Tag Archives: #SanFrancisco

The Willows: When a cheeseburger alone just isn’t enough

Yes, your eyes didn’t deceive you. That featured photo was neither your standard grilled cheese, nor your standard cheeseburger. It is an insane, lusty menage a trois wherein two textbook American grilled cheese sandwiches surround, yet manage not to completely overwhelm, a meaty cheeseburger. Yes, what I’m describing is food porn and nearly almost is too obscene to write about.

I can give you a million reasons why I shouldn’t have given into the Willows’ heart-stopping concoction. Why would anyone need to make a burger anymore artery-clogging, triglyceride spiking, carb-laden, diabetes engine than the restaurant burger already is. Western society, thanks to the plethora of burger joints in the past 10 years, each of which constantly fights to be distinctive, has moved far beyond the paltry fast-food hamburger. (Hey, don’t knock the McDonald’s classic cheeseburger! Yes, it might be short on actual meat or “meat products”, but it’s tasty and only a respectable 320 calories). A quarter-pounder? Not enough. You’ll rarely see a restaurant burger that is less than a third of a pound on any menu. So to substitute grilled cheese sandwiches for the standard buns?

It’s emblematic of everything stereotypically wrong with America and yet its iconography. I wonder what first-time visitors to the U.S. would think if exposed to this maddening concoction. The Willows, a San Francisco-based gastropub, certainly isn’t the first or only restaurant to throw down the gauntlet with such a sinful mash-up, which I fondly refer to as the Turducken of burgers.

I could have lost my willpower somewhere or another time else, but thanks to some work stress and open-minded co-workers, I lost my burger innocence in San Francisco, thanks to The Willows.

That morning, I certainly began the day, like many of us, with every intention of eating healthfully. But after hearing a coworker describe that his daughter found a place where one could get a burger with grilled cheeses instead of buns, a few of us were intrigued. I opted to ask them to mule me back one of these burgers, going to a yoga class while they ate in the restaurant. It was a weak attempt to earn that burger.


Any of their amazing burgers can be customized with the grilled cheese “buns.” I chose The Mary burger. It wildly exceeded my expectations. The burger itself was fantastic – excellent quality meat, perfectly salted and seasoned, cooked to juicy pink center. Cheddar cheese to compliment the American grilled cheese, bacon, and avocado, as well as pickles and crisp lettuce added so much flavor and texture. Then, adding the grilled cheese – completely upped the game. The grilled cheese sandwiches themselves are your childhood variety – not the gourmet, raclette and gruyere filled versions you might see at your average San Francisco gastropub. These are all basics – basic white bread and that slightly metallic tasting tang of processed American cheese slices. Underwhelming alone, these sandwiches make the perfect bookends for that awesome burger. It’s a truly terrifying sight, not to mention the pangs of regret one feels a few hours later realizing the extent of the sin.

So yes, I felt pretty terrible after eating it. Terribly awesome…! Sometimes, one just has to throw common sense to the wind for a spectacular experience. The Willows was just such an occasion, and it didn’t disappoint.

KEIKO À NOB HILL: Powerhouse Michelin starred Japanese cuisine served humbly in San Francisco

Regal but without ego or fanfare, Chef Keiko and her impeccable staff create a spectacular dining experience that is more than worthy of her Michelin star. While one’s credit card balance will definitely take a hit, I found it to be every foodie’s dream and worth the expenditure.
KEIKO À Nob Hill is one of those amazing finds that one either stumbles upon or is fortunate to learn of it through word of mouth. The former was true in my case, as I walked by it several times and learned that it was a $$$$ “sushi restaurant” according to Google Maps. Ummm, not quite. I was intrigued, but I put it out of my mind, until months later, when a few friends and I were researching the Michelin guide to the San Francisco Bay Area and surprise! KEIKO was listed. I knew at that moment I had to try it and immediately made reservations for when one of my best friends (and fellow foodie) was to visit.

  
KEIKO is almost literally hidden. A simple brass placard on the wall of an early 20th century high-rise condominium building is the only indicator to passersby of the gem within. The decor is a bit heavy and dated, not what one would expect to be a match for Japanese fusion. Yet it makes sense given the “old money” feel of the residential building in which it resides.

