Meet the Wafflegato
By Alex Hochman
My hands have finally stopped jittering long enough to write about the wafflegato ($6), the maniacally brilliant dessert mashup for coffee lovers from Star Stream's Remi Hayashi. The wafflegato starts with a Liege-style waffle, only with the stimulating addition of coarsely ground Blue Bottle espresso beans in the batter. The waffle maker/barista — perhaps the ultimate jack-of-all-trades — pulls a double espresso (also Blue Bottle) and ladles a scoop of Straus vanilla ice cream onto the waffle. As instructed, you pour the hot espresso over the waffle and go to work, as the ice cream immediately begins to melt.
Not known to randomly spew profanities, I surprised myself by belting out a loud one after the first bite. The brute strength of the espresso hit me hard initially, and then the crunchy, candylike bits of espresso bean kicked in to put the whole thing into dark-roast overdrive. Finally, and mercifully, the ice cream settled my taste buds a bit, readying me for another bite. I left stuffed and energized, ready for a jog and a nap. Trouble is, I didn't know which to have first.
Star Stream: 1830 Harrison (at 14th St.), 864-6370.
Fine Dining Roars Back
By Jonathan Kauffman
Back in January 2010, people were talking about the San Francisco restaurant scene as if it were flagging fast. The fretting was fueled by two assumptions: first, that the recession was forcing chefs with high-end training into lower-priced restaurants specializing in populist fare — namely, pizza, burgers, and sandwiches. Second, that San Francisco had become too expensive to open a restaurant in, one of the reasons why restaurateurs and chefs were flocking to Oakland.
There was evidence aplenty to support both assumptions. But then the city issued a strong rebuttal: Starting this spring and steamrolling into summer, dozens of expensive new places stormed into town. A few weeks ago, Chronicle critic Michael Bauer called 2010 "the best year ever for San Francisco dining." All talk of Oakland's dining scene eclipsing San Francisco's vanished, oh, around April.
At the most expensive end of the spectrum, pop-up poster boy Joshua Skenes turned Saison into a full-service restaurant serving a $108 prix-fixe, plus $78 for wine pairings. Almost at the same time, former French Laundry chef de cuisine Corey Lee launched a bid for four-stardom with Benu, whose showpiece is a $160 prix-fixe menu with $110 wine pairing. Other new restaurants where it's easy to rack up $80 or more a person: Prospect, Cafe Des Amis, Sons and Daughters, Alexander's Steakhouse, Bourbon Steak, Michael Mina (yes, downscaled from the St. Francis version, but no cheap date).
While some might say that the surge in high-end restaurants signals the end of the recession in San Francisco, I think that two other factors are at play. As another food writer pointed out over drinks this summer, a number of the new places are funded by existing restaurateurs like the Boulevard team and Bacchus Management Group.
More significantly, though, San Francisco has large numbers of the wealthy, who've been insulated from the economic downturn more than the working and middle classes — in 2008, the Chron estimated that there were 163,000 households in the Bay Area that had more than $1 million in assets. While overall retail sales have been improving, sales of luxury goods have made a particularly strong rebound this year. It makes sense that the class of restaurants serving the recession-proof class of diners is flourishing.
While I'm more than grateful for all the creative, indulgent, expertly wrought food our expense account has paid for this year, I'm curious to see how the 2010 class of high-end restaurants fares in 2011. Will the new restaurants knock existing ones out of the top tier? Will the newcomers falter? Or will the scene continue to grow?
Just as I continue to worry over the welfare of San Franciscans in the lower income brackets, who aren't seeing the recession end in any significant way, I'm more concerned about the survival of restaurants operating in the stratum that San Francisco has long excelled in — small family-owned restaurants and moderately priced bistros. Rents and labor charges continue to rise, but the clientele of more affordable restaurants may not tolerate rapid price increases the way richer diners do.
Call me heartened but wary.