L’Shana Tova! For those of you who are unfamiliar with that Hebrew phrase, happy new year! Welcome to 5772. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, has just passed, making my Post-a-Week goal an even more fitting way to start out the new year.
A few weeks ago found me in the gorgeous city of San Francisco for a week-long training for my day job at Sephora. I was attending Science of Sephora, or SOS, at the “Sephora University” in there. This rigorous, intensive program is required for every employee and we had four 8 hour days of skin care, makeup, skill practices, and sales techniques. Interesting for me, probably boring for you. Needless to say we did not have hours of daylight to explore and do all of the tourist attractions associated with that fair city. But we did have the nights. As tired as we were from our long days, Sephora was reimbursing up to $35 for dinner, and I don’t usually spend that much!
This post is going to be a little different. Usually I like to give my “through the back door” philosophy on how to get an authentic experience for the cheapest dollar. Since I was dining on someone else’s dime and we were in the middle of fashionable downtown, I am going to give you a review of the bars and restaurants that I am usually too poor to experience. And experience we did!
Oola Restaurant and Bar
860 Folsom Street, http://www.oola-sf.com
Monday night we flew into San Francisco, and by the time we were settled in the hotel it was nearing 11 pm. Luckily our hotel had listings in the room for late night dining, and we decided upon Oola since it was close and open late. It’s a pretty trendy joint, with red brick walls, low wooden tables and small square water glasses, and lounge music playing. The high prices and small portions also reflected this. However, we were there in time for late happy hour! As you all know, I love to save a buck, and happy hour is one of my favorite things in life. But being a night owl, I miss most normal happy hours. I’ve recently discovered late happy hours and am in love with them.
According to Oola’s website, the restaurant “highlights local California ingredients”, which I did not know when I was there but is a plus in my book. Also in their mission statement, the menu is reflected of the chef’s “European culinary roots and his passion for simplicity of flavors in his food”, which I would totally agree with. I got a blood orange margarita and the mac and cheese, and the burrata crostini since that did not seem like enough food! I love both blood oranges and margaritas so that one was a winning choice and a mere $5 from the late happy hour menu. I am also a mac and cheese connossieur. If I see mac and cheese on a menu I am instantly compelled to get it! This one was a real treat, having both cheddar and goat cheese with a bread crumb topping. The goat cheese was what really made it awesome, most mac and cheese is pretty heavy but this was light and delicate. The burrata crostini was good, but as I find most similar items at trendy restaurants the portion size left something to be desired. I do love a good buffalo mozzarella smothered in tomatoes with a little spicy pepper thing though, so what little there was pretty darn tasty.
Libby and Lynn, the girls from my store who accompanied me on this week-long culinary adventure, got oysters. I had never tried oysters before, so had a go at it. I’m a big fish eater, especially sushi, so the texture didn’t scare me off. I really liked them! The one problem I’d say is that you eat them so fast that they are done too quickly.
Fifth Floor Restaurant and Lounge
5th Floor of the Hotel Palomar, 12 4th Street, http://www.fifthfloorrestaurant.com
Before heading out for dinner on our second night in town, we took a stop at the hotel bar. What a great decision! Modern and chic decor, without being overdone. Nice atmosphere. We were helped by an excellent bartender, Kelsey, who helped us navigate their unique menu of specialty cocktails. She explained to us that they have all been personally created by Master Mixoligist Jacques Bezuidenhout. Master Mixologist! I didn’t even know that was a thing.
I had the “Ginger Dream”, made with a 12 year aged Japanese whiskey and house made ginger syrup. Bartender Kelsey happened to be from Texas and warmed up to me right away when she heard I wanted whiskey. While she prepared the drinks I couldn’t help noticing how professional she was. One of the things that is attractive to me about cocktails is the history and culture behind it. Many times these days that culture consists of a crowded bar with obnoxious people and weak, ill mixed drinks, but The Fifth is what cocktail culture is meant to be. I noticed before serving our drinks Kelsey took a tiny taste with a stir straw, to make sure it wasn’t too sweet and was mixed to perfection. And what a perfect drink it was! I have never had whiskey so smooth and mellow and such a pleasure to drink. The ginger flavor wasn’t sharp but was subtle and came in at just the right time in every sip. It was a pity when we had to go for our dinner reservation and I had to gulp some of it down. That one is definitely meant to be milked and sipped. All in all, I would highly recommend the Fifth! We came a bit too late, but they also do a nightly cocktail party from 5-7 with hors d’oevures and $5 specialty cocktails. The hotel also hosts a wine hour from 5-6 daily, but I’m not sure if you have to be a guest to attend.
63 Ellis Street, website didn’t seem to be working when I tried it
I am a huge classic film fan. So when I found out that the restaurant where Dashiell Hammett wrote the Maltese Falcon was only a few blocks from our hotel, I had to go to it! Apparently a few scenes also take place there in the book. Adding to the history, John’s Grill is the 2nd oldest restaurant in the city, established in 1908.
