Sunday, July 31, 2011

autumn in july

It's hard to believe that my first full day in San Francisco was a week ago!  What was harder to believe than that, though, was the difference between Philadelphia and San Fran, temperature-wise.  Mister walked me out to catch a cab at 5am.  In the midst of a serious heat wave, at 5am it was already 86 degrees with a serious amount of humidity. By the afternoon, temperatures would soar over 100 degrees, with a heat index of 115.  By the time that happened, though, I was pulling on my jacket and wrapping a scarf around my neck to protect my tender throat from the ripping wind and low-60s temperatures in San Francisco!

San Francisco?  Wait - did someone say Picture Parade?

After flying from one side of the country to the other, as well as remembering how mind-numbingly boring the Salt Lake City airport is and being amazed that Delta still serves complimentary snacks on their flights, I made my way through San Fran's public transit system, BART, and arrived at the bottom of the 4-block hill I got to climb to reach our hotel.

Here is our pretty (and yes, Jackie, tiny) room at The Chancellor.  I loved the hunter green accent wall.  I also loved the warning strategically placed on the floor of the bathroom.

There are two things of which I am certain: the first one is, if you're looking down to see that warning, you will probably notice that the surface is elevated.  The second thing I was certain of was that I would inevitably forget and trip into the bathtub - I'm still surprised that didn't happen.

How many hotels really provide a rubber ducky?
After settling in and hanging up some more wrinkle-prone clothes, Sister and I headed out into Union Square to see the sights.  We popped into Lush, but ultimately did not buy anything because it always feels stupid to buy stuff from stores I have here in Philadelphia - also, I'm not sure how well some of that stuff would travel.

We did need to grab a few items (oops - toothpaste is good to have) and there are two things on almost every corner in San Fran (from what I saw) Starbucks and Walgreens.  I was pretty happy about the first, but the second came in handy.  Additionally, they had these awesome vegetable chips so my sister and I got a couple of bags and headed out to the actual Square to do some people-watching.

Sister got Taro Chips, which tasted kind of like a cross between potato and sweet potato chips.  As Sister explained, this makes sense, since taro is a root vegetable.

I couldn't contain my excitement upon finding Jackfruit Chips.  I've seen Jackfruit as an ingredient in a few recipes I have and entrees at restaurants, but I've never actually seen or eaten Jackfruit.  With great anticipation, I tore open the bag and took a deep sniff - to discover that jackfruit chips smell awful.  They tasted great and had a satisfying crunch to go along with just the right amount of sweetness, but they sure did smell bad.

This ended up being breakfast on day 1 in Oakland
Never fear!  We had reservations at Millennium for dinner, so when we were finished munching on chips and watching a far more colorful array of people than those I've watched in Philadelphia (I'm telling you, there's something about California that brings out the crazy in people - it's like the whole state is one giant cocktail), we headed back to the hotel to shower, dress, and make ourselves up for a delightful dinner (generously covered by our Dad).

The restaurant was intimately set, with dim lighting and tables a bit closer together than I would have put them (then again, each additional table probably brings in at least $500 more a night).  It was darkly trendy with a waitstaff that was edgy and yet completely professional and well-versed in the etiquette of fine dining.

We started with a plate of Herb Marinated Olives, accompanied by bitter (in a good way) orange segments and caramelized onions.  As we picked at that, our server helped us select a nice, local Dolcetto to accompany our meal.

I'm pretty sure PA wine stores don't carry Urban Legend and that is a shame for many reasons.  First, it's a nice, easy to drink wine that went well with each course of our dinner.  Additionally, there is always something charming (to me, at least) about drinking wines that give a tip of their anthropomorphic hat to city life.

It was a nice, dry balance to the salty olives, but our appetizer was similarly complemented by this wine.

We shared a Black Bean Torte, laid over top of a ragout of savory veggies and cashew "sour cream."  I don't know if it always comes in two pieces or if they did that because I mentioned Sister and I would be sharing, but it was just the right amount for each of us.

