Archive for the ‘SF: Financial District’ Category

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Dinner Specials at Mikaku

July 21, 2007

Whew, it sure has been a long time since a post! Sorry folks, real life has caught up with us recently, but we promise to get going again soon, back to more regular programming. We figured a new post was especially appropriate for today, because this weekend, our blogging platform WordPress is hosting the entertaining, informative, and pretty-darn-geeky WordCamp conference in San Francisco. Short Exact is right now sitting in the antique Swedish-American Hall on Market Street (which, sadly, doesn’t have nearly enough outlets for laptops!), blogging from WordCamp about… the dinner specials at the Mikaku restaurant, which have absolutely nothing to do with WordCamp!

In an earlier post about Mikaku (a Japanese restaurant located right next to the Chinatown gate), we mentioned the chirashi, slices of fish carefully layered atop sushi rice. On a recent visit, we had the opportunity to try a couple of the dinner specials written on the white board located just east of the sushi bar; the restaurant really shines in its preparation of these specials.

At dinnertime only, Mikaku offers house-made soba (buckwheat) noodles. The noodles, which are served cold in the form of zaru soba,

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had a nice bounce and texture, easily superior to the soba noodles offered at many of the more popular noodle houses in Japantown. The noodles are served with the tsuyu dipping sauce, a refreshing and light yet robust combination of soy sauce, dashi, and the sweet rice wine mirin. Perhaps best of all, Mikaku also serves the traditional sobayu,

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which is the water in which the soba noodles were just boiled. Pouring the sobayu into the cup containing the leftover tsuyu dipping sauce makes for a delicious drink and is an excellent way to cap off a plate of soba noodles.

We also sampled the chawanmushi,

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a traditional savory Japanese egg custard with surprise fish, meat and vegetables inside the custard that are to be unearthed. The chawanmushi we had at Mikaku, which included crab and chicken, was a delight, with a clean egg flavor that was a good complement to the other ingredients. Mikaku’s rendition of this dish is quite nice.

At a standard dinner, Mikaku offers at least a dozen specials. Recently, in addition to the soba noodles and chawanmushi mentioned here, we’ve seen daikon soup, dishes involving yam and kabocha (“Japanese pumpkin”), different preparations of clams, and hirame usuzukuri, which are paper thin slices of fluke sashimi dressed in a very light ponzu sauce. Although Mikaku’s menu has all the standard tempura, teriyaki, and sushi roll combination deals that Americans have come to expect from Japanese restaurants, the skill of both the sushi chef and the kitchen are most clearly displayed in these authentic specialties, and we’re glad to have gotten the chance to sample Mikaku’s versions of these dishes. “Averaging” this with our previous visits to Mikaku, an upgrade of Mikaku’s rating is definitely in order:

RATING:

COST:

Please scroll to the bottom of our original review for the restaurant hours and contact information.

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Back to Perbacco

April 11, 2007

A few months ago, we visited Perbacco, a relatively new addition to the Financial District specializing in the cuisines of Piemonte and Liguria, two regions of northern Italy in close proximity to France. We had a fantastic lunch there, and every aspect of that experience was spot on, including prompt, attentive, and helpful service, and of course, delicious dishes featuring high quality ingredients and very good preparations. As positive as this experience was, it still was only a single experience, and for some time now, we’ve planned on a return visit to see if Perbacco could live up to our expectations by providing another whiz bang meal. This time, though, we went for dinner, since the dinner menu has some different options, including a small handful of crudo dishes (creative preparations of raw fish) that are not available at lunch. The big question, though: did this dinner live up to the standard set by the lunch from a few months ago?

Well, one thing is for sure: the starting salad certainly did not. If you read our first review of Perbacco, you might recall we were a fan of the beet salad, both for its delicious combination of contrasting flavors and for its bright, diverse colors. We enjoyed the salad so much that Short Exact and dining companion ordered it again at this dinner, but unfortunately, it did not live up to the expectations set by our first experience. Actually, the salad looked as though it had been only partially finished but accidentally brought out to the table anyway, as it was noticeably smaller (with far fewer gold and red beets) than the dish we received at lunch a few months ago. The Castelmagno cheese had the same great flavor and crumbly texture as before, but the whole salad was dry, and the promised white balsamic vinaigrette was nowhere to be found. We really should have just sent this dish back, but we were also on a time crunch to make it to a Symphony concert, and the salad was not the focal point of the meal in any case, so we just brushed the whole thing off.

