AponienteFirstCourse

Sweet, creamy plankton piped into nori: one of the starters of our multi-course dining adventure.

“Do you know what course we’re on?”

“I think this is 14. The first five dishes counted as one.”

“And how many courses are there total?”

“Twenty-two, I think.”

“Oh, look. Plankton.”

So went the conversation at our table that afternoon in Cadiz. Ten of us, including Sebastian, were lunching at Aponiente, a beautifully modern, two-star restaurant in a rustic, converted tide mill. We had arrived in the industrial area of Cadiz at 2:30pm and settled in for a four-hour, 22-course seafood meal with sherry pairings.

Our group of 10, too large for one table, was seated separately: Zandra, James, Kati, and Sebastian at one table; Bob, Dorothy, Kyle, Roxanne, Jeff, and I at another.

“You know,” Dorothy said when the waiters were out of earshot, “Kati isn’t the biggest fan of seafood. I wonder how she’s doing.” We mused, sipped our sherry, and readied ourselves for the next bold creation from the kitchen.

FinoSherry

A crisp glass of Fernando de Castillo’s fino.

***

That morning, Sebastian met us at our hotel in Sevilla and we drove south toward Jerez, the epicenter of global sherry production. After the memorable Flamenco night, Sebastian was eager to show off his home turf and introduce us to the diverse world of sherry. “Most people think of it as the sweet stuff that their grandmother drank after dinner. But here, people drink sherry like the rest of the world drinks wine,” said Sebastian.

Our driver deposited us in chilly but sun-drenched Jerez de la Frontera under an azure sky near a shop-lined corner. A clutch of local gentlemen sipped coffee (or perhaps sherry) and regarded us with the familiar countenance of locals, curious but wary.

F&CSherryTasting

Sebastian (left) and Jan Pettersen prepare for our tasting.

We trailed Sebastian down a curved alleyway flanked by hulking bodegas and entered through the open iron gates of  Fernando de Castillo, our destination. Jan Pettersen, the tall, dapper Norwegian proprietor, greeted us in the tasting room. Sturdy wooden chairs clustered around low tables set with glasses and bottles of sherry promised good things to come. Before we commenced with tasting, our charming host led us across the road to visit the production area. Here the sherry is aged in dark casks and bottled for distribution.

In the cool, damp aging cave amid the familiar smell of earthy oak casks and wine vapor, Jan told the story of the Fernando de Castillo winery: Opened in 1837, it was run by the same family until 1999, when he took over. “I’m a sherry romantic,” he confessed. Romantic: a term echoed from last night’s gypsy performance. Passion and romanticism were recurring themes on this trip, and Jan’s devotion to his work was apparent in the pride with which he spoke. 

JanandBob

Sherry’s classroom.

He described the sherry-making process: The Palomino grape, grown in Jerez de Frontera, is pressed in early September and made into base wine, which is fermented in steel tanks. By February, the wine is fortified with 40% to 80% alcohol and put in American oak barrels to age.

“Sherry is radically different from other kinds of wine, and goes well with various foods,” Jan explained: Grilled vegetables, oysters, and hard-to-pair foods like artichokes, match well with fresh, young manzanilla. Earthy flavors like mushrooms go with darker amontillado; and richer foods like fois gras are lovely with oloroso.

BobandDorothySherry

Cheers, Bob and Dorothy!

After our tour of the caves and the bottling facility, we arrived back in the tasting room and sat around the low tables. Jan slipped foil off plates of salty snacks and pulled corks from bottles. As we nibbled cheese, crackers, and jamón Ibérico,  we sipped the wines our host had described, and noted their differences in color and flavor: crisp, saline fino, reminiscent of a dry white Bordeaux; palo cortado with its slightly richer color and nutty, caramel flavors; and finally Pedro Jimenez, the throat-coating sweet brandy whose grapes are sun-dried for four to six days, concentrating the sugars.

