My friend L(2) introduced me to the Canadian beer Trois Pistoles last Thanksgiving, which makes her a wicked, wicked woman. It’s a fruity but dark concoction that’s got a strong 9% alcohol kick that sneaks up on me because it’s so sweet and almost chocolatey in its richness and flavor. Only the label—Gothic lettering, vaguely menacing horse-dragon creature—and almost black glass give you fair warning. I don’t often drink beer but I look out for that one.
In honor of L(2) and the city I just visited (for work), which has equal shares of fruitiness and musk, here are three culinary experiences I had in San Francisco.
Mona Lisa (on Columbus Avenue): Compressed like a shotgun, candlelit, dim, and crammed with Renaissance art reproductions from floor to high ceiling, the Mona Lisa sounds like it should feel cramped and uncomfortable. Instead, it’s quite homey, even though the décor is like something out of a Fragonard painting—or, at least, the opulent curlicues of the Fragonard room at the Frick Collection. Poppy Z. Brite would call it a classic “red-gravy joint,” in that the cuisine is standard Italian—the menu has two big pages of pasta dishes. But the menu feels almost larger than the physical space, and the Mona Lisa has to be competitive, as you can trip over Italian restaurants in the North Beach area. I found antipasti that surprised and amazed me. The copious slivers of smoked salmon glistened on the plate and melted in the mouth. Laid on a bed of mixed greens and sprinkled with lemon juice and tangy, large capers, the fish’s layout was so pink and fleshy as to be embarrassingly erotic. Tasting the salmon, and letting it rest on the tongue, only heightened the sensation. I cleaned my plate. The fettuccine, with sliced tomatoes and a subtle cream sauce that was laid on just thick enough to coat the past, was superb. Around this time, I fell in love with the restaurant. My waiter—and, yes, he was called “Tony” by the crew—understood my desire for a second glass of wine before even I realized it. The waitstaff weaved its way through the close tables and intimately chatting clientele so adroitly that the Mona Lisa seemed more spacious than it was—at most, the room could fit 50 eaters, but it never felt like a luncheonette. Halfway through my Fettuccine Leonardo, a young waiter came from the back carrying a trombone. He serenaded a birthday girl with a slurring, sexy rendition of Henry Mancini’s “The Pink Panther” before blurting out “Happy Birthday.” Later, he would perform the opening snatch of “West End Blues,” apparently just to show that he could. My visit afterward to City Lights Books, two blocks down, seemed anticlimactic by comparison.
Empress of China (on Grant Avenue): The Empress of China, though technically a top-floor restaurant, feels nestled in the middle of something—a buried egg. Perhaps it should remain so, but it’s too late for that. It’s got a reputation to uphold. The waiters dress in tuxes, the busboys wield green jackets, and the petite maitre d’ wore a dazzling blue-and-gold dress cut to accentuate her curves. That dress was the best part of my dining experience and, yes, that’s a backhanded compliment. The savory pot stickers weren’t particularly interesting, though the doughy, slippery texture was delightful. My barbecued duck, garnished with cilantro, was all too greasy and gristly. The Woody Allen one-liner—“The food was terrible, and the portions were so small!” comes to mind here. I wish the cuisine were less oily all-around, spiced more appropriately, and that there was more of it. The menu wasn’t a step beyond what I see at my local Best Wok, Jackson’s Chinese takeout magnifique, so there wasn’t a helluva lot to choose from. Even the décor seemed like faded glamour. At one point, a table cleared and a busboy worked swiftly to replace the silverware and tablecloth. He lifted the brilliant white tablecloth to reveal, but only for a sec, the cracked and stained Formica beneath. My experience was like that. And then I saw the bill. I had to walk down Grant and Kearny, and pause to watch Chinese teens play a pick-up game of volleyball at the Willie “Woo Woo” Wong playground to recover from the $60 tab.
See’s Candies (on Market Street): I’ve said before that I’m not a big dessert eater, and that’s true, as far as it goes. But I’m a sucker for toffee. Buttery toffee rectangles, coated with milk chocolate and then sprinkled with shaved almonds… well, that’s just irresistible. I bought a tin for Ashleigh at work, and another for myself. I’ll need to read a Jack Chick tract to recover from all that sin, but God should bless See’s, anyway.