SAN FRANCISCO -- Visitors can readily do a little culinary globe-trotting in San Francisco's Richmond District, where the dining options are as varied as the neighborhood is ethnically diverse.
From casual lunch spots to elegant dining rooms, the fare is of high quality. This district is far from the traditional tourist paths, so these establishments must curry the favor of local residents -- and work a little harder to secure it.
That's reflected in the menu prices, too, even onto the wine lists.
A sampling of the Richmond's best:
Chapeau!: This storefront restaurant on Clement Street looks pretty unassuming from the outside. Maybe that's why a heavy velvet curtain is hung just inside the door. Step through its folds and you feel as if you've entered another world -- a little hideaway in Paris' Marais, perhaps.
You can order a la carte, if you wish, but the create-your-own menus are terrific values: choice of appetizer, entree and dessert for $38, for example (with slight surcharges for higher-ticket items such as filet mignon). We enjoyed pan-seared monkfish with butternut-squash risotto, and a bouillabaisse with three types of fish plus mussels and clams, cooked in a fish fumet.
A mesclun salad with creme Dijonnaise was a nice starter, accompanied as it was by a wedge of fried Camembert and hearty walnut bread. For dessert, a sorbet trio featured lime, blackberry-cabernet and passion fruit -- the latter delivering an explosion
Chef-owner Philippe Gardelle devised a wine list that is refreshingly user-friendly. There is a page of by-the-glass wines, a page of half-bottles and two pages of value-priced selections, from California and France, priced in the $30 range. We left it to the hostess to select a suitable French white for our seafood and she chose a nice Sancerre for $35. Service, in fact, is friendly, flawless and deferential here.
1408 Clement St., (415) 750-9787.
Clementine: Another enjoyable French place (it takes its name from the street outside) sparked a craving for steak frites -- and the dish didn't disappoint, a rib-eye in green peppercorn sauce, bargain-priced at $19.50. But the best offering of the night was a starter of crab salad and grapefruit wedges.
This is yet another spot that doesn't murder you with markups on the wine, whether you're ordering by the glass or the bottle. 126 Clement St., (415) 387-0408.
Ton Kiang: When author Amy Tan was asked about her favorite dim sum places in San Francisco, this one made the short list. Word is obviously out on it, because there was a mob out on the sidewalk at midday on a Sunday. The wait list seems to move quickly, though.
It's always a good idea to pace yourself with dim sum, and certainly here. We arrived with ravenous appetites and said yes to the first five or six servers who passed our table (the trays are constantly circulating). It was all divine -- crabmeat in rice noodle, beef pastries, egg roll, snow-pea shoots in garlic, shrimp dumplings -- but by the time we got a first look at some other delights (fried oysters, crab claws, calamari) we were already stuffed.
The ingredients are clearly of high quality here and the creations are inventive. Be sure to save room for jin doy (sesame rolls stuffed with slightly sweetened bean paste) for dessert. 5821 Geary Blvd., (415) 387-8273.
La Vie: Clay pot dishes are a specialty at La Vie, one of the better Vietnamese restaurants in the Richmond. At lunchtime, we enjoyed a pot brimming with stir-fried chicken, prawns, Chinese sausage, mushrooms and ginger, accompanied by jasmine rice.
Another keeper was coconut curry, prepared with either prawns or chicken and a mix of fresh vegetables.
The appetizer menu is extensive. We can vouch for the shrimp-and-pork rolls (an interesting contrast of flavors and textures), with a wrapping of thin rice paper around the meat, bean sprouts, mint leaves and rice noodles. 5830 Geary Blvd., (415) 668-8080.
Katia's: This Russian tea room can delight the palate at dinner with its pelmeni (beef-filled dumplings in broth, served with sour cream; similar to pot-stickers) and its blini (thin, light pancakes served with smoked salmon and sour cream). If you have a crowd, pick some items from the zakuski selection -- eggplant caviar, smoked salmon, cucumber-and-tomato salad, etc. -- for some family-style sharing.
One major drawback here is the slow service -- one overwhelmed waiter works a room of about a dozen tables. But there's an accordion player on Saturday nights; sit back, enjoy the music, and pop another pelmeni into your mouth. 600 Fifth Ave., (415) 668-9292.
Javaholics: There are some great neighborhood coffee places in the Richmond, but this was our favorite. The coffee is first rate, and a cardboard box on the counter holds freshly baked scones bursting with raspberries, blueberries or apricots. 449 Balboa St., (415) 668-3434.