Next up was the uni (sea urchin) crudo:

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This crudo had a nice bright flavor furnished by the lime and kumquat, while the small slice of Serrano chili included in each bite of the crudo added an appropriate amount of heat to finish it off. Still, the impact of the Serrano was somehow too disconnected from the lime and the kumquat; we were hoping for the effect of these different ingredients to be more unified, but instead, the trajectory of each single crudo bite was a little abrupt. Meanwhile, the delicate brininess of the uni was overpowered by the other elements of the crudo, so the main contribution of the uni was its nice creamy texture, rather than its flavor. Not perfect, but this was a pretty good crudo. We didn’t have the opportunity to try any of the other crudo dishes, but on the day we visited Perbacco, four crudo total were available. In addition to the uni, there was hamachi with blood orange and fennel, a yellowfin tuna with grated apple, and sea scallops with grapefruit oil.

From the pasta section of the menu, we tried the the tortelloni,

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pasta filled with bits of roast pork and prosciutto. The peas provided a well-rounded sweet flavor that was a good complement to the tinge of saltiness provided by the pork in the tortelloni. The pasta here was not quite of the delicate fine quality exhibited by the tagliatelle (with pork sugo) that we ordered on our first meal here, but it was definitely decent. To top it off, the dish was served with a teasing broth that is a mixture of beef, lamb, and pork stocks. This pasta dish was not a revelation, but it was still rather successful, on the whole.

By far, the winner of the night was the milk-braised Berkshire pork shoulder:

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One note here: Short Exact split this entree with our dining companion, so the portion size you see in the above photo is smaller than a full entree portion.

The pork shoulder rested on a bed of fresh, crispy Savoy cabbage, and it was served with a side of Anson Mills polenta that was creamy, with a very delicate sweetness. The main star of the show, though, was the pork shoulder, which was rich and deeply flavorful. It was certainly tender, but not consistently so. While some sections of the shoulder were merely somewhat soft, other sections were so exceedingly tender that the meat literally melted underneath the slightest pressure from our fork. Nonetheless, it was a very good dish, and we would order it again. Judging from this pork shoulder, the pasta with pork sugo we ordered on our last visit, and the house-cured salumi misti (also from our last visit), it is clear that despite the availability of vegetarian dishes on the menu, Perbacco excels in its preparations of meat dishes, particularly pork.

Although we reported on our first lunch at Perbacco on January 29, 2007, the actual lunch took place a month earlier, at the very end of December 2006. We’re going to be completely honest and transparent here regarding our first review of Perbacco. The entirety of 2006 was an extremely difficult, taxing, emotional roller coaster sort of year for us, and the lunch at Perbacco was literally and symbolically a celebratory way of looking forward to what would hopefully be a much better year in 2007. Given this, it is entirely possible that our initial exceptionally high rating of this restaurant was colored by our enthusiasm and hope at being able to put the hard times behind us. The recent dinner we had at Perbacco was not quite as stellar of an experience, and this is likely due to a combination of an actually inferior experience and the fact that we were a bit more discriminating this time than we were at the lunch in December. The service the second time around was at least as helpful and enthusiastic as it was the first time, but the food did not perform at the level that a rating of 4.5 stars implies.

In any event, despite the mishap with the beet salad, our recent dinner at Perbacco probably floats in the 3-to-3.5 star range, with the quality service putting it at a more solid 3.5. Averaged with the 4.5 stars from our last review, we’ll update Perbacco’s rating to 4 stars. Even though the dinner was not as nice as the lunch, our overall impression is still a favorable one, and we would like to return to explore more of the menu.

RATING:

COST:

Please scroll to the bottom of our original review for the restaurant hours and contact information.

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The Slanted Door: Photo Edition

March 27, 2007

You might recall that awhile back we wrote up a little report on The Slanted Door. As it turns out, The Slanted Door is actually remarkably consistent in terms of both preparation and service, so our opinion has not really changed much since that last post. However, Short Exact had the chance to visit again a couple of weeks ago, and we happened to have our camera with us! So with this post, we aren’t really reporting any uphill or downhill progress. To be honest, this post is really all about the food porn. (Good stuff, right? Yes?)

We started with the chicken salad,

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served with vermicelli noodle and cabbage. It was a light and refreshing start to the lunch. You know, for what it is, this salad was fine, though it could have used stronger flavors (which is a nice way of saying we really wish it actually tasted like something). We’re being a bit flippant, but a more pronounced fish sauce and herbal flavor would have really enlivened this dish. The preparation here is loosely Vietnamese, but left some to be desired.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably noticed that when it comes to food photography, we’re usually pretty consistent and straightforward (read: slightly boring) about it– we pretty much always just take aerial shots. For some reason though, we thought we’d try something a little more artsy for this next shot. Anyway, we think it turned out pretty well, and maybe you will even agree. There’s a fuzzy background compared to the sharper focus of the plate in the foreground, along with the rice bowl and water glass:

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Oh, right: the food. This is a food blog, not a photography blog. These were the caramelized tiger prawns, featuring a somewhat rich chili sauce, with organic onions providing both soft crunch and a delicate sweetness. The prawns, hearty and with a slightly toothsome texture, were perfectly cooked. This was definitely good, but no stunning culinary achievement here; when it comes down to it, this dish was just a good way to enjoy some very nice prawns.

