Thursday, 8 July 2010

How to Eat Your Way Through San Francisco

I don't really know how to start my rumination of the past week without writing a short novel. The fact is, when your cousin comes into town and tells you she has five days in which to explore the city jet lag or no, you simply know you are in for some serious touristing with a big fat capital be-camera'd T. Before doing so, Cory and I took an afternoon to stroll the entirety of Haight street whilst our little fella was whisked off by what I have come to call his two tall parents; beautiful blonde 6 footers from the show, who, with but a tweak of imagination could pass for our boy's folks, and for whom he has developed a serious bond. Especially because their height means that walking hand in hand down the street, performing his regulation flips between them means he can actually get some air underneath, something his 5ft something folks can but aspire to. No matter, that on the day in question he had just finished an hour at the circus school trapezing his way through the afternoon, jumping off it and into such speedy forward rolls that they were beginning to look a little more like flips.

We left the blonde threesome behind us as we trekked through 1968. Or so it felt trawling the shops and characters of Haight Street, deliciously free of Starbucks or the like. Certainly the area has capitalised on its hippie history but not to the point of abandon. Smoke shops beside tibetan jewellery haunts, The Canabis store but a hop and a skip from a collection of delectable vintage stores (with prices to match) and a vast charity shop with which I filled a trolley only to put most of the things back when I realised that sparse as our flat is there was no burning need to fill it with glass vases. I take playing house incredibly seriously.

In and out of eras we wove passing gastropub breweries, coffee shops and a handful of beautifully wooden floored eccentricity stores proudly displaying taxidermy squirrels and various skulls turned jewellery amongst its wares. I couldn't take my eyes off the red velvet padded glass display cases or the way the tiny space between them was rammed with gawking tourists. I wondered if any of them would actually purchase the monkey brain in formaldihide or the lacquered moth on a chain. Upwards we huffed past never ending picture perfect homes their pastel Victorian beauty bathed in the bright afternoon sun. At Divisadero we turned left and six blocks later sat our bones at Cafe Abir to get into an Africano coffee. Two espresso shots topped with warmed milk in a small glass later and I was ready to take on the world. I got as far as our flat and rustled up a dinner for our son and his mates on their return from the zoo instead.

That evening, a little tyke who could have done with a bed was dragged by his mother on the Bart train to the airport to pick up Zia Bru', my cousin. She, weary from a two flight day from Blighty delighted to be in California at last. We caught the end of a pink sunset on our drive home. It would appear the state was happy to have her also.

The first thing on the itinerary the following day was a ride on the famous cable car. Granted it was the beginning of July 4th madness but nevertheless this family parked itself under the midday sun whilst dad earned his crust, and after several twists and turns in the line we were finally onboard. Boy and girls similarly raising their eyebrows in disbelief at the vertical in - and - de - clines as we zig zagged our way to Fisherman's Wharf. A sea of tourists greeted us as we fought through the swarm of vacationers to soak up the sea side, fish fry atmosphere. With a view of Alcatraz. Narrowly avoiding purchases of the innumerable black and white stripe shirts in its honour. When bellies rumbled we followed our noses back towards North Beach, or, my favourite Little ITaly on this soil so far. No offence Boston and Providence but this felt like the real deal. Old buildings, a proper square with a green and a sandy playground for i bambini, the smell of coffee, people actually speaking Italian. Mama was happy. Boy was exhausted. He barely got through half of his pumpkin ravioli before coming over to my lap and conking out. Cuz and I finished off our salads and a shared glass of Nebiolo enjoying the tiny ten tabled wooden pannelled place we had found. L'Osteria, on Colombus avenue was delightfully quiet at three o clock that afternoon. Turns out its quite a popular place. I know this because when we returned there yesterday in between shows, the waitress talked to me about their "policies" on giving tables before all guests are there, and kept me waiting, like a hungry horse, perched over half of a stable door kept firmly shut against the crowds. There actually was a stable door. I'm not just getting all poetry. She then informed me that her colleague would be over to decide if she would let us in. It was worth the wait. Beyond the ten tables is the small, open kitchen in which a solo chef does double time to keep the customers happy. Their wine list is immense and unusual, not mention stocking mirto from Sardinia which made mum a happy camper. The chocolate salami wasn't half bad either, or the delectably light tiramisu, or the proper straight out of an Italian bar coffee neither....

In truth the week has been an onslaught of my senses. Beginning with our early morning jaunt on July 4th, at a time in the day when only a few runners, dog parents and folk talking to themselves are about. Before the jostle of the weekenders we sauntered up and down the hills of Dolores street and on towards the Mission district. A quick pit stop into Dolores park playground for the tyke to let off steam led us to meet Peter and his son Devan. The former kindly advised us that if we were looking for July 4th celebrations we would be best to go to another city. "here the celebrations were last weekend ladies, you know Pride?" I turned, most likely a little smugly to my cousin, seeing as I had expressed a hunch that this may be the case. Somehow a die hard patriotic parade just didn't seem to fit with the city I had fallen in love with in just over five minutes last week. He also told me that I looked like his high school sweetheart. Something told me she may have been his first and last.