“In Spain, sherry has always been a regular food wine,” Jan said.

AponienteFish

A very kissable fish graces the entry hallway of Aponiente.

That afternoon, at Aponiente, we had the chance to experience sherry’s capacity to pair with food, although Aponiente’s menu is anything but “regular.” Chef Angel Leon’s innovative seafood-driven concept makes generous use of bycatch and underused sea organisms like plankton.

If you’ve never considered plankton a human food source or flavoring agent, you’re not alone. We hadn’t either, and two among us were marine scientists. Of course, the nonmotile sea organisms are a critical source of nutrition for many aquatic creatures, and you’ll occasionally see boxes of dried plankton in well-stocked health-food stores. But this meal portended to be a wholly different beast.

AponienteEntranceGarden

Sun-drenched courtyard.

We arrived at Aponiente in midafternoon — lunchtime in Spain. Located next to the train tracks near the Guadalete River, in an industrial part of town, Anponiente is an oasis in a severe landscape. We passed through the minimalist, desert-inspired courtyard and through the grand doors. Inside, sun flooded through windows embedded in the original stone walls, providing views to the surrounding river marsh. A hole in the floor covered with thick glass revealed the retired mill, which once harnessed the power of the tide to process grains. The long entry and hallway leading to the dining room had whimsical under-the-sea touches such as a giant bronze fish sculpture and overlapping metallic fish scales on the some of the walls.

AponienteChefs

The Aponiente kitchen staff at work.

Tall glass barriers separated the hallway to the dining room from the kitchen, where a team of chefs in crisp toques tweezed, piped, and frothed. In the dining room, well-spaced, linen-topped tables were encircled by high-backed upholstered chairs shaped like blue fish tails. We arranged ourselves at our two tables and settled in for an adventure.

Our decorous servers, dressed in dark suits and matching wooden bow ties, offered greetings. Their English was limited, but we were grateful for the effort, given that there was no printed menu. They uncorked the first bottle and the sherry started to flow, starting with a crisp, slightly saline Fino César from Bodegas César Floridio, located in Chipiona on the Atlantic coast of Cadiz.

AponienteTinSeaUrchin

A tin of beautifully mild sea urchin garnished with caviar.

The first course comprised five dishes that set the tone for the meal: yellow meringues resembling Twinkies were filled with a creamy, savory hake filling; beautiful half-moon sardine ravioli were single bites of salty ambrosia; small tims of silky sea urchin pate arrived garnished with caviar. The fino’s hint of salinity complemented the briny flavors and our seafood extravagance was off to a promising start.

The second course featured martini glasses with “seafood cocktail”: a saffron-laced prawn tartare resembling pink ice cream, topped in airy foam that disappeared on the tongue. This dish, like many of those to come, had a deceptively strong seafood flavor despite its flirtatious appearance. We realized this was not going to be an easy meal for the seafood novice. 

AponienteMackerel

Mackerel, sea asparagus, pickled radish, and dehydrated photoplankton dust.

Dry manzanillas dominated the first several courses, allowing the forceful flavors of the food to shine and resetting the palate with every sip. Dishes manifested in inventive and unusual presentations. Course six was a colorful, minimalist composition, with a morsel of mackerel framed by sea asparagus, bright pink pickled radish and fine lines of dehydrated photoplankton dust. Even the ceramic tableware commanded attention, with unexpectedly chunky shapes and textures. One bowl resembled the sea floor, with a pitted surface and jutting barnacles.

Many plates were completed by our tag-teaming waiters pouring broth or sauce at the table. Course 11 required diner participation. Our waiter instructed to us make a fist, on the back of which he placed small clear gelatinous disks. He piped a bit of plankton accented with wasabi and lemon on to the disc and instructed us to slurp the bite all at once.

“Algearific!” exclaimed Kyle.

AponienteInnovativeBowls

Cockles and clam cutlets in creamy tomato-water gazpacho.

