If San Francisco is heaven for foodies, the California Culinary Academy (CCA) just might be the pearly gates.
Acquired by Career Education Corp. (CECO) in 2000 and one of just 10 Le Cordon Bleu-certified schools in North America, the academy has been producing some of the world's great chefs and bakers since its founding in 1977. CCA alumni include Juan Carlos Cruz, host of The Food Network's Calorie Commando, and Claud Mann, host of Turner Broadcasting's Dinner and a Movie.
The academy's main location in downtown San Francisco is housed in a historic landmark building on Polk Street whose Renaissance-style architecture belies its gritty surroundings in the city's Tenderloin section. (Think Hell's Kitchen before it became chic.)
Ranking among San Francisco's best options for fine food at very reasonable prices, the academy offers a prix fixe lunch and dinner Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as the aptly named grand buffet, available for lunch or dinner on Thursdays and Fridays. (The prix fixe meals cost $16 for lunch and $24 for dinner, the buffet $22 and $38; fine wine and alcoholic beverages are available for an additional charge.)A recent grand buffet lunch featured an abundance of charcuterie trays, hors d' oeuvres and smoked seafood appetizers, followed by a startling array of entrees, including Muscovy duck breast with wild mushroom and dried cherry gastric, herb-roasted monk tail with peppercorn sauce, apple cider-brined pork chop with corn and balsamic roasted onion ragout, and vegetarian risotto. There was also a pasta bar for those not counting carbs.
A good strategy for the buffet is to sample a little bit of everything and then go back for more of what's best. The grilled quail on wild field greens with caramelized apples and reduced balsamic glaze was the standout among appetizers I sampled, while the mustard-coated rack of lamb with cipollini onions, fingerling potatoes and Nicoise sauce led the entrees.
An even better strategy is to save room for dessert.