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200. Best Coffee Table Book About Spices
The most seductive volume we’ve run across lately is Alain Stella’s The Book of Spices (Paris: Flammariion, 1998).  Beautiful photographs of the twelve “sovereign” spices—cloves, nutmeg, pepper and so forth—are interspersed with ancient maps and historical paintings, creating an intoxicating visual essay that hints at why these precious commodities so captured the world’s imagination over the centuries.  Brilliant fields of purple saffron crocus in Spain, and a glimpse of Maison Israel in Paris, a spice lover’s paradise if ever there was one, are the stuff of a traveler’s dreams.

On a bleak afternoon, snuggling under a mohair throw, with a steaming pot of cinnamon tea nearby, we nearly lost ourselves in Stella’s occasionally Franco-centric tales of the spice trade.  One of the more fascinating figures from the past was Pierre Poivre, an eighteenth-century Frenchman who singlemindly devoted his entire life—losing an arm in the process—to stealing nutmeg and clove plants so that France could break the Dutch stranglehold.  The chapters on each spice are a pleasure to peruse; the connoisseur's guide in the back offers intriguing information about spices used in perfumes and chocolate, as well as a list of the author’s favorite spice shops in the U.S., England and France.

199. Best Indian Spice Shop in Toronto
Squeezing through the narrow aisles of Kohinoor Foods, a slightly ramshackle corner grocery store in Little India, one virtually bathes in the fragrance of fresh spices.  Neatly wrapped and labeled packages of wrinkly black cardamom pods, golden Gujarati fennel seeds, fiery chili peppers and a dozen other spices found their way into our shopping basket.  Kohinoor is also a good source for uncommon ingredients such as palm sugar and black salt.  We’re still trying to figure out what’s in the addictive red paan masala, a spice mixture chewed as a digestif after a heavy meal.  We've identified fennel and silver dragees, but what are those dyed crimson seeds that have given us a permanently pink mouth?  Kohinoor Foods. 1438 Gerard Street East, Toronto, Ontario M4L1Z8.  Telephone:  416-461-4432.

198. Best Late-Night Drink in New York
We haven't been in One If by Land, Two If by Sea in years, but if it still has a piano player and a few chairs up front, this is the place to have a drink.  The waiters are stylish in tuxes, and the interior view is a warm, large public space that is elegant to the eye. Oddly enough, we found you could skip the meal, and things don't feel half as exotic when you are actually sitting in the dining space.  Take a look at this picture, and you'll see why you must go here.  This is, incidentally, an update of Aaron Burr's stables.  One If by Land, Two If by Sea.  17 Barrow Street, New York, New York 10014.  Telephone: 212-228-0822.  Website:

197. Best French Cafe Chairs
You've seen them on all the better sidewalks in Paris, at Cafe de la Paix, Fouquet and dozens of other illustrious watering holes.  We fell in love with them years ago in New Orleans at Hotel Maison de Ville; then they began to turn up at all the chichi new restaurants in New York.  We refer, of course, to the elegant, supremely comfortable rattan cafe chairs that invite one to linger longer over lunch or to while away the afternoon with a book and a cafe creme.

Since 1885, the very best French cafe chairs have been made by hand at a small factory outside Paris for Maison Drucker (  Raw rattan is steamed, bent and shaped into chair frames; backs and seats are woven by second- and third-generation craftsmen into dazzling patterns.  There are 35 styles, 33 weaves and 20 brilliant colors to choose from, and since every order is custom, you can have exactly what you want.  We kept it simple, selecting curvaceous Matignon armchairs and Maillor sidechairs in a smart ivory and hunter green check.  Drucker chairs come with a 10 year guarantee for private use, which mitigates the rather high cost.  There are many less expensive imitations, but this is one case where it pays to pay up.  In the U.S. Drucker chairs are available  through architects and designers at T & K French Antiques, 200 Lexington Avenue, Suite 702, New York, NY 10016.  Telephone:  2l2-213-2470.  Fax: 212-213-2464.

