Miso Challah Buns in the Sandbox

San Francisco can be crowded, snobbish, dysfunctional, and even gritty. Part of what keeps me here is that it is a city of secrets, of overlooked perches and un-mined corners. The most exciting moments of living in a fixed place is when small discoveries are made, and the city reveals another flash of its mystique to only those who are continuously searching for the new, the next, the unexplored.

Before I get carried away, let me just say that my small discovery yesterday was by no means new to many people living in San Francisco. But for me it was just the kind of discovery I needed to remind myself why I am still living in the city by the Bay.  I finally made my way up to Cortland Street in the Bernal Heights neighborhood in search of a new fusion bakery and was startled to find a nook that seemed utterly distant from the cosmopolitan clamor of downtown or the hipster rush of the Mission.

Cortland is quaint and peaceful and has more of a small town feel than would seem possible in a city of 700,000. To the North of the street looms the green slope of Bernal Hill, and to the South lies the crowded valley and green hills of Daly City and beyond. Quiet churches, carefully tended used bookstores, and charming antique shops characterize the sleepy storefronts.

Best of all, there are dozens of food options in Bernal Heights that I’ve never even heard of. From Italian Vinotecas, sushi joints, local bakeries and delis, cafes, and The Wild Side West Bar, which I’ve always been told is a hidden gem, Cortland modestly reveals that despite its old-school charm, it has much to offer in terms of victual pursuit.

Sandbox Bakery, on Cortland between Gates and Ellsworth, is run by chef Mutsumi Takehara, who garnered her gourmet touch from both Chez Panisse and Slanted Door. The baked goods are made fresh daily and in small batches. The reason I voyaged over the hill to find it was that the premise–a Japanese French Bakery–enticed my fetish for all things fused and hybridized. With it’s off-the-beaten path location and this unique mixture of cultures, I had to go see what Sandbox had in store.

What surprised me was that it is not a sit-down place, not even sit down for a second with your coffee kind of place. There are no chairs or tables, and the tiny space reveals just a simple glass counter with baked goods and a side counter with coffee accoutrements. Pastries included the normal French arrangement of scones and croissants, but what makes this place special are the Japanese-inspired delicacies.

After admiring a bun filled with red-bean paste, I opted instead for the savory Negi-Miso Challah Bun. Delicately filled with scallions and miso and glazed in Sesame oil, this made the most perfect flavorful snack that I will definitely return to. I also bought some gingerbread when I noticed that threads of fresh ginger were poking out of the rich looking rust colored cake. The “normal” gingerbread was just as delicious and unique as the exotic-seeming morning bun, so Sandbox proved itself to be a place for classic and twisted treats. Creative fruit tarts with goat cheese and bush berry or yuzu marmalade with sage definitely caught my eye, and certainly made me want to return for a second visit.  See their complete menu here.

Sandbox is reasonably priced as well; not nearly as steep as nearby Tartine (though I still claim Tartine is the best bakery in the world). My only qualm was the coffee situation. Why offer two different local roasting companies for the same price? Sandbox has both De La Paz and Ritual Coffee and they make each cup individually for only two bucks–I guess South of Cesar Chavez can really pay off–but there didn’t seem to be a need to split roasting loyalty for the same type of beverage. The decision will probably only end up confusing people and making newcomers to the SF coffee scene feel inadequate for not being able to choose.

I stuck with De La Paz’s rich silky brew and happily munched on fresh gingerbread all the way up steep Gates Street back to Bernal Hill. As I reached the top, the view of the lurching streets of San Francisco spread out before me and the sun shone on this Southern side of the city, reminding me why Bernal Heights may just be my new favorite spot.

A Late Summer Sweet with a little S and P

My friend Leif Hedendal, a masterful underground chef with sharp blue eyes, a soft voice, and wit so dry it’s almost hard to detect, recently asked me to help him with an event. After working at restaurants such as Greens and Citron, Leif (pronounced “life”) decided it was time to leave the establishment and set off on his own culinary path. By cooking at underground dinners and supper clubs, catering events, and experimenting with the chemistry of flavors in his own kitchen, Leif has made a name for himself in the East Bay and San Francisco.

Some of his flavor pairings sound exotic and daring, and sometimes his deftness with the most simplest of dishes, such as Grilled Tahini Califlower, reveal his true prowess in the kitchen. The event he catered recently- the one where I served appetizers, opened wine bottles, and had a genuinely good time with both servers and party-goers alike- was for a company’s celebration of an installation exhibit in Hayes Valley.

