Breeders' Banquet: Dining Out with Kids in SF

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Pacific Catch

There’s this saying about raising kids. If you have kids I am sure some well-meaning but super-annoying person has said this to you. Head cocked, patronizing/indulgent smile on her face (it’s always a her), and then the slow eye blink before intoning stentorianly: “You know, the days are long but the years are short.”

Yes. The days ARE long. Sometimes my days last 20 hours straight, with no break. They are filled with whining and screaming, poop and pee, vomit and snot. They are also filled with laughing and dancing, and drawing and fart jokes, and museums and Beatles songs. As much as I want to punch those people in the throat for mouthing stupid platitudes, I don’t—  honestly, mostly because I wouldn’t have anyone to watch the kids while I went to jail for simple assault.

One thing that makes this whole stay-at-home-mom gig survivable are the other awesome moms and kids I’ve met along the way. Some of you (you know who you are) have saved me from that trip to jail and/or the mental institution, simply by offering to take my kid to the playground for a couple of hours or pouring a shot of Bailey’s into my decaf. These are my co-workers, and unlike some co-workers I’ve had, I enjoy their company— and the company of their great kids— a lot.

Sometimes it’s my turn to return the favor. A couple of weeks ago, the mom of one of the Jaybird’s BFFs needed a little break to take care of some home renovation-related business, so I offered to take BFF off her hands for a few hours. The Doctor was working late and BFFMom’s husband was as well, so we decided to meet at Pacific Catch in the Inner Sunset for dinner after Jaybird and the BFF finished their playdate.

Here’s a secret: playdates are awesome. The kids play together, obviating the need for the adult to play the 203rd game of “Fairy Veterinarian” or whatever nonsense the kids are torturing their parents with nowadays. The Jaybird and BFF spent a happy three hours destroying the house and leaving me to entertain only the Bitz. Convincing them to leave was a more complicated process. Seriously, how can it take 30 minutes to put on four shoes?

Anyway, I finally got all the minors loaded into the minivan and we headed over to the Inner Sunset. Pacific Catch has a small parking lot (VERY VERY SMALL) but all the spaces were taken. We found an unmetered street spot less than a block away on Lincoln, continuing our amazing parking streak here on Breeders’ Banquet.

Pacific Catch is located on a busy corner, but the front has some nice tables for the rare occasion when sitting outside is a good idea in the Golden Gate Park area.

Pacific Catch front dining area.

Pacific Catch front dining area.

I figured trying to wrangle three kids in an unfenced area near fast moving traffic was a poor idea, so we headed inside. The restaurant is basically two parts,  of which one is a sleek bar in front which was packed with UCSF employees in scrubs and other unencumbered young people. The hostess led us to the OTHER side of the restaurant, a dining area replete with booths and a few free-standing tables, as well as a lot of plants. I think they were bamboo.

Main dining room

Main dining room

A helpful busser brought us a high chair for the Bitz and the girls settled into their seats after a minor tiff over who would sit next to the baby. (I would gladly have let them sit on either side of him, but that would almost certainly result in a falling head injury for the Bitz). The hostess stopped by to drop off two chalkboards and two cups filled with bits of chalk! We did not ask for these, but they were a VERY welcome distraction.

Chalkboards!

Chalkboards!

I took my time looking over the menu, which is large and comprehensive. Pacific CAtch bills itself as a “fresh fish grill,” and indeed seafood in its many manifestations dominates (think Asian-American-Latin fusion), but there are plenty of choices for a dedicated carnivore. While I had my head buried in the sushi and salad sections, someone— perhaps our server, but s/he appeared and disappeared so quickly I cannot be certain— dropped off a dish of edamame and pretzel goldfish for BFF and Jaybird! Good thinking, Pacific Catch. Those goldfish headed off a simmering tsunami of hunger in the preschoolers.

