Am I alone in relishing the first storms of the fast approaching winter? Perhaps. After all, I am a child of the winter solstice, the day with less sunshine than any other.
I find that heavy rain has a way of focusing us, demanding us to pay attention to our lives, to appreciate their fragile preciousness.
Usually, the power of a strong storm, like the one the that lashed our city yesterday, beckons me like a Siren to retreat to the cozy warmth of my stove. I desire nothing more than to simmer and braise, to coddle and nurture.
But this week N is away, so I refused to heed the Siren's call and opted instead to gather with friends, leaving the cooking to others.
When the wind blasts through the marrow of your bones, there is no more welcoming spot in our city than Swan Oyster Depot. Like my two favorite Barcelona tapas bars, Cal Pep and Bar Pinotxo, Swan only offers counter seating. Call it counter intelligence. Eighteen coveted stools line the long, well-worn marble counter of this classic oyster bar that dates back to 1912, so there is nearly always a wait. My friends and I wisely rendezvoused early, before the line grew fierce with workers on their lunch breaks.
The limited menu is posted on the wall behind the counter, above a collection of rubber duckies that look quite at home in the long, narrow white-tiled room. Behind the counter, the six jovial men who look like extras from the set of Cheers are the sons of Sal Sancimino, Swan's owner since 1946.
Each of us started with a steaming cup of Boston clam chowder (that's chowdah to you) which instantly made us forget the outside downpour. The creamy chowder, filled with chunks of salty clams and fish, was suitably rich without the addition of any superfluous thickeners. The accompanying crunchy oyster crackers transported me to my New England-born grandmother's kitchen table, which always had a bowl filled with the comforting hexagonal crackers.
Regrettably, unlike my beloved Barcelona tapas bars, hot entrées are not an option at Swan Oyster Depot. Our choices were limited to cold dishes. With the strike of the local Dungeness crab fishermen now thankfully resolved, I couldn't resist ordering Swan's signature Crab Louie salad,* overflowing with freshly caught local lump crab meat. Although I confess I am not normally inclined to order anything whose primary ingredients are shredded iceberg lettuce and gloppy Russian dressing, I happily devoured most of the enormous salad. Perhaps I was under the potent spell cast by the Sancimino family's generosity of spirit? Or perhaps it was the company of good friends warming up an otherwise dreary day?
Later in the afternoon, I met other friends at a new and welcome addition to the San Francisco culinary buffet, Bittersweet, which bills itself as a "chocolate café." This cheerful bakery and café arrived on Fillmore Street a few weeks ago to the loud cheers of the chocodependant San Franciscans like myself, who feel deprived every time we read yet another tantalizing post by Clotilde or David about one of the many luscious chocolate shops of Paris. (I often imagine the streets of Paris being overrun with Oompa Loompas driving tiny Smart Cars fueled by M&M's commuting to and from the city's innumerable chocolate factories). Although nobody will mistake the homey selection of brownies, cookies, cup cakes, flourless cakes, and pots de crème (all of course in the namesake flavor) for Pierre Hermé, I was reminded of my favorite chocolate shop in Barcelona, Cacao Sampaka.
Bittersweet is a sultry temptress that attempts to entice all your senses. The intoxicating aromas of coffee and cacao and the haunting melodies of Cesaria Evora fill every nook of the high-ceilinged loft-like space. Warm butter walls, accented with splashes of pistachio and mandarin and dotted with vintage French chocolate posters, provide a bright and festive backdrop to dive into a cup of one of the café's selection of hot chocolates.
I savored every sinful drop of my "classic" hot chocolate, which consisted of chopped dark chocolate and hot milk whizzed in a Hamilton Beach milkshake blender until frothy. I only wish the milk had been hotter, which might have prevented the unmelted bits of chocolate from pooling at the bottom of my cup. Like some kind of illicit chocolate crack, that last chunky, intensely fudgey sludge sent me into a giddy orbit. I felt deliriously happy, like Augustus Gloop drowning in Willy Wonka's river of chocolate.
On future visits, I plan to explore other hot cocoa options, like the "bittersweet" (just chocolate and water), the "spicy" or the "chocolate chai." Or maybe by next visit "chocolate crack" will be a menu staple, so I can just cut to the chase and mainline it.
This month, Bittersweet will provide an ideal respite from the frantic holiday shoppers who jam Fillmore Street. You can even shop for fellow chocoholics (including
me yourself) here, as the café also doubles as a shop. They sell dozens of hard to find artisanal chocolate bars, conveniently organized into "dark," "milk," and "surprises," which contain anything from hazelnuts to curry powder. Oddly, though, one of my favorite local chocolatiers, Michael Recchiuti, was not represented.
There's also a limited selection of books on all things relating to chocolate. Absent, however, was the book that we bloggers know as the definitive book on chocolate, David Lebovitz's The Great Book of Chocolate. So, I encourage anyone who visits Bittersweet to persuade the owners, as I did, to correct that oversight. The rest of you go to David's site and buy his book now.
Swan Oyster Depot
1517 Polk St., San Francisco, 415-673-1101
2123 Fillmore St., San Francisco, 415-346-8715
* This photo of Crab Louie is my current leading contender for my submission to Rachael's ugliest food photo contest. Regrettably, I have a habit of deleting my bad photos.