196.  Best Spice Websites

e. Best A to Z Spice Encyclopedia on the Web.  As a quick research tool, we highly recommend The Encyclopedia of Spices at This Canadian website provides an attractively illustrated page detailing everything you need to know about each of 40 exotic spices and herbs, from ajowan to zeodary.  For each spice, there are short sections on history and lore, physical description, preparation and storage, culinary and medical uses, plant cultivation, and links to recipes.  Looking up ginger, for example, we learned that in the 19th-century barkeeepers put out small containers of the ground spice for customers to sprinkle in their beer (supposedly the origin of ginger ale), that the best ginger is a pale, buff-colored rhizome grown in Jamaica, and that it was used in the time of Henry VIII to combat the plague.  In the recipe section, we found a wonderful Singaporean recipe for prawns with ginger and coconut milk.

For anyone who is interested in the history of spices, The Epicentre has reprinted a superb article from The Economist, “The Spice Trade:  A Taste of Adventure”  (December 1998, pp. 51-56), and a chapter from Tastes of Paradise, by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, which debunks the common perception that spices were used so heavily in the Middle Ages to disguise rotting food.  Instead, he argues that they were tangible gifts form an exotic world, an imaginary paradise far superior to the muddy, cold, disease-ridden realities of medieval Europe.  Just like our BMWs and Hermes Kelly Bags, they were meant to advertise the possessor's wealth and status to the rest of the world.

d. Quirkiest Spice WebsiteDragon’s blood, spikenard, grains of paradise.  Virtually unknown today, these are all spices that were used in ancient and medieval times.  They can still be had from the website ( of Francesco Sirene, Spicer, a 15th-century Venetian trader invented by David Dendy and Jane Hanna, two members of the Society for Creative Anachronism.  Members of this offbeat group tend to be obsessed with times past: they try to live as one might have in 13th-century England or 17th-century Russia (for example), and regularly stage complicated feasts which recreate outlandish dishes from old cookery books.  

The proprietors’ aim is to provide all the paraphernalia one might need for historical cookery.  Hence, Sirene sells old cookbooks, such as Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century, as well as exotic, hard to find spices--including the aforementioned dragon’s blood (actually a red resin used in incense and various pigments) and spikenard (a bitter, aromatic root used in ancient Rome and in medieval spiced wine).  One of the most intriguing sections is Spice Chests, which discusses in some detail all the spices one might need in order to cook as did the ancient Romans or Norwegians of the 12th century. (In case you were wondering, grains of paradise are a type of pepper, wildly sought after in the Middle Ages, now mainly used in African cooking.)

c. Most Scientific Spice WebsiteGernot Katzer is a 33-year-old Austrian chemist who took a vacation from his work on silicon hydrides and theoretical thermochemistry in order to travel to Asia where he explored his consuming passion for spices with camera and pen in hand. The remarkable website,, that ensued discusses 113 herbs and spices in great scientific detail.

Typically a Katzer entry on, say, pepper, begins with a long list of the names of the spice in many languages.  We learned that in the Punjab, one would ask for Kali marich, but in Turkey, one would request biber.  This is followed by a close-up photo of  the different varieties of pepper and an analysis of the chemical constituents that make up its aroma and flavor--in this case, the pungent principle is “an alkaloid-analog compound, piperine.”  Katzer also includes a section on etymology (pepper derives from the Sanskrit  pippali which in turn stems from the Greek peperi and the Latin piper), photographs of pepper plants in various stages of growth, a smattering of history, harvesting information, and a summary of the way pepper is used in various cuisines.  We’re intrigued by his suggestion that pepper might enhance the sweet-tart flesh of the mango.  

Despite its academic bent, Katzer's site never gets dull.  He is an enthusiastic, often amusing, always passionate writer.  Unfortunately, the site, which is located at the University of Graz in Austria, can be hard to access and tricky to navigate.  To get the list of spices, you must be on the Welcome Page.

b. Most Exotic Spice Website in the Southern Hemisphere.  Most of the spices in our cupboard are grown within a narrow band around the equator and it occurred to us that a spice purveyor not too distant from the black pepper groves of Malabar or the cinnamon forests of Sri Lanka might have a slight edge in obtaining high quality, very fresh spices.  One can almost smell these exotic fragrances while perusing the Australian site,  Ian Hemphill, a.k.a. Herbie, spent 30 years in the spice trade before opening a shop near Sydney which offers an enormous range of the world’s herbs and spices.

