Sampling what's new in San Francisco

Sampling what's new in San Francisco
Weekend shoppers peruse organic produce at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. (Craig Nakano / LAT)
This city has plenty of aches and pains — a dot-com hangover, an economic malaise exacerbated by weak foreign tourism and now the SARS outbreak, which has even some locals skittish about strolling through Chinatown.

So thank goodness for folks like Nigel Walker. I came across the jolly, English-born organic farmer basking in the sunshine at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, where he was thrusting a wilted bunch of white flowers toward passersby.

"Ladies, would you like to smell my sweet peas?" he asked with a devilish grin. "Smell my sweet peas!"

I kept expecting some well-mannered woman to slap the guy. But shopper after shopper simply responded with niceties such as, "Why, yes," or an enthusiastic sniff followed by, "Mmm, sweet indeed!"

Venture capital and foreign tourists may come and go, but the goofballs and free spirits — the crazies, as my mom calls them — giddily remain. Earlier this month I was glad to find the city's quirky vibe still intact, even as San Francisco works to reinvent itself. At every turn, something old was new again: Union Square, known as much for its vagrants as for its shopping, had been cleaned up; the Ferry Building, a century-old transit hub, had been reborn as a fine food emporium; and the Asian Art Museum, its collection worth $3 billion to $5 billion, had reopened in a new home.

My plan was to revisit the sights with my parents, a good-natured pair who don't mind my teasing. They live near San Francisco but rarely venture into the city because of the traffic and the aforementioned crazies. For Dad, the weekend would be an early Father's Day present. For Mom, parole from the kitchen.

Saturday morning, JetBlue took me from Long Beach to Oakland, a route the airline inaugurated in September. I wasn't picking up the folks until the afternoon, so I drove to the Embarcadero and side-by-side culinary attractions: the Ferry Building Marketplace, upscale food stalls open daily inside a renovated San Francisco landmark; and the outdoor Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which sets up four days a week and is run by a nonprofit group devoted to sustainable agriculture.

I saved the Marketplace for Sunday and focused on the farmers market, a veritable Northern California foodie hall of fame: organic lettuce from Green Gulch Farm in Marin County, crusty loaves from Acme Bread of Berkeley, olive oil from McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma. Tomales Bay's Hog Island Oyster Co. drew a crowd with raw and barbecued oysters on the half-shell.

I made the rounds, sampling silky buffalo milk ricotta from Cowgirl Creamery and artichoke tapenade from LuLu Petit, an offshoot of San Francisco's Restaurant LuLu. At Nigel Walker's booth, I dipped a cube of sourdough into olive oil and lavender salt from organic Eatwell Farm near Dixon. Foodies grazed elbow to elbow, including one mom who evicted her son from his stroller so she could use it as a shopping cart.

My haul: Scharffen Berger chocolate, cappuccino-flavored honey-roasted almonds, organic cherries and sinfully good pear-ginger upside-down muffins.

What gives the market its distinctly San Francisco flavor is the backdrop: an 1898 train depot and ferry landing modeled after the 12th century Giralda cathedral tower in Seville, Spain. On one side lies the waterfront and the Bay Bridge, on the other the Transamerica pyramid and its sister skyscrapers. In between: lots of crazies.

I zigzagged south along the Embarcadero toward the still-evolving neighborhood around PacBell Park. Here I found the Slanted Door, an acclaimed Vietnamese restaurant that opened in 1995 and moved here to Brannan Street last year. My imperial rolls stuffed with taro root, cabbage and glass noodles, and a rice-noodle stir-fry with chicken and shiitakes, were as pleasing as the handsome quarters.

But now the time had come to pick up Mom and Dad and head for Union Square. During the Gold Rush, poor prospectors used it as a free campground. Despite the high-end retail that eventually sprang up around it, the square remained a province of vagrants for decades.

For better or worse, the city has removed trees and bushes to deter squatters and make the square less ominous, especially at night. The result is a largely flat, concrete-and-granite block with patches of grass and flowers. Four light sculptures by R.M. Fischer were dedicated in April, and a cafe run by Emporio Rulli of Larkspur, in Marin County, is set to open in July.

