One of the great restaurants in the world: Narisawa in Tokyo
Best Restaurants of 2014
Article and photos by Virginia Miller
Another year, another 600+ restaurants (YES, this is my annual average). Though I didn’t repeat the marathon travel of 2013 (over 25 cities in 10 different countries!), this year was still packed, taking me from Japan and Hong Kong, back to “regulars” like NYC and New Orleans.
2014 was rife with revelatory flavors, regional dish discoveries, memorable newcomers and wonderfully consistent veterans. Given the vast range, I have three 2014 lists (as well as best in drink here): 10 Best New Restaurants in SF, 8 Best Meals Around the US and 10 Around the World.
The opening date range for SF covers December 2013 to November 2014.
10 Best New SF Restaurants
Mitsunori Kusakabe at work
Though nothing replicates the 3 Michelin-starred sushi omakase meals of Tokyo, I am transported back to Japan with the sleek, blond-wood lines of the intimate, 30-seat sushi bar (offering only omakase/chef’s choice menus) at Kusakabe, from Mitsunori (aka Nori) Kusakabe whose sushi I’ve long loved at legendary Sushi Ran in Sausalito. He’s taken things up another level here with one artful course after another of nigiri and a few cooked dishes.
Lazy Bear: view from upstairs lounge overlooking the main dining room
In its initial weeks, Lazy Bear sold out its ticketed dinners from lawyer-turned-chef David Barzelay whose underground pop-up of imaginative tasting-menu dinners gained a huge cult following (and had long waiting lists) over the years. Their permanent brick-and-mortar location in the former Hi Lo space opened in September with an inviting upstairs lounge where dinner begins with imaginative bites and cocktail punch before heading downstairs to two long communal tables for a multi-course, shared, social experience.
Oh, that hot fried wild snapper at Chubby Noodle
Long a fan of Chubby Noodle in the back of Amante bar in North Beach, I figured Chubby Noodle, the brick-and-mortar open in the Marina this summer, would be its part two. I was surprised to find the boisterous, hot space (due to tables right in front of the kitchen) to be the kind of restaurant I crave — one where you toast glasses of draft sake with others at your communal table over flavor-packed Chinese and Japanese-influenced dishes so delicious, I want to order every dish on the menu — and all this set to a soundtrack hitting ’80s and early ’90s rap to Fergie remixes and even a little Sinatra.
Les Clos’ frisée aux lardons salad
Les Clos is my dream cafe: impeccable (French/Burgundy-heavy) wines, coffee, classic French dishes and desserts backed by world class pedigree from sommelier/owner Mark Bright of neighboring Saison, chef Shawn Gawle (Saison’s pastry chef) and cellar master/sommelier Cara Patricia Higgins. As a wine bar-cafe-retail shop, it could easily be boring or expected but by offering the best of the best in each category from coffee to Humphry Slocombe ice cream (and certainly in wine and classic French dishes), it is the cafe food and wine lovers wish they had in their ‘hood.
ABV grilled salad wedges
ABV is not only the new drink/cocktail industry hangout of the year, thanks to owners Todd Smith (Bourbon & Branch), Ryan Fitzgerald (brand ambassador for Del Maguey Mezcal) and Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud (Dalva/The Hideout owner), but it’s also an excellent new casual eats restaurant thanks to chef Kevin Cimino’s (formerly St. Vincent) whose Southern roots show in creative dishes like his awesome pimento cheeseburger on a house sweet potato bun or his “South Carolina Carnitas” or pulled pork tacos.
Yum Kai Dao at Kin Khao
Kin Khao is the kind of Thai restaurant I’ve been waiting for, albeit hidden in a hotel near Union Square on the edge of the Tenderloin. Proprietor Pim Techamuanvivit (author of The Foodie Handbook, and the blog Chez Pim) serves made-from-scratch Thai dishes and curries hearkening back to her Bangkok childhood, highlighting more obscure dishes and using painstakingly-sourced ingredients, like a brand of palm sugar imported only to LA.
Urchin Bistrot’s mussels served escargot-style
Chef Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani (owners of St. Helena’s Terra and Bar Terra and Ame) opened the casual, idyllic Urchin Bistrot in the former Wo Hing General Store space in August. Chef Michael Morrison and GM Susan Naderi Johnston aid in making this my favorite of the many new modern French bistros with an inviting, long bar… the ideal neighborhood hangout with impeccable drink, food and warm service.
