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Eastern seaboard love affair

Me: Let’s go get Thai food.

R: By ‘Thai food’ do you mean ‘Dunkin Donuts’?

One of the things I miss most about the culinary world of the northeast is Dunkin Donuts. Their coffee – Maxwell House – is the best of any donut house and better than most non-donut emporiums. If that weren’t enough, they have French cruller donuts and their Munchkins don’t taste like soap. What more could you ask for?

Williamsburg: Dressler

Dressler in Williamsburg got a star in the new Michelin guide to New York! Go Dressler! We ate there in August on the recommendation of our excellent Brooklyn friends and it was worth every penny.

The place is decorated in what I’d describe as high-end cozy Gothic. A lot of ironwork, ultra-cool chandeliers that look like hand-carved metal. Some places with cutting edge decor balance it out by serving cocktails that taste like they were mixed with the metal polish and food that was looks and tastes like it was designed and cooked by the architect. Not so at Dressler.

The waitress talked me into La Bicyclette, a drink made with St. Germain Elderflower (?!), lemon and cava that was not the fruity, girly confection it sounded like. The heirloom tomato appetizer was perfect (local produce! organic! and so on…) and the wild bass entree was both subtle and flavorful, the accompanying vegetables and sauces a perfect complement to the fish and not at all overwhelming. (In my experience, there’s a lot you can do wrong with white fish and they did none of them.)

Even though we had a box of Magnolia cupcakes under the table, we ordered dessert. How could we not? The place was fantastic. The oven-roasted peaches with brown butter cake and black pepper ice milk did not disappoint. Oh my Lord how they did not disappoint. They did not disappoint the way Paris and Christmas don’t. I swear the brown butter cake was the best cake I have ever had. And the peculiar black pepper ice milk – about which I had another word with the waitress (I’m not sure she loved me…) – was ideally light and cool with the warm cake and peaches.

And then we had cupcakes on the sidewalk. Hooray!

Cheese: Bayley Hazen Blue by Jasper Hill Dairy

Bayley Hazen Blue is a cross between a Stilton and a blue and it shows in the yellow hue of the cheese. Because I love blues and I love Stilton, this seemed like a perfect bet and it was…sort of. I was hoping for a stronger blue flavor and a slightly creamier texture but the Stilton won out. Result: a blue-ish Stilton with a strong, rural, oak flavor and a texture verging on crumbly.

Available in San Francisco: Cowgirl Creamery, Ferry Building

New York: Rice to Riches

rice.jpg On Monday, after having lunch in SoHo at Rice, my friend Sharon and I looked around for dessert. Our first thought was gelato, but then she thought of Rice to Riches, a rice pudding emporium right around the corner. Having just consumed a large bowl of rice with lemongrass chicken, the wet bowls of rice and cream in shades varying from cream to fawn to brown didn’t pique my appetite, but I liked the place anyway. It reminds me of the old-school New York diners I miss so much in California. Rice pudding is honest. It has about four ingredients, none of which are on the Atkins list and all of which taste excellent. So I’m taking the unorthodox step of recommending a place second-hand. (Reviews from Sharon, Time Out, the Times and New York Magazine are all glowing.) I will note, however, that large bowls of rice pudding just are not visually appealing, especially after a substantial meal, so arrive hungry if at all possible. Or drunk, as I hear people often do.

Rice to Riches is open all hours (until 1AM on weekend nights, 11PM other nights) and serve every imaginable flavor of rice pudding. Actually, they have several that I wouldn’t have imagined, including French Toast and Tiramisu. For an extra fifty cents, you can get whipped cream or coconut on top, among other things, and for a dollar, you can have oven-roasted fruit with your six, eight or fourteen-ounce (or, if you’re awfully peckish, eighty-ounce) bowl of niceness. The décor is hip retro-modern with wavy surfaces, a few tables and a curved bar. What’s not to love about this place?

San Francisco: Momi Tobys

Amendment: Since this review was published, I have been asked by the owner not to use some of the tables during lunchtime. As there were other readers/writers at similar tables, I assume this has to do with the frequency with which I visit the cafe and the duration of my visits (usually around two hours). I stand by my general comments below but retract my recommendation of the place as friendly to writers and hanging out. They are clearly more concerned about one-time spenders on busy days than steady repeat business, so I’m striking Momi’s from my list of regular haunts.

