Monday, August 23, 2010

San Francisco Wrap Up: Brenda's French Soul Food, Zuni Cafe and Fleur de Lys

Brenda's French Soul Food

With no real agenda on our last day, MW and I trekked from our hotel through the Civic Center area of San Francisco to Brenda's French Soul Food. Albeit a bit skeptical about finding authentic Creole food on the west coast, this restaurant intrigued me after reading numerous positive reviews, but we ultimately decided to go due to our craving for some beignets. We arrived to no line and immediately grabbed two seats along the wall that sat adjacent to the kitchen. Service was fast and efficient throughout the meal, and as with any veteran waitstaff, our coffee cups were never empty.

Undecided on which beignets to choose, we naturally decided to split a Beignet Flight which consisted of one of each of the following: Plain, Ghirardelli Chocolate, Granny Smith Apple with Cinnamon Honey Butter and Crawfish with Cayenne, Scallion and Cheddar. Definitely not the best beignets I've had, but solid nonetheless, these thoroughly satisfied our beignet craving. The plain served as a control and was good, not too sweet but not as delicate as others. The crawfish came dusted in cayenne pepper but lacked any real crawfish. However, the granny smith apple was very good, reminiscent of the fried apple pies I enjoyed during youth, only better. But the favorite was the Ghirardelli chocolate-filled beignet that was sweet and rich.

Moving on, MW chose the Hangtown Fry, a heaping plate of Eggs, Bacon and Fried Oysters served with Potato Hash and a Biscuit. Compared to other biscuits, the ones here are less fluffy, but very flaky and incredibly delicious after being slathered with some of Brenda's Homemade Strawberry Jam. But the star of the plate was hangtown fry. Exploding with flavor, it was loaded with briny fried oysters and thick chunks of smokey bacon, and was anything but the watered down versions served in Manhattan.

When in Rome do what the locals do, so I ordered the Shrimp and Grits after surveying the nearby tables of other diners. A mixture of perfectly cooked plump Shrimp and Tasso Ham was served atop a bed of creamy Cheddar Grits and sprinkled with Green Onion. Knowing we had lunch reservations in a few hours, I fought the urge to finish this warm and delicious dish.

Not being from the south, I won't attempt to argue authenticity. But if you find yourself in San Francisco and craving something different than your run-of-the-mill breakfast of pancakes and eggs then consider Brenda's French Soul Food which serves filling portions of good food at a reasonable price.

Brenda's French Soul Food
652 Polk Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 345-8100

Brenda's French Soul Food on Urbanspoon

Zuni Cafe

Each year San Francisco magazine 7x7 rolls out its Big Eat SF list of 100 Things to Try Before you Die. Irrespective of how you feel about these "lists" done by every media outlet imaginable, chef Judy Rodgers' famed Roast Chicken and Bread Salad at her restaurant, Zuni Cafe,  placed number one for 2010, which coincidentally, happened to be our lunch destination.

We arrived to a near empty restaurant, probably due to our late afternoon reservation (a blessing in disguise after the gut-busting breakfast we had earlier at Brenda's). Seated near the open kitchen allowed us to gaze at Zuni's high ceilings and paintings which hung from white walls. Bringing your attention back to food was a brick oven which sat at the heart of the kitchen. Well aware that our roasted chicken salad would take an hour to prepare, MW and I started with two Anchor Steam beers. Along with the beers, our waitress gave us a quarter loaf of fresh Acme Sourdough Bread and butter.

To start our lunch we split a Dozen Oysters: six Hog Island Kumamoto from Tomales Bay and six Beau Soleil from New Brunswick, served with a strong Mignonette. The oysters were good, fresh and briny, but unfortunately seemed to make us hungrier as we peered into the kitchen awaiting our salad.

Finally, the moment had arrived for us to eat the much anticipated Roasted Chicken with Warm Tuscan-Style Bread Salad . After practically glaring at the cook stationed at the brick oven we finally saw him pull out our chicken and let it rest before breaking it down. An assortment of Mixed Greens and a good amount of day-old Acme Bread cubes were tossed with a Vinaigrette that had been spiked with the drippings from the Roasted Chicken. The excess chicken fat aided in the emulsification process while imparting a strong chicken flavor that permeated throughout the entire dish. Sadly, the while the chicken and salad were good, they failed to live up to the immense hype. A victim of its own success, the chicken was fair but far from being the best roasted chicken I've had and the salad was good but not deserving of a special trip by itself.

While Zuni's roasted chicken bread salad was merely mortal, its easy to see why with its selection of fresh oysters and no-nonsense food the restaurant is a perpetual San Francisco favorite.

Zuni Cafe
1658 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 552-2522

ZUNI Café on Urbanspoon

Fleur de Lys

Like the seasoned veteran that he is, Hubert Keller wooed the judges with his classic French technique and guile to a place in the finals of the inaugural season of Top Chef Masters before eventually losing to champion, Rick Bayless. This combination of charm and cooking compelled MW to specifically request a trip to his flagship restaurant in San Francisco on our vacation. Once considered the premiere restaurant in all of San Francisco, Fleur de Lys is a culinary landmark recalling a different time, when French cuisine was considered haute, instead of the molecular movement sweeping across the world. Yet, even in the midst of this most precarious time for restaurants, the duo of chef Keller's food and his wife's hospitality keeps Fleur de Lys a worthwhile gastronomic destination.

