Monday, October 31, 2011

All Roads Lead to Sardinia

January 29, 2011.  That is the day I fell in love with Sardinian food.  And I was nowhere near the Italian island that is as physically close to Tunisia as it is to Rome.  I was in San Francisco.

I had been hearing about the small family owned La Ciccia for sometime.  Perhaps it was the location, in the far reaches of San Francisco’s Noe Valley, which kept me from going sooner.  John’s birthday seemed a good excuse to try something new and make the trek across town. 

Lorella Degan, the wife half of the husband-wife team behind the restaurant, ushered us into the small converted house space with the intimacy and warmth of a host who had known us for years, even though we just met.  Through the tiny window behind an equally tiny bar, Massimiliano Conti, the husband, was feverishly working the stove. 

There was no need to dally over food selection, the menu is among the smallest out there when it comes to Italian restaurants.  Five appetizers, four pastas, four mains, two pizzas, a couple of sides, plus one or two specials are all you ever have to choose from.  Flipping the large single sheet menu over it became clear why a small selection of food requires such a physically huge menu- on the back in type so small it almost requires a magnifying glass are over 180 wines from all across Italy. 

That night was my fist experience with Sardinian classics like spaghetti bottarga- pasta tossed with olive oil, breadcrumbs, and dried mullet roe, the “caviar of Sardinia”.  Fregula, a Sardinian version of couscous, comes in a potent sauce of tomato, sea urchin and tuna heart.  Malloreddus, a semolina based gnocchetti, arrives bathed in a seductively rich pork ragu and aged Pecorino. 

Since that first night I can’t seem to get enough.  On a holiday at the Four Seasons Maldives last summer, John and I were giddy with excitement when the menu at the Italian restaurant, Blu, offered fregula and a salad with bottarga- specialties of the Sardinia born chef.  We order Sardinian wines when we find them at generic Italian restaurants and wine bars.  And I scour Italian markets, bringing home the dried pastas and aged Pecorino that are hallmarks of this special island. 

As the saying goes, all roads lead to Rome.  But for my personal quest for authentic, regional Italian, these days I’m partial to boats- the kind that cruise right past Rome on their way to the beautiful beaches and fascinating cuisine of Sardinia.   

Coming up Wednesday, cooking fregula at home.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Friday, October 28, 2011

Indian-Bangladeshi and All Lit Up

Inside Milon, Indian-Bangladeshi restaurant New York City.
Walking down Curry Row on East 6th St. of New York (between 1st and 2nd Avenues) on a recent evening, no less than a dozen people beckoned me inside, each promising their Indian restaurant was better than the other 22 Indian establishments that stretch down this block and around the corner on 1st Ave. 

I don’t remember why we started coming to this one particular curry house, but I think a friend of my brother’s from law school had insisted the restaurant up the stairs and to the left at the corner of First Avenue was a stand out in the sea of masala sauce.  And yes, it is the one dripping in Christmas lights. 

You cannot help but have a good time at Milon, a restaurant where you must duck to get in under a couple thousand hanging Christmas, chili pepper, and now for Halloween, pumpkin lights.  And nearly every night- at least every time that I have been there- the main lights will dim at some point, raucous Indian music turned up, and the staff will dance and sing Happy Birthday to some patron for whom it is almost certainly not their birthday.

Most importantly the food is cheap and delicious.  Lamb curries come simmering on hot platters.  Chicken jous is bathed in a rich sauce of almonds and cream.  Parathas, dripping with ghee and stuffed with chopped garlic, arrive fresh and steaming off the griddle.

Like many on curry row, Milon does not have a liquor license.  Luckily the Indian market, down the stairs and to the right, has stocked an increasingly better selection of beer over the years. Everything from requisite Taj to Japanese Hitachino Red Rice Ale is available to quench your thirst from all that Indian-Bangladeshi spice. 

