TheGourmez's Recent Reviews
The restaurant’s central showpiece at Christmastime: a colorful, metallic horse.
When I visited the Cityscape Lounge last fall, high up on the 46th floor of the Union Square Hilton, Executive Chef Michael Vaughn was still working on the vision for remodeling the hotel’s ground floor restaurant, Urban Tavern. But he was full of excitement for the project, describing it as the next stage in the evolution of the gastro pub. As of December, and with Chef Michael Raub heading up this branch of the Hilton’s culinary program, that vision has been realized.
Step in from the street, and you’ll find an attractive bar of marble. Tile and wood tie in other natural materials. That aesthetic can also be seen in the metallic reed border in the dining room itself, bringing in a bit of greenery, at least in spirit, to this escape from the city outside.
If you come in through the hotel lobby, the dining room is where you’ll enter, so make sure to cross through it to the host table by the bar. Whatever route taken, be prepared for a feast for the eyes, the stomach, and the imagination. Don’t believe me? Why, I have a case for you!
Evidence #1: Deep-fried deviled eggs! What?! The hard-boiled egg whites are battered and deep fried, filled with the whipped egg yolks and bacon, then topped with white balsamic balls. What a fun way to liven up this old standard! The crunchy bacon added textural contrast.
Evidence #2: Buffalo wings in a way you’ve never seen. This was for sure a highlight of the meal, in large part because of the exceptionally lively fresno chile sauce that paired remarkably well with the pickled veggies, which of course included carrots and celery leaves. Piles of blue cheese foam and chicken meatballs completed the dish. Oh sure, you might argue the meatballs should star, rather than complete, but you haven’t tasted that sauce yet.
Evidence #3: The Year of the Monkey cocktail. Urban Tavern has plenty of fun cocktails to partake in, but the Year of the Monkey topped my list. With apricot liqueur and apricot preserves, you might fear too much sweetness for a proper whiskey drink, but the result is a surprisingly light-bodied beverage. The Jameson Black Barrel strikes a beautiful balance with the sugar content.
Lack of Evidence: A salad with no room for maneuvering. While nicely presented, the serving bowl undid this salad’s potential. When a salad must be cut to be eaten, like this one, a knife must fit in there somewhere. That was a Mission Impossible, or at least Improbable, in this case. The croutons were also too hard, but the Dijon herb vinaigrette was delightful — when I could get down to it.
Evidence #4: Steak that makes me salivate. Most of my readers will be aware by now that I rarely order a slap of beef to cut into for myself, but this is one I’d consider. The balsamic onion marmalade served with it is phenomenal, and Chef Raub’s team shows that oh-so-important basic skill that many cooks never master: applying the perfect amount of salt and pepper. The blistered tomatoes added a warm gush of brightness.
Evidence #5: Saucy sole with a crust. Fish can be so difficult to get right, and Urban Tavern did it by bringing in extra moisture from the accompanying sauce while maintaining a golden char on the sole itself. The side dishes were tasty, and the butter soaked in everywhere it should without pulling focus.
Evidence #6: Chicken cooked under a wine bottle. This will be Urban Tavern’s signature dish, I have no doubt. The presentation is great, and that unique roasting technique yields wonderfully cooked meat. Lots of flavor came with the equally well-roasted potatoes and purple carrots, but, fair warning, the stuffing cakes are on the dry side.
Evidence #7: Sweets that tickle the senses. Feeling creative, Chef Raub came up with his hippie bark the night of our media dinner. It’s the sort of unexpected treat you might find appearing on your table unasked for, if the mood strikes him. The hippie bark was a playful conglomeration of trail mix ingredients melded with chocolate.
Our second dessert — a sea salt, skillet brownie made with TCHO chocolate — was served with brandied cherries, ginger, and honeycomb meringue cookies. It’s all the soothing satisfaction you think it’s going to be. There’s also a citrus panna cotta on the menu that fruit fans will love.
