Bourbon & Branch is not a restaurant per se, but it deserves a review anyway. Tucked in a corner of the Tenderloin in San Francisco, it’s not exactly the first neighborhood you’d think of when in the mood for a swanky cocktail. But keeping a low public profile is all part of Bourbon & Branch’s ruse, so much so that there isn’t a sign for it outside their door, and their website doesn’t even have an address listed. To visit, you must either make a reservation well in advance to take advantage of their full bar, or if you’re pressed for time, you can visit their “library,” provided you have the password to enter.
All of this sounds a little pretentious, I know, but the mystery is part of the fun. Plus, their drinks are really, really good. I shared a few cocktails with a group of friends one Friday night.
Photography isn’t allowed but I discreetly snapped a photo of my Pomegranate-Ginger, made up of gin and freshly-squeezed pomegranate, lime and ginger juices. It was sweeter than I expected, but not overwhelmingly so.
I wanted something less sugary for my next drink, so I ordered The Elderflower, which uses an elderflower liqueur, sparkling wine, bitters and lemon peel. It was slightly tart, fresh tasting, and hands-down my favorite drink of the evening.
If you want to pretend you’re in a 1920s speakeasy for an evening and try some wonderfully unique drinks, then Bourbon & Branch is your place. There may hoops to jump through just to get in, but the relaxed atmosphere and delicious libations make it well worth the effort.
I started my third day in Seattle with brunch at Dahlia Lounge, yet another of Tom Douglas’ restaurants. (Internet, are you keeping count? That’s three Tom Douglas establishments in three days.) I opted for a spicy Bloody Mary and steamed Penn Clove clams with fries and potato aioli.
The clams were tiny, but sweet and briny. There was also some cubed mystery vegetable or fruit floating in the broth, what looked and tasted like pear. I’m doubting myself though, because pears aren’t exactly the first thing I think of when I think of clams. In any case, they lended a bitter aftertaste to the broth that I could have done without. The potato aioli was a bit too greasy for my taste, but my Bloody Mary helped cut the oily taste and gave my meal a good kick.
After our meal, I walked downtown to Seattle’s Central Library. I’d heard so much about the unusualness of this library, and I was excited to see it for myself.
Unusual, indeed. But it was beautiful too, and it made me wish the Bay Area had a library like Seattle’s. (Not that there’s anything wrong with San Francisco’s downtown library, but it might be my second-favorite now.)
After the library, I met up with friends to check out Elliott Bay Book Company, which reminded me a lot of San Francisco’s Green Apple Books in San Francisco. (Green Apple Books remains my favorite.) Then we walked through Pioneer Square and past Safeco Field to grab some apricot ales at Pyramid Alehouse. The ales helped invigorate us for our next stop, Shiro’s. I’d read that Shiro’s is Seattle’s best sushi, but that it comes with a price.
We started with the Hatsumago sake. I’m not a big sake fan, but this was so much smoother than most sakes I’ve had.
My sunomono salad was light and citrusy, and a perfect palate cleanser. The tofu miso soup helped warm me up from what had been a freezing day outside.
I had ordered the chef’s choice sushi dinner, along with a geoduck nigiri. I always see geoduck at Asian groceries, their long elephant trunk-like insides protruding from their big shells. Naturally, I was curious to try it. It’s flavor was extremely mild, tasting very faintly of the sea, and its texture was soft and buttery (though not as buttery as glorious otoro).
The assorted sushi on my plate were incredibly fresh, especially the tuna. My only complaint is that they were all heavy of the wasabi, so much so that they drowned out the taste of the fish. I don’t like wasabi and most of the sushi restaurants I go to don’t put wasabi inside the sushi and nigiri itself so I didn’t think to specify my preference to the waiter. Note to self: always ask for no wasabi.
After dinner, we all spent the rest of the evening playing Rock Band. And by evening, I mean into the morning. I woke up late the next morning to visit Dahlia Bakery (Tom Douglas establishment number four) and to sample their potato bread.
It may be humble looking, but this is some of the best bread I’ve ever head. Crunchy on the outside, and ever-so-tender on the inside.
I finished just in time to meet friends for lunch at Jamjuree, a Thai restaurant in their neighborhood. (Basically, we came to Seattle to eat.) After we’d sufficiently stuffed ourselves with pad see ew and yellow chicken curry, I was dropped off at the airport. Aside from the four-hour delay I endured on the runway while waiting for our plane to be de-iced and for it to be safe for takeoff (it began snowing like crazy right when our flight was scheduled to leave), it was a fantastic trip. Seattle may be too cold for me to ever settle down in, but I’m more than happy to make the trip for excessive amounts of Rock Band and restaurants.
