Laura Donnelly's Left Coast Homecoming

The Star's food writer visits the Bay Area
A server at Zuni Cafe dancing with lady apples. Laura Donnelly

When I found out that my friend Justin Spring, author of “The Gourmands’ Way,” was going on a book-signing tour through San Francisco, then to Carmel to his sister and brother-in-law’s winery and tasting room in Carmel Valley, I asked if I could tag along. 

Reason number one: I was born in Carmel and was long overdue for a visit to my hometown. Reason number two: There was to be a dinner in his honor at Chez Panisse in Berkeley on Dec. 4, with a Richard Olney-inspired menu. Scratch that, traveling with Justin was reason number one.

I arrived on Dec. 3, and my son, Billy, had been in San Francisco for a few days already. We made a beeline for the Slanted Door, an excellent Vietnamese restaurant in the Ferry Building. We sat at the bar and enjoyed green papaya salad, the lightest spring rolls served with lettuce leaves, sprigs of mint, and vermicelli noodles, shaking beef, scallops in coconut broth, and roasted cauliflower. 

The next day we made a pilgrimage to Amoeba Records in Haight-Ashbury. The scent of fine weed was everywhere and it smelled . . . delicious. After a light lunch at a Thai restaurant (more green papaya salad and chicken larb) we were ready for Chez Panisse. 

I had just finished reading Alice Waters’s autobiography, “Coming to My Senses,” so this was an especially meaningful treat. Ms. Waters talks at length about her obsession with perfect lighting in her iconic restaurant, and also the flower arrangements. Both were a wonder to behold. The interior is Arts and Crafts style — warm woods, lots of copper, amber sconces, and an open kitchen that looks like a movie set. I snuck a peek inside, by a wood burning oven, and saw full sheet trays layered with big, fresh, chanterelle mushrooms.

The meal began with a salad of artichokes, beets, and chicories with a pale green garlic aioli. The vegetables were perfectly cooked and lightly salted. They tasted like they’d been poached in olive oil, almost a confit. The aioli was most likely made entirely with a young fruity olive oil, and the garlic was mild. The beef Bourguignon was rich and tender, with fingerling potatoes, Nantes carrots, and lots and lots of those beautiful chanterelle mushrooms. 

Before dessert was served, we were given plates of sliced, perfectly ripe Fuyu persimmons and chunks of pomegranate, a nice palate cleanser. The dessert was a wonder: buckwheat crepes with Chartreuse ice cream, candied almonds, and swirls of honey.

An amazing coincidence had occurred on the plane coming to San Francisco from New York. I sat next to a nice couple and chatted with them about my trip and the highlights to come, Chez Panisse being one of them. It turned out that my seatmate was Patricia Curtan, the illustrator of all of Alice Waters’s cookbooks, the creator of the colorful linoleum block prints of fruits and vegetables. My flabber has never been so gasted, and I forgot to get her autograph.

Most of our six days in San Francisco were filled with visits to bookstores for signings and readings, Omnivore Books being one of the best. We took a drive around Tomales Bay with Justin’s friend Rudi, and had an oyster feast at Nick’s Cove, where we met a handsome young coast guardsman who joined us for lunch. That’s how we roll in Northern Cali.

One morning in San Francisco, I awoke with a mission: I had read about the coffee crunch cake from Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop, tucked into the Super Mira Mart in Japantown. The cake originated at Blum’s, a little restaurant tucked inside the I. Magnin department store. Tom Yasukochi remembers being taken there by his mother. After being sent to various internment camps during World War II, he returned to San Francisco and began making the cakes himself.

Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop opens at 10 a.m., and the cakes are often sold out by 11. I bought three slices to share with Justin and Patty (his Amherst classmate, another fine traveling companion on this trip), and trudged back to our hotel.

For lunch that day we tried a place recommended by Justin’s friend David Lebowitz, a fine cookbook author and pastry chef. R and G Lounge in Chinatown is renowned for its salt and pepper Dungeness crab and it has been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show “Parts Unknown.” The huge crabs are hacked up, then battered and fried with lots of garlic. We gorged ourselves on them, along with Peking duck and some green beans, and I kept repeating “save room for coffee crunch cake!” We didn’t have room for the cake until late that night, but I must say, it is one of the best cakes I’ve ever tasted. Super light, moist sponge cake is layered with whipped cream and a crunchy coating of coffee-infused honeycomb candy and almond bits. I am hoping I can duplicate this when I get home.

The last vital pilgrimage we made before leaving San Francisco for Carmel was to Zuni Cafe, renowned for its roast chicken with chunky croutons mixed with currants and pine nuts and served with a mound of frilly mizuna salad. I had never seen this kind of mizuna before (there are sixteen varieties), but after some research, I found out it was probably rock samphire. It wasn’t very peppery or mustardy and it was lightly dressed, perfect with the croutons that had absorbed the delicious chicken juices. 

As we ate, I wondered to myself, “Can I make this at home?” Yes, I can! With an Iacono or Browder’s bird and some Carissa’s bread, I can do this. I have always believed that a properly roasted chicken and a good salad are all you need for the perfect meal, and Zuni Cafe has built its reputation on this obvious and simple theorem since 1979.

Besides all the meals described, we enjoyed Cowgirl Creamery cheeses and Acme Bakery breads and artichokes and oysters and local wines and Frog Hollow jams and on and on.

I am now in Carmel and have two more days with my oldest childhood friends, the Osbornes, feasting and hiking and cooking and book signings with Justin.

Thank you, my dear friend, for letting me tag along, and bringing me home.

A petite aioli appetizer with artichokes, beets, and chicory salad from the Chez Panisse dinner.
Justin Spring’s book “The Gourmands’ Way” was feted with a dinner at the Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse, famous for its flowers and lighting, with an open kitchen that looks like a movie set. Justin Spring, below, signing his book at Chez PanisseLaura Donnelly Photos