Zuni Café: slow food in San Francisco is worth waiting for the best chicken in America

Zuni Café is to San Francisco what Chez Panisse is to Berkeley, an institution where locals gather over sustainably sourced superb food. Like Alice Water, Judy Rodgers was authentic with her extraordinary ingredients sourced mainly from California. After she passed away recently, her co-chef and for decades a regular Gilbert Pilgram took over. His Chez Panisse pedigree upholds the “vision of honest, local, seasonal food” that Judy created. Taking over most of the open kitchen, the brick wood-fired oven highlights the bounty with a gentle roast and country comfort. An ultra thin crust pizza at lunch, hourlong roasted chicken, even the country bread sniffs the char. The butter is frenchie, decadent a la Waters’ Berkeley style, where both chefs polished their farm-to-table rustic style.
pizza oven

Fire cooking, simply delicious

At lunch the wood-fired pizza crust, one of the best in America, is patted with homemade organic tomato sauce, sprinkled with salted dry ricotta cheese and oregano. I like to sit near it the oven in a small dining room past the bar on the street level, it is noisy down there but adoring the works by emerging and well established Bay Area artists on the walls soothes my mind. Curated by HMxAA and Britta Campbell since 2015 the artworks infuse a genuinely cultured spirit into Zuni Café.
The two female chefs, Rogers and Waters, inspired the now widespread authentic food movement in the Bay Area and true to their California socially liberal outlook support equality and immigration. Zuni’s current team boldly informs on your bill that “immigrants make America great”. The two level restaurant, enlivened by the American bass and cello chatter joined nightly by piano music is always packed. Even the leafy stretch of Market street facing bar open to walk-ins hives from brunch till late night.
autumn in San Franciscopiano bar

History like no one else in San Francisco

Zuni Café was founded in 1979 by Billy West next to Red Desert cactus store. The succulent display was swallowed by the growing  restaurant and inspired the adobe interior of what was initially a Mexican café. The name came from the Zuni, Pueblo peoples of Arizona and New Mexico. The latin food was later transformed by its most iconic chef/partner Judy Rodgers. Her culinary repertoire included working with the Troisgros clan in France, yet back in San Francisco Rodgers started the signature Europe meets California comforting, simple food. Firing up the new brick oven her team roasts what we think is the best chicken in America. The organic bird is cut into pieces for two ($59). In Europe an entire family would feast, but once you stretch your belly in America you manage as we did while licking our lips with a shameless pleasure. Sourced, not in California, but from Hoffman family farm in Indiana, it is worth the uncompromising 60 minute wait – succulent and flavourful. Like a turkey towering over toasted bread slivers soaking in the chicken fat and jus, garlic and scallions, it is tossed with seasonal greens like mustard greens, pine nuts and raisins. The no waste approach (leftover bread) of Zuni Cafe in this recipe lures in packed house every day and night. With it, order like a local the shoestring potatoes. The wafer thin fries turn you into an automated cruncher.
Zuni CafeZuni Cafe

Local farmers are celebrities at the Zuni Café

While waiting, start with the iconic Zuni Caesar salad, one is enough for two diners, split the sublime Wild Arugula with goat cheese and ripe grilled peach or the shaved pecorino with rucola and smoked almonds. You need to try the pasta too. Always on the menu at Zuni Café are the fluffy pillows of Bellwether Farms ricotta airy gnocchi, not at all starchy but flying on their ripe tomato clouds. Any fall season lands in mushrooms blended with any shapes of hand-cut pasta.
gnocchiseasonal fresh pasta
Mexican heritage smokes through the mesquite wood grill flavouring the sea bass, sausages and the house-ground grass-fed hamburger on grilled rosemary focaccia with aioli and pickles. Country-cooking is indulgent. The daily changing menus play with seasonal organic ingredients incorporating traditional French and Italian cuisine. Nearly all of the produce is farmed or harvested in a sustainable manner. The endangered yellowfin tuna should not appear on the menu though!
best chicken in America

Europe inspired, California grown

If you do not get the large chicken, keep space for the Gâteau Victoire crowned with dense whipped cream, the decadent chocolate cake is rich and moist as I like it. For a lighter treat go for the signature chocolate granita. Each season inspires new sweets with local fruit.
The wine list covers briefly California, France and Italy. By the glass the Zuni clean, oak-free Chardonnay by Sandhi Wines and fruity New World style Pinot Noir, both made down the coast in Santa Barbara, accompany perfectly the starters, pasta and chicken. There is also cider, champagne, sparkling wines and other well curated picks au verre.
A corkage of $30 entices bringing a good bottle from your cellar. We brought an excellent biodynamic Pinot from Sonoma’s Littorai that was hard to match by the California inventory at Zuni. Scotch, gin, mescal, rum, tequila and whiskey fit the bar scene straight up or in cocktails. Gluten-free potato vodka from Pennsylvania caters to the celiacs.
chocolate cakecountry bread
The Zuni Café Cookbook won the James Beard Award, Zuni Café as the Outstanding Restaurant in the country, and finally Judy Rodgers won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef. It is wise to book ahead but all the bar and outdoor tables are available to walk-ins.
1658 Market Street, San Francisco, US
+1 415 552 2522
Lunch Tuesday – Saturday: 11:30 am – 5:30 pm; Sunday: 11:00 am – 4:30 pm

Dinner Tuesday – Thursday: 6:00 pm – 11:00 pm; Friday and Saturday: 6:00 pm – midnight; Sunday: 5:00 pm – 11:00pm

Closed on Mondays

Atelier Crenn: weighing the cost of being voted the world's best female chef

Dominique Crenn tells the story of herself through her food at San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn. The backdrop is her childhood in Britanny, France, and travel memories as diverse as visiting Japan and Spain. If you dined at her intimate forty seat restaurant regularly you can discern the culinary evolution of the first female chef in America starred with two Michelin “macaroons”. Seafood still takes the main stage, but the penetration of her Japanese enchantment into her poetic culinary pen has settled in. Her talented Mexican pastry chef Juan Contreras is given a free reign with his own sweet oeuvres now inspired by his country.
floral decorationBrioche and butter at Atelier CrennMenu at Atelier Crenn
The emotional journey evokes chef Crenn’s French childhood, the lush seaside of Brittany, the memories from her journeys around the world and the people she admires. Inspired by Dan Barber, Daniel Patterson and as diverse artists as Baudelaire Chopin and Dali, her impressions are penned into the poetic interpretations presented as you sit down at one of the organically toned wooden tables. Like Andre Chiang, the Taiwanese chef who took Singapore by storm, Dominique Crenn uses seasonal poetry to introduce her culinary vision. Recently, as for many of the Bay area chefs, her cooking became also influenced by Japan: Using the koji ferment, matsutake mushrooms (served in a trio as a broth, a pudding and raw shaved with white truffles – heavenly!), mirin (in a sabayon), sake lees, seaweed, sea urchin, shiso and minimalist, by nature inspired presentation.
The restaurant (opened in 2011) was redecorated to express a rural, raw charm in the city focused mainly on tech advancement.
Michelin French cuisine

Atelier Crenn in the age of concept chefs

Playing on the emotional string is Crenn’s strength, but when you employ rational judgement and score her integrity then you might be left with some questions. Fame can interrupt one’s focus. Dominique Crenn was voted the best female chef in the world by the jury of foodies in their San Pellegrino sponsored World’s Best Restaurant awards. A strange categorisation in itself, but the media and the public love prizes and distinctive labelling, and if it can gauge the best in a chef, let them reign! The experience at the restaurant though can change when the chef in the spotlight suddenly divides responsibilities between other kitchens, take on the global engagements with famous chefs and plays with social media stunts. Unless the chef relies on an unbreakable team, headed by someone intimate with the chef’s cooking style, one can immediately taste the difference. Paying a close attention, there was a gap between out meal there before the distractions lured Crenn away from the kitchen at her signature restaurant and now. Inconsistency in the execution of the savoury plates presented to our palates some not that impressive morsels, which for $325 (add truffles and it will climb up) were too high a cost to pay!
While her friendly embrace grated us last September, a year later she was engaged in talks, charity dinners and pop ups, not in her “Atelier”. Essentially, she took the apron of Alain Ducasse and as the East Coast version of Jean-Georges Vongerichten swishing through various openings, rather then giving hand themselves in their kitchens. Still, these chefs manage their multi-Michelin stared restaurants well. Adding to her interruption is Le Petit Crenn, a casual French bistro that she recently opened.Atelier Crenn

