Jan
15
2015

January 15, 2015

“Waking dreams, lucid dreams and daydreams, as well as being a source of pleasure in themselves, can also be of practical use in helping us create visions of our ideal life. Once the vision is in place, then the life will eventually follow. Be brave, idleheart! The difficulty is that we get ourselves caught in a double bind: we work so hard that we do not allow ourselves time to dream, and therefore we continue to work hard because we’ve not had the time to dream up an alternative. If you are ever sacked or made redundant, then I suggest you thank the good Lord above.” – How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson

Branzino at Bobo's Lounge (see Top Tastes)

Branzino at Bobo’s Lounge (see Top Tastes)

Here’s hoping your new year is off to a rich and hopeful start already…

Here is my feature article in the current issue of Distiller Magazine on top 10 bars in Louisville, Kentucky, and interviews with distiller Steve Beam at Limestone Branch and bar manager Jeremy Johnson at Meta.

Also, my top 10 Winter Cocktails feature at Zagat and my feature on Weekending in Yountville in Napa Valley.

This issue:

Hand-cut udon noodles in LA (see Wandering Traveler)

Hand-cut udon noodles in LA (see Wandering Traveler)

Top TastesMy Food Articles, January 1-15: 12 of my current Zagat articles on the year in dining & drink, including new restaurants, under-the-radar spots and Wine Country travel.
Wandering TravelerLos Angeles: The best in restaurants, cheap eats and coffee from latest travels in LA.
ImbiberTequila Time: Talking anjeo (aged) tequila with 1 new anejo and 2 new extra anejo releases.

As your personal concierge who tells it like a good friend would, I also create personalized itineraries: trips, meals, explorations (under “Services“).

Virginia

CLICKABLE LINKS to Social Media & Articles:
Zagat
Food Republic
Liquor.com
Editor, Distiller Magazine
SF Bay Guardian Critic (Weekly Column: 2009-2013)
Spoonwiz
Freelance:
The Times London, Eater, PureWow, Drink Me Magazine, Citysearch, NBC’s The Feast, Blackboard Eats, Tasting Table, Grubstreet, Where Magazine

www.facebook.com/ThePerfectSpothttps://twitter.com/ThePerfectSpotwww.linkedin.com/pub/virginia-miller/2/295/33a/

**Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Virginia Miller**

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Written by in: Intro Letter |
Jan
15
2015

Top Tastes

Branzino at Bobo's Lounge

Branzino at Bobo’s Lounge

My Top Food Articles: January 1-15, 2015

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my many articles a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to some coverage highlights here – you can follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily, or on my own @ThePerfectSpot via Twitter or Facebook.

New SF Openings

Californios & Chef Val Cantu’s Creative, Mexican-Influenced Tasting Menus

Hot Dish: Chris Cosentino’s “Ham” Burger at the new Cockscomb

3 New Ramen Shops to Try

2015’s Most Anticipated New Openings

Every Friday: 25 NEW RESTAURANTS TO TRY IN THE BAY AREA

Californios' vegetable course

Californios’ vegetable course

Underrated & Established Spots

Italian by way of Asia at Bobo’s Lounge

7 Top Spots for Healthy Eating Now

Hot Dish: Lamb Belly at Scandinavian Destination, Plaj

Unsung Heroes: Flying Fish Bar & Grill in Half Moon Bay for fish tacos & garlic cheesy bread

Wine Country

Weekending in Yountville: Where to eat, drink, massage, go ballooning or bike riding

3 Dishes to try at St. Helena’s Brand New Cook Tavern

A notable new bakery and lunch take-out spot in St. Helena

East Bay

Exploring Desco’s House Pasta Menu – 3 Standouts

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Written by in: Top Tastes |
Jan
15
2015

Wandering Traveler

View of Downtown LA from my recent AirBnB loft rental rooftop

View of Downtown LA from my recent AirBnB loft rooftop

Eating in LA, Winter 2014-15

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

LOVE the Beep Beep uni rice at Roy Choi's POT

LOVE the Beep Beep uni rice at Roy Choi’s POT

Over the holidays, I returned twice to LA (years of recommends here), a region where I lived 12 years of my life and still have family. My recent cocktail/drink standouts are here and my latest food and dining reviews to follow.

A bit sterile, cold & oddly lit: POT's dining room

A bit sterile, cold & oddly lit: POT’s dining room

On the disappointing front, though staying around the corner from The Pie Hole, I found the pastries and coffee drinks a let down but for the chicken ‘n’ cornbread savory pie ($3.75-6.75).

Though historically, I am a fan of Roy Choi’s restaurants (like A-Frame), his newest, POT, with its cold dining room, hit-and-miss dishes and service left a lot to be desired — same can be said for the rooftop bar, The Commissary. The one killer dish I tried was Beep Beep ($18), an umami-laden, spicy fried rice laced with fresh Santa Barbara uni (sea urchin).