The website vividly communicates Hemphill’s lifelong love of spices.  Click on any one of the 22 newsletters, for example, and you’ll discover a report on a trip to India to see the pepper harvest or a lively discussion of the complex fragrances of the Moroccan seasoning mix, ras al hanout. Tantalizing recipes, many with an Asian slant, are scattered throughout the site.  The global product list includes all the usual herbs and spices, but also more off-beat offerings such as dried Australian wattleseed, said to lend a coffee-like aroma to ice cream.  Our only quibble is that each product description is accompanied by a generic picture of some spice packages.  (We’d actually like to see those wattleseeds.)

Currently in search of pepper to upgrade the larder, we ordered a variety of peppercorns including the hard to find long pepper (spiky peppers with a musky odor widely used in medieval recipes) and inky “extrablack” supergrade whole peppercorns from India.  Our faxed order was acknowledged hours later by e-mail, with a query:  Did we wish to purchase green peppercorns that could be ground in a peppermill or freeze dried peppercorns that could simply be crumbled?  (We took both.)  The package arrived within 10 days, each variety individually packed in a heavy vacuum-sealed plastic bag. (The peppercorns will be reviewed in a forthcoming segment of Best of Class).

Note:  Hemphill’s fascinating Spice Notes may be ordered directly from the website, or in the U.S. in March 2002 under the title, The Spice and Herb Bible:  A Cook's Guide (Amazon).  The book recently made the Saveur 100 list  (see the Jan./Feb., 2002 issue, p. 63).

a. Most All-American Spice Website.  Penzey’s is probably the finest small spice retailer in the U.S.   We discovered the Wisconsin-based shop years ago in the pages of Saveur :  we were struck, then as now, by the freshness and  quality of its spices and the variety of its product line. Today, Penzeys operates a chain of 9 stores, as well as a thriving mail order business.  It is a good source for unusual herbs and spices, as well hard to find varieties of the usual suspects--i.e. soft, citrusy “true” cinnamon from Ceylon, or fine 100% red thread Indian “Mogra Cream” saffron from Kashmir.  Despite the exotic origins of most of Penzey¹s spices, both the catalogue and website ( have a distinctly Midwestern flavor, with down-home recipes for pork roast and twice-baked potatoes outnumbering those for chicken biryani.  

We enjoy Penzey’s website because, like the catalogue, it is informative and well-illustrated.  An essay on peppercorns, for example, explains in straightforward detail how pepper is grown and harvested in India and Borneo.  We discovered that the famed Tellicherry peppercorns are plucked from the clusters of pepper at the tip of the vines which receive the most sunlight, and that harvesters in Sarawak preserve the flavor of their peppercorns by means of an indoor hot air drying process--at the request of German sausage makers.  Following the essay are clear photos of all the different types of peppercorns carried by Penzeys, and links to short descriptions of each variety.  We also like reading the employee newsletter, which offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the business.

In our quest for the best pepper, we recently ordered every type of peppercorn on offer, as well as vanilla beans and cinnamon chunks for apple cider.  Though service is normally quick, our faxed order languished unanswered and we did not receive our shipment for about three weeks--albeit with a note of apology for the delay.  (Peppercorns will be reviewed in a forthcoming segment of Best of Class).

195. Best Small Hotel in Toronto
On a snowy winter evening, with icy winds blasting down from the Arctic Circle, we can’t imagine a cozier nest than the Windsor Arms, a small luxury hotel in Toronto’s Yorkville district.  The pearly grey green rooms with chic black and white photos on the walls are pleasantly serene, but it was the comfy beds with light as a feather duvets and silky Frette sheets that really won us over.  A good sound system, including a CD player, a butler’s cupboard for private room service, and fireplaces in some suites add to the feeling of being in a posh cocoon.