Have I made my case? If you need further convincing, let Chef Raub’s obvious enthusiasm for buying local sway you. He relished speaking of his relationships with his producers and shared his love for witnessing what such fresh, well-tended ingredients spark in his patrons — often a sense of nostalgia and feeling of wholesomeness. That’s likely part of what made him the right chef for the job, as Executive Chef Vaughn considers sustainability in every aspect of the Hilton’s culinary program with an ultimate goal of zero food waste and leaving as small of an environmental footprint as possible for the largest hotel on the West Coast.
While you deliberate, I’m going to slip on out and see if I can scrounge up some more of that hippie bark. I’ve already arrived at my verdict.
This media dinner took place 15 December 2016.
Obligatory disclaimer: This was an invited visit to Dublin’s Paris Baguette and thus, all food and drink was free to me.
Early in November, I was invited out to Paris Baguette’s newest franchisee in the Bay Area: the Dublin store opened just over a month ago at the Almond Plaza shopping center.
Before this visit, I had only been to Paris Baguette twice before, and before my Bay Area move, I had never seen one. Yes, folks, I had no idea this brand was all over the globe! The parent company, SPC Group, is based in Korea, and their first Paris Baguette opened in 1988. They came to the USA in 2005, and the Dublin branch marks the 49th store in this country and one of about 3,500 stores worldwide.
As I walked in, I experienced the familiar sensation of “What do I do?!” that’s greeted me on my past visits to Berkeley’s Paris Baguette. The sensation comes because the first things you see are rows of baked goods, display cases, and shelves without clear instructions on the process for purchasing.
At the Dublin store, there is also a register in back along with menus, cold cases, and a coffee counter. Plan of attack? Grab a cute bamboo tray, select your pastry items, then order everything else you want at the register. Don’t forget to grab some ready-to-go sweet breads for holiday hostess gifts!
Ellie Han, a district representative for the company, guided me through the pastry section, where any of 250 or more baked goods might be available at any given time—the selection is constantly changing. Case in point: Berry cronuts that didn’t come out until after I’d tasted a plate full of baked goods already. Quelle horreur!
Paris Baguette’s Korean influences are clear, playfully intermixing with baked goods of European traditions on the pastry island, sometimes in creative fusion. I went for an eclectic selection to try a little bit of everything.
That’s a lie; there’s no way someone could try a little bit of everything Paris Baguette offers. I’m not sure it’s physically possible. But it’s something to aspire to. My favorite pastry of the day also happens to be Ellie’s: the chocolate roll.
It’s beautiful and has lots of chocolate chips baked in. Try it with a cup of coffee. Paris Baguette makes a great one of those, too, to-go in a distinctive design.
I really liked the earthy, nutty, Café Adagio blend. I also really liked the chestnut roll, which is a yeasty bread that comes crusty on the outside and soft on the inside. I apparently don’t know my nuts very well, because the chestnuts, mixed into the icing and sprinkled on top, tasted just like hazelnuts to me, which is no complaint—hazelnuts are amazing.
The sprinkle of black sesame on the sweet potato twists also worked well.
Those twists feature a light layer of sweet potato paste running through them.
I was less enthused about the sweet rice donuts because they were denser and heavier than I usually want for my pastries, but if that sounds great to you, try them!
I’m not drawn to donuts in general, as deep-frying soaks in more grease than I prefer. But the layers of sweet rice jelly and red bean paste made for a unique donut experience, for sure. On the red bean side, I also tried, and quite liked, its creamy popsicle flavor in the freezer case.
Isn’t that pink-lavender shade lovely? Paris Baguette Dublin offers several other flavors, and they come straight from Korea, unlike the baked goods, which are baked in-house each day.
Interestingly, the Dublin store so far is doing most their sales with the lunchtime sandwich crowd. By the register, you can pick from several displayed sandwich types. They’ll be served to you nice and toasty.
