Financial Times of London

...The best pizza I have ever had outside Rome...

Ace Service in San Francisco
by Jacob Kenedy

Nancy Oakes is a good friend and a former employer. She is chef/proprietor of Boulevard, which opened in 1993 and is arguably one of San Francisco's finest restaurants. Oakes, albeit a couple of decades after Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, has played a significant role in creating a California cuisine focused on purity of flavour and local ingredients in magnificent combinations. Much as great Italian gelato is said to taste more strongly of its flavour than the ingredient used to flavour it (more pistachio than pistachio nuts, for instance), so, too, does the original California cuisine exaggerate and purify fresh, honest flavours.

Sweetcorn soup might be made by paring the kernels from fresh white supersweet cobs, making a stock from the cobs to get all the flavour, then poaching and puréeing the pearly white seeds in it. The result: a simple soup that truly tastes more like fresh corn than fresh corn itself.

Boulevard continues to be truly brilliant: its wood-roasted Iowa pork loin, braised cheek, potato "polenta", girolles and creamed nettles could be the best plate of food I can remember, each component so perfect it brought tears of joy and jealousy. But, many of the restaurants that sought to imitate Chez Panisse and Boulevard have lost their way, endlessly repeating a mantra they have long ceased to understand.

I spoke to another SF restaurateur about to launch a new venture who proudly described it as using "local ingredients, direct-sourcing from farmers" (each probably identified on the menu - Farmer Joe's beef with Farmer Bill's beets on a bed of Ted's farm's leaves) - yet he told me nothing about what the food would taste like, or what the feel of the restaurant would be.

The good news is that a new cuisine is in its embryonic stages, switching focus from producer to customer. Oakes, together with her more senior staff, is to open a second restaurant, Prospect, this summer. Its menu will consist of medium-sized dishes encouraging the diner to imagine and create their perfect meal and dishes, ordered in a sequence dictated by the customer.

For a look into the future, Ravi Kapur, chef de cuisine at Boulevard and the man who came up with the idea for Prospect, told me to go to Nopa - "the most significant opening [in the city] of the past four years". A two-storey-high room with exposed beams has been fitted out in a thoroughly urban style. Nopa shares Prospect's seating ideals: fine service at wooden tables, a bar at the forefront of the operation and a table commune at its heart.

Three of us arrived without a reservation and were told in a happy sing-song way that the wait would be an hour, and we could take drinks while we waited. I had been told the best drinks in town were served from the slick, welcoming bar and can now only agree. The cocktails are unusual and sound very grown-up (sherry-based, herbaceous, or using unearthly spirits) but are utterly delicious.

Fried little fishes arrived, perfectly cooked, crispy without and juicy within, with a delicious salad of sharply seasoned frisée and a dab of uninteresting aioli. A flatbread of house-cured bacon, spigarello and gruyère, despite confit garlic that my companions thought excessive (and unnecessary, I thought), was the best pizza I have ever had outside Rome - the dough crispy-chewy and wood-fire scorched, the topping perfectly sparse with pungent cheese and the bacon breathtaking.

Closer examination of the menu revealed it to be broadly Mediterranean in origin, with a focus on harmony of flavours, rather than unthinking combinations of x + y + z = Cal cuisine. A dining companion's duck (seared breast, confit leg) came with a little heap of produce - squashes, potatoes and hazelnuts that looked like a beautiful pile of autumn leaves. My sturgeon, though beautifully cooked, was lost amid preserved Meyer lemon and grilled escarole so smoky it dominated the plate. A side of Early Girl tomatoes, which came tossed with purslane, mint and shaved pepato cheese, was a symphony of flavours and textures and was at once the humblest and best thing we ate that evening.

To go with this variety of dishes I asked for a recommendation of a "not-too-ripe US Pinot Noir", worried that we might find many American reds a little overblown for our varied order. Our helpful waitress understood immediately and guided us to Cima Collina, aromatic and lean, which sung alongside our main courses. Service continued to be quirky, friendly and informed - unintrusive but ever-present, discreet yet amicable. Asking about a dish led not only to a full list of the main ingredients but how each was cooked. Had I asked who in the kitchen had cooked anything on the plate, I am sure she could have answered without hesitation.

The service throughout was of a standard we can only dream of in Britain. A great waiter, after all, not only knows all the rules but is aware of each of their customers - exactly where they are in the course of their meal, what they might be wanting, whether they want to know their waiter or to not even know he or she is there. He or she is, also, an actor, becoming the person the customer wants them to be for those brief moments they share at the table. Tips are bigger in the US (15-20 per cent) and waiters are sometimes higher paid than their managers. In mainland Europe, family restaurants help to keep the standard high; it's hard to be slack if you're the owner's cousin and the cook's husband.

California cuisine is in some ways following the lead of modern British food - gutsy plates and simple combinations - a reversal of sorts for we used to follow the American trend. Their standards of service, however, remain something the rest of the world could emulate.

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