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San Francisco for foodies: a gourmet paradise

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Embarrassing confession from a wannabe "foodie": Until a recent trip to San Francisco, I thought Michelin only made tires.

"All of the places we're going to in Napa have Michelin stars," my sister, Andrea, boasted minutes after my boyfriend and I arrived at her North Beach apartment for a weeklong family vacation.

"Not the same company that makes the tires?" I asked.

My continent-hopping sister looked at me -- the sibling who actually uses her stove and who subscribes to zagat.com and Food and Wine magazine -- as if I had spent my post-college years in a black hole.

Michelin is based in France and, until recently, haughtily Eurocentric. Editors of the company's respected dining guides have released only two North American manuals. New York City was the first, and San Francisco and Napa Valley, second. For good reason.

San Francisco is a food lover's paradise.

Since this was my first visit to the Bay city, my plan was to take in everything -- the Golden Gate Bridge, the redwoods, Alcatraz. But somehow I returned to Baltimore with a suitcase stuffed with wine and catalogs from organic farmers and patisseries.

Sure, we did other things. During the day, we rode bikes across the bridge, shopped at the ring of designer stores around Union Square, sipped wines in Napa Valley and weaved around the cliffs along Route 1 on the way to Bodega Bay.

But in the evenings, and sometimes for lunch, we delighted in artistic dishes featuring fresh, locally grown ingredients that succeed year-round in the region's mild and steady climate.

What follows is the weeklong "foodie" circuit selected by my chowhound sister -- and certified by the city's food elite, who leave restaurants with notes and doggie bags. The stops ranged from fine dining to Andrea's homey neighborhood trattoria.

Dinner and a movie

The Mission District is a dense, diverse neighborhood of Hispanics and dot-com hipsters, grittiness and lavishness. The sleek restaurant Foreign Cinema is all "dot-com."

We entered through a long hallway softly illuminated with tea candles, passed through polished art deco doors and were seated under a portable heater in the large outdoor courtyard. The Oscar-winning musical "Cabaret" was beamed onto a big white wall from the restaurant's second floor.

Every night, diners get both dinner and a movie. Why an American musical was showing at "Foreign" Cinema is anyone's guess, but the toned-down vocals provided plenty of entertainment as we listened to one of our guests -- an electrical engineer -- sing along with Liza Minnelli.

I ordered a Mediterranean-flavored and perfectly cooked medley of lamb, quail and duck. But it's the memories of the decor, and not the food, that have lasted.

Funky and modern

On another evening, we ordered "small plates" at the contemporary Restaurant Lulu, set in a renovated 1910 warehouse.

The eatery was again on the scale of Foreign Cinema with an airy (read: noisy) atmosphere and a Provencal menu centered around the wood-fired ovens.

We shared a wood-fired wild mushroom pizza, duck confit salad, rosemary-scented chicken, baked chevre, roasted salmon and roasted garlic and goat cheese ravioli. Everything but the lettuce tasted as if it had been slowly roasted.

The restaurant also offers take-home LuLu Gourmet items, including vinegars, tapenades and sauces.

From LuLu's, we hailed a cab to Tunnel Top, my sister's favorite bar, which is above the Stockton Street tunnel.

Andrea describes Tunnel Top as "dive chic." Translation: The place looks like a dive and, thus, makes the yuppies who frequent the place feel less pretentious than they really are.

The Web site sfstation.com sums up the "ultra-funky" spot with "No cover charge. No attitude. Free DJs every night."

Italian

The next day, after eating a late lunch at the end of a long bike ride, I was too full to order a dinner entree at my sister's favorite neighborhood spot, Trattoria Contadina.

I settled for a Caesar salad and grew even more frustrated with my full stomach after I stole a bite of gnocchi alla Napolentana off my mother's plate.

Having been raised on my Italian grandmother's recipe, I know my gnocchi. Contadina's is the best I've had -- at a restaurant. The pasta was silky, and the sauce creamy, but not too heavy.

The restaurant is a short trolley ride up the hill from Fisherman's Wharf. It's quite possibly the only spot in the Little Italy-North Beach tourist district where you won't find tourists. (Other than me.)

Out-of-town travel writers and food critics often miss it -- likely because the dining area is no larger than my one-bedroom apartment. Had my sister not lived around the corner, I'm sure I would have missed it, too.

Spanish

I was worried before I arrived at Piperade.

This was the top-notch restaurant Andrea selected for us after a night tour of Alcatraz. But the one review of Piperade I had read heralded the escargot, a delicacy out-of-sync with my family's Midwestern roots.

The review gave a far too pretentious picture. Soft light warms Piperade's wood-paneled walls, creating a simple, cozy and slightly rustic atmosphere.

