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San Francisco diary

Americans learned to respect their own ingredients and invent their own modern cuisine, says Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Sep 16, 2008 10:20 IST
Vir Sanghvi

The one time I flew directly to the West coast of America, it was to Los Angeles. I took the United Airlines round-the-world flight (which no longer stops in Delhi even if it still exists) and changed planes at Hong Kong. It was a fairly tiring experience, despite the fact that my company had shelled out for a First Class ticket.

So I approached the prospect of flying from Bombay to San Francisco with some dread. In the event, the journey was astonishingly comfortable – and this time I was flying an Indian airline. Though Jet doesn’t talk too much about its First Class, it must be the most comfortable in the business.

You get a sort of private cabin to yourself which includes a fold-out wooden writing desk, your own cupboard for your jacket, lots of storage space for books etc., a huge video screen with many, many movies and TV shows available on demand, a vast seat that opens out to a full-fledged bed.

The crew will make the bed for you – with a comforter, pillows, blankets etc. – and will then shut the sliding doors to your cabin so you are cut off from the rest of the aircraft.

It’s not cheap – Jet’s First Class fares are on par with say, British Airways – but if some company is picking up the tab then you can enjoy the unparalleled luxury without worrying too much about how much it is all costing. I’m told that the Princess and various other people who fly First Class all the time regard Jet’s version as among the best in the business.

As if to remind me how much the new India is now taking over the world, my accommodation has been fixed at a Taj hotel. Campton Place is a small boutique-ish hotel (around a hundred rooms or so) with a dedicated clientele of discreet fat cats who like the personalised service and the air of quiet luxury. The Taj has spent money on the property ever since it took it over a couple of years ago so my room is pretty spectacular and it includes many of the things we take for granted but which are not always available at Western hotels (full room service round-the-clock; a laundry on the premises etc.)

The General Manager, Vikram A Singh, is young but his career has taken in hotel school in Switzerland and many years with the Four Seasons. Along with his elegant wife Shefali, he runs the property with a personal touch. All guests are always addressed by name, no request is considered too outré and Indians have the best of both worlds: an old American luxury hotel with the warmth of Indian service. (Full disclosure: Singh went to Mayo but he joined long after I passed out).

What many of us forget is how Oriental a city San Francisco is. When the Chinese immigrants first came to America to work on the rail road, they settled in San Francisco, creating one of the world’s largest Chinatowns. There’s a history of Japanese immigration over the last century too and more recently Koreans and Vietnamese have also made San Francisco their home.

This gives rise to two contrasting food traditions in San Francisco. The first – and most hyped – is the California cuisine revolution, started by Chez Panisse in Berkeley in the 1970s and widely imitated throughout the world. Though Chez Panisse went through many phases, its lasting contributions to the foodie world were a mixture of French cooking techniques with high quality local ingredients, the creation of what we call the modern salad (using such leaves as rocket), the emphasis on the provenance of each dish and the elimination of the sauces that characterise classic French cuisine.

The second – and lesser-known – is the Oriental food tradition that has its roots in the city’s ethnic diversity. You’ll get excellent trad-Chinese food in San Francisco. But you’ll also get modern Vietnamese, modern Japanese and slight twists on most of the cuisines of the Orient.

I decided that I would give California cuisine a miss largely because it is no longer very Californian. Most of its fundamental tenets have spread all over the US though the European influence is now Mediterranean food rather than French cuisine.

Even when I went to Napa to visit the wineries (about an hour and a half from San Francisco) I gave the fancy places a miss and took my chances at a popular local hamburger place. Of course, because I was in California, even the burger place had duck confit enchiladas but I stuck to the traditional burger and ate very well.

Campton Place was famous for its hamburger long before the Taj took over and wisely, the new management has left it as it was. It’s a good burger, with just the right balance between the beef patty and the bread though I preferred it without the cheese.

The one sort-of-California meal I ate was also at Campton Place. The Taj inherited the hotel’s excellent restaurant (three years ago, Zagat rated it as one of San Francisco’s top places) and has been daring enough to get a young Indian chef – Srijith Gopinath – to take on the best of California.

Srijith did a degustation menu for me which, though it went on (around 14 courses if you include the amuse bouche) a bit, was easily the best meal I had in San Francisco and probably the best Western meal I’ve ever had at a Taj hotel, cooked by an Indian chef.

The exact menu is too long and too complicated to recount here but the stand-outs were scallops, barely cooked with almond soup and fig compote, two vegetable dishes – one with tomatoes and the other with beet root – that showed California’s famous produce to its best advantage. There was artisanal foie gras with a coco nib crust and grapes.

The beef was from Four Story Hills Farm. (One of the Chez Panisse legacies is that all chefs in California feel obliged to put the source of their produce on the menu.) And there was a light dish of cod poached in olive oil.

The restaurant is doing well and when Srijith does return to a Taj hotel in India – assuming no American hotel steals him – the group will have a major star.

The first Oriental meal I had in San Francisco was at a Yank Sing, a huge Hong Kong-style dim sum house in the financial district. (It has two branches in the same general area.)

