San Francisco is at its loveliest in the spring. Its voluptuous, bare, brown hills turn surprisingly green, morel mushrooms and asparagus spears begin to push their heads out of the earth, citrus fruit – Meyer lemons and kumquats – droop from over-laden branches, and you just know that another year of fine (and casual) dining on wholesome, sustainable, seasonal, organic produce (these words should be printed on the city’s flag) is at its cyclical beginning.
People go to San Francisco for all kinds of reasons. I was there to attend an Asian-American film festival but knew that I would also see friends … and eat. How can you not in such a mecca of back-to-basics yet inventive food? San Francisco and its environs have hit the mother lode with its chefs, farmers, ranchers and fishermen producing the best “green” food.
This may be the best food in America. Just go eat. Start out in the morning at Boulettes Larder. You cannot get a better breakfast. The setting is perfect. This seemingly very casual food shop-cum-hardly-there restaurant is in the historic Ferry Building. It faces the bay and if you look slightly to the right, there is the Bay Bridge curving gracefully. If you arrive on a Tuesday or a Saturday, a busy farmers’ market will fill the foreground. Reject the outdoor tables and the ones in the hall and reserve a place at the single shared table right in the kitchen where lunches and privately arranged dinners are also served.
It is here that you can watch chef-owners Amaryll Schwertner and Lori Regis spin their magic. Their black Hungarian water dog, after which the restaurant is named, might well brush his ample body, a big black mass of gentle dreadlocks, against your legs. The sizzlings and intense odours from nearby kitchen pans will turn your head. Just know that every dish, starting with the bread and butter, will be perfect. Sometimes I have watched farmers bearing baskets come right in to make special deliveries of eggs, cheese and butter. The menu varies with the season. This spring day I ordered the savoury cardoon bread pudding. I have always loved their poached eggs so I asked for one as well. I was told that the pudding could be served topped with the egg.
On my plate was a small puddle of a cheesy sauce, then the quivering pudding, topped with an equally quivering egg, all drizzled lightly with grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. The coffee was San Francisco’s best, Blue Bottle.
It was easy to walk off breakfast outside by the water and inside the Ferry Building itself where modern vendors, imitating older vendors, sell foraged mushrooms, local cheeses and handmade chocolates.
After another walk along the marshes under the Golden Gate Bridge, it was time for an early lunch. Something small, I thought. The Hayes Street Grill boasts some of the best local fish – though its juicy grilled quail, raised by Hoffman & Son, makes choosing difficult. Here in San Francisco, chefs make it a point to bare all produce information like a mantra, pretty much like showing your horoscope in India to vouch for yourself. Well, my petrale sole came from Fort Bragg and it was served with black trumpet mushrooms, fingerling potatoes and seasonal green garlic. A soft film of beurre blanc covered all. It was utterly satisfying and delicious.
For a second mini-course and dessert, I headed towards Nopalito, which calls itself a sustainable organic Mexican kitchen. How many of those does anyone know?
According to what already seems a legend, at a nearby restaurant called Nopa specialising in wood-fired foods, Mexican-born chefs and their help produced south-of-the-border staff meals for themselves. These meals were of such desirability that the owners decided to give the chefs a restaurant of their own, Nopalito.
I chose to sit at the counter, the better to observe the preparations. A vibrant glass of lemonade made from Meyer lemons cooled me down and cleared my palate. I was ready to start again and devour some hot food. Quesadilla azul con hojas de chicharo y hongos, a large blue corn tortilla that enfolds green pea shoots, maitake mushrooms, queso fresco (soft white cheese) and green coriander, is served with a spicy cascabel chilli salsa. Needless to say, the blue corn is organic, ground, made into dough and then into tortillas right on the premises, the cheese is made in-house and the large maitake mushrooms are supposed to fortify the immune system. What is more to the point is that it is all delicious. To end, I order a café con leche (made with Blue Bottle coffee) but, in a twist, it arrives frozen, on a stick, in the form of a popsicle. I am at once a child and an adult, entranced.
Then a quick trip for some tapas. Contigo, in San Francisco’s Noe Valley district, has been open but a year and is always full. I intend to order little but end up ordering a lot. The jamón Ibérica de bellota, made from acorn-fed, three-year-old pigs, just melts in the mouth. I feel I have hardly eaten. The Zuckerman Farm asparagus is tender, green and earthy, topped with a fried egg. I have the octopus salad with grapefruit, the squid with white beans, the wood-oven-roasted local sardines and batter-fried local smelts served with a harissa aioli, all of which I down with an Avinyó sparkling rosé from the Penedès region of Catalonia. I am so happy.
Now, I must go and see Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. It is a long taxi ride across the bay but how can I not pay obeisance to the queen of the green food movement, who started it in one small restaurant in Berkeley and saw it light up the sky, glittering like a million stars, all around the globe? On our table there is a spray of ripe kumquats. They are from Alice’s garden. Would we like a pizza, she wants to know. Of course it is not any pizza. It is carpeted with the smallest, smokiest fresh morel mushrooms I have ever beheld.
Madhur Jaffrey’s latest book is ‘Climbing the Mango Trees’ (Ebury Press)