As you’ve probably gathered by now, I like to eat out. Okay, that was an understatement – I like to eat out A LOT, maybe more than any other activity in the city. It might even seem that my appetite for a decadent, well-executed meal is insatiable. Yet I can tell you my friends, after 2-3 weeks of near back-to-back dinners out at some of the best restaurants I’ve been to in the Bay area I am actually looking forward to a week-long break from dining out. What brought on this short-term hiatus? The answer is simple: over indulgence. I’ve eaten at five or six pretty off-the-chart restaurants recently, at least 4 of which I’d rate in my top dining experiences in the last 6 months. Yet, I do have my limit folks, and for at least a week, I’ll be putting up my credit card and whipping out the cooking utensils. This break from dining out could not be any more well-timed given the upcoming American past time of competitive eating…also known as Thanksgiving.
Yet before I embark on this mini-vacation from eating out, I feel it absolutely necessary to include a two-part abridged run-down of the last five restaurants I hit up. Try not to drool.
Things White (and Asian) People Like: Bushi-Tei
Asian fusion is not a new concept, yet head chef Seiji Wakabayashi (known more simply as Chef Waka) manages to elevate this popular restaurant theme to new heights with the Michelin 1 star rated gem, Bushi-Tei. The Japantown favorite spotlights the synergy between Waka’s classical French expertise (he was the head chef at Audine in Sausalito for years) and his secondary training in Japan; a throwback to his Japanese roots. Bushi-Tei’s décor is modern and formal, with elements of Japanese design. Dark wooden walls add an element of coziness, and glass partitions offer guests an extra level of privacy. You may notice the host in her traditional Japanese kimono, and make sure not to miss the high-tech Japanese toilet in the bathroom, complete with “front” and “rear” cleansers.
Let’s get down to the food. There are 3 course and 5 course prix fixe options, but my friend Kelly and I opted to explore our creative sides and to customize our own menu. Everything is made in-house at Bushi-Tei, from the rice bread served at the start of dinner to each delectable appetizer or entrée, to the dessert menu (two words – Apple Dumpling).
To say the appetizer menu is impressive is a serious understatement. Quenelle de Mer, Foie Gras, Langoustino, Chicken Confit. I looked at the list of 10 or 12 appetizers and realized I would be extraordinarily excited to try ANY of them. Based on my recent blast of tuna tartares in (http://sftaoofpao.com/pao-chow-parent/top-5-most-overrated-dishes/), you may be surprised to know that we opted for the Big Eye Tuna Tartare to start our appetizer tour, and I may have to eat my words because I am not one bit sorry I ordered it.
The tuna is finely chopped with Japanese sprouts, shaped into a tower, and perched on a bed of diced avocado. Wasabi-Crème Fraiche binds the sculpture and you may even catch the subtle taste of coriander seed. My favorite topping on the dish is fresh tobiko (Japanese fish roe). For appetizer 2 we ordered the Lobster and Crab Chrysanthemum Leaf Salad. I have never had chrysanthemum leaf before and was pleasantly surprised at how well its slight bitterness paired with the sweetness of the shellfish. Papaya, bacon and curry oil added another level of depth and you’ll notice that Chef Waka does not hold back on his portions of crab or lobster.
After two seafood appetizers, the carnivores in us were drawn to the Braised Ton Toro (pork belly) served with ginger cabbage and a sherry vinegar. This was tasty but nothing too out of the ordinary for a pork belly dish.
For our mains we enjoyed the Orata. Orata is a type of white fish called sea bream. Bushi-Tei serves it on a layer of potato mousseline – similar to a puree, and then dresses the dish up with the strong complementary flavors of fennel and chanterelle mushrooms. The fish is served with skin on, which I definitely recommend eating. The slight crispiness of the skin adds a bit of texture to this otherwise smoothly layered choice.
For our second entrée we ordered the Sonoma Duck Breast which came served over a bed of lightly sautéed baby mizuna – a tangy Japanese green that reminds me a bit of dandelion greens. A mascarpone mustard and dried chutney add a level of depth and sweetness that helped offset the slightly bitter flavor of the mizuna.