And even if you go all out on beer like we did on a recent night indulging in some large format German and Belgian selections, the total price of dinner plus drinks (from the liquor store) is unlikely to set you back more than $50 per couple.  I don’t know about you, but I have yet to find many places in New York where you can eat like a Raj and drink like a Trappist monk for the cost of a one-way cab to JFK.  And don’t forget the Christmas lights. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Hen that Keeps on Giving

Guinea Hen Ragu with Gnocchetti

Looking for something special to cook for Sunday night dinner, I wandered into Dickson’s Farmstand at Chelsea Market to see what meaty delight would pique my interest.  Dickson’s, good for the classics from thick center cut pork chops to dry aged steaks, is also good for the occasional out-of-the box selection, like pork cheeks. Eyes trained on the poultry section, I found what I was looking for: guinea hen.

Guinea hen is not so common in America. This bird is an African native, originally brought to Europe by the Portuguese, named after the former West African colony of the same name.

After consulting a few recipes I decided on a simple Sunday roast, rubbing down the body of the hen including its springy, muscular legs with some reserved rendered duck fat and stuffing the cavity with lemon and herbs.  In addition to a richer, meatier flavor than chicken, guinea hen benefits from a shorter cooking time and the advantage of being able to serve a bit pink.  Forty-five minutes at 400°F and the juices were running clear.  A quick pan sauce with some white wine and tarragon later, dinner was served with a side of roasted potatoes.

Guinea Hen Running through our Campsite, Namibia
One guinea hen (mine was a little over three pounds) is more than enough for two people for dinner.  We had quite a bit of meat leftover plus a carcass just begging to become stock.  I reserved the neck and the meaty wings which were a bit too difficult to eat and threw it all in the pot with the leftover guinea carcass, reserving the meat for another use.  Just like making chicken stock, into the pot went carrot, onion, celery, garlic cloves, thyme, black pepper corns, and bay leaf with just enough water to cover.  About an hour of simmering later I strained off the liquid, filling several quart containers with stock that will last me through a few fall soups too come.

But I was not done with the hen and the hen was not done with me.  Diced onion, carrot, celery and garlic with the reserved shredded guinea meat formed the based for a quick ragu a few nights later.  Diced tomatoes, red wine, stock, and some chopped herbs simmered away for 45 minutes as the meat tenderized, flavors married, and liquid reduced.  Tossed with some cooked gnocchetti, Guinea Hen 3.0 was a richly satisfying meal, entirely different than the roast hen or stock that had come before. 

It is good to remember with Thanksgiving around the corner that one bird can do so much feeding.  One does not have to wait for the once-a-year Thanksgiving bacchanal to cook up poultry that stretches far.  A good butcher that stocks guinea hen, a friend who hunts pheasant, or even your standard grocery store whole chicken are all sources for many meals built into one humble bird.

Gnocchetti with Quinea Hen Ragu
Time: 1 hour
Yield: 2-3 servings

2 T. olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, small dice
1 medium carrot, peeled, small dice
2 garlic cloves
1 sprig thyme
1 T. chopped rosemary
2 Roma tomatoes, diced
1 ½ cup shredded guinea hen meat (can substitute pheasant, goose, or even chicken)
½ cup red wine
1 cup guinea hen or chicken stock
½ lb. gnocchetti or other pasta
2 T. heavy cream (optional)
Parmesan cheese

Heat olive oil over medium in a large heavy saucepan.  Add onion, celery, and carrot and sauté for about 5 minutes while vegetables soften.  Mince garlic and stir into the pot with the other veggies.  Add thyme, rosemary, chopped tomatoes, shredded meat, wine, and stock.  Add a bit of salt and pepper.  Stir ingredients for the ragu and bring to a boil.  Reduce pot to a simmer and cover with a lid left ajar.  Simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally until meat is very tender and liquid has greatly reduced.  While ragu is cooking bring a pot of water to a boil.  Salt the boiling water and add pasta.  Cook pasta till 2 minutes shy of being done.  Drain pasta and reserve some pasta water.  Remove and discard thyme sprig from ragu.  Stir pasta into finished ragu adding some of the reserved pasta water if the sauce needs liquid.  Cook for another couple of minutes until pasta is done and integrated with sauce.  Stir in heavy cream if desired.  Taste and add additional salt and pepper if necessary.  Serve with grate Parmesan cheese. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Monday, October 24, 2011