Edamame and pretzelfish

Edamame and pretzelfish

It was just around this time that BFFMom arrived. We quickly decided to order some coconut shrimp for an appetizer and some cocktails for mommy’s little helpers. The girls ordered off the simple-but-adequate kids’ menu— fish & chips for the Jaybird and more coconut shrimp for BFF. I ordered the Korean BBQ rice bowl; BFFMom ordered the ahi salad. The kids were just starting to fight over the single piece of blue chalk when the appetizer arrived. The shrimp were tasty, if slightly greasy, and served very hot. Even the Bitz enjoyed them!

IMG_5795

There were more shrimp on this plate when it arrived, but you get the idea.

The drinks came next. Pacific Catch has a full bar as well as a fairly good wine and beer menu, so I had a martini, which was perfectly serviceable. BFFMom had the Berry Pisco Sour, which “tastes like floor cleaner, but in a good way” (Direct quote). The girls had water.

We were still hungry after demolishing all the shrimp so we ordered another round of them. They arrived about the same time as our entrees. The BBQ bowl tasted fresh and quite a bit spicier than I expected and suffered mostly from a surplus of rice. The salad was beautifully presented, but you know— it’s a salad.

Ahi Tuna Salad

Ahi Tuna Salad

Korean BBQ rice bowl

The kids’ meals came with a piece of steamed broccoli and an orange wedge, which I really appreciated. The fish and chips portion was more than generous, and the Jaybird ended up eating only about half of it. BFF ate most of her shrimp. All leftovers were deposited into the gaping maw of the Bitz. Seriously, this kid has to be on a growth spurt or something. He eats more than I do.

Fish & chips

Fish & chips

Coconut shrimp kid’s meal

I must give some well-deserved props to our waiter, who had clearly had a lot of experience serving families and kids. He was patient and efficient and tried to stop me from getting down on my hands and knees at the end of the meal to clean up the food debris left behind by the Bitz.

Once our meals were finished, we took a look at the dessert menu. The girls had earned it. We chose a single Mochi ball for each, which were devoured in under a minute each.

Everyone left Pacific Catch happy and sated. It’s nice to find a place that knows how to cater to kids without dumbing it down too much for the parents. While I wouldn’t call the cuisine particularly original or inspired, everything tasted fresh and good, and the relatively healthy options were a nice switch-up from the usual burgers-and-fries type stuff.

It’s wonderful to have good friends who don’t mind sharing their mayonnaise with you, isn’t it?

Good food and good friends!

Good food and good friends!

I’d definitely recommend Pacific Catch to families with kids of all ages. It’s conveniently located less than two blocks from the DeYoung Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, and I can see how it would be a relaxing place to chill out for parents and kids after a long day museum-ing.

THE STATS:

Rating: 7 out of 10

  • Changing Table: YES
  • Kids’ menu: YES
  • High Chairs: YES, standard restaurant high chairs

Pacific Catch 

(NOTE: Pacific Catch also has locations in the Marina, Corte Madera, and Campbell. Check the website for details).

1200 9th Avenue

San Francisco, CA 94122

415-504-6905 

pacificcatch.com

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Absinthe

At any given time, there are at least three blue IKEA bags filled with clean, unfolded laundry sitting on the floor in our living room. Now, by San Francisco rental house standards, our place is fairly large; however, the floor occupied by laundry represents a sizable chunk of real estate. Every once in a while— when the planets align, the Doctor is out for a business dinner or soccer game, the kids are asleep, and the laundry bags form a barrier that I can no longer step over with confidence in reaching the other side upright— I sit down in front of three month-old episodes of “Project Runway” and watch bitter queens claw and bitchslap their ways to fashion glory while I fold and sort what must be 20,00 pairs of underwear and desperately try to match socks into mostly-wearable pairs.

The life of a stay-at-home-mom is SO glamorous, yes?

