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.

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Taylor’s Automatic Refresher

February 28, 2007

Taylor’s Automatic Refresher is a rather well-known burger joint that offers an upgraded version of fast food fare. The original location in St. Helena has been around for at least 50 years, but there is a second location in the posh foodie-haven of the Ferry Building on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. The Ferry Building branch of Taylor’s has a quick take-out counter, and a full sit-down area, with both indoor and outdoor seating.There are several burgers on the menu, ranging from a standard cheeseburger to a blue cheese burger. Also offered are a few seafood dishes, including fish tacos, fried calamari, fish and chips, and the famous ahi burger, which we will get to in just a little bit. Of course, there are side dishes (onion rings and several types of fries) and a variety of milk shakes made with Double Rainbow Ice Cream. A collection of chicken entrees, hot dogs, sandwiches, soups, and salads round off the menu.

We got a side order of the sweet potato fries ($3.99),

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The menu claimed these were “dusted in chili spice”, which they were, but so slightly they might as well not have been dusted at all, as the chili spice was barely perceptible most of the time. The use of sweet potatoes is a nice twist (they do taste good with ketchup!), but after a few of them we were actually already a little tired of them. A decent side dish, but these are good to share, as they give you quite a lot.

Short Exact and dining companion also shared two burgers; first, the standard cheeseburger ($6.49):

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The meat used in the burger was good quality (“all natural, hormone free California beef” as proclaimed on the menu), and the vegetables in the burger (just the standard lettuce, tomato, and pickles) were fresh and crisp. The “secret sauce”, albeit used somewhat excessively, was as tasty as you’d want it to be, and the use of quality ingredients did elevate the experience. This was no doubt a solid burger, but it did not stand out in our mind as being especially amazing or noteworthy. It did sure have a lot of cheese oozing out of it, though!

Possibly the most infamous item on Taylor’s menu — and the item which most sets it apart from other burger joints — is the ahi burger ($13.99), which was the other burger we shared:

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The ahi burger features a fresh steak of ahi tuna, seared rare, and is served with cole slaw and ginger wasabi mayo in place of secret sauce. Wasabi and ginger are such stereotypical accompaniments for ahi, and casting it in the form of an aioli suits this preparation of ahi as a burger. The ahi was good, and definitely seared rare, as promised; we enjoyed it, but we would probably not order this sandwich again, or very often. The price of the burger is understandably high, but a seared ahi should be featured in a more subtle preparation. Slathering the ginger/wasabi mayo all over it and sticking it between two pieces of bread is not the best way to show off a good piece of tuna. Taylor’s is really just an upgraded fast food restaurant, so we probably shouldn’t be too picky, but the ahi burger is $14, and — in our opinion — probably not worth this premium. The ahi burger is a curiosity, and it is certainly a tasty and hearty sandwich, but if you are craving seared tuna with a ginger/wasabi preparation, plenty of other restaurants in the Bay Area offer better interpretations that treat the tuna in a way it deserves to be treated.

All in all, Taylor’s is a solid burger joint in a convenient location; certainly a fine place to drop by if you’re in the area, but we wouldn’t recommend going out of your way, since these burgers aren’t really so noteworthy as to be worthy of a trek. You may also want to keep in mind that the prices are fairly expensive, given that we’re talking about burgers here. The cheapest burger on the menu is just the standard burger, at $5.75, and other non-ahi burgers reach as high a price as $8.49 (at the time of this review). So if you get a burger and a shake, or some sort of side dish, you are pretty much guaranteed to spend more than $10, which may very well be more than you want to spend on a burger. If you’re in the area, though, it’s a decent choice, as the fare is tasty and satisfying.

RATING:

COST:

1 Ferry Building #6
San Francisco, CA 94111
Phone: 866.328.3663
Hours: Daily, 10:30 am – 8:00 pm.

Cuisine: American (Traditional)
Neighborhood: Financial District

How to get there: BART and Muni Metro access via Embarcadero Station. Muni lines: 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, 12, 14, 21, 31, 38, 41, 71, F, J, K, L, M, N, and T.

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Perbacco

January 29, 2007

UPDATE (April 11, 2007): Since writing this post, we have visited Perbacco once more (for dinner) and have written a new review. Please note that we have changed Perbacco’s rating since this dinner. Please click here for the latest review of Perbacco. What follows is the original review.

