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:

Four Restaurants, Four Wine Lists, and Cheating Death on the Golden Gate Bridge … on a Bike

By Don Holton ©
Contributing Writer

Flying to San Francisco brings the most pleasant anticipation: you sense that – if you’ve planned things right – unique food and wine experiences may await you.

So it was with our recent trip there. No Napa/Sonoma wine cruising. This time, the city only. We stayed near Union Square for five days and struck it rich in and around this commercial and tourist part of town.

Jardiniere, photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

Jardiniere, photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

Our restaurant finds were Jardiniere, Gitane, Albona Ristorante, and an Italian surprise in our hotel, Kuleto’s.

Jardiniere (French/American). A 10-minute taxi ride just west of the Civic Center lands you at the classical front of a landmark building. Inside, a spectacular bar with a two-story oval atrium rises to the main dining room on the second floor. The wine list: a diverse mix of Old World and New, organized by Wine Director Eugenio Jardim. Strong French representation: red and whites from Burgundy and Bordeaux, six Chablis, 14 choices from Meursault and Corton. Wines from Italy, Spain, Portugal, and up and down the West Coast. The list hits a satisfying note: six “Villages” wines, obviously Jardim’s picks for taste and affordability, including Olivier Leflaive, Bourgogne “Les Setilles” 2005 for $65. And down the list, look, there they were — my measure of a thoughtful Euro carte – 14 choices from Alsace and Germany, two categories often ignored by unfounded fears of “sweetness.”

The food? Excellent. My wife, Valerie, and I shared a mixed greens and citrus salad (these days, restaurants rarely deny a request to “split”, except a snobby waiter last week in Scottsdale; times are tough, reservations easy, don’t you find?), then lamp chops, filet mignon, both very nice. Dessert: Banana Cream Pie – good to very good, but needs more cream filling. Choose from an a la carte menu or a tasting menu at $125. Check out the new Monday night fixed price menu for $45, including wine pairings; given the quality here, a real value.

Our wine choice: from a list deep in California blends, pinots and cabs (up to Screaming Eagle, 2004, $1800), we sought a name unknown to Sam’s or Binny’s. The winner: Kathryn Kennedy Meritage “Lateral,” Santa Cruz, 2005, a smooth cab/merlot blend that’s just the kind of small lot discovery you hope for – light, layered, different. Sorry, their ’06 is sold out at the vineyard, making our dinner all the more special. Look for their next release. Wine List: 19/20. Food: 17/20. Service: 19/20. The Feeling: organized, a clear zeal for the grape, food worthy.

Image courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

Jardiniere, photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

Gitane (Franco/Iberian, etc). How could you resist a restaurant that describes itself as: “modern, funky, and artistically bold … drawing inspiration from Spain, France, and Portugal … exotic tastes and sensations with sherries, cavas, madieras, hand-crafted cocktails and small-estate wines … interior decors from Mr. Important Design (really), vibes from Euro-themed 50s, Hippie-Driven 60s and Big Bling 70s … artwork from Turkey and the UK, Goya-esque photography.”

Well, of course, you’ve got to try such a place! And it’s only a few blocks walk east of Union Square, downhill on Sutter and a left on Claude Lane (trust me, this is an alley with its own street sign). But maybe SF is a place where you can sit at one of four outside tables, under heat lamps and an awning — in an alley — and think it’s cool. But inside? There’s the cool. The place feels like an exotic private club. Warm greeting, nice people, small dark entry area, but peek around the corner – a colorful, hip, but low-keyed bar scene, high ceilings, giant bulbous chandeliers, two-story high draperies, soft lights, tapestries. Best yet, walking by, and no one looks over his or her shoulder to check you out. But maybe you want that.

Most at the bar are dining “a la placemat.” The bar is full, but it’s … quiet. A smooth and orderly beat going on here, at least at 8 o’clock.

Our table, like most, was up the stairs. Breathless at the top, ah, this is cool too: weathered brick walls, covered with glass, bricks flooded with light (shining up from lights in the floorboards, whoa), a moody/mysterious room, enameled black tables, effective use of mirrors to enlarge the space, red/orange light shades. But where are we? This could be that hidden gem down the hill from the Alhambra or somewhere in the back streets of Alfama. Cue the Fado and the handkerchiefs.

Ever had a Pimm’s Cup? It’s a cocktail for old guys like me. I used to knock them down in London just to feel that Park Lane thing, but there it was on Gitane’s drink menu, bringing back memories of Robert Morley in “Halfway Up A Tree” at the Strand. I ordered one, and the result was a soft sweetness, mildly herbal, refreshing — Pimm’s Cup No. 1, with assorted berries and ginger beer on the rocks. Could have had one of 20 sherries or other inventive cocktails from the list, but we went to the wines.

Photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

Gitane, photo courtesy of Don Holton, all rights reserved

The list is straightforward, 31 whites on the left – Spain, Portugal and France. On the right, 34 reds from those three countries. Great balance all around, tilted toward Spain – Riojas, Alicante, Priorate from Castilla y Leon, North-Central, Catalonia, and one from Mallorca. From Portugal, Vinho Verde, the national jug wine, and some familiar friends from France – Corbieres (Domaine St. Eugenie, Languedoc), and Coteaux du Languedoc, Mas Julien. One in four wines is available by the glass, some in half-bottle carafes. Not a huge list, but one that forms a clear link with the restaurant’s theme and cuisine. I also like how Gitane chose French wines produced from regions that nestle close on the map to the Pyrennes.

OMG, given all this, what must the food be like? The menu has three parts: appetizers (did not say tapas), entrees and sides. We liked Piquillo ($13), peppers stuffed with fresh crab salad. Bastilla is one dish that competently showcases the restaurant’s diverse cultural intent — a sweet and savory pastry with duck, chicken, raisins, almonds, Moroccan spices and orange gastrique. A pop-in-your-mouth winner.

My half-order of Ribs ($12, $23 full) featured natural pork, soy glazed, with parsnip puree and Brussels sprouts (please cook a little longer to release the bitterness or douse them with balsamic vinegar). Rich molasses-type sauce on the ribs, very meaty. Valerie’s Sea Bass ($23) was not distinguished, but it was her fault, as she was influenced by the asparagus.

We recommend Gitane, a great concept, its multi-national theme creatively integrated, from wine, to spirits, to food and décor. Wine List: 17/20. Food: 17/20. Service: 18/20. The Feeling: fun, funky in a friendly and textured environment, with memorable spicy hits.

Next up… more food and terror!