Some dishes hinted at seafood flavor, like the cuttlefish ravioli served with bright lemongrass-coconut broth. Others were bracingly pungent like the creamy bycatch liver mousse topped with ground coffee, which was offset by sips of complex amontillado. We remarked on the flavors and techniques Chef Leon used to transform and elevate the food, which ranged from humble plankton to sweet crab. We didn’t have the chance to meet him, but we imagined he might describe himself as a romantic as well, lured by the endless complexities of the sea. Innovation was central to his mission.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, seafood components sneaked into the dessert courses as well. A small, crisped meringue cylinder was dusted with plankton powder. When cracked, the meringue revealed tangy green apple ice cream. Creamy, mellow pear ice cream was served atop sea algae, olive-oil soaked bread, and ginger. Though we were too stuffed to fully enjoy them, we were grateful that the chocolate petit fours that capped the meal excluded any hint of plankton. 

OutsideAponienteAfterDinner

Twilight in front of Aponiente’s iron gates.

Our 22-course marathon complete, the late-autumn sun slipping over the horizon, we strolled out into the twilight and snapped some photos in front of the restaurant’s iron gates. Back in the bus, we recounted the day and the meal. Kati survived, and even confessed to liking a few dishes. But she also admitted that she probably wouldn’t eat seafood again for a while. We applauded her for having put on a brave face.

We also agreed that the meal would go into the annals as one of our most memorable. If there’s one thing we’ve learned traveling with the Weises, it’s that experiences are priceless, especially when dusted with plankton. 

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Four Nights in New Orleans

January 26, 2014

Oysters and caviar at Bourbon House.

Oysters and caviar at Bourbon House.

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” — Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

There you have it, from a master indulger: Happiness is a raw oyster and a bracing white wine. Lucky for us, then, that almost a year to the day after the commencement of the Grand Gavage, we pilgrims of the palate found ourselves reunited around a table, sipping, slurping and smiling deliriously amid the fray of Bourbon Street.

Our time would be short, our mission focused: venture out into beautiful, historic New Orleans in search of edible bivalves and other delectables. Our base was the quaint St. James Hotel on Magazine Street, far enough away from Bourbon to comfortably decompress, but near enough when the spirits moved us to quickly get back in the game.

Day 1 — The Arrival

J and I arrived in New Orleans around 8pm, checked in and met up briefly with our accomplices. Bob and Dorothy had enjoyed an early dinner with James and Zandra and were ready to tuck in. So after a quick reunion in their suite, the four of us bid them goodnight and set off for Bourbon Street in search of oysters. Our first stop: bright, bustling Bourbon House, one of several Dickie Brennan-owned establishments in the French Quarter. We took seats at the curved bar and fell into conversation with the gold-toothed oyster wrangler behind the counter. He was making short work of the iced pile in front of him. “Stick it in and wiggle,” he said with a smile, holding up his knife.

Two dozen to start: one dozen plain, the other topped with two kinds of caviar — catfish and choupique — which lent the oysters a salty richness and a textural pop. Next, alligator boudin served with a piquant chipotle aioli; and shrimp and crab gratin, a creamy, cheesy goop irresistible on crostini. A second dozen oysters with caviar appeared, apparently a mistake by the kitchen. We slurped those down too and ambled out into the night.

Lucky Dog

Lucky Dog, happy man.

We detoured for a drink in the dimness of the famed Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop before heading to Frenchman’s Street, where the sound of music enticed us into raucous Cafe Negril. The room was gyrating under the supervision of a tight blues band and its priestly looking frontman. After a set or two, and one or two beverages, we started back along Bourbon toward Poydras Street. We stopped at one of the ubiquitous Lucky Dogs carts for a couple of juicy franks on steamed buns, a tasty introduction to the late-night options available. Found-beads around our necks, bellies full and happily weary, we made our way back to the hotel.