The cha gio (imperial rolls) were up next,

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featuring a mixture of pork, shrimp, peanuts, and glass noodles, of course served with the expected greens in which to wrap the rolls. These were delicious, and surprisingly authentic, as well. The nuoc cham dipping sauce that was provided was on the sweet side and not especially nuanced, but it definitely was not bad either. Meanwhile, the rolls themselves were light, clean, and very fresh. Nice work here.

The cellophane noodles with Dungeness crab meat

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is the signature dish at the Slanted Door, and with good reason we believe. This dish is all about demonstrating how subtle tastes and textures can be just as enchanting as bold ones. Crab does not have an especially strong flavor, and in general, it is too often the case that whenever crab is used in a dish, the flavor is overwhelmed, and the only part of the crab we can really enjoy is the texture. Not so here. The flavor of the cellophane noodles is even more delicate than that of the crab, and yet the noodles do a great job of simultaneously supporting and enhancing the crab, which rises to take the center stage in this dish.

The last entree was the shaking beef,

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featuring delicious and mighty tender chunks of Meyer Ranch filet mignon, accompanied by watercress, garlic, and organic onions. The dipping sauce was a bright and well-balanced combination of salt, lime juice, and freshly ground black pepper. For restaurants that offer it, the shaking beef usually turns out to be one of the most expensive items on the menu, and the Slanted Door is no exception. There is no doubt that the shaking beef was well-executed (and we would be lying if we said we did not enjoy it), but at $24 (at lunchtime, probably slightly more expensive at dinner), you’re definitely paying for it. We still aren’t convinced that this rendition so outstripped its competitors (at other restaurants) as to be worth the premium.

As it turns out, discussions about The Slanted Door are some of the most contentious you’ll probably find in the San Francisco food scene; actually, they are very reminiscent of the discussions that take place over whether or not the landmark Zuni Cafe is overrated. On the one hand, this restaurant provides a quintessential San Francisco experience. San Franciscans are suckers for great views (probably because of all the hills and scenic vista points), and the prime Ferry Building location makes The Slanted Door the exception to the rule that good food and good views are mutually exclusive. San Francisco is also famously an aquatic peninsular city, being surrounded on 3 out of 4 sides by water. So yes, there is something quintessentially San Francisco about eating Asian food in bright surroundings, looking out at great water views.

On the other hand, this diverse city is full of so many different cuisines that many foodies here are hell-bent on finding authentic, treasured gems (and if you’re a regular reader, you know that Short Exact definitely falls into this category). In that sense, the Slanted Door, with its posh surroundings and collection of dishes which are really only “Vietnamese inspired” (and have been altered to suit American tastes), runs directly counter to this urge to constantly search out the authentic spots, no matter how dirty or run-down they might be. The fact that the Slanted Door often charges quite expensive prices (for dishes that you could find for much lower prices at other restaurants) only adds to the insult, and for many naysayers, this is the last straw. We imagine that this would be especially frustrating for those of Vietnamese descent, who might resent the fact that their favorite home-cooked dishes are being touted as stylish and gourmet, and with prices to match. There are also many people who are familiar with this restaurant from its original days on Valencia Street, no doubt still mourning the loss of their treasured neighborhood spot that has since morphed into a regional destination. Lastly, throw in the fact that the place is always packed and never seems to have any available bookings, and it’s suddenly not so difficult to see why the Slanted Door is such a controversial restaurant.

At first, we were always a little torn about the Slanted Door, for exactly these reasons. Since then, we’ve learned to chill a bit — it’s just food after all, right? We would never say that The Slanted Door is our favorite Vietnamese restaurant, but to call it “bad” would be very unfair. The food here ranges anywhere from pretty good to great, the surroundings are very nice (although noisy and a bit hectic), and we’ve always had helpful and kind service. Some of the prices are definitely out of line, but you have to remember that you are paying for more than just food here. You will be served some high quality ingredients, yes, but you are also paying for the location, the environment, and the general dining experience. Obviously, this restaurant does not provide the best value, so if you visit here looking for value, you’re really just setting yourself up to hate it. From solely the food perspective, which is where we tend to place most of the emphasis, the Slanted Door could never be our favorite Vietnamese in town — certainly not a place to visit regularly. Every once in awhile, though, a more upscale place is required, perhaps to celebrate a special occasion, and for those cases, The Slanted Door fits the bill. Despite the controversy, The Slanted Door still offers good (or better) food and a nice dining experience.

RATING:

COST:

Please scroll down to the bottom of our original review for restaurant hours and contact information.