Part of the reason why I’d wanted to take a trip so badly is because I sorely needed a break, and a relaxing one at that. I wanted the pace of this vacation to be slower than most, so it was okay that I slept in our second morning in Seattle. At around noon, I finally got on my way and walked to the piers, where I was going to take the ferry to Bainbridge Island.
I should mention that Seattle in the winter is bitingly cold (well, at least to me) and even colder while on a windy ferry. Internet, I think even my eyelashes went numb during the ferry ride. It was worth it, though, because the view of Bainbridge Island was beautiful.
Once I got to the island, I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, because the “scenic hike” looked pretty deserted and not all that scenic. Eh, I came to Bainbridge Island for the ferry ride anyway, so I soon turned back around and caught the next departure back to Seattle.
Back in Seattle, I visited Pike Place Market. It felt more touristy than the last time I’d been there a few years ago, but it was still fun to walk around and admire the seafood and artisinal foods.
I was getting hungry, so afterwards I met with friends to have some cocktails and try out Serious Pie, Tom Douglas’ pizzeria. We each chose a different pizza and exchanged slices and honestly, I don’t think we could have chosen any better.
Between the four of us, we chose the elk sausage, caramelized onions and rustico; the Yukon gold potato, rosemary and olive oil; the cherry bomb peppers and sweet fennel sausage; and the guanciale, soft egg and baby arugula. They were all distinctly different, delicious and the crust was out of this world. The ambience made it even better, with a warm interior, long wooden bar tables, and cured meats hanging from the ceiling. If you’re visiting Seattle soon, I can’t recommend Serious Pie enough.
Full, warm and happy, I stumbled back to my hotel, conveniently across the street, and called it a night.
When I first got it into my head that I wanted to travel somewhere over the holiday season, Seattle did not immediately come to mind. I was thinking more of an extended weekend trip to Central America – Costa Rica or Ecuador, perhaps. But astronomical airfare brought me back to reality and in the end, I chose Seattle. I’d been to Seattle twice before, but with friends now living there, I thought a new visit was due. Plus, I’d heard the food was good. I was intent on trying out at least a couple of Tom Douglas’ reputed restaurants.
I stayed at Hotel Andra, a centrally-located boutique hotel that through complete coincidence, housed one of Douglas’ restaurants and was across the street from two more. The first thing I did after checking in was to meet with my local friends, who guided me on a walk around downtown as we searched for lunch. It was New Year’s Day, so almost everything was closed. We circled back to our hotel and ate at Lola, Douglas’ Mediterranean and North African-inspired restaurant.
I had the squid kebabs with with crushed chili and chermoula, served with garlic smashed potatoes, griddled pita and tzatziki (which tasted reminiscently like maast-o-mooseer to me).
It was delicious. It’s hard to pull off tender squid, but Lola did, and the smoky flavor from the grilling really added to the spices. The tzatziki was the star of the accompaniments: really garlicy, thick, and slightly tart. Oh, Lola, you must have known I’m Iranian.
By the time we finished lunch, it was almost four in afternoon, so we spent the rest of the day (and night) playing video games.
Seattle could wait. There was Rock Band to be played.
If I had to choose my overall favorite Vietnamese retaurant, Saigon City would be it, hands down. (My favorite in San Francisco is PPQ; they make a fantastic bowl of beef pho). Located in San Mateo along a unassuming street near downtown, Saigon City is always packed regardless of when I visit.
I eat at Saigon City pretty often, so rather than review every dish I’ve ever had there, I’ll tell you about my favorites.
I usually don’t order an appetizer, since their entree portions are large enough on their own, but I love their lemongrass chicken spring rolls. They’re more interesting than standard fresh spring rolls, and the chicken lends a subtle smoky note to each bite.
I almost always order the grilled beef with imperial rolls and rice noodles as my main dish. The beef is charred just right and the mound of shredded carrot and radish pickles on top balance out the heavier flavors. If cold noodles aren’t your thing though, I highly recommend their Saigon-style seafood soup with egg noodles or a Vietnamese grilled beef sandwich (banh mi).
To drink, I usually order coconut juice or my favorite – salty plum soda. Be forewarned: it’s an acquired taste, as none of my dining companions ever seem to like it. But if you like sour or salty flavors (like doogh), you’ll probably love this.
The service is curt but the prices are cheap and most importantly, the food is good. It’s the latter that has made Saigon City one of my favorite standbys to eat at.