Ft. Mason is a hub of infinite activity, and year after year we find ourselves here for the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon. We’re doing a “staycation” weekend for our fifth time at the Salon, checking into the Suites at Fisherman’s Wharf and touring the City through food. Fitting that our last stop this weekend would be at Ft. Mason, so was our first one for Off the Grid.
We’ve been to enough Off the Grids (like this one, this one, this one, and this one, twice), so many of the trucks here this night we have seen before. But, with a space as big as the parking lot at Ft. Mason, there were over two times as many vendors here as any of the OTGs we’ve been to before, so we found plenty of delights from trucks (and canopies!) that were totally new to us.
At our previous OTGs we had never seen canopies, but they were aplenty here. Fritas Shack was the first of the non- truck food stands that caught our eye for their lamb tacos. The two deep fried taco shells were super crispy and very reminiscent of Jack In The Box tacos, but with luxurious and luscious lamb. With very few, simple ingredients (onions, cilantro, cotija cheese), the meat was allowed to shine. It had been braised and then pulled, so it had a smoother, more delicate texture than any chewier meat you’d find in almost any other taco.
While ordering, waiting for, and eating our lamb tacos, we surveyed Bok Ssam next door and we couldn’t resit their version of chicken and waffles with coleslaw. The chicken was all thigh meat with a supremely crunchy batter, drizzled with a lightly sweet and salty soy glaze. Backed by traditional buttermilk waffles but with a hint of vanilla, the flavors of the chicken, its batter, and its glaze melded so well with the vinegar-based coleslaw. The freshness of the coleslaw lightened up what had the potential of being a heavy dish.
Drewski’s had been on our radar before, so this time we didn’t let it blip by. Zach’s kicking himself just a little for not trying them out before today, because “hands down, (this is) the best fried mac I’ve had so far. There’s a lot that have good flavor but they’re really greasy, or the ones that aren’t greasy are super dry in the center.” The trio of deep fried mac and cheese balls with smoky bacon and a proprietary spicy sauce was served so piping hot, we had to crack them and let the heat ascend into the rapidly darkening night sky. Proportionately, the ratio of breading to macaroni center was on point. The glue holding together the macaroni center was creamy and cheesy, not at all dried out from the frying process. We didn’t catch what made the sauce spicy but Zach suspects it was chipotle; it was creamy but it packed a bunch that sneaked up on us.
Because Zach can’t resist a tagline like “Eggs On Everythang!” we tried the sliders from Hula Truck. The Twin Peaks sliders, made of succulent Kalua pork and each with its own fried egg, were served on Hawaiian rolls with “Bacon JAMMMM and our special Hula sauce.” It’s quick and easy, simple, Hawaiian comfort food, so if the ingredients sound appealing to you, then you won’t be disappointed.
Dessert came in two rounds tonight, the first from 3-Sum Eats. As a special for St. Patrick’s Day only four day’s away, the truck was making whiskey espresso whoopie pies as big as teacup saucers. The cookies’ texture was somewhat cake-like with chocolate morsels scattered throughout to give something to chew on. Between the two cookies, the buttercream filling was smooth and rich. This treat is suitable for children despite the name – the whiskey flavor translated into a muted smokiness to highlight the dark coffee and chocolate. We weren’t about to dissect the whoopie pie just to pinpoint where precisely the whiskey and espresso laid among the cookies and the filling, so taking it bite by bite as a whole, it was overall a delightful goodie.
For the coup de grâce with a little je nais se quoi made à la minute, we had foie gras and raspberry cotton candy – an avant-garde and risqué pairing of haute cuisine by Sugar & Spun, whose owners love to experiment with molecular gastronomy. The tangy tart and sweetness of the raspberry cotton candy base would have been overwhelming on its own without the salty foie gras to balance it, and all at a fair price. The foie gras had been freeze-dried, powdered, and liberally shaken onto the mounds and mounds of cotton candy. Combining sweet, savory, tangy, and tart, with the richness of foie gras and the sprightliness of raspberry, this is something to put on a bucket list. To eat this, one must be wary of the weather: wind can transfer the foie gras from the fairy floss to your clothes, and the humidity will make the fluffy clouds shrink after not too long.
