So I decided to cut my road trip short but I still managed to have some good eats in San Francisco.
I had been sleeping in my car a half block down from Farm:Table and not being able to wait for my day to get going I found myself at their doorstep 7:30AM opening time. First impression: Boy this place is CUTE. The people were very professional yet very personable. Very cozy inside where a medium sized square communal table with a perfect view of the bar sets the mood.
My latte was fantastic. A nice fragrant espresso with the rich milk foamed to the finest nanoscopic froth. And though breakfast starts at 8AM they were nice enough to start early for me. When I returned from placing more quarters in the meter the blackboard had been completely rewritten with the day's organic offerings. I chose Today's Toast while the boiled egg on baguette sounded good as well.
This day was a wheat bread with cream cheese, walnuts, fuji apples, cinnamon and flame raisins. The meal was a perfect start leaving room for my later to be had Cioppino. I'm not sure how long F:T has been running but I wish these guys all the best. A great experience, I completely forgot about my sore knees that had been resting up on the car's steering column the entire night, haha. :)
Farm:Table, 754 Post St, San Francisco, CA 94109
I came to know the existence of Cioppino first from an affordably accessible version offered at El Pecador Fish Market in La Jolla. As I mentioned on the post authenticity aside it was good enough to serve for me as a gateway cioppino to want me to search out and get myself addicted to more hardcore cioppinos out there. So here I was at the place of origin and I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to check some out. I remember someone recommending Sotto Mare on a Chowhound board.
I started off with a couple of oysters that I was schooled earlier with the difference between West and East Coast and decided to have one of each. In hindsight I hope I didn't annoy the server. I know the presentation below looks a little lonely but I had to make sure I had enough room for the main event. I left a generous tip..
Below to the left is an East Coast variety that I had first because it was described as the milder (also was more expensive at $2.50 vs. $1.50). To the right was the West Coast oyster described as being typically more briny and salinic.
I know this is probably an over simplification of the differences but that was my quick oyster-101 breakdown given. It was quite the contrast and I didn't know two oysters (freshness being equal) can taste so different. Though I thought the particular pieces I got were on the small side the freshness really made up for it. Preference for me was the firmer and lightly sweet East Coast with a refreshing light ocean nectar. If a person never had raw oysters on a half-shell I'd definitely recommend these (though I've yet to try a Kumamoto). It was fun playing tourist and was a perfect distraction for the ~15-mins time I was told would take to "fire up their cioppino."
And here it be, Sotto Mare's Crab Cioppino. Clams, huge mussels, shrimp, calamari, fish and of course crab in a tomato based stew with also some penne pasta.
This was a lot of food! I forgot to check the price but judging by my bill's total I'd say it was around 25-bucks give or take.
Surprising not spicy but the flavors were indeed great, the base soup/stew/sauce if you can call it had a nice amount of olive oil and tasted of very ripe sweet tomatoes and herbs. Almost like a really good marinara infused with the wonderful braise liquid of all the various seafood. I couldn't stop shoving the spoon in my face. Everything was extremely fresh, never had calamari this tender. (The shells shown below is from about a third to half of the meal.)
The place isn't exactly hidden being in the heart of North Beach but it's definitely much less touristy than the restaurants that line the wharf.
Sotto Mare, 552 Green Street, San Francisco, CA 94133
Since I ended up back in SF sooner than I had planned I didn't really do my homework for what might be a good second alternative to try out another chip-in cioppino. I've read Cioppino's On The Wharf claimed to have served one of the first so I thought why not.
I wasn't too crazy about the touristy locale of the wharf but again since the dish is said to be originated by cooperative fishermen 'chipping in' their catch of the day for a collective shared meal who was I to judge (and Mario Batali's stamp of approval on the window didn't hurt in the decision making maybe, ha).
Wow the amount again was very impressive where the already large bowl was completely stuffed with seafood (more or less the same suspects I found at SM sans the pasta). The liquid portion of the stew filled up whatever nook and crevice that was left. At least in sheer quantity of seafood they may have had an edge over Sotto Mare with the price being about equal (~$25).
Certainly a bowl as such to be described as anything less than good would be crazy, but I thought the overall flavors weren't as cohesive as SM's, as if made a bit rushed. The overall briny flavors of the shellfish I also felt rather strong (though I'm a bit sensitive because I used to be mildly allergic to shellfish at one time).
The stew was spicier which I liked but the tomatoes lacked the ripe sweetness of the first. The fish were all acceptably fresh where it was unfortunate that the dungeness crab could've maybe benefited from less cooking (was overall a bit sinewy dry but not bad). While I may sound hard I guess it was difficult to live up to my great previous and it still fared to be the perfect meal to warm me up during the cold evening.
Cioppino's, 400 Jefferson Street, San Francisco, CA 94109
So, MUST GO FIND MORE CIOPPINO. I think I figured out where the beautiful photo of the mystery cioppino on the Wiki page is from. I first thought maybe Phil's Fish Market in Moss Landing (featured on a Bobby Flay's Throwdown), but I believe it's from The Fisherman's Restaurant in San Clemente. Sweet, cause now there I can drive up in a jiffy!