Superlative house charcuterie at Trou Normand
Manhattan meets Paris at an all-day cafe with San Francisco-quality ingredients and a house charcuterie program that makes others look (and taste) lackluster) at Trou Normand, a new French-influenced restaurant and bar from Thad Vogler and the Bar Agricole crew. Housed in the historic Pacific Telephone Building, the space is dramatic with lofty ceilings, massive booths, exposed brick and a curved bar beneath a tasteful nude drawing. Chef/butcher Salvatore Cracco (Bar Agricole, Adesso) cuts meats from Mangalitsa pigs raised exclusively for the restaurant by Devil’s Gulch Ranch and the house selections of Calvados, Cognac and Armagnac are the backdrop for elegant cocktails featuring French spirits.
Open in May in the Presidio, Traci Des Jardins’ The Commissary is housed in a former army mess hall in the Montgomery Street Barracks circa 1895. Tabletops are made from salvaged Douglas fir in the multi-room space and the chef’s counter is my favorite spot from which to watch chef/culinary director, Robbie Lewis (who cooked at Rubicon and was executive chef of Des Jardins’ Jardiniere for eight years), executive chef Reylon Agustin (also Jardiniere and Manzanita in the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe) and their team work their magic with the heavily Spanish-influenced menu showcasing common tapas favorites – albondigas (meatballs), pulpo (octopus), croquetas – as well as creative dishes with California flair. More memorable dishes here.
La Taberna, Napa
La Taberna Napa
This is just what Napa needed. With a chalkboard of changing daily tapas in a sleek downtown Napa space, almost everything at La Taberna is $4-7 — and absolutely delicious. Craft beer, wine — both local and international — a sherry by-the-glass list and low proof cocktails featuring sherry and port seal the deal.
Honorable Mentions: Alembic‘s new food menu, ICHI Sushi + Ni Bar, (it’s new incarnation is better than ever), Pabu from MICHAEL MINA (killer nigiri tasting menus from Chef Ken Tominaga and unreal sake pairings), Prubechu (unique Guam cuisine), Lolo Cevicheria, Dirty Habit, Plin, The Tradesman, Hog Island Oyster Bar, Red Hill Station, Bartlett Hall, Archetype in St. Helena, Farmer & the Fox in St. Helena, alaMar in Oakland
BEST CHEAP EATS: The Hall, Burma Bear, Crepe La Vie, Project Juice, Hearth Coffee Roasters,
BEST NEW BAKERIES: Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, Hearth Coffee Roasters, Noble Folk Pie & Ice Cream in Healdsburg, Marla Bakery
BEST NEW COFFEE SHOPS: Snowbird Coffee, Tiny Warrior, Hearth Coffee Roasters, Andytown
Orsa & Winston cuttlefish in Los Angeles
8 Best Meals Around the US
Eleven Madison Park, NYC
Waldorf salad prepared tableside at Eleven Madison Park
Three Michelin stars, # 4 on Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (the highest in the US), a 28 rating for food, service and decor in Zagat, the accolades for Eleven Madison Park go on and on. Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, Chez Wong in Lima, Peru, Narisawa and Sushiso Masa in Tokyo, and other unforgettable meals made perfect with all the right elements and people… EMP is among the rarified group of the best lifetime meals. My photos and favorite dishes from this year’s visit here.
Bestia, Los Angeles
Bestia’s excellent burrata, tomato, Castelvetrano olives, oregano & fermented chilies piiza
Bestia has been at the top of every kind of restaurant list since it opened in 2012 and is still one of the hardest reservations to secure in LA. Despite almost deafening noise when the place is full, I found the bar (first come, first served, though I recommend getting there before they open) not overwhelmingly loud, with full food menu available and knowledgeable bar staff, in line with the best restaurants here at home or around the world. Alongside some of LA’s greatest wine and cocktail menus, the food is likewise seamless and delicious, whether a lovely grilled cuttlefish ($19) accented by chanterelle mushrooms, kabocha squash puree, sprouting broccoli, aged balsamic and chili or dreamy pizzas and pastas — try the signature cavatelli alla norcina ($29): ricotta dumplings, house pork sausage, black truffles and Grana Padano cheese.
Square Root, New Orleans
Liquid nitrogen dish prepared at Square Root
Square Root is easily the most exciting New Orleans’ newcomer this year on the dining side — and the same holds true for its upstairs bar/lounge and cocktails. The historic building boasts a balcony and a wrap-around upstairs bar from which bartenders turn out impeccable cocktails, dishes and bites akin to the creative quality I love at their parent restaurant, Root. Downstairs is a 16-seat bar surrounding a live kitchen where executive chef Phillip Lopez and team turn out sophisticated, international dishes (sometimes with molecular touches) right in front of you. It’s a 12-15 course dinner ($150 per person) and changes constantly so each experience is unique. My photos and favorite dishes here.