24 Hours in Austin: In Search of Tex-Mex

Is it possible I’ve been avoiding Texas all these years?  Never spending more time in the Lone Star State than an hour-long layover in Dallas?  I have friends in Texas, and family, yet for some reason never felt compelled to do more than a quick flyover while traveling cross-country. 

Room to Read’s Austin Chapter event a couple of weeks ago presented just such a chance to come and experience a part of Texas that I had been assured I would love.  “The best live music!”  “The best running trails!”  “The best Tex-Mex in Texas!”  With so many superlatives flying at me, I was pretty sure even with just 24 hours I would be in for a good time.

Unfortunately, a busy week with a weird eating schedule and a flight that interfered with lunch hour, meant John and I arrived in Austin lightheaded with blood sugar levels dipping dangerously low.  After dropping off our bag with a friend whose apartment we were crashing at, the next stop without question was food. 

Our friend Kristin, a simultaneous health food fanatic and Tex-Mex lover, steered us toward Guero’s, not far from her apartment.  More Mexican than Tex-Mex, Guero’s Taco Bar was exactly what we needed in a pinch.  Help-yourself salsa bar, quesadillas stuffed with spicy chicken, chunky guacamole, and tacos al pastor.  It was one of those meals that is hard to judge fairly as cardboard would have tasted pretty good at that point.  But it did the trick, even for this biased Southern California native raised on real Mexican style street tacos.

Not two hours later we were at Four Hands, a renowned specialty furniture store and gracious donor of space for that evening’s event.  To Austin’s credit, people sure are friendly.  About 150 such friendly, generous, stylish people mixed and mingled through the aisles of reclaimed wood tables over glasses of Austin’s own Deep Eddy Sweet Tea Vodka and lemonade and Shiner, a favorite Texas brew. 

The evening was a success.  Attendees dug deep to fund a school in Sri Lanka, provide 46 years of scholarships for girls, and donate 2000 local language books published by Room to Read to an orphanage run in India by The Miracle Foundation

In all the excitement, John and I forgot to eat.  Again.

6th Street, the main artery of downtown Austin’s legendary nightlife scene might not be my first choice at this point in life- UT was getting ready for a big football weekend and the streets were packed with co-eds gearing up for the big game a couple of days away.  And Chupacabra would probably not be my first choice for dining on a normal night given the monstrous neon blue punch bowls of liquor with 15 straws that sat in the window table surrounded by college girls when we walked in that evening.  But we were hungry, it was late, and Chupacabra sells $1 beef tacos after 10pm.  We came, we ate, we left to drink margaritas elsewhere and celebrate the night’s victory with the Austin Chapter.

Over a morning latte at Progress, an alternative coffee shop that seems better suited to Portland than central Texas, John and I mused that we did not, in fact, see any live music and all the Tex-Mex we’d had up to that point was eaten out of necessity rather than pure pleasure. 

But our Austin adventure was not over yet.  In a nutshell: we went for a run on Lake Austin with the owner of Four Hands, a five mile run turned into a seven mile run when I got lost, I was found, we were late for our flight, the flight was delayed, never have we been so happy for a delayed flight.

More than just not missing our flight, the benefit of the delay was it gave us time to pick up one last Tex-Mex meal in Austin, this time at the airport. 

