Over the past year, I heard unsettling things about San Francisco. There were whispers that its chefs had stopped inventing. California cuisine, which had always been about innovation and exploration, seemed out of fashion; in its place were comfort food, steak frites--the same trends that cluttered the rest of the country. Even more disconcerting was what I didn't hear. The restaurants that had people swooning and sighing were opening north of the city in wine country. In San Francisco there was an unaccustomed silence.
Then, this fall, a reassuring buzz reached my ears. A trip to the West Coast confirmed the reports: creativity was back, and so was the San Francisco restaurant scene. In fact, I discovered not just one scene, but three, in different neighborhoods across the city. There are important new restaurants in relative isolation, of course. Gary Danko, which is the name of both a formal restaurant in the high-French style and its chef, operates with great finesse not far from the culinary abyss known as Pier 39. At Campton Place just off Union Square, Laurent Manrique is exploring the deep flavors of Gascony. For the most part, though, these three restaurant clusters are the places that have people in San Francisco talking again,and each one has a feel and character of its own.
It took 10 years after the 1989 earthquake for the city to clear the ruins of the elevated Embarcadero Freeway and rebuild it as a surface road, but now the buildings along Steuart Street have a reason to pull the curtains from their rear windows: an unobstructed view of the San Francisco Bay. This has made the block of Steuart Street between Mission and Howard streets into one of the most attractive restaurant rows in town. The enduringly popular Boulevard, with 1993 F&W Best New Chef Nancy Oakes, anchors a strip that also includes Shanghai 1930, Red Herring Restaurant and the soon-to-open Chaya Brasserie San Francisco (a sibling of the two Chaya restaurants in greater Los Angeles).
While chef Shigefumi Tachibe at Chaya has perfected a fusion of French and Japanese cuisines that has the soft understatement of an Armani suit, James Ormsby at Red Herring cooks seafood with the flamboyance of an Alexander McQueen runway show. Lobster-and-avocado salad sets the mood: Ormsby presents it like ice cream, scooped into crisp little cones that dangle from an iron stand. Even the warm smoked sturgeon looks glamorous, topped with electric-green dots of wasabi caviar. His whole snapper is baked, tandoori-style, with an Indian spice rub that colors it cherry red. Yet Ormsby isn't like some haute couturier dreaming up three-legged trousers: even his showiest dishes work on the practical level, which is to say they taste as fabulous as they look. He's importing flavors from around the world, but adapting them to his bright, cheerful American palate.
Ten years back, the blocks just south of Market Street began to emerge as an arts district that would soon be christened SOMA. Today, independent galleries and studios are overshadowed by institutionalized culture in the form of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens. Big money dominates the emerging restaurant scene too. But these corporate backers turn out to be enlightened rulers who allow the chefs they've installed to make very personal statements. The suits may run the show, but the creative types are still the stars.
Inside Metreon, a shopping and entertainment behemoth built by Sony for what is said to have been at least $85 million, Jennifer Cox, the young chef at Montage, preaches the Alice Waters gospel of local ingredients presented at the peak of their season. A block away, the Kimpton Group, which operates a chain of hotels across the country, recently opened their latest, Hotel Palomar. Kimpton has recruited George Morrone, the founding chef of Aqua, to run the Palomar's luxurious and intimate restaurant, Fifth Floor.
Another hotel chain, the enormous Starwood conglomerate, is in charge at W San Francisco. The genius of the W Hotels is to give the public areas a sleek, urban look and then outfit each room with a CD player and tasteful Pottery Barn-style furniture, as if it were the bedroom of a well-financed independent filmmaker. (From the looks of the people lounging around the lobby, most of the guests actually are well-financed independent filmmakers.) For W's restaurant, XYZ, Starwood tapped Alison Richman, who until recently was second in command under Traci Des Jardins at Jardinière. Like the hotel itself, XYZ is smart and up-to-date. Richman has a light touch, a penchant for Asian ingredients and an aversion to decadence. Seared scallops come with a confetti of toasted nori and tiny leaves of red mustard greens. Duck breast, roasted to a juicy pink, is served with braised Maui onions, bok choy and lychees. Guests can eat a three-course meal here and not feel obligated to do any more than the usual penance in the gym.
The Mission, seat of the most dynamic restaurant scene in the city, offers nothing but contrasts. Dirt-cheap taquerias and Vietnamese sandwich shops somehow manage to hang on, at least for the moment, in the face of an invasion of e-cowboys who have made this neighborhood a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. But if gentrification is rampant, it's not entirely without character. New restaurants here tend to be as eccentric and provocative as the Mission itself.
An unmarked door on an unkempt block of Mission Street opens on to Foreign Cinema. Inside is a soaring, bare-bones space that makes you understand why architects once thought concrete was beautiful. One courtyard wall, painted white, is the screen for the classic art films and independent features that are shown nightly. Sitting in the dining room, you catch fragmentary glimpses through windows punched in the wall. The films are just part of the landscape, which has a nice effect: you can see The Seventh Seal, but you don't have to pretend you understood it. The frog's legs, escargots and other vintage French bistro dishes prepared by chef Laurent Katgely work the same way. They're very good, but not at all distracting. Foreign Cinema turns out to be a witty reference to a time when menus written in French and movies with subtitles were the height of sophistication.
Deconstructionist thinking of another order is taking place at Gordon's House of Fine Eats. You know there's a hyperactive mind at work the moment you see the art installation hung above the bar. Gordon's is in a part of the outer Mission that is coming to be known as Media Gulch, an area where small communications firms and Internet startups have found a home. Gordon Drysdale, the owner and chef, has devised a clever menu perfectly suited to people used to thinking at the speed of a Pentium chip. One minute it sounds like a Jewish grandmother ("a nice matzoh ball soup") and the next like an Ivy League student on a junior year abroad ("caviar et sa garni").
Behind Drysdale's games, though, lurks a solid understanding that food brings happiness, especially when it is cooked as skillfully as it is here. Fried dough is one of the greatest guilty pleasures of all, and Drysdale flaunts it with his doughnut platter. The basket that comes to the table seems to hold only a funnel cake, that peculiarly loopy Pennsylvania specialty. But lift the funnel cake and you discover a cinnamon cruller, a cinnamon-spiced raised doughnut, a fried Gravenstein apple dumpling, and an orange-ricotta fritter, all shining with hot oil. These dizzying variations on a theme would be a bad joke if each variation wasn't better than the last. But it's a great joke, and an even better dessert.
Delfina, at the other end of the Mission, near the edge of quiet Noe Valley, doesn't have movies or art installations. The owners, Craig Stoll and Anne Spencer, probably didn't have the money to make their small storefront into a stage set; chances are they weren't interested, either. What motivates them is a love for Italian cooking in its purest form, which means getting ingredients straight from the farm and letting them shine in unadorned, unfussy treatments. On a recent visit, tiny green figs so sweet they threatened to turn into honey were matched with roasted quail, polenta and sage; squash blossoms stuffed with seasoned ricotta were fried so delicately they could have appeared in a flower vase as easily as on a plate. Sometimes simple cooking is merely simple, but at Delfina, it's spectacular.