I still remember it as clear as day, waiting around at the August 1999 opening party for Foreign Cinema for a helicopter to make its splashy arrival to deposit a massive Jesus statue in the interior courtyard, replicating the scene in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.”
Talk about making a grand entrance into San Francisco’s dining scene.
Unfortunately, after that mega buildup, it actually never came to pass — the statue was deemed to heavy for the helicopter. But the party went on, a prescient symbol of how this restaurant would roll with the punches, not only surviving but flourishing, in the years to come.
Today, when the Mission District has become ground zero for the changes that the booming tech economy has brought to the Bay Area, Foreign Cinema is still going strong. At a time when animosity grows as working-class families are priced out of the neighborhood, new pricey condo complexes get built, and hipster businesses move in, this vibrant restaurant is still embraced and beloved.
The cavernous space once housed at various times a 99-cent store, a See’s Candies store, a sportswear retailer, medical offices and a shoe emporium. When the properties were connected and transformed for the restaurant, pinewood flooring and metal railing were scavenged from an old Latino theater across the street that was being dismantled, immediately giving it a sense of place.
Gayle Pirie and John Clark took over the restaurant in 2001, when it was teetering on bankruptcy following the dot-com bust and turned it around.
It remains one of the city’s most unique restaurants. When you walk through the doors, you make your way through a long, narrow, dim hallway that gives way to a beautiful, soaring dining room with open kitchen. Decorated with strings of lights, the large courtyard steals the show. After all, it’s where classic movies are shown on the exterior wall, and tables are outfitted with drive-in speakers. How cool is that?
It could easily be gimicky. But it’s not because the setting has a casual elegance and the food is just so darn good with unexpected touches like fried chicken, so crunchy and jazzed up with Madras curry, making it more finger licking good than any other.
That recipe is in the new “The Foreign Cinema Cookbook: Recipes and Stories Under the Stars” (Abrams) by partners Pirie and Clark, along with 124 others.
The book, of which I received a review copy, offers up a quintessential taste of San Francisco, with recipes that take advantage of our incomparable produce, as well as our international vitality, and meld it with a certain French je ne sais quoi. Enjoy everything from “Watermelon and Shiso Salad,” Five-Spice Duck Breast with Cassis Sauce” and “Seared Pacific Tuna with Persian Spices, Fennel Salad, and Fava Bean Puree” to “Jasmine Creme Brulee” and “Sexy Beast” (a huckleberry and vodka cocktail).
“Buttermilk Spoon Bread with Shiitakes, Corn, and Scallions” is typically served in individual ramekins at the restaurant. But in this recipe, it’s done family-style in one big baking dish.
It’s as homey as it sounds — a batter of eggs, buttermilk, cornmeal, fresh corn kernels, sauteed shiitakes, and a flourish of scallions that gets baked to a souffle-like, spoonable texture.
Airy and fluffy, it’s full of that great sweet taste of summer corn, plus earthy, meaty mushrooms.
It’s a perfect side dish at this time of year to any grilled meat or veggies. It’s even ideal for a lovely brunch.
Put a classic film on the telly, and enjoy it the Foreign Cinema way.
Buttermilk Spoon Bread with Shiitakes, Corn and Scallions
(Serves 4 to 6)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 cup fine cornmeal
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup buttermilk
4 large eggs
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 bunch scallions, root ends and tops trimmed, cut into 1/4-inch slices with some greens
Kernels from 1 ear white or yellow corn
Set rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and 1 teaspoon of the salt and saute until the mushrooms are tender and golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Set aside.
In a medium nonreactive saucepan, bring 2 2/3 cups water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons salt. Whisk in the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the cornmeal thickens and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan, 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the butter and remove from the heat.
In a medium bowl, whisk the buttermilk, eggs, and cream until smooth. Whisk the cream mixture into the cornmeal to make a smooth batter. Stir in the scallions, corn and the reserved mushrooms.
Spread the batter evenly into the prepared baking dish and bake until the top is golden brown and a toothpick or knife inserted near the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. The tender spoon bread will rise like a souffle, then fall slightly as it cools.
From “The Foreign Cinema Cookbook” by Gayle Pirie and John Clark
More Corny Recipes: Grilled Lime Chicken with Creamed Corn