Restaurants

BESTIA, Downtown LA

f

Burrata, olive & fermented chili pizza

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 town. Despite almost deafening noise when the place is full, I found the bar (first come, first served, though I’d recommend getting there before they open) not overwhelmingly loud, with the full menu available.

Cuttlefish

Cuttlefish

Bestia — from chef Ori Menashe (former chef de cuisine at the wonderful Angelini Osteria, an old favorite of mine), his pastry chef wife Genvieve Gergis and restaurateur Bill Chait — succeeds on all fronts in what can easily be a tired category: modern Italian. The food and the wine list (thanks to wine director Maxwell Leer) are all impeccable and I found not a misstep anywhere (note: the wine list has a section just for Riesling, God bless ‘em. There is also a strong list of whites from some of my favorite regions like Croatia, Slovenia, Loire Valley, Austria, Hungary, as well as reds from Italy, France, Spain. I loved a dry 2013 Falkenstein Spatlese — $16 a glass — from Mosel, Germany).

s

Cavatelli alla norcina

Servers are far more knowledgeable than many an LA hotspot. Though I am used to servers who know their wines and cuisine (and are often sommelier level) here at home, that is not the average server in a destination Los Angeles restaurant. At Bestia, the staff know their food and drink. The bar staff are crafting impeccable cocktails created by LA bar great Julian Cox. More on the cocktails here.

Farro

Farro grain salad

Wood-fired, Neapolitan-inspired pizzas are a standout, namely a pizza laden with silky burrata cheese, San Marzano tomatoes, castelvetrano olives, oregano and fermented chilies. The pasta is also a showstopper, and as with all dishes here, doesn’t feel tired or typical. I adore cavatelli alla norcina ($29): fluffy ricotta dumplings, savory with house pork sausage, black truffles and Grana Padano cheese.

Mascarpone pudding

Mascarpone pudding

A hearty farro grain salad ($12) is marked by shaved heirloom cauliflower, pine nuts, avocado puree, pickled chili, mint and Montasio (a cheese from Northeast Italy). Grilled cuttlefish ($19) was another stunner, showing off the cuttlefish better than many restaurants have, served with chanterelle mushrooms and sprouting broccoli over kabocha squash puree, drizzled with aged balsamic and chili.

Dessert is pure goodness: creamy mascarpone rice pudding ($11) accompanied by winter fruit, in this case hachiya persimmon, as well as orange blossom pistachios and persimmon caramel.

ORSA & WINSTON, Downtown LA

s

Sweet potato soup

As a fan of Josef Centeno’s restaurants (particularly Baco Mercat since it opened in 2012), I had to try his more upscale Orsa & Winston. In ethos and style, it’s understated as a space, majoring on the food and the wine knowledge. It is the kind of restaurant I hunted for in LA a decade ago and could barely find, common at home in SF where food is first before “scene” or design. But now there are a number of mid-range to upscale restaurants like this in LA where the humble (and in this case, cramped) surroundings belie the quality and creativity of food within.

Uni

Uni over satsuki rice

Note that it’s a set menu only: $90 for 8-courses and $65 to add on wine pairings, or 5 courses for $65 with $40 wine pairings (there’s also a super omakase menu “chef’s table” — basically a counter overlooking the kitchen). Service is smart and knowledgeable on the wine front and the dishes flow out seamlessly, if a bit swiftly.

While not every course wowed (I tried the 8 course menu with wine pairings), a good 4 of them did — a high number in a tasting menu. And the rest were still good. An amuse bouche of a creamy, peanut butter-like mound of sesame yogurt is accented by beets, finger limes, salt and micro-flowers. This kind of whimsy with bright, bold flavor signifies Centeno’s style and the best moments at Orsa.

Crosnes vegetable course

Crosnes vegetable course

A vegetable dish based around crosnes, a tuber vegetable also known as Chinese artichoke, is a happy surprise. The earthy white root is highlighted by micro greens, gooseberries, tomato, maitake mushrooms and charred scallion creme fraiche, resulting in a vibrant and earthy dish.

Roasted quail, tiny romanesco, pistachio, ume, grape shallot jam with super acidic Rhone blend Grenache/Syrah/Carignane

Roasted quail over romanesco, pistachio and ume with grape shallot jam; paired with an acidic Rhone blend of Grenache/Syrah/Carignane

Two more “wow” moments: Japanese sweet potato soup laden with lobster, pomegranate, creme fraiche and nori (seaweed). It is gorgeous paired with a surprising 2013 De Forville Piemonte Chardonnay from Italy with sour beer/fermented qualities. Also, satsuki rice was punctuated with decadent Santa Barbara uni in a geoduck chowder foam, Parmesan cream and a spritz of yuzu from an atomizer to tie the whole umami-rich dish together. One of the best moments is the bread course, in my case, milk bread focaccia paired with pickled radishes and smeared with smoked black cod tonnato or house butter.