The quartet of restaurants from Renee Erickson are consistently amazing, three of them taking up my top Seattle recommends. I visited each of Erickson’s restaurants with low expectations and every time have come away impressed and delighted, finding each to be “quintessential Pacific Northwest cuisine,” or what one hopes that term would exemplify. None more so than Barnacle. Sitting at one long counter in an intimate space hidden upstairs across the hall from the Walrus & the Carpenter, Barnacle is an intimate seafood lover’s treasure serving a short chalkboard menu of daily changing small plates, all seafood focused, and ideal parings of Italian amaro in simple but well-executed cocktails.
At his cozy, low ceiling Little Italy haven, Rubirosa, Angelo (A.J.) Pappalardo serves recipes inspired from his father Giuseppe’s Staten Island restaurant, Joe & Pat’s, since 1960. A.J. opened Rubirosa with his father and chef Al Di Meglio. His paper-thin, almost cracker-like pizzas are dreamy, laden with cheese and meat, among my favorite pizzas in Manhattan (slices available at lunch only). The family-friendly, rustic space begs for an amaro cocktail and hearty bowl of fantastic “Sunday sauce”, a changing weekly option of pasta and red sauce. Recently I had the choice of spaghetti or rigatoni ($21) in a downright fantastic red sauce, savory from multiple meats: braciole, meatball, braised rib and sausage, topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Night+Market, Los Angeles
It’s painfully noisy in the back dining room — next time, I’d ask to sit at the (too) quiet bar but still better than the almost piercing shriek of a merely half-full dining room. That annoyance aside, Night+Market is rightfully popular given the authenticity of its fantastic Thai dishes (which sometimes means authentic Thailand heat, so be prepared) partnered with lovely Rieslings and other crisp whites appropriate for the heat. I was transported straight back to my months in Thailand.
Orsa & Winston, Los Angeles
Uni risotto at Orsa & Winston
Although I find restaurateur Josef Centeno’s Baco Mercat still my favorite of his restaurants, Orsa & Winston did not disappoint. The staff is knowledgeable about wines and pairings were spot-on with imaginative tasting menu-only dishes. Out of 8 courses, plus amuse bouche, more than half were very good to excellent and the creative flavor combinations were sealed by that most important of ingredients: a squeeze of citrus (often yuzu), tying each dish together with subtle acidity.
Yuzu, Beaverton, OR
Natto fried in shiso leaves at Yuzu
Yuzu is in Beaverton, a suburb of Portland, and worth the trek out for Japanese food aficionados. A humble hole-in-the-wall in a strip mall known for their sake and their ramen, we fared best on authentic Japanese small plates/pub (izakaya) fare. Yuzu shines in affordable dishes like tender, thinly shaved beef tongue, grilled sardines and natto (funky, fermented soybeans) deep fried in shiso leaves.
Amber Hong Kong’s (at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental) stunning dining room
10 Best Meals Around the World
It feels almost cruel to have to number these meals from Japan and Hong Kong when each is so stellar they are not only best of the year, but many of them among the best in my life — and I left out other memorable meals from my recent Asia travels.
1. Sushisho Masa, Tokyo, Japan
Master Masa-san at work
Think 40 courses of sushi, bite-sized, delivered with basic English instructions (“as is, no soy”) on how to eat them. There are only 6 seats at Sushisho Masa, a half-basement closet of a dining room where the master himself, Masa-san, with the aide of his couple assistants, slices every piece of fish himself and hands it directly to you, while your sake and ice cold draft beers are replenished. And you won’t just get Hokkaido uni (sea urchin), for example, known to be some of the best in the world.
40 brilliant sushi courses
You’ll get 3 kinds of urchin from varying parts of the island of Japan, different shades and flavors. You’ll try fish you’ve never seen before and Masa and crew will point to them in an encyclopedic fish book if the Japanese word isn’t translating. At 3 Michelin stars, it’s a superlative experience and the single best sushi meal of my life (roughly $250-300 per person, cash only, which is common in Japan).
2. Narisawa, Tokyo, Japan
Bread fermenting tableside at Narisawa
Black sea snake with the poison removed, dried, aged and shaved into a soup? Japanese chestnut and pickled green yuzu lemon confit bread, the yeast making the bread slowly rise tableside? These are just a few of the world class, imaginative dishes at (rightfully) 3 Michelin-starred Narisawa, easily one of the most exciting fine dining experiences of my life — with excellent wine list and service.