All this is to emphasize the incredible gift bestowed upon our family by the Doctor’s parents, who visited us last week. Some people don’t like their in-laws, or find them difficult houseguests. Not me. I have the best in-laws in the world. They are lovely, highly intelligent human beings who enjoy playing with my children while I shower or blog. They find their own breakfasts. They cheerfully read “The Dollhouse Fairy” time and time again. They change diapers without complaint. They helped make the Doctor into the person I fell in love with and married.

And, as if all that weren’t enough, they do laundry. OUR laundry. They did so much laundry that I actually had more clean clothes folded than I had space to put them (note to self: time to give away the oh-so-comfy-yet-highly-unflattering-maternity-pants). I nearly wept with joy when I saw the towering piles stacked at the foot of our bed. That will buy me a week without having to drag 500 lbs. of damp smelly clothes down to the basement!

The OTHER great thing about Avou and Avoa is that they are enthusiastic, adventurous eaters. As thanks for all of their kindnesses, we decided on the last day of their visit to take them out for a “nice dinner.” MIL is a professor of early childhood development, so they are quite conscious of and accommodating of the limitations placed upon the concept of a “nice dinner” when a preschooler and infant are involved. I have a theory that all restaurants are open game for families as long as they are seated and eating before 6:00 pm, so we made a 5:30 reservation over the phone at Absinthe (note: they do not accept OpenTable reservations for parties larger than 4, but will accept them over the phone).

Before we were encumbered blessed with children, the Doctor and I had several transcendent meals at Absinthe. Actually, the food might have been totally mediocre but the cocktails were so deliciously potent that we didn’t notice. I thought a cocktail might not be unwelcome to both the grandparents and the Doctor. So we packed up everyone into the minivan and headed to Hayes Valley.

Exterior

Exterior

Possibly because it was so early, we found parking within a block of the restaurant; later on parking becomes quite difficult in this area so be prepared. The Doctor had arrived a couple of minutes before us and was already seated at a round table in the window of the dining area. Absinthe is split into a bar with seating on one side and a quieter, dining-only area on the other side of a wood-paneled wall. Presumably they put us on the dining-only side so as not to scare away the childless Beautiful People who were rapidly filling the bar with their lithe, high-heeled, perfectly-coiffed bodies and unstained-with-spit-up clothes.

A busser saw me heading toward the table with the Bitz strapped to my chest and stopped to offer me a high chair, which I gratefully accepted. The server filled our water glasses as soon as we sat down to peruse the menus.

photo (4)

We only had about five minutes to decide on cocktails, but that’s all we needed. Manhattan, martini, Pimm’s Cup, and a rye thingy for the doctor; the Jaybird ordered a Betty Boop.

Everything on the menu sounded good, so we quickly agreed to share everything and order a lot. The Jaybird asked for the garlic pretzels with cheese sauce as an appetizer and the macaroni and cheese side dish as her entree. Remember what I said about the carbs last week? Yeah. We should probably work on that.

Service was very— French. As I recall, the servers in Paris were efficient, courteous, and responsive; they were not, however, particularly friendly. I have no problem with that. As long as there is mutual respect between the server and the patrons I see no reason for my waiter to become my BFF for the duration of dinner. I’m pretty sure the “friendly server” is an American invention, much like encumbering them with pieces of flair. In any case, the service at Absinthe was brisk, unobtrusive, and skilled but not, again, particularly friendly. I mention this not as a criticism but merely as a warning to others who might be expecting more “American-style service.”

Fresh sliced pain au levain and butter arrived shortly after the drinks. We had just annihilated the bread when the garlic pretzels arrived. The Jaybird, who usually abhors anything remotely garlicky, ate them quite happily doused in the warm cheese sauce. The small piece she deigned to give me was more “Parker House roll” than “pretzel”  in flavor and texture, but quite tasty nonetheless.

Pretzels (with empty beet & kale salad plate in the background. Oops!)

Pretzels (with empty beet & kale salad plate in the background. Oops!)

The adults overwhelmingly preferred the kale and beet salad with radicchio, speck ham, and whipped fromage blanc. I personally thought the macadamia nuts provided just the right salty crunch to the salad to elevate it above the usual.

