Report from San Francisco

By Don Holton ©
Contributing Writer

Albona Ristorante. You won’t find these dishes anywhere else in SF:

  • Pork loin stuffed with sauerkraut, prosciutto, apples, plums, served with red cabbage
  • Braised rabbit with onions, juniper berries, honey, brown sugar, balsamic vinegar, served with soft polenta
  • Filets of fried sardines with glazed onions, marinated with red wine vinegar, raisins, pine nuts

What’s so rare about these and other offerings at Albona? They’re authentic dishes from the Istrian peninsula, now part of Croatia, a gateway to the Adriatic where its food is influenced by Austria, Hungary, Turkey, and Italy.

Photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

Kuleto's, photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

Opened in 1988, Albona’s greatest virtue is its simplicity. There’s a single dining room, with about 10 tables (take your reservation seriously). Service is done by owners and family. The wine list is a 41-bottle mix of St. Francis whites and reds, California chardonnays and cabs, plus wines from areas close to Istiria –Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Slovenia, and Piemonte. All wines by the glass are under $10, a smart move in today’s economy.

The menu’s theme is one of quality ingredients, simply prepared. We started with Ortolana ($9), grilled slices of eggplant, zucchini, and yellow squash over a bed of baby arugula in a light vinaigrette. Sounds easy, but that’s the idea. This is the kind of authentic, unadorned dish you’ll find at a seaside restaurant in the homeland, then reach for your pen to remember it later. I enjoyed the pork loin, tightly rolled around the kraut and ham, floating in thick brown gravy. Valerie chose the Strudel — pasta roll filled with prosciutto and Lappi cheese, baked in a casserole with breadcrumbs, béchamel and tomato cream sauce.

Albona is a few blocks from Fisherman’s Wharf, but not part of it. From Powell St. take the cable car ($1.50), check the map and get off while clanking along Columbus Ave. at Francisco St. Walk the neighborhood two blocks east. Taxi back to Union Square, $10.

Albona is not high style, but a gentle family place that embraces its traditions, food and wine. Wine List: 16/20. Food: 17/20. Service: 20/20. The Feeling: a welcomed break from downtown, with proud owners, happy staff, a good value.

Photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

Hotel Villa Florence, photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

Kuleto’s. When planning a trip, I often call the hotel’s Concierge in advance and ask for local dining ideas, routinely dismissing any food option in the hotel itself. How foolish this time, for when we checked in the Hotel Villa Florence, a block off Union Square, we strolled to the Front Desk and looked left to see a packed house for lunch at Kuleto’s, the Italian restaurant, just off the lobby. A convention going on? No, this is not a hotel for big meetings. We were witnessing pure market demand for the imaginative Northern Italian cuisine at Kuleto’s, with the same phenomenon occurring each night for dinner, well past 9 pm.

Our first taste at Kuleto’s was at breakfast the next day. Egg Benedict? Warm eggs, proscuitto on muffins with real-thing hollandaise. Check. Lunch the next day after a morning appointment: creamy risotto with spicy shrimp, crusty bread bathed in olive oil, and a small salad. Check again.

The hotel lobby and Kuleto’s share a classical interior (one part was a small theater years ago, someone said), with high ceilings, columns, separated by glass panels and tall drapes. We highly recommend the hotel (modest-sized rooms, but all renovated, many under $190 and worth it).

On our last day, our return flight departure to Chicago was delayed to 6 pm, so we looked at each other and stepped directly to a comfy booth at Kuleto’s. Lunch at 2:30, winding down, and now, in slow motion with time on our hands, we shared a huge bowl of fresh-made raviolis stuffed with smoked salmon, covered with an elegant white sauce, garnished with orange zest. Heaven, pure heaven, with a Syrah/Merlot, “Suyrage” from Mara, California. By 4 pm, we were set up for a mellow ride on the BART to the airport.

Wine List: 18/20. Food: 20/20. Service: 19/20. The Feeling: Milanese actually, with brainpower, creativity, and talent in the kitchen. One of the top hotel restaurants in our 40 country travels.

Photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved.

Golden Gate Bridge, photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved.

Biking the Bridge: Terror on a Sunny Afternoon

How does riding a bike on the Golden Gate Bridge relate to wine? Be patient. Alone for the day, I rented a bicycle at Fisherman’s Wharf, intent to ride four miles west to the Golden Gate, where cyclists are permitted on the west walkway of the bridge for a ride across to Sausalito. It was a sunny day, 65 degrees — a superb scene riding along the shore through Crissy Field and the huge Presidio park, birds soaring, kayakers out beyond the breakwater, joggers, skaters, kite flyers, you name it.

It took me a full hour to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, where a path takes you under the south end of the bridge and circles back up a hill to the roadbed. But look out! The bike lane is a superhighway of Lance Armstrongs blasting down the incline toward you. Either you get in the flow one direction or another or just get out of the way. With a low railing, a 500-foot drop to the sharks below, and an east wind building, I cruised up for several hundred yards then came back to the sidelines and a safe place. Seriously, I thought I was going over the edge. Maybe next time.

My return to the Wharf was a 1 1/2 hour glide, culminating at Alioto’s bar for a bowl of clam chowder and a glass of wine. There’s the wine.

For a day in the park, visit:

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