Faith & Flower

Faith & Flower

FAITH & FLOWER, Downtown LA

s

Egg spaghetti

Coastal Luxury Management (CLM) — the group behind Los Angeles Food & Wine, Pebble Beach Food & Wine and my Monterey favorite, Restaurant 1833 — opened Faith & Flower this past Spring. It’s one of the more striking dining rooms in LA (a city with plenty of striking dining rooms): lush with greens, leather booths, velvet, crystal chandeliers, feather fans and, as at 1833 in Monterey, absinthe and amaro carts.

Oxtail agnolotti

Oxtail agnolotti

Chef Michael Hung came from San Francisco’s La Folie and Michael Lay moved from bar manager at 1833 to oversee the stellar cocktail program (more on that here).

To eat, oxtail agnolotti ($17) is rightly a favorite, sweet and savory with bone marrow, Asian pear conserva and beef tendon chicharrones adding crunch across the top. I actually preferred a summery-rich handmade egg spaghetti ($15) laced with roasted corn and cherry tomatoes, the clincher being its miso butter base. A lunch standout is a rock shrimp roll ($15), recalling Maine lobster rolls on buttery brioche, laced with pickled onion and a smoked remoulade. Save room for the cookie board ($12), offering an array of fresh-baked cookies.

NIGHT + MARKET, West Hollywood & Silver Lake

Night + Market WeHo (West Hollywood)

Night + Market WeHo (West Hollywood)

Along with the likes of Kin Khao in SF and Pok Pok in Portland (and now also a NYC location), Night + Market offers authentic, vibrant Thai food in a hip setting that notably serves flavors and dishes not found on typical Thai menus across the US. These are the rare and wonderful flavors (with proper Thai heat) I miss from my months around Thailand, paired with a lovely list of wines, dominant on the Gruners and Rieslings that partner so well with heat. While I enjoyed dishes like a catfish tamale ($12) wrapped in a banana leaf, it’s khao kluk gapi (shrimp paste-seasoned rice – $13) that I adored: pungent, sweet and savory, as you toss candied pork, shredded egg, red onion, green mango, cilantro and bird eye chiles with the rice.

Night+Market spread

Night+Market spread

Other than a deafening dining room at the original WeHo (West Hollywood) location — despite being only half full — service is friendly even if food rushes out. Next time I would sit at the empty bar in the middle of the restaurant to avoid shouting to be heard by my dining companion across the table.

YXTA, Downtown

Al pastor tacos at Yxta

Al pastor tacos at Yxta

Yxta Cocina Mexicana (pronounced eeks’-tah) is a bustling, airy, modern Mexican restaurant that is ideal for lunch, a sister restaurant to Highland Park’s El Arco Iris. The details are done right here — handmade tortillas, Salmon Creek natural pork, Jidori free range chicken. Tequila and mezcal-based cocktails and the tacos (love their al pastor) are gourmet yet authentic, fresh and gratifying. In a city awash in incredible Mexican food for decades, it’s nice having quality mid-range options like Yxta.

Night+Market's

Night+Market’s khao kluk gapi

Cheap Eats & Coffee

LAVENDER & HONEY ESPRESSO BAR, Pasadena

Toast at Lavender & Honey

Toast at Lavender & Honey

When I hit the road home from visiting family in OC, it’s worth stopping off at this Pasadena cafe, Lavender & Honey, for excellent coffee from Lift Coffee Roasters, and — jumping on the gourmet toast craze — delicious gourmet toast on rustic bread. Try Pasadena toast, covered in fresh, mashed avocados and dotted with red jalapenos, or specials like lemon sugar toast, tart with Meyer lemon marmalade and a dusting of powdered sugar.

DEMITASSE, Little Tokyo

Demitasse

Demitasse

I love friendly Demitasse in Little Tokyo. Besides housing a Japanese siphon coffee machine and serving quality espresso and barista coffee special drinks (oh, that bitter, smooth lavender hot chocolate topped with toasted, gourmet marshmallow!), they also sell Sugar Bloom Bakery goods, like a kimchi Spam musubi croissant recalling Korea and Hawaii in the form of French pastry.

MARUGAME MONZO, Little Tokyo

Uni udon at

Uni cream udon

Though I can’t say it’s my favorite udon ever, Marugame Monzo transports me to Japan, particularly with a counter seat at the window watching kitchen staff form and cut noodles by hand. Hearty bowls of udon (generally $8-15) fare better on the traditional, broth side. I was far more excited about the Japanese-Italian touches and creative interpretations like uni cream udon.

But in actuality, I found the uni udon rather sickening after eating only 1/3 of the massive $15 bowl, rather like a drenched fettucine alfredo literally drowning and smothering the sea urchin. The noodles are comforting, however, showcased better in broth with delectable tempura shrimp or other meats.

KAZUNORI, Downtown LA

Hand rolls at the bar at KazuNori

Hand rolls at the bar at KazuNori

KazuNori, “The original hand roll bar” from Kazunori Nozawa (of popular Sugarfish) is Downtown LA’s hot new destination for affordable-fresh hand rolls (3 for $10.50, 4 for $13, 5 for $17.50 — note that you cannot get hand rolls to go, only cut rolls). Hand roll options are basic — cucumber, salmon, Bay scallops, blue crab, toro, yellowtail, lobster ($4-7 each) — and an orderly flow allows you to pop in to the wrap-around sushi bar (no tables) for a couple quick rolls and a Japanese beer. This is not notable sushi, to be sure, but the easy flow and affordable prices explain its immediate popularity and almost guarantee success for the additional locations they plan on opening.

