Last week I went to San Francisco and the coast with a dear friend, and we had some of the most fantastic food of our lives. But here's the kicker that might raise an eyebrow or two: of the handful of meals we squeezed into our 28 hours in San Fran, four of them were at the same two places. With all the options in this city of mist and marine life, why double back? Because some things are so good, you just have to!
TARTINE TIME 01: TUESDAY 12:00PM
Total damage: Plain croissant (1), Ham and fresh corn quiche (1), Passionfruit and coconut layer cake (1), ice coffees (2).
Upon arriving into the city, we made a beeline for Tartine, a world-renowned bakery and restaurant complex that has spawned several cookbooks and lines around the block. The bakery in particular has garnered serious respect for its respectful approach of breads and other baked goods. I'll be honest, as not much of a dessert person myself (I'll roll my eyes at myself for you) the average baked goodie doesn't get my pulse racing. A too blond croissant with a greasy film, a beigey muffin that tastes like plain old sugar, a cake with a too sweet frosting—all of these things are, unfortunately, available wherever you seek them. But a truly deep amber croissant with a crispy, chewy interior and more stretch than saran wrap (in a good way)—this was the stuff of dreams—Paris dreams—and Tartine more than delivered. The layer cake was astounding, with the tangy passionfruit and buttery coconut. The quiche was stupendously good and featured a rich custard and smoky ham. The corn was a nice burst of freshness. The crust was made in-house of course, and was buttery and flaky. The ice coffees were just a necessity. After a pint of local California strawberries, which taste like a strawberry mutant that's been steeping itself in a bath of champagne and pinot noir; and a bit of exploring, we buckled up for our pre-dinner dinner.
SWAN OYSTER DEPOT TIME 01: TUESDAY AFTERNOON 5:00PM
Total damage: Mixed oyster platter (12), Seafood salad combination (1), Sicilian Sashimi (1) Pinot Grigio (1) Beer (1)
This divey, counter service place had a line out of the door when we stopped by around 3pm earlier that day. Hedging our bets, we went off on a walk, hoping the line would clear by the time we returned. Lo and behold: it did! Marching up at 5pm we only waited three minutes to dine at what Anthony Bourdain deemed a stellar place to enjoy one's last meal. I can't say I would challenge him. The counter, the bar stools, the casual banter between staff made me feel instantly at ease.
As if I were at an old Chicago diner with scratched up linoleum tiles and framed pictures of Vince Vaughn drinking a milkshake while watching a Bears game. But onto the food. I've only had a couple oysters in my life. And for a while I was on the "what's the big deal" train. I was so wrong. These oysters were phenomenal, each tasting like the sea that it hailed from, so super fresh and pure they needed just a drop of lemon juice.
The combo seafood salad was a different world of flavor: richer and more savory, it included baby shrimp and tender crab meat piled onto fresh bread with shredded lettuce. Say what you will about iceberg, but sometimes it's exactly the crisp, bland foil a certain dish needs. After plowing through this mountain of an open face sandwich, we split the sicilian sashimi, a plate of tuna, salmon, scallops and other raw fish drizzled with olive oil and dotted with scallops. It was hard not to dream about ordering even more, but the bill was the proper doorstop we needed.
TARTINE TIME 02: WEDNESDAY MORNING 10:00AM
Total damage: Lemon curd tartlet (1), Lemon Tea Cake (1), Orange Sesame Cake (1), Plain Croissant (1), Croque Monsieur (1), Coffee (1)
Did we go overboard this time? Who's to say. We weren't sure when we'd be back, so we didn't want to risk wondering about this or that item in the glass case at Tartine. The croissant was a no brainer, as it was simply perfect and had to be consumed again. The lemon tea cake was the most flavorful loaf cake this side of the universe. It had a perfect crumb and was singing with lemon essences. The orange sesame cake was not my favorite as it was a bit denser, but the flavor was excellent. The Croque Monsier was perfect for eating in the car while waiting for a friend to dip her feet into the freezing ocean from afar! The lemon curd tart was silky and topped with a baby daisy.
SWAN OYSTER DEPOT TIME 02: WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON 2:00PM
Total damage: sea urchins (2)
Down to the wire for our drive to our next locale, we zipped back by Swan Oyster Depot for a delicacy I couldn't put out of my mind since thinking about the West Coast: Sea Urchin. After chatting with the guys at the counter just the day before, I asked if we could do an order of urchin to go, half joking (many pubs recommend getting to-go items since the line is so long). Our SOD guides told us to come back in the morning and try our luck. The gentlemen behind the counter made quick, but careful, work of the two sea urchins he selected for us, packaging their shell in a seperate container and the roe in a styrofoam cup "for the road." Definitely the fanciest thing we'd ever scraped out a plastic cup while driving. The urchin was just as I'd remembered: buttery, briny and impossibly rich. We savored our dear sea souvenir as we zipped away south toward Santa Cruz.
While we might've forgone some of the other incredible options in SF, we plan to explore even more next time, and I can't say that I regret a thing. If you're traveling and a part of you feels guilty for wanting to go back somewhere you already went, I say let go of that and indulge in what feels special to you and like something you can't get at home.
The Chopping Block has speciality baking classes (including French pastries) and seafood parties galore (as well as seafood 101) so you can recreate your favorite dishes from your travels. I know I will be attempting to do so over the next few weeks.