Thursday, February 7, 2013


Arrived in San Francisco on Tuesday afternoon with no problems. This is a total relaxing week where I plan to do as little as possible, other than seeing friends, taking in a few museum shows, and doing a little nostalgic dining out at old and favorite haunts. First stop was San Mateo where I spent a fine evening with my twin brother, Scott and his lady, Bernadette. Scott made his party dish--lasagne, which was rich in cheese, meat and noodles. It's mother's jiggered recipe, an frankly it's better because Ma used cottage cheese and Scott insists sliced hard-boiled eggs!  I'm absolutely sure I've stifled that memory, but I was grateful that they hadn't made it into Scott's version. The sheer cost of living in California has them more determined than ever to leave and re-locate to the Portland area. The house they are living in costs more than $400 a month for gas and electricity. Gas is, of course, higher here (about $3.79 at the pump vs. about $3.35 in Oregon).

I'm renting a room for three days in the private home of a San Franciscan resident, whose home is perched high up near Twin Peaks. Urging my rented little Mazda Matrix 2 (red, of course!) up those treacherous San Francisco hills is a tad unnerving, but eventually I made it.  The owner, is a charming man, whose companion, a tiny long-haired Chihuahua named Finch, has already visited me several times in my room, staying for a nap while I watched a movie on my iPad last night. A retired CPA from the tech world, John owns a stucco triplex, and rents two of the rooms on the website. $80 a night with a clean and well furnished room that is attractive and spacious. The room comes with the bathroom. The upstairs living room, dining area and kitchen are designed in one big open-plan with three huge windows that showcase one of the most spectacular views of the city imaginable.  This shot was taken in the morning (we are having near-perfect weather--abundant sunshine, low 50s in the morning and getting up to about 60 in the day. Cool and comfortable), but at night the city is a lit jewel and the panoramic sight is stunning.

Up and out early this morning and decided to head over the the Castro area which is relatively close by for breakfast.  I find San Francisco's "Gay Ghetto" diminished of energy since AIDS decimated the communities ranks in the 80s and 90s. Like everywhere else the real estate now rivals New York in cost. A one bedroom condo may have a little more space and amenities than in New York, but it will still set you back more than $600K. Two bedrooms easily takes you over the $million mark. An hour's worth of parking is $2.00 when you can find it. The city still remains one of the most difficult to maneuver around in a car and parking is virtually an impossibility, such as in Golden Gate Park, where I had hoped to take in a Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals and other Dutch masters. No parking available, so I chose to make an emotional visit to Lonnie's next-door neighbor, Abbie.

When I arrived at the flat, Abbie was sitting outside on the stoop, reading a book and enjoying her morning coffee. She greeted me warmly, and we shared many memories of our good friend, who passed away at the end of March last year. Lonnie had lived in that flat for forty-seven years (Abbie's preceded him by two), and was a well-loved member of the community. Lonnie took very long walks every day stopping if he ran into a neighbor for a chat, sharing gossip of the neighborhood or exchanging information on parking cars, who perhaps a local crime or break-in. I asked Abbie, who had cleaned out the garage, a dumping ground for many of Lonnie's estate sale purchases, which he hoped to sell on Ebay. He did sell a lot, but he collected more. Lonnie was a pack rat and it toook Abbie more than three weeks to get rid of everything. They had a garage sale, and than whatever wasn't sold, was put on the sidewalk with a sign--FREE! The rest went to salvagers and city disposal.

Lonnie's garden was a tangle of trees planted with no thought as to form or the space in the back yard. It was a deep lot and could have been a wonderful haven, but Lonnie had no formal design in mind, nor did he spend much time out there. Abbie never enjoyed gardening, so the area had become an urban jungle with Cala Lillies growing everywhere; Ivy that was chocking every tree in the back yard, numerous jade plants, all gifts to Lonnie over the years. He would simply plant them in the back yard haphazardly. There was a giant Cymbidium orchid which in bloom produced more than 100 flowers, and Abbie was able to give it to one of Lonnie's friends, as it was in a large terra cotta pot. She didn't want the responsibility. She took up the round terra cotta stones and spent days clearing out the flora and much of the junk that had been left outside. I was astonished at the orderliness of this newly renovated garden. Lonnie would have preferred the mess, but it now looked beautiful and inviting, and I could imagine some chairs and a table and wondered why not put the bird bath in the middle of the garden instead of being up against the fence at the end.  Lonnie's apartment has been renovated with a new kitchen and bathroom, and all fresh paint. Two students are now sharing the space and god knows what the rent is now, though the landlord is certainly due for as high a rent as he can charge, since Lonnie virtually paid nothing all those years.

