over around Post and California streets; the residents and visitors steadily climb up the salary ladder as you reach Real Foods Market at Vallejo until it gets so expensive to live there the store fronts give way to sidewalk garage doors and well pruned shrubs before you hit Ghirardelli Square (now being converted into condos!) and the bay. It’s not quite Russian Hill and not quite the Marina at the north end, and it’s not quite the Tenderloin and certainly not quite Pacific Heights at the south end. It is what it is — Polk Gulch is one term used, though I recently noticed that the local businesses were trying to “re-brand” it as a specific shopping district, announced by banners hanging from the street lights.

Rebranded or not, you can find almost anything somewhere along its two mile stretch — any kind of clothes, any kind of furniture, any kind of gifts, any kind of food — and right around the corner from the Rectors, between a health club and a bakery, you can find one of the few four star (according to the SF Chronicle) restaurants in the Bay Area, La Folie, where chef Roland Passot specializes in traditional French cuisine fyoozed with a Northern California vibe (their web site explains it with a lot more words). It is a small storefront with a small sign whose windows are mostly covered by a sweeping curtain that hides a small dining room. I had heard about the restaurant from the Rectors, who had visited once a few years after moving to SF (with Tom Rector?). They had liked it then, and it had continued to receive critical acclaim in the years since. I was curious about a restaurant that was no “flash in the pan” as some top rated restaurants seem to be, especially in food-obsessed SF, and also curious about its more traditional French focus, so I had specifically requested that we schedule a dinner there as our ‘splurge” dinner during our visit to SF, which my Dad was happy to arrange.

lafolie_night_2.jpg

We walked in at 8:00pm on Friday night through the doorway then through the curtains which draped past the door to create an even more intimate feeling to the small dining room (I think I counted fifteen tables). We were warmly welcomed and seated at a table for four along the wall — both my dad and I chose to sit on the upholstered bench along the wall, though later when I looked around the dining room I noticed the at other tables along the wall, women predominantly sat on the bench so maybe we violated some fancy protocol, but nobody called it out to us. The small room is roughly square with a very high ceiling and a central pillar painted a warm flat green with bright white trim details. The room was almost full, but very quiet even though all tables appeared to be talking and enjoying themselves. The table to my left were two young couples (25 to 30?) on a double-date; an older couple (50’s?) were finishing dessert to my right, beside my Dad. After they left, a slightly younger couple sat down and began their dinner. Everyone was well-dressed (my dad and I wore sport coats and Marimekko shirts — I wore a tie) but not painfully so. Everyone appeared relaxed and enjoying themselves.

We were handed menu that focused more on an a la carte list of dishes separated into several classic categories: appetizers and soups, vegetable dishes, fish dishes, meat dishes, and dessert. There were at least five different items in each category, and fois gras was a common theme, which shouldn’t be a surprise for a restaurant of this price and type (classic French). There were two tasting menus opposite the a la carte offerings — a five course chef’s menu, and a three course vegetarian menu, but the emphasis was clearly on the a la carte dishes. When the waiter came to tell us the daily specials, he also announced that for a $25 surcharge they could “truffle” our desired dishes with fresh black truffles from the Perigord. I was tempted, but we all declined this luxury. We also declined a cocktail since we had already enjoyed one back at the apartment before walking the 100 yards to our late reservation.

Despite the restaurant being consistently ranked among the top ten in the Bay Area, and their obvious devotion to the finest ingredients, I found the prices quite reasonable: 3 course menu, $65; 4 course menu, $75; 5 course menu $85. Prices could have started at $85 and few visitors familiar with fine dining would bat an eye. It now costs $175 per person to eat at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa Valley– wine and gratuity not included! Keller’s restaurant in New York City, Per Se, now starts $250 per person for the full tasting menu (includes 20% tip and bottled water but not wine…) now that they’ve dropped the abbreviated option (“I”d like them to experience the entire experience, the entire Thomas Keller…” he explained to NYT food critic Frank Bruni in Bruni’s recent article titled “You May Kiss The Chef’s Napkin Ring”). Also in NYC, Masa famously now deducts $350 per person to experience Masayoshi Takayama’s magic touch with sushi — there beverages and gratuity are extra! — and reservations are still almost impossible to get.

