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Going to San Francisco : Where Should I Eat?

October 16, 1994|S. IRENE VIRBILA | Times Restaurant Critic

SAN FRANCISCO — Now that I no longer live in Northern California, I seem to be sending an inordinate number of friends off to San Francisco for a few days. I enjoy pulling out a map of the city and marking it up with all my old haunts--coffeehouses, bookstores, eccentric shops, flea markets, farmers markets, picnic spots, long walks. Then comes the pleasurable business of deciding where to send them to eat. I can easily get carried away. If they've got three nights, I've got 10 restaurants. (Well, it is hard to get into some of them on short notice.) I do, however, custom-tailor the list to budget, personality and circumstance. And this fall, due to a rash of recent restaurant openings, I've added a few new names.

Still at the head of the class is Chez Panisse--upstairs or down. (If you don't reserve well ahead for Jean-Pierre Moulles extraordinary cooking in the more formal downstairs restaurant, you will definitely be eating in the upstairs cafe.) But not everybody is ambitious enough to make the trek across the bay to Berkeley, even though by L.A. standards this commute is a piece of cake.

When I mull over the restaurants in San Francisco I love, though, it turns out most of them are French. French restaurants have been a presence since the city's early years. These days, it's not the formal French cooking of Masa's or Fleur de Lys that intrigues me, but the earthier bistros and cafes. The fact that I don't have a single Italian restaurant on my list says a great deal about the difference between San Francisco and Los Angeles. (If I weren't restricting this list to San Francisco, Oliveto in Oakland, where former Chez Panisse chef Paul Bertolli is now cooking Tuscan country fare, would be enthusiastically included.) Or maybe it's that in Los Angeles I miss a certain kind of sensual French cooking. And when I do make a brief foray back to San Francisco, these are a few of the places I look forward to visiting.

* Zuni Cafe. After Chez Panisse, I think first of 15-year-old Zuni Cafe on Market Street. Everyone I've ever sent to this eccentric, beloved place has fallen in love with Zuni's mix of old and new San Francisco (society meets artsy South-of-Market) and earthy French-Mediterranean cooking. The kitchen is ruled by Judy Rodgers, whose fate was decided when she spent a year as a high school exchange student living with the family of the late three-star chef Jean Troisgros in Burgundy.

Here, there is a required menu: First, a glass of Veuve Clicquot brut and an iced platter of raw shellfish from the little stand perched on the sidewalk outside, just like in Paris. Oysters, clams and periwinkles are served with crusty sourdough loaves from Acme (the Bay Area equivalent of La Brea Bakery). Then you have to have the house-cured anchovies with slivers of celery and Parmesan, a comforting bowl of porridge-like polenta with a dollop of mascarpone , feathery light ricotta and spinach gnocchi, perhaps some kind of fish braised in the wood-burning brick oven. But always, always the crisp-skinned roast chicken for two with a Tuscan bread salad doused with Champagne vinaigrette. Travelers take note: Zuni is open virtually all day--even for lunch on Saturday.

* Restaurant LuLu and LuLu Bis. Restaurant LuLu, in the burgeoning South-of-Market area not far from the new Yerba Buena Gardens Center for the Arts, has been a runaway hit since the day it opened nearly two years ago. Inspired by Zuni, LuLu is a much bigger place, one notch down in price, with a wood-burning pizza oven and wood-fired rotisserie as focal points. Chef/owner Reed Hearon, who worked with Mark Miller at the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, turns out rustic family-style dishes from the French and Italian Riviera.

I've had some very appealing dishes here, mostly first courses like the plump, juicy iron skillet-roasted mussels, fried artichokes with Parmesan, wood oven-roasted Portobello mushroom with fresh corn-studded polenta. Zero in on the grilled spot prawns with romesco sauce too. Side dishes such as olive oil mashed potatoes and Romano beans with lemon and olive oil are good, but I haven't been all that impressed with the main courses. The very rotisserie items that look so enticing--the squab wrapped in pancetta and served with brilliant green fava beans and crinkly morel mushrooms, the rosemary chicken or the pork loin with fennel, garlic and olive oil--just don't have that much flavor. For dessert, there's sometimes a refreshing trompe l'oeil wedge of melon ice.

LuLu is actually two restaurants (three, if you count the adjoining cafe where you can get breakfast, take-out items, antipasti and a quick dinner). Next door is the much smaller LuLu Bis, where Hearon offers a three- or four-course prix fixe meal with several choices at $21 or $27. You eat family style at long communal tables, much the way you did at San Francisco's traditional Basque restaurants.

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