ZEKE’S SMOKEHOUSE, Montrose

Zeke’s Smokehouse made for a sunny, pleasant brunch on the charming main street of Montrose. Their pulled pork is fall-apart goodness, particularly gratifying over massive hotcakes ($8.95) at breakfast, in bourbon maple syrup.

GRAND CENTRAL MARKET, Downtown LA

Grand Central Market

Grand Central Market

Much has written about the revival of downtown LA’s Grand Central Market and for good reason. Though quite different (and sans scenic water views) from SF’s Ferry Plaza Building, it recalls the revival of that historic building over a decade ago when local and tourists alike began flocking to the bustling space for all manner of food — and long lines.

Bypass the endless lines at Egg Slut and go for full blown authenticity and straight-from-Mexico goodness at Tacos Tumbras a Tomas where generous tacos and tortas fill you up for a few dollars. I also love Thai outpost Sticky Rice, particularly the daily changing specials, like beef and sticky rice, tasting just like it did in my months on the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai way back in 1999.

Tacos at

Tacos Tumbras a Tomas

Try Wexler’s for bagels and lox or pastrami sandwiches, Press Brothers Juicery for a vegetable juice fix and G&B Coffee, whose friendly staff make the walk-up counter a pleasant experience even if the use of Canada’s 49th Parallel coffee doesn’t thrill me: it’s so soft and such a light roast, it’s almost masked in a cappuccino or macchiato. I prefer requesting coffee made with beans they offer from other roasters or house special drinks like hop-infused carbonated ice tea.

Cutting noodles at Marugame Monzo

Cutting noodles at Marugame Monzo

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Jan
15
2015

Imbiber

Tequila Time with 3 New Anejos

Article by Virginia Miller

Recently, I received no less than three new Añejo or Extra Añejos imports from Mexico. “Añejo” means aged in Spanish and this tequila category is essentially the clear spirit one starts with as a blanco tequila, but aged a minimum of one year (and less than three years) in oak barrels. Extra Añejo is a newer category that means the tequila was aged a minimum of three years or more.

Photo Source: dulcevidaspirits.com

Photo Source: dulcevidaspirits.com

I’ve tasted some notable Añejos in my day, but by and large when it comes to tequila (a category — and region — I love), I am most drawn towards Reposado or Blanco tequilas because it is all about letting that agave shine. In whisk(e)y, oak is such a critical factor in the character and flavor profile. While I enjoy some of the woody notes of Añejos, my favorite Añejos still taste most strongly of the agave plant, which is what sets tequila apart from whisk(e)y, rum, brandy and other spirits. Agave is the heart and soul of tequila and to not be able to taste the freshness of the plant, for me, is what ruins it. Young tequila lets the vibrant, green notes shine, although there are exceptions on every front.

That out of the way, here are my notes on these three new releases, one of them an Añejo and two of them Extra Añejos, that are just hitting the shelves.

Espolon Añejo Tequila ($35)

Photo source: tequilaespolon.com

Photo source: tequilaespolon.com

Espolon Blanco and Reposado Tequilas have long been one of the strong value-for-taste tequilas (plus they sport that cool, Day of the Dead, skeleton artwork), working well in margaritas and other tequila cocktails. For the first time, Espolon is releasing an Añejo. Master Distiller Cirilo Oropeza ages the Añejo in American oak for 10 months, then finishes it in heavily charred Wild Turkey bourbon barrels for another 2-3 months. Vanilla and bright agave hit hard on the nose while the taste is heavy on vanilla, spices and caramel without obliterating the agave. For the value, it is a strong cocktail tequila.

Dulce Vida Organic Extra Añejo Tequila ($169)

Photo source: drinksuerte.com

Photo source: drinksuerte.com

Actually certified organic, Dulce Vida Tequila, produced in Mexico from an Austin, TX-based company, just released their 5 year anniversary tequila: an extra anejo aged 5 years in Napa Valley red wine barrels (the first tequila aged in red wine barrels). It smells and tastes the most like a whiskey of the three, if that is what you are after. There are tannins from the red wine barrels and dominant whiskey characteristics of caramel, cedar and leather with a bit of dried fruit sweetness. This one is most ideal as a sipping tequila of the three. It is a limited edition release so once the bottles are gone, they are gone.

Suerte’s Extra Añejo Tequila ($110)

Released in October at less than 1000 bottles, Suerte’s Extra Añejo Tequila was aged five years. Produced in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, it is 100% tahona processed, which means the slow-roasted agave is crushed by a two-ton, volcanic rock wheel (a tahona), an old world practice still found often in mezcal but rare in tequila. There are silky, vanilla, spiced — even apple — notes to the Extra Anejo, but there is also the strongest agave plant taste and liveliness of three, meaning the oak is present but thankfully does not dominate.

