Dojima Ann

Japanese is expensive in the UK, so I thought it’d be a great opportunity to try some while we were here in San Francisco. Numerous places turned up but in the end we dropped into this one that I noticed around the downtown area that looked pretty good. Bright and clean from the outside, I was even more pleased stepping in to find the whole restaurant filled with Japanese people and a small TV playing some Japanese shows in the background.

I’m not confident that all the staff were Japanese, but they were at least Asian and the fact that queues formed shortly after a while made me think we hit something pretty good. We shared a mixed tempura that was both a very generous portion and stayed crisp. I’ll admit it was slightly greasy but only very just.

The chicken karage (fried chicken) was just as divine as well. I love putting the shiso pepper on it after the squeeze of lemon to try to cut through some of the grease (in this case not very greasy as well).

My sister continued the theme ordering a katsu chicken that she didn’t realise was a set meal also accompanied by udon soup and a salad. The portion serving was huge and a lot of rice was left over.

I opted for some sushi rolls. On the left was a soft shell crab roll and on the right an eel and cucumber roll. Both were very full, and very tasty indeed.

We both had a softdrink and I’m pretty sure that the total of our meal still came to about USD60 total.

Name: Dojima Ann
Found at: 219 O’Farrell Street San Francisco, CA 94102, United States
Website: No website found

The Cheesecake Factory

Although I knew about the Cheesecake Factory for over a decade now, I never really had the opportunity rise at the same time as a want to go and eat there. The last time I was in San Francisco, I tried the Macy’s store but remember the ever long queue. I never checked to see if New York had one with so many great eateries and the when I stumbled across the Las Vegas outlet, I had just eaten breakfast and eating was the last thing on my mind.

We came here for dinner and I can tell you the line up hasn’t really changed. Constant streams of people come to put their name down at the reception area. Large families wait. Couples wait. Sometimes an individual comes and heads to the bar where you can watch sports on their giant TVs and probably fight your way for a seat pretty much immediately. We were told it’d be about a thirty minute or forty minute wait, and it was closer to an hour by the time we finally got seated. We got this buzzer where we headed outside (where you could also get seated immediately but had to brave the chilly evening air that I didn’t have the right clothing for).

Fortunately we had enough things to do to occupy our time. We took some pictures from the terrace as the sun went down, stood around people watching and trying to predict how much of a queue we had. Another thing we did was to peruse through the long menu. It’s a good thing we did as well because the menu was almost like a book with so many pages. I have no idea how big their kitchen is to deal with all the food and worried a bit about exactly how good the food was going to be.

They had sections for pizzas, pastas, salads, asian food, mexican food, mixed food, some american diner classics and a “small plates” or “appetiser” section that spanned at least four pages. The dessert offerings had at least two full pages describing all the types of cheesecakes on offer. They brought bread, although I tried to avoid it considering they had a reputation for bringing huge servings of food. The table next to us ordered the burrito almost the size of my head. The gentlemen didn’t finish it though made a good dent on it.

We split a popcorn shrimp as an appetiser. I was drawn in the by thought or rock shrimp, but instead turned out to be an extremely generous serving of medium sized shrimp battered and served with a spicy mayo and tomato sauce. A good starter and worried about the main meals to still come.

My sister ordered the Madeira chicken that I never really tasted though it looked pretty good. I couldn’t fathom exactly how many calories sat inside the humungous scoop of mashed potato that landed on the plate. No need to say she didn’t finish it.

Not sure that I’d make it to any restaurants serving southern fare, I decided to go for the bowl of gumbo. When the steaming bowl I arrived I was very impressed by the size. I immediately shoved the bowl of rice away, choosing to savour the tender chunks of chicken, prawn and sausage dotted throughout the succulently dark gravy. I’m no expert but it was pretty good and had a good enough heat throughout the dish.

Although many other desserts looked enticing, I’m not sure we can visit the Cheesecake Factory without having a cheesecake. I love key lime pie (it’s hard to get in the UK) and so while my sister ate a weird carrot-cake chunk cheesecake, I tucked into a huge slice of pie that I failed to finish. I told the attendant that I didn’t want any whipped cream and asked if I could replace it with ice cream. As you can see from the photo, it failed and he managed to bring both.

Anyway, despite the bustling crazy speed of the restaurant, it was nice to be seated and the food was pretty decent. I’m not sure it’s the sort of food you really want to line up for, but the experience is one you probably won’t forget for a while.