Day 2 — Exploring

Canal Street streetcar.

Canal Street streetcar.

Wednesday. A quiet knock at our door announced the arrival of coffee, orange juice and croissants — a delicious start to the morning. The six of us met in the lobby and headed out for the day. We walked up to St. Charles Avenue and caught one of the vintage streetcars bound for the Garden District for lunch and a walkabout.

At one of the stops along St. Charles, the driver shut off the engine, shouldered her purse, exited the car and trotted across the street into a Wendy’s. We and the dozen other passengers looked at each other, puzzled. We chatted. Mostly tourists, folks from Illinois, folks from Iowa. We waited.

Sitting in the rear of the car, one of the few locals aboard began flirting through the window, shamelessly, in a fetching Cajun accent, with a pretty, exceedingly polite brunette waiting for the streetcar going the other direction. “You quite something,” the man said. “Thank you so much,” the girl answered. We learned from her reluctant responses that she was Canadian. “Is cold in Canada, yeah?” the man said. “I’ll keep you warm.” The girl laughed self-consciously. She was finally rescued by the arrival of her car.

In our car, it began to get stuffy. Our resident Casanova rose and sauntered to the front and switched on the engine, activating ventilation. Smirking, he dropped languidly onto a bench. When our driver reappeared — it seemed like 20 minutes but was probably closer to 10 — he welcomed her with a slow clap, to which she responded: “I don’t know about you, but I don’t wear no diapers to work!” And off we went.

Shrimp and grits at Coquette.

Shrimp and grits at Coquette.

Fried chicken sandwich.

Fried chicken sandwich.

At Washington Avenue we got off and strolled a bit before lunch. Our initial destination, Commander’s Palace, turned us away — a couple of us were wearing shorts — but offered a recommendation for nearby Coquette, a sweet corner bistro with a smoker billowing on the curb. At our sidewalk table for six, we started with wine and a tangy pickle plate (okra, cucumbers, shallots, green beans) with fresh potato chips and ranch dressing. Entrees included a spicy mushroom gumbo, crisp Russian kale salad, shrimp and grits, tomato sandwiches on toasted white bread and, for James, a massive fried-chicken sandwich with fries, the table favorite. Dessert was, for most of us, chocolate beignets and mini banana milkshakes.

Lafayette Cemetery.

Lafayette Cemetery.

Sated (stuffed, really), we started our tour of the Garden District, beginning in Lafayette Cemetery, with its crumbling, time-stained vaults and distinct air of the supernatural. Our guide proved to be a font of information about the city, seasoning his stories with references to long-dead Confederate officers, Louis Armstrong, Katrina, Anne Rice, Nicolas Cage, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Mr. and Mrs. Angelina Jolie, the Manning boys, and on and on. Out into the neighborhood we wended amid the twisting, towering live oaks and the enormous wrought-iron-frilled mansions. Once again, we were the beneficiaries of Dorothy’s knack for finding interesting people, places and things to do.

Spicy, sticky duck wings.

Emeril’s spicy duck wings.

That evening, we had reservations at Emeril’s, a large lively space with a small army of waiters for each  of the white-linen-topped tables. For openers, sticky-spicy duck wings, one of our favorite dishes of the evening, and of the trip. Among the refined clientele, we felt a little out of place sucking sauce from our fingers, but it couldn’t be helped. Hot wet towels appeared, restoring decorum.

Entrees included baseball-size filets for James and Zandra; a mountain of crisp fried chicken and sweet-potato fries for Dorothy; buttery sea scallops served in a steaming oversize escargot plate for J; and for me, squid-ink fettuccine Nero laden with shrimp, mussels and cheese. The dinner was memorable, but the highlight was the shared desserts: fluffy chocolate soufflé, and a delectable wedge of banana cream pie. The pie stood 6 inches tall and featured thick-sliced fruit suspended in custard.

