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Unterman on Food 

Our critic falls in love with a local guidebook

Wednesday, Jun 11 2003
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In my recent paean to guidebooks, I said that at the very least you need a Zagat, even if you only use it as a phone book or memory-jogger, and regardless of your opinions of its faceless-hordes common-denominator methodology. (The increasingly ubiquitous Zagat guides -- the company has now gone on to shopping, theater, and nightlife surveys -- were satirized by cartoonist Mark Alan Stamaty in the New York Times Book Review as the "Howzat Guides," started by accident when Madame introduces herself as "Howzat" in a restaurant and gets the response, "Oh, um, you mean the chicken marsala?! Not quite up to par. And the broccoli rabe is overcooked." Whereupon another diner interjects, "You should have ordered the shell steak. It's a must!" And from another: "And the endive salad. Always reliable." And an industry is born -- eventually, in Stamaty's imagination, to encompass slim, reader-generated volumes on politics in 2008, issues in 2010, religion in 2016, and "your classy, innovative" Guide to World Order in 2020.)

Satire aside, Zagat did help me find a restaurant that suited my needs one night, when I had to feed eight people at a reasonable cost in a comfortable, pleasant setting. And, reminding us that guidebooks become obsolete the moment they hit print, it turned out that the place I chose, though it served our purpose perfectly well, was in transition from one identity to another.

There's a second kind of guidebook, however, that can change your life. I've just read one that absorbed me completely, engrossing me as much as if I were reading a novel, that got me excited about eating in San Francisco and the Bay Area in a whole new way. And when I put myself in the writer's hands and followed her recommendations, I had two dazzling meals.

The book that I fell in love with is the just-published third edition of Patricia Unterman's San Francisco Food Lover's Guide (Ten Speed Press, $18.95). Unterman, of course, has written about local restaurants for three decades as a critic at both the Chronicle and the Examiner; she's also, in a unique pairing, the chef/owner of the Hayes Street Grill and Vicolo Pizzeria. I've read her work before. But as I perused the Guide, I was enchanted by the generous, omnivorous (well, nearly), cosmopolitan, exacting personality present from its first page ("... I'm willing to go to the ends of the earth for a taste of the extraordinary") to the last (where she describes an expensive yellow-and-green Italian pottery bowl she bought at the Niebaum-Coppola Winery Store in Napa Valley and says the "bowl has paid for itself in the thrill I get every time I put something in it." And I believe she does get that thrill every time).

Unterman encapsulates my feelings about the absolute necessity of guidebooks in her introduction, when she writes, "Some travelers I know argue that arriving cold in a new place, completely open to any adventure, is provocative, but this argument does not convince me." I think that if a guidebook leads you to one experience, one meal or museum or store or vista that you would not otherwise have found, its cost is justified. You'll have the adventures of discovery anyway, often on your way to find the places the guidebook is leading you to.

Very early on in my reading, I knew that Unterman was extremely particular about her espresso, fond of a well-made cocktail, and the mother of a teenage boy. (I worried a bit about the absence of a partner until "my husband's beloved home-style spaghetti and big soft-textured meatballs" showed up on Page 215, in an entry on Chow.) She's sensitive to the nuances of a neighborhood, its architecture and history and inhabitants as well as its gustatory possibilities; she makes the streets at the same time mysterious and familiar.

Within days of beginning the book I put its usefulness to the test: I had to come up with two restaurants for meals involving out-of-towners over Memorial Day weekend. Julie was driving up from Los Angeles to move her daughter Anna out of her Berkeley dorm, and Anne and Howard were flying in with their son Tristan to celebrate his 10th birthday with his best friend Chester.

We needed a good, restorative dinner after loading up the rented van with the truly impressive number of possessions Anna had managed to fit into her half of a none-too-spacious dorm room. Earlier I had inquired if she and Julie thought they would be in the mood for French, or Italian, or American comfort food (they had already vetoed Asian, and they get plenty of Mexican and other Latino food in L.A.), and was told "Italian." ("Pasta!" Anna sighed.) I checked through Unterman's index of more than two dozen Italian restaurants (about a hundred fewer than Zagat's list), but I had already been intrigued by her description of Incanto as "bringing together an appealingly simple Delfina-like menu with a Bacar-like wine program," referencing two of San Francisco's best restaurants, so that's where we reserved.