The menu included Deconstructed Gazpacho (hallowed out Dirty Girl Tomatos with a spoonful of fresh garlicky gazpacho in each one), a Chantrelle Mushroom Galette, and crostini withfigs with fresh chevre. The most unique, and arguably the most successful, dish of the night arrived in the form of a provocative and somewhat controversial dessert. After arranging sliced tomatoes, tiny sweet strawberries, pluots, fresh mint, and fresh basil in a bowl, Leif spooned salt and pepper ice-cream from Humphrey Slocombe onto each plate followed by a thin drizzle of olive oil. The combination seemed to encompass all of summer, and the salt and pepper ice cream is truly, and maybe surprisingly, spectacular. An original pairing and one I will miss as strawberries stop appearing and tomatoes all but disappear until next summer.

Biscuits of my Soul

So I’m back after a very long period in which I certainly kept eating but haven’t paused to reflect about it. I’ve always had the problem of beginning blogs and then sort of petering off after a couple of posts, but I am determined to continue this one, even if it’s not at a consistent pace. As long as I live in the city of blissful eating, this blog must live on.

I don’t intend to write too much about restaurants in this blog; there are way too many people who spend way too much time on Yelp or on review blogs and I have neither the money nor the attention span to commit to every new restaurant that rolls around. But an exception must be made, and that exception is Brenda’s French Soul Food. Serving a breakfast like no other in the city, this cafe resides in the heart of the Tenderloin on Polk and Eddy. The chalkboard out front entices you with Brenda’s daily offerings, and the hoard of diners normally crowding the door and front window is a fitting symbol of Brenda’s committed following.

Now, let’s get the most important aspect of the breakfast over with immediately. I would hop on my bike in a matter of seconds to get my paws on one of Brenda’s biscuits. They are, sincerely, absolutely, in all senses of the word within the biscuit universe, perfect. Delicate, crumbly, fluffy, light, buttery, and absolutely seductive. They wait patiently on your plate like illuminated dandelions, the ones with the rabbit-fur poof that takes flight with the caprices of the wind, and the first bite is the entering into the cloud while rising in an airplane and when the bite’s over you are sailing over strata of cloud upn cloud and soaring. I’m not usually this hyperbolic about food. But these biscuits are magical.

And naturally, anything you pair with them benefits from their character. The first time at Brenda’s, I had eggs florentine: two poached eggs resting magnificently atop a nest of spinach sitting on the levitational biscuits and topped with a cajun hollandaise. The combination of egg yolk, spinach, and biscuit sent me straight to breakfast purgatory–I had to keep eating because it tasted so good, but I dreaded the minute the experience was to cease. To supplement the already brilliant concoction, Brenda makes savory potato hash with scallions and tomatoes. I also sampled the apple preserves along with the biscuit and wished I had another biscuit to eat solely with the jam.

My second visit to Brenda’s was equally successful: again, a cup of thick chicory coffee warmed my palate and prepared me for breakfast food. This time they were not serving the florentine so I ordered the vegetarian omelet instead. The dish was not nearly as exciting as the eggs florentine had been, but the biscuit was almost better this time and I ate most of it with jam or syrup.

My roommate Gretchen went straight for the Banana Bread Pudding French Toast special. The dish arrived with three moist banana bread triangles drizzled with a toffee rum syrup, candied pecans, powdered sugar, and whipped cream. The intensely sweet breakfast was perhaps a bit much for those who can only survive a small bit of sugar, but Gretchen, along with ample help from yours truly, had no problem polishing it off. The word orgasmic definitely entered our conversation more than once while we were eating.

One criticism is that the menu is not all that vegetarian friendly; many dishes come with tomato bacon relish or incorporate meat in other ways. True to her New Orleans roots, Brenda makes few revisions to her French Creole dishes.

I ran into her in the kitchen on the way to the bathroom and commended her on the fabulous food. She was there cooking, like most mornings, and stopped for a second to thank me in a casual tone. I asked her if she had ever been to Lucille’s in Boulder, CO, my other favorite cajun breakfast spot, and told her that they make their own Katsup. “We make the katsup that goes on the burger,” she said. So maybe next time I will ask specially for a bit of homemade katsup to accompany my potatoes.

You can visit Brenda’s every day except Tuesdays for Breakfast and Lunch, but watch for deservedly long lines on the weekends.

