On the advice of a San Francisco university student, Jon and I met at dinner last night, we got up early and made our way to the Mission District of San Francisco. The concierge of the Grand Hyatt Hotel told us the easiest way was to get to the BART which was right next to the giant Apple store on Stockton Street.
I had visions of Bart Simpson or some guy who would give us our next clue once we found him – what the heck is the BART! Ok, so you may know it as the subway, underground, metro or tube, but in San Francisco it’s the Bay Area Rapid Transit – BART.
When we arrived, Guerrero Street was beautiful with a giant boulevard that ran down the middle of the wide road and thriving businesses. Tartine Bakery was suppose to be right here but it wasn’t. Instead there was what looked like a bakery with people lined out the door and others sitting at tables sipping on coffee and pastries. No sign anywhere on the outside but somehow we just knew this was the place. We walked in and the aromas were warm and yeasty. The little bakery had seating for maybe 20 inside, another 6 at a small window bar and 12 outside – they were all full. Still no name anywhere, not even a napkin. Then Jon spotted a white cloth bag hanging from the wall and on it was the word TARTINE.
Everyone was lining up to buy pastries so we joined in and noticed the bakeshop was in full view from an open doorway. Inside must have been 6 bakers all crafting pastries and kneading machines humming away. The pastry counter took my breath away; lemon tarts and croissant, seasonal bread pudding and morning buns, chocolate croissant and Gruyere, black pepper and fresh thyme gougier; asparagus crocque monsieur and half a dozen sweet breads. We began to order, 1 chocolate croissant, 1 bread pudding, 1 croissant and 1 morning bun and to wash it all down, café au lait.
We were lucky to spot an empty table and took our overloaded plates with us. I pulled apart the croissant and it exploded with flaky, wet, buttery, crispy, crustiness with fluffy dough underneath. It billowed on the palate with air light sweet, eggy, butteryness – omg, this is definitely the best croissant I’ve had. The morning bun was a rolled cinnamon bun covered with coarse sugar. As I pulled it apart it began to unravel into millions of layers of paper-thin pastry that had been smothered in more butter. This was described to us as “one of those things you must eat before your die”, and it was.
The chocolate in the chocolate croissant was creamy, soft, black, bitter and an amazing contrast to the sweet butter – yum. The bread pudding was moist brioche soaked in cream and egg and smothered with fresh picked strawberries that exploded spring flavours on the palate and luxuriated with the moist, juicy bread pudding – omg!
Owners Elizabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson have produced their own cookbook to encourage others to make their amazing pastries but no one was really interested in the cookbook, they just wanted the ready-made pastries.
A woman sat down at the next table obviously holding their spot while her husband stood in line to order. She motioned to him every so often pointing to she wanted. They were visiting from Vancouver and come to San Francisco often. Her husband dropped off some poppy seed sweet bread and a bowl of muesli, a few minutes later he turned with a croissant and more muesli, a few minutes later he came back with a lemon square and 2 coffees. As their table was obviously full of pastries we laughed at the reputations we were creating as Canadians at Tartine. Obviously we were pastry deprived in Canada and needed to overload on a good thing.
We left and walked past Delfina Restaurant and Delfina Pizzeria. This is the best restaurant in the neighbourhood with Napolenese pizza that inspires foodies to cross neighbourhoods for. We were full so all we did was feast on the casual menu. The restaurant decor definitely speaks to those who are looking for good food in an organic atmosphere.
On the same block is Bi-Rite grocers. What attracted our attention was their commitment to neighbourhood farms. They call it a community of farmers and Bi-Rite is one of them. They own and operate a few farms in and around the San Francisco area and their store signage offers up origins of produce. We found yellow signs above the lettuce that meant the food was within 50-mile radius of the store. The green signs meant the produce was organic and the white signs meant the produce came from a Bi-Rite farm. Many of them had pictures of the farmer complete with the farm location.
The philosophy at Bi-Rite is to showcase small quality farms that are fighting to produce good food. Owner Sam Mogannam grew up in this store that was once owned by his dad. Then it was sold and Sam opened a restaurant. After years of frustration in sourcing good local produce, he bought back the store and changed it from a typical corner store into a source for great produce and foods from artisan craftsmen. Sam has this wild idea that if you present food in a transparent way, consumers will be able to make informed decisions about what they are buying.
Inside the store you’ll find plenty of ready-made foods such as salads, meats, one-dish meals and roasted foods. This is the chef in Sam coming out. We chatted with Mike who tells us that behind this small 2,300 square foot grocery store are 93 employees who are all trying to make a difference in their food supply. They are happy to buy from local producers whether that is honey or jam and from any producer who is producing safe, healthy food and sustainability is huge for this company, so big that it even extends to their staff who are all paid a fair wage and health benefits. It’s a policy that goes in as well as out.
San Francisco is an intense city with people all living on top of each other so costumers are plentiful. This has made their expansion on the street possible. Bi-Rite has a creamery across the street where they buck the traditional ice cream trend of copying common, pedestrian flavours in favour of true ice cream pleasure such as strawberry balsamic (btw is omg fantastic!) and caramel and sea salt. Traditional flavours are exciting because the ice creams are all natural and incredibly luscious.
Besides the creamery, their farms and the grocery shop, Bi-Rite owns a not-for-profit art gallery called 18 Reasons and it’s here they hold special farm themed dinners to promote the community of food in the Mission District. It’s a fantastic food place and as we left, I overheard staff discussing the Fast Food Nation with one of the customers. I was shaking with excitement at the progress Bi-Rite has made on the local front and it’s inspiration for the rest of us as we spread the word back in our own communities.