Piperade's flavors are robust and inventive. My monkfish seasoned with cumin and coriander certainly had a zing to it. I knew the food was European, but I couldn't pinpoint the region. After doing some research online, I learned the cuisine was Basque, a northern region of Spain.

For the first and only time during the vacation, the chef, Gerald Hirigoyen, visited our table. He noticed us thumbing through our Alcatraz brochures and didn't raise his nose. (Nor did our waitress when we passed on wine.)

Service in between courses was slow, but more importantly, it always came with a smile.

Napa Valley

Bay-area cuisine can't be fully appreciated without a 60-mile trip to Napa and Sonoma counties -- long known for their wineries, and more recently, their eateries.

We spent two days touring wineries, including Robert Mondavi, Chateau Montelena and V. Sattui, which is perfect for picnics or families with children.

Brats and burgers sizzle on V. Sattui's outdoor grills. The gourmet deli inside the tasting room serves sandwiches. Wine tastings are free.

We wanted to have dinner at Napa Valley's French Laundry, the only restaurant to win Michelin's coveted three stars, but couldn't afford that option. Instead, we chose two of the 23 restaurants that earned single stars: Bistro Jeanty in Yountville and Terra in St. Helena.

Bistro Jeanty looks just like the bistros I had visited in Paris with the requisite copper pot, porcelain hen and fireplace.

The fare is equally traditional. I ordered the signature beef stew for lunch. It was flavorful and filled with generous chunks of meat and vegetables, but very heavy.

The Zagat guide describes Bistro Jeanty's food as "stick-to-the-ribs" and "spectacular." In my case, the stew stuck so long that I was still bloated come dinner at Terra.

Terra was to be the culinary highlight of my week. The restaurant is behind St. Helena's main thoroughfare on a street as dark and deserted as an alley.

Husband-and-wife owners and chefs Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone met while working in the kitchen of Wolfgang Puck's Spago and are known globally for visionary New American dishes that meld Sone's Japanese, French and Italian influences.

However, yet again, my full stomach forced me to order appetizers: the Jerusalem artichoke soup with a sandwich of local goat cheese and the Dungeness crab raviolis in cioppino sauce. After a day of tastings, I passed on wine.

I was pleased to detect no hint of disdain from our waiter, who I'm sure would have preferred more indulgent customers. I hope to return to Terra, and the next time, I'll skip lunch.

Sonoma County

Still reeling from two days of epicurean luxury, we canceled lunch reservations the next day at another Michelin-rated spot and decided to stop at The Jimtown Store, a kitschy former general store in Sonoma County with a dirt parking lot, barn and antique trucks.

The gourmet sandwiches provided the dose of Americana and affordability that we needed. However, we made a mistake in ordering the sandwiches to go and taking them to nearby J Vineyards & Winery for a picnic.

Despite the fact that we were eating our sandwiches at a table mostly out of public view and on a patio that was completely deserted on a cloudy Monday afternoon, a winery employee rudely told us that we couldn't eat there. "J," she said, didn't have a "picnic license."

I'm not sure what other purpose the tables could have served at that moment. In retribution, we decided to leave without the armful of purchases we made at other stops.

For dinner, we drove back to my sister's apartment, due west of and halfway up the hill from Fisherman's Wharf. After overwhelming my palate for two days, it felt good to eat rice out of a box from Trader Joe's.

Farmers market

San Fransciscans certainly have a plethora of great restaurants to choose from, but if they want to have a four-star meal at home, they do their shopping at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

On Tuesdays and Saturdays, the market brings Northern California's best organic food and growers to the city.

The free samples alone at this behemoth market are enough to constitute a lunch. I tasted mandarin oranges, pomegranate juice, peach and nectarine preserves, sausages, sauerkraut, a lime merengue tort and fresh-baked baguettes, to name a few.

For chocolate, skip the overhyped Ghiradelli Square and go to Recchiuti Confections, a permanent retailer inside the ferry building founded in 1997 by a husband-and-wife team. The French-inspired boxed chocolates make excellent gifts.

Also find Frog Hollow Farm's stand on the rear plaza overlooking the bay. The peach conserve, the farm's most popular product, is so sweet and tasty that I ate it straight from the jar.

Worth the wait

Standing in line for more than an hour for Sunday brunch at Mama's on Washington Square wasn't necessarily the best way to end a vacation.

The tiny North Beach restaurant with yellow walls and kitschy curtains is in such demand that it operates under martial law. "Bouncers" at the door let in one party at a time. You order at the counter, pay before you eat and then wait again to be seated.

But, oh, the food. The jams are homemade and the french toast moist, but not soggy. It's divine. My sister's only request was that I send this message to foodie tourists who venture there: "Come early and eat quick."

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