Thursday, September 09, 2004

Burger Battle. Oola and Chez Maman, San Francisco

Oola, 860 Folsom St, San Francisco, CA 94107
Chez Maman, 1453 18th Street between Missouri & Connecticut on San Francisco's Potrero Hill

Visit Oola's website here
Visit Chez Maman's website here

The night after it first opened, we decided to try out Oola in San Francisco's SoMa. We had just spent over two hours tasting sake ( read about that prior adventure here), and although we'd been munching on a variety appetizers over the course of the evening, the slight excess of alcohol already consumed had caused half the party to become even more ravenous.


The four of us with the sake-soaked-cells arranged to meet another couple of more sobre friends at Oola, a modern, tall and airy industrial bar/eaterie built in what was previously an elevator repair shop. We asked the super-friendly girl on the door for a table for six, telling her we were happy to wait at the bar (all the tables were full at this time), for our other two friends to arrive.

The two bartenders were chatty, friendly, and more than willing to answer the multitude of questions we had about the new space, the food and the variety of liquors on offer whilst serving us with our apres-sake choices. I wanted an affordable (rather than fine) champagne (or sparkling wine), but noticed that the cheapest on the menu ($7) was the Coppala Sofia 'blanc de blancs'.

I'm not even going to apologize for my opinion. Drinking champagne out of a can is wrong. I tried the Sofia when it first came out a couple of months ago. It looks very pretty but it doesn't work. Call me old-fashioned, but I can't drink champagne with a straw. I need a long-stemmed chilled glass so I can sip on my bubbles in more sophisticated style.
The bartender offered to let me try the second sparkler on the menu - the Domaine de la Fontainerie, brut, '01, Vouvray at $9. It was perfectly satisfactory for my needs and so he filled up my glass.
When everyone had arrived we sat down do eat in one of the comfortable boothish tables and MB promptly ordered us a bottle of the Red she declared to be "the best price performance ratio". I can't remember what it was. By that point in the evening I think a simple "best price" would have sufficed.

The menu is divided into oysters ($12), appetizers ($6-12), mains ($10-22) and several sides ($4 each). The Oysters, lemon vodka granite, caviar and chives, looked absolutely beautiful, with the oysters bedded on top of the granita and elegantly served in a martini glass. I didn't try them on this occasion but spied a tray of four glasses being transported to a neighbouring table.
I wasn't too hungry and actually didn't really 'fancy' most of what was on the menu. Usually, if a Duck Confit is an option, it doesn't have to do much to seduce me. However, the Oola version was misfittingly paired with a "ratatouille" which didn't grab my attention. The Fig Tart, onion jam and Roquefort cheese with chestnut honey ($10) was to be my tastebud-teaser instead. It's pretty dark inside Oola and therefore difficult to see what you are eating. I had to rely on taste sensation alone to describe my dish (although I did somehow manage to take a fairly poor flash photograph of the plate which aided my memory after the fact). The pastry base was light, layered and crispy, spread with the onion jam. The figs and the honey on top added sweetness which was well balanced well by the small amount of blue cheese that was nestled in the centre. Mouthfuls which included the Roquefort were good, but once the cheese had been eaten, the remainder of the dish was too sugary, missing the benefit of it's sharper, more punchy, dairy partner to give it some bite.

The other three eaters of our party opted for the Hamburger ($10) which we'd read was supposed to be one of their signature dishes, with the patty being homeground from sirloin. F was excited at the thought of what he hoped might end his search for the Holy Grail of a perfect burger. Each of the three Burger-eaters chose a different cheese to top their meat; Roquefort, Gruyere and truffle (an extra $2).
When the plates arrived, there was disappointment all round. Everyone was underwhelmed. The burger was declared to be "nothing to write home about" and the fries were denounced as "mushy". Two of the orders had accidentally been swapped so the individuals in question had the wrong cheese. About half way through their burgers they discovered the mistake declaring that each cheese had such little impact on the flavour that they had taken a while to fathom out the mistake. Additionally they remarked that the bread buns were unnecessarily sweet, dense and doughy. In the burgers' favour a point was made that it was nice to ask for a "medium rare and get a medium rare" so the actual cooking of the meat was noted as being exactly as ordered.
F can't have a plate of fries without asking for a "side of mayonnaise". The lovely waitress agreed "of course" and hurried off to the kitchen. It turned out that they didn't have any so the chef actually went ahead and made him some, fresh. It wasn't the best mayo ever, but we were really touched by the fact he had gone to such lengths to try and meet the request.

The following evening, sitting at Bastille's Bar, I met my Realtor neighbour, A, who told me he'd been to Oola on the opening night and didn't think much of the burger either. "If you want a really good burger", he said, "You should try the one at Chez Maman."

Chez Maman

So that's what we did on Saturday, try the Chez Maman version. It's not just the photograph that looks better, the execution of the dish was far superior too. Delicious, light and airy ciabatta bread was lightly grilled and spread with aoli. The juicy burger was topped with a tasty goat cheese (one of about four cheese choices on the menu), and accompanied by a mound of thin, salty, crispy fries with a distinct taste of real potato. An accompaniment of some sweet, soft onion confit added a welcome extra flavour to the burger. Very good, very satisfying, closer to the Holy Grail.

Despite criticisms of Oola's burger, we liked the place, the atmosphere, the vibe and hope to return there, especially for drinks and late night snacks (Oola serves food until 1am). My Realtor friend, A, was of the opinion that it should evolve into a bar that serves food, rather than as a dinner destination in itself. That sounds like a good plan to me. I'm going to be back soon for the good drinks, good service and maybe one of those fancy Oyster Granita Martinis...
Burger Battle. Oola and Chez Maman, San Francisco


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