Storytelling and School Lunch Nostalgia

Bud Teasley is an unassuming chef with clear blue eyes, a mild Southern demeanor, and an intricate loom-like tattoo stretched across his forearm. A Georgia bred, Charleston-trained chef, Bud helped found Boccalone, “tasty salted pig parts,” the king of salumi stands at San Francisco’s Ferry Building Farmers Market, and he caters for a mishmash of events on the side. He will sweetly whip up the most complex of meals and act like he hasn’t spent more than five minutes on them.mail1

He has. He doesn’t hesitate to incorporate labor-intensive elements to his creative dishes, such as artisan honey mustard or homemade brioche. At a recent stint at Mission Street Foods, he even created bacon-flavored caramel covered apples to adorn a salad that tempted this mostly vegetarian out of her ascetic pretenses.

So it’s no wonder that 826 Valencia was thrilled to have him cater their storytelling dinner on March 19th. The event demanded a bit of creativity. Hosted by numerous donors and led by the energetic and ever-loquacious Jory John, Storytelling for Adults was a spin on 826’s normal storytelling fieldtrips, usually presented to classes of 3rd to 5th graders on schooldays. In the adult version, tables of eager adults, softened and encouraged by the wine donated by Quivera, got to partake in their own field trip and create a group-story with a chose-your-own ending.

If you haven’t noticed, adults sometimes take a moment to warm up their creative juices. Bud faced a challenge; how to satisfy paying guests with attractive gourmet victuals while also paying homage to the nostalgia for elementary school. And so he took on the device that inevitably ruled the school day for most of us way back when: the school lunch.

Appetizers consisted of bowls made of hollowed-out grapefruit halvesGrapefruit Salads filled with fennel, grapefruit chunks, and a tasty ginger dressing. The next course was ambitious: Bud created his own version of the chicken nuggets and dribbled homemade honey mustard and crème fraîche for dipping beside them. Also on the plate was crisp macaroni and cheese casserole squares, perhaps not the most delicate of dishes but certainly gratifying. 

Gourmet chicken nuggets and mac-n-cheese

For the vegetarians in the audience, Bud substituted the nuggets with his version of sloppy joe; made from seitan, slow-cooked vegetables, and seasoned with a delicious combination of spiced tomato and brown sugar, the veggie Sloppy Joe proved mouthwatering and should have been the envy of every carnivore in the room. To accompany dinner, each table also had a large bowl of simple peas and carrots, straight from the cafeteria-style.

Dessert abolished any lingering suspicion of a lack of complexity in the meal. Bud decided to de-create the ever-loved PB and J, taking the staple to a whole new level with his innovation. Starting with a handmade brioche, he then added a layer of peanut butter ice cream, topped it with a level of Welch’s grape jelly, and doused the whole thing with a thin layer of warm milk chocolate.

The story created by the end of the workshop turned out a bit weird: entitled “What We Have and Where We are Going”, it follows a depressed monkey named Ugabuga, his sidekick possum named Slick, and their arch-nemesis Goyal, a shape shifting lizard. The plot eventually devolves into a critical mass ride through the French quarter of New Orleans during Mardi Gras; schemes are hatched, instruments are stolen, and somehow outhouses are overturned. Most adults prove much less creative, open, and naturally funny than kids. But it seemed that attendees enjoyed the lighthearted ambience and stimulating group activity; the chance to be silly and get creative. Though the mood and decor inspired nostalgia for elementary school, the flavors on everyone’s palettes were definitely all grown up.

You can find out more about Boccalone on their website.

Also, check the Mission Street Food Blog for when Bud will be cooking at the England vs. Scotland dinner sometime in May. 

Bud’s (not) Recipe For Vegetarian Sloppy Joe

“I don’t have a recipe, but it went something like this:

  • 1 can whole peeled san marzano tomato 
  • 1/2 can tomato paste 
  • 1 cup brown sugar 
  • 1/4 cup honey 
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika (pimenton de la vera) 
  • Salt and Pep TT 
  • 1 bell pepper
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion 
  • 2 cups TVP
  • splash of soy sauce 
  • splash of crystal… or any other hot sauce 

Method: Dice onion and bell pepper. Sweat in olive oil with a pinch of salt until translucent, then add all remaining ingredients and allow to simmer for about an hour. Mixture is better if allowed to cool overnight in the fridge, then reheat. Serve on garlic onion buns.