Saturday, May 2, 2009

Brenda's French Soulfood, San Francisco CA

Q'uest que c'est soul food? Okay, so the last French I took was during sophomore year of college, but living around Detroit for most of my life I certainly know what Soul Food is – having heard great things about Brenda’s, however, I wanted to know what FRENCH Soul Food was. After breakfast at Canteen and some browsing/chowing at the Saturday Farmer’s Market it started to pour – thus necessitating me to dive into the Westfield shopping center where, after browsing, I opted to take in a movie at the Cinemark. Leaving the theater and the mall, the time was around 1:00 and I had no plans for the rest of the day – time for lunch!

Walking, once again, through the streets of (now suddenly sunny) San Francisco, I turned onto Polk and was greeted by a line of about twenty…twenty five people waiting in front of a place no bigger than my living room. Walking up I chuckled at a couple of guys playing hacky sack wearing Weezer and Kyuss shirts with a beanie and dreads, respectively…it reminded me of Berkeley…or OSU’s High Street. Walking up to the line I saw a “sign in” sheet on the door and placed my name…party of 1…below 9 other names/groups. The friendly server told me “it would be about an hour, but we take role call every now and again, so it could be less.” Getting in line I, ironically, got into a long conversation with two elderly ladies who were both from Ohio and assured me that the wait was worth it…the fella’ in the Kyuss shirt then chimed in “damn right, we drove down from Berkeley for beignets!”

True to her word, the waitress emerged after 20 minutes (and allowing a few groups in) and called roll – three parties had either walked off or given up and were struck from the list. Another 20 minutes passed and the waitress came out and wrote CLOSED below the two names below mine on the list – no more spots for the day. 5 minutes later, me drooling on myself after reading the specials board and standing watching people eat through the windows, I was finally let in – “is the bar okay?” “Sure.”

A native of New Orleans and Filipino-Creole raised, I assumed Brenda would be good with the southern style – my question was how this could/would translate into “French technique” especially at a small restaurant with (obviously) limited facilities. Browsing the menu it was hard to find something that didn’t sound excellent and although I’d originally planned on a croque madame plus some beignets the daily specials drastically changed my mind…and then I saw the beignets…great scott, they were huge! Uncertain of how to proceed given my upcoming dinner at The Dining Room I asked the server if half orders could be accommodated on the specials to which she said “absolutely!” This still didn’t make my choice any easier given the Croque, the Cornmeal oyster and bacon scramble, the gulf shrimp and goat cheese omelet, the pineapple upside down pancakes, the two decadent sounding French toasts…lets just say Brenda and I would be on good terms if I was in town. Finally making my selections and watching my neighbors eat any variety of amazing dishes I sat back, drank some water, and waited in the congenial yet loud atmosphere.

The first item to arrive was my flight of beignets – quite frankly I couldn’t resist. Starting with “Plain – for the die-hard traditionalist” I must admit I was impressed right off the bat. Delicate and light, warm with a notably buttery undertone yet hints of cinnamon and perhaps clove, these already beat out Kinch’s version at Manresa. Finishing only half (to save room) I moved on to the savory.

Beignet #2, Crawfish with Cayenne, scallions, and cheddar raised the bar at least two notches (much like what this trip did to my belt size) with its milky yet sharp cheddar complimenting the perfectly prepared and shredded (and mildly briny) crawfish meat – the addition of scallions provided an aromatically pleasing component to the dish while the dusting of cayenne added just a wee-bit of heat – like a great crawfish etouffee sans roux in a puffy shell – where are ya on this one, Hot Pockets?

Moving on to the sweets, the third beignet was noted to consist of Granny Smith Apple and Cinnamon Honey Butter. Admittedly an admirer of all things made with cinnamon this was most certainly the beignet I'd been looking forward to most, but unfortunately it was the least "wowing" of the group. Filled with an ample amount of apples, I do fear that the selection was a bit poor and (even for Granny Smiths) the apples were very sour. Tempered somewhat by the sweet honey, the pervasive flavor overall was actually the butter and I fear the cinnamon got somewhat "lost in the mix." It wasn't bad, but it wasn't as impressive as the others.

The final beignet, billed as being filled with molten Ghirardelli chocolate, was -honestly- stunning. In general not a fan of the overly sweet Ghirardelli chocolates and their lack of subtlety, this concoction was clearly Ghirardelli plus something else - or else a higher end dark chocolate option from their collection that I've not tasted. Strong and potent the heavy ganache blended quite elegantly with the airy beignets - I cannot even imagine eating a full order of these, but one hit the spot quite adequately - I'd strongly recommend these to share for anyone going to Brenda's.

Already comfortably sated I could have left here and been happy – but remember when I said I wanted a croque? Well, I didn’t get a croque. What I did get, instead, was something so much more sublime – one of the daily specials entitled “Banana Bread Pudding French Toast with bourbon pecan sauce and chocolate chips.” Essentially a piece of banana bread that had been saturated/soaked in bourbon custard and then griddle fried, topped with Ghirardelli chocolate chips, and slathered with whipped cream and an absolutely flawless pecan sauce with strong degrees of cinnamon plus subtle nuances of bourbon whiskey – stunning. Better than the French Toast at Dottie’s in texture and consistency and potentially more sweet than that at Griddle cafĂ© – thankfully I only ordered a half-order (which was, amazingly, charged exactly half for instead of the $2 up-charge at Dottie’s and others for half-orders!)

Friendly service, water that was refilled long before I reached the bottom of the glass, and a hustling/bustling environment…..oh, and really great food. I understand why the lines are so long, but if I end up in town permanently I’m going to have to ask Brenda to get a bigger space so I can come back more often!

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