On we trod towards Mexico. Least thats what it felt like as we headed down Valencia, its coffee haunts, all mis matched chairs and fresh beans began to wake its customers. On and on we strolled across Mission street and eventually to Balmy street, a narrow alley of a road ablaze with murals. On each of the garage doors and fences that backed onto the street was a mural more colourful, vivid and beautiful than the one before it. We snapped everyone for posterity. Their vibrancy felt like I was drinking a double shot of the black stuff. Never mind the assault on our senses as we carried on through towards Mission street itself, passing Taquerias on every corner, flower shops, coffee holes, football shirt stands and music. Lots of music. From cars, from the shops from the apartments above. All the signs alive with Spanish and the now fully woken streets awash with people. As we boarded as bus we passed vast fruit shops row upon row deep with avocados and mangoes and hungry shoppers. We hopped off at 17th street, walked by a handful of mouthwatering delis and eventually climbed back uphill to Mission Dolores.

It stands, flanked by palms, an arresting coupling of thick white stone 18th century Spanish architecture with an ornate pinkish stone Basilica beside it. For $5 we had the opportunity to peruse the old grounds, first built in the late 1700s by the Spanish and the labour of indegenous tribes that would have stood like a walled oasis in the brush. Beyond the small stone chapel is the graveyard perfectly balanced with every which Mediterranean shrub and plant. The trickle of a stone fountain orchestrates your stroll around the tombs, a large stone Saint Francis, head bowed in prayer standing at its centre. I turned round to catch Sammy in mid hop from one tomb to another. He was quickly ushered down as we explained that the stones belonged to people, you could tell so by the names on them and that they were not for jumping on. He spent the rest of the afternoon hopping on the concrete pavement slabs on the street pretending to check for names and loudly announcing his next jump on account of there not being any written upon them. It was a long walk home.

Back at the ranch we scoffed a quick lunch and then headed into town to get the scoop on the evenings festivities. As the end of the show approached Cory suggested we go to the local Churrascheria to celebrate with some folk from the show. When our party arrived at the Brazilian feast house we started with some bonafide Cainprinhas. Shortly after we were invited to the salad bar. Erase from your mind the sorry offerings at chain pizza joints. What I found here was the kind of spread worthy of a regal wedding. Charred sweetcorn salad, grilled aubergines, cous cous, rice, coleslaw doused in vinaigrette, fresh home made guacamole but a few of the numerous colourful delicacies enticing the eaters. I had been warned to avoid over stuffing at the outset. I was prepared for a marathon but what ensued was beyond any meat eaters imagination. All meal, whilst a little sign was turned to green on our table, beautiful Brazilian men with baggy trousers tucked into thick black boots and silver belt buckles to match came around with hunks of the most delicious, tender meat on huge metal skewers. With a flash of a smile (laughing to themselves at just how much we would be paying for this later on) they offered any hungry carnivore a slice and proceeded to carve a piece which eaters are expected to take with their tongs. Rib eye steak, chicken, pork loin, filet mignon, garlic sirloin, shrimp, grilled pineapple, lamb chops but a few of the deliciousnesses brought to our table. Our mostly veggie boy bit into a lamb chop with the kind of gusto I have only ever seen him attack an edamame bean. Two jumbo shrimp later the tyke was holding court with two beautiful dancers at the other end of the table. The more they laughed the more he kept them coming. No wonder he didn't quite stay awake long enough to catch the fireworks. Not that we could see so much, what with the fog and all. He managed to keep the lids up just until his dad placed a log in our fireplace for us to ooooh and ahhhh over. The four of us sat, mesmerised by the flames, to the sound of neighbourhood firecrackers. The explosions went on into the early hours, most of them launched by private parties on the roof tops. I drifted off to sleep with the sounds of a 200 year old battle ringing about me.

One needs an early night you see, when one is booked to visit Napa the next day. Best monday morning in ages. Cousin and I, up early, dressed for comfort and complex weather set out to meet some show folk at the theatre. At 9ish that morning, when the solubrious area around the theatre (not named Tenderloin for nothing) was greeting the day with the drug dealers on the last of the late shift hovering in doorways, ladies of the night coming out into the light and the remaining humanity of questionable sanity were roaming the streets we strutted into a stretched limo and took off for the hills.

Our sixteen strong party, headed by Don, a cross between a race horse bookie, antique roadshow host and Frank Sinatra (later years) and Don, the driver, cruised through the fog over Golden Gate bridge and onwards towards Big Little Italy. Beyond the stagnant cloud hovering over the city were yellow sun dried grasses covering the rolling hills down which, as we entered Sonoma were lined with vines and olive groves. The sun, beating down, the air crisp and clean. If you didn't know better you would swear you were in Sardinia towards the vineyards of the north west coast. On the itinerary were trips to several wineries with the promise of lunch in between.