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Perbacco is a superb Italian restaurant located in the Financial District, in the same block as Aqua and the venerable Tadich Grill. Opening in just fall of 2006, it is a recent addition to the local dining scene, yet it seems to have hit its stride almost immediately. The word “perbacco” means “by Bacchus”, and it is essentially an exclamatory sort of remark. After you visit Perbacco, you may just inadvertently find yourself doing a lot of exclaiming, because it is actually that good.

Perbacco specializes in the cuisines of Piemonte and Liguria. These two regions are located in the northwestern corner of Italy, and the geographical proximity to France can be felt in their cuisines as well. With respect to the growing of grapes and production of wine, the Piemonte region is especially rich, and, unsurprisingly, Perbacco stocks a variety of these wines; the wine menu is quite extensive and is carefully divided by type of wine and region of origin. The restaurant also has a long and deep menu, chock full of appealing choices. Unfortunately, on our visit to Perbacco, we were not even able to make it to the entree section of the menu, because there were so many delicious options under the appetizer section and the soup/pasta/risotto section. Short Exact cannot wait till our next visit to try out more dishes, with the hope of one day reaching the entrees.

The Bay Area’s most noteworthy Italian restaurants usually have a collection of house-cured cold cuts. Perbacco is no exception, and the assortment and quality of the salumi misti here is superb. The prosciutto had a light, almost ethereal texture, and the finocchiona (fennel salami) featured a perfectly smooth, balanced, rounded fennel flavor. The mortadella was delicately soft, while the ciccioli (pork pate) was rich and smooth. In short, there wasn’t a bad one in the bunch.

We enjoyed an appetizer of squid,

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featuring perfectly grilled local squid with a subtle, yet well-balanced background set of flavors furnished by arugula and an orange vinaigrette. The meatiness of the Corona beans (a large, white type of Italian bean) and the soft sweetness of the tomato was a great complement to the squid.

Next up was a salad,

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featuring beautiful red and gold beets. The subtle sweetness of the beets was delicately offset by a white balsamic vinaigrette and the crumbly Castelmagno cheese. Castelmagno, which is a cheese from the Piemonte region, has a pungent quality that is reminiscent of Gorgonzola, but it also has an extra bit of tang behind it, and the effect of the cheese in this salad is great. Not only were the flavors spot-on delicious, but the plate had a great mix of colors: deep purple and gold from the beets, bright leafy green rucola, and the white cheese sprinkled on top. All in all, this was a superb salad with excellent composition.

For an entree, Short Exact ordered the hand-cut tagliatelle with pork sugo:

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This dish was exquisite: easily one of the best pasta dishes that we’ve had in a long time. The pork sugo, which the menu proudly proclaims (and justifiably so) is cooked for 5 hours, has all the depth and richness of flavor you would expect from a slow cooking. The pork sugo was served atop a bed of fresh, housemade pasta which was of high quality: light, delicate, and perfectly cooked.

Dessert included a vanilla panna cotta

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with amarena cherries marinated in grappa. The alcohol and cherries lent a very nice fragrant quality to this dessert, which was a great complement to the sweet vanilla and the perfect custardy texture of the panna cotta. However, what really caught our attention was the trio of gelati misti,

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The three gelati were pistachio, bittersweet chocolate, and caramel. All of three of these were excellent, with rich and clearly delineated flavors. Still, our favorite of the three would certainly have to be the caramel, which, by a stroke of genius, was served with black sea salt. The black sea salt lent a very light crunch which, when combined with the cool, rich gelato, created an almost sparkly sensation in our mouth. It was a superb effect, and it just goes to show how the seemingly simple addition of one ingredient can make the difference between a special dish and a dish that is merely very good. As you can tell, our meal at Perbacco featured many great moments, but if we were hard-pressed to pick one favorite moment, it would probably have to be our first taste of the caramel gelato with black sea salt.

At this point, we will say that our report on these Perbacco desserts is probably already out-of-date. The Tablehopper has reported that Ted Nugent, who was the pastry chef at Perbacco when we dined there, has already left, and is now to be found at Scala’s Bistro, in Union Square. She also reports that Nugent has introduced “salted caramel gelato” to the menu at Scala’s, so it might well be that if you want to try this excellent caramel gelato, you will have to visit Scala’s instead. Still, that should not discourage you from visiting Perbacco; even without the caramel gelato, this is a strong and very interesting menu.