I don't think I could have made a better choice. We loved the neighborhood, the airy, high-ceilinged room with arches that looked like they were made of creamy-colored stone, the simple yet sophisticated dark wood tables and chairs. The menu offered only 10 starters and seven main courses, but we had difficulty choosing, because everything sounded so enticing. We dealt with the overwhelming and exciting Italian wine list, approaching a couple hundred choices, by selecting two of the featured flights: the "mystery flight" for me, "three well-made Italian wines" for $11, and "I Dream of Piedmont" for Julie, also $11. (The restaurant has cleverly had little circular paper tags printed that fit around the base of each glass so you know what you're drinking.) Our favorite that night was the Barbera d'Asti Tabarin Icardi, a soft, juicy red.

Julie started with an unusual, soothing soup of spinach and polenta, like a thin porridge. Anna had lovely bruschetta of sparkly, colorful roasted yellow peppers with basil and smoked garlic, and I had a warm salad of asparagus, grilled ramps, and sharp pecorino. I tried the rabbit three ways (succulent braised leg, carefully grilled loin, and chunky rabbit rillettes on toast, simply set off with the vegetal sweetness of baby turnips and the fruity sweetness of braised red grapes). Anna's fedelini (thin spaghetti) with arugula pesto, pine nuts, and bright green English peas was faultless, but the best dish was Julie's silky house-made handkerchief pasta, napped with a smoky-tasting rustic pork sugo.

We indulged ourselves with glasses of Moscato d'Asti and Vin Santo with dessert. I found the cookie plate to be authentically Italian -- that is, a trifle dry -- especially compared to the lush olive oil cake (made even lusher with creamy, eggy zabaglione and diced pears roasted in more Moscato) and the cheese plate of pecorino, goat cheese, and a stunningly ripe Morbier, with its distinctive line of ash, with Bari dates and Marcona almonds. We loved watching the sleek, brightly lit streetcars dash past in the dusk. It was hard to leave the warmth of Incanto that night. It would be easy to return.

A couple of days later we needed a feast for Tristan's birthday lunch. A longtime train buff, he had proposed a morning ride on Tilden Park's steam trains, followed by a BART trip into the city. What was within walking distance of BART, and on a Monday, not the easiest restaurant day, especially when it's a holiday? I had been too discreet to identify the Chinatown restaurant that I'd been told was Patricia Unterman and Alice Waters' invariable destination on Christmas (I foresaw a deluge of reservations made by people more interested in watching them dine than in the salt-and-pepper crab they were feasting on), but Unterman herself has no such qualms: Right there on Page 29, she announces that she celebrates Christmas, her birthday, and Chinese New Year at the R&G Lounge "with glorious banquets of ordered-ahead dishes that never fail to excite and please." So Anne, Tristan, Janice, Chester, and I got off at Montgomery Street and walked to our own un-ordered-ahead banquet, though we managed to try most of Unterman's suggestions, and chose others from the vast, helpfully illustrated menu.

We started with minced seafood in lettuce cups, "unthreatening" as Unterman writes, but the freshest and tastiest version I had ever had. The geoduck sashimi, glamorously served on a bed of crushed ice, was chewy, briny, and satisfying (I liked it best with a squeeze of lemon, rather than the traditional wasabi thinned with soy), and followed with a second course of a salt-and-pepper stir fry of its body (though its $50 price might mitigate against future ordering). The salt-and-pepper crab, encased in a light batter, was just-pulled from its tank, delicate, sweet, and fun to eat. Fresh-steamed shrimp, served split and bathed in garlic, were dreamy, evanescent. Our carnivorous boys loved the Secret Sauce Beef (a dish of nothing but amazingly tender chunks of meat) and so did we, and we all gnawed happily at tiny, honey-dipped pork spareribs. We tried to order the Unterman-suggested, not-on-the-menu dish of greens cooked with eggs, but didn't succeed. However, we were distracted by the divinely tender beef brisket cooked with turnips in a clay pot, which, with a touch of hot mustard, became the pot roast of my dreams, reminiscent of the flanken cooked by all our Jewish grandmothers. By accident we got a gift of a second half of roast Peking duck, after we'd devoured the crisp skin and chocolaty meat of the one we'd ordered. The last gift was on purpose: coconut gelatin with sweet red beans for each of us. Chester, who thought this was the best Cantonese restaurant he'd ever been to, asked for a menu signed by the chef to add to his collection, and Tristan joined him. I silently thanked Patricia Unterman, the food lover who had guided us here.

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Meredith Brody

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