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Holiday Time in a Favorite City

On the Saturday before Christmas, the busiest shopping day of the year, San Francisco’s retail district, anchored by Union Square, was overrun with customers. The temperature was moderate and the sun brightened the sidewalks. The merchants hosted a party for both buyers and browsers. Harry and David offered velvety chocolate truffles. Gump’s served crunchy meringues and miniature cocktail biscuits in three flavors. Williams Sonoma poured cups of hot spiced apple juice. And Christofle treated its visitors to champagne in gold-rimmed crystal flutes.

In Chinatown, where prices are subject to discussion, we found just what we were looking for. However, a salesperson at Canton Bazaar, sensing our fancy for some tables and knowing that at holiday time people tend to spend more generously, marked up the cost.

Also, during the Christmas season, Cirque du Soleil performed its newest production "Varekai" in a tent on the grounds of Pac Bell, the baseball field. The sold-out ferries shuttled tourists across the bay to Alcatraz. And the Winslow Homer exhibit at The California Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum was disappointing. The focus, paintings of fish, was narrow and none of the artist’s outstanding canvases was on display.

The San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau has compiled a long list of quotations from notables, each a paean to this special city. Perhaps Dylan Thomas explained best why tourists return repeatedly, "You wouldn’t think such a place could exist. The wonderful sunlight there, the hills, the great bridges, the Pacific at your shoes. Beautiful Chinatown. Every race in the world. The sardine fleets sailing out. The little cable-cars whizzing down the city hills."

Wherever there are tourists, even if a city is small, there will, of course, be an abundance of hotel rooms and restaurant seats. We discovered new lodging and dining facilities during a recent trip.


Kensington Park Hotel lobby

From our corner room on the 11th floor of the Kensington Park, we looked down on Christmas lights and a tree brightening Union Square. A small hotel, it is one of five in the Personality group of boutique accommodations located in the same neighborhood. The landmark Kensington Park was originally built in the mid-1920s as an Elks Club Lodge. Of Spanish-Gothic design, the construction materials and furnishings were, nevertheless, made in the U.S. since the Elks is an American organization. Complimentary afternoon tea and sherry are served in the dramatic lobby. Guests sometimes tinkle on the keys of the ebony grand piano. Oriental rugs, a handsome chandelier, palm plants, a carved and gilded mirror and arrangements of sofas, chairs and tables complete the decor. However, the tendency while enjoying the surroundings is to look up. Overhead are wood beams flecked with gold and painted with designs and historic figures. An open balcony on the mezzanine adds to the Iberian look.

Bedrooms and baths have been modernized and old-fashioned travertine and brass accoutrements have been spruced up.

Kensington Park, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA 94102. Tel. 800-553-1900. Room rates start at $125. Complimentary continental breakfast is included. www.kensingtonparkhotel.com


The Pacific Restaurant

The mandate at the Pacific Restaurant is clear. Dazzle the guest with attractive presentations and imaginative food. Here, contemporary California cuisine means borrowing sparingly from international cooking styles and using the best ingredients. An amuse bouche—a slightly seared sea scallop topping a mound of herb-flecked mashed potatoes scented with garlic and truffle oil —was a tantalizing hint that the kitchen would deliver other satisfying fare. Thumb-size ricotta gnocchi seasoned with chanterelles, parmesan, white truffles and herb jus were toothsome. High marks also went to crunchy asparagus salad and baby greens strewn with slices of Serrano ham and baked feta cheese. The mixed salad was likewise pleasing. Wasabi and shoyu-tinged Dungeness crab and ahi tuna dice layered with rice and avocado and formed in a timbale was a creative riff on sushi.

Black Angus filet of beef was beautifully grilled and well complemented by potato mousseline and a rich ragout of asparagus and porcini. Blushingly pink roasted rack of lamb was inventively sauced with Bernaise. Lean duck breast paired well with a tart huckleberry sauce and creamy polenta, which had been simmered to perfection. One entree struck out. Tasteless fatty quail accompanied risotto that had been mixed with melted blue cheese and herb jus, resulting in a soupy and unappetizing dish.

The wine manager suggested that we drink a Bearboat pinot noir, Russian River Valley, 2000. His choice was wise. This fruity vintage with odors and traces of cherry happily matched each main course.

The sugar-rush inducing desserts came straight from epicure’s heaven. Warm huckleberry pie had a streusel topping. Devil’s food cake filled with coconut custard and bittersweet chocolate ice cream sat in a pool of caramelized nut sauce. Warm bread pudding was baked in a flaky crust. In classic fashion, creme brulee had a brittle lid.

The restaurant is located in the rear of the sweeping third floor lobby of the Pan Pacific Hotel and is part of a large open space, which includes a fountain, towering glass elevator atrium and fireplace. Greenery and flowers sitting in tall brass planters adorn the dining room.

Pacific, 500 Post Street at Mason in the Pan Pacific Hotel, San Francisco, CA 94102. Tel. 415-929-2087. Open for breakfast,7 days; lunch, Monday to Friday; brunch, Saturday & Sunday; dinner, 7 days. The Pacific often has prix-fixe special dinners on holidays. Expensive. www.sanfrancisco.panpacific.com.

A young San Franciscan told us that MoMo’s is very hip. Indeed, it seemed that way on the night we were there. Located opposite PacBell Park, the San Francisco Giants’ stadium, the restaurant is full even when the team is not playing. The 20 and 30ish staff waits on other young adults. And with crisp, attentive service they get you out on time for the game or in our case for a performance by Cirque du Soleil. There are 120 seats on the patio and 240 persons can be accommodated in several dining spaces indoors. Nevertheless, you can carry on a conversation, but you can also see what your neighbor is eating. The menu is appropriate for before the game eating. Choose from onion strings or soup, ribs, mussels, chicken quesadillas, a variety of main dish salads, hot sandwiches, burgers, calzone, individual pizzas and more.

Appetizers of baby greens and butter lettuce salads were sprightly and large enough for sharing. Roasted lamb sirloin served with polenta, and braised Brussel sprouts with thick-cut bacon were reminiscent of good old-fashioned home cooking. New York strip steak was fork tender and its cracked pepper brandy sauce enhanced the juicy cut. Blackened swordfish accompanied by andouille jambalaya was equal to any proffered in New Orleans. Sea bass was good enough, but its sides of mashed potatoes and spinach were too mundane. How about something with more oomph?

For dessert, the chocolate banana bread pudding with pecan rum raisin sauce and the just out of the oven chocolate chip cookies hit the spot.

MoMo’s furniture is mission-style. With its wood, leather, old mirrors, antique prints and black and white vintage photographs of the city, it evokes San Francisco of another era.

MoMo’s, 760 Second Street, San Francisco, CA 94107. Tel. 415-227-8660. Open for lunch, Monday to Friday; brunch, Saturday and Sunday; saloon menu, Saturday & Sunday afternoons; dinner, 7 days. Moderate. www.eatatmomos.com.

Winter 2002-03