Maudie’s, part of a mini Austin chain of Tex-Mex restaurants, stood out from the rest of the fast food fray by the long line to order and the crowd waiting to pick up from a selection of tacos, queso, and enchiladas.  We ordered up a double dose of chicken enchiladas with chile verde.  Snug in our seats on the full plane, passengers sitting around us had to be either jealous or annoyed but we didn’t waste any time digging into our foil wrapped enchiladas.  Through the kitchen window we had watched tortillas hand-rolled to order around shredded cheese and chicken then smothered in spicy green sauce.  This was the real deal of enchiladas.

Wheels in the air, Austin growing smaller and more distant as the plane climbed, the last plastic forkful of chicken enchilada disappeared.  The humor was not lost on me that it took leaving Austin, and one last attempt at Tex-Mex in the airport, to understand the appeal of the city’s food.  If there is more food like Maudie’s to discover in that big state, I know one thing for sure, no more avoiding Texas.  I’ll be back.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A New Standard in Hotel Food

Spanish Octopus at The Standard Grill, New York City
“Hotel Food” is a phrase synonymous with the generic offerings of national chains buying frozen tortellini and curly fries in bulk from mainline distributors.  Over years of business travel too often resulting in late night arrivals and room service menus, I developed a strategy for eating that would at least satisfy hunger without completely repulsing my taste buds.  I call it the Club Sandwich Rule. 

The rule is simple.  It is fairly impossible to screw up a club sandwich.  A typical club sandwich involves layers of toasted bread separated by sliced turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and a (hopefully) thin layer of mayonnaise. It is hard to screw up a club for a few reasons: turkey is almost always moist, even plain sandwich bread is better when toasted, and bacon makes everything better.  If a skeleton crew manning the kitchen on the late shift can’t handle that, then the hotel’s kitchen can be deemed pretty much hopeless.  (If the hotel doesn’t do club sandwiches, the Chicken Quesadilla Rule, and French Fries for Dinner Rule are good alternatives). 

It is a nice surprise then from time to time when a hotel (that is not the Las Vegas sized 10,000 room variety) manages to attract people because of the food.  Such is the case at the newish Standard Hotel in New York City.  Vaguely French bistro in style, The Standard is blessed with an expansive patio perfect for slurping roses on hot summer days, or sipping Manhattans under the heaters when the weather turns chilly.

A recent dinner brought a Moorish influenced appetizer of tender Spanish octopus with sweet potatoes and chilies.  A juicy steak came nicely charred and perfectly pink in the middle.  And accompanying fries were thin and crisp enough to rival the famed fries at neighbor Pastis. 

The service, which easily could have veered toward snobby, was instead overly accommodating.  The restaurant does not have beers on tap but its adjoining Biergarten does.  The restaurant and bustling beer hall operate separately so the waitress could not transfer a beer bought there to our check in the restaurant.  But she kindly offered to escort my boyfriend to the Biergarten bar where he was served right away and then ushered back to our cozy patio seat, frosty brew in hand. 

I might live just down the street from The Standard but if I didn’t, I would go out of my way to stay there for work.  (At least one person I know stays there when in New York for business just for that reason.)  Even in a city like New York where food options abound, there will always be that day- delayed flight, urgent project, after work nap- that causes one to miss a normal dinner hour and rely on phoned-in food.    It is nice knowing that a few floors below lies a kitchen turning out some of the most consistently good food in the neighborhood and with a touch of a button, it will come direct to the door.  One can only hope that this level of service and quality signals a new “standard” for hotel food. 

Do you know a hotel (not of the 10,000 room Las Vegas variety) that has exceptionally good food available for room service?  Leave a comment!

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cooking with Clay

I can’t blame you if you read the last post (Weird andWonderful Food Gifts) and just couldn’t wait for the holidays to get a clay pot of your very own.  With the weather turning chilly this is the perfect time for the long simmered dishes a clay pot makes magically delicious. 

All ingredients in the pot.