After more than three hours of an enjoyable meal (the menu details appear below), wine, coffee, and a bourbon at the end, our bill at La Folie came to $450 for four people. Why does “fine dining” at La Folie (and similar restaurants) cost more than four times what an equally satisfying dinner at Yuet Lee for four people? Why is that OK? And what the heck is “fine dining” anyway? These are the questions I will attempt to answer here.

Actually, if you look at the dollars over time, La Folie compares favorably: $90 an hour at Yuet Lee vs. $150 an hour. But what we’re really comparing is the PER MEAL cost, so that’s not relevant, but time is a factor. You would not be welcome to spend three hours at Yuet Lee for dinner unless you continued to order dish after dish, in which case you very well could reach the $400 mark after three hours. To look at it another way, if you look at the per plate cost, it works out to $17 to $20 per dish at La Folie which also compares closely to Yuet Lee dishes when you are ordering their seafood dishes ($13 to $20). Ingredient costs factor in the final price, but not as much as you would think. Even when you’re flinging around fois gras and lobster and organic vegetables, ingredients usually make up only 20% of the menu cost of any dish, and the quality of the seafood Yuet Lee offers is probably very close, if not the same, as that which La Folie uses.

The most significant aspects of a restaurant meal are labor and overhead (rent and utilities). In the case of “fine dining”, labor is the number one cost. I’m mostly referring to the “back of the house” or the kitchen labor because at the high menu prices, the tips are usually also high because people normally figure tip as a percentage of the bill. However, when you staff a restaurant to provide the “high” level of service expected in a fine dining experience the tips get spread around quite a bit, and often fine dining restaurants pay much more in hourly wages to that staff because you need to attract employees with a high level of skill to be able to operate in an attentive, knowledgeable, but unobtrusive manner, and some of those wages will inevitably come out of the cost of the food and beverages. The costs really add up when a restaurant offers fois gras soup, and frogs legs lollipops, and three meat terrines is in the kitchen. These kinds of dishes usually involve many steps, often requiring days of preparation, and a high degree of skill to produce. High skill times many steps equals a high kitchen payroll.

In my opinion, people who scoff at paying more than $20 to eat at a restaurant are saying they don’t value skilled labor because either that means that the kitchen cooks should be paid very little for their work, or that cooking skills are unnecessary. Some of the people I’ve met who denigrate “fine dining” eat most of their meals at fast food restaurants, or cook out of boxes and cans which is appropriate. Some also abhor fast food and prepared/packaged food, which is hypocritical: good food takes time and skill to prepare, both of which has value. Cheap food is not good food; good food is not cheap food.

The chef who is usually also a part-owner in the operation dreams up these wonderful dishes and regularly prepares them. But one chef does not cook three courses for 60 people every night. One chef oversees a battery of cooks who boil pigs feet then pluck each tender meat nugget from out of that mess of gristle, skin, and bone; who poach lobsters then extract the meat from the shells; who perfectly sautée sweetbreads; and then who combine that whole mess, along with a bunch of other ingredients that have been precisely prepared, into one amazing terrine, which is likely to have been done ahead of time requiring one more set of hands (sometimes that of the chef, often not) to heat the terrine plus it’s required sauce (also prepared ahead of time from many steps), then plate the dish before it is handed off to the waiter for service.

Anyone who has read Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook understands that to create specific combinations of flavors and textures in a single dish is time consuming and complicated although the outcome is often sublime. Combined with a beautiful dining room, calm and confident service, and cherished guests, this food can create enduring moments of happiness. I have cherished memories of exquisite meals at many fine dining restaurants in my life, and what could be more primal and satisfying than sharing excellent food with the people that you love while being treated like royalty?

In addition, cuisine is an art form, requiring creativity and years of education to produce something that will cause someone to pause in their life and snap to attention. Many people pay thousands of dollars to go on retreats where regimented periods of isolation, meditation, and deprivation allow them to begin to appreciate this moment, each “now.” All I need is a but of lemon peel, mint, and champagne over crushed ice between courses.