Our first stop was at the Jacuzzi family's pad. The Jacuzzi. The bath people. Turns out they had hidden talents in engineering and wine. One of the mammas had encouraged her sons to develop a hydro therapy system at home for one of the children who needed constant physical treatments at the hospital. After work on the rather crude original design, in which the water/electricity relationship had a lot to be desired, the idea developed into what every 1988 bath owner came to love as the Jacuzzi. Their wines aren't half bad either. Or their olive oil. Or the breathtaking views from their stone arched courtyard that leads onto the cobbled terrace. Or the olive trees swaying in the gardens, or the succulents flowering in the beds. Nothing about the place felt like what I have come to know is America up until this point.

Onwards we went to another winery, this one smaller and more secluded in which we all perched around a long wooden table and took our time being led on a mouth watering tour of different wines. We sipped, sniffed, oooh and ahhhhhd, argued about what was good or not. We quickly drifted into the realm of surreal adjectives grappling as were to describe what we tasted. Never better a way to mix your metaphors than around a table of slightly tipsy musical theatre performers. Someone talked about Salami notes, hints of forest. The rest of us laughed them out of their lofty tannin induced gibber. In truth the salami bit was mine. When I made a terrible pun on something the somelier said my cousin whispered to me that it might be time to start tipping the wine out of my glass instead actually drinking all of it. I paid no head obviously. Most likely that's why I was in dire need of lunch. It came in the form of a delightful al fresco picnic at an upscale Napa deli/bakery/store. Antipasti were shared around, salads, sandwiches, home made cookies. And more wine. Obviously. The final winery was the piece de resistance.

Castello di Amorosa, sits at the top of an ascending driveway flanked by cypress trees shipped in from Tuscany. It was the brain child of a man obsessed with castles and who took it upon himself to build his very own. It took thirty years for completion and numerous deliveries from abroad for the paterials, namely antique bricks, tiles, doors, mantles to help give the impressively authentic medievil Italian castle feel. We were taken on a quick roundabout tour into the barrel lined caves below. Corridor upon corridor dimly lit and walled with wooden wine filled barrels, its smell taking my cousing and I back to my godfathers taverna in the basement of his house uptown Ozieri. Towards the official tasting room we stopped for a barrel tasting. Standing in a semi circle around our guide swirling and sniffing again and collectively expressing our joy in the red stuff. Moments later we squeezed into a little tunnel like alcove, complete with bar, for further tastings, and, because of the deliciousness of it all several purchases. Suffice it to say that I will not need to drink any wine for several weeks at the very least. Though I can also say I am now the proud owner of several very palatble bottles which I would not be able to get my grubby hands on in any stores. Between the sunshine, the company, the wine, the food my senses were utterly overloaded with San Franciscan/Californian joy. Whilst we were getting all la di dah down the wineries the boys were at the baseball match. Game. Oakland CA. Dad sent me a picture of boy with beer in hand. Geesh.

What better way to follow a day of Mediterranean inspired delights than a trip to Japantown. Up we headed to check out the pagoda on peace square followed by some seriously authentic sushi and retail therapy in the shape of rice moulds and various other japanese inspired gadgets for easy living. For desert we headed on to Ghirardelli Square. Touristy but nevertheless tasty chocolate goodness. The fog was in but no matter, we still squeezed in a hop down to the strip of beach by the maritime museum during which boy soaked his jeans and ran non stop for about a quarter of an hour with a grin plastered over his face as wide as the Golden Gate behind him in the hazy near distance. Time for another swing on the trapeze and a proper good old fashioned ma and pa joint Thai for dinner (I was not kidding when I said this week we had been on sensory overload. Perhaps I am stabbing for a prettier picture of Gluttony?) Suffice it to say that "The Best Noodle House on Haight" has earned its name without doubt.

On cuz's last day she treated us to pancakes at the diner around the corner, unchanged it would seem since its creation in 1935. It is a tiny room of a place where you have to walk through the kitchen to get to the only (psychadelically painted) toilet in the place. Picture of pin up girls line the walls and the juke box plays, up until you chose your own tune on your table top version. The boy made eyes at the hispanic waitress who tried to buy his Jankee hat for one pancake but he did not budge. Cuz did a roundabout tour of Haight street in the peace and quiet of her own company, we snapped the Golden Gate several times and then, after a final visit to L'Osteria we jumped on the F streetcar which took us home to reluctantly think about her packing and saying goodbye to one another. Again.

All in all a whirlwind to which we have become accustomed. It was great to feel like a bona fide tourist and experience the speed at which vacations usually chime under. A timely reminder of the privilege my family and I enjoy at being able to live in all these different cities. To enjoy a semblance of reality at a leisurely place, taking time to soak up the rhythm of each new stop. For the next few days some hibernation may be needed or at least taking the time to smell the jasmine and pines and wild fennel. Perhaps all we need is a little stretch of water in which to recharge. No problems there me thinks. Zia Bru is on her two flight trek back home whilst I put our memories into black and white for another day. Our forray through the beauty of San Francisco beginning its fade into the near past already....

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