Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Van's

My whirlwind lifestyle often takes me far a field of my little slice of the Bronx. I once actually took the ferry all the way to Staten Island and back, but that was on a dare. So imagine my astonishment at finding myself in the San Francisco Bay Area over the Christmas holidays eating in strange restaurants and cooking in alien kitchens. It's a good thing I had my heart medicine with me.
The bright lights of The Vans My friend Whogus (pronounced Who-Gus: not his real name, btw) picked me up at SF International late one evening and suggested a nightcap before turning in. The peninsula south of San Francisco is basically one uninterrupted bedroom community after another. There used to be distinct and very individualistic little villages along El Camino - the King's Highway - before the expressways came along in the 40's and 50's, but they're now long gone. Not surprisingly, the sidewalks fold up early and we were hard-pressed for a watering hole when some very festive lights caught our eye up on a hill in Belmont. It turned out to be The Van's, a storied old place overlooking the San Francisco Bay. It used to be a speakeasy back in the days of Prohibition. Captain Renault would have been shocked, shocked to find that gambling went on in there.
We had our cocktails served with flair by a great bartender who reminded me a lot of Nina Blackwood, one of the original MTV veejays. (I'm old; get over it.) We fell for her and her hard sell on the place and, after looking over the menu and wine list, promised to come back for dinner.
Man fruit, or macerated pineapple Two nights later, there we were, seated at the bar waiting for a table, drinking a fine William Hill cabernet sauvignon and quietly people-watching. My attention was drawn to a huge glass crock sitting on the bar filled with what looked to me like watermelon rinds. I didn't pay it much mind until the bartender announced that one of his regulars needed a pineapple. Intrigued now, I watched him draw some of the crock contents into a cocktail glass and top it off with vodka. "Man fruit", Whogus claimed by way of explanation. Before my mind could sink deeply into the gutter, he went on to elaborate that any fruit soaked in alcohol was considered man fruit. I had never heard of such a thing but was grateful this night was turning into such a learning experience. I still don't know if he was telling the truth though.
I could have sat there all night making up stories in my head about my fellow diners, but eventually felt guilty about the maitre d' graciously holding a table for us, so we took our places. I have say first: the service at The Van's is outstanding. Attentive but not obtrusive, genuine without being saccharine, knowledgeable and in no way snooty. I was sold before the appetizer appeared at our table.
The Van's is first and foremost a steakhouse, the genuine article. Chops, T-bones, Filets, all the usual suspects. Prices run an easy 30% less than Manhattan sums. "I'm buying" were the words heard rarely out of my mouth immediately after opening my menu. I had been on a steady diet of Mexican food and leftover ham on buttermilk biscuits since arriving at my father's a week earlier and was ready for some red meat. The rack of lamb with garlic mashed potatoes kept catching my eye. So be it. Medium-rare, please, with a glass of the Trefethen "Oak Knoll" merlot, I think. Whogus, watching his girlish figure presumably, went for the "local" chicken and rice pilaf, dampening my extravagant mood. I think he had distilled water to wash down his meal; the Nancy.
Did someone mention something about an appetizer? Whogus and I have had a love affair with chicken livers ever since Patricia Wells included a terrific chicken liver salad recipe in her 1989 "Bistro Cooking" cookbook. Well, for longer than that, actually. While flat mates, whenever I would roast a whole chicken, I would fry up the liver, heart and gizzards in butter, soy and Worcestershire sauces and accusingly ask Whogus if he had been a good boy before sliding them under his nose. But back to appetizers... Van's has a sautéed chicken liver entrée which our excellent waiter agreed to serve as a starter. Garlic, parsley, sherry. Plump, juicy, melt-in-your-mouth delicious little organs. We should have ordered two.
Local Chicken with mushroomsRack of lamb with garlic mashed potatoes
Already feeling quite pleased with ourselves and this wonderful discovery, our main courses were about to finish us off with the 1-2 punch. Whogus's chicken was enormous and criminally moist. Topped with mushrooms and roasted tomatoes, it looked like a hunter's feast. I was insanely jealous until I looked down on my rack of lamb. It was perfectly grilled. Pink inside, succulent throughout and just a hint of rosemary and garlic. Heaven. Another glass of merlot? Well, I thought you'd never ask!
Along with this fabulous meal, we had an unobstructed view of the entire peninsula and East Bay which must be spectacular during the daytime. But with all the holiday lights sparkling, we caught a special night glow all our own.
The Van's
815 Belmont Avenue
Belmont, CA

The Van's is open for lunch Monday through Friday,
11:30am - 3:00pm, and every night for dinner
4:00pm - 11:00pm, until midnight Fridays.
The Van's EntranceAfter nearly 100 years in operation, I don't think they'll be going anywhere anytime soon. But if you should find yourself in the area, do not miss this authentic Californian steakhouse experience. And order a Man Fruit Cocktail!
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

No comments: