San Francisco is foodie heaven. If you want to eat out, you will never lack for options. That’s the plus side. On the downside, Ess Eff menus are getting so precious they take the fun out of eating.
You practically need a doctorate to read a menu in this town. I studied Latin and speak some Italian, and still I was stumped at the menu at a high-end Italian eatery. Friends had invited us to join them for dinner and had put down a $50 deposit for the reservation. I peeked online at the menu beforehand. Alas, the big foodie trend is to overcomplicate and over-describe meals. The first antipasto: “chicken liver mousse, spiced pear marmellata and balsamic gelatina.”
“Are there really people who want to eat liver with pear jam and vinegar Jell-O?” I asked my esteemed colleagues, who were trying to work. Comrade Caille Millner, who is far more sophisticated than I when it comes to matters of the palate, said she happily would eat the dish.
(Millner also is enraged about California’s foie gras ban, now in legal limbo, because she’s the rare person who actually likes foie gras. In most states, demand for foie gras has not reached the level that would attract the scrutiny of a nanny-state lawmaker in search of a headline. But those states are not California.)
I assail my office mates with other bons mots from the menu: “garlic confitura vinaigrette,” “Wagyu beef ‘carne cruda,’” “burnt flour cracker, horseradish and pickle,” “Tuscan blood sausage ragu and pig’s foot pan grattato.” What are they going to do next to top themselves — show photos of chefs pulling fresh organs out of dead animals? “Beef cheek sugo.” Do I really need that much detail? “La Quercia acorn ham” — I guess that means the pigs ate not just any acorns but only those from Italian oak trees.
In San Francisco, there are more words for lettuce than there are Republicans.
People in this town express a lot of guilt about the downside of how successful San Francisco has become. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about income inequality. Yet everywhere you look, you see ingest inequality. The Special City is the hub of the social justice movement and conspicuous consumption. Oddly, people wait for months to eat at a place where they have their choice of animal parts — like pigs’ feet — that used to be leavings for the poor.
There was a time when gnocchi was a must for every trattoria. Been there, done that. Gnocchi has graduated to gnocchetti (not to be confused with SpaghettiOs). I remember when stinging nettles first popped up in local eateries. Now you can find them in “nettle fonduta.”
Checking out various menus for this column, I learned a few things. “Speck” means blubber. Duck fat is the new olive oil. Kale is the new potato. Already tired of kale? Try braised kale or kale sprout. They put words such as “garden” and “poke” and “carne cruda” in quotes. (I’ll translate for fellow food rubes: Carne cruda is ground raw beef, formally known as steak tartare.) Chichi restaurants now tell you from whence their veggies came. The more you know about your meal the more you pay for it.
Comrade Spencer Whitney shared his rules of restaurants: A) If he needs to look up a menu item on Google to know what it is, he won’t order it. (He doesn’t think he’d enjoy it.) B) If a dish could be used to scare someone in “Fear Factor,” he likewise will pass. Those are pearls of wisdom.
The latest foodie trend is ash. Really. Highly rated restaurants burn veggies and sprinkle the soot on your food. Apparently, when chefs aren’t cooking meat, they are blowtorching vegetables.
It is my secret shame that I am funny about food. I have the taste buds of a 6-year-old. I am an adventurous person. (I’m a Republican in San Francisco.) I have been to some 30 countries (if you count the little ones), but my tales about dining abroad usually involve morsels that I flat out refused to even try — to wit: live ants, octopus pizza, aspic. With foodies taking over the Bay Area, I can turn up my nose without getting on a plane.
The Italian restaurant was packed that night; it clearly is popular. Our server was helpful and professional. She was great — but then, you’d better be great when the dessert choices include a medley of buckwheat treats. I skipped dessert.
Politically, I’ve never fit in here. Alas, as a culinary-challenged person with a preference for simple food, I have become a stranger in my own backyard. I’m hungry for a menu with a strict limit on adjectives in a realm where even vinaigrettes get a minimum of two modifiers.