Name: The Cheesecake Factory, San Francisco Outlet
Found at: 251 Geary Street (in the Macy’s building), San Francisco, CA 94102, United States

In-N-Out Burger

Out of all the different burger joints, the most I ever heard about overseas was the In and Out burgers typically found in California, or at least the west coast. They are known for the freshness and not shipping meat in from factories, hence haven’t made a huge nationwide rollout to all other parts of the US or the world. The other thing they are well known for are the secret menu combinations although I failed to remember any of them when we ordered.

We went along to the one by Fisherman’s Wharf since we were in the area. As we found a table, I found it surprising that for a fast-food joint, this store almost appeared like an oasis of calm. No crazy crowds, things were clean and bright and things just seemed to be pipe along instead of the crazy atmosphere you typically find in a place with Golden Arches. Perhaps it’s because they don’t go overboard on the menu and the secret is a pretty limited menu including burgers (plain, cheese and double cheese burgers), fries and drinks. No bacon. No desserts. No happy meals.

I probably should have skipped the shake with my meal as a double cheeseburger and shake combo (fries included), whilst cheap, was significantly crazy with calories. I have to love the US for forcing large chains to put calorific information on the menu. Whilst it didn’t change my purchase on the day, I would definitely avoid doing this even more than once a month with the total calorific input summing to about 1700 calories.

The burger was pretty decent. Wonderfully melty American style burger cheese and a great special sauce with onions, tomato and lettuce. The fries were probably the biggest let down that started off nice and fresh and crisp but quickly tasted a bit bland. A good thing too as it was a disincentive to eat valueless calories.

Name: In-n-out Burger
Found at: 333 Jefferson St, San Francisco, CA 94133, United States

The French Laundry

When my sister and I booked our trip to stay with our cousin in San Francisco, she was almost immediately on the phone trying to get a reservation for The French Laundry. Like many top class restaurants in the world, finding a reservation is difficult – you need to book in advance at least a month and even then chances are the bookings will already be taken by the time you get there. She’s a lot more dedicated to it than I am, and managed to get a lunch time booking for Sunday, the day after we arrived in the city.

We arranged to hire a car for the day (it only ended up being about £25 for the day hire), drove up to Napa Valley (or Yountville to be more precise). The weather forecast predicted gloom and rain but instead the day welcomed us with bright sunshine and moderately warm temperatures. Our cousin equipped us with a GPS and that turned out to be really valuable as we took a number of wrong turns off connecting highways and intersections.

We arrived with plenty of time before our 11am booking, so took a quick walk around the area. Directly opposite from The French Laundry’s location is a big open area where they grow and harvest their own vegetables, herbs and even have a chicken coop that I’m guessing is more for the eggs than for the meat.

We could see them rotating crops with a number of the crops already completely harvested and other sections most likely to be harvested sometime soon.

This part of the US is wine country, so the surrounding buildings are either a combination of residential places, or a number of wineries offering samples of their wares. We walked into one place that was had an interesting combination of both indoor and outdoor art with the wine that they would serve. We even saw someone buy a painting, where the lady purchasing immediately demanded for it to be taken down to prevent others from even looking at it.

The French Laundry itself loos like a converted house. The building is made up of two floors, the downstairs floor appearing darker with the blinds semi-closed for privacy. The top floor is more bright but the ceilings much closer giving it the appearance of being slightly smaller. The tables are not pushed together like other popular restaurants with plenty of space for people to walk around. In fact, one table even brought their child (probably about one or two years old) although we were commenting on how it probably wasn’t much of a great experience for the child.

Here’s the door that you enter and exit through. A comfy courtyard welcomes you just outside with chairs if you want to sit and sun yourself whilst waiting, or maybe needing to digest more of your meal.

We walked around the premises a bit and even found this interesting Michelin branded thermometer.

We sat alongside one of the walls with the centre tables reserved for parties greater than two. We felt we were probably the youngest group of people with most people in their late 30s/early 40s and many tables significantly above that age as well. They have a dress code including jacket and no jeans or trainers and they really keep to it as well. A gentlemen, upon being seated, went to go take his jacket off and hang it on the chair when their waiter immediately asked him to, “Please keep your jacket on at all times sir.” They didn’t really explain but I guess it helps make the experience feel more special.

