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We're eating where?

August 20, 2003|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — In this city where people are so passionate about food, the past couple of years have been awfully glum. The economic downturn has hit the restaurant scene hard: Few exciting places have opened, and some of the best old-timers have scaled back or closed entirely.

But a handful of places are still bursting with life and momentum. And believe it or not, two of them are at the ballpark.

One is actually attached to Pacific Bell Park; the other is a couple of blocks away. They are among the best and busiest restaurants in the city, and for San Francisco, that's saying a lot.

To find what may be the perfect chophouse at the ballpark is nothing short of astonishing -- but that's what Acme Chophouse is. Look for its awning scrawled with the name and a rusted iron A leaning out from the side of the brick building at Willie Mays Plaza.

The beef is grass-fed, the produce mostly organic, the execution right on. The chef and owner, Traci des Jardin, may be the most talented cook to have ever come out of Patina. She moved north to be opening chef at Rubicon, and her sophisticated French bistro, Jardiniere, is still holding its own.

Everything about Acme is smart. The wine list is filled with eclectic and delicious wines at affordable prices. It's a single sheet with whites on one side, reds on the other -- easy. The raw bar is stocked with oysters, clams, Dungeness crab and more. Other starters include a subtle New England clam chowder and an avocado and crab salad. With no sauce to cover their gentle gamy taste, sweetbreads deep-fried in an herb batter are a revelation.

It's so rare to get a good steak tartare. Acme's grass-fed beef, which somehow seems lighter than the usual grain-fed, is a great vehicle for a tartare's punchy seasonings.

The dry-aged, grass-fed New York steak, bone-in, is paler in color than grain-fed steaks -- almost like veal with flavor. Perfectly cooked, it's wonderfully juicy and absolutely convincing. Hangar steak at $17 is the bargain of the evening, the same cut Paris bistros serve as steak frites. On the rotisserie at the back of the open kitchen, chickens, ducks and pork loin roast to a deep gold. Chicken doesn't sound very sexy, but the magic is in the lemon and bay brine that keeps it moist.

Sides -- the best onion rings I've ever had, perfectly crunchy, perfectly salted; emerald spinach leaves barely held together with cream; and a sumptuous potato gratin -- all shine. To finish things off, get the tall glass filled with dreamy butterscotch pudding topped with a cloud of softly whipped cream.

Except when an afternoon game is scheduled, Acme Chophouse is closed for lunch. On ballgame nights, the menu is slightly abridged so the kitchen can get the orders out faster, but the changes are so slight you'd hardly notice. Some people, our waiter tells us, nix rushing back to the game and instead end up just hanging out and watching the plays on the bar's big screen.

A hot ticket

A couple of blocks away on Brannan Street, the beloved Vietnamese restaurant, the Slanted Door, has taken up temporary residence while its Valencia Street location is being renovated. Even though it's a big place, it's one of the city' toughest reservations.

I can see why. The food is irresistible. It's updated Vietnamese made with the same quality of ingredients top French or Italian restaurants might buy. Eating here is relaxed and congenial. Everything is served family style. When you walk into this white-tiled space, the scent of garlic and chile and herbs wafts from the open kitchen where fires lick the bottom of the pots. The crowd is as diverse as it gets in San Francisco, which may be as diverse as it gets anywhere on the planet.

Owner Charles Phan and his wine director, Mark Ellenbogen, have worked hard to put together a list that goes brilliantly with Phan's food. It's a pleasure to find Gruner Veltliner from Austria, German Rieslings, Alsatian Gewurztraminers and steely Sancerres, along with Belgian ales, unfiltered wheat beer, French apple and pear ciders and a list of regional Chinese teas.

Imperial rolls make delicious little bundles. Filled with shrimp, pork and glass noodles, they're dipped in a sweet vinegary sauce, then wrapped in lettuce with a sprig of mint. Sticky daikon rice cakes disappear in a flash, and nobody can stay away from the barbecued Willis Ranch pork ribs, nibbling the sweet succulent flesh close to the bone. The night of our visit there was a fabulous Chinese-style sweet corn soup swirled with egg and lumps of crabmeat. What's not to love about a bowl of tiny clams in the shell, in a broth silvery with the taste of lemon grass and lit up with slices of fiery red chile?

Anybody who comes to the Slanted Door has to order the signature shaking beef. It's cubes of filet mignon tossed in spices and seared quickly in a hot wok along with masses of slivered spring onions. Another favorite dish is caramelized shrimp in a slow-smoldering chile sauce.

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