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Sampling what's new in San Francisco

The spiffed-up Ferry Building and renovated Asian Art Museum beckon on an outing with Mom and Dad.

June 15, 2003|Craig Nakano | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — This city has plenty of aches and pains -- a dot-com hangover, an economic malaise exacerbated by weak foreign tourism and now the SARS outbreak, which has even some locals skittish about strolling through Chinatown.

So thank goodness for folks like Nigel Walker. I came across the jolly, English-born organic farmer basking in the sunshine at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, where he was thrusting a wilted bunch of white flowers toward passersby.

"Ladies, would you like to smell my sweet peas?" he asked with a devilish grin. "Smell my sweet peas!"

I kept expecting some well-mannered woman to slap the guy. But shopper after shopper simply responded with niceties such as, "Why, yes," or an enthusiastic sniff followed by, "Mmm, sweet indeed!"

Venture capital and foreign tourists may come and go, but the goofballs and free spirits -- the crazies, as my mom calls them -- giddily remain. Earlier this month I was glad to find the city's quirky vibe still intact, even as San Francisco works to reinvent itself. At every turn, something old was new again: Union Square, known as much for its vagrants as for its shopping, had been cleaned up; the Ferry Building, a century-old transit hub, had been reborn as a fine food emporium; and the Asian Art Museum, its collection worth $3 billion to $5 billion, had reopened in a new home.

My plan was to revisit the sights with my parents, a good-natured pair who don't mind my teasing. They live near San Francisco but rarely venture into the city because of the traffic and the aforementioned crazies. For Dad, the weekend would be an early Father's Day present. For Mom, parole from the kitchen.

Saturday morning, JetBlue took me from Long Beach to Oakland, a route the airline inaugurated in September. I wasn't picking up the folks until the afternoon, so I drove to the Embarcadero and side-by-side culinary attractions: the Ferry Building Marketplace, upscale food stalls open daily inside a renovated San Francisco landmark; and the outdoor Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which sets up four days a week and is run by a nonprofit group devoted to sustainable agriculture.

I saved the Marketplace for Sunday and focused on the farmers market, a veritable Northern California foodie hall of fame: organic lettuce from Green Gulch Farm in Marin County, crusty loaves from Acme Bread of Berkeley, olive oil from McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma. Tomales Bay's Hog Island Oyster Co. drew a crowd with raw and barbecued oysters on the half-shell.

I made the rounds, sampling silky buffalo milk ricotta from Cowgirl Creamery and artichoke tapenade from LuLu Petit, an offshoot of San Francisco's Restaurant LuLu. At Nigel Walker's booth, I dipped a cube of sourdough into olive oil and lavender salt from organic Eatwell Farm near Dixon. Foodies grazed elbow to elbow, including one mom who evicted her son from his stroller so she could use it as a shopping cart.

My haul: Scharffen Berger chocolate, cappuccino-flavored honey-roasted almonds, organic cherries and sinfully good pear-ginger upside-down muffins.

What gives the market its distinctly San Francisco flavor is the backdrop: an 1898 train depot and ferry landing modeled after the 12th century Giralda cathedral tower in Seville, Spain. On one side lies the waterfront and the Bay Bridge, on the other the Transamerica pyramid and its sister skyscrapers. In between: lots of crazies.

I zigzagged south along the Embarcadero toward the still-evolving neighborhood around PacBell Park. Here I found the Slanted Door, an acclaimed Vietnamese restaurant that opened in 1995 and moved here to Brannan Street last year. My imperial rolls stuffed with taro root, cabbage and glass noodles, and a rice-noodle stir-fry with chicken and shiitakes, were as pleasing as the handsome quarters.

But now the time had come to pick up Mom and Dad and head for Union Square. During the Gold Rush, poor prospectors used it as a free campground. Despite the high-end retail that eventually sprang up around it, the square remained a province of vagrants for decades.

For better or worse, the city has removed trees and bushes to deter squatters and make the square less ominous, especially at night. The result is a largely flat, concrete-and-granite block with patches of grass and flowers. Four light sculptures by R.M. Fischer were dedicated in April, and a cafe run by Emporio Rulli of Larkspur, in Marin County, is set to open in July.

We made our way to Kuleto's, an Italian restaurant just off the square on Powell Street. Mom liked her dinner, tender gnocchi with Dungeness crab. My penne with lamb sausage also was good, and though Dad thought his grilled king salmon with toasted hazelnuts was mediocre, the espresso creme brulee for dessert seemed to compensate.

From ferries to farmers

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