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Readings and Eatings 

Literary events lead us to the perfect neighborhood restaurant

Wednesday, May 21 2003
Looking for a pay phone after attending Amanda Hesser's reading last week at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, I saw that the new Fellini documentary was just about to start on one of the Opera Plaza screens. I took it as a sign; if I'd planned to go see it after the reading, and knew when it was scheduled to begin, I would have been anticipating the starting time, and nervous that I wouldn't get out early enough. But this way I'd been totally relaxed during the reading, and coming across it by accident was the purest serendipity. It seemed oddly appropriate to pair the two as an inadvertent double bill; I'd always thought that the mark of a great artist was his ability to make you view the world through his eyes, and after seeing a Fellini movie the faces I'd pass on the street would inevitably seem Fellini-esque. And reading Hesser's book Cooking for Mr. Latte had similarly colored my perceptions. Its author's success in creating a unique and uniquely seductive world meant that for some time after reading it, things I experienced resonated with that world.

When my father ordered a cappuccino after our late dinner at Jardinière, I thought of the reason Hesser calls her beau Mr. Latte -- a teasing reference to the horror she felt when he blithely ordered a latte after dinner on their first date. (In Europe, she felt, sternly, nobody drinks coffee with milk in it after 11 a.m.) (I'm much less judgmental about when one adds milk to one's coffee. I was more impressed that my dad had been able to put away a solid dose of caffeine -- did I mention it was a double cappuccino? -- at 11:15 p.m.) When I read Hilton Als in the New Yorker that "... we don't always read a memoir for historical truth. We read it to find out how the author escaped the bonds of family and became the hero of his or her own life -- a star," I recalled a line in one of the essays that Hesser had read that night: "Our plan was to establish our new family -- Tad and me -- so that my mother would no longer believe she should have a say on where we went on vacation or whether our answering message was thorough enough, and Tad's parents would no longer seek to override our paint choice for our kitchen."

I find that I read memoirs (and biographies, and autobiographies) for a simpler reason: to find out how to live. (I looked once at several volumes stacked up by my bedside and realized that they were all about alcoholic women writers: Lillian Hellman, Jean Stafford, Dorothy Parker, Caroline Blackwood. "Maybe," I thought, "I ought to start drinking.") Not only haven't I figured out how to live (as of yet), as a new girl in town I haven't even established patterns, and I find myself highly suggestible. So when Tom called the next day and suggested I stop by Café Niebaum-Coppola for a reading by Mary Yukari Waters for the Summer 2003 issue of Zoetrope: All-Story magazine, I was entirely willing, though I did question my sanity as I slogged through the rainy streets that night.

Tom, whom I think of as Mr. San Francisco, knew everybody at the reading, and introduced me to British filmmakers, Iranian actresses, and Australian artists in a whirlwind manner that guaranteed I would retain even fewer names and faces than usual. I enjoyed hearing the leisurely, carefully observed story from The Laws of Evening, the debut collection of short stories by the young half-American, half-Japanese author, who spent much of her childhood in Japan before moving to California, and I enjoyed even more being swept up in Tom's improvised plans for what turned out to be dinner for 17(!) after the reading.

As we walked over to Sam Lok (655 Jackson, 981-8988), he gave me a brief tour of the neighborhood's restaurants. One place was director Wayne Wang's favorite local Shanghainese, another was where Francis Ford Coppola likes to lunch (I envisioned a piece: "Where Zoetrope Likes to Eat in Chinatown and North Beach"), a third was where Alice Waters and Patty Unterman always eat together on Christmas. It turned out that Tom had only ducked into Sam Lok for quick lunches, and he was taken aback by the harsh fluorescent lighting at night.

