: views from the Hill

Friday, August 25, 2006

Three to go

We visited three close-by restaurants within the last week or two and all are worth a repeat visit. This doesn't happen very often, folks. In fact, I don't think it's ever happened that we ate at three new-to-us restaurants and came up with three repeatables in a row.

Impala [caution: soundtrack]
501 Broadway (just W of Kearny on the S side of Broadway)
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 982-5299
Open Table reservations

Good Mexican food. Fresh ingredients. I'm not saying that the food's better than the tamales at Lucy's on White Road in San Jose, but I am saying I'd be happy to make a return visit. The salsas weren't very spicy, perhaps a nod to the tourist trade. We ordered the Monday-night-special half-price pitchers of margarita. Impala doesn't water down the margaritas just because they're serving them half-price.

I just checked the site and see no mention of half-off bottles of wine or half-price pitchers of margarita, so maybe that was a time-limited offer to draw in the locals.

We were upstairs in the restaurant. A record release party was happening downstairs in the VIP lounge. Our experience might've been different if there'd been a crush or loud music, but the night was relatively young and it was Monday. We were able to enjoy the food and the margaritas without stress.

The Helmand Restaurant
430 Broadway (just W of Montgomery on the N side of Broadway)
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 362-0641

Afghani food. I'll lift the descriptions from the menu.

We walked in on a Monday night and had a table without waiting. The restaurant was near capacity. After we ordered, a basket full of Afghani bread was delivered to our table with three pots of sauce: green, white and red. The red sauce was sweet, spiced tomato. The green sauce had cilantro as the base, I think, and was my favorite. The white sauce was a typical yogurt and mint concoction.

We shared appetizers: Aushak (Afghan ravioli filled with leeks and scallions, served on yogurt-mint topped with ground beef sauce) and Kaddo (Pan-fried then baked baby pumpkin seasoned with sugar and served on yogurt garlic sauce, topped with ground beef sauce). Both were scrumptious.

For my entree, I ordered Qabelee (Pallow baked with chunks of lamb tenderloin, raisins and glazed julienne of carrots). Pallow is boiled rice mixed with oil, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin and black pepper, then baked.

His nibs had the special: Lamb Lawand (Leg of Lamb sauteed with onion, tomatoes, garlic, mushrooms, fresh cilantro, capers, hot pepper, yogurt and spices served with sauteed spinach and challow rice.) Challow rice is boiled rice mixed with oil and cumin, then baked.

Both of the entrees were super. Both types of rice delish. The portions were far larger than we'd expected for the price on the menu. I couldn't finish my Qabelee and took it home to heat up for breakfast yesterday.

We shared a dessert: Sheerberaing (Rice pudding, served with pistachio and cardamom). The rice pudding is not my grandma's rice pudding or even the rice pudding at Sears Restaurant. This rice pudding is not a creamy pudding with raisins and cinnamon but more a rice gruel (think "rice" as in a Balinese rice breakfast) sweetened, and served with pistachio and cardamom. Delicious, I thought.

We plan to go back some weekday for the lunch buffet, so we can try a wider variety of items off the menu in one swell foop.

Our third keeper ...

Da Flora - A Venetian Ostaria
701 Columbus Ave. (NW corner at Filbert)
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 981-4664

We ate here last night for the first time. We'd keep walking by on our way somewhere else. We'd sometimes think of it on Monday nights when we wanted to go out to eat, but Da Flora isn't open Mondays.

We hadn't realized that the restaurant was subtitled "a Venetian ostaria" and has a Venetian vibe with pictures and lighting and menu items that reminded us of our visit to Venice in June. We walked in and were seated immediately. The menu, which is handwritten, says "we strongly prefer cash" but the staff just waved her hand nevermind when we told her we hadn't brought much cash with us.

Took a while for the staff to get back for the order, but we didn't mind. The place is a haven for people watching. Be sure to ask for water, if you want some. Delicious focaccia with kosher salt topping comes after you order. We drank a Tedeschi valpolicella with our meal.

I had carpaccio for an appetizer. The meat was so tender and sliced so thin that it just fell apart as I scooped it up with my fork. Served with drizzles of creamy horseradish sauce, capers and bits of argula. The best. His nibs had the sweet potato gnocchi with pancetta and a sherry cream sauce. Superb. To die for.

For the main course, I had duck livers, served Venetian style, with caramelized onions, sage and pancetta. The livers were served with polenta that was soft but fried on one side to create a crusty top. I be a happy camper.

His nibs had veal rolled up with a stuffing of breadcrumbs, shrooms, etc. The veal was still pink, not overcooked. There was not a lot of stuffing (less stuffing than meat). The veal was served on a bed of orzo and pesto. (At least I think it was orzo.) The pasta was very rich and, lucky me, his nibs shared his portion with me.

Dessert was pistachio cake with vanilla cream, which we shared. I asked for a double espresso. No espresso. No coffee even, they had no coffee. They hadn't flagged down the coffee merchant that afternoon to get more coffee. They'd make me a pot of tea! Um. No.

I ordered a glass of a Sicilian dessert wine which went perfectly with the dense pistachio cake. Not too sweet, but a heavy enough wine that you would not want to share a bottle with a meal.


So there you have it. Three restaurants, all within a half mile walk, all worth repeating. Of the three, choose Impala if you have a hankering for Mexican food, or margaritas. We don't have much Mexican food in North Beach. Taqueria El Zorro (at Columbus and Broadway) serves up Mexican food, and we on occasion stop by for Dos Equis and burritos, but Taqueria El Zorro is more a lunch place.

If I wasn't hankering for Mexican, I'd be hard pressed to choose between Da Flora and The Helmand. Both are good in their way. They serve totally different sorts of food. Both are white table cloth. The Helmand is quiet and subdued and has seemingly effortless service. Da Flora felt more like the neighborhood trattoria with staff that doesn't feel a need to compete with the Relais & Chateau staff down at Gary Danko.

Don't get me wrong. The Da Flora folk seem like nice people who love their food but they also seem like they would give back any attitude they got. Added note: Da Flora closes up shop relatively early. A couple came in at 8:45 p.m. and were told that they'd just told the kitchen staff they could close up. Sorry! (The couple said, "This is the third restaurant we've gone to. Can't you serve us?" One of the other diners said, "Maybe you should've stopped at the first restaurant." Hm. Maybe the clientele has attitude too.)

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