We waddled down the street for a nightcap at W.I.N.O. (Wine Institute New Orleans), a newish-concept wine bar with vending machines that dispense tasting-size (or glass-size) pours of dozens of wines from around the world. There we toasted the close of our first full day in New Orleans.

Day 3 — Halloween

Bob and Dorothy steppin' out on Bourbon Street.

Bob and Dorothy steppin’ out on Bourbon Street.

Halloween started blustery and overcast. We headed out on foot toward the river, where an enormous tanker glided gulfward. We browsed through the French Market — Cafe du Monde overflowed with patrons — and in and out of several art galleries on our way back to Bourbon Street. As the costumed crowds and street performers started to converge, our appetites prompted us into Royal House Oyster Bar for sustenance. Our waitress, a very friendly witch, brought us the day’s first installment of oysters: two dozen on the half-shell, one dozen Rockefeller, a half-dozen grilled and a half-dozen Royale. These, a couple of redfish beignets, a cup of seafood gumbo and two bottles of white wine, and we were content. Onward.

Next, Pat O’Brien’s, where we took seats in the dim, cavernous piano bar. Despite the small crowd (it was early), the drinks and song requests were flowing. Naturally, Hurricanes were in order — they lubricate the singalong muscles, don’t you know.

Improvised costumes

Who dat?

We hummed our way back to Bourbon Street and into My Bar@635, lured by more live music. After a couple of cocktails and a dance or two — one of the regulars took Dorothy and me for a turn around the floor, to the amusement of the crowd — we realized we were out of place without costumes. Luckily we didn’t have to venture far to find glittery masks, sequin hats and other wacky adornments in the Carnival capital of the United States.

Dozen raw at Acme Oyster House.

A dozen raw under the neon at Acme Oyster House.

After a short respite at Musical Legends Park it was time for an early dinner. Fortunately, the queue for Acme Oyster House was less than half a block long, and we were seated relatively quickly. Our order eerily resembled lunch: two dozen raw oysters, two dozen grilled and a couple of oyster po’boys to share. And, Lord help us, drinks all around.

By dinner’s end, Dorothy and Bob were spent. We pointed them in the direction of the hotel and off they toddled, soon swallowed by the crowd. The remaining four of us bumped along with the masses, dazzled by the noise, the spectacle, the alcohol and the astonishing number of bustiers. Over the next few hours, we patronized several drinking establishments, watched a Halloween parade materialize on Decatur Street — beads rained from truck windows and from the beds of floats — and wound our way back to Cafe Negril on Frenchman’s, where we briefly escaped the onset of rain. By the time we stepped out of the bar, it was pouring — though certainly nothing four Portlanders couldn’t manage.

Rainy Halloween on Bourbon Street.

Rainy Halloween on Bourbon Street.

We slogged onward, stopping again at My Bar to watch the Bourbon Street party from under an umbrella on the balcony. Throngs of costumed partiers meandered along the street, unfazed by the downpour: A bubbly pair dressed as Jeannie and Major Tony Nelson from “I Dream of Jeannie” and a school of ephemeral jellyfish under clear bubble umbrellas, cleverly lighted from within, won our votes for best getups.

Having survived upright until the respectable hour of 11, we needed something to buffer the effects of the alcohol. Burgers, of course. Bourbon House had a table but no beef, so the sympathetic waiter recommended Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill on St. Peter Street.

Yo Mama's classic.

Yo Mama’s classic.

We walked the five blocks in a light shower, slid into a booth and ordered massive half-pounders: blue cheese burger for James; mushroom burger for Zandra; the bullfighter, piled with cheddar, salsa, avocado and jalapeños for J; and the classic Yo Mama’s burger for me. Despite its obvious restorative properties, the peanut butter burger with bacon tempted no one. Surprisingly, Yo Mama’s doesn’t serve fries — sides comprise baked potato, potato salad or green salad. Most of us opted for potato salad, with J going all in with a baked potato.