One of the best parts about Bushi-Tei is the service – it really elevates the meal to a full dining experience. From the moment we arrived, our server showed excitement over the menu, attention to detail, and a genuine concern that we enjoy each moment of our meal. He was knowledgeable about the wine options and potential pairings, and offered small tastings of the different varieties until we found one that matched our preference. With a relaxed and intimate dining environment, expertly crafted cuisine and warm and attentive service, I would highly recommend Bushi-Tei as a “Pao Wow” choice in Japantown.
Burger Club rates Burger Bar
For those of you that do not know this – I am a meat enthusiast. Perhaps I should be more specific – a burger enthusiast. I am the founder of the LA Burger Club and now the SF Burger Club. What is a burger club you ask? Simple really – people get together all the time for shared interests – book clubs, wine clubs, and sewing clubs. So why not have a club dedicated to the love and enjoyment of red meat; and even more – burgers? It started as a joke with some girlfriends from UCLA. Our guy friends told us that we were the only girls who liked eating red meat and burgers more than any crew of men they associated with. Someone mentioned, “Ha, – we should start a club.” And the rest is, well, history. LA Burger Club had up to 60 members, all friends or friends of friends – no randoms. SF Burger Club is now at around 70+ members. Yes, I know you are already thinking – are there “rules” to being in Burger Club? Ha ha, you witty person, the first rule of Burger Club is you do not talk about Burger Club! I’ve heard that. Many times. Yet there actually are three simple rules to Burger Club:
1) You must like red meat, or be a very cool vegetarian. Don’t come to Burger Club and think you can order a pizza. Burger Club is not for the faint of heart (or the faint of stomach).
2) No cheapies. You know who you are. The guy who always “magically disappears” when the bill comes. Or shorts the bill $5 thinking no one will notice that he ordered a beer. Burger Club generally means group outings, so expect to throw in a couple extra bucks. Things just work out when everyone rounds up.
3) You must be cool and sociable. Burger Club is interactive and involves several different groups of friends. Generally it’s a place to interact with people from all the many SF neighborhoods, because really, what is more unifying than a large slab of meat?
In all honesty, I am probably being half serious about the above “rules” but I do like throwing them out there to separate the half-hearted carnivores from the truly committed.
Now onto the topic at hand: Burgers. The number one question I get when people know I founded a burger club is obvious: What is the best burger in San Francisco? It’s difficult to limit the answer to just 1 as we’ve been to over 30 places in the last 3 years and so many factors beyond meat and toppings go into making the “perfect burger.” So I’ll narrow it to the Top 5:
1) Joe’s Cable Car (on Silver – a bit of a hike – known for using hand ground beef chuck – enough said)
2) Chez Maman (multiple locations in Potrero, Union St – Gamine is its new name – quality meat on a ciabatta with your choice of added A+ toppings – I recommend the fried egg with gruyere and bacon)
3) Darla’s on 9th and Irving (try their ground sirloin burger that comes on a French baguette with swiss and mushrooms – tasty)
4) Street on Polk and Vallejo (more of a sit down, upscale diner but their burger is pretty legit)
5) Mega Mouth Burgers in the Mission (you will definitely leave full and the burger is a perfect combination of tasty bun, toppings and moist, well-seasoned meat)
Now that we have a reference point with respect to burger spots, we can discuss the latest creation from Hubert Keller (famed chef of Fleur de Lys and finalist in Top Chef Masters) – Burger Bar SF.
I have to say, when I heard Hubert Keller was opening a new restaurant dedicated just to the expert execution of burgers, I was ecstatic and could not wait to test it out. I gathered 20 people from SF Burger Club and was pumped at how easy it was to get a table at the new location above Macy’s in Union Square. The restaurant staff was helpful and accommodating to our party, giving us a choice long table with a complete aerial view of downtown city center. The menu at first glance had some impressive and creative options.