Decor was typical for a famous old restaurant. Wooden booths and tables with white table clothes, walls covered in pictures of famous people, and an unassuming atmosphere. The place is known for its classic seafood, steak, and pasta. I started with a Manhattan to drink and split the prawn cocktail with Lynn. I’ve never seen such gigantic shrimps on a cocktail before! They certainly do not skimp. For my entrée I got the chef’s special red snapper, which was a piece of snapper covered in other kinds of fish and tiny shrimps and smothered in some sort of gravy. In other words, seafood heaven! On the side was a baked potato and steamed vegetables. Classic fare, all cooked to perfection, in only the way that a 103 year old restaurant could do it.
Libby ordered a specialty cocktail that came with a souvenir John’s Grill glass. I liked that idea, and not wanting to be left out, carefully dried off my “John’s Grill: Home of the Maltese Falcon” water-glass and into my purse it went, no doubt bolstered a bit by the whiskey I’d been consuming. Good people of John’s Grill, please don’t be mad at me!
201 9th Street, http://www.asiasf.com
The waiter at Oola recommended that we visit Asia SF, saying that it was a unique San Francisco experience. He couldn’t have been more right! Asia SF boasts modern decor with color changing shoji screen walls, hip Cal Asian Chinese cuisine, and gorgeous waitresses – who are all transgendered and perform hourly shows atop the bar! I can’t think of anything more uniquely San Francisco.
The bar was run by this fabulous older – and very gay – bartender. Their extensive specialty cocktail menu has cocktails all named after the ladies of Asia SF. We asked Dharna, our waitress, which one she recommended and she said that hers was best, of course. I went for Brandy’s Gin Blossom. For $35 you can get their “menage a trois” menu and have a 3 course meal of your choice of appetizer, entrée and dessert. While $35 a head is usually a steep price for me, thanks to Sephora I couldn’t resist! For the appetizer I had a delectable blackened tuna sashimi served with a lemongrass beurre blanc sauce and pickled vegetable salad, followed by the orange tofu that came with the best coconut rice I’ve ever tasted and a spicy Thai cucumber salad. For the dessert, when given the choice of a dessert or a dessert drink, naturally I chose the one with alcohol in it and got the caramel creme Baileys drink. It came in the tiniest little glass with a mountain of whipped cream and a tiny straw to sip. Best way to do dessert ever!
While Asia SF already gets high marks for the food alone, the ambience and floor show push those marks through the ceiling! In the style of true drag and burlesque shows it was lip synching to choreography atop the wide back of the bar. We were seated by the door, and I initially was worried that we had bad seats and not be able to see anything. To the contrary, we ended up with the best seats in the house! We were near the end where every performer would spend a large part of the number since there was more room to dance and bait the audience. One performer, wearing a crazy leather bikini and boots, danced to the end of the bar, crouched down low, and beckoned in my direction. I looked around. “Who, me?” I mouthed back. Still she beckoned. What do you do when a beautiful transgendered Asian woman on top of a bar motions you to come to her? You go of course! I went up to her, and keeping in time with the music she reached behind the bar and grabbed a maraschino cherry and dangled it above my head. I don’t like maraschino cherries, but this particular cherry I chowed down on like it was fruit from the garden of Eden. That offering having been consumed, she proceeded to shove my head between her well-formed breasts (the product of hormones? Surgery? I didn’t figure it out) before letting me back to my seat. Later she apologized for harassing me but I laughed it off and thanked her. Quite the experience indeed.
Annabelle’s Bar and Bistro
68 Fourth Street, http://www.annabelles.net
On our final night, we were all tired from the stress of the week and lack of sleep. We had originally planned to go to a rock and roll sushi place we’d heard about, but instead had a late bite at the quiet bistro a few doors down from our hotel, which turned out to be a great choice. Annabelle’s has a distinct old European vibe complete with thick paned windows, tile floor, and a sweeping mahogany bar. We arrived at around 10, but if we had come an hour later we would have made late night happy hour, with all food being 25% off, cocktails at $5, wine at $4, and beer at $3. Good to know for the future. They have an early happy hour as well from 4-6.
The menu is a mix of French and Italian cuisine. Lynn and I split the pizza Margherita appetizer, which was outstanding. A lot of times with Margherita you get whole basil leaves, which is good, but this one had a pesto sauce, which is better! I also got the macaroni and cheese (like I said, I can’t resist) and calamari, which was local from Monterey, all washed down with a syrah from Paso Robles. I love wine from Paso. It is impossible to find a bad wine from the region!
And that concludes my incredibly lengthy review of downtown San Francisco dining! For those of you who made it to the end, I congratulate you! For those who got bored and don’t like long descriptions of food and left halfway through, that’s ok too. But most of all
L’Shana Tova and Happy Travels