Crenn: the meaning of personal style and passion for sustainability

The tomboyish chef displays gentle aesthetics in her plating style. Tiny portions devoured in one, two or with some effort three mouthfuls, are served in thoughtfully selected earthenware and blooming flower-shaped glass bowls. The artful output was magnified with drawings of southwest native plants accompanying the menu that you will get at the end of your dining experience at the Atelier Crenn. This September, a flowering Ocotillo used in herbal medicine to improve lymph flow graced the gift card.
The increasing trend at contemporary gastronomic restaurants is that you do not know what you will be eating. Her multi-course tasting menu is not even hinted at on her website, but you will be presented with some of her signature morsels and plates included bellow. As a supporter of humane and sustainable farming, her menu is light on meat and so vegetarian request was accommodated even with a short notice. I tasted the premium menu with truffles, the vegetarian version and sampled on my husband’s seafood and one meat course tasting recently. Some ingredients are sourced locally, but many come from Japan. Whispering the transformation of the French cuisine, not any more restricted to French ingredients, the more humanely raised A5 grade wagyu beef and the Hokkaido sea urchin were flown from Japan. You will not see a chicken at Atelier Crenn, simply because the “washed-out chicken sold in this country” [US] does not “meet the standards of Atelier Crenn”. I absolutely agree, the chickens in the US are raised mostly inhumanely, even the organic ones and their taste is bland, soulless. Reflecting ion Dan Barber‘s responsible culinary ethos in her book Metamorphosis of Taste: “If we are going to eat animals, we should limit ourselves to humane, sustainable, organic farms, and we simply must eat less meat.” There is still some Frenchness in Crenn’s menu. She uses apple cider, Breton buckwheat, some foie gras (read the book for her reasoning behind this controversial food), crème fraîche, kumquats, pintade (guinea fowl), squab, various consommés, and more.
design at Atelier CrennBritanny inspired amouse bouche
Although the fifteen to twenty-five course menu changes, there are some staples and these have always been made perfectly:
Opening the dinner the whimsical oyster leaf with a sweet droplet nesting in a foliage arranged on a silvery bark teases your mind. Then comes the Kir Breton, an apple cider enrobed in a shell of white chocolate popping in one mouthful of a sweet welcome topped with a reduced crème de cassis from Britanny. By trips to London inspired seasonal Fish & chips is transformed into a tiny crunchy bite of puffed potato filled with tartar sauce. Rendering the recipe, once a raw smoked trout was topped with a layer of smoked foie gras cream, trout skin, a dollop of citrus jelly and on side mayonnaise with fried thin potato stings and cured lemon rind curls. After a sequence of savoury courses, the succulent and flaky brioche with a sea and meadow inspired butter next to beef fat infused butter, brings your mind back to France. There is always an extra cheese course, for added $30 you get truffles shaped on top of a tiny cheese tartlette, which is nice, but not showing the pure quality of the cheese. To take home, the chewy house granola bar with sticky caramel oats, black sesame and pecans is wrapped in a gorgeous, rustic paper. The beauty remained, yet the bar was not as good as it used to be.
Atelier Crenn
A 2016 late summer ushered the Alba truffle season slightly earlier, so the menu could be supplemented with white and black truffles shaved on some of Crenn’s morsels. When you dine at the Atelier Crenn for the first time try to go with the poem the chef herself has created as it touches on each of the courses.

Last year we were served the chef’s favourite animal protein – the dry aged squab with its jus and a berry tart with fermented strawberry jam. The squab was too raw to our taste, so we didn’t enjoy eating it, but the chef kindly sent us an extra plate of perfectly cooked wagyu beef. She knows how to cook wagyu well, but we wished the beef was as great the next time we had it. Sadly, as my husband confirms, the last time it wasn’t the Atelier Crenn. The food was a hodge podge of the chef dubbing Dominique and a very talented Mexican pastry chef Juan Conteras. The later had worked alongside Crenn already before opening her eponymous restaurant and in his role as chef patissier he created such classic desserts as Honey and The Sea, surprisingly seasonally rendering nature. The recipes are published alongside the savory creations of Atelier Crenn in the Metamorphosis of Taste co-authored by culinary writer Karen Leibowitz of Perennial, a local sustainable restaurant project.
The cosy yet luxuriant home-like ambiance hones the ambitious two Michelin stars, yet the service could be more precise and paced in a more diners friendly, efficient gait.
I tasted and compared a vegetarian and regular tasting menu served next to each recently (September 2017) at the Atelier Crenn:

  • Fish & chips X Cucumber & crispy potato (V) – the taste of the fish was really missing in the vegetarian version
  • Tomato, melon, Trout Roe X Tomato & melon (V) – the melon roe in vegetarian menu was boring
  • Koshikari rice, sea urchin, barigoule X Koshikari rice, eggplant, barigoule (V) –  the succulent Hokkaido uni was superb, yet the marinated eggplant with sesame substitute was original and delicious.
  • Caviar, kohlrabi, koji X Pickled ramps, kohlrabi, koji (V) – the veggie take with ramps was more interesting
  • Abalone, roasted garlic, smoked creme X Cabbage, roasted garlic, smoked creme (V) – abalone’s texture is hard to beat
  • Matsutake, pork lardo, parmesan X Matsutake, zucchini, parmesan (V) – intense, but I preferred the more delicate pork-free version of this dish
  • A5 wagyu, foraged herbs, fermented carrot X Beet, foraged herbs, fermented carrot (V) – the beet replacing the beef does not justify the cost of the menu, but the wagyu of my husband was disappointing this time, so at the end we both got a bad deal. On another occasion dining at Crenn we had a superb cured wagyu dish, so consistency was the problem
The personalities in Crenn’s kitchen also shape the menu as the recent Mexican themed desserts by the pastry chef poignantly displayed. The Mexican desserts were superb and the highlight of our last meal at the Atelier Crenn. Starting with a refreshing Nopal elixir, a juice shot of green cacti, served with a delicate Maya god shaped morsel of White Chocolate Avocado Cremeux we were tuned to his alchemy of subtle sweetness. Corn Masa Crisp as a sandwich followed. Sapote Ice Cream & Maracuya was relished from crunchy cones. A smokey, tobacco puffing evoking effect introduced the Vanilla Bean Guanabana & Crystallized Tobacco Leaf served in a chocolate appearing, yet inedible hand holding a long vanilla been, which was the guanabana fruit scented with vanilla and chocolate. The final Mexican Recreation of Agave, Coconut, Iced Pulque fruit was a superb fanfare to his heritage. The sweet mignardises that followed with or without coffee or tea (only a small choice of teas) were drifting into the more ordinary flavours reminiscent of the Atelier Crenn.
beautiful restaurant packagingdecadent granola
The premium wine pairing swirls tiny pouring of mainly old world wines such as grower champagne (like the Henri Giraud Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blend we had as an aperitif) with some interesting California showings like the excellent Aubert Chardonnay UV-SL of the great 2013 vintage. After we tried it with our first meal there, we felt like introducing our taste to Crenn’s food. I picked a glass of salty, oxidised dry white Vin Jaune 2007 from Jura (by Jacques Pufeney listed as a dessert wine, but totally not sweet) to pair with the first sea inspired plates, and we moved to the over two decades old Pinot Noir by Domaine Drouhin in Oregon. Proving that Oregon Pinot can age gracefully, this 1995 vintage from the Burgundy negociant owned winery was also poured in the premium tasting that night.
Vin Jaunechampagne
The Filmore Street, where Crenn nests, is a high game play field in the San Francisco gastronomy. There are more creative restaurants than on any other single roadside of the tech-booming city. State Bird Provisions, The Progress, SPQR, a new grown-up pop up RTB, they all flag the creative culinary explosion in the Bay Area. If Atelier Crenn intends to maintain its integrity, the chef either has to change the too personal narrative weaving through the meal or return back to the stove. We would prefer the later, but the calling card is not ours, and she can make a bigger global impact by engaging in heavily media driven events. Or, perhaps, this is a further evolution of her personal story, but only Ms Crenn knows of her metamorphosis of taste as it happens.
3127 Fillmore St., San Francisco, USA
Dinner Tue- Sat: from 5pm (two seatings)

Dandelion Chocolate manufacture and cafe in San Francisco

Dandelion Single Origin chocolates are made in San Francisco in small batches. Perhaps the highest quality chocolate in North America*, Dandelion Chocolate is a two ingredient real artisanal chocolate, no vanilla, soy lecithin, even cocoa butter and other conditioners of flavour potentially masking the cocoa’s own natural nuances are added. The only exception is using a pure organic cane sugar since it works best with chocolate as the world’s best chocolatiers endorse. The sugar is sustainably sourced from Brazil’s Native Green Cane Project. For the final tuning of the chocolate before tampering, the highly personal touch of the Dandelion’s roasters, whose name is imprinted on the packaging of each bar, offers all their chocolate lovers the utmost transparent information about their top notch, quality crafted natural product.
Dandelion chocolate manufactory