Sister was so great about letting me photograph everything we ate before she touched a single shred of lettuce.  Here she is, posing with her entree, South Indian Cornmeal Crusted Zucchini.  She had such a hard time choosing between the two curries on the menu - at least I know what to cook for her when she comes to visit - I can make a pretty mean curry when I need to.  Ultimately, we enlisted our fabulous server's assistance in that choice, too.

While it was ineffably exciting to know that I could choose anything on the entire menu, I had little trouble deciding on my entree.  I can't remember exactly what it was called, but it involved a crispy, egg roll-like crust, filled with eggplant, grilled seitan and a bunch of other tasty things.  One thing it had was oyster mushrooms - since Mister can't stand mushrooms, I really haven't experimented much with them, so I figured I'd give these a try.

They weren't awful, but I'm still not a mushroom lover, no matter how good for me they are.  Something interesting that I noticed was how seafoody they tasted.  I assume that's how they got their name, but there was a remarkable sea-oriented flavor to these dirt-dwellers.

It was a lot of food - the portions here were a bit more generous than those served at Horizons, and I always felt that Horizons' portions were perfect.  Neither of us finished our entrees, having pigged out on the olives and had a good go with the torte, but we agreed to forego the last bites in order to save room for dessert.  I mean, really - you can't go to a renowned fine-dining restaurant of any stripe (much less the colorful zigzag of vegan!) and leave without dessert.

Especially when it looks like that.  We dwelt on the menu for a few minutes, briefly tempted by the Sweet Endings montage of cookies and truffles, but ultimately, could not keep ourselves from ordering (and sharing!) the Chocolate Almond Midnight: vegan chocolate and white chocolate mousses on a chocolate and almond crust laid on top of a generous squiggle of raspberry sauce and sprinkled with cocoa.  It was astonishing up to the very last bite which we each tried to pawn off on the other.

I won.  By that I mean, I ate the last bite.

After convincing our food-babies to let us stand up, we finished the last swigs of wine and headed out the door for an invigorating (if a little cool) walk back to the hotel.  I was so happy our hotel was only three blocks from Millennium - it felt like home!  Well, home in October.  We arrived back in time to redeem our Buy1 Get 1 Free coupon for nightcaps at the hotel bar and convinced the friendly bartender to take our picture.

Then we fell into a food-and-all-day-travel coma.

Waking bright and early the next morning, we headed down to the Mission District to check out the scene and take in what promised to be a fabulous lunch.

I'll admit, I may have been in the wrong part of the Mission district, but I cannot understand the allure.  It looked like straight up ghetto.  The only thing I can compare it to in Philadelphia is North Philly barrio/Kensington area... boarded up buildings, graffiti everywhere and not in the Philadelphia Mural Project kind of way.  It was not terribly charming.  Fortunately, all the creepy characters hanging out of dilapidated doorways were worth our lunch at Gracias Madre.

That's my Strawberry Margarita.  Apparently, tequila is not vegan (all Sister and I could come up with was the whole worm thing), so they make their margaritas with soju, a rice liquor akin to sake.  Sister felt a liquor closer to Japan than Mexico was not the best choice, but I liked my margarita just fine and isn't it pretty?

This, right here ^ is a plate of the most delicious Mexican food I have ever eaten in my whole life.  Seriously.  It was amazing.  I ordered Platillo de Legumbres which was just brown rice and black beans, accompanied by two side dishes of your choice.  My choices were platanos (plantains) and seasonal greens (as luck would have it, bright, beautiful, green kale was in season!) sauteed in garlic and olive oil.  If I walked out on to Mission Street after lunch and got hit by a car, I would have died a happy woman.  Sister and I were obsessed with the black beans.

Sister got Nopales, which is pickled cactus with cashew "cheese" over top, served with brown rice and black beans.  There was also a plate of warm, soft corn tortillas for us to share.  They had a texture unlike any I'd had before, probably because they were freshly made.  They didn't taste like much, though, and really didn't add much to the meal.  They did help scrape up any last trace of the black beans, though.

