Tag Archives: Hayes Valley

Neighborhood Exploration: Hayes & Kebab

Monday, Ali made falafel. Nothing exotic — it from a mix, baked in the oven, and served in a split pita. I’ve had this falafel before; it will satisfy my craving in a pinch, but doesn’t stack up to the genuine article.* Oven-baked is healthier — I get it — but health value doesn’t do much for a food whose main selling point is its luscious, fried crispness.

For a solid day, I craved falafel. I thought of Amanouz, the Mediterranean-inspired cafe on Main Street Northampton, where I’d get strong tea, couscous with lamb, Greek salads. Falafel, of course. Amanouz had a dining room scarcely wider than the tables it housed; one had to walk through the kitchen to get to the restroom, apologizing to each of the cooks en route. It was homey; it was cheap. I miss that place.

Hayes & Kebab (near Hayes and Laguna) (re-)opened a few months ago. The site was under construction for like, a year, and every time I took the 21 past it, I thought, “Huh, I wonder if that place is ever going to open.” By the end of my bus ride, I’d forgotten H&K, my thotz diverted to more pressing matters.

One day, Hayes and Kebab was open. The dining room was packed with peeps drinking pints, peeps eating pita — peeps! “Hey,” I thought, “I want some pita! I want a pint!” I resolved to try H&K as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

Lo and behold, opportunity knocked on Tuesday night. Hook, not a fan of Mediterranean cuisine but a fan of Trying New Things, joined me on this jaunt. We arrived at prime dinner time (6:30), but the restaurant was mostly empty. No problem there — we snagged a prime seat just beside the front door.

Before I’d even arrived, I’d read the menu, weighed my options, and decided what to get. (Spoiler alert: I got falafel, but you knew that at the outset.) Not just any falafel, mind you, but the King Falafel. How does that differ from the common variety? In addition to the standard fixins’, the King includes cubed feta and grilled eggplant. Helllllllll yeah — I will never turn down the option of feta. Test me.

True to form, Hook ordered lamb: kebabs served with rice pilaf, barley pilaf, green salad, and bread. Good thing he was hongry. Oh, and we got our pints — Blue Moon for me, Coors(?) for H. We sipped as we waited for our food — rather a long wait, given the empty dining room, but not an egregiously bad one. We warmed in the evening sun, enjoying the stillness of our surroundings. That’s one thing H&K had going for it this Tuesday: a relatively peaceful seating area. Those are hard to come by in this city, and they don’t go unappreciated.

My falafel was much as I expected: crrrrrrrrrrrisp, shiny with grease, cooled by a slather of hummus, swaddled in shredded lettuce. Served in lavash, the sandwich had been grilled; the edges of the bread were cracker-crisp, and I swooned. This sandwich was perfect. Bonus: I saved the other half for the next day’s lunch, using the fillings to top a bed of spinach. Falafel salad is a close second to a proper wrap.

Hook’s food was not as impressive. The lamb was a tad overcooked (though, as Hook noted, you might not want to eat rare lamb at a fast-casual place), the bread was chewy, and the salad just was. Most surprisingly, the pilafs were both bland — like cafeteria food with all sodium omitted. I couldn’t wrap my head around why both sides were so tasteless. Even the rice I make at home — unseasoned and unadorned — is more flavorful! Sad to say, we suffered a #majorsidedishfail. Sorry, H&K: your sides don’t cut the mustard.

For now, I’ve found my falafel joint. Hayes & Kebab is close, cheap, and well-lit. BUT, don’t think I’m settling down: oh, no. No no no. My falafel hunt is far from over, friends. H&K’s wrap was good — pretty good, even — but this city is bound to have better. And, as my 3rd-grade gym teacher always said,** “Good, better, best/never let it rest/until your good becomes your better/and your better, your best.” DAMN STRAIGHT!

Holy grail of falafel, you will be mine.

***

*From-a-mix falafel satisfies a falafel craving the same way that Cool Whip between chocolate graham crackers sates an ice cream sandwich craving.

**Albeit about non-food pursuits, but who’s looking at context?

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Neighborhood Exploration: Flipper’s

I’ve long been a fan of Hayes Valley: its high density of restaurants, its rows of cute boutiques where I can always (without fail) find something to buy, its proximity to downtown. Alright, its proximity to downtown isn’t a major selling point, but it’s no detraction, either.

Now that I’ll be spending a good chunk of each weekend in the Valley, I want to get to know the area better. I’ve got the main points, easy — Frjtz, Gimme Shoes, Boulange, &c — but I want to know all the nooks and crannies, too.

Enter Flipper’s. Tuesday, I had an evening appointment; Hook suggested dinner in HV. He first proposed Frjtz but quickly backtracked.

“We know Frjtz,” he said. “Let’s try something new.”

