Frankly, we love any excuse to take the drive to San Francisco, and rarely need a better one than "appetite". The second best excuse is "friends", which we typically wrangle into accommodating excuse #1. See? It all comes back to the whims of the tummy.
So when our friends from Los Angeles called to tell us they'd be in San Fran for the High Times Comedy Tour, we jumped at the chance to dine in SF. I mean, to see them. The best kinds of friends to visit in San Francisco are out-of-towners, allowing us the opportunity to dictate the gastronomical tour. It'd been awhile since we'd ventured out to the Bay Area (blame Mother Nature), and were having ridiculous cravings for a Hog Island Oyster Bar lunch of fresh oysters, Acme bread, bottle of wine and their hearty clam chowder. It's much easier to get all of that into the belly when you're sharing, so we were thrilled not only to be joining 3 friends, but also to have the ordering given over to our discretion.
12 Hog Island Kumamotos, 12 Hog Island Sweetwater oysters. 1 bottle of Frog's Leap Sauvignon Blanc. Split order of clam chowder. Good friends, good view of the bay, and patchy sun on a mild day. Perfect. There is no better description of Hog Island oysters except to say they taste like the ocean. Fresh, slightly salty, with a somewhat mineral finish, the morsels are melt-in-your-mouth tender. While we don't consider ourselves oyster aficionados (Hog Island is what made us oyster converts in the first place), we've dined at Hog Island with those that are, and all of them have raved over the oysters.
The clam chowder cannot be missed, either, so be sure your dining companion is up for it. Filled with tender clams still in their shells, this chowder is NOT your Friday-soup-special-at-Marie-Callendars. The broth is thin, but scented with aromatic vegetables, cream and, most importantly, bacon, which provides a rich stock that envelops your senses and takes you home. This is the chowder you want to curl up with on cold nights, coastal afternoons, hard times and in celebration of good news.
Hog Island Oyster Bar sits conveniently in the I'd-happily-bring-a-cot-and-live-here Ferry Building. You know how kids bug their parents to go to Disneyland? Well, the Ferry Building is my Disneyland. Whenever I'm there, it makes me wish I lived in the Bay Area again, and that my body was capable of eating 30x its weight in rich, delicious foods. Strolling away with bellies full of oyster deliciousness (and with the fear/anticipation of realizing that we were slated to sit down for dinner in less than 3 hours from them), there was still one last job to be done. If you can stop only one place on your way out of the Ferry Building with a full belly, it must be Miette Organic Patisserie. The pastries in the cases are irresistible, the cookies on the table reasonably priced for a bag full of bites, and well, the place is just pretty. The first time I went there, I opted for the mini Scharffen Berger cake - a deep chocolate cake, covered in dark chocolate ganache. To die for. This time I wanted more to bring home, and share, so I opted for a bag of their chocolate chip cookies and another of their walnut shortbread ($5 each for a 5 oz bag - roughly 13 two-bite cookies each). The chocolate chip cookies were an immediate hit for me - light and full of crisp, the chocolate chips, oats and walnuts were what Nestle Tollhouse wishes they could produce! I'm a particular lover of shortbread, and theirs is the butteriest I've ever had. Truly scrumptious and savory.
The party made it's way out of the Ferry Building, and headed towards North Beach, where the comedy club (Cobb's) hosting the High Times Comedy Tour is located. We stopped for a beer (perhaps hoping the bubbles would open some room in our stomachs?) and then met up with two more friends for dinner at the intimate Istrian restaurant Albona Ristorante. Istrian? some of you say. Yes, Istrian. It was all news to us, too. Of course, given Albona's boast that it is the only Istrian restaurant on the West Coast, I didn't feel too much like I'd been living with my head under a rock.
Istria, our convivial host and proprietor Bruno Viscovi explained to us, is located at the crossroads of Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, and the local cuisine is rooted deeply in the muddling of these (and other ones that crossed the path) traditions. The "reserved" menu (I hesitate to say "limited" because while by no means a lengthy menu, the options are extremely well-rounded) reflects Italy in such dishes as the pizette de melanzana - eggplant slices tossed with toasted bread crumbs, topped with cheese, tomatoes and basil. My own Slavic background spied familiarities in the ingredients of the capuzi garbi con prosuto e luganega - an appetizer of braised sauerkraut and smoked chicken apple sausage.
