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Wednesday, Dec 22 2010

"San Francisco Eats"

By Jonathan Kauffman

For the "San Francisco Eats" exhibit that opened at the Main Library Dec. 11, curator Sheila Himmel spent months going through the library's collection of menus, photos, historic cookbooks, and objects such as restaurant matchbooks, even a peanut wagon operated by the Hountalas family, whose descendants now manage the Cliff House. Himmel, a longtime restaurant critic, says her goal was to identify the links between these objects and draw out explanations for how San Francisco became a city whose food culture is intense, varied, and often exquisite.

Her theory, which carries through the arrangement of the exhibit in two of the library's gallery spaces, is that San Francisco has been a food town since the first Gold Rush boom; all that immigration, all that instant wealth, fostered a high-living atmosphere that has never ebbed away. The three prevailing factors that kept food at the core of our collective culture were immigration, tourism, and geography — both the natural resources around us and the compact size of the city, which kept distinct neighborhoods interacting with one another.

The exhibit on the ground floor groups menus by neighborhood, while the one on the sixth floor focuses on specific ethnic groups and larger movements such as tiki and continental cuisine. The bulk of the items on display are menus, and for the food-obsessed, the show is a browser's delight: elaborately illustrated hotel dinner menus from the 1910s, Chinese-restaurant menus from the prewar years, loopy 1960s menus from local chains that have ceased to exist. The nostalgia factor is high. The short curatorial notes below each case provide the context for the menus and photos, situating them within the larger narrative of San Francisco history and helping demonstrate how they illustrate the evolution of a cuisine or neighborhood.

The exhibit extends outside the library galleries: The curators have pegged a series of food-related events to the exhibit, including panels on street food and rice-cake-making demonstrations. And the library has created an online gallery in the form of a San Francisco Eats photo set on Flickr, where they've posted another 40 images. The exhibit runs through March 20.

Saison's Laid-Back Cousin

By John Birdsall

Chef-sommelier duo and Mina veterans Josh Skenes and Mark Bright have fine dining in their DNA helixes. Saison, which launched in 2009 as a pricey weekend pop-up in the events space at the back of Stable Cafe, succeeded — expanded, even — despite the Great Recession and gloomy assessments that big-bill dining was deader than the housing bubble.

In November, Skenes and Bright opened Decantr, Saison's clipped-syllable wine bar and casual eats place in Stable Cafe proper. Casual, though, is relative. I slid along the hard wooden bench into one of Decantr's cafe tables recently, fully expecting an array of tapas-like noshes. What I found was a short menu full of Skenes polish — Saison lite, really, dishes with French technique and a flickering formality, despite the dead-casual setting.

Skenes' chicken liver mousseline with quince butter ($12) offered up a flawless example of the French knack for importing flavor into silken fats: the livers' mineral, blood-tinged richness spread against a field of pure texture that proved the savory equivalent of chocolate ganache. At the other end of the flavor spectrum: a pair of roasted sand dabs on the bone ($16), capped with a ruffle of fennel rings braised until soft, awash in wild fennel "citronette," a sort of lemon juice broth floating green globs of olive oil. The fish in question turned out to be completely wrong here — the sauce's acidity completely masked the delicately muddy taste that defines sand dabs.

Bright has built a list of a dozen and a half wines available in volumes of up to 750 ml, a short roster of Belgian and Bavarian beers, a single sake, and something called the blending bar: three Pinot Noirs you can combine in any configuration via 10ml increments. That part of Decantr feels as playful, as casual as the Stable's hard-surfaced cafe setting, even if Skenes' dishes feel as if they might really be more comfortable sitting on a linen tablecloth, in a room not blasting Beck, and where you didn't just lay out $40 (before tip) for two smallish dishes and a glass of the cheapest wine on the list.

Decantr at Stable Cafe: 2128 Folsom (at 17th St), 552-1199.

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