Immersed into the cocoa world at Dandelion Chocolate

Dandelion Chocolate is not selfishly guarding the chocolate making skills of its employees as hands-on classes and events take place regularly at the Mission boutique on Valencia street. If you don’t want to get your fingers too choco messy, then just sample the to-be-chocolates during one of the Factory Tours running from Wednesdays to Saturdays (6:10-6:50pm). More hands-on, is the two-hours lasting Chocolate 201 class, as well as plenty of special children’s classes are also in store. Sign up, and find more info here.
While sipping on a wholesome hot chocolate at the Cafe, you can watch the process as well since there is no backstage, you, the customer are part of the fragrant magic of the chocolate making. In a plain sight observe, smell, and above all savour the daily routine as the artisans “roast, crack, sort, winnow, grind, conch, and temper small batches of beans and then mold and package each bar by hand”. For a more intimate experience with chocolate go now, since expansion is in sight. A new Cafe has been already hatched in Japan!
Dandelion Single Origin dark chocolateDandelion Chocolate

Transparency in sourcing and production = fair trade

Each hand-printed India-made paper wrap of the Dandelion single origin dark chocolate provides the exact information about the entire process – which farm grew the beans, the harvest vintage, who roasted them, all accompanied by detailed tasting notes. After the farmer picks the beans, lets them naturally ferment and dries them in the origin’s location, the sacks of beans are send to San Francisco, where all of the skilled, and occasionally experimental crafting into the perfect chocolate bar happens. Light roasting is preferred, but some beans may require more pushing to achieve satisfying flavour. In a garage style crafting, a modified coffee roaster has been used for years now. Dandelion’s transparency policy goes as far as organising trips to the grower’s countries for anyone interested.
The beans have been sourced from Belize, Dominican Republic, Equador, Guatemala, Liberia, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, Trinidad and Venezuela. You can read in detail about each of the farms on Dandelion’s website.
I love the dense chocolatey Ecuadorian Camino Verde 100% as well as the more user friendly 85% version with cane sugar. The heirloom variety Ariba Nacional cocoa, was skilfully fermented by the farmer Vicente Norero who expertly inoculates the fermenting beans with indigenous mix of bacteria and yeast, achieving a unique balanced flavour. Almond butter, bread yeasty quality, fudge brownie with roasted oak undertones and a clean, sweet finish in both the 2014 and 2015 vintages that I tried. It is tough to guess whether Cynthia (working for the 100% cocoa) or Becky (85%) roasted the beans better, since the added cane sugar in the later changes the taste. My ever curious palate would like to taste the same chocolate roasted by different people, that would make a fair comparison. My idea of the Dandelion roasting challenge, could intrigue many of their regular customers.
Dandelion Chocolate made in San Francisco

Growing success with smart design

The main, larger scale Dandelion chocolate manufactory will be ready to operate next year (pictured bellow). Located just a couple blocks (Harrison Street & 16th) from the trendy store on Valencia where all the chocolate has made so far, this is also an upcoming part of the gentrified Mission district, where new Tartine Cafe as well as the locally made Hearth ceramics design store are both located.
The handmade paper was commissioned specially in India and it has a dense almost textile like feel, and honestly it tears my heart to throw it away after eating the bar of chocolate. The attractive yet simple design with rose or bright yellow gold patterns, fulfils the role of an honest messenger of what is inside – hand-crafted and simple, containing two ingredients maximum (100% bar contains only cocoa beans), chocolate.
A feminine energy in the Mantuano 70% bar from Venezuela explodes with bright kick of cinnamon, honey, floral and in the background espresso aromas. Sourced by Minda from a women’s cooperative assembling beans from local family farms, a project worth supporting and the customers of Dandelion have appreciated the flavours to elevate the bar to a best seller. Not always the same person who directly sources the beans also gets to decide on their roasting profile, in the 2015 vintage Trevor was the roaster of these cocoa beans.
Dandelion ChocolateDandelion chocolate manufactory
Tempting chocolate pastry, all made in-house, is the perfect treat with a cup of espresso at the cafe. During winter sipping on the dense hot chocolate and other cocoa beverages to indulge in or take away is a must while browsing in the eclectic Mission district. The freshly baked sweet offer changes with the mood swings of the pastry chefs, but you must try the insanely indulgent brownies, that you can purchase in a tasting set of three, each made with different cocoa and all oozing the dense lava of chocolate inside. So good.
Dandelion has the latest opening hours from all the chocolate bars that I know of. On weekends you can swirl in just before 10pm for a sweet fix of their top notch chocolates. Now, also with a small boutique in Tokyo, Japan, that Dandelion continues to seduce the fine palates far East, opening a branch in Europe would be welcome by serious chocolate connoisseurs like myself.
Café & Manufactory at 740 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94110

Mon-Thurs & Sun 10am-9pm; Fri & Sat: 10am-10pm
New boutique location at One Ferry Building, San Francisco
Mon-Fri: 7am – 6pm; Sat: 8am – 6pm; Sun: 10am – 5pm
NEW: Factory +Café in Japan:
4-14-6, Kuramae, Taito-ku, Tokyo, 111 0051 Japan
*Raaka, Rogue and Dick Taylor chocolates are on par with dandelion’s quality and knowhow.

Samovar Tea & lounge: grounding through connection with tea in San Francisco

Samovar Tea & lounge in San Francisco facilitates your connection with the present moment. The “unvirtual” reality of your mind connected to yourself is a different lifestyle from the perpetually distracting online world. Samovar has been serving the city for over a decade with mindfulness at the centre of its business since its beginning. A frequent traveler scouting for tea rooms to ground m everywhere I visit, whether it is Hong KongNew York, Prague or Tokyo, I found Samovar Tea being a unique confluence of breadth centered around experiencing tea in its distinct faces, culturally, philosophically, physically, and indeed wholesomely. Especially at its main Yerba Buena location.
contemporary tea brewingsamovar-tea-san-francisco-1-1

Being present, mindful of the moment with tea

Founder and owner Jesse Jacobs envisions tea drinking as the connection between the past and contemporary tastes. You can often see him serving tea in person. His growing up was spiritually cross-bread with meditation, yoga, and tai chi. Still his Mission district branch of a pick up, sip on and hang on just for a quick bite caters to the modern customer, stopped in the moment of waiting for his cup being brewed. Its no wi-fi policy went against the tide of technifying in the metropolis, and you will not find on laptops glued folks there. Rather, people seem engaged in meaningful conversations. Here, a social chatter sparks up wondering at the chemistry of brewing the tea, that is stripping itself in front of you, if you sit just behind the bar.
samovar-tea-Yerba Buenasamovar-tea-san-francisco-1-2

The social connecting power of tea

When the townhall invited the founder to open Downtown in an abandoned Starbucks in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, something was brewing in the local air. The need to slow down resurfaces when you sip on tea, and in a magic flick of the brew, balance the flickering mind.
Matcha iced tea at Samovar Tea
The San Francisco coffee culture inspired some of the at Samovar ‘teaventions’. For example the glass VIVID BREWPOT looks like a French press and works exactly the same. Contemporary tea brewing meets tradition. The lab-like glass crucibles [photo on top left with Jesse Jacobs at work] developed with brewing-tech company Alpha Dominche are controlled by a tablet calibrating the water temperature for each type of tea – from white, green, oolongs, black and their blends with herbs and spices as well as the house-blended tisanes. A reusable and resealable glass jar serves for the iced teas. I admit, I kept it.
Being inspired by global tea preparing traditions connects the world tea puzzle into one space. Samovar has been traditionally used in the Eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East to keep a large amount of water constantly warm so you could draw some each time you wanted to warm with a nice cup of black tea placed on the top. It can be translated as self-boil. The Masala Chai tea blend has slowly become the signature beverage at Samovar Tea in San Francisco. Catching on the global craze of the spicy chai, the copper pots with lids on are brewing the sweet and wholesome milky concoction. For these of you who have never wandered to India, Georgia, Mongolia or Russia, it is a unique sighting. Looks more like being in the kitchen, doesn’t it?
chai tea

Food and tea at Samovar Tea

Delicious sweet cakes and simple sandwiches are served at the compact Mission branch. When I munched on the Matcha “Canale” (in France known as canelé) blending the Bordeaux pastry with Japanese powdered green tea or vanilla, it was perfectly caramelised on the top with a moist and chewy centre. Crunchy scones and gluten-free options for pastries are available. Eggs in a jar or toast for a quick breakfast or lunch are offered for the savory tooth. Some are made in-house, while others are sourced from local pastry shops and bakeries.

