Day 3: On Our Own in a Strange City
By Matthew Pedone
Sunday, October 19th, 2014
Had we not gotten in so late (close to midnight, which is close to 3:00am to us – time zones!), I might have gotten up much earlier. As it is, Sarah and I are up and awake at 7:30. We lounge around for a bit, then shower and head out for breakfast. We stop at Chow Park again and partake in their brunch menu. I get French Toast with mascarpone and a side of sausage. I'm pretty sure they make everything but the cheese in house, and it is delicious. This is my first encounter with mascarpone, and it is dangerous. I could probably eat a tub of the stuff on its own.
After breakfast, we head back to the park, and into the Botanical Gardens, seeing all kinds of plants from all over the world. After this, we head to the de Young, as we found out last night that the tall twisting structure is actually a free 9th floor observation deck. The view is amazing. We can see the fog over the bridge, the downtown skyline, and the streets coming down the hill of the neighborhood in which we're staying.
The fog is cool. When we left the apartment, it was cool and overcast. Looking down the hill, we could see a massive cloud bank at the foot. During breakfast, most of this burned off, but it lingers over the water. One of the reasons we decided not to come here in August is that we had been told that late summer is the heaviest time for fog. I didn’t really think that would have been a problem, but seeing how much fog there was today, and how much of it lingered, I get why coming here when it’s any worse would be a bit of a downer.
The view from the observation deck of the de Young museum. I can see how thicker, more lingering fog could be an issue.
Our waiter the previous night suggested we take one of the open-top bus tours, specifically, the "Big Bus". So, after some deliberation about how touristy those things are, and the realization that we know nothing about this city, and are, in fact tourists, we decide that the tour bus is a good idea. Now, we just have to find it. One thing that is taking a hit on this trip is my map-reading skills. Now, granted, the Big Bus map in their brochure is not to scale, and cartoony (also upside down - who orients a map with south at the top?!), I still should have recognized the stop. We do find it eventually, and get on the bus, in the last seats available, on the lower level, facing sideways, behind the wall for the stairs leading to the upper deck. We go over the Golden Gate Bridge, and even not being able to see much, it is cool. At the next stop, on the other side of the bridge, a bunch of people clear out of the upper deck, and we manage to snag a coup of seats.
This is good and bad. We can see more, but the bus travels back across the bridge at the speed limit, meaning the wind hits us with full force. It's also sunny, meaning I can't see my phone screen, and am just taking approximate pictures of the views. On the other side of the bridge, we move slower, and the setting becomes a little less picturesque, but no less interesting.
Honestly, I'm pretty sure my ratio of good pictures to bad is the same whether I can see what I'm photographing or not. I'm not sure what that says about me.
The bus takes us through various neighborhoods and sights and the audio tour tells us about others, including Crissy Field, Washington Square, The Castro, Lombard St, Russian Hill, The Castro, Nob Hill, Market St, SOMA, the Embarcadero, Fisherman's Wharf (where we sit for about 20 minutes, stuck in traffic from a women’s half marathon on part of the Embarcadero), North Beach, The Castro, Little Italy, Chinatown, the financial district, The Tenderloin (sketchier than Mission/SOMA last night), The Castro, Haight/Ashbury, The Castro, and finally back to the beginning. It was a great way to see the city, but it took two and a half hours (in part due to massive traffic - a Sunday through touristy areas). We are tired and hungry. In hindsight, it would have been smart of us to get off at Fisherman’s Wharf and walk around for a bit. Maybe get out of the sun, find something to eat, and head up to the bus’s next stop, taking advantage of the unlimited hop-on/hop-off nature of our tickets. We’re back at 9th Street, though, and we decide to find some food before heading back to the apartment to rest.
The audio tour told us on at least four separate occasions, in four separate neighborhoods, about the Castro neighborhood, and told us to notice the large rainbow flag flying over the neighborhood. We never saw it. I still have no idea where the Castro is.
We get out at the park, and walk up 9th a bit to Nopalito, a small Mexican restaurant that is highly recommended. The service is ok, though I never got the beer I ordered. The food, however, is excellent. We start with a ceviche that features squid (octopus?) and fish instead of the traditional shrimp, and served with corn chips. Sarah gets a mole dish (her favorite Mexican dish), and I get a quesadilla roja with chicharrons, mostly so that I could say I've had chicharrons (super crispy pork belly). It is all delicious. We pay and leave.