We had a few quibbles:  the room’s complicated lighting system had all sorts of lamps, but not a good one to read by, and the plumbing was slow.  But the large marble bathroom also had a jacuzzi and Darphin toiletries, and the amiable staff is terribly eager to please.  A 90-minute hot stone massage administered in the quietly relaxing spa upstairs left us with just enough strength to tumble back into bed.  If you venture out of your room, the best place to dine is at the lobby bar, although the adjacent private club can be noisy in the evening.  The quietest rooms are on the third floor.

Note:  The Windsor Arms was recently refurbished and, under new ownership, bears no relation to the more rustic, light-hearted inn that occupied the same location for many years.  Contact:  Windsor Arms, 18 St. Thomas Street, Toronto M5S 3E7, Canada.  Telephone:  877-999-2767.  Website:

194. Best Commercial Ice Cream
This is, of course, an oxymoron.  All commercial creams have been so cheapened that it almost makes you want to give up ice cream.  Häagen-Dazs, as we remember, started off in the Bronx, with a foreign-sounding name to make it appear imported.  It was great, then.  But the brand and the cream have gone down steadily downhill since.  Ironically, it is foreign now, owned by food multinationals in England and now, we think, in Switzerland.  In any event, neither of these countries is a food nation.  The flavor to get is in "Pineapple Coconut," and one aficionado claims it tastes better in Hawaii, though we don't know what difference that would make.

193. Best Ten-Pound Christmas Gift
We don't know what this book actually weighs, but it is indeed heavy.  It's Alan Fletcher's The Art of Looking Sideways, sort of his collection of sayings and truncated thoughts -- many bits of this and that to which he tries to bring some organization.  It is mordant, perhaps, never quite funny or philosophically assured, much in the vein of the modern English sensibility.  Fletcher was founding partner of Pentagram, once arguably the world's greatest graphic design firm.  He's a chap who likes to turn a phrase, the hallmark, actually, of the most interesting designers: in the U.S., you will find an occasional design wit in the South or Southwest, but not in the rest of the country.  Having been through most of the book, even the small print and other challenges to the reader, we recommend : "Civilization is chaos taking a rest"; "I always had assumed that cliche was a suburb of Paris, until I discovered it was a street in Oxford"; and "If you don't know where you are going all roads lead there."  We hope the next edition has an index.

192. Best Beijing MAO-Retro
A fun place in serious Beijing is the Red Capital Club -- a courtyard restaurant full of artifacts dating back to the 1950s and beyond to the Qing Dynasty.  It dishes up Zhongnanhai cuisine, the fare of senior party officials since the Red ascendancy.  Down the street is a hotel and cigar divan for those who need more than a couple of hours of this camp atmosphere.  Red Capital Club, No. 66 Dongsi Jiutiao, Dongcheng District, Beijing.  Telephone: 6402-7150.

191. Most Scientific Expresso
Dr. Ernesto Illy of Trieste, chairman of Illycafe, sells scientific perfection in the form of ultra-controlled expresso coffee.  "Every step of the manufacturing process is monitored by computers, and there 114 quality-control checks...."  "Quality is a consequence of control, control and more control," according to Dr. Illy.  Some do swear by Illy's beans.  See "Discovering La Dolce Vita in a Cup," New York Times, October 24, 2001, p. E13.

190. Last of the Best Wine Cultivars
Bernard Ginestet, wine merchant and chateau owner, has just passed away of a heart attack, all too early at 65.  Of a great wine family, he was more than his business, which was started by his grandfather Fernand in 1899.  Novelist, artist, occasional local mayor, and author of books on wines from Margaux and other communes, he brought dash to the trade, proving you really can't cultivate greatness in wine unless you are cultivated.  We first had Chateau Margaux on a visit there in 1969, and it still is the best wine we have ever tasted.  A recent bottle in San Francisco revived, if not totally recaptured, the memories.  See The New York Times, October 10, 2001, p. E10.  During a downturn in the wine markets a few years after our visit, Genestet lost his properties but none of his qualité.  The wine trade, even with fits of prosperity, has lost some of its essence.