Of course, I tried one of those, too. The bread was quality, as one might expect, and I found the chicken, bacon, cheese, and peppers satisfying together. Sandwiches come with salad rather than chips. As Ellie explained, they figure they’ve done enough caloric damage to their customers already with the pastries!
But I had not dealt enough damage to myself yet. Time for dessert! Pastries totally don’t count.
Paris Baguette makes some beautiful cakes! They smartly focus on layer cakes with fresh cream, though cheesecakes and buttercream also appear. I decided the green tea chiffon was calling my name most.
And I am glad for it. A slice can barely stand up under the power of its own weight, yet the cake itself was remarkably fluffy while puzzlingly moist—there’s some sort of magic going on in that kitchen, that’s all I know. And why grapes on top? A mystery, but I want more, please.
Alas, I had tried enough of Paris Baguette for one day. As I prepared to go, I took in the fresh orchids on several tables, possibly there only for grand opening but a nice touch nonetheless. The space has café-style seating that welcomes laptop workers in one section and a patio and glass-enclosed dining area in another.
It’s welcoming with cool tones despite the initial bustling hunt to find the best, most unique pastry available at any given moment. Once your selections have been made and paid for, take a bite and let your taste buds soar while you do the relaxing.
Thank you to the Paris Baguette team for inviting me out!
The Coming Storm
The Lunchpad has been holding court in Hayes Valley’s Noir Lounge for about three years now, transforming the posh, gothic nightlife space into . . . a posh, gothic daytime space with breakfast and lunch fare.
Okay, it’s somewhat less gothic when it’s not Halloween.
That unique atmosphere—one doesn’t usually think dark for brunch dates—may be the Lunchpad’s biggest draw. Nah, who am I kidding. That’s the candied habanero bacon.
It makes an appearance in a wide range of the Lunchpad’s sandwiches as well as in their signature drink, the Brunchpad Bloody, which makes its appearance on the weekends.
This bloody mary boasts extra earthiness, likely from a healthy dose of worcestershire sauce in the blend. It’s so savory, the bacon garnish comes across as bright by contrast! But among the fancy bacon options in this region, and there are many, the Lunchpad’s gets that sweet + savory + spicy balance just right.
The Brunchpad Bloody isn’t the only menu item that makes a rare appearance. Co-owner Chris comes in on Wednesdays only to offer his special fried chicken sandwich, the Chicken Run.
Our reactions to these ranged from delicious (the majority), to a little dry and overcooked (me and my shall-remain-nameless new media friend). If you like your fried chicken battered in a gritty buttermilk base, you should like the Chicken Run, and the garlic aioli and sweet & spicy coleslaw mostly solve the moisture problem anyhow.
Coleslaw is also a star player in the Roast Beast. The slaw has a horseradish, blue cheese, and celery seed bent in this sandwich.
Those pungent ingredients are used sparingly enough for the celery seed to stand out from among them, which I think is wise. The garlic aioli again did a great job imparting flavor and moisture. My slices of beef were very tender, though the coleslaw did most of the heavy lifting in terms of taste. I’d definitely eat it again, and I’m not a big roast beef fan.
The sandwich most worth sampling, or perhaps shoveling into your mouth, is the Turkey Drizzle.
Chris called it the kitchen sink sandwich, which is both accurate and unfair to this delicious combination of, well, of everything. It contains warm and tender roast turkey, the candied bacon, swiss cheese, cashew pesto, giardiniera, greens, tomatoes, and a beautiful balsamic reduction sauce. Of all those ingredients, the giardiniera is what makes the sandwich a star, intensifying the vegetable element while simultaneously adding a tang your tongue will keep chasing. The giardiniera is also available by the jar and is one of the Lunchpad’s signature items along with the bacon and Grandpa’s pickles.
These giant cucumber slices are cold-brined and ready in as few as three days. That translates to a pickle that retains its crunch while offering a mildly sour note that pleases. If you’re a pickle fan—good news!—the Lunchpad is offering a pickling class on Sunday, December 18! The cost is $20, and interested parties can register here. I hear hot peppers may get some sweet treatment there as well . . .
