I traveled quite a bit this last quarter of 2018, for both work and leisure. Among the places I found myself were my two favorite “San” cities–San Francisco and San Diego. (Sorry, San Jose, but you don’t make the cut.) I had dinner at a couple of great restaurants which I want to highlight. The more I thought about it, I came to the realization that they were stark contrasts of one another. Both restaurants revolve around two great food cultures but take different approaches to their respective origins–one is traditional, the other is modern. Let’s look at San Francisco first.
Mr Jiu’s–Modern Chinese
Mr Jiu’s is a restaurant I’ve been wanting to try ever since it opened in 2016, in the City’s famous Chinatown. Owner and Executive Chef Brandon Jew brings a fresh California take on traditional Chinese dishes; for his effort, the restaurant earned a Michelin Star in its first year and was ranked the third best new restaurant in the US in 2017 by Bon Appétit. To be fair, I’ve always been suspicious of “modernized” Chinese–or any–cuisine, not necessarily because I think it shouldn’t happen but because it’s too often done so badly. But I sat down at the low-lit bar with a lot of expectations and having read positive reviews, which in itself can be dangerous and deflating.
That evening, I sat at the long, low-lit bar near the entrance and ordered a few small dishes to try a variety of what the menu offered: the wild mushroom baos, crispy scarlet turnip cakes, and Dutch crunch BBQ pork buns.
I’m happy to note though that Mr Jiu’s really does live up to the hype, even among the small number of plates I ordered. The mushroom baos were earthy and herbaceous (could’ve used a bit umami, like just a small smear of hoisin sauce, I think) and the sweetness and crunch of the crust the pork buns contrasted nicely with the savoriness of the pork filling and chewiness of the dough. The turnip cake definitely took a strong right turn to the “modern” path of Chinese cooking. The cake seemed to have been deep fried briefly and topped with olives and mushrooms.
I’m looking forward to the next time I’m in San Francisco and to try different dishes like the chilled beef tendon and the diabolically named Devil’s Gulch pig head.
It’s ironic that I’ve gotten to know downtown SD more now than when I lived in the city for several years. Work trips usually have me staying in downtown, when I do get the chance to stay the night, while before I stuck around La Jolla and went anywhere else in San Diego other than downtown. Whatever the case, I’m happy to run across Operacaffe, located in the Gaslamp District, across from Horton Plaza and Balboa Theater.
The restaurant offers traditional Tuscan fare in a warm, almost familial setting. The space had definite Old World charm but didn’t play up the whole Italian theme with the excessive use of paintings by the Renaissance masters, pictures of Italian actors, flags, etc. that too often plague other restaurants. The fleur de lis, or giglio in Italian, the flower represented on the coat of arms of Florence, does stand prominent and reflects the family history of the owner, Patrizia Branchi.
I don’t recall there being a prefix menu option, which would’ve been very European, but that evening , I ordered a simple appetizer and main dish combo–the calamari and french fries plate off the happy hour menu (I ate a bit early) and the ravioli boscaiola. The calamari was great but the real prize was the main dish. The ravioli is stuffed with earthy porcini mushrooms, sage (an herb that is woefully underused in the States, in my opinion), and pine nuts in a creamy butter sauce. The sauce isn’t as heavy as it sounds and the dish itself is wonderfully balanced.
My next trip to San Diego, I will definitely be back to try their non-pasta main plates, like the boar shank with saffron risotto.