With no parking near the De Young Museum, I went in search of lunch and there was one of my old reliables--Anchor Oyster Bar filled the bill nicely. This thirty-five year veteran of the Castro neighborhood, has been serving New England Clam Chowder, oysters, and other seafood specialties in it's pristine setting complete with marble bar, white tiled floors and walls, a mirrored menu above the kitchen, and about seven stainless steel tables. At night Anchor is packed with a sign-up board and a strict no seating of incomplete parties. At lunch it is a little more relaxed and I hitched myself to the bar with my Kindle reader ready to eat. Among the specials today was a toasted shrimp and Dungeness crab and melted cheddar cheese sandwich of a flattened square of Italian bread. This molten miracle has  a little cayenne for some kick and it came with a nice green salad with a creamy garlic dressing. A nice Provencal Rose completed my lunch. Afterwards, I decided to check out more of the neighborhood. I am astonished at how sophisticated this neighborhood has become. I went to junior high school a few blocks away. During the 60s, this was an aging neighborhood of middle-class homeowners. The houses were beautiful and tightly shoe-horned. While there are the famous brightly painted Victorian homes along Dolores Street, when I was a kid, the colors were far more muted. Property values have skyrocketed to the point where people have made major investments in the look of the houses in the area, and it's a spectacular neighborhood, well-cared for. I saw one Victorian with a finished second floor, but the main floor and garage/basement, was completely gutted and the contractor and his workers were finished with the re-framing of the main floor. Another worker was installing new stairs. This renovation was extensive and most likely meant a huge mortgage or re-financing of an existing one.

The house pride of the city is quite remarkable. Along with Seattle, I don't think I've seen as wide a variety of beautiful, creative homes that are well maintained, with each looking so distinctive. Portland is more conventional in its architecture, whereas Seattle and San Francisco take a certain pride in the architectural specialness of their neighborhoods. I do have one complaint and it's been a complaint for many years. San Francisco has surprisingly fewer trees than in any other city I've ever visited. There are parks and hills that have abundant trees, but too many of the city's streets are lacking in trees and it looks odd to me. Portland, on the other hand, is wall-to-wall tree. You practically need permission to cut a tree down on your property and it will cost you a fortune to get rid of one.

My walk took me to shops, but I'm not really interested in shopping during this trip. Back at the house I'm more than halfway through THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB by Will Schwalbe, a colleague from my days at William Morrow. It is a very moving memoir about the last two years of his mother's life, and their mutual love of books (before launching his start-up website,, Will had previously been editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books in New York).  Their reading ranges widely and includes fiction, non-fiction, old classics and new. It's a remarkable tribute by a son to his mother, a woman who spent her life in academia, raised three kids, and traveled all over the world in support of refugees. It deserves all the glowing reviews it has received.

At eight, I began to think about dinner, and instantly I determined that I would to another old favorite--Zuni Cafe. Amazingly, this mainstay of upper Market Street, is thirty-three years old. Founding chef, Judy Rodgers, still presides over the kitchen. I can't tell you the last time I ate there--was it really back in the 90s? I have Judy's cookbook in my kitchen, and I've cooked from it infrequently over the years, particularly the restaurant's famous roast chicken with arugula salad and large bread croutons. It somewhat reminds me of Union Square Cafe in New York in that it was one of the first restaurants to buy its products from local farmers. Chez Panisse, which is probably forty years old now, pioneered this farm-to-table concept in American restaurants, and it has had an enormous influence ever since. The large, and spacious location has been renovated and is no longer quite as rustic looking as it was during its formative years. The menu is beautifully conceived, and as I read it, I honestly didn't see anything that I wouldn't have wanted to eat.

I wanted oysters tonight, and Zuni Cafe offers a wide variety. I chose three, two local and one from Washington plus two Little Neck clams which made me nostalgic for New York. Served with a mignonette sauce using an excellent quality vinegar, it was all the oysters needed to please. The bread served here is a rustic sourdough whole wheat bread, which Rodgers insists should have the most crackling crust imaginable--and it does. The inside manages to be both chewy and tender and had this lightly sour, yeasty, wheat flavor that made me inhale it all. Served with good butter, it was delicious with both the oysters and the salad that followed:  a radicchio/endive mixture with three types of oranges (regular, blood oranges and clementine pieces tossed with these miraculously fresh and crunchy chopped almonds. The champagne vinaigrette added the right tone of slightly sweet acid to the salad.