The “Build-Your-Own Burger” components were exhaustive to say the least:
- Meat: choice of Black Angus beef, Country Natural (sustainable ranching), American Kobe, Buffalo
- Bun: just a few choices included Poppy Seed, Wheat, Onion and Ciabatta
Burger Bar breaks toppings (besides traditional lettuce, tomato, pickle, onions which come for free) into 8 sub groupings:
The Garden: vegetable options such as sprouts, cucumber, jalapeno
The Dairy: 8 different cheese choices
The Grill: grilled veggies or pineapple
The Farm: protein options like jalapeno bacon, prosciutto, a fried egg or foie gras
The Ocean: grilled half lobster (yes, lobster is on the menu as an ADD), shrimp
The Pantry: different sauces like aioli, salsa, and cranberry sauce
The Earth: mushrooms and truffles for you high-end rollers
Fleur De Lys Sauces: reduction sauce, peppercorn sauce, black truffle
There are also multiple vegetarian or non-red meat options like turkey burgers, salmon burgers or chicken breast.
Instead of doing a Build-Your-Own-Burger you can select one of the “Chef’s Burgers”. There is the Hubert Keller Burger, which is buffalo meat served with caramelized onions, sautéed baby spinach, blue cheese, all served on a ciabatta bun. Two other Chef Burgers that caught my eye were the Surf and Turf which is a combination of Black Angus beef, a lobster tail and asparagus. I thought this was an interesting concept and although I love the two unique sets of protein, I am not too sure how well lobster would complement a hunk of red meat. The other option that I’d love to try is the Rossini burger. The Rossini comes in at a whopping $60 a pop, and for good reason. It’s served with Kobe beef, foie gras, and Black Perigord truffles, all on an onion bun, served with Madeira sauce.
I opted for the Build-Your-Own-Burger option and made my creation with the following ingredients:
Country Natural beef
Peppercorn cream sauce
Regular lettuce, tomato, onions
The meat was cooked perfectly and when my creation came out, it was quite possibly the most beautiful burger I’ve ever seen. Everything was layered perfectly and the bun did not fall apart after I combined all my ingredients. I was really excited to see how the taste lived up to the appearance with that first bite, but I must say I was a bit disappointed. Perhaps this is the problem with the Build-Your-Own-Burger option. I had the sense that the various toppings ended up competing with each other for taste, so it did not fuse together as well as I would have liked. I asked other burger club members about their meals and they agreed, the burger was tasty, expertly cooked, with impressive presentation but something was missing.
I even tried the Hubert Keller Burger, and although it was quite tasty, I still was not blown away. I did not get the same level of overall satisfaction as I have from my Top 5 burgers above. I’m not sure if it is because my expectations were over-hyped given that it is Hubert Keller. Overall, I’d rate the burgers at Burger Bar at around a 7 or 7.5.
I also think I need to touch on the sides and drink options available. Despite my excitement to try the Zucchini Fries, Beer Battered Jalapeno Pickles, Sweet Potato fries and Skinny Fries, I ended the meal underwhelmed by each option. For drinks, we tried a couple of the near $10 shakes and came to the same conclusion. They were a bit runny and overall just disappointing. When I pay $10 for a shake I expect it to be one of the best shakes I’ve ever had. Unfortunately this was not the case. I actually had to send my chocolate/Oreo shake back because it was runny chocolate milk with too much chocolate fudge and no chunkiness. I do think it is only fair though to mention that my friend’s Alcoholic Mint Chocolate signature shake was much tastier.
In the end, yes, I think Burger Bar has a great concept, location and potential to be really fantastic, but needs to spend a few more months getting the rhythm down and seeing what works and what does not work. Maybe our meal was less impressive because it was only a month since the restaurant had opened. Maybe we can blame ordering the Build-Your-Own Burger or Shake options for the less-than-stellar taste experience. I think if you decide to check it out, stick with the restaurant-created options and you may fair better than our table did. Burger Bar is not a more of a “Pao Later” than a “Pao Now.”
Link to website: http://www.fleurdelyssf.com/
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