by Stephanie Zonis
Tony Bennett may have left his heart in The City by the Bay, but I left a goodly chunk of cash there; it is one expensive town. Still, it's worth the occasional splurge, as some of the food can be very good. Be sure to make reservations where you'd like to dine, particularly on weekends, and recognize that you might not be able to get in to the latest dining "hot spot". Almost everyone seems to offer foie gras, duck, something made with Meyer lemons, crème brûlée or pot de crème or bread pudding (or all three), and field greens.
Farallon (450 Post Street, 415-956-6969). This restaurant provided the best meal I had in San Francisco. The decor most closely resembles something Jacques Cousteau might have dreamed up if he were on narcotics—not unpleasant, just unusual. Service is polished and polite. Be warned: this is not a place to take your vegetarian friends! The truffled peekytoe crab and blood orange salad (with pickled red and gold beets, mache, and satsuma mandarins) featured shellfish so fresh and sweet I could scarcely believe it, though I detected no taste of truffle and I thought the crab rather overwhelmed the beets. The "French Kiss" (seared Hudson Valley foie gras with Cognac-laced prunes and pears) was perfect, a decent portion of inwardly-rosy foie gras balanced atop deliciously poached pears and prunes. I would have licked the plate clean if I could have gotten away with it. "Small Endings", my dessert, included 11 different samples of the pastry chef's art, ranging from a chocolate truffle to a piece of sesame brittle to a square of an intense fruit jelly. If you'd like a view of the kitchen while you dine, make sure to get seated in the Nautilus section. Go!
Rubicon (558 Sacramento Street, 415-434-4100). Rubicon looks as though a friend's loft apartment and the living space below had been suddenly and inexplicably transformed into a white-tablecloth restaurant. It's a friendly-feeling place, with no pretension; this is reflected in the service, which is also prompt and efficient. Some effort has been made to provide for vegetarians on the menu. I started with the Mixed Field Greens with Roquefort, a large plate heaped with very fresh greens in a nicely acidic dressing. There was a generous amount of roquefort in the salad, too, and overall the dish was very good. Similar praise must be given to the Braised Rabbit and Wild Mushroom Tart, a dish that included cipollini in addition to the rabbit and mushrooms. The flavors in this tart were earthy and deep; this is not subtle food, but it isn't meant to be. My dessert was the Chocolate Chiffon Cake with Hazelnut Ice Cream and Chocolate Soup. This proved to be amusingly presented: an individual chocolate chiffon cake rested on a very small quantity of "soup" (probably a ganache). The cake was topped with a tuile wafer curved upward. The ice cream rested in the tuile, and a single strand of pulled sugar projected upward diagonally from the ice cream. The tuile and ice cream were excellent, but the cake, though very chocolatey, was dry and tasted a trifle burnt.
Firefly (4288 24th Street, 415-821-7652). This plain, neighborhood restaurant, a long cab ride from Union Square, is remarkable both for its eclectic menu and eccentric decor (wall sconces and lamps, the odd plastic dinosaur, a white cloth ceiling, etc.). It is an utterly unfussy place; the lack of attitude was wonderful. Food is garnished nicely but simply. The menu borrows from many cultures; baby beet salad with blood orange vinaigrette and walnuts co-exists happily with tofu in black bean sauce with soba noodles and garlicky gai-lan. Vegetarians will find something to eat here, of course, but they're not the only ones. The menu changes often. Your server will likely be an energetic twenty-something, perhaps with an unusual hairstyle. I started with the baby beet salad described above, which proved to be a mound of greens atop sliced red and gold beets, sprinkled on the perimeter with walnuts. This was a nice combination, and I could really taste the orange in the vinaigrette. As my next course, I ordered shrimp and sea scallop potstickers with sesame soy dipping sauce. If there is a signature dish at Firefly, this is it. Four large, fried potstickers were garnished with scallions and served with a cold, marinated vegetable medley (squash, carrot, red onion, etc.). I thought the dipping sauce (probably made with genuine shoyu) was too salty for the potstickers, and the marinated vegetables were too peppery and acidic. For dessert, my Meyer lemon cake with strawberries and mascarpone cream proved disappointing. The mascarpone cream was delicious, and the visual contrast between it, the berries, and the cake was very good, but the cake itself was dry and not lemony enough in flavor. Note: there is no sign in front of this restaurant; look for the giant firefly.
Postrio (545 Post Street, attached to the Prescott Hotel, 415-776-7825). Noisy and modern in appearance, Postrio is not a subdued place. The atmosphere tends toward the informal, especially at the bar. As an appetizer, I selected mixed lettuces with sherry vinaigrette and a bread stick. This won the prize for the largest individual salad I've ever seen. The greens were fresh and the dressing provided a tangy accent, but it was far too large a portion. I did like the crispy, wavy bread stick that accompanied it, though. As a main course, I opted for the foie gras terrine with shaved apples and sauternes jelly. A very small, buttery smooth, easy-to-slice terrine was surrounded by three ultra-thin slices of apple, topped with the jelly and garnished with fresh chives; this dish was very properly served with toast points. I thought the terrine was a bit salty, but overall the combination of ingredients was terrific. However, this dish was overpriced at $19.00. Desserts ranged from Meyer lemon sorbet bread pudding to warm chocolate truffle cake with Merlot poached pears; most are $9 each as of this writing, which seemed awfully expensive to me. Postrio will make up a dessert sampler for a minimum of two people for 50 cents more each; as I was dining singly, I rather resented that. I ordered the assorted cookies and candies; a plate filled with miniature cookies (including 2 biscotti; 2 chocolate chip cookies; 2 triangular, gilded or bronzed chocolate candies filled with ganache; and a cookie that resembled a homemade Oreo). I didn't find any standouts in the bunch, but everything was good. Service was professional enough, but a bit on the patronizing end of things.
I have just one recommendation here, the place I stayed on my most recent trip.
Kensington Park Hotel (450 Post Street, 415-788-6400). A mere half block from Union Square and next door to Farallon, the Kensington Park's location is unbeatable. The hotel rooms start on the fifth floor of the building, which is an Elks Lodge from the 1920's; there's a working theater on the second floor, too. The staff can't seem to do enough for you, and there's a concierge who can arrange reservations, tours, or trips to the airport. A Continental breakfast, available from 7 to 10am on each floor, is included in your room rate, as are the tea/sherry and cookies in the lobby every afternoon. Rooms are spacious and nicely decorated, with comfortable furnishings. Accommodations on the Union Square side of the hotel can be noisy, though, and closet space in some rooms is limited. In addition, I found the old-fashioned heating system hard to control. Prices are not cheap, but you wouldn't expect them to be so considering the location and service. If you have younger children, you might be better off elsewhere, as there are no clubs or groups for kids here as there are at some other establishments. However, if you are looking for a hotel with personality and solid comfort that's near Union Square, this is a very good choice.
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