I like food, a statement which should come as no surprise to the 20 people who read this blog. Having dealt with body issues and insecurities when I was younger, moving to San Francisco made me abandon my obsessions and restrictions; food, and the various industries orbiting around it, is king in this town.
One dining aspect I most respect about San Francisco is the lack of pretension. Only in SF can you get a stellar, well-prepared meal made from locally sourced ingredients for under ten bucks on your lunchbreak. Good food is a default in the city by the Bay, and I’ve come to take for granted just how creative, ambitious, and downright freaking crazy food professionals are in the town.
That being said, it isn’t always gastric nirvana in jeans: the money that trails the tech industry in this town, not unlike a whiff of My First Cologne after you pass a teenager on the street, brings with it the very worst (to me) in dining. I’m talking puffed up menus, $20 “bar nibbles”, drinks that cost more than parking, assholes who insist on telling you why a shiraz with the wild rainbow trout JUST WON’T DO. Specifically, I’m thinking of the vast experience chasm I experienced between Dixie in the Presidio and Mission Chinese Food in, well, the Mission.
Let me start by saying that YES, I know I’m late to the praising Mission Chinese bandwagon. I know it’s old hat, and the hipsters have new chefs to gastronomically idol-worship, but I don’t give a shit. It was damn freaking good, every moment. We endured a thirty minute wait (super short, so I’ve been told) and from the moment we walked in the door and our nostrils were assaulted by the capsaicin hanging foggily in the air, I knew I was home. No need for a faux-foodie review on this one: it was spicy, inventive, had a point of view, was delicious, and was seriously well priced. Ben and I left with enough leftovers for 2 dinners, all for $50 or so. With beer. That’s a good deal.
Part of the reason we fell so heartily for MCF and have proceeded to order delivery from them numerous times since is how it’s all about the food and not so much about how the restaurant wants you to perceive the food. Yes, the Kung Pow Pastrami was a bit of a mind fuck, but who cares? It rocked! While I didn’t adore all of the dishes, I knew what the the chef wanted to say, and I appreciated that: I like when I can tell that a real live human has crafted a menu.
So rewind back two weeks beforehand. It was a foggy, misty San Francisco Saturday, and Ben and I were struggling to find a place to eat. Having no reservations, I consulted my go-to source that makes me look more “with it” than I am and found Dixie in the Presidio. Hmmm, I thought, I like soul food, the pedigree of the chef is impressive, hey there, they just opened and we should support local businesses! Having scored a seating in an hour, we got ready, called an UberX (BEST THING SINCE CREATION, if you ask me), and made our way out into the mist.
My business is schmoozing and I went to a pretty fancy school, so normally I don’t get uncomfortable in fancy situations (you should see me rock a dinner party) but I tightened up the second I walked in the lobby area. There was something, something I couldn’t describe or point out, something that made me think “shit, they’re going to find out we’re frauds”. What I mean to say is that I felt like the other-side-of-the-tracks significant other meeting the country club parents for the first time: out of place but trying really hard to pick the right fork. The lighting was low, the decoration was modern lodge chic-ish (or was it? I really felt I couldn’t stare for too long), and the clientele was… how do I put this…. not of my social status?
I guess what bothered me the most is not the fanciness (I’ve had the pleasure of being treated to insanely fancy meals that were comfortable and laughter filled), what bothered me was the insistence on making comfort food seem fancy, that there was some inside joke I didn’t know about.
Thing is, when we were laboring over our choices on the menu, the couple sitting next to us, an impeccably dressed older gentleman from Brussels and his much younger (and gorgeous) companion, ordered the tasting menu. I must reiterate, I’m not hating on the structure here, I’ve dropped at least a third of a month’s rent on a tasting menu and ate Kraft Dinner to make up for it. The elements didn’t irk me: it didn’t bug me when they waiter overheard the man’s french accent and did his best to converse in his native tongue. I thought nothing of it when they brought out a bottle of St. Emilion that sat firmly in the two hundred dollar range, and the gentleman remarked on what a bargain it was. It wasn’t an issue that the service seemed eager but uneven.
I was flabbergasted, however, when they brought out the first course for the couple next to us: a hush puppy covered in caviar. There, the delectable hush puppy, the very same hush puppy that a moment before we’d enjoyed as an appetizer, sat forlornly on a plate, adorned with a pile of inky eggs, not unlike a British bearskin hat. The couple raved over the dish and proceeded to dig in.
What bothered me, what made me absolutely wish we’d stuck to our favorite pizza joint, or taco place, or Indian Curry Pub, was that there wasn’t anything inventive on that plate that I could see, only wealth heaped upon a humble dish. Now, I didn’t try the dish mind you, and I’m no caviar aficionado, but I cannot imagine that the little fish eggs on top of that puppy actually elevated it to fine dining.
And maybe that was my problem: I don’t eat at “fine” establishments often. Maybe I’m not the target audience for such a dish, or an establishment like this – after all, I’m not a startup billionaire, descended from the Rockefellers or a member of MI6 (OR AM I?) Maybe my palate doesn’t understand the intricate flavors the caviar brings out in the hush puppy. Maybe I’m not meant to “get it”.
But then I remember back to wonderful meals/experiences I’ve had at stunning places – marveling at the details of a foot stool for your purse and perfect plating at Del Posto, saving up for three months for an eight course tasting menu that lasted until 2 AM at Babbo, insisting we try pounded beef heart and lamb tartare, and realizing I’d been pushed out of my comfort zone and loved it at Incanto, catching a rare non-busy day and experiencing the epicness that is the pasta at Flour and Water, washing down the peanut butter bacon burger and thai chile hotwings with a Rio Grande at 15 Romolo, the absolutely epic meal I ate after watching its creation at my hometown’s own Petite… restaurants that were welcoming and warm, no matter how expensive or not, chi-chi or not, for other people than me or not.
and let us not forget fish eggs used well, for all I could think about at Mission Chinese when we plunged our spoons into uni custard topped with roe, a perfect little cup of salt and brine and sweet and depth and acid and oh my god how is it possible that I love this dish as much as I do… how each deliberate component on that plate served a purpose and made every bite a weirdly wonderful trip down a memory lane that wasn’t mine. How nothing was wasted, nothing was showy, there was no “wink wink” or sleight of hands. So maybe I get it: all I could think of was THAT is how you fucking rock a fish egg.
And it was under $10, which is 1/7 the cost of the aforementioned Caviar Hush Puppy tasting menu.