3. Raku-tei, Tokyo, Japan
Raku Tei rounds of tempura goodness, from ginko to shrimp legs
Since owner-chef Shuji Ishikura opened it in 1970, Raku-tei is yet another superlative Tokyo experience — a city with more Michelin stars than any in the world, even Paris. This 2 Michelin-starred tempura haven is a sacred, church-like experience where at a 6-seat only bar (merely 4 people when I recently dined) in a music school building, one experiences a two hour meal of tempura-fried courses from a hunched-over master who, with one assistant, pulls the head off of wriggling prawns before gently frying them up, juicy and buttery, they are so perfectly fried. As he serves you everything from eggplant to fish, you are amazed you don’t weary of fried courses, while his wife serves each course with reverence. A once-in-a-lifetime kind of meal.
4. Yardbird, Hong Kong, China
Tsukune (chicken meatballs) at Yardbird
Yakitori that rivals the best in Japan? Yardbird has won numerous (rightly deserved) accolades, including being named one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. It’s tough table to snag as there are no reservations and the convivial two floors are perpetually packed. But if you do get a table (I’d recommend arriving before opening), you’ll be rewarded with an incredible meal where every dish, including the remarkable KFC (Korean Fried Cauliflower) threatens to outshine the last, and all manner of chicken parts take center stage. Run by Canadians Matt Abergel and Lindsay Jang, another highlight is the excellent Japanese drink menu: cocktails, beer, sake, shochu, awamori, house special cans of Suntory highballs and plenty of whisky (yes, there are Ichiro bottlings).
5. Aberdeen Street Social, Hong Kong, China
Creative blood sausage at Aberdeen
Open in May 2013, Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton turns out ambitious dishes in the upstairs restaurant at Aberdeen Street Social, with a cocktail lounge and bites downstairs. Think dishes like raw Hokkaido scallops accented by dashi jelly, apple, shiso, avocado and wasabi purée, or duck breast and heart marked by honey spiced beetroot, pickled pear and a purée of dates and Earl Grey tea. Aberdeen is also one of Hong Kong’s creative, garden-fresh cocktail destinations.
6. Amber, Hong Kong, China
Amber’s artful amuse bouche
One of my favorite Hong Kong meals was Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental. In a dramatic, elegant dining room, chef Richard Ekkebus turns out gorgeous dishes that initially sound like typical fine dining ingredients, from foie gras to caviar. But nothing is typical about chef Ekkebus’ whimsical, delicious interpretations, including his famed foie gras, raspberry-covered lollipops marked by beetroot chips and gingerbread. The wine list is equally world class and international.
7. Fook Lam Moon, Hong Kong, China
Fook Lam Moon’s dim sum
There’s dim sum and then there’s dim sum in Hong Kong, home to Cantonese cooking, where excellent dim sum spots are ubiquitous, from low to high end. Fook Lam Moon is a 2 Michelin-starred, upscale dim sum palace where one can still spend a reasonable $60 USD for two to feast on tender dumplings or wontons with unreal flakiness akin to a French croissant. There are other superb dim sum restaurants in the world but dining on dim sum in HK ratchets everything up another notch and makes me long for such perfection at home.
8. Ham & Sherry, Hong Kong, China
Excellent fried potatoes, grape and egg dish at Ham & Sherry
In the bustling Wan Chai district, Jason Atherton and Yenn Wong (of nearby 22 Ships and also Duddell’s) opened Ham & Sherry at the end of 2013. Intimate yet sunny, Spanish blue-and-white tiles gleam around a tiny, open kitchen that turns out excellent tapas with a Hong Kong spin (try those killer prawns) as well as platters of Iberico ham, cured meats. Pair with sherries from the generous list.
9. Giro Giro Hitoshina, Kyoto, Japan
Starting with a range of bites at Giro Giro
Dubbing themselves “punk rock kaiseki”, they did not do the food writer right sitting her upstairs away from the visual action of the chef’s table, although I preferred a mellow, individual table to the packed, literally rubbing shoulders, seats around the open kitchen in the cramped downstairs space. I would have liked to witness the action, however.
Though lacking the finesse in service and setting from most of the other notable dining experiences I had in Kyoto and Tokyo, Giro Giro Hitoshina’s tasting menus are imaginative, farm-fresh and youthful, a needed change of pace in these parts where kaiseki tasting menus are near reverential. In addition, it’s a steal and Japan rarity at barely $100 USD for two sans drinks.
10. Okakita, Kyoto, Japan
Okakita’s tentoji don
One of the most unforgettable Kyoto meals was among the simplest. Despite the wait outside, we entered Okakita to a quiet, Zen-like setting turning out affordable, true Kyoto-style udon, soba noodles and donburi. While the classic udon is indeed top notch, it’s the tentoji don — large, perfect prawn tempura over udon in a creamy egg broth — that I have been craving ever since I left.
Dining on dried snake (in soup) at Narisawa in Tokyo