Sunday, June 14, 2009
SF Report I: Pizzaiola vs. Little Star
I went. I ate. I conquered. The culinary high point of my trip to SF was probably a nice outdoor dinner at Pizzaiola in Oakland, with not one but two rainbows blessing this delicious meal. I know this isn't a news flash -- the chef is a Chez Panisse alum -- but as you know, I don't subscribe to hype so I had to actually savor the goods for myself.
The menu changes daily and it has a lot more than just pizza. A few things stood out. My favorites were the refreshing and silky halibut crudo with avocado and grapefruit, sprinkled with some red pepper flakes (or marash pepper, according to the menu). The subdued meatiness of the halibut paired so well with the buttah-like nuttiness of the avocado and slightly sweet and sour citrus -- in short, the perfect summer starter. Red pepper flakes injected a slight kick.
I also liked the grilled squid salad with cherry tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers and mixed greens like frisee. The squid was smoky and soft and made for a great salad with minimal dressing. I should mention I had an interesting nectarine and basil drink to start off, which was good as a mocktail but I'm sure would be great with alcohol.
It helped that the complimentary bread was from Acme, one of my favorite bakeries in the Bay Area. Solid, crusty bread that was fresh and came with good quality butter.
The fried chicken was a pleasant surprise. Buttermilk fried chicken isn't the first thing that comes to mind when I think Italian. But it was delightfully crispy and the chicken was moist and juicy on the inside. The sides of mashed turnip, stir-fried greens were very comfort food-y, just like the chicken. That crust was really something else. I guess it's the buttermilk magic.
My favorite entree was the meatballs, which were so incredibly juicy and flavorful that I almost became a meatballs convert. I've had one too many dense and dry meatballs in my day, but judging from the flavors and textures, we surmised that they must have been made from several kinds of meat such as veal and pork. The tomato sauce it came with definitely enhanced the meatballs without overwhelming them with excessively strong flavors.
Other dishes included a mushroom pasta that could have used more mushroom flavor (or mushrooms, for that matter) and my least favorite was the squash pizza, which was a bit bland.
The pizza crust was good but the toppings of squash, "pounded parsley" and grana cheese tasted fresh enough but needed something more. I thought the crust was better at Pizzeria Mozza and the pizza toppings combination was better at Beretta.
The stir-fried greens with garlic were fine. The desserts were good but not fantastic. The peach ice cream was very peachy and the unusual pine nut tart a la mode was nutty and creamy. The chocolate cake was moist and not too sweet.
I wasn't blown away by the desserts but then again, not every place can be like The Bazaar.
The outdoor patio was a great space and service was good.
I would definitely return to this Temescal area and explore more. I walked by Barlata and other talked-about haunts so will have to check those out.
I didn't make it to Zacchary's Pizza in Berkeley so instead went to Little Star in the Mission (it has another branch on Divisadero), which I was told was better. I had the spinach, garlic and tomato deep dish pizza, which was good. I liked the crust better than Zach's because it didn't get too soggy like Zach's. The spinach topping was extremely garlicky and a good two slices were, needless to say, very filling but satisfyingly so.
Upon request: I couldn't refuse my first request to review a place, a hole-in-the-wall in Chinatown called Chef Jia's, adjacent to the (in)famous House of Nanking. The honey chili chicken was too sweet and not spicy enough for me. Don't get me wrong. The chicken morsels were perfectly fried and super crispy. But the sauce had far too much honey and not enough chili, so I had to dip (more like dunk) the chicken pieces in the red chili sauce that came in the condiment jar on the table to make them more palatable. The white rice was also not as fresh as it should be, even though I did stop by at an odd hour and it was $5.25 a pop. I actually liked the egg soup the lunch special came with. Now that had a bit of spice and was a good remedy for my almost-cold.
Random afterthought: I found that Midi in Union Square area has a decent burger and fries. Bun isn't quite on par but the patty was cooked medium rare with crispy, warm, fresh-out-of-the-fryer fries. Not sure I would return unless I were staying at the attached hotel, but good to know in case of a serious late-night burger craving.
5008 Telegraph Ave.
Oakland, CA 94609
400 Valencia St. (Mission branch)
San Francisco, CA 94103
925 Kearny St.
San Francisco, CA 94133