Suzette Gresham’s essential San Francisco eats

Suzette Gresham of Acquerello in San Francisco, Calif. Photo credit: Daniel Morris.
Suzette Gresham of Acquerello in San Francisco, Calif. Photo credit: Daniel Morris.

Hometown: San Carlos, California
Occupation: Executive Chef and Co-owner, Acquerello
Years worked as a chef: 32
Years lived in the Bay Area: Entire life
Awards/Accolades: 2 Michelin stars for Acquerello (2015-present)
Semifinalist, Outstanding Restaurant, James Beard Foundation (2015)
“Top 100 Restaurants,” San Francisco Chronicle (1996-present)
1 Michelin star for Acquerello (2007-2014)
Antonin Carême Medal, American Culinary Federation
Bronze medal, U.S. Culinary Olympic team (1980)

Go to Chef Gresham’s shortlist

What do you love best about San Francisco’s food scene?

Its authenticity, diversity and willingness to be or try anything new.

Mackerel crudo with Bronte pistachio and orange from Acquerello. Photo credit: Daniel Morris.
Mackerel crudo with Bronte pistachio and orange from Acquerello. Photo credit: Daniel Morris.

If you had to name one favorite dish at Acquerello, what would it be and why? 

Categorically, I feel that I’m probably supposed to say pasta, but I have always loved our various carpaccio and crudo applications, whether seafood or meat. There was a butter basted abalone appetizer back in the day that I still remember and think of fondly. Remember, this is year #26. That’s quite a few dishes to think back through …

Name the top restaurants and dishes that you think every visitor to San Francisco should try. 

I can unabashedly send anyone to Merigan Sub Shop on 2nd Street for an unexpectedly over-the-top sandwich. Liza Shaw, an Acquerello ex-pat, gets a heritage hog weekly and hand-makes all of her salumi for the most mouthwatering sandwiches ever! Where else would you find coppa di testa, porchetta, pork liver terrine, arista, fresh giardiniera, Jimmy Nardello hots, etc.?

Every chef must have a late night grub spot. Mine is Nara Sushi around the corner from Acquerello. Of course, Swan Oyster Depot is right next door, but they close much earlier. Nara does certain things really well. Their gyoza is housemade and the dipping sauce: top secret. Then, on cheap/broke nights, they have a $10 seafood salad that has all kinds of fishy shrapnel plus lettuce and onions. It’s so refreshing and ample that it’s like a Japanese poor boy gone fishy. For some unknown reason, this same restaurant that refuses to use fresh shiso (WTF?!) has killer ama ebi and the cheapest, delicious toro in town. Go figure!

Don’t miss all of our local coffee culture. We have spectacular roasteries: Four BarrelRitualSightglassSaint Frank’s and Blue Bottle, for starters.

Dandelion small batch chocolate. Don’t ask … just go there. Eat samples. Drink hot chocolate European-style. Best thing outside of Milan!

Bar Tartine: get the tasting menu. Whatever is on the list is coming to you in a mini buffet of goodness and matching bread. I died and went to heaven as I ate three different Tartine breads and 10 different little starters. Can you say “grazing” without mooing? I did. OMG. It was SO good!

Describe the Italian dining scene in San Francisco. What other Italian restaurants have impressed you?

The bulk of our Italian restaurants are more casual in application. I find that I have dined at approximately 10 out of the 20+ Italian restaurants in SF. My favorites, for different reasons, are:

La Ciccia for an unembarrassed, authentic, regional exploration of Sardinia.

Cotogna on Sundays, for a delicious set menu of pasta, wood-fired items and an overall Italian experience.

Quince for a deliciously innovative approach to fine dining with French/Italian overtones.

What other cuisines do you enjoy eating or cooking, and where do you go in the city for them?

Japanese, Thai, Indian, Hispanic. I would rather that you go explore and become the expert. Everyone’s taste is different. I like really authentic stuff and ask for the weirdest of things.

Describe your perfect dining out day in San Francisco.

The best days are filled with unexpected discoveries. I often set out with only one destination or thought in mind, but then something happens and a spark turns into a fire! My kids used to call it, “A Mom Adventure,” which could mean anything. I’m driving and see somewhere that I have always wanted to explore for a long time, but on this particular day, I stop and do it. There’s some element of fatefulness to it and one thing leads to another. It can include a bookstore, stationery, artisan jewelry, new knives or cheese. Not necessarily in that order.

Otherwise, I would start out at b. Patisserie and work my way through way too many of their goodies, topped off with a splash of Four Barrel coffee. Do not miss their 10 hour apple tart or any form of quiche. And under no circumstance may you leave without a kouign amann!