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Jan
01
2015

January 1, 2015

“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating as possibility!” ― Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life

Unforgettable dining in Japan (see Best Of 2014)

Unforgettable dining in Japan (see Best Of 2014)

Happy new year to each of you! Here’s trusting and hoping for a year rich with discovery and depth. As we look ahead, I also look back on the best meals, drinks and openings of the year in lists of over 60 places, including best meals and cocktails in the Bay Area, the US, the world — and the top 10 new restaurants and 10 cocktail bars of 2014.

This issue:

Squab at The Progress, new from State Bird Provisions' owners (see Top Tastes)

Squab at The Progress, new from State Bird Provisions’ owners (see Top Tastes)

The Best of 2014, Restaurants – The best new Bay Area openings and the best meals around the US and the world.
The Best of 2014, Drink – The best new Bay Area bar openings and the best cocktails & bars around the US and the world.

Top TastesMy Food Articles, December 16-31: 17 of my current Zagat articles on the year-in-review, 6 new restaurants, under-the-radar spots and Wine Country newcomers.
ImbiberMy Drink Articles, December 16-31: 9 of my current Zagat articles on multiple new cocktail menus at restaurants, a new bottle shop & the year’s top new bars.
Imbiber3 Spirits for December: Vermouth from Washington, rum from Monterey and Scotch from, of course, Scotland.

As your personal concierge who tells it like a good friend would, I also create personalized itineraries: trips, meals, explorations (under “Services“).

Virginia

CLICKABLE LINKS to Social Media & Articles:
Zagat
Food Republic
Liquor.com
Editor, Distiller Magazine
SF Bay Guardian Critic (Weekly Column: 2009-2013)
Spoonwiz
Freelance:
The Times London, Eater, PureWow, Drink Me Magazine, Citysearch, NBC’s The Feast, Blackboard Eats, Tasting Table, Grubstreet, Where Magazine

www.facebook.com/ThePerfectSpothttps://twitter.com/ThePerfectSpotwww.linkedin.com/pub/virginia-miller/2/295/33a/

**Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Virginia Miller**

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Written by in: Intro Letter |
Jan
01
2015

Best of 2014

One of the great restaurants in the world: Narisawa in Tokyo

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

Kusakabe

Kusakabe

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

Lazy Bear: the view from the upstairs lounge overlooking the main dining room

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.

Chubby Noodle

Oh, that hot fried wild snapper at Chubby Noodle

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

Les Clos' frisée aux lardons salad

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

ABV grilled salad wedges

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.

Kin Khao

Yum Kai Dao at Kin Khao

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

Urchin Bistrot's mussels served escargot-style

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.

Trou Normand

Superlative house charcuterie at Trou Normand

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.

The Commissary

The Commissary

The Commissary

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

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 BarRed 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

Orsa & Winston cuttlefish in Los Angeles

8 Best Meals Around the US

Eleven Madison Park, NYC

Waldorf salad prepared tableside at Eleven Madison Park

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

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 at Square Root

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.

Barnacle, Seattle

Intimate Barnacle

Intimate Barnacle

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.

Rubirosa, NYC

Rubirosa pizza

Rubirosa pizza

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

Night+Market

Night+Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dining on dried snake (in soup) at Narisawa in Tokyo

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Written by in: Best Of |
Jan
01
2015

Best of 2014

Y & M Kisling in Tokyo

Y & M Kisling in Tokyo

Best Bars of 2014

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Another year, another few hundred menus tasted and perused around the globe. Though my 2014 wasn’t quite the travel schedule 2013 was (25 cities and 10 countries!) with my job as Zagat SF/Bay Area Editor, it was still a nonstop year that took me from places like Tokyo to New Orleans, NYC to Hong Kong.

Here are my 2014 best bars lists (more for best in food/dining here) covering the Best New Bars in San Francisco (opened December 2013 to November 2014), my 6 Best Bar Experiences USA and my 10 Best Bar Experiences Global, which are not necessarily new but those in which I tasted the best drinks and had the best service of the year.

Click on each bar name for my original articles – some I will be reviewing in the coming weeks. The San Francisco portion of the list was first published here at Zagat on December 29, 2014.

10 Best New Bars in San Francisco

1. The Coachman

Robert Burns' Hunting Flask at the Coachman

Robert Burns’ Hunting Flask at the Coachman

Thanks to bar manager John Codd and bar master Erik Adkins (Slanted Door, Hard Water), The Coachman is one of the great new bars in SF where each drink is expertly made, based off of obscure, historic recipes and the Scotch and rum selections are strong… as is the food from Charles Phan and team.

2. ABV

Todd Smith (founding bartender of Bourbon & Branch, currently also The Hideout), Ryan Fitzgerald (formerly Beretta and brand ambassador for Del Maguey Mezcal) and Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud (Dalva/The Hideout owner) have opened what is easily the new drink (and food) industry hangout, welcoming everyone with a smile, quality cocktails across a range of spirits and creative bar food from one of our Zagat 30 Under 30 chefs this year, Kevin Cimino.

