Wednesday, February 8, 2012

San Francisco Showstopper: Foreign Cinema

There's a resurgence brewing in San Francisco's Mission District. What once was a neighborhood known for crackheads and panhandlers is now a hipster haven. With popular Manhattan East Village transplants like The Beauty Bar, it's obvious that the Mission is catering to a new crowd. It's also the home for an interesting culinary experiment called Foreign Cinema.

The space, once used for a movie theater, is now converted into a two-story restaurant. Although the main dining room to the right appears the most overtly renovated, the high ceiling oddly adds a warm, cozy feel – the large fireplace doesn't hurt either.  Fortunately (for historical building nerds like me), remnants of the old theater structure still remain. The marquee glows out front and the hallway leading to the reception table is still carpeted red. However, the wooden tables and chairs give the space a rustic feel. The open kitchen is the only reminder that you're actually eating at a restaurant – not at a quaint farmhouse. Foreign Cinema fools you into thinking that this experience is all so simple. In fact, it takes timing and perfect cadence to make the diner feel so comfortable and at ease. While simultaneously, making them feel like they're a blockbuster.

The middle dining room is where most of the action occurs. It's dimly lit with rows of wooden tables. Starting at dusk, the large screen at the front projects a movie (the night we were there, New World was showing). The twinkling lights evoke imagery of a Midsummer Night's Dream crossed with a hipster outdoor movie screening. The cocktails, going along with the cinema theme, are all named after films like Black Swan. But, the true showstopper is the food.

Earlier that Saturday afternoon, I walked with a group of food enthusiasts to San Francisco's Ferry Building. (It was a perfectly sunny San Francisco day without a cloud in the sky – I really was on vacation!) As we perused each vendor's stall, the star of the farmer's market stopped us in our tracks. It was romanesco (a Italian-style broccoli that tastes like a dense cauliflower). It's the vegetable equivalent to Kate Moss.

Romanesco's unique oddities make it beautiful, interesting, and delicious. As I was describing it, I mentioned that chefs love using this alien-looking ingredient because its appearance is so unusual, but the taste is so familiar. To our delight, that night, it wound up on our plates at Foreign Cinema! "Oohs" and "aahs" erupted from the table. The Romanesco was pickled and served cold rather than boiled and glazed with butter. It was vinegary, spicy and prepared in a way I never tried before! And, to seal the deal, it was served with duck. I gave the meal a standing ovation.  

 I wish I took a better picture of the romanesco pickles! Anyway, here's the rare duck breast with shaved asparagus, mushroom medley, and tender beans

The Steak – We loved that at first glance, it looks like a salad. The seasonal beans and crunchy croutons balanced well with the beef. All the garnishes were fresh, seasonal and interesting.

Foie gras terrine and paté spread on "bruschetta"with Dijon mustard. It was so good, our table-mate exclaimed, "I can't believe California wants to make foie gras illegal! Now that's a crime!"

Check out the video below of Blue Hill's chef/owner Dan Barber discussing the foie gras parable at TED's Taste3 Talks. He describes his visit with a Spanish farmer raising a sustainable flock of geese that produces the best foie gras in the world. The most amazing thing: the farmer credits nature alone for the foie's unprecedented flavor and color. The farmer obtains these goose livers by not galvaging (or force feeding) the animals. It's especially interesting to me since foie gras is rumored be outlawed soon in California because its regarded as inhumane.


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