But I am not yet done working my way through the Lunchpad’s sandwich list! The Dolce Vita is your standard caprese-style sandwich worth noting here for that sweet, in multiple ways, balsamic reduction sauce.
The Chicken Lil, a sandwich served to us as more of a salad shooter, offers wonderfully moist sliced breast meat, though a livelier mixture of ingredients would be nice. I did not try the Berry Delicious salad, but the reaction I heard was similar to my thoughts on those last couple of dishes: nicely done, but not enough to stand out from among the crowd.
But there is plenty at the Lunchpad that does, especially in the brunch department. The breakfast cheddar biscuit is humongous and comes dressed to impress any weekend hangovers.
That’s right, melted smoked cheddar, fried egg, avocado, habanero candied bacon, and garlic aioli? Be still my grease-loving heart! The basic biscuit is $7; avo and bacon are add-ons well worth the addition. For a biscuit that size, it’ll still be a good value. The biscuit itself is respectably made, kneaded just beyond the fluffy zone so it can stand up to the pressure of all that vein-clogging goodness.
Also only on the brunch menu is huevos rancheros, and the Lunchpad makes a stellar one.
Our small version was plenty of food for me, especially after all the sandwich samples that came before it. Rest assured, the real version offers plenty to please your inner glutton. It features six-inch tortillas instead of our four-inch ones and chicken eggs instead of quail, but the delicious, ultra-fresh enchilada sauce, tasty corn-laced pico de gallo, and pork chorizo that miraculously doesn’t drip with grease are the same. Refried beans add an extra layer of strength to help the tortillas stand up to all that performance pressure.
I’ll end this feast in the opposite order of a meal: With soup!
Besides the bacon, this tomato bisque was my favorite part of our brunch. The roasted tomato is soothing and flavor-punched, and getting a bite of basil with it makes it more than pop. It explodes! If it’s on the menu when you visit, GET IT.
So if you stroll through Hayes Valley on a lovely San Francisco day and find your curiosity piqued by a sign advertising sandwiches beside a snazzy lounge, head on in and explore the Lunchpad’s sandwich boards.
Yes, I find the dark super inviting!
Pick an item featuring pickled pickles, pickled veggies, candied bacon, tomato bisque, or brunch and you won’t be disappointed. But you will be full.
Thanks to the Lunchpad team for this sampler of their signature dishes! And don’t forget to sign up for the next pickling class on December 18.
Hotels may appear off limits to pedestrians passing by, but often, they harbor secret niches the public can access if they know where to go. Such is the case at the newly opened Cityscape, a sleek bar at the top of San Francisco’s Union Square Hilton (333 O’Farrell Street).
Photo courtesy of Cityscape.
Head into the corridor behind the Hilton’s lobby and up to the 46th floor to find the bar. Near sunset is the optimum time; no matter how good the food and cocktails are, which I’ll get to in a minute, the reason you’re coming here is the view. Unfortunately, on the evening I visited, San Francisco’s fog staked its claim, but as you can tell from these pics provided by the hotel, it’s absolutely gorgeous on clear days.
Photo courtesy of Cityscape.
And to be honest, I thought the city lights coming through the fog that night were pretty cool, too.
Or maybe that’s just the horror writer in me loving the spookiness. The bar itself isn’t spooky at all; it’s a giant square of comfy, modernist furniture in a palette of grey and beige.
They all face the limitless windows and that amazing view. A central bar lights up more confidently in pink as the night falls.
Cityscape’s cocktail list will quickly confirm that you’re paying for the view as much as the alcohol, but together, they are worth the splurge ($16-$20). The Berkeley Bramble was as vibrant as the sunset should be, boasting a bold blackberry hue that belied the soft gin, lemon, and club soda mixture.
The Nob Hill Manhattan—made with Maker’s 46 bourbon, Carpano Antico sweet vermouth, and bitters—does justice to that classic drink.
We also enjoyed a couple glasses of “the Mariner” red wine blend from Dry Creek Vineyards. The best deal on drinks at Cityscape may be selecting the glass and a half size of whatever wine you prefer.
Chef Michael Vaughn, who signed on with this Hilton this past July, asked for the drink list before crafting the menu of bar bites. As the kitchen is over forty floors away, he knew that cold plates would be the focus so no quality would be sacrificed in the course of delivery.
Chef Michael Vaughn.
Vaughn loves playing with how the same drink changes when paired with different foods, and he’s really passionate about the Cityscape space and the Hilton’s new Urban Tavern, what Vaughn described as a fresh take on a gastropub, focusing on healthier dishes with whimsy.
The bar bites also fit that bill, though they provide more of an adventurous dip into Asian-inspired dishes.
Potato chips are served with nori salt and an amazing black garlic and charred scallion aioli that was so earthy and rich, I nearly thought it pâté. Vaugh loved my enthusiasm as black garlic is apparently a hard sell. It’s so very good, though, worth every second of the week-long roasting process.
The charcuterie is top notch and arranged with finesse. What stood out most on that platter, however, were the beet-pickled eggs with tons of color. I don’t know if any tea was involved in the process of imbuing the eggs with delicious flavor, but the image conjured of tea eggs is apt.
The two seafood dishes also offered vibrant flavors, with the ahi, salmon, and hamachi poke—
—inching out the chilled prawns—
—in lasting memorability just a bit. Spiced cucumbers with sesame, chile, scallion, and a fleeting impression of burnt peanuts also pleased. Small plates range from $7 to $17. Add that together with a drink, and yes, it’s a pricy evening, but I can’t imagine a much nicer way to enjoy a repast before heading to a nearby show. Extravagance worth the cost, but make sure to get your money’s worth of that view before heading back down to floor level and reality.
Cityscape is waiting to provide you with more than a moment of tranquility.
Zing Café is located in the Marmot Mountain Works suite of buildings, a really unique complex done in old Storybook style right across the street from the Ashby BART station. The Marmont Mountain Works has been defunct for a number of years now—
–but there are still plenty of businesses in working order within its walls, including Zing. The café is owned by the Sanchez family, three brothers and one sister—you’re likely to see one of them working the tiny counter and kitchen. They’re delightful, super friendly with regulars…and random newbies walking in from the street.
Have no fear as you place your order; there is seating and Wi-Fi to be found once you poke your head around, either hidden away in a quiet alcove—
—or outside on the sun-filled patio. Unique art decorates many walls and walkways, including a beautiful cliffside mural above the large entry way.
The menu includes coffee drinks, agua frescas, hot and cold sandwiches, and salads. I got a cappuccino, which comes with two shots standard and that makes me happy—I hate having to ask now that so many places, Starbucks included, cheap out and just do one shot for smalls.
The latte art, whether intentional or not, was good inspiration for this horror writer with an epic Greek monster look to it. The foam was great, boasting plenty of microbubbles.
I also went in for lunch, choosing their take on a Philly cheesesteak.
Shh, haters, I know that bears little relation to a real Philly cheesesteak, but out here in California, we just like a good pile of ingredients. And this one was great! I picked ciabatta bread of the options, and it came filled with steak, provolone, tomatoes, roasted peppers, grilled onions, spinach, and chipotle sauce. Lovely crunch on the pressed bread, and the spice heat level was way more than I expected—chipotle adobo is definitely involved. I LOVED it.
When time for a decaffeinated beverage after a couple hours working in the alcove, the house horchata did just fine.
It’s a watery version rather than a creamy one, which means healthier though it does lose some lushness in that trade-off. I found the lack of guilt over calories to be worth it, especially as an occasional sipper while working.
With more seating, Zing would be a frequent stop on my regular coffee shop rotation. As is, it’s got great sandwiches and coffee and plenty of hospitality to go with them.