3. Trou Normand 

Cocktails at Dirty Habit

Cocktails at Dirty Habit

Trou Normand feels like Paris meets NY in SoMa with house charcuterie that makes all others seem lackluster. The elegant, high ceiling bar — from Bar Agricole owner Thad Vogler and crew — is all about house selected barrels of Armagnac, Cognac and Calvados and refined cocktails made with these French spirits (and beyond).

4. The Interval at the Long Now Foundation’s Salon

The pioneering Long Now Salon has one of the coolest bars in this (or any) city, complete with salon talks and a library to restart civilization with. Thanks to Bar Manager Jennifer Colliau (the mastermind behind some of the best cocktail modifiers out there, Small Hand Foods), multiple menus-within-a-menu are pioneering, including a Drinking Around the World menu highlighting drinking customs from many countries.

5. Dirty Habit

Cocktails from Danny Louie at Chino in the Mission

Cocktails from Danny Louie at Chino in the Mission

Upscale Fifth Floor transformed to Dirty Habit as of May 1st, thankfully with the same team in effect: chef David Bazirgan, pastry chef Francis Ang, master sommelier Emily Wines, sommelier Jose Maria Aguirre and lead bartender Brian Means. The space was completely remodeled and the sleek outdoor patio with rectangular rock fireplace is one of the coolest downtown hangout/gathering spots. But most importantly, besides memorable food, Means’ cocktails — and an extensive selection of whiskies and rarities — still make it a strong bar.

6. Chino

Danny Louie (formerly of the Alembic) has long been one of SF’s great bartenders and now he has a menu to showcase his talent and playful use of Asian spirits like baijiu, Asian teas, boba (think boba slushie cocktails) and all manner of spirits and ingredients in his creative, fun cocktail menu that is the draw at the new Chino.

7. Lolo

Lolo's playing card cocktail menu

Lolo’s playing card cocktail menu

A new location and first time bar for longtime Mission creative-Mexican gem, Loló (also with a new sister Peruvian-Mexican restaurant, Loló​ Cevicheria), resulted in a solid initial cocktail menu. But at the end of summer, bartenders David Gallardo and Leon Vasquez stepped up the game with Trick Dog-esque artistry: a cocktail menu lineup of playing cards from Tablero Loteria, a Mexican card game reminiscent of bingo. Call it most improved within a couple months of opening.

8. Arguello

Alongside gratifying Mexican dishes from none other than Traci Des Jardins, Arguello opened in the historic (and just remodeled) Officers’ Club in the Presidio this October with an agave spirits list (tequila- and mezcal-heavy, as well as less common agave spirits sotol and bacanora) and excellent cocktails from Enrique Sanchez (formerly of Puerto 27, La Mar Cebicheria). His ever-balanced, delicious cocktails are even better invigorated by fresh air within the white walls of the restaurant’s outdoor patio surrounded by majestic cypress and eucalyptus trees.

9. Smokestack

Urchin Bistrot cocktails

Urchin Bistrot cocktails

Opened in May in the Dogpatch, Smokestack is an ever-bustling source for BBQ and Magnolia beers (since the owner is Dave McLean of Magnolia). But bar manager Eric Quilty’s cocktails are a real draw, adding an elegant-yet-approachable touch to beer and ‘cue in the wood-lined, hip space.

10. Urchin Bistrot

One of the new bars I most want to hang out at is Urchin Bistrot. The restaurant serves excellent modern French bistro fare at reasonable prices and the France-and-beyond wine list is sophisticated yet approachable. But cocktails from former Comal bartender Rafael Jimenez Rivera are also a draw, sometimes highlighting French aperitif liqueurs and Italian amaro. There often seems to be a seat at the bar and a warm welcome, making the space feel like the best neighborhood bars/restaurants of Europe.

Best New Bars in the East Bay & Napa

Longitude, Oakland

Longitude in Oakland

Longitude in Oakland

Longitude opened this summer in downtown Oakland, an oasis of tropical design with elegant Tiki and rum cocktails partnered with pupu platters. Behind covered windows wrapped in vintage maps lies an otherworldly space that feels like Africa-meets-Polynesia circa 1930s, with plenty of green, bamboo, palms, mounted wall masks and artwork — much of it collected personally by owner Suzanne Long — from Indonesia to Africa. A fantastic exotica soundtrack transports in Polynesian-Tiki style with refined, rum-centric cocktails.

La Taberna, Napa

Though The Farmer & the Fox and Archetype are both Napa Valley newcomers doing quality cocktails, La Taberna, in downtown Napa, feels like what was missing from all of Wine Country. With a chalkboard of changing tapas in a sleek downtown Napa space, most tapas are merely $4-7 — and absolutely delicious. Craft beer, wine — both local and international — a sherry by-the-glass list seals the deal with a few transporting (takes me back to Spain) low proof cocktails utilizing sherry, port and the like. The quality is high and the price is right.