“Word!” said I. It’s hard to break me out of my restaurant ruts, even when those ruts steer me to less-than-blah joints like Squat & Gobble (or All You Knead).

Only one of my friends has ever been to Flipper’s; his description of the experience was, “Eh, it was OK.” This friend (who no longer lives in the city, I’m sad to say) doesn’t have extreme reactions to most things, and I attributed his indifference to his personality. For all I knew, Flipper’s was AWESOME. My friend could have been hiding The Glory of Flipper’s, saving all the curly fries for himself. I didn’t actually believe this, but you never know.

Oh, but I did know — I did my research. Yelpers give Flipper’s 3.5 stars, which is the kiss o’ death: death by boredom. The Yelp reviews that most interest me are the highest and the bottom-of-the-barrel lowest. When a place gets 1,039 five-star reviews, chances are slim that you’ll hate it. On the other hand, places with a lone star (or two) gain mega redemption points if your meal there doesn’t give you food poisoning, if no roach scuttles from under your garnish. I’m a sucker for redemption stories, but it’s hard to bounce back from being meh. What is the opposite of meh? Less meh?

H & I arrived at Flipper’s around 6:15 to a near-empty dining room. We seated ourselves by the aquarium — which looked septic: DO NOT SIT NEXT TO IT IF YOU WANT TO KEEP YOUR APPETITE — and were brought waters & beers right away. The waitstaff were friendly and efficient: our drinks, foodstuffs, and bill were brought promptly and served with a smile-grimace. (I’ve been a waitress; I know how hard it is to fake a smile after 7 or 8 hours on your feet. No points off for the -grimace.)

This LOOKS tasty, but don't be fooled.

How did our fare fare? What’s your guess? H got a regular cheeseburger; I got a schmancy patty topped with bleu cheese, walnuts, and chopped beets. Both sandwiches came with curly fries. Despite our dishes’ differences, Hook and I reached the same conclusion: the food was passable. Not bad, really, but not good: totally standard in a cafeteria sort of way. Case in point: I normally love curly fries (and will perform some True Acts of Willpower to avoid eating a plateful), but these were just…eh. Kinda mushy, totally unseasoned. I ate only the curliest fries and left the rest to stiffen in their own grease.

Ordering, I had high hopes for my burger — I’m a beet fanatic (had some at lunch, yo!), and this sammie sounded like a fusion of my fave salad + BEEF. The concept was solid, but the execution bombed. The beets were obviously canned, the blue cheese lacked a distinct flavor, and the beef was rubbery. As we scanned the menu, Hook noted that Flipper’s doesn’t list the ranch from which it buys its beef. No, it’s not that kind of place.

Which is odd, because it defines itself as a “Gourmet Hamburger Place.” I’m not sure how the proprietor made this assessment — the meat itself is hardly gourmet, and though the menu features some interesting topping combinations, the ingredients are of middling quality. If you’re going to compete with the other burger joints in this town, you need to do more than spread some canned veggies on an 80/20 puck.

Flipper’s, I’m sad it had to end this way (i.e., with nary a backward glance). I wish I could incorporate you into my Hayes Valley Restaurant Rotation, but to do so would require me to stomach ounces and ounces of low-quality beef, and that ain’t right. We’re just not meant to be. You go back to your chuck-lovin’ patrons, and I’ll go back to my poppyseed-dusted brioche rolls, and neither of us will be the worse for wear.

 

Good News in the Garkyverse:

Friends, I have some exciting news to share with you all: this month, I’ll begin giving weekend culinary tours of Hayes Valley.

That’s right: I’m now a member of the Gourmet Walks staff. (My bio isn’t on the page yet, but will be soon!) Gourmet Walks, founded in 2005 by Andrea Nadel, offers four different food-centric tours in and around San Francisco. The Chocolate Tour showcases the best that local chocolatiers have to offer; the Chocolate and Wine tour teaches guests how to pair fine wines and chocolates (and subsequently earn the title of Best Host or Hostess ever). Gourmet Napa highlights the freshest samplings of downtown Napa, including oysters, wine-infused chocolates, and homemade whoopie pies. And, last but not least, Gourmet San Francisco leads guests through Hayes Valley, known for its eateries, its hip residents, and its jawesome boutiques (which will, along with its restaurants, drain one’s finances, if one isn’t careful).

Yesterday, I experienced the Hayes Valley tour as a guest, and it was awesome. I know what you’re thinking: “Yeah, yeah: of course Garky’s going to say that — she has a vested interest!” Point noted, friends, but guess what? I’m not hyperbolizing. True, Hayes Valley was already one of my favorite microhoods, and true, I do have a vested interest, but the tour Beth gave offered a perfect view, IMHO, of all Hayes Valley has to offer.