Stuffed after a second but wholly necessary dinner, we plodded back to the hotel and dropped into bed.

Day 4 — Winding Down

Amazingly, we awakened little worse for the wear and set out for breakfast. Friends had recommended Mother’s, a popular cafeteria-style operation nearby where you line up and order your meal at the counter before claiming a table in one of the cavernous dining areas. I had anticipated the famed Ferdi sandwich (ham, roast beef, debris — the bits that fall off the roast when carving — and gravy) but it was not on the breakfast menu. So we all ordered eggs in some form, dense, flaky biscuits, ham or sausage, and grits. Turns out, grits are not beloved by the Weises or the Waltons. Still, the meal was filling.

Thick, rich gumbo.

Thick, rich gumbo.

The rest of the morning was spent touring the massive, impressive WWII museum — a must-see for history buffs like Bob. We then headed back to the French Quarter for lunch, landing a table at Tableau, which with its sturdy dark-wood furnishings and contrasting thick white plaster walls exuded a stately Southern charm. The menu featured classic French Creole cooking, and we ordered a variety: Salade Lyonnaise with perfectly oozing egg; fried oyster salad; rich duck and andouille gumbo.

Marinated, truffled crab claws.

Marinated, truffled crab claws.

The most memorable dish of the day, and for me, of the trip, was the truffled crab fingers — peeled crab claws marinated and chilled in a white-truffle vinaigrette. I could have eaten these all day long with crusty bread to sop the sauce.

After lunch, we walked through the cathedral and Jackson Square, then made a shopping stop or two on Decatur Street before returning to the hotel for a nap. That evening, lacking dinner reservations and competing with a horde of American Dental Association conventioneers for a table, we ended up at Desire Bistro and Oyster House — a large, lively spot with closely spaced tables, a retro tin ceiling and black-and-white tiles underfoot. It being an oyster house, oysters were in order: three dozen to start — a dozen for Bob and two for the rest of us. Another kitchen mix-up resulted in an additional dozen, which, of course, we slurped without hesitation. At that point, the rest of the dinner was an afterthought, but tasty nonetheless. I had a delicious muffuletta half-sandwich, an addictively salty pile of ham, mortadella, salami and provolone with a thick spread of olive paste on crusty bread. Zandra went light with a trio of sliders from the appetizer menu — kobe beef, pulled pork and alligator. J chose a rich crawfish étouffé. A fine and casual dinner to cap off a memorable trip.

New Orleans is a banquet — not only its irresistible cuisine, but also its spicy mix of colorful locals and uninhibited tourists, its weather, its open-container laxity and live music at every turn. The perfect destination for a food adventure, and we were lucky enough to have been invited. Bob, Dorothy, James and Zandra — we couldn’t invent better travel and dining companions. Our minds operate alike: Start with a nice bottle of wine, then get down to the business of eating.

Steamers at the Hog Island Oyster Co.

Birthdays. Everyone has his own way of approaching them. Some revel in the attention and others rail at the injustice of the day’s annual assault. Not J, not this year. This June 26 we made plans to escape to San Francisco, a city we’d both spent time in but had never visited together.

Our goal was simple. We would hike the hills by day, reward ourselves with a memorable midday meal, nap in the afternoon, then eat some more.

Before I get into details, a bit of context is necessary. First, we stayed at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square, and I was skeptical that we’d find good restaurants nearby that weren’t tourist traps. The second point is that we walked everywhere. We took a cab only once, and that was on J’s birthday night. This somewhat limited where we explored, and had we had more time, we would have gone further afield.

With that said and without further adieu, here are my favorite dining experiences in order of appearance.

Rouge et Blanc and Cafe de la Presse

Quiche and croque at Rouge et Blanc.