Everything about the experience is immaculately thought out and the decadence presented in a subtle fashion. Much to its namesake, the napkin folded at the table had a French Laundry branded peg. I have no idea whether or not you were supposed to take them home, but they left them about. When you left for the restroom, a waiter or waitress would remove your napkin only to have another one almost seemlessly appear.

Their degustation offerings both priced at a fixed USD270 including service came in two flavours. The first was a chef’s classic and the second, a more vegetarian friendly though not exclusively vegetarian with one or two of the nine courses including meats. I’m sure they could probably substitute for vegetarians but I’m guessing the combination of a French restaurant and a place like this isn’t exactly their target market. We went for the classic menu as well. Parts of the menu offered an alternative between two different dishes and I think we almost went for different alternatives that didn’t involve a supplement. Some choices, like a foie gras, added another USD50 to the overall cost. The price probably wasn’t so much the problem for me (since when are we going to do this experience again) but I decided against it since I am not the biggest lover of foie gras.

My sister also ordered a bitter lemon drink, whilst I perused their iPad wine list to pick a glass of red from the area. Of course the wine list was exhaustively comprehensive but I was surprised there wasn’t as many choices by the glass from the local area. No zinfandel reds by the glass either but I would have more chance later in the trip to indulge.

On choosing the menu, almost instantly two cheese gougères appeared at the table. Perfectly crisp, light and full of cheesy flavour, there was nothing wrong I could pick.

Shortly after arrived an interesting minced salmon cone filled with cream cheese. I like the playfulness of these two classic ingredients paired together in an entertaining manner and all the flavours indeed hit the spot.

Our first course from the degustation menu arrived. “Oysters and Pearls” or Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. This dish was amazingly rich and was a great thing that it came in such a tiny bowl. The sabayon had plenty of thickness to it that it was able to easily hold up the caviar and the oysters laid on top. Creamy, rich and it almost felt like eating a thicker hollandaise I was glad to not how much butter or cream went into it. A very lovely start.

With this dish, we had been offered a brioche from the Bouchon bakery just down the road to go along with two types of butter, one from a local farm and the other flown from in from Maine.

Our next course, the “Creme D’Asperges”, Jidori Hen Egg, parmesan, chervil and garden blossoms. I forgot to take a picture of the lovely components underneath the asparagus soup but this was a really nice dish. I was surprised at just how much asparagus flavour they managed to extracta and the poached egg wasn’t too big or too small for this dish.

The bread offerings started to open up. We had a number to choose from including a french loaf, a seeded loaf, sourdough and then a pretzel. Throughout the meal I think I tried everything but the french roll preferring the chewy sourdough and the salted pretzel bread.

I didn’t have this next dish, but my sister did. This was the “Smoked Shad Roe ‘Porridge'”, Lemongrass, charred ginger, tempura sea beans and shiso so I don’t really have comments on this one.

My alternative was the “Sauteed fillet of Atlantic Striped Bass”, Sunchokes, fava beans, nicoise olives and serrano ham. As you can see from the picture, part of the delight of this dish was the perfectly crisped potato crust providing an additional crunch to the texture of the dish. The ham added salt to the dish and this was a very impressive dish. The fish remained juicy and the flavour combinations really worked well.

Our next course together was the “Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster ‘Fricassee'”, spätzle, pickled beef, French Laundry garden beets, petite radish, tarragon and “Sauce Borscht”. I laughed and commented to our waiter on his efforts to pronounce spätzle based on my own experiences last year. It was a pretty good effort. You could taste the buttery richness imparted on the lobster by itself and though I didn’t really note a strong pickled flavour from the beef, the “borscht” was an amazing reduction of so many complex flavours. I have no idea how to describe it other than layers and layers of deep flavours impacted on a thick sticky sauce. The spätzle was also pretty good though I couldn’t pick the odd flavour imparted so I asked them if they added a sauce around it. Upon returning from the kitchen I was informed they’d been covered with some sort of reduced creme fraiche.

We both chose the next dish together, “Four Story Hill Farm Poularde Breast”, Nettle ‘gnocchi a la Parisienne’, crosnes, Nantes carrots and Black Winter Truffle Consomme that I think may have been the dish with the most subtle flavours. The poularde had, of course, been perfectly cooked. It looked cooked sous vide as it remained juicy and then its crispy outer finished off in a pan. Tiny fresh vegetables dotted the plate and the nettle gnocchi providing an alternating softer texture though without any distinguishable nettle flavour.