This week I gave my 6 quart unglazed clay bean pot a seasonal test run with a dish of long simmered pork country ribs, red peppers, and tomatillos.  This might be more of a weekend dish for most people (or weekday for freelancers like myself).  But take the time to put these ingredients together, let the flavors simmer and seap for a couple of hours, and you will keep reaping the rewards of this rib-sticking dish all week long.  

2 Hours later: Pork, Tomatillo, and Pepper Deliciousness

Pork and Tomatillo Stew in Clay Pot
Time: 3 hours
Yield: 6 servings

3 lb. country pork ribs
salt and pepper
1/4 c. veg oil

1 medium onion
2 medium red peppers
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp smoked paprika
¾ tsp. cumin seeds
1 cup red wine

1 serrano chili
1 handful cilantro
1 lb tomatillos
2 cups chicken broth

Soak 5-6 qt. unglazed clay pot in water.  Season ribs on both sides with salt and pepper.  Working in batches, brown ribs on both sides in a couple tablespoons of oil using more oil as needed.  Set browned ribs aside on a platter once browned.  While ribs are browning, peel and slice onion.  Remove seeds and ribs from red peppers and cut into one inch chunks.  Mince garlic.  When ribs are all browned add some additional oil if necessary then add onion and red peppers to the pan.  Saute for five minutes until softened then add garlic, paprika and cumin.  Saute for another 2 minutes until aromatic.  Add wine and simmer until wine has reduced by half.  While onions and peppers are cooking, peel papery shell from tomatillos, rinse to remove sticky exterior, then cut in halves or quarters depending on their size.  Slice Serrano chili and roughly chop cilantro.   Drain clay pot and place on a stove over a low flame (use a diffuser if working on an electric stove).  In the pot, layer browned ribs with chopped cilantro, Serrano chili, and onion mixture.  Bring the clay pot slowly up to a medium heat and top with a lid.  Back in the sauté pan, add cut tomatillos and chicken broth.  Bring tomatillos to a simmer over medium heat.  Cook for 10-15 minutes stirring often until tomatillos begin to collapse.  Season with salt and pepper and add to the clay pot.  Give the clay pot mixture a gentle stir.  Add more liquid if necessary so ribs are just submerged.  Keep the clay pot at a simmer over medium heat for about 2 hours, until pork is tender and falling off the bone.  Serve with tortillas, rice, or potatoes. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Weird and Wonderful Food Gifts

It’s never too early to start thinking about holiday gifts, or at least that’s what the department stores have brainwashed me into thinking.  Over the years I have found that early shopping does take some of the stress out of the process, avoiding the full frontal assault of the last minute rush.  Starting early and giving the process more thought also allows for more creativity that the typical run through the mall- unusual websites, little known specialty stores, even craft markets and vintage stores all become targets for off-the-beaten path gifts, often with better stock than come December 24th

Here are a few food related websites with global influences.  For the cook friend who has everything, the hostess you’d like to thank with something more thoughtful than a bottle of wine, or the in-laws that put you up for the Thanksgiving holiday- these online stores are full of culinary delights sure to inspire.

Bram ( Just as I was falling in love with my new Chilean clay bean pot (from Pomaireware purchased at Kitchen Table in Walnut Creek, CA), a walk around the square in downtown Sonoma brought me to clay pot Nirvana in the form of Bram, a store devoted entirely to clay cooking vessels.  Bram, named after a specific type of half-glazed Egyptian clay pot, is a shrine to all things clay cooking.  Crammed between the shop’s narrow walls I found hand painted Moroccan tagines in vibrant colors, unglazed South American bean pots, and Spanish glazed cazuelas. From the humble unglazed red clay variety to intricately patterned hand painted serving dishes from Egypt, Bram has dish to fill your clay cooking fantasies.  If I was looking for inspiration on using these vessels, a wall of books, including the wonderful Mediterranean Clay PotCooking by Paula Wolfert, was there to help me on the way.  For friends who will appreciate a new pot as lovely to look at as it is fun to cook with, clay is the way to go. 