But in short order Tom got the lights lowered and two large, round tables joined at the hip, and he enlisted my help so that we'd have a couple of dishes waiting for the gathering hordes. The menu was dauntingly long. Trooper that he is, Tom didn't blanch when I chose spicy diced rabbit (truth be told, under the assaultive sauce, the tiny, pale chunks could have been anything -- even, yes, chicken), though I edited myself and didn't try for stir-fried kidney or frog clay pot or pig's blood with ginger and green onion (next time, I thought). Tom consulted with the restaurant personnel, and plates began to appear in quick succession and in duplicate (one for each table): braised whole fish with spicy bean paste, scallops with garlic and chili sauce, Sichuan beef. (One woman gasped a bit at the onslaught of heat and begged for chicken and cashews, which proved quite popular.) When an unfamiliar dish of transparent noodles appeared, Tom said, "That must be something I ordered off the Chinese-lettered signs on the wall." I told him of the card that Calvin Trillin had made up in Chinese characters: "Please bring me what the people at that table are having."

I thought we'd done rather well, especially since we initially thought we'd over-ordered, but there was very little left over (only, I saw, some of my favorite dish, the sautéed ground pork with long beans), and it all came out to $20 a person. Plus, I tucked a neatly printed list of eight of Tom's favorite Bay Area Chinese restaurants into my pocket for future explorations.

I wasn't surprised when Aline called on Wednesday and asked if I'd like to go with her to a reading celebrating Kathy Acker at City Lights: Didn't the French say "Jamais deux sans trois" ("Never two without three")? Why not three readings (by, I note, three women writers) in three days? Various California writers and artists read from Essential Acker: The Selected Writings of Kathy Acker, and afterward, feeling a bit battered and bruised -- by both the powerful words and our memories of the gifted writer who died too young -- Aline and I set off for sustenance, heading up from City Lights to where I knew I would find shelter in any storm: Da Flora.

Da Flora is one of my favorite restaurants in the whole world, and I always tell people about it when they ask for restaurant recommendations in San Francisco, but I'd avoided writing about it since I came here for one simple reason: I was introduced to the place by my friend Monika, who is one of the eponymous Flora's best friends, and therefore my cover of anonymity has long been blown. Still, everybody I'd ever sent here had thanked me profusely, and I could already taste my favorite dish, duck livers with caramelized onions and pancetta in a brandy-sage sauce. I love the cozy, dimly lit, oddly shaped little room, with its Murano glass chandelier and assorted antiques. And I loved every rich, highly flavored thing we ate. We had to start with the delicate sweet potato gnocchi sauced with cream and bacon, but I hesitated between the baccala (a garlicky mash of dried cod) served on crostini and the locally cured anchovies as a second starter. Aline wisely plumped for the salad of Chioggia beets, with frisée, Gorgonzola, and walnuts, especially since we were given an amuse of the tiny, salty anchovies on toast, strewn with chunks of juicy lemon.

Aline went right for the rigatoni with Bolognese, after, but I hesitated again: The ravioli filled with ricotta, lemon zest, and fresh herbs, sauced with fresh fava beans, olive oil, and Parmesan, sounded like the essence of spring, and the duck livers were also on offer. But when I saw Hungarian pork paprikash with dumplings, and heard that Flora had just brought the paprika back with her from Budapest (and she had a lovely booklet about the restored Market Hall she'd bought it at, too), I chose that -- knowing that Flora is of Hungarian ancestry, though madly obsessed with Italy and Venetian cuisine. (Her gifted chef, Jen, a veteran of PlumpJack and Mecca, among other kitchens, has absorbed something of Flora's passions.)

The Bolognese, the true "white" kind made of ground pork and beef (no tomatoes), was deliciously meaty and savory; I would happily order it again. I want to! But the tender, sweet paprikash, with dumplings so fragile that they seemed to cohere only long enough to make the trip from the plate to my mouth, was amazing. The meal wrapped us in happy, friendly luxury from start to finish (a refreshing, tangy, barely sweet tangerine/grapefruit granita and a rich chocolate cake with a perfect caramel sauce), and we washed it down with a lovely 2000 Albino Armani Foja Tonda, chosen from Flora's intelligent list of regional Italian wines. "Why isn't this place more well known?" the well-fed Aline wanted to know. I was happy just to know it was there.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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