Honorable Mentions: Hapa Ramen, Kin Khao, The European, Gaspar Brasserie, Charles Phan’s South, Pathos in Berkeley
Beer Bars: Hopwater Distribution, Smokestack, Brewcade, Liquid Gold, Lost & Found in Oakland
Wine Bars: While there were a number of notable newcomers this year, like these three, this year, it was all about Les Clos.

Faith & Flower

Faith & Flower

6 Best Bar Experiences, USA

Bar Jackalope, Los Angeles

Bar Jackalope

Bar Jackalope

After my recent mind-blowing travels around Japan, I more than appreciate the concept and inspiration behind Bar Jackalope, opened in January, hidden in the back of Seven Grand. Though there are so many ways it doesn’t (and couldn’t) compare to Japan, including the rarity and affordability of the whisk(e)y selection, it is still a blessedly unpretentious, mellow, intimate spot despite the speakeasy nature — with a broad whisk(e)y selection and a cigar porch to boot.

Bestia, Los Angeles

Bestia cocktails

Bestia cocktails

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 town. 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 the bar staff knowledgeable, in line with the best restaurants here at home or around the world. The white wine and Riesling-heavy (yes!) wine list is impeccable (thanks to wine director Maxwell Leer) and the well-executed cocktails were created by LA bar great Julian Cox.

Faith & Flower, Los Angeles

Faith & Flower's bar

Faith & Flower’s bar

Michael Lay’s (former bar manager at Restaurant 1833 in Monterey) refined cocktails are one of the key strengths of Faith & Flower, open in downtown LA this Spring. It’s one of the more striking dining rooms and bars in LA (a city with plenty of notable spaces): lush with greens, leather booths, velvet, crystal chandeliers, feather fans and, as at 1833, featuring absinthe and amaro carts, historic drinks with modern focus and a robust spirits collection.

Square Root, New Orleans

Square Root

Square Root

Square Root is easily the most exciting newcomer to New Orleans on the dining side — and the same holds true for its upstairs bar/lounge. The lovely space in a historic building boasts a balcony and a wrap-around bar from which bartenders turn out impeccable cocktails, dishes and bites akin to the creative quality I love at their parent restaurant, Root.

Barnacle, Seattle

Barnacle

Barnacle

Easily the most consistent quartet of restaurants in Seattle are those from Renee Erickson that have been consistently amazing, three of them taking up my top Seattle dining recommends. Alongside daily changing seafood small plates blissfully heavy on sardines, oysters and the like, sitting at one long counter in an intimate space hidden upstairs across the hall from the Walrus and the Carpenter, Barnacle is even more a pleasure because of its Italian amaro selection in simple but well-executed cocktails, like a bracingly bitter-refreshing Chinato cocktail, mixing the ultra-bitter Amaro Sibilla with Italian Chinotto soda. More on my top Seattle bar recommends here.

Saxon+Parole, NYC

Saxon + Parole has been one of my favorite NY bars for years since Naren Young used to oversee the program. It remains a favorite in its current days and the best visit of all the many bars I hit during yet another return to my teenage years home of the suburbs of NYC. Under the able hands of Masa Urushido, a gracious bar manager who came from some of Tokyo’s top bars in 2008, seasonal cocktails in particular are stunners, deftly utilizing produce, herbs and spices.

Gen Yamamoto's unforgettable bar

Gen Yamamoto’s unforgettable bar

10 Best Bar Experiences, Global

1. Bar Benfiddich, Tokyo, Japan

Bar Ben Fiddich

Bar Ben Fiddich

Bar Benfiddich is utterly transporting, feeling like a colonial tavern from the 1700s hidden upstairs in an office building, all rustic wood and brick, dim with a Colonial-era painting illuminated behind the bar. Best of all, bar master Benfiddich is a wizard with cocktails and making his own spirits, steeping botanicals on the spot from an ancient book of distilling with recipes he’ll point out to you. Alongside an impressive absinthe collection, he also makes his own absinthe — and if you ask for his house root beer, be prepared to be wowed.

2. Gen Yamamoto, Tokyo, Japan

Gen Yamamoto's austere bar

Gen Yamamoto behind his austere bar

Another “wow” experience is the intimate Gen Yamamoto, run by the masterful Gen Yamamoto himself. Gen keeps an austere yet approachable bar of a mere few, rare bottles in a minimalist room marked by a wide, hand-carved, knotty bar from which one watches Gen work. Cocktails can be ordered individually or as 4-6 course tasting menus, featuring rare spirits from gin to sake and the impressive array of Japanese produce in season at its peak, thoughtfully matched with each spirit. Think luscious, massive Hokkaido Niagara grapes with sparkling Nigiri Sake Dassai 50.

