Are there two better American neighborhoods than the Tenderloin and the Mission? Are there three more choice words to utter to a cabbie than "Eighteenth and Guerrero?" I think not. Wikipedia may allege, with its customary, solecistic élan, that "The Tenderloin is a high crime neighborhood, particularly violent street crime such as robbery and aggravated assault," but this charge is utter nonsense. The 'loin is the home of Blue Bottle Café, whose Italophilic espresso, unlike all the charred, overpriced Third Wave swill that is the true Starbucks legacy, is exquisite and can accommodate a macchiato so elegant and compelling that it is in itself a riposte to the sanctimonious black,-like-my-women purism that I am wont to espouse.
With bags in hand, Jim, Justin and I raced from SFO to Tartine Bakery, with collective eagerness to begin 48 hours of gluttony that we hoped might have a dash of refinement. We were greeted with a short line and plenty of Northern California sunshine, defying the laws of physics as much as that weird carom that rebuffed Ian Kinsler in Game 2 of the Fall Classic. Even as our luck seemed to turn, upon learning that the bakery was out of its stalwart croque monsieur, order was fast restored by the Jambon Royale & Gruyère, a pressed sandwich consisting of cured and smoked ham, the aforementioned (but now accent-less) gruyere, and Dijon mustard between Tartine's warm country bread. If nothing else, we presumed that the sandwich would make for a nice accompaniment to the ham and chard quiche and ham and cheese croissant. (Not to mention our appetizers: a gougère, the brilliant orange-zested morning bun, and brioche pudding.) Clearly we meant business.
Among this array of textbook quality bakery items, the sandwich was the knee-buckler. Owners Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson understand how to create a perfectly proportioned sandwich -- just the right amount of mustard in every single bite, the bread sliced somehow to the right width to accommodate the most classic sandwich fillings of all, ham and cheese. Moreover, Tartine does not scrimp on the quality of these key ingredients. They use the good stuff, including ham from the venerable Niman Ranch and proper cheese. (Note to the world: There is no mayonnaise on this sandwich.) So, yes, once assembled, the sandwich is a model of precision, but we are not talking about something sterile and soulless. The masters at Le Cordon Bleu in the 15th Arr. and the goons drinking beer in the late morning at Nick's Roast Beef at 20th and Passyunk would esteem this sandwich equally. That is, if the goons at Nick's would stop gambling and remove their attention from Philly Classic Sports broadcasts of keg tossing. The ham and chard quiche was just as flabbergasting, also in equal parts refined and guttural. And as simply delicious as the brioche pudding happened to be, it was a vehicle for the tart blackberries and plums that went into the oven inside it on that very morning. After solid espressos made with neighbor Four Barrel's beans, we ambled down to the local BART stop, dropped our bags off at the hotel, and headed to the Ferry Building, tacitly understanding that we would be returning to Tartine on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
At the Ferry Building, we first stopped at Boccalone, Chris Cosentino's shop for cured pork and sausage, or what Cosentino's marketing specialists have tagged "tasty salted pig parts," which is a far cry from the Hot Doug's much wittier "There are no two finer words in the English language than 'encased meats', my friend." We went in for a "salumi cone." We should have been warded off by Boccalone's lame locution, which did not augur well for our Incanto dinner later. Still, the mortadella, prosciutto cotto and whatever other parts were thrown into the paper cup were tasty enough.
We moved on to Il Cane Rosso, a meat-focused establishment owned by Daniel Patterson, David Chang's recent sparring partner in the recent Made-for-the-Internet "NYC vs. SF" debate. (If Patterson believes that New York follows San Francisco, then all of the Red Dog's pork and beef proves that San Francisco follows New York right back.) We split a braised pork sandwich with cracklings and a relish of sweet peppers and jalapeños along with a plate of meatballs, both of which were respectable, but underwhelming in the aftermath of our Tartine extravaganza. This criticism may be unfair, but that's tough luck. The most memorable item from the Dog was a side of ciabatta, i.e., carpet slipper bread, with a garlic flavor so acute that Patterson must have pillaged half the garlic in Gilroy.
With our circulatory systems nearing rupture, we secured a table on the Bay over at Hog Island Oysters, which is known for its quality oyster production in Tomales Bay, an estuary 50 miles north of the City in Marin County. We shared a dozen oysters -- regrettably we only ordered a half dozen of the tiny and deliciously sweet Hog Island kumamotos, which take two to three years to grow to maturity, and two to three seconds to ingest. Even mollusk-phobic J-Wy could not resist. We washed the oysters down with a glass of muscadet and I am here to pronounce that, pace Mr. Franzen, "comfortably dissipating . . . in coastal affluence" is sorely underrated.