It helps, certainly, that yesterday’s weather was pastorally perfect. It helps too that a design festival was being held at Patricia’s Green, so the whole neighborhood was alive & abustle. These factors aside, Beth’s knowledge of the ‘hood, of each food vendor, and of Bay Area culinary history was rock solid. Guests asked about the workings of the Hayes Valley Farm, about the origin of the cheeses we sampled at Arlequin, about Sake in General, and Beth fielded them deftly.

Then there was the sampling. Oh, the sampling: what would a culinary tour be without it? When Gourmet Walks advertises that the samples will be “enough for lunch,” they aren’t kidding. Beginning with preserved meats at Fatted Calf, we munched our way through piles of sweets, nibbled cheeses, and sipped some of the most fabulous cocktails in this quadrant of the city. I’d like to go into greater detail here, but I don’t want to spoil the surprises of the tour(!) Trust me when I say that the last stop (at a new, much-lauded saloon) has made me a rum convert. (Photo from gourmetwalks.com)

Yep, I’m stoked to be joining the Gourmet Walks family. Hayes Valley is my favorite microhood (after my own), and I’m proud that I’ll be sharing its charms with tourists and locals alike. Prior to my first tour, I’m going to beef up my HV knowledge by reading up on the history of the neighborhood, chatting with merchants, and (duh) sampling and re-sampling all the neighborhood sweets. One can never have too much experience when it comes to sampling macarons, amirite? (I am right.)

Restaurant Review: Absinthe

Happy [belated] anniversary to Hook and me! On Wednesday, we celebrated our one-year anniversary with dinner at Absinthe, where Adam Keough started as Executive Chef just a few days earlier (the 17th, if you must know). I’d never been to Absinthe but had heard plenty of raves; the good press + the menu changeover convinced Hook that this would be the ideal place for a romantic dinner.

We began the evening with cocktails. After some hemming and hawing, I chose the Casino, a blend of gin, lemon, maraschino, and orange bitters with a brandied cherry:

The Casino, replicated from a 1938 recipe.

Hook ordered a Galapagos, a combination of Pisco, kaffir lime, lemon-lime, pepper, grapefruit, and three brandied cherries. It was similar to a peppered Pisco Sour; it was delicious. Later, I ordered a Perfect Pear, composed of vodka, pear brandy, lemon and orange, served in a sugar-rimmed glass. Major kudos for the use of extremely fine-textured sugar (none of this clunky, chunky granulated schtuff) and for the subtlety of flavors.

Hongry as we were, we started with bread:

Bread & butter: the proper way to begin a meal.

And also with a dish of olives, marinated in oil, Herbs de Provence, and Meyer Lemon juice. Oily, but good:

Olives marinated in oil, Herbs de Provence, and Meyer Lemon juice.

When dining out, I tend to order things that I don’t make for myself. Generally, this translates to red meat. For my main course, I ordered the Grilled Skirt Steak Frites, served with red wine butter and a mixed green salad. The steak was cooked well, not a hair over medium (as requested) and rubbed with rosemary. Still, I found a few largeish bits of fat that I excised. Salad was pretty basic. Really, the Frites were the shining star of this plate. Wisp-thin, crispy, and moutherwateringly salty, they were like the offspring of Pringles and the fries found at Steak & Shake. I could have eaten the whole golden tangle of them, but I wanted to save room for dessert.

No extra points for plating here, but the fries were damn tasty.

Hook got the pinot-braised short rib with potatoes and mirepoix. For research’s sake, I tried a few bites of his meal and was suitably impressed. The ribs were tender and succulent; the pearl onions sweet, with just enough bite; and the potatoes fork-tender (nary a mushy patch!) and gently browned on the cut surfaces. Beautiful.

I wish I could have expressed the same enthusiasm for our dessert, a scoop of Jasmine rice pudding served atop a chocolate-hazelnut wafer, garnished with Thai tea ganache, a few violet petals, and fanned slices of coriander compressed nectarine. Conceptually, the dish seemed like a winner, but in actuality, it lacked the cohesiveness that would have elevated it to a level of awesomeness. The pudding was good, though the rice was bitier than I’d expected. The wafer provided excellent textural contrast to the pudding, but it was so salty that I almost didn’t want to eat it — prohibitively salty, practically. And the nectarines, though pretty, were very very tart and seemed unripe. It seemed, perhaps, that the introduction of ingredients not traditionally paired with rice pudding were intended to exoticize, defamiliarize the dessert in an appealing way, but I’d take a perfectly prepared, perfectly simple serving of rice pudding over a reinvented version any day. (Note: my photo of the pudding was so blurry that it’s not worth posting here.)

Hook and I will likely be back to Absinthe: the atmosphere is pleasant, the waitstaff attentive, and the bar really well-stocked. Foodwise, Hook’s selection was a lot stronger than mine, though Hook and I agreed that we’d sooner go to Catch or NOPA. Overall rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.