Every item on the menu seemed like it had a base in familiarity, but definitely a flair for something different. Fortunately, dining at Albona's is what I consider a memorable dining experience. I think there are several dining experiences you can have, and I prefer one of two: either special, or memorable. I define a special dining experience as one similar to our lunch at Hog Island. The menu is familiar enough to warrant few questions (save, 'what are the freshest oysters today?'), but the execution is flawless and simple. It's special because it is exactly what you want, in the best way to get it. A memorable dining experience is a special one, but with the addition of having a unique element to the experience. One that you can almost compare to entertainment - were you amused, educated? Do you have a story that is particular to that restaurant, and could only happen because of that restaurant? That is a memorable dining experience, and that was what we found in Bruno's hospitality at Albona's.
If you prefer to dine in anonymity, to simply pick an item off the menu, and have your server write it down and scoot off to the kitchen, this may not be the place for you. From Bruno, we learned exactly what makes Istrian cuisine unique, and how he has designed his menu to reflect his heritage in the best possible way. How the minestrone is made, from first pot stir to your bowl. How he opts only for Lappi cheese (from Finland) as a substitute where mozzarella would be because the quality of mozzarella has suffered, and only Lappi cheese provides the creaminess desired (upon experience, I couldn't agree more). Even to the point where our friend, who ordered the only non-Istrian item on the menu (penne a la arrabbiata) and asked if they could add chicken to it, was rebuffed, with a fair reason of why the palette wouldn't support the addition of chicken. Logic, and expertise, could not be argued and so the penne arrived chicken-less and delicious.
We began with a split-appetizer order of chifeleti de mia nona con sugo de carne al cumin - pan-fried gnocchi in a brown sauce that hinted of cumin. The shooter-marble sized gnocchi arrived perfectly round, lightly breaded and pan-fried to a delicate crisp. The sauce was merely painted below the gnocchi and sent up an aroma of cumin that made your mouth-water. Delicate and hearty at the same time, this was like no gnocchi I'd ever had before. Next up was the afore-mentioned pizette's of eggplant. Tender enough to eat with a spoon, this dish really exemplified Bruno's earlier explanation of his use of Lappi cheese. So melt-in-your-mouth, you'd swear you hadn't eaten cheese at all, if not for the nutty, mild flavor.
Not able to get enough of the cheese, I ordered the strudel con pasta fatta in casa - a sheet of pasta, layered with prosciutto and Lappi cheese, rolled, cut in half, placed in a small casserole dish, topped with toasted bread crumbs and a very light tomato-cream sauce. I was happy to see that the engorged Americanized portions I'd been expecting were not there. The dish was small, manageable even. What portion control should be (particularly when cream and cheese play such major roles!). For such a rich flavor, the pasta was paradoxically light, and finishing it off (yes, after ALL that) was achieved. Other orders around the table included a chicken dish in a balsamic-vinegar and Maraska cherry sauce that got heavenly raves.
All of the dishes were presented simply, the waitstaff in the small establishment (I counted two beside Bruno himself, and was also informed that the kitchen was made up of two guys) was attentive, and for a table of seven people, we were all served hot dishes simultaneously. We all agreed that we'd felt more like we'd eaten dinner in someones home than at a restaurant (would you ask a friend to throw some chicken in the pasta they made for you as a guest in their home?!). Our only regret was having to forgo dessert due to the show starting shortly. Hmmmm... I just guess we'll have to go back.
Hog Island Oyster Bar: 415-391-7117, Located in the Ferry Building at Market and Embarcadero
Miette Organic Patisserie: 415-837-0300, Located in the Ferry Building at Market and Embarcadero
Albona Ristorante: 415-441-1040, 545 Francisco Street, SF 94133 (North Beach) - Free Valet Parking!