Before leaving Ferry Market, we queued up for caffeine at Blue Bottle Café's north bar, which I later learned pulls single-origin espresso shots while the main bar pulls uses the mainstay Hayes Valley blend. Regardless of the blend, Blue Bottle makes a caramelly, Italian-style espresso, eschewing all the cloying efflorescence that I usually find in what is considered "American premium espresso." Indeed the macchiato was so delicious, its proportions so finely hewn that I found myself admiring the beauty in the otherwise preposterous form of expression known as "latte art." Don't people know that Arabica's perfectly segregated, layered cappuccino circa 1996—steamed milk on the bottom, espresso in the middle, and foam on top—will always be the ne plus ultra of coffee art even if those caps were a few notches short of potability? I trust that The Coffee House at University Circle has maintained the tradition, even if it has abandoned the upstairs smoking section.
Sauntering through the Tenderloin, our bodies demanding caffeine even though we just left Blue Bottle, we managed to admire all the aging, unkempt architectural gems on Howard and Mission Streets, plus the occasional steely dan manufacturer. We stepped over and around scores of homeless on our mission to overpay for the fancy coffee that we knew existed in the neighborhood, even if was less conspicuous than the local drug trade. We landed on quiet Seventh Street, home to the rehabilitated warehouse that is Sight Glass Coffee. Sight Glass is the latest San Francisco roaster to hang a shingle and roast and brew coffee with any array of methodologies and technologies. Despite a large and attractive space, it was off limits to civilians; Sight Glass's retail operations are confined to a coffee cart and two seats at the front door. But in the middle of the afternoon on a dreary and seemingly out-of-the way block, Sight Glass drew a steady crowd, which was no surprise because the coffee was really good. The slow-brew technique, which all the cool kids are doing these days, proved itself worthy and, if the espresso was not quite on par with Blue Bottle's, well it was nothing to scoff at either. Does any city anywhere have coffee this good?
Disaster then struck at Incanto, a farce of a restaurant possessing remarkable incompetence. (J-Wy questioned my decision to review the place because he figured it would be defunct by the time I got around to typing something.) During the afternoon, I attempted to move our 8:30 pm reservation up to 7 o'clock in deference to the two jet-lagged New Yorkers. But the restaurant claimed that it could not accommodate us. We nonetheless arrived at 7:30 and discovered a dining room as devoid of charm as it was people. Disconcerted by the deceit and solitude on what should have been a busy Friday night, we sat down at our choice of tables.
The waiter recited the specials. The chef, Chris Cosentino, has struck fame as a votary of cooking extreme offal and on this night, he offered cow testicles. Our waiter chose the biological term over the euphemism "Rocky Mountain oysters." Why not just say "testes," which seems grossest of all? Now I consider myself an adventurous eater and was mesmerized by the tartare of tête de veau at Pierre Gagnaire in 2004. But there is no way I would put a bull's balls in my mouth at Incanto or anywhere else.
Incanto's path of destruction began with a dish of ill-sliced sardines with sunchokes and sunflowers utterly sodden from some unfortunate marinade. We were forced to push the dish to the far corner of the table to minimize the pain to our eyes. An inexplicable mistake on our part, we ordered poached oysters, which were removed from their shells, served on a bed of what turned out to be a Twinkie-like polenta cake and accompanied with a side of heated mussels. These oysters were so gargantuan and slimy that it took us several minutes to identify them. In no mood for diplomacy, there was no need to conceal them in our napkins or under bread. Our diffident waiter began to suspect that we did not like the food.
By this point, it was clear that the meal would be an abject failure. In one dish, some beautiful chanterelles were denuded of all chanterelle flavor. Three half orders of pasta--handkerchief noodles with pork ragù, paccheri with calamari in squid ink, and a macaroni cacio e pepe, were so hopelessly awful that we bellowed in laughter to the point of tears. I was afraid that I would choke. The ragù could have been Ragù, and the cacao e pepe was sin pepe. The ink was as bland as John Thune despite a potent appearance, and the calamari was downright quaggy. We quickly skedaddled. This meal was as indelible as it was inedible.
(More on the Gaycation to come.... Stay tuned, intrepid readers.)
Tartine Bakery & Café
600 Guerrero Street
Ferry Building Marketplace, Shop 21
Il Cane Rosso
Ferry Building Marketplace, Shop 41
Hog Island Oyster Bar
Ferry Building Marketplace, Shop 11A
Blue Bottle Coffee
Ferry Building Marketplace, Shop 7
Sight Glass Coffee
270 Seventh Street
San Francisco, CA
1550 Church Street