I am cheating a little by grouping these together because they are separate places and we went on separate occasions. But they are part of the same business, so the food is similar. The first occasion was on our first day in SF. We’d traveled all night by train and were exhausted from lack of sleep. After the unavailability of our hotel room forced us to wander for several hours, we finally landed at Rouge et Blanc, a little wine bar a few steps from Chinatown. Our fatigue was nothing that a bottle of wine and some delectable nibbles couldn’t relieve. Ham and cheese croque cut into bite-sized cubes, and mini quiche provided sustenance, while the view from our shaded sidewalk table made for irresistible people-watching.

Croque madame at Cafe de la Presse.

The second occasion was the next afternoon. We’d spent the morning taking in the feather- and balloon-festooned, clothing-optional spectacle of the San Francisco Pride Parade. Afterward we continued on our daily trek until we landed back in Union Square where hunger overtook us, and Cafe de la Presse, a quaint corner cafe, beckoned. We snagged a window table inside, out of the sun, and enjoyed oysters, a burger for J and a luscious egg-topped croque madame pour moi.  The cafe’s Francophile design — from the newsstand stocked with French magazines to the closely set tables — set a comfortable tone and the food was good. These two simple meals were among my favorites.

Little Delhi

Butter chicken.

Good to the last drop.

Sunday night and Market Street still hummed with energy from the parade and more than a few of those who may have over-imbibed. Our first dinner choice, Ajisen Ramen, had just closed and we were left to wing it, but luck was on our side when we stumbled upon Little Delhi. The place was packed and there was a waiting list, but the aroma of curry spices tickled our noses and persuaded us to wait.

We eventually got a table and ordered our perennial favorites (lamb rogan josh and saag paneer) plus one of the house specialties, butter chicken in a red curry reminiscent of a deeply smoky barbecue sauce. That sauce left us craving more — or at least more naan for cleaning the bowl.

Ajisen Ramen

Ramen for breakfast.

Thwarted the previous night, we set out first thing on Monday morning for a true noodles-for-breakfast experience. Located next to Panda Express on the lower-level food court of the Westfield mall on Market Street, Ajisen Ramen was an unexpected find. We arrived early and had to wait for the business to open, so we did not have the full dining experience. But if the clipboard near the entrance for first-come first-served seating is an indication, this is a local lunchtime favorite. The morning menu is limited to ramen, but that’s what we came for, so that’s what we had. J had the Premium Pork Ramen with tender pork belly bites. I had the Ajisen Spicy Pork Ramen, a warming bowl of delicious soup that made the lips tingle. The friendly, soft-spoken waiter also sold me. This was another of the trip’s standout meals.

The Alembic

Beer-battered fish sammy.

Our morning carb load propelled us westward to Golden Gate Park where we wandered the Japanese garden and the science museum until our stomachs rumbled. Nearby Alembic was recommended by a trusted source for its artisan cocktails and gastropub fare. Of course, it being Monday afternoon, we couldn’t possibly indulge in a cocktail. (Cough.) But after running the nouveau-hippie gauntlet currently occupying Haight Street … well, we were swayed. That, and we needed something to accompany the plump kraut dog with chicharrones, the jerk-spiced duck hearts and beer-battered rockfish sandwich. Free hugs!

Scala’s Bistro

Monday’s trek was long, and my only requirement for dinner was that it be nearby. Rather than stop at the restaurant in our hotel lobby, we went the extra half block up to the Sir Francis Drake and Scala’s Bistro. At 9 pm, the dining room was boisterous and the noise level difficult to shout over, but Italian food was just what we needed. Caesar salad, asparagus salad, pappardelle with sugo, and a salty prosciutto pizza hit the spot. And the service was impeccable. Sadly, it was too dark for photos.

Hog Island Oyster Co.

Words cannot do justice.

J’s birthday. We spent the morning climbing Powell and California streets, dropping down Lombard, scaling the stairs of Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower and from there cutting over to the Ferry Building for lunch. The arduous morning expedition demanded some reward, so we directed our buns of steel toward oysters.