After lunch, we wandered around the Mission area a bit longer, then figured out a bus route that would take us to The Presidio to see the Golden Gate Bridge.  It was a heck of a ride - very crowded and then we hit traffic.  Just as I was about to go catatonic from all the people hanging over us (very glad we had seats), the bus stopped and let us all out.  Once we had a moment to breathe, we could appreciate the beauty of the bridge.

I'll be honest - I'm not a huge fan of tourist behavior.  I still remember going to Niagara Falls as a child - the first sight of the Falls is really quite exciting, but it wears off pretty quickly.  I think it was our third trip to the Falls when I said to my father, "Yup, it's still water."

Nevertheless, the only thing my sister wanted to do, out of the full itinerary I provided to her of what I wanted to do and where wanted to go, was to see the Golden Gate Bridge.  So we hopped on the bus and put our hair into hasty ponytails while pulling our hoods tight around our faces to see a method for cars to cross a chasm.

I'll tell you what - it is magical.  I was awed.  The Bridge itself really wasn't all that exciting - I expected it to be bigger than it was.  However, the sight of the fog rolling in over the mountains was astonishing.  The only thing I've ever seen that was anything like that was when I watched the clouds sink into Lake Tahoe from the top of a 10,000 mountain I decided to climb at sunrise (don't think I'm too cool - we drove most of the way).

After enjoying the view from many angles and elevations, we walked along the bay to the Warming Hut, which conveniently had nice warm coffee (it couldn't have possibly been higher than the upper 50s at the shoreline) and a variety of novelties to poke at while our fingers and noses warmed up.  Coffee in hand, we plodded down the beach to our next goal: The Palace of Fine Arts.

Once again, quite magnificent.  And, with its usual great timing, my camera battery died while we were there.  Once we'd taken in the sights, we headed out to meet a returning bus.  This involved a serious leg workout as we walked up the steepest hill in paved existence.  I don't know how people live on those streets, but they are certainly fortunate it doesn't freeze there, because even an eighth inch of ice would trap them inside their homes.

We returned to the hotel and let my camera battery charge while Sister took a shower and I refreshed my makeup and debated whether to brush my knotty hair or go with the whole windswept look.  Eventually, I opted for the windswept look, but that only lasted until after dinner.

We met up with a friend of Sister's at Saha, an arabic fusion joint in the Carlton Hotel.  We had no idea what we were in for, just that it came recommended by a reader and the menu looked fun online.  We walked over and upon entering the restaurant, realized we seriously underestimated its popularity, a notion that was reinforced when a worried-looking hostess asked if we had reservations.  We didn't.

This actually ended up working in our favor.  She had two reservations for 2 tops, so when a third table with 4 seats became available, we got to sit in a luxurious little corner, complete with a fuchsia and tangerine curtain creating the illusion of our own little room.

Sister was quite pleased with our little corner "sofa" with a virtual harem of beautiful pillows and made herself at home quickly.  Once her friend arrived, we ordered a bottle of Malbec and our entrees.  The server, who was very attentive and friendly enough to make my sister decide he had a crush on me, brought us a basket of squishy Moroccan focaccia-type bread with a za'atar and olive oil dipping dish.  We housed that bread and he brought us a second basket so we could finish the dipping sauce.

Sister's Friend ordered Saha's Ravioli, which were stuffed with mushrooms served in a mango cream sauce, sprinkled with mint and red pepper.

Sister, always the adventurer, selected the night's Special, which was a round of eggplant, topped with tofu, topped with a ragout of sauteed veggies, served on a light saffron sauce with English peas.  She loved it and I quite enjoyed the bite I took.

I actually had a lot of trouble choosing because there were so many tasty options.  In the end, I fell in love with Spinach and Tofu served with chickpeas, noodles and a tomato vinaigrette, with harissa on the side.  I dipped the very edge of the tine of my fork in the harissa so I could test its heat....and nearly burnt my head off before I could chase it with a healthy gulp of wine while asking myself how on earth I cook with that stuff.  I can only imagine they have a more potent, home-made mixture than what I use.  My meal was absolutely delightful, but I couldn't finish due to the extraordinary amount of bread I ate before dinner.

