Monday, October 06, 2008

Eating With Alligators, Penguins and Butterflies

I'm in total tourist mode, but when I woke up this morning there were still 48 hours before my trip to Buenos Aires. So I packed up my camera and caught the BART into San Francisco to visit the 1-week-old California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

The new academy is the hottest ticket in town. It's gotten so much press since it opened on Sept. 27 that everyone wants to check it out. I thought, hey, it's Monday, a weekday, and I arrived somewhat early at 11 a.m., so who else would be there other than maybe a few school kids? Boy was I wrong. There were already several lines snaking out from the entrance.

Luckily, I only had to stand in line for 20 minutes to get a ticket and then to get into the actual academy.

TIP: Buy your tickets online in advance and then you can print them out on computer kiosks on the sidewalk in front of the California Academy of Sciences. And if you didn't order your ticket online, you can still buy them from these kiosks, which seem to move faster than the regular ticket line.

Admission is a steep $24.95 for non-member adults (children under 6 gets in free!) but it is sooo worth it. For your ticket, you're actually visiting three major attractions: the Morrison planetarium (featuring the movie The Fragile Planet narrated by Sigourney Weaver), an aquarium that takes up the entire lower level, and a three-level rainforest.

But this is a food blog, so I'm going to focus a bit about the eating options at the Academy. When you walk in, the first thing you see is the open courtyard where people are resting and snacking in an open-air environment.

You have to be prepared for a lot of standing in lines, at least during these early days. So here's a long line for the coffee cart and snack stand in the courtyard.

Most of the food options are at the first-floor Academy Cafe, which received a lot of attention because it was organized by local culinary favorite Charlie Phan of The Slanted Door.

Phan devised the cafeteria layout into sections focused on a style of cooking. So that means sections called "Steamed" or "Sizzle (Fried)." But you also have sections that's self-explanatory like "Salads" and "Noodles." But there's also stands like "The Taco Man." It's really something for everyone. And yes, you can expect a major wait in lines to pay (not necessarily to get your food) during the lunch hour. Now, here's some food porn...

Mmmm, dessert.
A worker puts together fresh Vietnamese Imperial shrimp rolls.

Steamed buns.
Pasta from the Noodles stand. Oh, the Chronicle wrote a column about how kids like pasta with just plain butter and why can't the Academy Cafe offer that. You know what? I saw pasta with butter offered today when I went. Kids are happy again.

If you want to avoid the crowds at the cafe, then spend the money to have lunch at the Moss Room, the academy restaurant put together by another local culinary fav Loretta Keller of Coco500. There's two ways down to the restaurant: 1) next door to the Academy Cafe there's an entrance where you go down an elevator like heading to a private club, or 2) from the Cafe you walk down the stairs along the live moss wall...

The restaurant actually looks smaller than I imagined, but it was elegant and calm, unlike the chaos upstairs in the cafe. So that's where I found myself for lunch, enjoying a nice glass of champagne and checking out Keller's menu of local, sustainable fish and stuff (chicken, lamb, etc. and lots of stuff for kids like spaghetti).

I started with this Monterey Squid appetizer ($11). The squid was great, but there were too many chickpeas and they were over salted.

For my entree I got the Grilled California Yellowtail with lentils and French leeks ($21), which was a bit overcooked. Yellowtail is so wonderful raw that I hoped the grilling was more a searing, but the fish meat was cooked through and a bit dry. Overall, I thought the food wasn't executed that well although the menu sounded interesting. It might be the kitchen finding their way and trying to deal with the crowds (everyone did seem like they were still trying to figure out things) but service was friendly.

So that's the food. Now, I'm just going to throw a few of my favorite pics from the day. There were tons of them, but this just gives a taste of what you can expect when visiting.

The albino alligator is finally back home. He did not move one bit the whole time.

The aquarium featured coral reefs from the Philippines, which apparently has the most diverse coral reefs in the world. Who knew?

My favorite things: amazing jelly fish that was like a floating flower.

The amazing rainforest display filled with plants, butterflies, birds, and ...

...these real live frogs. They were the size of a quarter.

The living roof upstairs, with Sutro Tower in the background.

The penguins moved so fast when they were in the water.

California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Check Web site for hours and the free days.


Nate @ House of Annie said...

We went on Thursday. It wasn't so crowded. And yes, the kiosks are the way to go.

We ended up having lunch in the Cafe. Here's our report:

Passionate Eater said...

Wow, I can't wait to visit SF and check out the new Academy of Sciences. I read about the turfed roof from a magazine, and it was very interesting. You'd be surprised at how great museum food turns out to be sometimes. Thanks for inspiring me to spend the day at the museum.

Anonymous said...

Chef Ben, that first courtyard where you walk into the building is where I got the Slanted Door pork meatballs and where I got to meet Chef Phan! (Not as expensive as the regular cafe either). As I said in my post I'm looking forward to trying the real cafe and the Moss room but in a pinch I'd get something from the snack stand if it's still selling the good stuff!
You took some great photos of the place and the albino gator didn't move for us either :)

Anonymous said...

Hmmm the restaurant and cafes look interesting! I went on a preview day and none of the cafes were open yet. I hope they continue with the 3rd Thursday evening cocktails thing again, that was a much more civilized way to visit and just in time for a nice dinner too