Perhaps what struck us most about this restaurant was the smoothness of our lunch there. Not only was every dish well-prepared, but the service was kind, helpful, and attentive. Although the restaurant was crowded at a busy lunch hour, service was smooth, and the delivery of the dishes was well-timed. Perbacco has only been in town for a few months, and so it’s only natural to expect some mistakes, or perhaps a timing disconnect between the floor and the kitchen. There was no evidence of any such mistakes on our visit. Perbacco has a very established feel, almost like it’s been there all along. While we may wish that they had been here all along, we are certainly glad that they are in town now. As a superb addition to the Financial District arsenal and one of our favorite new restaurant openings for 2006, we highly recommend Perbacco for all your downtown Italian cravings. Short Exact can’t wait to return.

RATING:

COST:

230 California Street (between Battery St. and Front St.)
San Francisco, CA 94111
Phone: 415.955.0663
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 11:30 am – 10:00 pm; Fri, 11:30 am – 11:00 pm; Sat, 11:30 am – 11:00 pm. Closed Sundays.

Cuisine: Italian
Neighborhood: Financial District

How to get there: Perbacco is located right on the California Street cable car line, and is near Muni lines 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 14, 21, 31, 41, 71, F, J, K, L, M, N and T. Embarcadero BART/Muni station is a couple blocks away.

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Mikaku

November 1, 2006

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Given its ultra-touristy location, located just south of the Chinatown gate at Bush and Grant, Mikaku is a surprisingly good Japanese restaurant nestled between Union Square, Chinatown, and the Financial District. Mikaku serves a variety of well-loved dishes, ranging from cooked dishes and special items, to sushi, sashimi, and chirashi, to a collection of noodle dishes. Although nothing here is truly spectacular, preparations here range from decent to quite well done.

In general, Short Exact prefers to order sushi at sushiyas that will be more likely to stock special or seasonal fish. Mikaku is certainly not a sushiya, nor does it stock any special fish. Recently, though, we were attending a meeting just around the corner from Mikaku, and we had a hankering for raw fish, so we instead of ordering sushi, we settled for the chirashi deluxe.

The chirashi is a dinner combo that begins with an unremarkable but perfectly serviceable salad and miso soup,

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which is then followed up by the chirashi deluxe, the main event:

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The deluxe chirashi features fresh cuts of maguro, hamachi, sake, ebi, ika, unagi, saba, and tamago (among others), all served atop a bed of seaweed and sushi rice. This was certainly not a perfect chirashi: the texture of the maguro was a bit on the stringy side, and the tamago omelet was good, if ever slightly too sweet for our taste. In addition, the delicate flavors of the sushi rice were not well-balanced, leaning a bit too heavily in the direction of the vinegar. However, the saba was actually quite nice, and the house marination did a nice job of enhancing the natural mackerel flavors, without overpowering them. The fish used is definitely not of the most pristine quality, but, in our experience, it has been rather fresh and reasonably tasty.

All in all, Mikaku is a good restaurant, featuring tasty food with service that is both prompt and quite friendly. Mikaku is certainly not a destination in its own right, but it is a good choice if you are in this touristy quarter of the city and have a craving for Japanese food that is at least a step above tourist chow. The varied menu will satisfy diners with a wide range of tastes, and those who are not fans of raw fish have plenty of other good options to choose from. True, Mikaku is not making any grand culinary achievements, but the restaurant serves solid, reliable Japanese food in a convenient location, at reasonable prices, making it a good choice of restaurant to drop in on if you are in the area.

RATING:

COST:

323 Grant Avenue (between Bush St. and Sutter St.)
San Francisco, CA 94108
Phone: 415.781.6730
Hours: Mon-Fri: 11:30 am – 2:30 pm, 5:30 pm – 9:00 pm; Sat: 12:00 noon – 3:00 pm. Closed Sundays.

Cuisine: Japanese
Neighborhood: Union Square, Financial District

How to get there: Mikaku is within 3-4 blocks of the Powell BART/Muni subway station, as well as Muni lines 1, 2, 3, 4, 9X, 30, 38, 45, 76, F, J, K, L, M, N, and T. The restaurant is also 2 blocks from the cable car lines running on California and Powell streets.