I ordered ricotta gnocchi with these tiny mushrooms. I've been making potato gnocchi since I moved to Portland, but a chef friend suggested I begin to make them with ricotta.  This dish, rich in butter and parmesan was ethereal. These beautiful, shapely little clouds virtually floated on the butter. I cut each small gnocchi in half with my fork and refused to rush through them. I will try to make them when I return home.  This simple meal was accompanied by two glasses of Bandol Rose, and at the end of the meal, I ordered a single espresso to close out a memorable repast. It's remarkable to see a restaurant still on top of its game after more than three decades of lunches and dinners, parties, and a copper bar that is a major destination for the city's movers and shakers for a drink. Chef Rodgers runs a smoothly functioning enterprise here with grace and a passion for great food. People look so happy eating and drinking here. The service is on the same level as any of Danny Meyer's celebrated restaurants in New York (Grammercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe, etc.). Zuni Cafe is a shining example that you can go home again.

The agenda for Thursday was a two-hour tour of San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. Other than the sticker shock of paying $18 to go through  museum, SFMOMA is impressive for the range of its holdings, and is well worth your time. Try to take city transportation. Traffic in downtown San Francisco (it's near the Moscone Center for Conventions), is a nerve-wracking exercise in urban hell.

Another area of the city I haven't been to in more than 30 years is Union Street--a once charming business are in the Pacific Heights area of the city. Back in the 60s when I was a teenager, it was a four-block stretch of exclusive ladies boutiques (with a few men's shops), elegant restaurants, antique stores, and one coffee house-- Coffee Cantata--a handsome cafe that served coffee drinks, food and some wine, if I remember correctly. Today it is gone. There are other coffee cafes in the area (including Starbucks, which still is the worst designer coffee sold in America), but it now encompasses nine blocks and is full of fitness centers, nail and skin salons, and other worthless shops selling stuff most of us don't need. But it is diverting for a quick tour. Today I had lunch at Rose's Cafe, a well-established destination for breakfast, lunch or a snack. The pale wood interiors make the place feel very Euro, and the marble topped counters where one can sit solo for lunch with hanging glasses above the bar. The tables overflow with young mothers, children in tow, lovers meeting for lunch, and tourists. There is an outdoor seating space as well.  I chose a warm chicken sandwich with caramelized onion on warm ciabatta, which came with a mixed green salad. Tasty with my ice coffee. I could read, and people watch from my perch.

Back to the car, I wandered into a shop that was a little clothing boutique for women, but also sold table-top linens, glasses and dishes, and brac-a-brac for the house. The owner of the store and I struck up a conversation. She had owned the shop for the past eight years and was getting ready to throw in the towel. She was appalled that Sephora and AT & T had moved in along with a Nine West shoe store. She was especially critical of the singles bar scene that had taken over the neighborhood in the last few years. But formerly specialized shopping neighborhoods all over the country had changed hands and evolved into a sort of mini-mall with national brands moving in while forcing the smaller shops which sold unique items to close because the rents have gone sky high.

San Francisco is now nearly as expensive a city to live in as New York. The city's best restaurants charge New York prices. The only difference in rents here is that you tend to get a bit more space for the money, but they are just as pricey, and the cost of owning a condo or a home is horrendous. One might find a fixer-upper bungalow for $500K, but it will need a lot of renovation. Parking is as ominous here as it is in New York, and the driving is just as nerve wracking. At least New York has no deeply steep hills. Like New York, the city's middle class has been squeezed out to make room for this generation's movers and shakers. But the same thing exists in other big cities such as Boston, Chicago, Seattle, and Denver. I'm glad Portland is an affordable city (at least for the time being). Still the city is a perfect jewel to visit and offers lots of diversions, culture, great dining, and plenty to see. 

Must remember to bring my camera with me tonight. I'm going to see my friends, Rita and Riccardo and meet their new baby boy, Luca!

This is Finch, a two-year-old long-haired Chihuahua mix who lives with the host of my roomstay in San Francisco. Finch likes to come downstairs to my room to wake me up in the mornings, or lie on my bed and take a nap if I'm answering my e-mail.  He's an excellent guard dog, but mostly he's a lovely, friendly little guy.