We made our way to Kuleto's, an Italian restaurant just off the square on Powell Street. Mom liked her dinner, tender gnocchi with Dungeness crab. My penne with lamb sausage also was good, and though Dad thought his grilled king salmon with toasted hazelnuts was mediocre, the espresso crème brûlée for dessert seemed to compensate.

From ferries to farmers

I had reserved two nights for myself at the Mark Hopkins Inter-Continental, the 1926 tower atop Nob Hill, figuring I'd hop a cable car down California Street on Sunday morning to the Hyatt Regency, where I had reserved one night for Mom and Dad. The Hyatt was good for them because it's across the street from the Ferry Building and has a view of San Francisco Bay, or so I thought.

The Mark Hopkins ($139 a night plus tax) proved comfortable and well appointed, but the Hyatt Regency ($99 plus tax) was bland and had no bay-view rooms available. Being the selfless, modest son that I am, I took the lesser room and made a big production about it.

Sunday we were back outside the Ferry Building for the weekly garden market. Mom asked a vendor about the difference between red basil and the Japanese shiso plant. Dad made small talk with an Aptos flower farmer selling pincushion proteas for $1.50 a stem. I mostly waited for the chitchat to stop, wandering into the Ferry Building Marketplace for a short history lesson.

The heyday of water transit, displays said, was in the 1920s and early '30s, when San Francisco ferries made more than 50 million passenger trips a year. The completion of the Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 hastened their decline, and in the early 1950s the building's long nave was filled in with offices. Another indignity came in 1957, when the Embarcadero Freeway was completed and the grand facade was obscured by a raised highway.

Forty-six years, one 7.1 earthquake and $100 million later, the Embarcadero Freeway is gone and the Ferry Building's interior has been restored to its full splendor. The '50s additions are gone, the 660-foot-long arcade lined with gourmet food stalls and skylights. Some permanent tenants have moved in, but storefronts are still under construction, expected to open later in summer occupied by many of the farmers market vendors.

All Asia under one roof

Renovation also is the word at the Asian Art Museum, which left Golden Gate Park and reopened in March in the Civic Center's old main library, a 1917 Beaux Arts building revamped under the direction of Gae Aulenti, the architect of Paris' Musée d'Orsay.

Docent Sandy Binder led us past some of the 2,500 items on display, part of a 15,000-piece collection that spans 6,000 years. We saw a rhinoceros-shaped bronze Chinese vessel dating to 1050 BC, 11th century Hindu statues from Cambodia and contemporary Japanese basketry that was more sculpture than mere container.

Binder also showed off the $160.5-million renovation: the carefully restored wood beams on the ceiling, the clever panels covering the windows and the old library's soaring main reading room, now split into two floors with low ceilings.

The resulting space is intimate or claustrophobic, depending on your point of view. Our reviews were mixed. Mom loved it. The building struck me as not quite right in size or design for the collection — a bit like an octopus trying to curl up in a hermit crab's shell. Dad seemed indifferent. But we all were impressed by the breadth of the collection.

After the tour, Mom and Dad stopped again — more chatting, this time with Binder. She reeled off trivia, asking Dad, "If the Asian Art Museum is the city's second most valuable asset, what is No. 1?"

The answer was real estate, but without missing a beat, my father said, "It's not Willie Brown."

I rolled my eyes — ugh, a mayor joke. But Binder and the gallery security guard let out a good hoot and were still laughing as we left them for the museum cafe.

We had a nice late lunch — sesame beef for me, bento boxes for my parents — then spent the rest of the afternoon driving through San Francisco, spying more construction by Fisherman's Wharf and the Presidio.

I drove my parents home, then moved to the Mark Hopkins for the night. It turns out hotel rates in the city have dropped, but parking rates have shot up — $35 a day at the Mark, as high as $48 at other hotels. Highway robbery, Dad would call it. In the spirit of Father's Day, I found overnight parking on the street, figuring that this form of silent, penny-pinching protest would please him as much as any Father's Day present I could buy.