Here’s a quick overview of what we ate and my impressions thereof:

  • Beef tartare: Oh, how I love beef tartare, especially with just the right amount of capers, parsley, and a delicate little raw quail egg perched on top. Perfection.
  • Tuna tartare: Tuna tartare gets a bad rap for being “ubiquitous” on menus, but you know what? It’s ubiquitous because it’s fucking GOOD. Well, at least at Absinthe  it is. It’s served with plantain chips rather than bread, which I can’t support given my loathing of all things banana-related, but eaten plain with a fork was just fine. Even the Bitz consumed it with relish. Not literal relish. He liked it, I mean.
  • Lamb Shank: fall-apart tender and artfully plated, but SALTY. I love salt. When I say something is salty, it’s salty. I think it was actually the gremolata that was salty, because some bites were less salty than others. It didn’t stop us from eating it all, however. The Bitz really enjoyed the fried polenta cubes and asparagus that came with it dipped in the juices.
  • Potato-crusted Arctic Char: this was my favorite. You could crust a twenty-year-old Goodyear tire in potatoes and I’d probably eat it if it was nicely plated. If I had a criticism (and don’t mind sounding like that douchebag Tom Colicchio on Top Chef moaning about “respecting the protein”) I’d say it was ever-so-slightly overcooked. It wasn’t dry, per se. It was just that it wasn’t as moist as it could have been.

Throughout this feast the Jaybird was happily occupied with her macaroni and cheese, which unfortunately for us came topped with breadcrumbs, which are OK in her book, and parsley leaves, which are adamantly NOT. I scraped most of them off with my fork– “accidentally” scooping up some pasta and cheese in the process, which I was then FORCED to eat— and that was good enough for her.

Almost done!

Almost done!

The bussers were beginning to remove the plates when the Bitz hit his limit. Despite the excellent pacing of the meal, a little guy can only last for so long (in this case, about 90 minutes from sit-down to get-up) in one place before he starts rubbing his greasy hands all over the crystal-clear window next to his head. Also, his butt kind of smelled. At this point I gathered him up and headed for the bathrooms, where I was chagrined but not surprised that there was no changing table. I decided I’d change him when we got to the car. (In my defense, with the grandparents around it’s not like the dirty onesie would be sitting in a hamper for two weeks as usual!)  We took a little walk up Hayes St. while the Doctor, Jaybird, Avou, and Avoa finished up with the bill, where I happened upon this:

Bread pudding parlour!

Bread pudding parlour!

Instead of ice cream, they serve scoops of bread pudding. GENIUS. We will be back. Stay tuned for that review.

After leaving Absinthe we pushed our luck and fulfilled an earlier bribe made to the Jaybird by heading down Octavia St. to Smitten for ice cream. Parents should know that there is a little park with a climbing structure and grass about a block from Absinthe, which would make a great pre- or (in our case) post-dinner activity for kids. If you are lucky, you might get to enjoy the musical stylings of the Brass Liberation Orchestra. Who doesn’t like to end their meal with a little tuba?

Brass Band

Brass Liberation Orchestra

In summary, I would highly recommend Absinthe for the food and ambiance, especially if you go early and have an extra pair or two of grandparental hands to help out with the kids. I firmly believe in teaching kids how to comport themselves in a fine dining atmosphere, and Absinthe is a fine introduction to that experience without being too daunting for parents. The menu offers plenty of kid-amiable options (there’s a hamburger that’s widely considered to be one of the best in town) while simultaneously providing discerning adults with a variety of well-executed French brasserie-style food with a distinctly California accent.

THE STATS:

Rating: 8 out of 10

  • Changing Table: NO
  • Kids’ menu: NO
  • High Chairs: YES, standard restaurant plastic high chairs

Absinthe Brasserie and Bar

398 Hayes St. 

San Francisco, CA 94102

415-551-1590

http://www.absinthe.com

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