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Aqua

August 1, 2006

Aqua is one of the very well-established Bay Area fine dining spots that are scattered around the financial district in San Francisco. The epitome of the power lunch/expense account destination, Aqua features a great variety of seafood dishes executed with French influences, ingredients, and preparations. The menu, formerly under the direction of the famous Michael Mina, has, since 2003, been set by executive chef Laurent Manrique, and the choices remain fresh and inventive, as Aqua continues to push the envelope, rather than resting on past glories. The physical backdrop to a meal at Aqua is the posh, tasteful, and classy surroundings one would expect of such a long-revered institution.For one starter, Short Exact ordered the tartare of ahi tuna,

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served with Moroccan spices and herbs and lemon confit. This dish was delicious, and if it weren’t for the spectacular ahi preparation we had at Boulevard recently, we might have viewed the Aqua version even more favorably. Nonetheless, the Moroccan spice assortment is a creative and slightly unusual pairing for the ahi, but the taste of the ahi was still allowed to shine through the spices, and the lemon confit provided a bright backdrop for the interplay of flavors. However, it was a different story with the appetizer of hamachi:

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First off, let us begin by saying this was a very well-executed dish, and in some ways, it was fantastic. Just on a visual level, the presentation was creative, and the geometric layout of the ingredients emphasized the wide disparity of textures, colors, and flavors exhibited by the different ingredients. The rich lightness of the avocado mousseline and the slight bite from the piment d’Espelette — when taken with the bright tartness of the Kaffir lime and the lusciously multidimensional layers of sweetness from the Sharlyn melon — combined to create a new, truly bold, beautiful flavor. But what’s missing here? Of course: the hamachi! The primary ingredient of the dish. The flavors here are bold, but too bold: so much so, that in terms of flavor, the presence of the hamachi is overwhelmed. The hamachi certainly contributes to the texture, but as the raison d’etre of this dish, it should have been given the chance to participate more.

Our entree, the spring garlic risotto,

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served under grillied Hawaiian prawns, with Meyer lemon and tomato vinaigrette, rested on safer ground than the hamachi, but was simultaneously less intriguing. Some flavors here were slightly muted, and in this case, we would have preferred a contrasting ingredient in the tomato vinaigrette, because this dish really can take a greater intensification of flavor, more so than the hamachi. The end result is an admittedly well-prepared melange of slightly too much subtlety. The garlic was an appropriate balance to the very fresh and tasty shrimp, and the risotto had all the right texture, although it was less delectably rich than our most favorite risotti. The final verdict? After experiencing the starters, we had hoped to see an extra dose of creativity in a dish that could really have used it. Still, it was well-prepared and delicious.

As for the service, Short Exact has heard accounts from others about Aqua having snooty, arrogant, or perhaps just poor service. To be honest, we experienced nothing of the sort on our visit. Our waiter had a very thorough knowledge of the ingredients and preparation of all the dishes we ordered. The service was both attentive and courteous, but not overbearing, and since we went later in the afternoon, after the main lunch rush, it was not too slow either. The pace at which different courses were presented was right on.

All in all, Short Exact had a highly enjoyable meal at Aqua, and not just because we were in good company. The food is delicious, and while we believe there are subtle shortcomings (which Short Exact feels obliged to consider carefully because of Aqua’s reputation as an established member of the Bay Area’s fine dining scene), the dishes challenge and engage the palate with interesting flavor combinations and sound culinary technique. This is certainly a recommended dining experience in downtown San Francisco.

RATING:

COST:

252 California Street (between Battery St. and Front St.)
San Francisco, CA 94111
Phone: 415.956.9662
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11:30 am – 2:30 pm; Mon-Thurs, 5:30 pm-10:30 pm; Fri-Sat, 5:30 pm – 11:00 pm; Sun, 5:30 pm – 9:30 pm.

Cuisine: French, Seafood
Neighborhood: Financial District

How to get there: Aqua is located right on the California Street cable car line, and is within reasonable walking distance of Muni lines 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 14, 21, 31, 38, 41, 71, F, J, K, L, M, N and T. It’s just a couple blocks from the Embarcadero BART/Muni Station.