San Francisco's Greens Restaurant and Calafia Cafe in Palo Alto

Five days in Pacific Grove on California’s Monterey Bay peninsula, with sunny skies, daytime temperatures in the 70s, and the roar of the Pacific through the guest bedroom window of a friend’s beautiful retirement home, is a perfect vacation in mid-November for a snow-country resident of upstate New York.  Still, with San Francisco just 125 miles north of this Eden, and an exhibit of paintings at the city’s  De Young Museum on loan until January 18, 2011 from the Musee D’Orsay in Paris called Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne & Beyond [deyoung.famsf.org/orsay], it was irresistible to take a drive north even if it meant enduring California freeways.  With the plan to drive north on a Sunday’s less traffic-clogged freeways, the trip turned out to be painless as well as memorable.  Wonderful art and two superb farm-to-table dining experiences balanced out the loss of a sunny day in Pacific Grove.

The first stop was the extraordinary Greens Restaurant at Fort Mason in San Francisco’s Marina District.  Located in Building A (one of the historic stucco buildings in the old Army Port, with their distinctive red-tiled roofs), Greens Restaurant’s has a comfortable dining room, with awe inspiring views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.  Its wall of windows were open to the sea air on an unusually warm and sunny day in San Francisco.  Mention should also be made of the beautiful and contemplative large paintings of  California landscapes with their expansive skies by painter Willard Dixon, on display throughout the dining areas of Greens Restaurant [www.willarddixon.com].  Greens Restaurant opened in 1979 as part of the San Francisco Zen Center, which includes Green Gulch Farm and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.  The “bountiful organic” farm in nearby Marin County is a residential Zen community and provides the vegetarian restaurant with seasonal produce.  In addition to its Green Gulch Farm, Greens Restaurant draws on an extended family of local growers and organic farmers’ markets for its ingredients.

The brunch menu, which is unique for the particular day, offered a variety of pastries and fruit as a starter.  The healthy choice of a bowl of Yerena Farm berries, Frog Hollow pears and Arkansas Black apples was tempting, but I decided to indulge myself, after the two plus hour drive on California freeways, with a slice of banana walnut bread with maple pecan butter, with the easy rationale that I had packed a snack of organic apples, just purchased at Earthbound Farm’s roadside stand a couple of days earlier.  The warm banana bread with a cup of very fine, Graffeo Organic coffee was a perfect start to brunch.  The other options would have been good choices too: mixed berry scone with blackberry jam, huckleberry coffee cake with almond streusel, Greens granola with Yerena Farm berries, Clover milk or Straus yogurt.

The dozen main dishes on the brunch menu offered a variety of egg dishes, soups, sandwiches and a couple of dinner-like entrees.  The omelet was a creative mixture of ingredients: Mariquita Farm butternut squash, caramelized onion, gruyere and thyme, served with roasted fingerling potatoes.  The squash and the flavorful gruyere from California’s Cow Girl Creamery were delicious fillings for an omelet made with local organic eggs from nearby Marin County’s Straus Farm.  Other appealing options included (i) Yukon Gold potato griddle cases with masa harina (corn meal), smoked cheddar, jalapenos and cilantro, served with eggs over easy, mache (a salad green also known as lamb’s lettuce), and fire roasted tomato and pumpkin seed cilantro salsas and (ii) mesquite grilled brochettes (served on skewers)- mushrooms, Little Farm potatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, fennel, cherry tomatoes, red onions and Hodo soy tofu with charmoula (Moroccan marinade) and cherry almond quinoa.  My tab for brunch, which included a large glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, the omelet, walnut bread and coffee, was approximately $30.00 before tipping the pleasant server.

After the satisfying and richly caloric brunch, it made sense to hike at least part of the way up and down the hills of San Francisco to Golden Gate Park where the De Young museum is located. The late-Impressionist paintings from the D’Orsay Museum in Paris were a rich experience to view, and the crowds of visitors did not overwhelm the galleries since you needed a timed ticket for admission, which I had purchased a couple of weeks earlier before my trip west.  The selection of paintings represented a surprisingly large group of artists: Monet, Renoir, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Bonnard, Vuillard, Suerat and Signac.  The room full of pointillist paintings by Seurat and Signac with the thousands of colorful dots was a highpoint.  Van Gogh’s self portrait, when he was 36 years old, seemed to be of a much older man: a close-up study of anguish and genius, with its heavy brush work in blues and oranges depicting his wrinkled and bearded face.  It was difficult to move on from gazing at Van Gogh’s Starry Night with its rich blues and yellows.  But not only were these masterpiece paintings of interest, in addition the newly rebuilt De Young museum, which reopened on October 15, 2005 after suffering damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, was itself a sight to behold.  The architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron of Switzerland has created a rebuilt home for the museum including a nine story educational tower, which is topped by an observation deck with panoramic views of San Francisco, the Pacific Ocean,  the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin headlands, and Golden Gate Park.  Admission is not required to gain access to the observation deck, and any visitor to San Francisco should make it a priority to view the city and environs from this amazing perspective.

With the sun gone down in San Francisco, it was time to risk the drive on the California freeways back south to Pacific Grove. But with a planned stop at Palo Alto’s Calafia Café to break up the drive, my spirits remained high. Just a few minutes off Route 101, the busy north-south freeway, Calafia Café is located in Town and Country Village, a suburban shopping plaza which appeared from my map to be only minutes from the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto.  Calafia Café is a lively scene, with its stucco walls decorated with panoramic photographs of a Grateful Dead concert from 1982, shaking off the suburban shopping plaza atmosphere.  The range of seating options is remarkable from counter seats where you could watch food preparation to seating in an outdoor covered patio.  The friendly hostess, noticing my book in hand, guided me to a well-lighted spot  by the front window.  Settled in, I enjoyed perhaps the best “quick stop off the highway” meal possible.  Designated on the menu as one of the “Not So Small Plates,” a crispy chicken breast prepared with shaved fennel, wild arugula, golden beets in a honey mustard vinaigrette (fairly priced at  $16.00) was delicious with wonderful fresh herbal flavors.  With a perfect cup of organic, fair-trade coffee, I was well-fed to continue my trip south to the Monterey Peninsula.  Calafia Café deserves a longer visit and its menu, which notes that “All ingredients are sourced locally and organically as often as possible”, has an extraordinary variety of appealing dishes, including many wonderful vegetarian options.   Other “Not So Small Plates” available on the day of my visit (in addition to soups, salads, burgers, pizzas and paninis) included (i) flat rice noodles prepared with spinach, walnuts, pumpkin and hemp seed pesto, parmesan cheese, vegetable stock and a small amount of butter ($13.00), and (ii) pan roasted Loch Duart salmon, served medium with wakame and red quinoa pilaf ($17.00).  A variety of freshly prepared food for take-out was also available in the café’s “Market A Go Go” adjoining the restaurant (FWB 11/21/10).  [Greens Restaurant, Fort Mason, Bldg A, Marina Blvd, 415.771.6222, Lunch: Tues-Sat 11:45AM-2:30PM, Brunch: Sun 10:30AM-2:00PM, Cafe Dinner: Sun-Fri 5:30PM-9:00PM, Prix Fixe Dinner: Sat 5:30PM-9:00PM www.greensrestaurant.com] [Calafia Cafe, 855 El Camino Real @ Embarcadero Rd (Town & Country Village), 650.322.9200, Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:00AM-4:30PM, Brunch: Sat-Sun 9:00AM-3:00PM, Dinner: Sun-Thur 4:30PM-9:00PM, Fri-Sat 4:30PM-9:30PM, www.calafiapaloalto.com]

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