Have a bite at the Valencia street tea bar, but you get a more nutritionally balanced meal at the larger lounge at Yerba Buena. There, tea is served in proper, locally made ceramic pots or a glass brewpot, not mugs or take-away cups like at its Mission tea bar. Set atop the waterfall at the contemporary Art Centre in Yerba Buena, the views from its terrace feel rejuvenating. Nevertheless, the large glass windows of the tea lounge keep you connected with the outdoors, just noise-free, which is welcomed in this busy part of town. Here, tea is being paired with your a la carte meal or you can order their culturally inspired set service. I enjoyed the JAPANESE SERVICE of steamed organic brown rice, seaweed salad with seasonal veggies paired with Ryokucha Green Tea. To divert itself from the global craze for matcha, although also served here, the Ryokucha is a green tea powder blended with toasted rice grains. On another lunch occasion, I went for the MOORISH SERVICE, a bowl of grilled halloumi and veggie kebabs over large Lacinato kale salad, paired with Moorish Mint Green Tea. So refreshing.
My sino-centric husband savored the CHINESE SERVICE where seasonal veggie stir-fry, organic brown rice, and squash dumplings (also served separately as an appetiser) with Blood Orange Pu-erh Tea were set on the  wooden tray. The ENGLISH SERVICE, RUSSIAN SERVICE and even the trendy PALEOLITHIC SERVICE (protein with kale salad) can stir your curiosity about these countries cuisines as much as the teas served with them.
tea and cakes

Selling organic hand-picked tea with integrity

Each pure white paper packaging contains a plastic bag protecting the herbs and tea from humidity. My favorite blends are the Turmeric Spice Herbal with a kick of ginger warmth, lemongrass, aromas of orange and lemon and a pleasant sweetness of licorice in your mouth. I also like the velvety hued Ocean of Wisdom, a blend of rooibos, ginger, cinnamon, licorice root, clove and black pepper which was originally prepared to serve the Dalai Lama when he visited San Francisco. The Spearmint Sage offers more depth than your usual fresh spearmint tisane. Here, Yakima Valley spearmint and peppermint, sage, lemongrass, lavender and orange peel congregate on your palate. The Pu-erh Maiden’s Ecstasy of 2004 vintage was “wild-crafted, pile-fermented, with notes of espresso, peat moss, bridle leather” and is more purely evoking nature than the delicious Velvet Cacao Pu-erh, tastefully blended with roasted dandelion, yerba mate, and a scent of coconut and vanilla bean. The speciality Chai was boxed into a milk-like, take home and heat up conveniency. If not sold pure than the teas and tisanes are blended from mostly organically farmed herbs, plants, spices and fruit peels. Also a very rare and expensive tea from Hawaii is sold by them in limited amounts.
contemporary tea bags
To conclude the flattery, I must share some of the wisdom of its founder: “As technology pervades every aspect of our society, the perspective has flipped and the machine we created to serve US starts to make decisions FOR us. From the innocuous Netflix or Amazon recommendation, to the more insidious things like Facebook and Twitter that while powerful, also demand us to change our expression, and even our thinking patterns in order to conform to the machine’s demands.” Being an online working person, I cannot more agree, and share Jesse’s philosophy of being grounded and reminded by my cup of tea – of what I like and who I really am. While working long hours, tea gives me the much needed sense of focus so I can penetrate deeper into the theme I am writing about.

Samovar Tea Bar 411 Valencia Street (at 15th):  Daily 7am-7pm
Samovar Tea Bar & lounge San Francisco: Downtown in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 730 Howard Street:  Sun-Wed: 9am – 8pm; Thur-Sat: 9am – 9pm
All teas can be bought at their online store. (I get no profit from this, just sharing the greatest things I found on my wholesome journeys)

Perennial San Francisco: America's model for sustainable dining

The Perennial restaurant in San Francisco has been opened for a couple of months now and it has already stirred the US media as the America’s model for sustainable dining. A daring project, that could become an inspiration for the already established and to be restaurateurs globally. Climate change is a real threat, and ecology is about improving our lives, so we must include the food system into our lifestyle considerations. Start with seeking restaurants, where sustainability is as important as creating a comfortable atmosphere (I wrote about Chefs and restaurants leading the sustainable change globally in my recent musing).
founders of the Perennial restaurant in San FranciscoPerennial sustaianalble restaurant in San Francisco

America’s model for sustainable dining

Sustainability rings from the menu, radiates from the design, while on the Perennial’s website each practice is zoomed in detail. The title of the restaurant itself preconditions your mind for behind the scenes of your meal. Perennial was named after crops yielding during many consecutive harvests, while their increasingly deep roots suck in nutrients and water thus preventing soil erosion. Food Tank, environmentally minded global food group further explains that “this reduces the need for soil tillage, a practice that can lead to soil erosion and chemical run-off, makes them more drought-resistant, plus they pull more carbon out of the atmosphere and hold onto it longer in their biomass, helping to mitigate the aforementioned meteorological unpleasantness.” Forget corn, rice, potatoes and soy beans, the sprawling monocultures that are literally suffocating us! Kernza is a perennial and the bread made from this grain has become one of the successful projects of the Perennial team. Since kernza’s roots capture carbon from the environment, the plant is not merely carbon neutral, but it deletes carbon footprint from the air. With the help of an in-house pastry chef the flour was turned into a delectable sourdough bread with a moist center and a typical hard crust. Served upon request with butter made from cows milk that involved another sustainable project – a carbon cattle farming, the kernza bread became an inseparable identity of many of the chef’s creations. From toasts to cracking particles in salads and bowls, the sourdough is being used wisely, no waste.
Although the plates are small by the American standards, any leftovers and kitchen scraps are recycled in the aquaponic facility just outside San Francisco. The worms, that will become fish food, compost the food waste. As the fish swim in the water reservoir, they fertilize the greens growing on the surface. These vegetables consume much less water than when grown in the dry California soil and are sent back to the restaurant. Next to cute cartoon cards available at the restaurant, an illustrative aquaponic fish tank was installed by the entrance so anyone can understand how it works. Just look at my image bellow.
Aquaponic food production

Sustainable zen design for eco-dining

Designed and also partly supplied by a Zen Buddhist author and architect Paul Discoe, the metal-meets-wood interior is pleasant to the eye, yet can lack comfort in its austere nature. As our bottoms noted, the chairs at the restaurant are quite hard to sit on for hours, but the bar stools seem more accommodating. Discomfort goes on, since sharing space and toilets with an independent yet adjoining cafe makes the “waste not” attitude less practical, but it serves its purpose. The industrial-chic look made from furniture with reclaimed wood reminds me of the contemporary Japanese interiors in Tokyo’s coolest neighborhoods. The designer cum zen Buddhist also co-founded and grows plants for the almost four decades old vegetarian restaurant Greens in San Francisco. Discoe’s garden and aquaponic greenhouse in Oakland grows some of the Perennial’s produce. Overseen by Nathan Kaufman, the restaurant’s Director of Living Systems and the aquaponics expert at the Urban Adamah in Berkeley, the kitchen scraps are being “recycled” while new food is being created. If used wisely, nature can provide bounty in magic transformations.
It is not easy to open a new restaurant in San Francisco these days. Rents go up, the competition is rife, since most global cuisines are already represented, and finding an experienced kitchen staff is challenging, confessed Karen Leibowitz, the female brain powering the project. Enter her partner Anthony Myint, who together with Leibowitz co-masterminded the once successful San Francisco eatery, Mission Chinese Food, and their newborn is highly expected. With respect to their real child, born a couple years before this new culinary venture, Perennial was inspired by caring about others. When the couple was approached by the management of a new building across from the Twitter’s headquarters to open a restaurant, their condition was to move it to the future, their child’s as well as our Planet’s. As parents, they wanted to make dining sustainable.
Chef Chris Kiyuna at the Perennial restaurant in San FranciscoPlate at the Perennial restaurant in San Francisco

Sustainability on the contemporary plate

The chef Chris Kiyuna, after a long stint at Mission Chinese Food, was sent to sharpen his culinary daredevil at Noma in Copenhagen. The result is food that is clearly off-the-beaten path, unique and for those looking for simple plates perhaps too complicated. But this is California and combing locally farmed and raised ingredients in internationally and multiculturally inspired combinations is the norm done tremendously well.