For someone who loves food in all its forms, the thrill of discovery is rare and special. Of course this isn’t always an expensive endeavor: my first handmade burrito, my first plate of salt-and-pepper fried squid, my oyster, my first piece of brie, my first bowl of pho noodle soup, etc. But encountering classic examples of cuisines that are entirely new are rare. The “fine dining” chef is of a class of food preparers who attempt to re-invent food and flavors, and when they successfully deliver this new experience, I am among many people who will pay more for that experience than I will for a plate of salt and pepper fried squid. Of course not every chef turns cuisine on its head like Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, or Ferran Adrià — most are able to execute a few outstanding dishes that, when packaged together with good company, a beautiful dining room, and excellent service, can provide one with an enduring moment of happiness. This is what I was able to purchase for $125 at La Folie, and I felt it was well worth it.


Le Menu La FolieI consulted with Marc about the wine, and we decided on a California Pinot Gris white to start (we had all enjoyed several of the Pinot Gris we had tasted on our tour of Mendocino and Sonoma the previous weekend), and a French St. Joseph red to follow.

The bread basket arrived with perfect french epie rolls with a complex crust and a well fermented but light crumb which perfectly matched with the soft butter served in ramekins. I noted that I should be careful not to fill up on it.

Our first course was a wonderful amuse bouche/guelle from the house of a bit of “white fish carpaccio” mixed with greens and a light dressing, then sprinkled with a grating of smoked salted fish eggs. The fish eggs could have been similar or identical to the bottarga (smoked dried salted tuna eggs) Brian had once sent us from Sardinia — it’s hard like parmasean cheese, very fragrant, and a little goes a long way. Traditionally it’s grated over pasta with lemon and olive oil. They have a distinctive rich bitterness that contrasted nicely with the exquisitely fresh but subtle taste of the raw fish.

My first course was a pillowy soft “fois gras soup with scallop ravioli” that almost had the texture of whipped cream. No surprise that it was incredibly rich, but it wasn’t too much, possibly because it had been fluffed up, so much of each spoonful was air. There was a single handmade ravioli in the middle containing a single large tender and barely cooked scallop in a clear garlic infused broth that was quite different from the surrounding soup.

Alison got a butternut squash soup with sage gniocchi for her first course that, although silky smooth and rich tasting, was spiced a bit too closely like pumpkin pie (allspice and cinnamon no doubt). Alison actually commented that the texture of the soup was perfect, and that restaurants go an additional step when making soup of sieving and filtering and clarifying that we typically do not at home, which makes soup prepared at a nice restaurant always an nice experience no matter what the recipe.

My next course was the same as Marc’s: Frog Legs “Bernard Loiseau” with a Purée of Garlic and Parsley Coulis. We were both inspired to try this because we had read The Perfectionist by Rudolph Chelminski, which profiles Bernared Loiseau’s rise to become a three star chef in France, but who later killed himself which some suggest was due to the pressure of keeping a restaurant’s stars. His signature dish was a deconstruction of the classic Burgundy dish of frog legs sauteed with butter, garlic, and parsley. Our plates had a dollop of green parsley sauce topped with a large dot of garlic puree surrounded like numbers on a clock by the upper part of the frog leg (similar to the upper part of a chicken wing, only smaller) which had the meat rolled up to the top joint so it looked like a little white meat lollipop with a little white bone handle. The dish is meant to be eaten by hand, dipping the meat lollipop into the sauces before sucking them off their meat handles. I think I’d tried frogs legs at least once when I was in France, but what I had here was nothing like what I had seen. The meat was tender and succulent, though with a very mild flavor which was countered by the grassy green parsley sauce, and the warm glow of the well cooked garlic sauce.

Carol had ordered another classic Burgundy dish of snails, which the chef had paired with a burgundy sauce and brioche. Alison got a roasted beet and goats cheese salad which is a dish that I’ve started to see pop up on many adventuresome menus, much as the roasted goat cheese salad proliferated among the foodie circles in the eighties after Chez Panisse made it famous. She seemed to enjoy it.

At this point our Pinot Gris ran out even though I still had a braised cod dish to get before my veal course; instead of making everyone wait, we went ahead and opened the St. Joseph, which was fine, but perhaps that probably why I don’t remember much about the cod dish. Both wines were very good, though not exceptional (which is to be expected because they were on the low end of their price lists — about $35 a bottle). The service was what I would expect at a classic French restaurant: very attentive and helpful, but not intrusive, performed by a legion of waiters, sub-waiters, and busboys in addition to the host who also served as sommelier. The chef came out twice to greet us and ask if we were enjoying our meal — we were. I’ve been disappointed at other “big ticket” dining experiences that have become more performances than private dinners because the waiters insist on making sure you are focused on the food, not your dining companions, whether or not you have requested that kind of experience.