We must admit, we were a little daunted by coming to Ft. Mason on a Friday night. We had only ever been before arriving on a Sunday morning, early enough to find very close parking and also in broad daylight. But parking is vast and you’ll no doubt find some, just as long as you’re ready, willing, and able to amble next to an expansive view encompassing a myriad of boats with bosky hills in the horizon. There are broad walking areas, public restrooms, and multiple driveways, so non-locals should have no issues going on a foodie adventure any time there is one at Ft. Mason.
For the folks who profess their love of all cuisines, Kanishka’s Neo-Indian Gastropub would be a real treat. Not everyone likes Indian food, but this is not entirely typical Indian food. The owner/chef is heavily inspired by her grandfather’s Bengali recipes with a few servings of her travels through all hemispheres. Her menu is filled with ingredients that combine flavors from all lands where she’s stepped foot, bridging India to all of them like a global network of small plates. Dining here is an experience to take your taste buds on a trip around the world through the perspective of one cuisine in one sitting.
We began our dinner with the Brussel sprouts, flash-fried and seasoned with “Chef’Spices” and served with lemon curry aioli. Blanching before frying helped cook the bitterness out, allowing so many other flavors to shine. They were seasoned with a mild curry and cumin spice blend, and while the outer leafs gained so much of the savory flavor, towards the center the sprouts retained an al dente texture with natural vegetable flavor. It was a fine balance of fresh and savory, crunch and cooked. A creamy aioli with light lemon flavor and a bit of curry was vital, not just a hastily added condiment; the sprouts, while tasty, were better with it.
The Street Side Duets was really more of a three-in-one small plate with typical Indian street snacks, or chaat, a term referring to savory snacks sold from stalls or carts. The five pastry-looking puchkas are also known as pani-puri, consisting of a hollowed pastry fried and then filled. These were much like the standard found throughout India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The pastry cups were so surprisingly thin, yet sturdy enough to contain the semi-smooth potato and chickpea filling with mild curries and the heat of a chili pepper. The sweet tamarind glaze helped balance the heat, but it was far from the hottest item on the plate. From the silver bowl we enjoyed bhel puri, kind of like an Indian Chex Mix made with puffed rice, a few peanuts, a small amount of fresh cucumber, and a tamarind sauce. It was spiced, but not spicy. Zach didn’t like it at first bite, but the second and third and so forth kept getting tastier, like a consuming addiction (part of the comparison to Chex Mix). To appreciate it more, we would recommend eating it slowly because it is an experience for the mouth to feel in contrast to what the eye sees. Despite looking like having a cracker texture, it was almost salad-like with a mix of crispy and chewy. The tamarind cilantro shooter itself was not so bad, but the shot glass was rimmed with a tamarind chili pepper dust and that was a real kick to the tongue. It can be used as a sauce to drizzle over the plate with the puchkas, but we took it down like resilient older Indian women tend to do, according to our server Lindsay. The small plate was nowhere near lacking flavor.
The papas bravas were strikingly similar to what August has tasted in Spain, but decidedly different here at Kanishka’s. Large-diced potatoes were tossed with Indian spices as well paprika, served in a pool of tomato fenugreek cream sauce that tasted essentially like a curry ketchup. The same lemon curry aioli as the Brussel sprouts proved to be just as integral here as it was for the sprouts, adding a layer of flavor that made this memorable.