Go be a tourist and wear yourself out, in the direction of Tartine. Get in line, have an espresso and buy a loaf of their bread. Any variety. Take it home. Either eat a sando there with pickled carrots, or go to Delfina next door. Then, go to Bi-Rite Market and buy Bear Flag Butter and an imported cheese or two or three to eat with your bread. They may even offer you a taste, if you’re serious enough. I never leave without a bag of Ryan Farr’s 4505 chicharrónes.

Continue walking around in order to make space for an ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery down the street. Amble in Dolores Park, pet the dogs and watch the many factions of SF walk by. Don’t stare or be a hater. Embrace! Buy some El Salvadorian pupusas with curtido from a corner vendor. Dinner should be a bowl of really good pho or tan-tan men ramen noodles.

What’s your favorite neighborhood to dine out in?

I don’t delineate or designate by neighborhoods. I LOVE my WHOLE city!

What are some of your favorite high-end dining places in San Francisco?

I recently split my crew into four groups and took them to QuinceBenuAcquerello and The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa. Our experiences were universally phenomenal. Not only did we interact and converse, expressing our individual, deeply felt wishes for Acquerello’s future, but we also expanded our knowledge and understanding of what our guests should experience when they dine with us.

As a tourist, it may seem exorbitant to dine at this level when you’ve already paid to travel here. But that’s exactly why you should do some fine dining. It’s as if you are at the Farmer’s Market, being exposed to a different life through food that only exists in that part of the world. I’m willing to gamble that what you’re getting is an irreplaceable celebration that punctuates your normal life. I will never forget some of my past dining experiences, no matter how long ago they may have taken place. A dining experience is a fragile entity that only exists in your memory and cannot always be duplicated. It is a commemoration or an experience that is uniquely and solely yours.

What’s one dish in San Francisco that blew you away and left you wishing you came up with the recipe yourself?

For me, it’s never one dish. It’s a way of being or thinking. I love the way Christopher Kostow [of The Restaurant at Meadowood] has identified a region and made it his own. His thought process is complete from the humble offerings culled from the land and rivers of the Napa Valley, to the finished creation, served upon plates that completely and artistically represent Napa. He has defined a region by his cuisine and vice versa. He has captured the area perfectly.

What’s your guilty pleasure and where in San Francisco do you go to get it? 

French fries. I don’t have a destination, but there are so many to choose from. I just eat them ALL wherever they’re from. Ketchup is vital. OK, true confession: I love ranch with French fries, too. Maybe we shouldn’t print that … oops.

Garam Masala-Toasted Coconut cocktail and fried duck sandwich from 1760. Photo credit: Daniel Morris.
Garam Masala-Toasted Coconut cocktail and fried duck sandwich from 1760. Photo credit: Daniel Morris.

Do you have any favorite watering holes you like to frequent? Are there any specific drinks there that you can’t find anywhere else?

I am a huge fan of 1760! Christopher Longoria makes the best cocktails in the city! I love to sit at the bar and see him and his staff working. They make great tasting cocktails AND make you feel personally attended to … a lost art!

The Garam Masala rocks my world! It is the most unusual drink ever! Actually, any of the fabulous drinks on his bar menu are spectacular. It is rare to find a barman that creates drinks the way that a chef creates food. His cocktails are very well-balanced, with flavor first and the alcohol carefully placed at the back. The nuances and subtleties are splendidly respected in a manner that not many understand, and his creations pair really well with the food, too!

Are there any foods native to San Francisco that you particularly like that visitors should look for?

It depends on where you are from and what you have in your area. There are so many authentic ethnicities here that you should not miss:

El Salvadorian: pupusas and curtido.
Thai: duck larb.
Authentic tacos … lengua, cabesa, buche, etc.
Seafood: our Dungeness crab, when in season.
Sourdough bread.
2 a.m. street corner: bacon-wrapped hot dogs with onions and jalapeños.

Finally, what would you say any visitor must see or do before leaving San Francisco? 

Ride a cable car, take a ferry to Alcatraz, drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and go to Sausalito. Go down the coast, stop in Half Moon Bay, go eat artichoke bread at Arcangeli’s in Pescadero and take it to Harley Farms, eat it with fresh goat cheese. Buy something from Pie Ranch in Pescadero. Look at the Pacific Ocean …
Careful, it’s easy to leave your heart in San Francisco! It’s easy to make a list of everything that you should do, but it’s hard to do it all, so choose wisely and follow your heart! Go with the flow and enjoy yourself!

Chef Gresham’s Shortlist:

Acquerello, 1722 Sacramento Street (Nob Hill); Italian, dinner only Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.

Merigan Sub Shop, 636 2nd Street (South Beach); sandwiches, breakfast Monday-Friday, lunch Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.

Nara Sushi, 1515 Polk Street (Nob Hill); Japanese, lunch and dinner daily, late night Friday-Saturday.

Swan Oyster Depot, 1517 Polk Street (Nob Hill); seafood, lunch and early dinner Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.