The most hospitable café in the Hayes Valley neighborhood for a warm cup of tea, low-end food and a place to take your laptop or the Sunday paper. There are other cafes but they are on busier corners or have odd clientele that make me nervous or annoyed. (Prime example, the otherwise serviceable café on the corner of Page and Laguna where you are likely to be overwhelmed by a crowd who have just had to sit quietly at the Zen Center across the street for God only knows how many hours. Beware.)

Momi Tobys serves excellent bagels (for San Francisco) which are toasted right up to the edge of burning and are not swamped by cream cheese (see Noah’s Bagels). Try onion or multi-seed, both happily salty. Their coffee is pretty bad, sitting in pots on burners as it does, but they have espresso drinks and a great selection of teas, some juices and both wine and beer, nice options in the evening. The menu is basic lunch stuff – chicken Caesar, soup, baguette crostini with pesto and a small selection of sandwiches – none of it superb but all of it solid. (If a tasty lunch is your sole object, head around the corner to Frjtz or a couple blocks down Hayes to Arlequin. Neither place is conducive to hanging out, but the food is superior to Momi’s.)

The main reason to stop by Momi Toby’s is to read for a while, to write for a bit or to hook up with friends for a coffee. (Don’t go overboard with the friends: none of the tables will accommodate more than three people comfortably.) Depending on who’s working, the music varies in quality and volume, but it’s generally interestingly circus-y alternative. (The chick who used to crank up the insane metal-meets-Muzak tunes has disappeared from the staff rotation, thank God.)

I write there regularly. The crowd’s there studying or reading themselves, so you get the friendly atmosphere without a lot of distracting, jerks who have something to prove on cellphones, the reason for abandoning a café closer to my apartment.

San Francisco: Cole Valley Bakery

cole valley bakery.jpgCole Valley Bakery, corner of Cole and Parnassus, open 7-7, closed Monday

Cole Valley Bakery has a full range of tarts and pastries and breads for breakfast or pick-up. They also serve sandwiches, salads and soups to a lunchtime crowd.

Their croissants are, in all respects, real French croissants. This means that they are light, flaky and NOT the size of my head. They have a slightly crunchy exterior and plenty of room between the million interior layers of butter and magic dough. This would be reason enough to head to Cole Valley, but it’s not the only one. Their coffee is first-rate. It’s not stale or boiled or overheated or pumped full of Starbucks steroids. It is rich, straightforward coffee and the perfect base for their perfect café au lait.

Other highlights include their canelés, which I have seen nowhere else, and their panniers (or elephant ears, as we American’s have thuddingly dubbed them) put all others to shame.

Lunches are bigger than you would expect, so don’t over-order. Even their small garden salad is sufficient for a light lunch. The only flaw in their superior bakery line-up is their baguettes, which are tough. The mini-baguettes are the base for their numerous, pre-wrapped sandwiches, which are still worth getting. Be prepared to chew fiercely. Selections include Gruyere and ham, saucisson and cornichon, aoili turkey and cranberry and a superb tuna salad complete with bits of apple.

Their soups range from the very bland to the truly excellent, so make sure to ask for a sample before ordering.

San Francisco: Circolo

Circolo had every chance of success with us. It had cool lights and an, um, water feature outside and it’s in our neighborhood. “What more could you want?” we thought and off we tripped in our Saturday finest to drop $140 on dinner and 2 drinks each. What we want is a decent chef and Circolo’s not the place to find one. Before we get to the sad food though, let’s discuss the ambience. They’re doing a club/restaurant thing that is only moderately successful, although I’ll admit that my frustration with the surroundings was likely enhanced by the dismal food. The dining area clearly converts to a dancefloor and while they’ve done a tasteful job of masking this fact and separating it from a lounge area in the forward part of the room, the space is not intimate.

