Baker & Banker

(San Francisco, CA) — Our flight back home is early Monday morning, so we’re able to drive back from Pebble Beach on Sunday in time to enjoy a final meal in San Francisco. But where to go? Thankfully, Chef John Stewart from ZAZU and BOVOLO comes to our aid with a list of his faves. Among these, Baker & Banker seems the most promising. We hop in our rental on a beautiful, warm, sunny Sunday afternoon and drive to Pacific Heights for a final Californian dinner...

He Fed:

Although we make good time on the highway, it takes a couple times around the block to find Baker & Banker, even with Google Maps (which turns out to be correct, I just wasn’t looking at it correctly. User-related!). We have to fork over $10 in cash for a valet, but it’s worth it since street parking is a little difficult to come by in this neighborhood.

Inside, the restaurant reeks of pungent food with an Asian touch. It seems to cling in the air. At first I recoil from it, but after a couple minutes, I’m used to it. Probably just a particular greasy dish. By the time the meal has ended, I find the smell comforting. Weird. There are chalkboards which iterate the day’s wine and food specials, displaying some unusual vintages and varied menu items. I’m intrigued.

Our server brings water and I immediately take a gulp. Unfortunately, there are dried food particles on the lip of the glass. Yuck. I am brought a clean glass with apologies. Not a big deal, particularly since I can’t get our glasses at home to come out clean every time.

We move on to appetizers. I order their Grilled Spanish Octopus with green garlic aioli, crispy potatoes, and smoked paprika oil. How in the heck they got the octopus to be that tender but still firm is some kind of sorcery involving braising and marinating and grilling. It is incredible, the best octopus I’ve ever had or at least tied with Print. It is better than any of the tentacles I had in Barcelona, for sure. My glass of Maison Du Cremant Brut Rosé from Burgundy, France is a fun pairing. I might have been better served by ordering a more steely white, but I like to have fun and I love sparkling pink wine. Sue me.

Emboldened now, I decide to press my luck by ordering the Liberty Duck Breast with duck confit and chestnut crespelle, wilted chicory salad, and candied kumquat-licorice sauce. Yep, you hear that right: kumquat. It’s kind of like my kryptonite...whenever I hear it, I have to order it. The duck comes out pink, with the skin tight and snappy. It is lean, not too oily, and packed with meaty goodness. Again, best duck I’ve ever had. My glass of 2010 Freeman Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley) was made to go with duck, very bright and full of berry.

Good restaurants will offer cheese in lieu of dessert, and who are we to argue? Their plate includes Bohemian Creamery Capriago—a mild goat’s milk Asiago—and Boho Bel—cow’s milk that’s a bit more gooey and just slightly pungent, though not quite blue cheese. Generous additions of sliced apple, walnuts, currant, and raisin toast help round out our “dessert”.

Without a doubt, and despite any initial misgivings, Baker & Banker turns out to be one of the highlights of our California adventures. I can imagine popping in again during our next trip to the west coast, if only for more of that delectable octopus.
She Fed:

We’ve both got early morning flights tomorrow. I’m heading off to work an event on the East Coast and Jeremy’s headed home. We want dinner to be special, but after three nights of cocktail parties and wine-soaked multi-course dinners at Pebble Beach Food & Wine, we want it to be simple and early. No more dining past 10pm for us. A chef friend recommends Baker & Banker and we’re able to score a table at 6pm.

The exterior is unassuming while the interior is small and intimate with daily food and wine specials handwritten on chalkboards throughout the room. Our server is quiet and subdued, making conversation only when we initiate it. While I usually favor a more animated atmosphere. this is actually a nice break from the last few boisterous days.

We decide to start with a sparkling rosé and settle in to the menu. It’s concise with six starters and six entrees. I have every intention of enjoying a big green salad, but our waiter recommends both the grilled Spanish octopus and the duck liver pâté as starters. When he mentions the pâté won’t be available after the state’s foie gras ban beginning in July, I order it immediately. I might not be able to vote in California, but I can vote with my money while I’m visiting.

Happily the pâté arrives with a nice side of local watercress, along with toasted crostini and red onion-port marmalade. I scrap the layer of duck fat off the top of the pâté (even I have my limits) and schmear it on the bread with some marmalade. It’s rich and luscious, wonderful with the sweet jam. Too bad Californians won’t be able to enjoy this scrumptious little treat for much longer. The watercress is sharp and slightly bitter, cutting through the fattiness of the pâté. The yeasty sparkling rosé works with it all nicely.

Our waiter also recommends the mirin and soy braised black cod with shiitake sticky rice and pairs it with a big juicy syrah for me. The dish is plated beautifully, with the sauce-soaked cod nestled on a lush bed of rice intermingled with the mushies. Charred baby bok choy is perched atop it all. The fish is sweet and buttery from the soy and mirin, while the rice holds a surprise. It’s not just meaty shiitake peppered throughout, but also bits of foie gras lobe! The bok choy is grassy and clean tasting, a nice contrast to the sweet fish and extravagant rice. Even with all those diverse flavors going on, the jammy syrah pairs wonderfully.

Despite the evening’s chilly air, inside the restaurant is warm and glowing. Not wanting to leave just yet, we opt to finish our wine with the cheese plate, featuring two locally-produced cheeses from Bohemian Creamery, apple slices, walnuts, currants, and slices of a fruit-and nut-studded baguette. Tables are filling, our wine glasses are draining and it’s time to depart. This was the perfect end to our West Coast culinary adventure.

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