189. Best Escapist Reading for Troubled Times
What to read is a genuine dilemma.  Books which absorbed us a month ago now seem irrelevant.  Recently, though, we returned to an old favorite by Angela Thirkell and found it pitch perfect.  Northbridge Rectory, set in Trollope’s imaginary Barsetshire, chronicles English country life of a bygone era with a hilarious blend of wit and compassion.  But this tale was published in 1942, when a maiden lady might carry a gas mask to a dinner party and a literary reading might be interrupted by the drone of a German warplane.  And that is what makes the book relevant to our own times.

In a stream of delightful stories written during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Thirkell, who was a cousin of Rudyard Kipling and granddaughter of the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, captured every amusing nuance of rapidly changing English village life.  What makes her inconsequential characters heroic is the cheerful and determined way they soldier on in times of vast uncertainty.  In Northbridge Rectory,there is the penurious and curmudgeonly Miss Pemberton, fiercely nurturing the literary career of her gentleman lodger, Mr. Downing -- yet acknowledging that if England were to fall to Germany, there would not be much demand for his book on 12th-century Provencal lyrics.  Father Fewling, or “Tubby,” a naval man turned cleric, builds a cozy air-raid warden shelter complete with ship-shape bunks, a Union Jack, and “one of those very small bottles of rum just in case.”  And there is Mrs. Villars, the rector’s wife and most fortunate of women -- with sons assigned to desk jobs and money of her own for a cook and maids to clean the handsome rectory -- feeling guilty because she “so often woke up happy, so often had sudden absurd causeless attacks of happiness during the day.”  Faced with our own uncertainties, this tale of Barsetshire follies is just what the doctor ordered.

Other Thirkell novels in this series include Love at All Ages, Close Quarters, Peace Breaks Out, Never Too Late, Growing Up, County Chronicle, The Demon in the House, and Enter Sir RobertFor a complete listing, click here.

188. Elm Revival
Go to or to  Here you can find the Princeton Elm, marvelously resistant to Dutch Elm and assorted other diseases, which is our best hope to revive a dying breed.  Mr. Roger Holloway -- I think we may decide to call him Doc Holloway -- has made it his mission to restore the elm to America.  This is the only tree he sells at retail, the rest of his business being a wholesale affair.  His trees are not grafted, so you won't see the roots going to rot.  The Princeton Elm takes its name form a variety introduced in 1922 by a Princeton tree man.  Even today two principal streets are lined with his handiwork.   Doc Holloway is from Kentucky, but today he is an Atlanta transplant of some 20 years, so Georgia is not all peaches.  Our elm from him is doing just fine, thank you.  You can reach Riveredge Farms at 1-888-680-1922.

Elm Revival RevisitedSince we last talked of Mr. Holloway, he has been much in the limelight.  If you are terribly interested in the resurgence of the Princeton Elm, look no further than The New York Times, July 11, 2002, YNE D4, where the whole elm story is laid out in detail in “The Star of Elm Street Stages a Comeback.”  Holloway, incidentally, comes from Lexington, Kentucky, so he should be in the horse business, but he obviously caught the tree bug from his family of gardeners.  A theater graduate, Holloway has discovered a far bigger stage in the world of elms which, when formed up into beautiful allees, turn the mere walks of pedestrian into a strut through history.

187. Best Purveyor of Daffadil Bulbs
Gardeners know the truth of the saying, “Life is change.”  Not only do we experience the obvious changes of season, but also those changes that are unexpected.  Last year the crabapple was so heavily laden with brilliant red-orange fruit that its supple branches reached almost to the ground; this year, it sports just a few lonely clusters.  The voles have mounted a subterranean attack on a brambly hedge of Russian olives, which will likely have to be replaced.  But the front border is ablaze with luminous shades of cobalt and purple, as starry cascades of the aster “Our Latest One” mingle with the lacy blooms of Russian sage and velvety spiked salvias.