We started with the dumplings, a predictable but almost inevitable choice for me. They were crispy and yummy, as were the mojito and a specialty margerita that accompanied them. So far so good. R. had the most expensive item on the menu, Kobe beef and foie gras, because he loves the combination and is willing to risk his arteries for it. I had the special, a whole, semi-pre-cracked crab, with parsley and lemon marinade. It was awful, awful, awful. It was a strange, offputting temperature, not chilled, not warm. It turns out that “marinade” means absolutely sodden. The crab was overwhelmed with an ultra-sweet broth that seemed to be made up of liquid nastiness and masses of diced parsley which wholly obscured any flavor the crab would have brought to the table and almost obscured the crab itself. The helpful idea of pre-cracking it was also poorly executed and saved no trouble. It was accompanied by “garlic toasts” which were equally cheaply over-flavored and half of which were inedible, having become saturated with the crab’s unfortunate parsley soak. R. fared slightly better with his dish but only because it wasn’t entirely unacceptable. The pairing of the interesting texture of Kobe beef and foie gras is a mistake. Foie gras smooth, rich density should be reserved for pairing with only the finest meat of like nature. That is clearly not Kobe beef, which has a unique, masculine flavor all its own which was ill-matched to the liver. To round out the meal, our second round of mojitos was overloaded with mint, one of them to the point of being almost undrinkable. Must have been the same guy who came up the parsley marinade.

Circolo: full of promise but very disappointing and expensively so.

San Francisco: Espetus

Espetus is at 1686 Market at the intersection with Gough. Definitely make reservations: 415-552-8792

Espetus is all man. And when I say “man”, I mean an overly tan, front heavy man with a mustache who may or may not have been indicted for that thing that happened on the docks that certain night in 1986. The kind of man who, when he shrugs, turns up both hands, flattens his mouth and pulls his neck back as he says, “Whaaat? Fuggedaboudit.” The kind of man who enjoys having heart-attack-inducing quantities of meat cut at his table and dropped directly onto his plate. Yes, we are in the land of Brazil where hotties in bikinis and rampant fraud abound. Welcome to San Francisco’s one and only churrascaria.

Churascaria, for the uninitiated, are dining establishments focused on meats of all kinds. The chefs cook them on 2-foot metal skewers and, when you turn the little dial on your table to green, the servers descend with the entire skewer and a huge knife, slicing off pieces of each specialty for anyone at the table who has not passed out from Atkins overload. The meats are, for the most part, excellent. They range from pork with parmesan (a little dry) to sausages (outstanding) to chicken with garlic (tasty) to an entire rib cage of an unfortunate cow (stringy meat but impressive visual).

The overall experience is surreal and not a little overwhelming. The decor is upscale and subdued and the price (a flat $45 per person) is equally trendy. The essence of the place though is very Denny’s: eat far more than you should, salad bar’s in the back. (Literally. There’s nothing exceptional there, with the possible exception of the corn and cilantro melange.) It had the air of a restaurant you find on the side of the road in the Midwest where your Uncle Milt always loves to go and the desserts are all Jell-O based. The waiters descend one after another and create a kind of bizarre meat race. (They would do well to train with the subtler dim sum cart jockeys at Yank Sing.) Frankly, when I’m paying $45 for dinner, I prefer to order my meal already composed. I gauge my appetite at the outset, order accordingly and negotiate the meal at a reasonable pace. Espetus is not about that. They’re about speed and quantity and, without careful and early resistance, you will end the evening feeling nauseated and distinctly unhealthy, a fate I barely escaped.

Overall rating: Strange. (Good meat. Bad concept.)

San Francisco: Yank Sing

Had everything we could get our hands on in the first 10 minutes of passing carts, with a heavy stress on dumpling-like items. The best being the shrimp ones. The satay is also well-sauced instead of the usual tandoori-esque treatment. The sweet rice dumplings get me every time. First, it’s not just rice. Second, while sweet, they are not the most excellent thing I seem to believe them to be. Beware a roving eye: the servers are very, very good at zoning in on you, which makes this a great place for a large party where there are more people to run defense. Or a greater chance of totally over-ordering. Still the best dim sum I’ve had in SF.

San Francisco: XYZ

In the W Hotel on the corner below SFMOMA. Get it? “WXYZ”? The restaurant, like the hotel, is shooting for a very sleek, minimalist look which it achieves but which does not usually wear well. This translates into hip, high-backed curved booths with uneven pillowed seating. No matter: I’m sure the filling has failed under hipper bottoms than mine. The food was excellent. The special appetizer was a really stunning chicken pate, excellently smooth after the rough Provencal version we have been working our way through at home and which bears a striking resemblance in consistency to cat food. The salads were standard greens but large, well-chopped and well-dressed, a great version of a classic. I had a white fish special served on a bed of surprising pureed sweet potatoes. V. tasty. He had a pulled pork and pasta dish which was original but wrongly seasoned. Interesting but not as good. Dessert was superfluous after all the preceding.