For dinner, the four-courses pre fixe menu at $59 per person is sadly quite inflexible as you can only substitute the dessert for a savory dish from the first group. You may need to pay extra for some plates such as the Eggplant that we ordered in place of the sweet course. From the start, some customers have been ranting against the high prices at the Perennial, yet, the magnifying reality of San Francisco with rents climbing annually to the new heights, the ladder has to be set high to meet their costs. Sustainability is not cheap, when despite saving through the lower energy bills, the new technology and locally sourced ingredients from low carbon farming inflate the budget.

I had to start with the Hydroponic lettuces. A large plate of wonderful quality greens arrived dolloped by creme fraiche and toasted sunflower seeds. The lettuces do not taste fishy or aquarium-like, do not worry. Next came Tomatoes with a nut-free creamy pesto on kernza toast. A juicy and basil fresh topping decorated with warm-hued flower petals accompanied the toasted and deeply satisfying kernza bread perfectly. Pecking on my husband’s Avocado puree with grilled avocado moons, geranium fragrance, crispy pork bacon strips & pepper crisps, that was rich but balanced, but not as impressive as the other plates. Much better was the substitute of the Eggplant puree with broiled eggplant & caper beans in green tomato oil sauce. Complex and rich serving that replaced the dessert without a remorse. Next came Summer Squash with marinated sunflower seeds, nice. Yet, my favorite was the tender, perfectly cooked Trout. We ordered the bread and butter of course, and we could not have had enough of such a wholesome womb of perennial sustenance. Overall, the often changing menu stood up to our Califonia standards.

Drinking smart, while remaining indulgent

Beverages are integral to indulgence as is our biological need for clean water. The most sustainable solution to the later is filtering the local tap water and serving it in reusable glass bottles or pouring at the guest request from pitchers. Increasingly, restaurants have been eschewing bottled imported water, while pushing for the hydration on tap. At Perennial, the beverage program goes beyond serving tap water since the bar, munching a shark’s bite into the restaurant’s interior, became equally important. The happy hours from 3-6pm replaced the lunch service, and the cocktail bar is slowly becoming an after-work scene. To the disappointment of the Perennial’s founders, the tech employees at the surrounding offices have free lunches so they tend to eat in, so drinks and dinner next door make more sense. There is so much on tap to sip on, but the wines puzzle the most many of the eco-conscious diners. The beverage director had decided, based on her direct experience with the wineries around the world, that many wines shipped by boat from Europe are more sustainably grown and made than the overwhelming majority of the local, drought-stricken California offerings. Still, California features on the sustainable wine list. The by the glass selection is not cheap as most exceed $10. A Sauvignon Blanc by Lieu Dit from Santa Barbara was too ripe growing in the warm climate, but a Riesling from Guimaro was crisp, while Wei Chi dry Semillon was more woody with a pleasant aromatic sweetness. Moving to reds with a bright Spanish Mencia and later a Pinot Noir by Johan in the Oregon’s Wilamette Valley, that was more on the new world fruity side, we were far from impressed by the selections. I must note, that being a highly demanding wine connoisseur makes by-the-glass offerings usually at least slightly disappointing. Next time BYO or order a nice bottle.

With a deserved applause to Perennial, dining out sustainably is now easier for the residents and visitors of San Francisco. Similar projects await their permanent opening in London (Tiny Leaf), while others like Poco, the best sustainable restaurant in the UK for 2016, are already humbly serving superb local food driven by sustainability. Generally, in my opinion, if the food business wants to maintain its integrity through its pleasure-providing mission while delivering nutritionally dense plates, in the new millennium it must consider its carbon footprint, food waste and educate its customers on a responsible joy from the food they serve. The team behind Perennial deserves to be respected for progressing the future of dining highlighting cause in a country which is the second biggest polluter in the World. I will definitely go back, when in town.

Read more about the Perennial’s sustainable practices in the post by Andrew Dalton for San Francisco Eater.

Photos by: Radka Beach & Alanna Hale (where not watermarked).

59 Nith Street, San Francisco

+1 415 500 7788

Dinner 6-9pm (10pm Fri & Sat) and happy hours 3-6pm Mon-Sat. Closed on Sunday.

The Slanted Door: Vietnamese cuisine stirred into sustainable multi-cultural San Francisco

Enter the waterfront of the San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Building and open The Slanted Door, literally. As the woks sizzle in the background, the trendy, yet casual modern Vietnamese eatery hums with a dense foodie chatter. Originally set on the now hip-centric Valencia Street, since 1995 The Slanted Door has been stirring the California palates on its hot, but not spicy Asian fare. Now expanding its Mission district success, and ready to go, lined on the counter fronting the semi-open kitchen, the freshly prepared plates do not hang out for long, the restaurant is always full. Young couples, American-Asian girlfriends on a night out, entire families and even merry groups of elderly diners, all mingle in the large, U-shaped room.
Spring Rolls at The Slanted DoorVietnamese crepe at The Slanted Door
Sustainability is at the core of the business of its founder and the Executive Chef, Charles Phan, whose inspiration came from the Bay Area pioneer of ultra-local fare – Chez Panisse. Locally sourced, and often organic ingredients are being applied to the chef’s contemporary Vietnamese culinary vision. With the seasonal plant produce, wholesome carbs like brown rice, handmade yuba (tofu skin), glass (cellophane) and rice noodles, chef Phan proudly claims to be also offering “ecologically and humanely raised meats, game and poultry found at farms around the San Francisco Bay Area”. Dairy in the deserts and coffee arrives from the nearby family-owned and organic Straus Family Creamery.

From the crêpe to a balance of veggies with sustainable meat at The Slanted Door

The chef’s journey into the cooking world was rather unusual. Studying architecture, moving to garment design in a family business, and being swirled by the Silicon Valley behemoth software business did not stop Charles Phan to turn back to his Vietnamese roots. Opening a small crêperie was just a start to get the San Franciscans’ saliva talking. And, business is growing as The Slanted Door reaches a new exciting destination this fall (more later).
Most plates are designed to be shared, the eastern way, so bring friends or come really hungry to eat it all. Perhaps, just next time I wouldn’t want to share that crisp and with steaming veggie-stuffed, OMG the best Vietnamese crêpe I have ever had! This thin stuffed this Franco-Vietnamese delicacy was such a perfection, that he mastered with honours. Served only at lunch, the Vegetarian Vietnamese Crêpe stuffed with tofu, cabbage and tree ear mushrooms, was my absolute favourite from about the ten dishes (between two!) we grazed through. A side of crunchy iceberg lettuce and a bundle of fresh mint balanced the delicate, but inherently oily nature of the ultra-thin pancake. Pour or dip in the soy and chilli side sauce …crack, chew and savour! A meat version filled with gulf shrimp, pork shoulder, bean sprout and yellow onions is also popular.
Integral with its sustainable mindset, vegetarian plates such as the superb Green Papaya Salad, encourage a balanced grazing. More white than green hued the raw papaya was tossed with shaved pickled carrots and slivers of raw ray ram, known as vietnamese coriander, and sprinkled with fried shallots and cracked roasted cashews. Mixed in was an egg-coated fried tofu for a wholesome and deliciously refreshing plate. The Vegetarian Spring Roll appeals to more mellow palates and could be boring unless you dip it into the generously dense peanut sauce on the side. Tofu, white rice, hairy spikes of glass noodles, mushrooms and lettuces though called for a different accompaniment than the nutty dip. Perhaps a refreshing sweet and sour cilantro vinaigrette would make a better combo.

The vegetables are sourced from Full Belly Farm, Catalan Farm, Dirty Girl farm, All Star Organics farm, and other local purveyors of delicious goodness supply their diverse plant produce, and in the Alice Waters contagion their names are always included in the menu. One of them being the Star Route Farms, the oldest continuously certified organic grower in California. The side of crisp pan-seared Joyful farm baby bok choy with baby shiitake mushrooms is a clean accompaniment to any of the tofu main courses such as the stir fried Hodo soy beanery organic tofu. The organic seal assured that the soy came from a non-GMO source, chopped in cubes and with slices of smoked pressed tofu, lemongrass, mushrooms, scallions and succulent yellow onions in sweet roasted chilli sauce. Topped with the anti-inflammatory dose of cilantro proved that a healthful meal at The Slanted Door is possible. NO sauce here comes from the bottle, except for the non-GMO soy staple. Everything else is made from scratch, no msg or artificial additives or colourings. Even the bacon is house-made.
Going for meat, we tried two animal plates, but were rather unimpressed. The Emmer & Co.® heritage chicken staged in the Claypot or Stir Fry is always organic, pastured and rich tasting, In our diner order, the Organic Chicken Stir Fry was the most disappointing dish. Next to the high ladder of appetisers that we enjoyed before, the blend was just too much. With the slightly overcooked chicken were soy-marinated cashews, fresh gingko nuts, walnuts, sweet raisins and Chinese dates. A handful of cilantro with its stems covers most of the mains, but did not add moisture to the dry meat. A side of Massa organics’ brown rice will supplement your meal with more fibre, minerals and vitamins.
Pork is a Vietnamese staple and the chef proudly serves it in a number of diverse plates, from the rolls through nourishing soups and the succulent Grilled Prather Ranch 14 oz. Pork Chop. We tried the Pork Spring Roll but since we both do not like the fragrance of pork, we were not able to appreciate this typical Vietnamese snack.