The truffle consomme, was of course, poured at the table with great effect and smelt wonderful imparting soft earthiness to the other dish. I found the truffle consomme not as rich in flavour as I expected but I think that more has to do with the black versus white truffle whose flavour is less pungent and sharp.

I wasn’t quite sure how the next dish was going to go for my sister as she’s not a big fan of lamb. “Elysian Fields Farm lamb saddle”, Merguez sausage, farro, “Ribettes”, broccolini and “Piperade au Saffron” however I certainly enjoyed it. I did think there was a bit too much going on the plate – underneath the lamb sat roasted peppers turned into a mash spread across the plate. The sausage was crisped up to provide texture and tiny pieces of meat that I guessed as some sort of lardons crisped up on one side added more texture and richness to the dish. I liked the small slices of a chile that added a subtle heat to the overall dish. Much to my sister’s delight, the lamb had a very subtle flavour and many other strong-flavoured components helped prevent it from dominating.

We finally moved on beyond the main courses, and first hit the cheese course. “Chaconne”, “Pruneaux d’Agnen”, pecans, petite onions, oxalis and black truffle “Aigre Doux”. As you can see more black truffle infused honey smeared across the plate and a salty, creamy cheese that went well with all the other components.

Or first official dessert arrived, a “Sierra Beauty apple sorbet”, toasted oats and ginger “nuage”. The ginger foam effectively had a very subtle flavour – very surprisingly considering how it normally dominates and I love the crunch provided by the toasted oats at the bottom of the plate. A great way to cleanse the palette and an enjoyable dessert.

My sister opted for the alternative dessert, a “Meyer Lemon ‘Parfait'”, Oregon huckleberries, sicilian pistachios and poppy seed ice cream. It looked really great and I had a small taste of the “parfait” that was just as tart as I would hope.

Being a lot more predictable when it involves hazelnut and chocolate, I ordered the “Marjolaine”, praline Mousse, “Dacquoise” and roasted banana sorbet. Tiny merengue discs sit atop some of the components, caramelised and toasted hazelnuts adorn the plate and a lusciously rich praline mousse was devine. The roasted banana sorbet was a surprising winner as well helping bring more caramel tones to the final dish.

We hit tea and coffee (included in the overall meal cost) and even more food arrived. We thought we were done. First in the bowl at the back, caramelised, sugared macadamias had a crisp caramel shell and made even more decadent by a dusting of icing powder. I couldn’t stop myself eating these as I love macadamia nuts and they were really, really, really good. In the dish to the right were tiny brioche beignets or simply donuts. The brioche bread made them even lighter than a normal donut. Finally the cup in front isn’t a cappuccino as one might expect. Instead it was a coffee ice cream set with foamed milk to resemble one. Delicious and very playful.

Just as we thought we were done with food, they brought yet another plate of food, this time petite fours in the form of various chocolate. They were beautifully made and contained flavours like coconut, praline, peanut butter and jam, mint and lemon. I can’t really remember the other one.

We asked for the bill and another container arrived. I assumed it was some sort of toothpick container.

But I was wrong. More food although this time, we could bring this shortbread home to keep in the French Laundry embossed container.

I stepped out to use the restrooms and then when I got back (and paid), my sister told me that they were going to give us the tour of the kitchen. I was really excited as I still clearly remember our kitchen visit at Eleven Madison Park and love seeing the “behind the scenes”. I think this was because my sister asked about the rumours of a two-way camera and monitor linking the French Laundry with its sister restaurant in New York, Per Se. The rumour is true as we were about to be shown.

Our waiter showed us to the kitchen, asking for staff with large plates of food to graciously move out of the way. Unlike Eleven Madsion Park, I’m guessing kitchen visits weren’t that regular because I felt like we were constantly in the way even though we were pretty much up against the wall.

We got to shake one of the chef’s hands and our waiter told us about the various stations and what they were all doing. This visit to the kitchen really made the visit. I was surprised at how small the kitchen was with many chefs not having much more space than to turn around. The waiter pointed out the preparation area, a small room at the back of the kitchen where it literally looked like chefs worked shoulder to shoulder to peel, cut and prepare for the evening’s meal.

I count myself lucky every time we get to dine at places like this. It’s an experience many people do not and cannot have and appreciated every bite.

Name: The French Laundry
Found at: 6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599, United States