Just have to say, what came out to us what not what we expected when we ordered “warm seafood salad (fresh catch & shrimp), zucchini, yellow squash, carrots, avocado, butter lettuce, devilish egg, Chef’s tangy dressing” but that’s okay because it was still tasty. The eye tells us so much about what we eat, but we become so accustomed to certain standards of plating that “seafood salad” would probably not be dreamed of like this by too many people at all. The fresh catch was mahi mahi, and three large bites of it plus three shrimp sat in the hollowed-out half of an avocado skin. The fish was lightly seasoned; sometimes simplicity is delicious when the ingredient can stand alone in its purity. The shrimp had a little extra flavor to it, a touch spiced but not overwhelmingly. The squash and carrot salad had a latent heat from the tangy tamarind dressing, so August was thankful for the avocado half to keep her tongue cooled from this and the other spicy components of the dinner.
The tandoori-tini was creative in its plating, that’s certain. Made with tandoori BBQ chicken thigh meat, the same paprika potatoes as the papas bravas, spicy pico de gallo, and Indian spices, it was the type of dish a small eater would fill up on easily. The spoonful of classic Mexican guacamole was not listed on the menu, unless that’s the pico de gallo, as it did have lots of fresh tomatoes and onions. A garnish of pickled onion offered a bit of tanginess to break up the hearty “meat and potatoes” vibe this gives off. But, we didn’t realize that this was going to be almost identical to the papas bravas so we recommend that you choose one over the other.
To our delight, as we are lovers of this not-too-popular meat, there were more than one lamb dish on the menu. We went for the sliders as the lamb was from local Superior Farms of Dixon; lamb is tasty (barring mutton), but the closer to home is better and this dish was another tally in the column of evidence. Patrons can choose between Indian flatbread and eggless bread but the owner recommended the wrap style with flatbread so of course we took her suggestion. With arugula, chutney, aioli, and onion straws, the crunchy wrap with a tortilla-like texture enveloped the crispy onion straws and fresh greens, creating excellent layers of texture. Simple flavors and few ingredients make for a great dish.
With such a menu to take a culinary trip around the world, it would be foolish not to return. Being that the restaurant is still young, there is room for adjustments to be made. We did try an additional dish not featured here, because we learned that it will be axed soon so we would hate to lure you here under false pretenses. The menu, though, is nearly a piece of art for all its details and subtle references. There are main categories for the different types of small plates (vegetarian, seafood, land-based meat, etc), each with a corresponding song title that ties in to the theme in some puzzlingly metaphorical way. For each item there are thoughtful beer and wine pairing suggestions, but like our honest server Lindsay pointed out, most people that order more than one item wouldn’t necessarily care to have a dedicated drink for each. It is nice to have the options; if August still worked in downtown Walnut Creek like she did for a year after college, she would make this her lunch break stop on the regular, a plate a day with a little something to sip it down. If you were to take just one of our recommendations, though, let it be this: make a reservation, but be prepared that you still might wait for your table anyway. Kanishka’s is the cool kid at school and everyone wants to hang out with her.
August’s birthday cupcakes yesterday were a great finale to a wonderful day, but they were really more of an encore after a masterful dinner. Zach was determined to make her favorite food, lamb, but in a special way fit for a celebration.
1 rack of lamb with 4 bones
1/4 cup of bread crumbs
1/4 cup of roasted, salted, and finely chopped pistachios (by “finely” we mean not coarse, but definitely not powder, either)
3 tbs. of extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp. of herbs de Provence
1 tbs. of truffled honey dijon mustard
1 tsp. of canola oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Trim away any excess fat from the rack, especially from areas closer to the bone. Season all sides of the rack with salt and pepper, and sprinkle the herbs de Provence over the top. Pat the seasoning so that it sticks to the meat.
Heat the canola oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Sear the top and bottom of the rack for 2 minutes on each side. The wide side needs 1 minute of searing; hold it up with tongs.
Transfer the rack to a plate. Mix together the bread crumbs, pistachios, and olive oil. Smear the top side of the rack with mustard, then liberally apply and pat the bread crumb mix over the mustard. Move to a sheet pan with a rack, and roast for 20 minutes (rare) to 24 minutes (medium). NEVER serve lamb well done. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.