Chef Tom Herndon Uncovers Some Hidden Gems

These are the small, unassuming places away from the well-worn footpaths of intrepid foodmeisters. Their name and location are often exposed in a hushed whisper over fancy coffee, “You have to try this place…before it gets discovered.” Writing a review for public consumption feels treasonous. But the place is SO impressive that one is compelled to share the news. I found two such gems in one week. A rare event, indeed.

Violets

I have a standing meeting of my men’s club once a month, clear across town in Fisherman’s Wharf. The meeting starts at 7:30, so there is time to grab a bite beforehand. I do have my favorites that always deliver, but on occasion I love exploring neighborhoods that are in the general direction of the Wharf from my house, for new eats. One of the many small neighborhoody commercial strips that is gradually evolving into a foodie destination with first one, then three, then five darn good restaurants, is the West end of Clement. The East end of Clement is referred to as the “real” Chinatown of San Francisco because it’s where Chinese people go to shop. The West end, late to be developed, is a bit like stepping back in time. The shops and restaurants go back as far as the fifties, if not earlier. But it’s being steadily populated by handsome little places with talented staff. I feel a bit ahead of the curve when I go.

That said, there is one place on Clement called The Red Tavern that serves Russian food. It’s very old world in ambiance and menu. Passed it many times and have never really dined there yet. Thought I’d give it a try. I parked (which was lucky in and of itself) and began walking towards it in hopes they’d take a single walk-in. That’s when Violets caught my eye.

I stood on the sidewalk and took it all in. Through their large glass windows I could see a beautiful, half horseshoe wooden-topped bar with a dozen comfortable looking stools and a lovely, well-stocked backbar. The seating area looked to accommodate maybe thirty customers, so it was not a huge place. The look of the place was my initial impression and it drew me in, so I ambled up to the bar, quickly deciding to visit The Red Tavern later, and grabbed a seat. The place looked well-put together, like folks who have been in the biz for a while had designed it, rather than having the appearance of “trying really hard to be a nice restaurant” which I have experienced more than a few times. I began noticing the many well thought out details. And there were many.

Photo Credit: Grace Sager

Bar

The servers wore matching linen aprons in a kind of dusty chartreuse, over white shirts and black pants. Classy. The glassware at the bar was eclectic and nicely curated: etched, and in various unique shapes; thick, white linen napkins; repurposed, clear glass, handsomely shaped liqueur bottles for cold water; weighty, iron, handled “trays” as serveware; cut crystal containers (that looked like fine vases) with long silver swizzle sticks for icing and stirring fancy cocktails. On and on. Even the menus were composed of delicate fonts. Happily, and surprisingly, with so many upscale details, the prices were hardly what you’d expect.

The bartender looked like he’d been honing his craft for a while, as I watched his process of cooking up house cocktails. I thought that this guy might do a very good job putting together my favorite drink. I have lately favored a gimlet made with Hendrick’s gin, real lime juice, a good simple syrup and a splash of St. Germaine elderflower liqueur. I like it shaken well, so it’s extra cold, and served up. A good bartender will use a bar straw to taste the balance and will not mind if I asked for a touch more simple syrup to balance the sourness of the citrus. He nailed it.

Cocktail

One thing I consider when visiting a new place is their choices of side dishes. Tells me a lot about the chef and the experience he/she is trying to convey. I’ve always fancied the small plate, multi-flavored style meal, anyway, so I opted for a few. I started with a classic French appetizer of breakfast radishes (usually served with good butter). Theirs came with a gently savory anchovy butter, a drizzle of olive oil and a scattering of flaky sea salt. I devoured everything, including the tender greens.

radish

Radishes

Their Romano beans, sautéed in olive oil and sprinkled with dried chili was crunchy summer. The warmed iron tray of creamed kale was cheesy-rich, creamy, and well-presented. Chunks of housemade cheddar-chive biscuit were perfect for dipping into the parmesan béchamel.

 

Apps 1, 2, 3

I will need to explore the rest of the menu. I do have a planned dinner there at the end of the month through Nommery, the site that puts together tables of strangers to dine together and grow a like-minded community of food enthusiasts. Nommery’s algorithm helps match diners who have passions in common. Often dishes are shared so we can taste as much variety as possible. To date I have attended over forty Nommery dinners, hosting many of them myself.

Violets was a lovely surprise. I was truly impressed. I can’t wait to go back.

Cassava

It’s hidden gem week I guess. Two for two. This time it was Cassava, at 36th and Balboa. Where Violets was open for 6 days, Cassava’s been around for 6 years. Who knew.

Cassava

The 28th was our fifth LEGAL anniversary. Dan and I call it our mini-anniversary. Our main anniversary, next May 4, where we had 125 of our closest friends and family in attendance, will be our Silver Anniversary!! Holy cats. Time flies when you’re having a life.

Anyway, found Cassava on one of Eater’s ten best lists and made a rez, asking for a table outside, as I knew it’d be nice today. Surprised it was a sidewalk table, and a bit slanted downhill, to boot. Thought they had a patio. Whatever. Our table was under a delicious overhead heater. The cool breeze coming up Balboa from the ocean kept me in a constant state of cool/warm. So nice.

The slanted table was one of a very few tiny bumps. The food more than made up for them. I wouldn’t call Dan and I fussy, but our palates are a bit…discerning. We were impressed by everything they sat in front of us. Starting with a Texas Toast-sized piece if homemade griddled bakery bread with a small pot of honey-butter. Simple, surprising, homey. We were both doing the mmmmmm thing. It was a good beginning.

We opted for their 4-course tasting menu. The toast starter was separate. First course was a beautiful salad of sweet white peaches, yummy plums, and juicy grapes, over baby mustard greens. A smear of housemade yogurt for a clean dressing and a sprinkle of rye crumbs for crunch. Fruit was peak-ripe, like bitefuls of sweet perfume. Gorgeous.

 

Salad

Second course was a small filet of sea bass with a lovely deep-brown sear. Sat on top of yellow corn, early girl tomatoes and some sea beans. Fish stayed on the fire a bit long. It arrived still juicy, but you know that toothsomeness fish can get when it’s cooked a little too long. Still, as a whole, impressive.

Fish

Third course was a grilled hanger steak over smashed mountain rose potatoes, with watercress. Mine was a very nice med-rare. A mouthful of the savory, pink potatoes with a slice of steak was eye-closing pleasure.

Steak

Dessert was an orange blossom pannacotta. The sweet creaminess was balanced with a sharp and tangy hibiscus syrup I thought was a gastrique, as it had a bite like vinegar. The orange blossom was subtle, which I appreciated.

Hibiscus

Sitting on the sidewalk in SF, especially in the Sunset, is a rare treat. Dan faced the setting sun which he happily soaked up. It did get cooler when the sun went behind an apartment building on the corner, but the overhead heater kept us toasty. Service was cordial and attentive. The whole thing was a satisfying way to celebrate.

The prix fixe was a bargain, too, at $42 each. We will definitely return.

And for dessert…

Salt and Straw Creamery

Salt and Straw ice creamery on Hayes. Flavors that are crazy AF.

Top scoop is Roasted Beet and Humboldt Fog (goat cheese). Whaaat? Little bit goaty, little bit roasty, a lotta bit rich.

Bottom scoop is Duck Cracklings and Cherry Preserves. WTH? Cracklings were toffee’d (like peanuts), which was a sweet and crunchy surprise. There was a nice hit of savory from the duck fat with the sweet of the cherries, though I didn’t get a lot of cherry flavor.

Had to. I just had to.

Btw – two scoops would feed a family of four. I wasn’t able to finish it all. Waaaaaa!!

Ice Cream

=CTH=

Chef Tom is currently Resident Chef for a small tech firm in San Francisco. He also teaches cooking classes, caters small parties and leads overseas culinary tours. His specialty for the last twelve years has been cooking for people with food allergies and sensitivities. His motto is “Food should give you pleasure, not pressure.”

Check him out at www.hippkitchen.com

One Response to “Chef Tom Herndon Uncovers Some Hidden Gems”

  1. Peter Montreuil Says:

    Well done, yet again, Tom! Your columns are very delicious!

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