KEIKO has only one nightly seating in its tiny dining room, which adds to the sense of dining in someone’s (extremely fancy) home. If you’re late, you’ll hold up your fellow diners!

  
The meal proved to be sublime. Each dish was deftly executed and presented as if fine jewels or art on a plate. My only gripe was the exorbitant cost of corkage ($65). Luckily, our bottle of wine was nice enough to warrant it (Freemark Abbey’s Josephine Bordeaux blend red), but no corkage should cost that much. On the plus side, the staff accommodate dietary restrictions and allergies, calling me three days in advance to check.

  
On to the dishes! First up was Shimaaji, sashimi of yellowjack. As you can see from the photo, it was beautiful. It melted in my mouth.

  
Course two was Uni, or sea urchin, atop a cauliflower mousse and seaweed gelée. It was my first time trying sea urchin. It wasn’t quite so scary – it had a smooth texture and briny flavor, but I didn’t want to tempt fate with my shellfish allergy.

  
Course three was a fresh, slender Japanese sardine filet, Iwashi, accented with dill and accompanied by a wonderfully refreshing medallion of cucumber salad.

   
 Course four was probably my favorite overall. Seared foie gras perched atop a dark, rich coffee reduction – one of Chef Keiko’s house specialties. Our server presented us a petite brioche to soak up the delicious coffee reduction. I left nothing behind.

  
Course five, Hotate, consisted of a single, perfectly seared sea scallop, sliced thinly and accompanied by an unexpectedly rich duo of pea and corn purees. My friend and I reveled in every drop of those purees.

Course six showcased Maine lobster two ways, which included a lobster-polenta cake.

  
Course seven was our main fish course – a specialty flown in daily from Tokyo’s renowned Tsukiji fish market. Today’s feature was tilefish. It was served with its signature coral and tile-esque skin and poached in a light, delicate saffron broth with dill and scallions.

 

Cornish hen with three sauces

 
We moved from “surf” to “turf” in Courses eight and nine, starting with Cornish hen, accompanied by chanterelles, asparagus, black truffle foam and a single shaved bit of scrumptious black truffle. It was an elegant, earthy homage to late spring and early summer on a plate.

  
Course nine was a triumphant filet of rare and tender Wagyu beef, its trademark marbling visible yet well integrated. The accompanying yuzu soy foam, black kale chips, and wasabi added a hint of Umami and lightness to balance the heavy richness of the meat.

  
On to course ten and our cheese course. A light, mousse-like cheese managed to be both decadent and light as air, both tangy and delicately sweet like cheesecake. Bordeaux’s signature sweet, the moist cinnamon and toffee delicacy known as the canelé added another counterpoint.

  
Course eleven was the dessert course. Other than the foie gras, it was my favorite of all the courses. Why? I love dessert, but a fruit based dessert must be perfectly executed and novel in order to earn my praise. Chef Keiko delivered indeed. Today’s dessert was strawberry, four ways. Small bites of strawberry mousse, sorbet, and angel food cake, along with a banana mousse and Tart Greek yogurt powder only enhanced the delicate summer sweetness of the berry. And for an added bonus, a thick, lightly sweet-tart, strained strawberry puree was presented in the ornate sipper traditionally served with port. I can’t do justice to this amazing combination in words.

  
Just when we thought the menu was complete, we were presented with a lovely quartet (times two) of Mignardises – tiny desserts. Hazelnut profiteroles, a fruit tart, a (disappointingly dry) financier, and a dark chocolate hazelnut crunch truffle comprised the sweet finale to a more than outstanding dining experience.

As we departed, we managed to meet and effusively praise Chef KEIKO herself. She is a true rockstar in the culinary world. It is truly exciting to see such an extraordinary chef who just happens to be a woman, and my first impression meeting her was that of an exceptional artist, dedicated not to pursuit of celebrity, as some have chosen, but to her craft.