Far West Fungi ( It took one taste of truffle salt to know that this was a gift I would not stop giving.  At Far West Fungi, a mushroom-themed store in San Francisco’ Ferry Building, sales clerks encouraged me to dip a finger into the pungent jar of sea salt flecked with bits of fabled Italian black truffle.  In my mouth the effect was so complete and intoxicating I could have been sitting down to a $90 plate of truffle linguine.  For only $24 however, this reasonable luxury could dust scrambled eggs in the morning, finish off a medium rare fillet mignon just off the grill, or simply top a wedge of really good unsalted butter to smear on a crust of warm French bread.  While you’re at it, fungi loving friends might also enjoy growing their own.  Far West sells kits to get started growing one’s very own shitake or oyster mushroom mini farm.  While most people are eating chocolate Yule logs, your friends can brag about their very first Christmas mushroom log. 

Stinky Brooklyn ( Stinky Brooklyn is a, well, more aromatic alternative to your mama’s fruit-of-the-month club.  Food or wine-of-the-month clubs gifts are the holiday gift that keeps on giving- it is easy to see why this form of food giving has not just persisted over the years, but grown.  The holidays are weighed down with enough food already, it is nice to think that your food gift, in this case three .5lb selections of artisanal cheese, will arrive at your loved one’s door every month for three months, just in time for those New Year’s resolutions.  Sure there are other cheese-of-the-month clubs (Murray’s and Artisanal are two notable ones), but Stinky’s wins points for sheer amusement in the name.  Who wouldn’t smile when a fresh shipment of Stinky’s show’s up at the door? 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Cold Treats for Cooling Weather

The last two weeks haven’t felt much like fall. The mercury rising into the 80’s cities as far north as San Francisco and New York has meant one thing for food: the lines for ice cream vendors have remained mighty long.

Just as well for me, I tend to only get that ice cream itch when not even a glass of cold water can cool me down and nothing short of a sugar fix will get my electrolytes back into balance.

This was all the better for enjoying a few new fall flavors from some of the specialty purveyors around the country. Here are a two worth trying before the shorts and skirts get packed away and the scarves come out to stay.

People's Pops (New York, NY): I have been hearing about this gourmet frozen fruit pop company for sometime. To be honest, I couldn’t imagine frozen fruit puree on a stick meriting a $3.50 a pop price tag. After a long sweaty run on the Hudson River running trail, a stop by their Chelsea Market location seemed just the reward for my exercise efforts.

If I had come during the summer my guess is the flavors would have geared toward buxom fruits at their mid-summer peak- strawberries, nectarines, cherries. What I found on this early autumn day was a luscious purple remnant of end of summer: roasted plums. Unlike ice cream that hits you with the first bite, it can take a few licks to a get into the real flavor of a frozen pop. My patience was rewarded. As the frosty exterior gave way and frozen puree of roasted plum succumbed to the heat, what I found was the deep, rich flavor of late summer plums with a just a hint of the caramelization coming from roasting the fruit. Instead of the one note consistency of most commercial popsicles, a few licks of this pop revealed bits of pulp and skin remained suspended in the frozen treat, a welcome change of texture. People’s Pop’s season is almost over, so get in now before late summer frozen fruits pass you by.

Ciao Bella (San Francisco, CA): Nothing helps calm down nerves frayed by a long day taking outrageously expensive, inefficient cabs around San Francisco like a long walk home, ice cream in hand. The weather had stayed so nice for my week in SF that not only was a walk home in this often drizzly city possible, but cold ice cream actually seemed the perfect walking companion. Ciao Bella has been churning out sorbets and gelato for years in the Bay Area and in freezer sections of markets around the country (there are also three cafes in New York). A trip to their store in the Ferry Building is a rare treat for those of us who normally only get to taste their top sellers in the grocery aisle. Lucky for me, Ciao Bella has just rolled out with a few seasonal flavors- Pumpkin & Spice and Maple Ginger Snap. The taste was like fall- pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, maple, ginger- even if the weather felt more like summer.