Picking seafood to maintain diversity in the Pacific ocean

The chef works very well with local seafood. Wild Gulf shrimps and Monterrey squids as well as sustainable fish like catfish. With our aperitif, the very American-sized wild uni from Mendocino nesting in its raw nakedness on avocado and cucumber was slurped in its entirety from ceramic spoon. A decorative touch of squid ink coloured tiny flying fish roe (tobiko) added flavour and valuable nutrients to this delicate uni. Contrasting with its ultra-rich Southern sister from Santa Barbara, this was a revelation of how a little distance in the ocean can create a very different flavour of a sea urchin. The golden baked Gau choy gow or six wild gulf shrimp & green garlic chive dumplings dipped in a savoury soy sauce this made for a perfect sharing experience. Hmm, vibrated from one side of the table to the other. Bound to the chef’s mixed Chinese-Vietnamese origin are the Cellophane noodles also known as Chinese vermicelli, or glass noodles. They are made from starch and water. In Vietnamese cuisine, there are two varieties of these noodles: bún tàu or bún tào introduced by Chinese immigrants and made from mung bean starch; and Vietnamese, called miến or miến dong, are made from canna (dong riềng). In our order the transparent noodles were tossed with green onion, fresh chunks of Dungeness crab and sesame. Superb!
Uni at The Slated Door rice-noodles-with-crab
The carnivorous Cobia fish on the menu would happily feed on the luxurious crab meat as well, but luckily for the local ocean wildlife it was caught by California fishermen and grilled by the sustainable-minded Slated Door chefs. Cobia, also known as black salmon, is non-native to the California waters but has recently appeared to mess with the local biodiversity after a large numbers of this fast growing and hungry fish escaped from its farmed warm water environment in Equador. The summer waters around California tend to be warm so some of it migrated, and according to Milton Love, a research biologist with UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute (disclosing in an interview earlier this year) “this is the first time that Southern California waters have a large and voracious non-native species invade, these non-natives may have brought diseases with them that are not endemic to the Pacific Coast”. A worrying example of how risky is fish farming. With the rules more loose in some countries than others, threat do biodiversity is potentially rampant.

What to sip on with Vietnamese food

We enjoyed the savouries so were too full for the desserts and tea, but the Afternoon Tea offering assures a wide selection of sweet treats as well as a diverse tea selection from the fragrant jasmine to the earthy vintage black Pu-erh.
Patton Valley Pinot Noir Willamette Valley OregonWhile cocktails rule the order tills during lunch time, and tea is sipped with the Afternoon Tea service, the wine list begins to be flipped over dinner. German Rieslings, orange wines, Champagne but also American finds. The wines on the list are organised by their character so the customer can select by momentous cravings. In the mood for “mineral driven, lighter bodied reds”? We were so during the buzzing dinner service we sipped on the Estate Grown Patton Valley Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 from Willamette Valley in Oregon. Sustainable farming practiced on this vineyard reminds of Burgundy, where the world’s best Pinots are still being made. Bright, clean fruit but a savoury earthy character flattered our taste buds. By the glass or even the welcome by half-glass wines the well selected breadth covers the right picks for the fiery and often sweet Asian cuisine. Reds such as the bright Beaujolais or a funky blend from Jura surprise you next to the food friendly array of sherries, that drink well with Vietnamese food.
Angelenos can anticipate the James Beard award-winning outlet opening this fall. If the chef’s sustainable, locally sourced ethos translates well into this Southern California megapolis, it will fare well with the LA farmers market frequenting crowds. I wish, it was located more West and not in the Downtown’s newly opened City Market South, but this is good for the local workforce. I will rather stroll to the San Francisco convenient spot.
One Ferry Building #3, SF, CA 94111
+1 415 861 8032
Open daily LUNCH: Mon-Sat: 11:00AM—2:30PM & Sun: 11:30AM—3:00PM

Song Tea & Ceramics: the perfect pot of tea in San Francisco

Song Tea & Ceramics looks like a tastefully decorated living room. Here you can visually enjoy the curves of the artisan ceramic bowls that are displayed around, read an inspiring book and sip on your favourite tea. Personal relationships, harmony and the holistic enjoyment of all things tea – from the hand-picked ceramics, the fragrant leafs to flower arrangements – these pillars drive the appeal of this San Francisco tea shop.
Contemporary interior design at Song Tea & Ceramics in San Francisco
This small batch Chinese and Taiwanese tea importing refuge on Sutter Street is set mid-hill in a popular residential suburb. An increasingly popular installation for creative design workshops, this laid back and inspiring neighbourhood suits the owner Peter Luong like the Yixing clay ware to express the best in the oolong tea.

Rejuvenating tea tasting experience

Its time halting aesthetics rooted in tradition, strike one in a technology-fuelled city that hums with an innovative, change and potential disruption promising spirit. But this is exactly what we, the busy and always connected contemporaries, want. The real conversation and flavours that the casual gong fu cha tea ceremony involves are emotionally as well as spiritually rewarding, but it requires time. The Chinese tea appreciation ritual is not as time consuming as the Japanese chanoyu, so set some tea time aside for your visit at Song Tea & Ceramics and savour the harmony between nature and human appreciation of the tea terroir.
Tasting tea at tea shops is centuries old custom. Try before you buy. As you can see at most high quality tea shops in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and on less frequent occasions in Japan, a tea table hosting customers to tea tasting is the norm. There is no fee for this tasting. You only pay for what you take with you out. Inside, you are treated as a guest. At Song Tea & Ceramics the pure beauty of the tea tasting table gives you as much pleasure as the distinct flavours of the teas themselves. The owner, who prepared the teas for us, was pleasantly elevated when he sat down offering us our preferred teas. We were swiftly tuned to the tea mood. As I mentioned before, reserving enough time is necessary when buying tea, and more so when this ritual is included in your tea purchasing experience. The staff is also very passionate about tea and when we tasted with the young lady on another occasion we enjoyed the experience as much as with Peter Luong, the founder of Song Tea & Ceramics.
tea design at Song Tea & Ceramics in San Francisco

Oolong: the perplexing blue-green tea

All the white, green, oolong, red and aged teas from China or Taiwan were personally selected by the tea shop’s owner Peter, who annually travels East. The Sino-focus is a confluence of historical and generational nuances. Peter comes from a family of immigrants that for decades ran a successful tea business in the bustling San Francisco’s China Town. His sister now runs the Red Blossom Tea Company on Grant Avenue in the old fashion, while the younger and more creative Peter introduced contemporary and holistic visual pleasure into his own business.
I was on the hunt for an interesting Taiwanese oolong. This semi-oxidised tea can be very deeply roasted and rather lightly oxidised (Oriental Beauty) in Taiwan. But also adhering to the ancient Chinese tradition some oolongs are darker, almost like black tea because of their high level of oxidation. During an hourlong sniffing, slurping and casually conversing with the lively yet mindful Mr Luong, my decision was made based purely on my own gustatory experience.
Buddha's hand oolong teaTaiwanese oolong tea
I can recommend the highly popular Buddha’s Hand Alishan grown in Taiwan at a 1000m altitude in a company of coffee plants and betel nut trees. The large dark brown leafs look like dried chipotle, and that is because of their high-oxidation and wrinkly appearance. Expect chocolate, malt and brown sugarcane, yet free of calories.
The smoky sweet Formosa Yancha is a small release that is destined to age well as its grower keeps most of his harvest to himself. As the wood and tangy chicory fragrances regress, the brew unveils into a clean, fresh and mineral finish.
The vintage Formosa Dahongpao is the same Wuyi Yancha cultivar from the cliffs of Shan Lin Xi, but it has been aged for almost a quarter of a century. The Charcoal roasting prepares this tea for a long ageing since it absorbs any residual moisture that would lead to mould and spoilage. What a tea! I could inhale its deep fragrance all day long. A sweet butterscotch mellows into an apple strudel with muscat spice, before a bang of long mineral finish that leaves you musing whether this tea is willing to give more. With up to 10 brews, each revealing a different trait of the tea’s character, this Wuyi Yancha a delectable puzzle for the taste buds.
This high mountain ‘blue-green’ tea is a youthful beauty when compared to the Baozhong from the 1960s. It is unusual to age so mildly oxidised tea like this Taiwanese 20% oxidised leaves. Its subtle taste together with low tannins make it delectable all-day-long tea when young, but now it was more a tired fifty-something, still enjoyable but lacking the zest of its youth. Very interesting as the first seconds still reveal some of its jasmine and rose character.