This past weekend we took comfort in wrestling with the thorny rose canes, still in crimson bloom, and plotting a new design for the woods.  Then we began to think of spring and picked up the phone to order daffodils from Brent and Becky Heath in Virginia.  We’ve been ordering bulbs from this knowledgeable family of daffodil specialists for years and have always liked the mix of old favorites and tempting new cultivars on offer in their catalogues.  Topsize, healthy, vigorous bulbs arrive at the proper time for planting in our zone 7 garden, and though we’ve made mistakes in the selection of bulbs, we have never been disappointed in their quality.  (Mistakes are moved to the edge of the pasture for the horses to admire.)  Next year drifts of the elegant pure-white Thalia will bloom along the edge of the woodland, while we’ll experiment with two jonquillas, Sailboat and Curlew, in the front border.  Pick wisely and you will enjoy these almost carefree, pest-resistant harbingers of spring for years to come, about as permanent a joy as any gardener can expect.  Contact:  Brent and Becky¹s Bulbs, 7463 Heath Trail, Gloucester, VA 23061.  Telephone: 877-661-2852. Website:

186. Best Way to Improve Your Potato Salad
There are nearly as many potato salads as there are inspired cooks.  The mild, earthy flavor of a new potato lends itself to a thousand different twists.  We regularly make five or six different versions, ranging from a simple Moroccan salad doused with lemon juice to a nouvelle variant with shrimp and chervil that appeared in The New York Times years ago. 

Now Corby Kummer, first-rate food critic for The Atlantic Monthly, has come up with a traditional German recipe that we haven’t run across before. (“Potato Salad,” The Atlantic Monthly, September 2001, pp. 126-129.)  While in Luebeck, a northern German city on the Baltic, where he went to see herring caught and salted, Kummer also set his sights on finding the “definitive version of potato salad.”  His master recipe, which we have pulled from the text of the article, is notable in several ways.  First, he rightly notes that it is important to use “waxy,” low-starch potatoes for their flavor and creamy texture, and because they hold their shape better when they are cooked and sliced.  Look for small round “new” potatoes, either red or white, or heirloom fingerling varieties, such as Ozette or Ratte.  The widely available medium-starch Yukon Gold is fine too.  Forget the high-starch Idahos.  Second, contrary to popular wisdom, Kummer’s informant let the potatoes cool thoroughly before dressing them.  And last, but not least, the dressing was boiled and poured hot onto the sliced potatoes and then allowed to sit for at least six hours.

How was the salad?  Our informal panel rated it highly, if not at the top of the chart.  One taster praised the salad for its buttery flavor; another felt it needed a little more punch. But that’s the great thing about a master recipe:  It provides a road map for personal variations.  As Kummer notes, there’s much debate amongst German cooks about the type of vinegar, whether or not to use mustard, or whether chives can be added to the parsley.  One caveat:  Although we have used Kummer’s measurements in the recipe, we felt that there was a little too much dressing for three pounds of new potatoes. (Kummer used Yukon Golds.) So unless you like your salad soupy, you might reserve some of the dressing.  

185. Best Shrimp Dumplings at a Chinese Restuarant—San Francisco
As soon as she heard we were coming to San Francisco, an old friend exclaimed, “I must take you to Ton Kiang for dim sum!”  A few chilly afternoons later, we were bounding up the stairs to the second-floor dining room in a state of gustatory anticipation.  We were not disappointed.  At a corner table, over cups of fragrant chrysanthemum tea, we surveyed a never-ending parade of morsels, so irresistible that soon every inch of the table was covered with small dishes.  Most appealing were the delicately flavored shrimp dumplings--gao choy got (with green chives), dao miu gao (with pea tips), and boi choy gao (with spinach)--so fresh and light that  you could eat a dozen without blinking.  But that would be a shame, because then you wouldn't be able to sample the turnip cakes with sweet rice, eggplant with shrimp, sauteed pea shoots, spicy pot stickers, or the strange-looking but delicious mango and coconut pudding.  Not to be missed:  Petite steam buns stuffed with rich barbecued pork.  Ton  Kiang, 5821 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco, CA 94121.  Telephone:  415-387-8273.