Unfortunately, that also meant there was no room for dessert.  That is a complete and utter shame.  I found something I really wanted to order.

Slap Ya Mama???  Really?  I mean, seriously?  Creme Brulee, Paradisio, Gelato or Sorbet?  No, I want a Slap Ya Mama.  Can you really order that with a straight face?  I'm so sad I didn't get to try.  There's even a vegan version available!

Instead of dessert, we finished our wine and headed out to a speakeasy.  I'm assuming this is the West Coast reaction to the recent East Coast trend of drinking all the olde tyme cocktails.  As far as I know, we have only one "speakeasy" in Philadelphia, but I saw at least half a dozen in San Francisco.  The one we went to was Bourbon and Branch.  The doorman wore a fedora with a feather and a pin-striped suit with shiny black shoes.  My sister was very excited to give him the secret password along with her ID (I was just excited to be carded).

According to the House Rules, I wasn't allowed to order a Cosmo, so I reviewed my mental list of prohibition era cocktails (I studied before we went - I am OverPrepared Woman) and thought I was pretty hot stuff when I ordered a Stinger.  I was promptly mortified when the bartender said he couldn't make it because they didn't have creme de menthe.  So, he crafted something for me that involved brandy, bitters, vermouth, lime juice, and was topped off with orange peel.  It was strong and pungent and served in a martini glass - I was pretty sure this was how the Roaring 20s felt and I have often felt I should have lived in that time, so I was happy.

Another House Rule was that I wasn't allowed to take pictures, so you don't get to see my pretty cocktail, but it was probably too dark anyway.  I loved the ambiance.  I also loved the "hidden door" that masqueraded as a bookshelf.  You had to be super-special to get in there and we didn't have that password, so when we finished our drinks, we headed out for some karaoke.

As you can see, after being a bit crowded in the speakeasy, my hair found its way into a messy bun (though it never occurred to me to remove my scarf.  The karaoke joint, Pandora, is apparently one of the premier karaoke bars in the city - they had private rooms with bottle service, but since it was just the three of us, we stayed in the main bar area and got drinks from the bar.

By now, the liquid courage was flowing freely (helping with a bottle of wine, topped off by a nearly pure alcohol cocktail will do that), so a sip or two of my new drink merely wet my throat for a rousing rendition of "The Promise" by When In Rome, followed by "Walking in Memphis" by Marc Cohn, to the DJ's delight.  The bar closed and we walked back to the hotel, at which point my sister let me know that we had just been in the red light district of San Francisco, known as Tenderloin.  I have no idea how it got that name, but I think its hilarious that we ended two days of delightful vegan food by visiting a part of the city known as Tenderloin.

I've been typing for nearly two hours.  I think we're going to have to split this into two parts - stay tuned for our Oakland/Berkeley adventures!


  1. Ahhh, my favorite city! Looks like you had a blast. The food from Millennium looks fantastic and I can't wait to check out Gracias Madre.

    Well now I have good news for you - tequila IS vegan! The whole worm thing is a misconception - only certain mezcals contain a worm, but most mezcals are vegan.

    Looking forward to your Berkeley recap!

  2. Love it, and love the food. We went to the same three restaurants, but with the exception of one thing (the Saha ravioli) everything else was different, so it's fun to read about other experiences there. :)

    San Francisco does have odd weather. One day I was there it freezing and it rained all day, which apparently never happens in June. But the day I went out to Golden Gate Bridge it was the most perfect day! It is beautiful out there.

    Can't wait to hear about Berkeley, I didn't get over that way. I really need to hurry up with my own blogging!

  3. Glad you enjoyed your tiny room! Love the rubber ducky!

    Now I'm dreaming of Gracias Madre--I love the taco trio. My husband kind of fell in love with their cashew 'cheese'.

  4. @Kelly - yes, SF was great and in part two, you get a little recognition :)
    @Susan - I'm so glad we're able to share these experiences!
    @Jackie - If I lived as close to Gracias Madre as you do, I would probably be there at least twice a month. My sister also loved the cashew cheese and couldn't stop telling her friends about it!