Four Barrel Coffee, 375 Valencia Street (Inner Mission); coffee shop, open daily.
Second location: 736 Divisadero Street (Alamo Square); open daily.
Third location: 2 Burrows Street (Portola); open daily.

Ritual Coffee Roasters, 1026 Valencia Street (Mission); coffee shop, open daily.
Second location: 1634 Jerrold Avenue (Bayview); open daily.
Third location: 432b Octavia Street (Hayes Valley); open daily.

Sightglass Coffee, 270 7th Street (SoMa); coffee shop, open daily.
Second location: 3014 20th Street (Mission); open daily.

Saint Frank Coffee, 2340 Polk Street (Russian Hill); coffee shop, open daily.

Blue Bottle Coffee, 1 Ferry Building #7 (Financial District North); coffee shop, open daily.
Multiple locations throughout the Bay Area.

Dandelion Chocolate, 740 Valencia Street (Mission); chocolate factory and café, open daily.

Bar Tartine, 561 Valencia Street (Mission); new American, dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.

La Ciccia, 291 30th Street (Noe Valley); Italian, dinner only Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.

Cotogna, 490 Pacific Avenue (Jackson Square); Italian, lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner daily.

Quince, 470 Pacific Avenue (Jackson Square); Italian/French, dinner only Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.

b. Patisserie, 2821 California Street (Lower Pacific Heights); pastries, open Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday.

Tartine Bakery & Cafe, 600 Guerrero Street (Mission); bakery, open daily.

Delfina, 3621 18th Street (Mission); Italian, dinner only daily.

Bi-Rite Market, 3639 18th Street (Mission); food market, open daily.
Second location: 550 Divisadero Street (Alamo Square); open daily.

Bi-Rite Creamery, 3692 18th Street (Mission; ice cream, open daily.
Second location: 550 Divisadero Street (Alamo Square); open daily.

Benu, 22 Hawthorne Street (SoMa); contemporary American/Asian, dinner only Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.

The Restaurant at Meadowood, 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena, CA; new American/Californian, dinner only Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.

1760, 1760 Polk Street (Nob Hill); new American, dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.

Alcatraz Island, ferry from Pier 33 in San Francisco; open daily.

Arcangeli Grocery Co., 287 Stage Road, Pescadero, CA; bakery and market, open daily.

Harley Farms, 205 North Street, Pescadero, CA; farm and cheese shop, open daily.

Pie Ranch, 2080 Cabrillo Highway, Pescadero, CA; farm and farm stand, open Wednesday-Monday, closed Tuesday.

About the Chef: Suzette Gresham is your true Bay Area girl. Born, raised and now living on the Peninsula, she also received all of her culinary education and training there. Thanks to her California upbringing, she learned first-hand about seasonality and accessibility, and her French country-style heritage gave her an early appreciation for food that is fresh, honest, unpretentious and approachable.

After an apprenticeship, she worked as the executive chef at San Francisco’s Hotel Donatello. One day, she and general manager Giancarlo Paterlini started planning for a standalone restaurant after realizing that the hotel was restructuring its business model. Their original concept was for a more casual trattoria, but over time, the idea morphed into a high-end Italian restaurant (Paterlini came from a strong fine-dining background). In 1989, Acquerello officially joined San Francisco’s dining scene.

“If you love your craft, it is your duty to learn all you can and then share that knowledge with the next generation. I relate to other chefs young and old; at the end of the day, we are all just cooks.”

Since its inception 26 years ago, Gresham has ruled the roost at Acquerello. Sixty-three interns have passed through her kitchen in that time, leaving with cooking fundamentals and a strong foundation for their careers. Under her leadership, Acquerello has also seen tremendous success. It has held a Michelin star since 2007, when the French dining guide published its first edition for San Francisco. For 2015, it was upgraded to two stars, making Gresham only the second female chef in the country to receive that honor. To differentiate Acquerello from other Italian restaurants, Gresham says she still seeks the soul-satisfying flavors of Italy, all while presenting them in an innovative manner without compromising the heart of the cuisine.

What are your favorite childhood memories involving food?

Early: My mother’s peach lattice pie made from our O’Henry peach tree. Eating Pearson tomatoes, warm, straight from the garden. At Easter, having gigot, or roasted leg of lamb studded with pink garlic and dragging chunks of French bread all around the bottom of the pan.

Teen years: Learning that the mention of my mom’s homemade soup for lunch was enough to get me a ride in the most prestigious muscle cars of my high school. A birthday dinner of really skinny homemade French fries cooked in rendered leaf lard alongside a rare seared steak smothered in garlic, parsley and red wine.

Young adulthood: The shocking realization that not everyone ate the way that my family did! As I answer these questions now, I realize how the majority of my life was, and is still, intertwined with food.

Motherhood: And now, I have corrupted my own children. They have been indoctrinated without their consent. Sorry, kids.

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