184. Best Japanese Folk Art Shop—San Francisco
Tucked away in Japantown’s Kinokuniya Buillding  is a shop that could not offer greater its sterile surroundings.   Ma-shi-ko Folkcraft is so crammed from floor to ceiling with wondrous handmade objects from Japan that one could spend hours just trying to see half of its wares.   The shop specializes in rustic ma-shi-ko pottery, which has been made in the same area for centuries, but there are also antique tansu chests and laquer bento boxes, fierce samurai kites, exquisite tea bowls, stone basins for the zen garden and hundreds of other objects rich in tradition.  We nearly fell over--and then fell in love with--a handsome 19th-century carved cherry wood fish with a particularly flippant tail, once used to suspend cooking pots over a charcoal fire.  If you can put up with the owner’s continuous complaints about pilfering and lack of local support (“all my customers are from New York and Boston”), this is a fabulous place to find unusual, well-priced objects for the home.  Ma-shi-ko Folk Craft, Kinokuniya Building, 1581 Webster Street, San Francisco, CA 94118.  Telephone: 415-346-0748.

183. Best 12-Table Italian Restaurant in North Beach—San Francisco
Everything about L’Osteria del Forno is inviting, from the warm, golden walls hung with copper pans to the open kitchen and the frazzed, but good-natured staff.   The restaurant is tiny, just a dozen tables, and with a no reservations policy, you’ll probably have to wait in line until you’re half mad with hunger.  But it’s hard to be irritable once you’ve snagged one of those coveted  tables, and a cheerful waitress has delivered a basket of focaccia hot from the oven along with a glass of the house red.  The owners, who are from Bologna and Varese, have devised a simple, almost rustic menu that occasionally approaches the sublime.  We missed the milk-braised pork, a local favorite, but were pleased by the freshly pureed artichoke soup, and by exceptionally light pumpkin ravioli in sage butter, the sweetness of the pumpkin wonderfully offset by flecks of orange zest.  Plump grilled tiger shrimp served  over a green salad, and crespelle, crepes in bechamel sauce stuffed with ham and sauteed porcini mushrooms, brought smiles all around.  L'Osteria del Forno, 519 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco.  Telephone:  415-982-1124.  Website:'osteria/.

182. Most Atmospheric Tea Room in China Town--San Francisco
We fell for Imperial Tea Court the moment we stepped across the threshold.  This mellow tea house, adorned with birdcages and polished rosewood tables and chairs, was created less than ten years ago by visiting Chinese artisans, but feels as though it had been in place for a century.  As tea-inspired music plays softly in the background, helpful ladies show the visitor how to brew and drink tea in the classic gaiwan, or lidded cup. Dozens of premium teas may be purchased by the ounce or the pound, from rare teas such as Bai Ji Guan (made from white tea leaves which resemble the comb on a rooster’s head) to western-style, lavender-infused Earl Grey.  Here one can also find an enormous array of elegant Yixing clay teapots, prized for the porosity of the clay from which they are made.

Imperial Tea Court was created by Roy Fong, a Hong Kong native, ordained Daoist priest, and impassioned lover of fine teas.  Every year Fong visits small tea gardens in China and Taiwan to personally supervise the production process; carefully nurtured relationships with other growers have made it possible for him to obtain rare teas unavailable elsewhere in the West.  His website is exceptional, with a vivid description and photograph of each tea, a map showing its origin, and specific brewing instructions.  Click on “Classroom” to learn gong fu and gaiwan tea preparation, or “Tea Tour” for a tantalizing itinerary of a China trip planned for 2002.  Imperial Tea Court, 1411 Powell Street, San Francisco, CA 94133.  Telephone: (415) 788-6080.  Fax: (415) 788-6079.  Website:  

181. Most Peaceful China Town Escape (in China Town)--San Francisco
Years ago, we lived just a few blocks from the Tien Hau Temple, but mysteriously never discovered it.  Climb three flights of stairs (past the locked door to the mah jong parlour), ring the buzzer on the grill, and the elderly caretakers will admit you to this beautiful shrine to the Queen of Heavens and Goddess of the Seven Seas.  Dozens of glowing red and gold lanterns line the ceiling, incense swirls from lighted joss sticks and pyramids of oranges adorn altars to the spirits of the departed.  Over it all presides the benign image of Tien Hau, flanked by other legendary deities and guardian angels.

