Monday, February 26, 2007

Three Squares in San Francisco


Blueberry French toast with sweet cream cheese at Canteen

Canteen is a serious "new Californian" restaurant masquerading as a greasy spoon. Chef Dennis Leary left the upscale and trendy Rubicon a couple of years ago to open this cozy hole-in-the wall with a counter and just four booths. Garnering rave reviews and seating only 20, dinner reservations are hard to come by. For an early Saturday breakfast I just walked in and mosied up to a stool at the counter.

The breakfast menu was small, but everything sounded good. I threw a mental dart and went for the French toast. It was wading in a delicious, not-too-sweet warm blueberry sauce and topped with a dollop of whipped sweet cream cheese. It was exquisite, and the coffee was perfect too.

Leary seems to change his opening hours fairly frequently. For now breakfast is served on weekends only.

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Banh khot at Ngoc Mai

Ngoc Mai is a Hue-style Vietnamese restuarant in the Tenderloin, a portion of which is also known as Little Saigon because of the large Vietnamese population. Though most San Francisco Vietnamese restaurants serve Saigon-style cuisine, a few serve regional cuisines I can't find in New York. I had written previously about a Hanoi-style place called Bodega Bistro.

At Ngoc Mai, which is a lunch-only place, I had the banh khot, which are crispy rice flour mini-crepes with shrimp. Shaped like little cups, with a thin eggy inner layer, they cradled a shrimp each and had a nice toasty, nutty taste.

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Antica Trattoria

Antica Trattoria is aptly named. Inside this cozy neighborhood Northern Italian restaurant one feels as if one were in a venerable neighborhood trattoria in Italy. The decor is sedate and traditional, the menu authentic but inventive. Chef-owner Ruggero Gadaldi, who hails from a small town near Bergamo, opened the restaurant in 1996 and has since opened two other restaurants, the nearby Pesce, a fabulous Venetian cicchetteria (tapas bar), and most recently The Last Supper Club, an odd name for a place serving Southern Italian food. Though I haven't been to the latter, the other two restaurants are great value considering the quality of the food. Indeed, for maintaining such quality and affordability at two very different types of Italian restaurant, Gadaldi earns my undying respect.

I had been to Pesce on three occasions, but this was my first visit to Antica Trattoria. I went with my high school chum Harry, from the old neighborhood, and his wife Mary Ann. For them this was a return to an old neighborhood, as they lived in Russian Hill in the '80s, before it became the trendy enclave it is today.

We shared two appetizers, the cotechino, a Northern Italian garlic sausage served with lentils, and the calamari sauteed with white wine, garbanzos and olives. Both were excellent. My main course was the braised duck with porcini, served in a hearty broth with julienned vegetables; delicious, copious, and a steal at $17.

Of our two desserts, the panna cotta with huckleberry sauce, while tasty, was unexceptional. The bignole (cream puffs with zabaglione), on the other hand, were spectacular.

Cin-cin, Ruggero Gadaldi.


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