I love dim sum but I’ve become a little wary of the vast emporia where dim sum are mass produced and served in trolleys. Partly this is because the best dim sum I’ve had has been in Taiwan at places where they make it to order. And partly because I’ve been spoiled by the dim sum at the two restaurants set up by Alan Yau in London (Yautcha and Hakkasan where the dim sum is a lunchtime speciality). Yau’s dim sums have the finesse of the best Chinese dim sum (he hires top chefs from China ) but are more adventurous with ingredients.

But Yank Sing, despite its size and its seemingly never-ending trays of food did good dim sum (even though I thought they weren’t as great as the rest of San Francisco seems to think they are). They had all the standard stuff and a nice version of the trendy dumpling filled with liquid soup. (The best is still in Taiwan, I reckon).
Still, the restaurant is a San Francisco institution so perhaps I missed something.

I had an authentic celebration dinner in Chinatown with some local Chinese friends. A large group of us (about a dozen) took a private room at R&G Lounge, a Chinatown favourite where most of the other guests were Chinese. There were, I was told, two menus, one for Chinese patrons and one for the rest.

In the event I never saw any menus because the food kept coming, banquet-style. There were crab, prawns, scallops, chicken and nearly every meat I could think of. The two stand-cut dishes for me though were the Longevity Noodles, a traditional Chinese celebration dish which I had only read about before and a version of Peking Duck. The duck was as I knew it but there were no pancakes. Instead, we ate it between slices of a Chinese bun with scallions and a hoisin sauce. I was told that this was a Cantonese variation.

I asked my Chinese friends about Oriental food in San Francisco. They reckoned it was good but said that the chefs often had to choose between ‘Caucasian’ and Oriental patrons and screwed up the food in the process. They gave the example of Yank Sing which, they said, served too many deep-fried dishes only because non-Chinese liked them.
Did they know of good Vietnamese place, I asked. A Vietnamese member of our party recommended the Slanted Door.

This was just as well because I would have gone there anyway. The Slanted Door is one of San Francisco’s most famous places, rated by Zagat as one of the best restaurants in America, and recommended by nearly everybody who likes food.

The Slanted Door is Vietnamese but it’s not the sort of Vietnamese I found in Saigon. Rather, it is California Vietnamese. The source of each ingredient is prominently displayed on the menu (“Rather Ranch Beef” or “Catalan Farm chickpeas”), there’s a raw bar and it uses vegetable that are rarely seen in Vietnam (white corn, summer squash etc.)

But its greatest achievement is that though it seats around a hundred people, food standards are consistently high. It is not very expensive, has an informal vibe and is determinedly egalitarian treating Charlie Watts or Sarah Jessica Parker no better than the yuppies who throng its tables.

I had raw Japanese yellow tail, elevated by crispy shallots and fried Thai basil. There were huge scallops with red curry, shrimp and pork spring rolls, the signature dish of ‘shaking beef’, (filet mignon chunks with onions and lime) and a caramely chicken clay pot.
With food this good, it is easy to see why the Slanted Door is a San Francisco institution.

I ate other meals in San Francisco. A warm and filling cassoulet at Le Central near my hotel; modern Japanese at Yoishi’s and crap fish in the tourist trap of Fisherman’s Wharf. But the highlight of the trip for me was an early morning visit to the Farmer’s Market near the pier.

We are used to markets in India – New Market and Crawford Market for instance – but all our markets are owned by shop-keepers and middle-men. What we don’t have are farmers’ markets, where, once a week or so, farmers come, set up stalls and sell their produce.

In California, where so much attention is paid to ingredients, farmers’ markets are incredibly important. The San Francisco market, on Saturday morning, was packed out with locals. Some had come to shop. But many had just come to enjoy the event. They ate large breakfasts of free range eggs with thick streaky local bacon; they sat by the sea; they listened to the guitarists who busked by the bay and they wandered through the stalls, squeezing a tomato here or smelling a mushroom there.

I went with Vikram Singh, who clearly knew the market well (Chef Srijith had arrived even earlier). He took me to his favourite coffee place. And even though this involved queuing up for half an hour for a single espresso, the coffee was worth it. We ended up at an oyster bar on the edge of the water and while he virtuously nibbled at his salad, I had two dozen local oysters.

Wandering through the market, it was hard not to marvel at the huge range of produce on display. Californians take their vegetables seriously. They will only buy vegetables in season, for instance, and normal conversation will be peppered with such sentences as “the tomatoes are really good this season”. They are lucky that God has given them a climate where nearly everything grows and because they care so much about quality, all of the produce is pretty amazing.

|I went to one of the many mushroom stalls and was astonished by the quality of the morels (fresh; we usually see the dried version here) and the chanterelles. Naturally I bought lots – and a week later, I’m still cooking them in Delhi.

In American cuisine terms, San Francisco has a disproportionate importance as the city where Americans learned to respect their own ingredients and invent their own modern cuisine. But because of the mix of so many Oriental cultures, it also has a rich Eastern food tradition. No matter which cuisine you like, you’ll eat well. I know I did.