Built in 1852 by the first Chinese to arrive in San Francisco as a thanks offering to the goddess for safely guiding them across the Pacific Ocean, this is the oldest Buddhist temple in the United States. To this day, many Chinese believe that they owe their prosperity and well-being to Tien Hau, hence the abundant offerings at her temple.  To sit here for ten minutes is to escape the hustle bustle of Chinatown and contemplate another more spiritual realm.  Tien Hau Temple, 125 Waverly Place, San Francisco.  No phone.

180. Best Place to Have a Chop Made in China Town--San Francisco
Tucked in amongst the glitzy chandeliers and made-yesterday lacquer furniture on Grant Avenue is a real shop, Chew Chong Tai, where the genial calligraphers will translate your name into Chinese characters and either paint them on rice paper or carve a chop for you to use on your stationery.  Occidental names are transcribed on a “sounds like” basis, so that, for example, “Alexandra,” is composed of the characters for “Asia,” “tree,” “strength,” and “to arrive.” This is a good source for high quality brushes and papers, as well the crimson pigment for inking one’s chop.  Poking around on the dusty glass shelves we discovered fragments of old Chinese embroidery and replicas of opium pipes.  Chew Chong Tai, 985 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94108.  Telephone: (415) 982-8479.

179. Playland 2001
When we were young, there were amusement parks where you could eat the hot dogs, visit clean bathrooms, not suffer lines on the rides, and have a good time whether you were a kid or an adult.  Such a park was Playland in Rye, New York, which is probably gone or drooping today.  Their successors--this or that park in Florida--are pretty grueling.

Not so at San Francisco's Metreon, Sony's entertainment center.  For years all the good things in San Francisco have been happening south of market.  Even the Beat Poets knew this years ago when they snuck away from North Beach to Potrero Hill.

At any rate, Metreon, on the edge of Yerba Buena Gardens, is quite terrific.  For starters, the Gardens provide the main patch of grass downtown, now that Union Square is turning to stone.  The several restaurants in and around Metreon vary from quite acceptable to pretty darn good, unusual in any amusement park setting.  The main game room itself is not wonderful, but it will sate kids tired of touring around San Francisco.  Just across the footbridge is a carousel (hardly advertised) which is attractive and a good deal price-wise.

Metreon is a showcase as well as for Sony and Microsoft products, all of which fits in with the Moscone Convention Center in the neighborhood. 

All these things are located in the Mission District, which was San Francisco itself under the Spanish.  The city began here where the sun shone best, but then the wealthy moved to the hills to get away from the hoi polloi.  Back in the Mission, San Francisco is getting back to its roots.

178. The West's Best Architectural Bookstore
Near a fine Japanese art gallery in Jackson Square, still a very pleasurable antique and design district.  You can browse here without being assaulted by customers or the staff.  William Stuart Architectural Books.  804 Montgomery St, San Francisco, CA 94135.  Telephone: 415-394-6757.  Also, William Stout Design Books in South San Francisco at 415-495-6757.  Website:

177. Best Classical Music Website
DW3, put together by a Duke University librarian, has as much as you need to know about Beethoven and everything else.  With links to everywhere, it surely is the finest place to start your child's history of music paper.

176. Best Atmospheric CD from Paris
We missed Buddha Bar on our last trip to Paris, but there was plenty of buzz about the trendy nightspot off the Place de la Concorde, where an immense golden Buddha smiles benignly as glitterati like Johnny Depp and Catherine Zeta Jones imbibe Centenary Martinis and dance to exotic beats from around the world.  But we were very nearly transported there by Buddha Bar III, a double CD mixed by Ravin, which features the lush music that wafts nightly through this gleaming, Asian-chic temple.

"Dream" unwinds langorously, taking the listener on a hypnotic multicultural carpet ride to the shores of Turkey and North Africa, with stops en route in Argentina, Greece and Japan.  "Joy" is more upbeat, with techno-lounge dance music for those whose evenings begin around midnight.  We’d play this ultracool mix at a cocktail party the moment that things start to get dull.  One critic sniffingly labeled this CD “world muzak,” which begs the point:  Buddha Bar III is exactly the great background music that it was intended to be.

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