On the way out, we pass a table with a couple of diners. The male, facing me, gets my attention, and tells me he loves my shirt (I’m wearing the shirt Sarah got me for my birthday last year, featuring a the "exploding TARDIS" in Van Gogh's style). I thank the man, who has blonde, slightly messy hair, a greying blonde goatee, and glasses. As we pass, I realize that he looks an awful lot like Adam Savage from Mythbusters (one of my favorite people on TV), but I'm too chicken to go back and ask if it's really him, because I’m not entirely sure it is. Seriously, how do you do that? "Excuse me, are you so-and-so?" If he is, great, if not, you feel like a jackass. "Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone cool." The more Sarah and I talk about it though, the more sure we are that it is him. I wish I could have verified, but I'll assume that it was, because it is awesome.
Adam Savage loved my shirt! Fuck yeah!
As a result of our decision to more-or-less eschew famous chefs in the city (as opposed to lack of forethought to make reservations before leaving), picking restaurants for dinner is tough. We've received recommendations, but the city has so much good food, that it is almost too much. When there are dozens of good restaurants nearby, how do you decide which one to go to? It’s not bad if you’re at home – you’ll have time. When you’re only spending four night in a city like this, though, it’s a little more difficult. Our first thought was a restaurant in North Beach called "The Stinky Rose". It is a silly name, but makes sense - their main ingredient is garlic. They claim their dishes are garlic with meat as the supporting cast. They even have garlic desserts, supposedly.
Now, I like garlic. I dare say I love it, and I use it in nearly everything I cook. I have limits, though. If fresh, I dice it very small. I don't like to eat whole cloves. Even the garlic fries I had last night were a little harsh to me. Sarah, on the other hand, loves garlic. I'm pretty sure she could eat it by the clove (roasted, definitely, not as sure about raw). In the end, though, to get to the restaurant involves an hour-long bus ride, with transfers, and we're tired.
Looking closer to where we're staying, we find Bella Trattoria in the Richmond neighborhood directly across the park from us. We hop on the bus outside the apartment, take it through the park, hop off and walk a couple of blocks to the unassuming restaurant on the corner (map skills redeemed!). The interior is dark, lit by dim, hollow incandescent and small candles on each table. The front door opens into the waiter station and reveals about ten tables. Two waiters serve the moderately busy dining room, flitting in and out from the kitchen with orders of food, bottles of wine and water, and checks for various tables.
One of the waiters asks us to come in and wait at the small bar in the back of the restaurant while he gets a table ready for us. After a couple of minutes, he gestures to a nearby table, and we sit. The two waiters dash about, one filling our water, the other taking our order. We start with Porchetta Carpaccio, a thinly-sliced cured pork product served under an arugula salad. The pork is lightly-seasoned, and a little bland on its own. Eaten with the arugula, though, it is delicious. The arugula gives a fresh, peppery note to the salty pork.
For entrees, Sarah gets Gnocchi Verdi - gnocchi made with spinach with mushrooms in a cremini-creme sauce. I got regular gnocchi with sausage, tomato sugo, and fresh mozzarella. These come out, and they are amazing! We always hear on shows like Top Chef that gnocchi is supposed to be pillowy and light, but neither of us have ever really had gnocchi that wasn't homemade by us. I had thought that our last batch was pretty good, if maybe a little dense.
Ours was leaden by comparison to this.
Impossibly light, unbelievably pillowy, the little puffs of potatoes seem to just dissolve in our mouths. Sarah's creme sauce is lovely balanced, having a nice amount of cremini to flavor without getting lost in the cream and garlic. The tomato sugo was an expert blend of basil and garlic that highlighted and rounded out the flavors of the san marzano tomatoes without burying them in spice.
We pass on dessert, partly because we have some snacks in our room, but also out of fear of erasing those great flavors from our mouths. One of the waiters brings us dessert anyway - on the house. It is a small mound of quivering panna cotta, a semi-firm Italian custard. Nigella Lawson once explained what a good panna cotta should look like in terms that I’m not comfortable reposting here. Let’s just say that she’d have been proud of this dessert.
After dinner, full and blissful, we meander back up the street, then take the bus back through the park and to our front door. Teeth get brushed, clothes get changed, and we return to bed, pleased that we’d managed to find another great restaurant, and got there with no issues. We might just be getting the hang of this traveling thing after all!