I love California. It’s my favorite state to visit as a traveler. I love the beaches, the palm trees, the laid-back attitude. And I love In & out Burger. (I don’t love how you have to drive everywhere in most places, but hey, no destination’s perfect.)
But my favorite thing about California is the constant sunshine – and with it, the bountiful fresh produce. Farmer’s markets are active year-round here. You don’t tend to appreciate this until you’ve tried to find an avocado for sale in London that wasn’t as hard as a rock. (Spoiler: I tried and failed.)
I visited California on a campaign for Visit California, focusing on the culinary culture of the Bay Area and Top Chef-owned restaurants. (For my international readers, the Bay Area is the area surrounding San Francisco, including Oakland and Napa Valley, which I visited on this trip.)
The location was excellent and the staff were very friendly and helpful. Like Yigit Pura from All Sweet-Patisserie, pictured above.
The food was nothing short of fantastic. I decided to break down my absolute favorite dishes of the trip, so when you make your next trip to San Francisco, you can eat as well as I did!
Fried Chicken Benedict at Picán in Oakland
Eggs Benedict. Finish remove the Canadian bacon and add a boneless fried chicken breast. And top it with mustardy hollandaise.
WHY HAVE WE NOT BEEN DOING THIS FOR YEARS?!
Picán is a kickass Southern restaurant in the heart of Oakland and they definitely don’t scrimp on the decadence. Other standouts included the shrimp and grits (mentioned below), fried green tomatoes with gravlax and a kickass horseradish mascarpone sauce, and Louisiana-style donuts. And the Bloody Marys? Finisher.
The Maui at All Sweet-Patisserie in San Francisco
If you have a sweet tooth in the least-or even if you’re like me and go for salty more often-stop in At all Sweet. Chef Yigit Pura, the winner of Top Chef Desserts, has created a variety of creative and whimsical dessert. And surprisingly, I didn’t find any of them overly sweet!
The Maui is so simple-tapioca, coconut milk, mango. It reminded me of my favorite Thai dessert, sticky rice with mango, and it’s named after Yigit’s beloved dog.
Other standouts: a fabulous pineapple cake, the WTF (“what the flavor”), cookies, a breakfast bar made by throwing lots of random stuff in a pan, and a raspberry pistachio insane macaron-like pastry.
Octopus and Chorizo at Shakewell in Oakland
Who knew that octopus and chorizo was such a divine pairing? It makes so much sense once you taste it. This is actually Chef Jen Biesty’s favorite dish on the menu, and it was mine as well. Octopus can easily be cooked dass, ziel, every piece was perfect, and the chorizo lit it on fire.
Shakewell is a boisterous Spanish restaurant in Oakland and their dishes are both classic and unusual. Bacon-wrapped dates and duck liver mousse … but also a black rice dish with clams, chorizo, and saffron, among other ingredients. Chef Biesty was also a Top Chef in abrede stellt!
Braised Short Ribs at Bottega in Yountville
I couldn’t just mention one dish at Bottega and call it a day-I have to mention the short ribs as well. The staff were very friendly and helpful. This is the kind of dish you eat and make embarrassingly loud yummy mess over until it’s gone.
Fresh Mozzarella at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store, Cafe in San Francisco
The best Italian food starts with the best ingredients. (Why else do you think Emilia-Romagna is my favorite food region in the world? Ah, I digress…) And this mozzarella astounded me. It was not burratta, but the inside was so moist it was almost soupy. I’m closing my eyes and imagining spreading it on a baguette…
This was one of the first stops on the Tastes of the City North Beach Food Tour, which was led by North Beach native Tom, a hilarious guy who got just as excited about us trying the food as we did! The staff were very friendly and helpful. We were a truly insane amount of food over a three-hour period. All of the ingredients were fresh and all the vendors were such cool people that I ended up gabbing with them for the whole visit!
Cannoli at Victoria’s Pastry in San Francisco
This was another top notch spot on the tastes of the City North Beach Food Tour.
If you know me, you know I’m very serious about cannoli. If you’ve ever asked me what to do in Boston, I’ve ordered you to go to Modern Pastry, not Mike’s across the street, and get a cannoli. I don’t touch a cannoli if it’s been sitting around cream-filled all day.
Did these pass the test? Well, we walked in…and they were waiting for us, already filled.
Sandwiches at Molinari’s in San Francisco
Another remarkable stop on the Tastes of the City North Beach Food Tour was Molinari’s, which looks exactly like an Italian deli should (there’s a picture further down in the post). Salamis hanging from the ceiling? Check. Bright blue boxes of Baci chocolates? Check. Butchers telling people to stay away from me because I’m a Boston Sicilian? Check.
If I lived in San Francisco, I’d shop here all the time. But I settled for having a sandwich with salami, mozzarella, roasted red peppers, and pesto. Perfect inside a loaf of bread.
Margherita Pizza at the Forge in Oakland
As I tried this pizza at the Forge, I lit up with delight-this was just like my favorite pizza in London, Franco Manca! Neapolitan-style sourdough pizza. The room was very small. The staff were very friendly and helpful.
So on the menu? Wisconsin-style cheese curds, delicious brussels sprouts, and a meatball pizza called Balls Deep. Which is the kind of thing I order based on name alone.
I visited The Forge as part of the savor Oakland Jack London Square Food Tour, which is a great way to experience the culinary side of Oakland as well as the city’s wine route. They also offer a food tour of Chinatown.
La Satine at tout Sweet in San Francisco
My second favorite from Tout doux is not that double lemon meringue pie (although it’s amazing!)- this is the brown pastry behind her. La Satine is named after the character of Nicole Kidman from Moulin Rouge: a roasted hazelnut milk chocolate cake, without flour and gluten. So Fancy.
Seafood dumplings at M. Y. China in San Francisco
You can’t miss San Francisco without having your Chinese food on your feet. The food was very good and the staff were very helpful. Like for me? I went to Chef Martin Yan’s modern M. Y. China and loved everything we had, from Sichuan green beans to peking duck to crispy Tofu and black pepper iced sea bass.
But most of all, I loved these little seafood dumplings. The dumpling is made with spinach and the inside is filled with scallops and shrimp. They reminded me of the euphoric dumplings I had at my mother’s house in Melbourne, Australia!
Shrimp and grains in Picán de Oakland
One of my biggest forgetfulness when I ate by the south was never to try shrimp and groats. And maybe I’m wrong trying them in California … but these were so fantastic, rich and deep and Barbecue-y and wet that I have to give them a Shoutout here. The Fried okra was a nice touch too!
Kate’s best recommendations for the bay area
Really, location place on this list is excellent. But if you eat them all, you’d explode. I felt like the gluttony guy in seven, having packed them all in four days. My stomach ached so much after that trip that I carried bags of ginger tea for days.
But if you want to narrow it down to three out-of-this-world dining experiences, here are the ones I would recommend the most:
Lunch at Bottega in Yountville. Seriously, make the trip to Napa Valley just to eat here. All young and profiteers of the external atmosphere. You will not contrition one IOTA. It was one of the best Meals of my Life.
Taste the city of North Beach Food Tour. I have done a lot of food tours and this is synonymous with the quality of the food, as well as the friendliness of the suppliers, which is rare. In addition, Tom, the leader, is a person and a half and knows Nordstrand as the back of his hand. It’s kind of weird in the best possible way. I loved meeting him!
Brunch at Picán in Oakland. But they will do more if they do not come from the South. The staff was very friendly and helpful.
That said, forget about my top three – the best thing you can do is go to any place that seems awesome to you! Have fun eating and don’t forget the elastic pants!