Friday, October 7, 2011

One Week in SF:

Of Restaurants Running Out of Food AND Revisiting Old Friends

One would think that when the weather men had been predicting sun and high temps for San Francisco for over a week, proprietors of restaurants known for patios that crowd under blue skies would plan accordingly and order extra food. At least, that is what one would think.

Market Bar at the Ferry Building, one of San Francisco’s few dining destinations known for its large outdoor patio seemed to have been caught unawares by this temperate weather and the throngs of people that came with it. Or so it seemed when John and I arrived for our dinner reservation only to be told by a surly host that we were “just in time” they had almost run out of food.

At first we thought this was a joke. No sadly, no joke at all. The waiter informed us that they were out of 90% of their entrée options including main course salads and sandwiches. As for the lengthy appetizer list, out of about 50% of that as well. He did not attempt to stop us, or apologize, when we got up and left.

It was all for the best, however, because RN74, Michael Mina’s Financial District tavern, welcomed us with open arms. We perched up at the bar, by then relatively quiet after the departure of the after-work crowd. We nibbled on greaseless and airy tempura maitake mushrooms dusted in yuzu salt and tangled with ribbons of fried green onions. Although the Pastrami-cured salmon was nothing extraordinary, it was still a fine silken example of the tartare genre. For entrees I went to the starter section for manila clams that were livened up with some pork belly and an addictive broth rich in brininess and unctuous pork fat, perfect for sopping up with a basket of sourdough bread. Even the chicken, a standard boneless breast, avoided the pitfalls of banality with a fall hash of sweet corn, carrots and sweet potatoes served with a garnish of confit chicken leg-stuffed egg roll.

As the week rolled on I took up some lighter lunch-time meals around town. Fancy Mexican food at the strangely named Mexico DF proved that attractive lighting and good salsa can score points, but nothing beats tacos served down and dirty on a Formica table, under harsh fluorescent lights, at the local taqueria. One of organic restaurant chain The Plant’s newest locations in the Marina served out a veggie burger for even a meat eater to love. Although, I’m pretty sure my California Plant Burger- a lentil patty with jack cheese and avocado- would have tasted even better if it came topped with bacon. But it was Starbelly in the Castro that really won me over with their weekend brunch. Thin crust pizzas, salads fill

ed with tender greens, and a BLT with end of summer heirloom tomatoes had me ordering lunch while breakfast was still in full swing.

To cap off the week I checked out two joints in the Marina, one a pioneer on the fine dining scene in that neighborhood, the other a more recent addition. Sitting at the chef’s table at A16, my first visit since the departure of chef Liza Shaw, one shared Bianca pizza and Maccaronara pasta with ragu Napoletana and a packed bar was enough to conclude new chef David Taylor is living up to the high quality Italian food legacy of his predecessors. A few blocks uphill on Union, Café des Amis has brought a bit of sophistication to the predominantly casual dining scene of the neighborhood. Elegant atmosphere, finely mixed classic cocktails (like my Corpse Reviver #2), and a selection of French bistro classics such as steak tartare and steak frites are a rarity in the area. Just the sort of place for a quiet Monday night dinner with my grandfather, or an intimate weekday date like many people around us appeared to be having.

San Francisco is a like an old friend, if our encounters are not always fresh and exciting, at least they are comfortable and reliably good. Even the new spots that work, like Café des Amis, work because it makes me feel like as though it has been there forever. Same as it ever was can be a delicious thing indeed.

Market Bar, 1 Ferry Building

RN74, 301 Mission St.

Mexico DF, 139 Steuart St.

The Plant, multiple locations

Starbelly, 3583 16th St.

A16, 2355 Chestnut St.

Café des Amis, 2000 Union St.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell