Kyle Ate There, or I Left My Cured Tuna Heart in San Francisco

I've included travel stops in previous Kyle Ate Here posts, but it just didn't seem fair to San Francisco to lump it in with Appleton and Door County (stay tuned!) restaurants. The first thing I did when we decided to visit our friends in SF was build a Google Map of potential restaurant stops. A city that inspires that level of planning deserves the full treatment--and this is kind of an epic.

The fact that one of our friends in SF is a meticulous planner and enthusiastic promoter of her city didn't hurt the development of a tight itinerary of eating. Despite landing in California well past what normal human beings would call dinner hour, we still ventured out from their Golden Gate Park-area house to the Mission. Chinese food was calling.

Mission Chinese Food is one of those places that plain has figured it out. Literally--the guys running the show out of a dingy storefront had never cooked Sichuan before opening MCF, working it out as they went. The result? One of Bon Appetit's ten best new restaurants of 2011.

Spicy buckwheat noodles with Asian pear. Hainam chicken rice. Broccoli beef cheek. General Tso's veal rib. Kung pao pastrami. This place is right up my alley, and it looks like is should be in an alley. Deep flavors, meats cooked and caramelized to delicious perfection, and a soundtrack split between gangster rap and the best easy listening of the 1980's--I didn't want to leave. That beef cheek dish was maybe the best thing I've eaten all year.

Hard to come down from that cloud, but how about a pub that brews its own beer, has an intricate and gorgeous design aesthetic, and looks out on the hot corner of Haight and Masonic? Magnolia is that place, and the cod and chorizo sandwich I had for Friday lunch speaks well of it. My wife had a watermelon salad that was nice, but come on. Chorizo, people. You know where my allegiances lie.

Friday night, though, was the centerpiece of the whole trip. The one place I insisted upon. The place we made reservations for weeks in advance. Chef Chris Cosentino's Incanto.

You've seen Tony Bourdain eat here on No Reservations. You've seen the chef on Food Network's Chefs vs. City. If Cosentino and his kitchen at Incanto have a claim to fame, it's odd bits. Offal. The kind of stuff my Fringe Foods brain gets all worked up over.

And brain it was for course number one--a brown butter-sauteed calf's brain (yes, a whole brain, creamy and hot), over buttery toast, topped with a smoked caper salsa verde that every single person at the table went a little slack-jawed over. For the main course, my second serving of pork belly in two days (after MCF) came crispy alongside polenta, squash, and smoked apples; I was going for a smoked theme, and it paid off. Dessert was a fig leaf panna cotta with quince that capped the meal off perfectly.


(Other plates at the table included my wife's cured tuna heart spaghettini--a kind of offal riff on carbonara; a special of sweetbread bacon terrine, breaded and fried; lardo with persimmon and pomegranate; and a ridiculous plate of goat two ways with potatoes, olives, and goat horn peppers. It was all terrific, and very reasonably priced--about $300 for four.)

Saturday, we were all over town. It started off well, with a luscious maple Bavarian log from Donut World on 9th (leave it to Kevin to sneak off and procure an illicit doughnut for me; he's a true friend) and a Blue Bottle double americano from Dash Cafe.

Due east to the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero, the Farmers' Market was a totally non-circular operation--strange for this Madisonian. But it was all good once I got some 4505 Meats in me. Their maple sausage breakfast sandwich is a glistening, rocket-hot bundle of sin, and I loved it. Even better are their chicharrones, which resemble nothing so much as meat cotton candy.

Meats-as-sweets continued with the Boccalone cured meat stand inside the Ferry Building. Co-founded by Chris Cosentino, Boccalone fulfills all your "salted pig part" needs. I could have filled my meat cone (not a euphemism) with nothing but their prosciutto crudo and been perfectly happy. That's not to say that the subsequent trip to In-n-Out (yes, Donny, my first time) was out of dissatisfaction. No, it just had to happen.

With all that, I'm still not sure how I managed to fit an Époisses-studded cheeseburger in there, but it happened. Heirloom Cafe, one of Bon Appetit's nine restaurants to visit in San Francisco, has an interesting atmosphere--sort of like a Victorian parlor in a modern art museum--and a tight, rustic menu. Brussels with bacon and a bacon-onion tart might make Heirloom sound like a trend-hopping artifice, but it's not. The comped bottle of bubbly--more of Lauren's networking in action--was just the bow on top of a really enjoyable experience. (And I swear I didn't realize I was following BA's advice on the burger.)

We did have to swear off a round of late beers at Monk's Kettle in deference to our full bellies, but I did at least get to drink a pint of Pliny the Elder on Friday night. Sunday--our last day--would be a "walk off the calories" kind of day. Before heading out for Muir Woods and a little winery-hopping, we stocked up with Beanery coffee and pastries and whatnot from Arizmendi Baking Co-op--holy corn-cherry scone.

And then, en route to Napa, something magical happened. Lauren, struck by the spirit, remembered a roadside sign she'd seen for a diner serving fried pies. "Lunch?", she asked. "Why are we still talking about it?", replied the menfolk. And thus did the Fremont Diner become our Sunday lunch stop.

It's slow, it's idiosyncratic, and there are about three different bottlenecks built into the experience, but man is Fremont Diner something amazing. It's a serious Southern food diner. Our friends, recent transplants to SF from Charleston, South Carolina, were over the moon. Pimento cheese on really nice crusty bread; biscuits crammed full of griddle-hot ham and peach jam; complimentary fried apple slices and onion rings--yes, yes, gods yes.

So, the pie at the end kind of got lost. We had to ask for it twice, and eventually took it to go. At least we were comped a slice of caramel cake for our trouble. Fremont Diner is country-style classics tweaked just a pinch here and there. See: horchata or salted caramel milkshakes, a Reuben topped with chow-chow, or a muffaletta with orange skin-infused fontina. Basically, there are little sheds and outbuildings all over and I want to move into one.

[[Deleted scene involving the four of us punching way over our cultural weight at three vineyards in Napa, and driving past--but dear lord, not stopping along--the murderer's row that is The French Laundry, Bouchon, and ad hoc.]]

The one negative dining experience of the trip came when we stopped at the very cute Oxbow Public Market in Napa-proper. I wasn't sure how much more I could cram into my face, so I decided to play it light with a rotisserie duck taco from C Casa. Upon receiving my (small, EIGHT DOLLAR) taco, I noticed the avocado crema was missing. The server/cashier noted that something appeared to be amiss, and took my taco back for remedy. I could see her telling the cook, who then went to the menu board to see if he'd really left it off. No, dude, I made it up. Heck, I don't even know what avocado crema is.

I have never been closer to playing the "I'm a food writer, and I know both how to read, and what avocado crema looks like" card. I didn't, but I thought about it for a second.

This would have been a bummer of a finale, but inspiration (always timely, it seems, in SF) struck. We're heading to the airport along the eastern edge of the peninsula, yes? What say you all to a quick detour for ice cream at Humphry Slocombe?

The dishes of Secret Breakfast (bourbon ice cream with corn flake nuggets), Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee, Caramel Apple, and/or Butterbeer (stout beer ice cream and brown butter ice cream blend) that we all kind of leisurely shared while a huge Halloween crowd filed in right on our heels speak the answer to that question.

Really. If the question is San Francisco, the answer is always going to be yes. For a food guy? It calls to me.