Tuesday, June 03, 2008

San Francisco

As we drove north from Carmel, road and hotel weary, we looked forward to getting out of the car and back into a city. At last, we pulled up to a lavender/blue house which clung spectacularly to the side of a steep hill in the Noe Valley section of San Francisco. This was the home of my west coast cousin the Art Diva, and I was keen to see how she had “set up shop” with her family since the days when we had been playmates in New York. Waiting at the window of the welcoming house was Lucy, the Diva’s daughter who was the same age as Eloise.

What if she doesn’t like me?
Eloise, of course, she is going to like you. You’re related. Anyway, I like her mother and she’ll like you. How could she live in such an awesome place and not be nice. Just get out of the car.
Mom, you are so weird.

Weird I may be but I was right about Lucy and San Francisco. The girls hit it off and San Francisco was gorgeous and cool and perfect. I just couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was a city with unique, well-preserved neighbourhoods and with spectacular panoramic views. Here was a city where you were never far from nature, a city with a passion for food, with a comprehensive public transport system and health care access for all. The only thing that wasn’t great, after southern California, was the weather but as I put my fleece jacket back on and ignored the rain, I was reminded of something one of my sons’s once said about London. “Mom, you should be grateful that the weather is crap, otherwise everyone would want to live here.”

During our whirlwind visit to San Francisco, thanks to the Art Diva, we covered a lot of territory in a short amount of time. We saw the outside of the striking and controversial de Young museum in the Golden Gate Park and the inside of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park. We drove around the kaleidoscope of neighborhoods. We saw the relics from the Summer of Love in the Haight, the uber-mansions of the rich and famous in Pacific Heights’ and the gayest scene on earth in the Castro.

Best of all, we spent the better part of Saturday wandering around the Ferry Building Marketplace and farmers market, which is a ‘must see’ destination for anyone who loves food. Not only is the beautifully restored Ferry Building an important city landmark but Northern California’s proximity to some of the best farmland in America has created a cornucopia of some of the loveliest, freshest, and most interesting food you’ll find anywhere in the US.

The people who go to the market are pretty colourful too. At one farm stand piled high with extremely beautiful ‘heritage’ beans, a woman stops, and with a strong accent of undeterminable origin, launches into battery of questions, “What are those beans? Do you really cook them? I never cook them. When do you cook them? Why do you cook them? How do you cook them?” The pretty young woman who was selling the beans patiently answered the bean inquisitor’s questions. After all that, the sale was not made. Fascinated by it all, we bought the beans instead.

Speaking of San Francisco and food, thanks to a reservation made several weeks ahead by my well organised son, we also were able to enjoy dinner at one of the city’s best known restaurants, the Zuni Café. Even living in London, I had heard about Judy Rodgers, who had trained with both the Troisgros brothers in France and Alice Waters in Berkeley. I really wanted to try her famous Zuni Roast Chicken and was determined that if it was better than mine, I would buy the cookbook and incorporate the technique. Now I roast a good chicken, but the Zuni chicken was far better, being more flavourful and more succulent. The secret is to salt the bird at least 24 hours in advance, buy a small chicken and cook at a very high temperature. While my son and I enjoyed the chicken, Eloise was wolfing down an order of pasta with wild sausage and rapini. Starters included the gnocchi ricotta with wild nettles (superb) and a rich and earthy lentil soup. The vibe was friendly and informal and while the service was imperfect with a few pacing problems and missed details, we ate lots of great food and had lots of fun. Maybe I’ve lived in London too long, but I also felt that the cost, at $145 for three people, represented good value given the quality of what we were eating.

After several days of imposing on the Art Diva’s generosity, it was time to return the uncool red Chevy Impala and Garmon Girl to Avis, hopped on BART rapid transport and head across the bay to Berkeley, the world’s most famous counter-culture playpen and temporary home to my oldest son who was studying at the University.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park
De Young in Golden Gate Park
Tel: 1-800-777-9996
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.

Ferry Building Marketplace
One Ferry Building
Tel: 415 693 0996

Marketplace hours:
10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday – Friday,
9 a.m. on Saturday
11 a.m. – 5 pm on Sunday

The Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market Hours:
10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Tuesday
8:00 a.m. – 2 pm Saturday
Tel: 415 291 3276

Zuni Café
1658 Market Street
Tel: 415 552 2522


  1. Hi – As aways, I love your blogs, but I just reviewed your instructions for zuni chicken, which said salt a small chicken 24 hours in advance. When you salt it – do you salt the skin, or lift the breast skin and salt underneath? I’ve been working on the perfect roast chicken for years. My grandmother made the best, but she rubbed it first with salt pork and then roasted it in a wood fired oven, both of which are slightly difficult for me to pull off. Thanks

  2. The chicken should ideally weigh 2 ¾ to 3 ½ pounds.

    Use ¾ teaspoon salt per pound, mostly on the outside (not under skin) and the rest on the interior

    At Zuni they put fresh thyme, marjoram and rosemary under the breast skin but I don’t bother

    Preheat the oven to 475 F

    Use a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken – I use my YaYa Sisterhood 10 inch cast iron skillet which my Mama gave me when I got married

    Preheat whatever pan you use over medium heat

    Set the chicken breast side up in the pan ( It should sizzle)

    After 30 minutes, turn the bird over, roast for another 20 minutes, then flip back over to recrisp breast skin for 10 minutes

    Rest for 10 mintes

    If this is not the best chicken you ever ate baring your grandmothers, send me the bill for the chicken.