Marc also got the veal dish, Carol got duck breast in a spicy red wine sauce, but Alison got the most memorable dish: Warm Pig Feet, Sweetbread and Lobster Terrine on a Lentil Salad with Bacon, Hazelnut Vinaigrette. My veal chop was very nice, perfectly cooked and seasoned, with two kinds of potato accompaniments, but Alison was kind enough to ask if I would help her finish her dish, and when she passed that along to me (after eating her fill and looking forward to dessert), I marveled at the combination of succulent and rich piggy meat combined with the nutty succulence of sweetbreads combined with the light buttery succulence of lobster all of which was grounded by the sharp earthy flavor of lentils and the hazelnut vinaigrette. Each bite was like tasting a new kind of meat. This was outstanding.

After everyone had finished their meat course (I also finished Carol’s duck plate when she had her fill — it was good but hard to concentrate on after such an awesome dish) the kitchen sent out tall skinny shot glasses filled with a crunchy lemon ice that was heavy on lemon peel (more bitter than sour) poured at the last possible Carolent with Champagne so that they mixed very little. I thought this little “palate cleanser” was surprising and wonderful although the rest of the group didn’t seem to agree. I believe that Carol didn’t even finish hers.

Following that came desserts for the girls, a cheese plate for me, and tastes of those dishes for Marc. Carol got the chocolate bomb (I didn’t write down what it was called), but Alison’s dish was much more interesting: “Le Coco et La Passion” Coconut Tapioca with Passion Fruit Sorbet, Basil Infusion and Coconut Tuile. Alison loves tapioca and wasn’t disappointed by this creative used of cassava pearls. My cheese plate, however, was a bit disappointing because it seemed to be an afterthought — the Epoisse was incorrectly aged, the Forme D’Ambert and Brebis des Pyrennees were both unexceptional. It came with toasted walnuts, a poached pear, a fresh sliced apple, raisins, and a spoon of lemon sorbet, but there was no spark to any of it. It felt rote and I wondered how much effort the chef had put into it.

Marc and I wound down from our culinary heights with a bourbon (me) and a scotch, which always helps prepare you for what the check would be. But overall it was not as surprising as I feared: $450 for four people, which we split between each couple. By the time we looked up from our meal, the dining room was almost empty — only one or two couples left — and it was almost 11:00pm, but I never felt rushed to pay and finish up, and we didn’t rush. When we finally rose from our tables and made our way back to Polk Street, we were warmly and graciously wished a good evening.

2 thoughts on “HiLo Cuisine Continued

  1. Eric,
    Thanks for inventing this Hi-Lo trip through food experiences. It’s oh so nice to have visitors show us San Francisco with new eyes and palates.

    We hit another late-night spot when I fetched E & A from Oakland Airport: How lucky that Ryoko’s Sushi & Japanese Cuisine on Taylor between Post and Sutter was exactly on our way home! Just down the hill from a Lingerie models shop, we entered Ryoko’s down dark carpeted stairs. The room was dark and funky with spots of colorful neon lights sprinkled around. Also bright was our convivial waitress’ smile as we ordered a pitcher of Sapporo Beer, a seaweed salad, some eel sushi, and a tofu dish. Just right for the late night.

    And another note on the cost of food preparation from a recent eats posting:
    On one of my 7am walks, up and down the Embarcadero, I passed a restaurant. One window looked into a prep area, off the dining room, and there was a solitary young cook picking the leaves off of parsley, putting the leaves in one bowl and the stems in another.

    Like

  2. And speaking of Polk Street…
    It’s sunny and 50 degrees at 11 o’clock on this Saturday morning.
    I walked the four blocks home from Cheese Plus at Polk and Pacific, and folks were out on the street walking, standing and talking, sitting at tables outside Starbucks, Peets, Polker’s Burgers, Le Petit Robert, Rex Café, the bagel place, and so on. I counted 164 folks enjoying winter on Polk Street in San Francisco. It’s sposta be in the 60’s later on today, but I’m not gonna go back out and count.

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