Miracle of nature: a surprise tea that must be tried at Song Tea

Black tea from Taiwan
This black tea from Taiwan is a true miracle. In Chinese speaking world often called red tea, the Four Seasons Red is a fully oxidised tea typically grown in Taiwan, yet this specimen is grown at 1500m on the Lishan mountain and they say at Song Tea: it is “crafted from leaves bitten by leaf hoppers which produces a chemical reaction in the leaf that gives the tea its honeyed sweetness”. This is not just your common breakfast brew, this red tea is rather fresh, soft on the palate with pleasant sweet taste and a cut grass aroma. I just wonder how do they attract the hoppers and make sure they bite into the tea leaves? The delectable result is a true miracle of nature.
There are plenty of other teas offered at Song Tea. They arrive with each new season (the best green and white teas in spring). Some sell out fast while others last, but the earlier in the season you come, the more there is to choose from. Most teas are also available at the Song Tea & Ceramics’ online store.Oolong tea tasting at Song Tea & Ceramics in San Francisco

Nordic clean design meets Japanese restraint

A contemporary clean design at Song Tea & Ceramics fits into today’s San Francisco. The loose teas are stored in simply designed, almost purist, creamy ceramic containers sealed by a wooden cap. Your purchase is then dispensed into moisture resistant inner coating of the paper bags with a resealable snap.
The owner’s passion for revamped Japanese aesthetics and practicality reflects its prowess in the interior of the gallery and shop. He posses a unique sensibility for striking the perfect balance, where the contemporary and the natural breeze through in harmony. Often, when no customers are browsing inside, he employs his creative muse. You may find him sketching his own tea pot or designing new labels. His purist eye in the flower arrangement delights and since it is changed regularly you will find a little surprise each time you stop by.
The gaze mingles with the pots and cups in an unglazed clay, that as if coated in a dense chocolate brew lure your hands to a grasp, a blush of milky celadon, a stroke of mineral glaze and the indigo ornaments inside the stunning gong fu cha water bowl tease out inner material cravings.
Contemporary interior design at Song Tea

Gallery of tea ceramics

Song Tea & Ceramics also exhibits and sells ceramic works by well-established as well as upcoming potters. Chinese, Taiwanese and in a small proportion American ware is represented. When selecting them, Peter is generally “looking for pieces that show mastery of material and technique, and that echo our aesthetic.”
Natural, raw shaped matcha bowls made by Song Jin and the famous Yixing tea ware (China) echo the dual Sino-Japanese aesthetic preferences of the gallery. The clean lined zisha clay pots perfect for oolongs are commissioned from five individual artists based in Jiangsu Province, China.
More clay based vessels combined with wood handles are made by a trained Taiwanese sculptor Zhang Yun Cheng.
The white, thin celadon line by Hu Tie Hua was recently included into the vast collection. Celadon is also the theme of Liao Guo Hua, another Taiwanese talent, who is eager to experiment with unglazed clay as well as mineral coating on his by “sparse aesthetic” driven bowls.
New ceramics are usually included when the older collections are sold out or when the owner discovers yet another great artisan potter. As a gallery and tea shop in one, Song Tea & Ceramics forms a genuine friendship between these sensual pleasures in life.
🕗 Tue-Sat: 11am-6pm, Sun 11am-5pm
✉ 2120 Sutter St, San Francisco, United States

Spruce: from California organic farms to your plate

Spruce is currently one of the troop leaders of sophisticated, honest and locally sourced restaurants in San Francisco. The bay area had been in our modern times the pioneering US city for farm-sourced ingredients in casual as well as fine dining. Today as the farm-to-table movement infected most of on high-quality focused chefs around the globe, the term may sound a bit worn out, yet sourcing locally from small farms is a sound, first step towards more sustainable dining out. It tends to taste better too. The produce is the king and the chef is its intuitive right hand.
Spruce restaurant in San Francisco
The self-taught and by experience formed art of the Spruce’s chef Mark Sullivan was appraised by the Michelin guide, awarding the restaurant one star in its guide each year since 2011. Sullivan’s personal relationship with local farmers and ranchers translates smoothly into the seasonal menus. Most of the ingredients are sourced from the organic SMIP Ranch and the restaurant, being a loyal fan of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), lets the customers pick up their pre-ordered vegetable boxes (presented on the SMIP Facebook Page) at Spruce. Squashes, sunchokes, pole beans, beets and other root vegetables feature on the menu now in the autumn.
The ambiance has it all. A pompously welcoming Baccarat chandelier sets a high dining tone, while a chic cocktail bar with a special reduced menu offers the Spruce Hamburger, a coveted treat of many locals including the Asian-American founder of Song Tea & Ceramics located nearby. The large main dining room allows a glimpse of the youth-meets-nonchalance bar scene, but the restaurant facilitates rather a more fine dining experience. Bolstered chairs and faux ostrich coated sofas contrast with a barn style roof supported by wooden beams, just to remind you that the farm cuisine takes the leading role and the elegant setting is just a co-star. On the walls, charcoal sketches from the Parisian street artist “Bard” and a rotating collection of art bring in a more youthful breeze.There are three private dining spaces. From a small Shiraga (seats 14) room through the Library (up to 20 guests) to the Laurel room for big parties (up to 40).
Spruce restaurant in San Francisco
Comforting feelings are evoked while scanning the menus. “Just-baked Coffee Cake“, “Warm Banana Cake“, “house-made gravy”, again in contrast with french gourmand rhetoric from crèpes, crème anglaîse, hollandaise to bèarnaidase sauce old-world attempt to fluff in some sophistication. If you do not have time to dine in or the restaurant is packed, right by the entrance pick a freshly baked panini, cookies, salads, and take-away artisan coffees at the adjoining Café.
If Sunday Brunch fits into your lazy weekend schedule than Spruce is the right place to go. Located in the residential hood of Presidio Heights means booking ahead is highly advisable. Even simple plates like fruits with your brunch are impeccably chosen not just for their make-up but also the substance that unveils itself on your palate. Such a beautiful presentation is hard to copy at home.
fresh fruits
The term local can have a greater span than one might assume. Local does not necessarily mean that everything is sourced from a garden next door or a farm just out of town, local in the US can mean that the lobster comes from Maine, because Maine lobster is the best. Nevertheless, it still comes from the US and is not shipped from France. The brunch French Omelette served over SMIP Ranch Greens and layered with truffled Brie from Marin is an erotic foreplay to a ravishing sensual experience while you are filling your mouth with each morsel. One of the best omelettes I have ever had. Exquisite! You can also lux up your first Sunday meal with California Osetra Caviar or succulent Maine Lobster served atop soft-scrambled eggs on brioche. Both of these sumptuous plates are also available for lunch.
A dinner at Spruce starts with a stone tile and two buttery French baignettes. Warm, cozy and luscious introduction to your evening. Off the menu are daily or seasonal specials highlighted by the word of mouth of your server. In October, we were offered Pan-seared Maine lobster for two served on a large pan with fresh rosemary branches. The waiters partially plated some of the giant lobster, potatoes and autumn vegetables, while leaving the rest with the sides on our table for an additional indulgent self-help.
Spruce restaurant in San Francisco
The desserts are surely as delicious as the savory courses, but a selection of artisan cheese from all over the US won us over. The menu changes but can include the well-known milk and cheese producing areas in Vermont and Wisconsin, but also picks from the New York state and even goat’s Sophia from Indiana. We had to order a “taste of all” six, although a single or a selection of three are also available. The quality was impeccable and for cheese connoisseurs like ourselves tasting less-known, handcrafted produce was utmost satisfying.
The wine list at Spruce is worth a special visit since it is rare to find older vintages of American wines anywhere outside the private collections. It cannot rival to Dean and DeLuca’s cellar (purchased by Napa-based entrepreneur Leslie Rudd) at its adjacent restaurant Press in Napa Valley (over 10.000 bottles), but its breath, over 2.500 selections, is exciting for any serious wine connoisseur. Awards showered its merits as the Wine Spectator has recognized their wine list for years. From 2007 to 2014, Spruce received their “Best of Award of Excellence”, and in 2015 the magazine’s highest honor, a “Grand Award” landed on the restaurant’s name. A massive international selection of wines by the glass, by the spoon for the syrupy Tokaji Essencia includes centenaries of Madeira (starting with 1907 vintage!!).
It does not mean though that you can pick the wrong bottle as we did at first. The sommelier omitted to inform us that the two-decades-old California Pinot Noir we ordered was already fading, in fact, it was in the decomposing stage of becoming a vinegar. As expensive it was (about $250) we complained to the sommelier and got another, younger bottle. A sigh of relief, we liked the three years old Pinot enough to enjoy it with your lobster main course and the American-only cheese plate. A great cup of tea for better digestion erased the vinous disappointment and the sweet chocolates served with it restored our wide smiles. Spruce is now affirmed on our to-go-list when visiting San Francisco.
🕗 Mon-Fri: lunch 11:30am-2:30pm & dinner 5-10pm (Fri 11pm).
Sat: dinner: 5-11pm
Sun: brunch 10am-2pm & dinner 5-9pm.
☏ +(1) 415 931 5100
✉ 3640 Sacramento St, San Francisco, CA 94118, US