For insight into the world of a female chef in the traditionally male dominated world of Japanese cuisine, check out the Netflix Original documentary series, “Chef’s Table” – Season 1, Episode 5, which profiles star Japanese-American Izakaya chef Niki Nnaka and her Michélin-starred restaurant in Los Angeles.

San Francisco’s Kokkari: Incomparable Five-Star Greek food and ambiance

When I imagine the perfect setting for an upscale Greek meal – outside of Greece – I now will visualize Kokkari Estiatorio, an experience without equal on the U.S. West Coast. Its execution, ambiance, and service left virtually no room for critique during my recent visit. You know a restaurant experience is sublime when you couldn’t have ordered any better. None of the “I wish I’d ordered the…”
Situated on a stretch of Jackson Street in the northernmost reaches of San Francisco’s Financial District, Kokkari is surrounded by some of San Francisco’s culinary heavy hitters like Quince and Cotogna, as if these restaurants needed to distance themselves from the overpriced franchises of international celebrity chefs closer to the heart of the district. The entire FiDi, in my opinion, is nothing much for looks. In general, I think of it as 1990 frozen in time – Wall Street hit the West Coast’s financial center a bit later – ok, maybe not frozen thanks to 25 years of wind, fog, and minimal upkeep. A bit harsh? Perhaps, but my point is all that neighborhood charm (or lack thereof) goes – stays? – out the window once one enters Kokkari Estiatorio.

  
Inside Kokkari, unvarnished wood, rustic chandeliers, and woven textile tapestries transport the diner back to the Old World (Ok, a modern Old World). We instantly relaxed.

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part of Kokkari’s wine cellar

We ordered a bottle of 2009 Rosati Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s Mendocino County, which had an unexpectedly high alcohol content for a cab (at 14.9%) and a great nose of ripe red fruit. It was a bit heavy for delicate Old World food, but Kokkari’s flavors could hold up to just about anything – not least the potent pine aromas of classic Greek retsina.

  
Kolokithokeftethes, or Zucchini fritters = perfection. I’ve had some memorable incarnations of them in the past (Washington, DC’s Zatinya being one of them), but I think Kokkari’s won my heart. They were light, melt-in-your mouth texture, with a flavor tough to describe because each individual component was so well matched with the others that the sum is far better than each part. They were accompanied by thick, rich tzatziki.

A word on Kokkari’s tzatziki: If you can imagine a farm-to-table condiment, this is it. The yogurt base is thick and rich; the cucumber subtle yet omnipresent; the dill fresh as if picked that day; the garlic enhancing and synthesizing the flavors – that ingredient you don’t really notice because it’s doing its job. It was so good, we had to order a side order of it.

  
We ordered the Maroulosalata, generous portion of chopped salad with the salty, lemony tang of romaine and radicchio lettuces, kalamata olives, and pine nuts dressed in a feta vinaigrette.

  
Our polished server brought us a complimentary beet mezthede (mezze) called pantzaria. despite our pants already being full (sorry, how could I resist a terrible turn at wordplay), we devoured.

  

  
At that point, we should have stopped there. Every dish was fantastic, but I had little room for my main course – lamb souvlaki. The lamb was seasoned expertly, but it was perhaps not as tender as I would like. Had I been more hungry, and had I not tasted the perfection of the previous dishes, I likely would be raving about the lamb now. What I will rave about were the roasted fingerling potatoes. I rarely eat white potatoes (not a lot of nutritional value), but these were irresistible. Dipped in a bit of tzatziki, they are an addiction. I’m relieved they aren’t readily available.

  
We had no choice but to request takeout boxes to save our lamb and tzatziki, and though we were painfully full, we had to see if Kokkari could elevate baklava the way it did every other staple of Greek cuisine. The verdict: the baklava was good but not memorable or distinct, but the accompanying vanilla-praline ice cream was one of San Francisco’s best (a tall order with greats like Humphry Slocombe and churned-to-order Smitten, or my own homemade creations!). It was impossibly creamy, smooth.

Kokkari offered everything one would want in experiential dining – ambiance, attentive service, and memorable food. To say I couldn’t envision it better myself is an understatement. I will return!