Laurent Manrique first fell in love with San Francisco at the Saturday farmers' market on the Embarcadero. It was spring, and the French native ― who was working at a prestigious New York restaurant ― was visiting the city for the first time. "I saw all these young parents with their kids, all the vegetables and fruits," he recalls. "I thought, Wow, the people in this town really love to eat."
As executive chef of the well-regarded Aqua in the Financial District, Manrique turns his culinary expertise to seafood, transforming a humble John Dory fillet into a work of art. It's quite a departure from his origins in Gascony, a landlocked region of foie gras and Armagnac, but Manrique enjoys confounding expectations. A devout Buddhist with an eye for the finer things in life, he sports a modest prayer string on his wrist next to pink-and-orange Pucci cufflinks; he's also at home in Chinatown's raucous, colorful food markets, from which he derives inspiration. "Walking to work through Chinatown each morning is like instant vitality," he says.
Like many chefs, he takes his own meals on the fly at off-hours ― dim sum at 10 a.m., or a 3 p.m. lunch at his favorite trattoria on Belden Place. And instead of heading home at the end of a busy night, Manrique (along with chef buddies Roland Passot and Gerald Hirigoyen) is often spotted after-hours at the newest nightclubs and bars. "I need to see what's going on out there," he says. "You cannot be a great restaurateur in San Francisco if you aren't in touch with what people are doing."
Info: Aqua ($$$$; lunch Mon-Fri, dinner daily; 252 California St.; 415/956-9662)
Laurent Manrique's picks
Café de la Presse. Euro visitors and locals alike start the day with a cappuccino and first-rate people-watching at the warm-toned bistro across from the Chinatown Gate. Manrique consulted on the menu, which includes the superlative eggs en meurette (poached and served on toasted country bread). $$$; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. 352 Grant Ave.; 415/398-2680.
Café Tiramisu. Tucked into romantic Belden Place (a pedestrian-only alley lined with outdoor tables in the Financial District), the traditional Italian restaurant is Manrique's pick for a late lunch. At peak hours, the street is swarmed; flirtatious waiters abound. $$; lunch and dinner Mon-Fri, dinner Sat. 28 Belden Place; 415/421-7044.
Chinatown markets. The swirl of scents and flavors along with bins of unfamiliar ingredients make Chinatown's markets one of Manrique's favorite sources of inspiration. "They're great places for spices," he says. Try Ho Kee Market (1251 Stockton St.; 415/837-1489); New Luen Sing Fish Market (1207 Stockton; 415/989-4336); and Sun Wah Trading Co. (1211 Stockton; 415/788-7968).
Heart of the City Farmers' Market. The Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market on the Embarcadero is one of S.F.'s main attractions, especially on Saturday mornings. But foodies in the know get their produce at this much humbler market near the Civic Center, without the crowds and inflated prices but with the same quality. 7-5:30 Wed and 7-5 Sun. United Nations Plaza, on Market St. between Seventh St. and Eighth St.
Jardinière. "This was my first meal in S.F.," Manrique remembers. Despite the opening of a second eatery (Mijita, the Ferry Building's haute taqueria) and her recent rise to Iron Chef celebrity status, owner Traci Des Jardins's laser focus hasn't wavered. The special-occasion classic has yet to disappoint. $$$$; dinner daily. 300 Grove St.; 415/861-5555.
Lychee Gardens. Packed with Chinatown market workers on their morning break. "This was recommended to me by a Chinese busboy at my restaurant," Manrique says, tearing with relish into a char siu bow (barbecued pork bun). "Everyone goes to Yank Sing for dim sum, but this one's the best." $; dim sum 9-3 Mon-Fri, 8-3 Sat-Sun; dinner 3-9:15 daily. 1416 Powell St.; 415/397-2290.
Sam's Grill and Seafood Restaurant. Clubby, old-fashioned hangout with a boys-only feel; it's Manrique's favorite place for a Manhattan, his cocktail of choice. $$$; lunch and dinner Mon-Fri. 374 Bush St.; 415/421-0594.