COI San Francisco: local, exotic and unexpected

COI’s location between San Francisco’s edgy China Town and its polished Financial District, the two disparate worlds rubbing on each other’s shoulders, is not accidental. This duality reflects itself in the two-Michelin star cuisine of a restaurant every local foodie has on his to-eat-list. Here, Asian ingredients and cooking techniques meet costly and mostly locally sourced ingredients. This bounty of the Western US coast is celebrated in California-style seasonal cooking spirit by COI’s chef Daniel Patterson.
Simplicity in the design at COI
Yet, the two Michelin-stared chef makes his menu look incomprehensibly exotic for the culinary school non-graduate diner, making his waiters indispensable in clarifying what exactly is being served on each plate. The more curious minds can take a print out of the current menu and scout either online or scan lengthy indexes of the food encyclopedias. Below, I will puzzle out and deconstruct the philosophy behind Patterson’s craft from my recent meal there.
California Sturgeon Caviar on egg yolk poached in smoked oil, creme fraiche, chive
As you settle in the Zen atmosphere of the restaurant’s dark, soul-soothing and mind-sharpening interior you will be offered an apéritif. A 1999 vintage sparkling California brut sharpens your palate and fizzes out energy necessary for the 14-course dining experience ahead.
A trio of amouse-bouche land one after another on your table like a fleet of fighter jets. Some still fully loaded with a bomb, waiting to explode in your mouth. A cracking California Bowl consisting of puffed brown rice crisps for dipping into a smooth and thick avocado purèe gets an artistic façade of green sprouts. Followed by a refreshing bowl of Niabell Grape Ice with wild bay salt just before the final flavor bomb of California Sturgeon Caviar that, like a crest atop of an egg yolk poached in smoked oil, announces a luxurious splurge. Its richness is thoughtfully balanced by a dollop of refreshing crème fraiche and a light sprinkle of chopped chives.
California Bowl of puffed brown rice cracker with avocado puree & sprouts
As the next courses arrive, it becomes apparent that the restaurant’s naturally colored earthenware underscores each dish – by lifting up its colors and textures – as if highlighting the artistic importance of its contents. The chef’s locavore and seasonal sourcing flashes out in seasonally specific dishes like Geoduck with cucumber, radish, purslane, salad burnet. Native to the West Coast of America, this clam is a popular feature of Northern Californian chefs. In a similar light form succeeds Fall Rose with beet, red endives, walnut, turnip, mints and flowers; and again seasons recalling Late Summer Corn With Savory Flavors of pumpkin seed, hominy (dried and specifically treated maize kernels), chile, huacatay (South American herb from marigold family known also as Black Mint). Its spicy touch has geographical nuance in California’s historic ties with its Southern neighbors.
The sommelier turned up once again with the first two courses, serving us a dry Riesling from Santa Barbara County. Staying as local as he could the wine waiter was back soon just before the richer corn dish with a bolder glass of Peay Estate Chardonnay coming from around-the-corner cool region of Sonoma.
Spot Prawn, pole and Chilean beans, flowering cilantro
Back to the sea (San Francisco is a coastal town so a locavore cannot escape it) with Spot Prawn, pole and Chilean beans beautified with flowering cilantro (parsley leafs). The word play here is sophisticated again. The pole beans have long green or yellow pods and like vine crawl high up around supporting stick or ‘pole’. Who would think of serving them with prawns? Perhaps only the chef who knows how sensitively seasonal the spot prawns that are actually shrimps are.
Red Trout wrapped yuba with charred cabbage & sauce of dried scallop & ginger
Staying in the sea with Red Trout Wrapped in Yuba on charred cabbage and sauce of dried scallop and ginger, that was my favorite dish. Yuba is a soy milk skin collected from its top during boiling. It is then dried and later used in cooking since, like a mushroom, it soaks up liquids and expands like a sponge. It has a neutral taste, therefore it highlights whatever ingredient it is served with. Its spongy texture contrasted with the soft flash of the raw trout, whose fishy flavor was maximally minimized by the chinese style sauce.
Matsutake with potato-pine needle puree
Moving to the land, the sommelier switched to a well aged 2001 vintage red Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. It was a surprising revelation to me that the clean, slightly spicy and fresh Matsutake mushrooms paired well with this usually powerful wine. With some age though the Cab was smoother and with the potato-pine needle purée hidden under the thin raw mushroom sheets it worked. Matsutake are used in Japanese and Chinese cooking. Today they are also grown in Northern California, which is favorable for this pine mushroom’s growth. The chef might had been inspired by this fungus’ english name as he added some pine needles into the potatoes.
The red wine made even more sense with Pastured Beef Encrusted In Seaweed Powder. The unexpected addition was its accompanying seared and shaved raw cauliflower and super-green parsley purée. Harmony was once again achieved with a magic stick of the chef.
Pastured Beef encrusted in seaweed chowder with cauliflower & parsley
The desserts are far from extinguishing the creative fire of COI. Starting small with by Japan inspired Coconut Mochi bun with kiwi and shiso, the pastry chef adapted the mochi’s doughy texture to California climate by shaping the chewy pasta-like sweet dim sum into taco pockets filled inside with the fresh shiso leaf and gelato.
The real sweet art was revealed in Vanilla-Poached Bartlett Pear in a soupy raspberry-red wine and topped by soft black pepper meringue and cracked pistachios. As its name suggests, texture plays a high tone in the gustatory composition of this pastry. Crunchy and soft, liquid and firm, rough and smooth – all mesmerize your mouth in one bite.
Dessert at Coi in San Franciso
There is no lack of sugar in the tasting menu as a more simple looking Nine Grain Cake Caramelised in Sorghum served with fromage blanc ice cream arrives after the two previous glucose teasers. Sorghum is a gluten-free cereal grain that usually needs other flours to create a more spongy cake texture. By caramelizing it the chef solved its roughness and by adding a scoop of Fromage blanc (French term for fresh thick yogurt-like cow cheese) gelato its sweetness was tamed. The sommelier served it with a sweet glass of a Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc blend in the Bordeaux Graves style but locally made in Napa Valley by Oro Puro.
The wine waiter was spotless, knowledgeable and understood very well what his guest want. Introducing you to unusual wines if you are adventurous or keeping it safe by suggesting wines measured to your personal taste. The complex and by age well-integrated black fruits and floral aromas of the Corison made by the ‘Winemaker of the Year’ according to the San Francisco Chronicle were a new local surprise for our elegance and maturity seeking palates. Not cheap by a bottle, therefore we appreciated trying it by the glass.
Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2001
To finish the Asia meets West Coast America feast a Yuzu Marshmallow in frozen dark chocolate was served with our smoky pot of aged orchid Chinese tea from 1980 harvest. It may look like a huge meal, but the three-to-five sized portions and the chef’s quest for balance, not force, were just perfect. That means that I did not crave a pizza on my way back through the Italian quarter and had a sound sleep afterwards.
Address: 373 Broadway, San Francisco, California, USA
Contact: +(1) 415 393 9000
Opening hours: Tue-Sat for dinner only from 5:30pm.

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