The Christmas season might be drawing to a close, but the memories are living on. In mid-December my parents, Sam and I attended a Christmas sing-along with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. Beforehand we had dinner at SF’s hip and sought-after Foreign Cinema in the Mission. Sam’s company had its Christmas party there two years ago, but Sam’s company isn’t the only one who considers Foreign Cinema Christmas party-worthy — Berkeley’s dynamic and influential Chez Panisse holds its Christmas party here as well. Just go to the Foreign Cinema’s website and check out all the press attention they’ve received.
It may be called the Foreign Cinema, but don’t worry — the menu is in English. The restaurant boasts two bars, a private dining room, an indoor dining room (complete with crackling fireplace) and a heated outdoor dining courtyard where patrons can watch foreign movies projected on the massive white wall of the adjacent building. The movie hadn’t begun when we arrived, and since it was breezy outside, we decided to sit indoors. The space is open, minimal and carefully designed: the remodeled warehouse with concrete floors is warmed by wood furniture, a fireplace and decor.
Besides the ambience and rave reviews, I knew Foreign Cinema had something good going for it when our server asked us whether we wanted still or sparkling water — sparkling water was no extra charge. As avid sparkling water drinkers, we took them up on their offer. The servers were attentive, refilling our water glasses whenever they were less than half full.
Foreign Cinema has a bountiful selection of oysters — try 20 different oysters. Our server recommended 3 different oysters for us to try. One was the Miyagi oyster of Point Reyes; the other two I’ve forgotten. And one of the oysters I liked better than the others, but since I don’t know their names I’ll just have to try more oysters another time.
For appetizers we ordered warm California and Mediterranean olives and baked fromage d’ Affinois. It was my first time to have olives warm, and I liked how it mellowed the sharpness I normally associate with olives. Fromage d’ Affinois is similar to brie: it comes from France, is made from cow’s milk and has a soft, edible rind. The process by which it is made, however, differs; ultrafiltration speeds up the maturation process. We slathered the soft, warm cheese generously onto crostini. A few grilled artichoke leaves added a wonderfully smoky dimension to the cheese.
For her entree my mom ordered Chilean Sea Bass seasoned with cilantro and accompanied by white beans. The combination of fish and beans was new to me, but I liked how the beans’ firm texture was juxtaposed against the fish’s softer texture.
My dad ordered a lavender-scented pork chop with an apple puree and savory bread pudding with chard. The portion was very large, and the scent of lavender only a whisper, but he enjoyed it.
Sam ordered steak with grilled artichokes and arugula. Unlike regular steakhouse fare, Foreign Cinema’s steak was sliced and artfully fanned out on the plate. The portion size was on the smaller side — on the healthful side, actually — and the quality was superb. Cooked medium rare, the steak was tender and flavorful, not overpowered with spices.
I ordered the duck breast, which was also accompanied by a duck sausage, French lentils and a crostini with pate. The duck breast — also sliced and artfully fanned out on my plate — was not at all greasy like duck can be. It was tender and moist, and the spice of the sausage added a befitting kick. I have to admit that one of the reasons I ordered the duck was for the lentils that accompanied it, and I was not disappointed. The Foreign Cinema puts just as much care into the entree’s side dish as into the actual entree, yet carefully maintains a balance so the entree remains the star of the meal.
Room for dessert? Of course. Since we were going to a concert after dinner, I thought it would be appropriate to order the Opera cake, which is layers almond cake, espresso buttercream and chocolate ganache. Like all the dishes at the Foreign Cinema, the serving size was just right — not so big that I couldn’t finish it. It was good, but next time I’ll try something else.
Sam ordered chocolate pot de creme, which is a sort of chocolate custard or pudding. Rich and intense, this dessert packed high-quality chocolate flavor. The texture was smooth, and it was gobbled up in no time.
My dad chose an apple tart and my mom had a pear napoleon with rosewater sorbet. A couple coffees to accompany and we were set.
No figgy pudding necessary to bring us holiday cheer: a meal at the Foreign Cinema and concert were all we needed to get in the Christmas mood and create a holiday memory.