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At the end of a long weekend gallivanting about the Bay Area, we again found ourselves in sunny San Francisco in search of sustenance. Destination: North Beach. At the intersection of Big Al’s and City Lights Bookstore, we returned to the venerable Stinking Rose in what must have been the first time in at least a decade. I’m happy to report that nothing has changed. I can’t remember how it happened exactly, but when I was growing up The Stinking Rose was one of those magical places we always somehow wound up visiting on special occasions (well, it was either there or Julius’ Castle… which I just discovered is now closed! Sad face). Anyhow, if company was visiting from out of town or it was the last day of school or if we just needed an excuse to celebrate in the City, the Stinking Rose was the place to be. And so began my love affair with garlic.
In case you’re unfamiliar, the whole point of the Stinking Rose is garlic to ridiculous excess. Garlic to the extreme. Garlic to the max, man. Their motto: “We season our garlic with food.” I guess I’m forced to recognize that the landmark restaurant has some tourist appeal, because the place is always packed and lively – you can probably expect a line out the door. On the other hand, the interior is deceptively large, an endless winding maze of rooms and tables and booths and curtains leading from one dining area to the next, so the wait generally isn’t too bad. There is a dizzying array of gaudy fixtures plastered throughout the space. If there is a surface, something will be on it. A mural, a photograph, a 10 foot tall bottle of olive oil. Strands of garlic and empty chianti bottles hang from the low ceiling. Thousands of corks dangle on strings. There is history everywhere.
We were seated relatively quickly and ordered a liter of the house red, a California Burgundy that was nothing special, but it didn’t really matter because we were soon about to obliterate our palates with an order of Bagna Calda – “garlic soaking in a hot tub”. Whole, oven-roasted garlic cloves in extra virgin olive oil and butter with a touch of anchovy, served in a small iron skillet set in the center of the table. The roasted garlic was mild and sweet and spread easily on chunks of fluffy, house-baked focaccia. By contrast, a jar of raw green garlic on the table was hot and sharp and brought tears to my eyes. TEARS OF JOY.
For the main course, there was nothing in the world I wanted more at that moment than the Forty Clove Garlic Chicken. Two enormous pieces of savory breast and leg meat, roasted on the bone with rosemary and served with silky smooth Yukon mashed potatoes. The chicken was a touch on the dry side, but I didn’t really mind because the flavor was perfect – it tasted like chicken! Also, the dish was garnished with lovely grilled green onions and forty cloves of frickin’ garlic. Did I eat them all? Yes. Yes I did.
The waitstaff was a little inconsistent, with quick service followed by long gaps of inattention. I wasn’t particularly surprised given the frenzied nature of the restaurant, and I had nothing better to do than reminisce about old times and old friends. This particular jaunt down to the Bay Area for the long weekend was action-packed and over far too soon, but I’m always happy to be back home in Seattle (especially since the weather here has been crazy beautiful – first the snowpocalypse and now record-breaking heat in June? It’s totally the end of the world). And while my next visit will undoubtedly find me hitting up Michael Mina’s new joint, or Coi or Ad Hoc or something else bleeding edge, this little trip was all about nostalgia. Plus I got my garlic fix, yo. Vampires need not apply.
This past holiday weekend found us playing Eternal Return with friends and family down in the lovely City by the Bay. While I may call Seattle home nowadays, I will always have a deep fondness for San Francisco and the surrounding environs where I grew up. There is an almost breathtaking nostalgia that I feel crossing the Bay Bridge and seeing the skyline heading into downtown. And not surprisingly, some of my best memories are connected to food. Our intent was to revisit at least one of our favorite haunts from so long ago, but first: something new!
We had tickets to a show in the heart of the scenic Tenderloin on Saturday night, which somewhat narrowed our restaurant options. Still, I had heard pretty good things about a Mediterranean / tapas restaurant called Cortez a few blocks away from the theater, so away we went. It was a sunny evening, and it took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust as we ducked into the dark, cool lounge connected to the Adagio Hotel on Geary. Beautiful pink, blue and yellow pastel globes of light balanced whimsically on enormous wrought-iron Alexander Calder-style mobiles hung from the ceiling above the lengthy bar. They looked like giant J. Otto Christmas lights. More soft color suffused the dark restaurant via backlit Mondrian-patterned lightboxes set high above the tables. The requisite downtempo soundtrack was fitting background music for the positively chill atmosphere.
Cortez has a handful of tapas bites, and many more small plates and larger dishes. Chef Jenn Puccio locally sources her seasonal ingredients, and I found much of the cuisine to be far more innovative than I had anticipated. Starting with the cocktail menu – after reading the description, I had to order the Heirloom Madness, a drink made with sliced heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil leaves, Bombay Sapphire, Chartreuse, lemon bitters and a splash of Moscato. It was bright and sweet and sour and wonderful (the hint of tomato was brilliant). We were surprised with a complimentary amuse during our drinks – luscious Israeli couscous, lightly dressed with olive oil and toasted hazelnuts and served in an antique silver teaspoon.
To start, I ordered a small, seasonal plate of Market Radishes. I love radishes, I love fresh radishes, and I loved everything about this dish. The presentation and plating were outstanding – multiple varietals of radish scattered across the plate and served in every conceivable way: shaved, sliced, quartered, julienned, whole sprouts (from root to stalk). Around the edge of the plate were dollops of creamy Laura Chenel chèvre and tiny mounds of caraway crumble. It was all very earthy and colorful and totally stole the show.
By contrast, my main course was a pretty big letdown. I ordered the California Spring Lamb with parmesan dumplings and saffron braised gem lettuce. Unfortunately, the lamb chops were much, much too fatty for my taste. I don’t know if it’s because I ordered it medium rare or what, but I spent most of the time carving off huge chunks of fat to get at the meat (which was admittedly tender and flavorful, but still, not my favorite pastime). The “dumplings” were actually falafels baked with cheese – they were tough and dry and pretty unappealing. The lamb was also garnished with sweet snap peas, which honestly wound up being the most interesting thing on the plate.
My only other complaint was with the service, which at best was awkward, and at worst intrusive. I did appreciate their attention to our time constraints, but it felt like the waitstaff was constantly hovering, waiting to remove this or that plate or fill this or that water glass. Not very smooth, but hardly a dealbreaker either. We wound up having a couple of minutes to spare and decided to share a dessert. We all ordered milkshake shots (banana with roasted pistachios), and split a huge piece of molten chocolate truffle cake with cinnamon toast ice cream. I sipped on a glass of Rosé from Napa Valley that wasn’t particularly noteworthy (although I was generally impressed with the wine list).
Overall, I could definitely see Cortez being a great neighborhood place to drop by after work for a drink and a small bite. There were many creative sounding dishes on the menu that I would have loved to try, and the quality of the produce in particular was exceptional. It was a nice discovery, a new memory amidst the waves of remembrance.