Melted bliss.

As it was with most worthwhile places we encountered, there was a line to get into Hog Island Oyster Co., but it was worth the wait. We sat at the counter with the perfect vantage point for all the shucking and cooking. We shared a dozen oysters drizzled with the most balanced, delicious mignonette I’ve tasted. J had the clam chowder and I the steamers, both laden with in-shell little gems in rich, delectable broths. And of course we could not resist the grilled cheese sandwich oozing with melted Gruyere. By far, Hog Island gave us the most memorable meal of the week.

The Slanted Door

Yellowtail sashimi.

We had talked for a few years about taking a trip to San Francisco, and this restaurant had long been on our radar. Rave reviews and write-ups as one of SF’s most beloved restaurants had piqued our interest, and when I made dinner reservations for J’s birthday here, expectations were high. I won’t say we were disappointed, but it’s not the destination I had anticipated. It’s definitely a scene and was brimming with locals, tourists and young tech professionals. The new spin on Vietnamese classics resulted in well-seasoned, tasty dishes, and we chose based on recommendations from our waiter. The highlight of the meal was the four delicate slices of yellowtail sashimi we had as a starter. Grilled pork belly lettuce wraps garnished with delicately floral shiso leaves was a lovely first course. The Shaking Beef, cubed filet mignon on a bed of wilted watercress and red onion had nice flavors, but the meat was chewy. We were not agape. It didn’t help that the two young product developers seated next to us talked shop nonstop. Maybe that just made it all too workaday. Maybe our standards have changed after living in Chicago, L.A. and now Portland. Maybe we should have ordered more items to give it more of a chance. But we move on.

Gott’s Roadside

Paper-wrapped burgers, onion rings and fries.

Our last full day in San Francisco started with the all-too-familiar hills, and this time we headed toward the marina and the Presidio for a better view of the bridge. A harshly sunny day, the trek back to the Ferry Building seemed to take forever. Our intended destination was a ramen cart at the farmers’ market, but alas, the market was not there this day, nor was the ramen. The daily queue at Gott’s Roadside had been a favorable sign, so we grabbed a menu and took our place in line. Gott’s specialty is burgers wrapped in paper and fries served in paper baskets. J had the straightforward bacon cheeseburger (highly recommended). Of the skinny patty variety, Gott’s burgers are tasty and juicy on a toasted egg bun, with the toppings perfectly complementing one another — a delicious complete package. I had the blue cheese burger — good, but the cheese overpowered the flavor of the burger. I wished I’d kept it simple and had the cheeseburger as well. One surprisingly nice note about Gott’s: In addition to the sodas and shakes, there’s also beer and wine. By the bottle, even. So our late lunch was accompanied by a refreshing French rosé.

Bangkok Noodles

Spicy red curry noodles.

Our last night. How did it go so quickly? We noticed Bangkok Noodles down the street from our hotel, and noted the ever-present line out the door. So on our final night, we assessed the online menu and headed over to slurp last noodles of the trip. When we arrived, we were fortunate (?) enough to get a spot at the small counter — really just a wall with a narrow ledge attached and chairs for seating. Our knees jutting at awkward angles to avoid bumping into the wall or each other, we perused the noodle- and rice-centric menu. Unfortunately, we learned, the Powell Street location does not serve appetizers or beer or wine and we briefly contemplated going elsewhere for our final dinner. But the noodles were too tempting.

Beef noodle soup.

J had the combination sliced beef and meatballs in a spicy noodle soup. I had the sliced pork and egg in spicy coconut-milk curry. Creamy, warming, salty and sweet. For good measure, and to ensure a late-night snack or tomorrow’s breakfast, we ordered pad se lew to go: flat rice noodle with Chinese broccoli, egg and black bean sauce.

And poof, our trip was over. We’ve vowed to return soon when we feel the need for big-city fix, mountainous hills and another culinary adventure.