We were warmly greeted by none other than Mrs. Keller who led us through the narrow bar and into the visually stunning dining room. The dining room's tent ceiling is simultaneously dramatic and elegant and transports you to an entirely different environment. Service was decent, with a few mistakes along the way, but nothing that approached unforgivable.

Bread service included a selection between: a French Baguette, Olive and great Fig and Pistachio Bread that came with soft butter. We chose to start with a crisp bottle of wine from the Alsace region of France.

Our meal began with an amuse bouche of Chilled Asparagus Soup with Crème Fraîche and Califlower Salad with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds. The soup was served in a miniature martini glass with a roasted tomato on a toothpick to complete the cocktail motif. The salad was served in an Asian spoon, one bite of this brightly flavored salad with the crunchy texture from the toasted pumpkin seeds had us eager for the next course.

MW's Softshell Crab was good, but honestly, what dish featuring this seasonal ingredient isn't? Nonetheless, the crab was well fried and not too oily as the vinaigrette tamed any excess fat from the frying process.

My Pan Seared Artisan Foie Gras with Rhubarb, Corn Fondue and Truffle Sauce was served with a tiny piece of Bacon Brioche. The foie gras was just the right bit fatty, tart from the rhubarb, sweet from the corn and luxurious from the truffle sauce.

For her fish course, MW selected the Maine Scallops with Toasted Pine Nuts, Sliced Potato Marbles, Sundried Tomatoes, Olive Sauce and a Banyuls Reduction. A bit worried that this dish would suffer from too many components, the jumbo scallops managed to stand out prominently even through the encyclopedic list of ingredients.

Not as successful was my Wild Jumbo Prawns with a Brioche Crust, Sweet and Sour Radicchio, Cannelini Bean Emulsion and Crispy Pork Belly. The pork belly and powerful sweet and sour flavored radicchio overshadowed the delicate flavor of the prawns and seemed a curious pairing with the cannelini bean emulsion.

Fortunately, the kitchen rebounded nicely with MW's Seared Filet Mignon with a Lobster Tuffled Mac & Cheese "En Brioche," accented with Red Wine, Shallot, Thyme Bordelaise Sauce. The tender and flavorful filet was excellent and embodied everything one desires when ordering this pampered cut of beef. But Chef Keller's fancy mac and cheese was just that, over-the-top, leaving us both yearning for a simpler and more classic version.

Equally as strong was my Slow-Braised Snake River Farm Waygu Beef Cheeks with Pretzel Crust, on Spatzel, Choucroute Gratin that had been Scented with a Beer Sauce. Sourcing his waygu beef from the same farm as another famous chef Keller, the pretzel crust provided a unique but effective textural juxtaposition to the luscious beef cheeks.

To our surprise chef Keller personally delivered us our cheese course which included: a Tête de Moine from Switzerland, a Mimolette from Normandy, France, a potent Blue Cheese from Austria, a Truffle Cheese from California and a sharp Wisconsin Cheddar. While meeting the chef was the definite highlight of the meal and the cheese selection was nice, it paled in comparison to the epic cheese courses we previously enjoyed at both Cyrus and Gary Danko.

Required to be ordered at the beginning of any meal, MW requested a Grand Marnier Soufflé. The soufflé was amazing. Light as a cloud, each bite contained the essence of orange that was reinforced by the Grand Marnier.

Knowing that chef Keller also runs the popular restaurant, Burger Bar, I decided to order the Fleur Burger, a clever take on his signature hamburger. Between a Mini Brioche Bun sat a circular patty of Dark Chocolate Ganache which acted as the "burger," and came topped with a Passion Fruit Gelée as the "cheese," Kiwi as the "lettuce," and Sliced Strawberry as the "tomato." Accompanying the "burger" was shot glass of Banana Milkshake and a side of Pomme Frites made from Fennel Ice Cream. Playful, but ultimately gimmicky, Keller's "signature dessert" wasn't half as good as the well executed soufflé MW and I enjoyed.

To finish the meal we were presented the bill and a tray of petits fours which included: a Chocolate Bon Bon with Hazelnuts, a Passion Fruit Tart with Fresh Berries, a Caramel Tart, a Shortbread and Banana Cookie, and Homemade Marshmallows covered in Milk Chocolate.

Make no mistake, Fleur de Lys remains an iconic San Francisco restaurant specializing in French cuisine. But like almost anything iconic, the restaurant seems more like a relic, having lost some of its luster to others who have warmly embraced new techniques and ingredients. Like his experience on Top Chef Masters the combination of chef Keller's cooking savvy and his wife's warmth running the front of the house may lead to another renaissance for the restaurant, that I for one, hope to see.

Fleur de Lys
777 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 673-7779

Fleur de Lys on Urbanspoon

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