During my four-day stay in San Francisco, the biggest epicurean surprise actually came from the beverage department.
Let me preface by saying that there was little time to properly delve into the dining scene that continues to lure gastronomes from around the world to San Francisco. My dining out experiences on this trip were decidedly neighborhood-casual, nothing palate-transcendental.
In the course of my urban wandering, I stumbled across a handful of delightful beverage pit stops that have earned a star on the list of return destinations.
Seattle has long been considered the mecca of great coffee and places for curling up with a cup, and I agree, there's no shortage of good beans. But give San Francisco a caffeinated chance, people. The place is crawling with independently owned, funky shacks o' joe. In the Dolores Park neighborhood where I stayed, there was one coffee house on each end of the street, and two more within two blocks of home base.
A trend I noticed is coffee brewed by the cup. The last time I came across this phenomenon was in the early 1990s at Ray's Coffee Shop a Taiwanese-style café serving dim sum along with its coffee brewed to order out of this enormous siphon contraption.
I woke up one morning to be greeted by the ka-pow cup of house blend brewed for me at Philz Coffee, a corner storefront at 18th and Sanchez Streets where Jacob Jaber says hello to everyone who enters because this place is a no-rush experience. Jaber learned from his father, Phil, king of this enterprise, who started the business 25 years ago at the original location a few blocks away at 24th and Folsom Streets. In a phone conversation with Papa Phil, he describes the original location as "the church."
Here's how it works at Philz: You step up to the counter and choose one of the Jaber's custom blends. The beans are ground in a Burr grinder and then brewed in individual filter cups, which takes up to five minutes. If you want milk, it's steamed and added to your coffee. Sugar? That's thrown in,too. All you need to do is wait.
And by the looks of the line while I was there, nobody seems to mind. The coffee's that good.
Another company pushing the coffee envelope is Blue Bottle Coffee, describing itself as an "artisan microroaster," which is defined on its Web site as roasting beans in very small batches (about 21 pounds), bagging them within four hours of roasting and shipping in the area within 8 hours. In addition, Blue Bottle will only sell coffee by the half pound.
There's no store to speak of to buy Blue Bottle's elixir. You've got to head for its kiosk, located at the corner of Linden Gough Streets in the Hayes Valley neighborhood or at the farmer's market at the Ferry Marketplace building.
I had my Blue Bottle experience at Bittersweet Café, a new addition to the Pacific Heights neighborhood and home to 100 bars of premium chocolate from around the world. The folks at the counter asked for my patience as Blue Bottle insists on individually brewed cups and sends out spies to ensure that merchants are abiding by the rules.
I honestly don't know how to describe Blue Bottle. Sublime? Transforming? Like drinking an amazing glass of wine? These were the qualities that came to mind as I sipped from a counter stool and looked out onto Fillmore Street, smiling wide.
I know not everyone drinks coffee (I have no idea why, but that's another blog post). Tea lovers will be happy to know about Samovar Tea Lounge, a groovy little spot that would make a perfect date. Come in and stay a while; the dining room is intimate and tranquil. In addition to an extensive list of white, green oolong and herbal tisanes, the menu includes pu-erh, tea that is aged inside caves in bamboo stalks. Food is aplenty, too, with interesting sandwiches (grilled duck and gouda), a cheese platter with honeycomb and prix-fixe tea service with four global options.
For my late-night visit, I chose a pot of "Monkey picked iron goddess of mercy," an oolong with a slight smokiness (far less than lapsong souchong, a black tea). I loved sipping something with such an exotic name, and I washed it down with a plate of tea-infused cookies. A great pre-bedtime snack!
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