3. Zoetrope, Tokyo, Japan

Zoetrope's unreal selection of Ichiro malts back to the 1980s

Zoetrope’s unreal selection of Ichiro malts back to the 1980s

One of the most uniquely brilliant bar experiences — and whisky collections — in the world, is Zoetrope.  The emphasis is on Japanese whiskies, including all those impossible-to-find Chichibu card series bottlings from the ‘80s, shockingly available by the pour or half pour — and at reasonable prices (no more than $20 a pour). But you’ll also find a number of Scotches and American whiskies. The owner is a huge movie buff so films play on a back screen while his 3000+ film score soundtracks loop. It’s one of the most wonderfully unique bar experiences in the world.

4. Calvador, Kyoto, Japan

Drinking Calvados from 1869 at Calvador

Drinking Calvados from 1869 at Calvador

Japan offers one “best in the world” bar experience after another and Bar Calvador is truly one of the greats in the world. For Calvados (French apple brandy) lovers, it’s unreal. The biggest Calvados collection in the world, over 300 bottles and counting, is housed in a tiny, 2nd floor bar with no more than the symbol an apple as any indication it exists from the street. Bar manager Hiroyuki Takayama is a global Calvados ambassador and offers pours from 50, even 80 year old Calvados… or stunning rarities like an 1869 Calvados. It’s an incredible way to get “schooled” on the great brandy of Normandy.

5. Y & M Kisling, Tokyo, Japan

My first night in Tokyo was sheer magic, thanks to legendary Y & M Kisling (pictured top). Hidden on a 7th floor in Ginza, the dark wood-lined bar glows with a 1930s elegance, jazz softly playing in the background, bartenders in cream-colored jackets and the ever-impeccable collection of Japanese barware and glassware, perfectly stirred or shaken cocktails and the house drink, Kaikan Fizz (created by head bartender Mitsugi Yoshida, who has bartended for over 55 years). Served in a highball glass, it’s frothy and bright, mixing gin, whole milk, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, simple syrup, shaken and topped off with soda water. The experience is so transporting you feel as if you’re both in another world and another time.

6. The Envoy, Hong Kong, China

Adorable yinyuang owl mug at The Envoy

Adorable yinyuang owl mug at The Envoy

The Envoy may be the most exciting of Hong Kong’s newcomers, thanks to bar manager Amanda Wan and star Hong Kong barman Antonio Lai (also behind the bars Origin and Quinary). Soft opening this summer in the gorgeous Pottinger hotel up a cobblestone Central street, The Envoy is tucked upstairs on the third floor, a chic wonderland of elegant wallpaper, alcoves, a long bar — including a corner reservations-only bar within full view of a centrifuge and other house equipment — and a white light-strewn patio. The magic of the space translates to the playful drinks (think a blood bag beet and genever cocktail — delicious despite how it sounds) and tea cocktails embracing the all-important British-Chinese afternoon tea ritual, celebrated here with creative bites.

7. Yoram Sake, Kyoto, Japan

Yoram Sake

Yoram Sake

In the US, there are those rare, incredible sake tastings, like an experience of pairings with sushi from sake sommelier Stuart Morris at Pabu in SF, where you can taste sakes ranging funky and mushroom-y, to pine-y and aromatic. And then there’s Yoram Sake, a once-in-a-lifetime sake bar run by Yoram Ofer, an Israeli sake master who also exports sake to the US and beyond. The quiet, intimate bar is merely a few seats (are you seeing a common theme here in Japan?) and the rarities run from elegant, young sakes to 20-30 year aged sakes that invoke stewed onions and beef jus. It’s an almost sacred experience immediately elevating love of sake to another level.

8. Campbelltoun Loch, Tokyo, Japan

Campbeltoun Loch

Campbeltoun Loch

Harder to find and without a website (yes, the spelling of the name is correct), this tiny bar is not much bigger than a closet but equipped with many rare Japanese whisky and Scotch bottles behind (and lined across) the bar. The kindly owner walks you through treasures like old bottles of now-defunct Karuizawa Japanese whisky and 1980’s Mars Single Malt from the Shinsyu Distillery.

9. Cafe De Dokter, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Cafe De Doktor

Cafe De Doktor

Amsterdam boasts a number of unforgettable dive bars: intimate, historic spots bursting with character, and in the case of Cafe de Dokter, dust. The dust has never been cleaned on bric-a-brac lining the walls of this dim haven enhanced by mellow jazz tunes and a laid back bartender. The bar was founded by a surgeon in 1798, has been run by the same family for generations, and is wonderfully creepy with old clocks, birdcages, ventriloquist doll, a hanging doctor’s bag. It’s about all the atmosphere, not the drinks (hence the “dive” label), so a good pour of whisky is the ideal way to go. You won’t find the like of it anywhere else in the world.

10. Duddell’s, Hong Kong, China

Duddell's

Marek Vojcarcik creations at Duddell’s

In a town rife with cool outdoor patios, Duddell’s may be one of the coolest. The expansive, open air lounge upstairs from the two Michelin-starred restaurant opens out onto a large patio lined with tropical foliage, vintage lawn furniture and tables, surrounded by skyscrapers. The artful, British-influenced menu from salon manager Marek Vojcarcik highlights cocktail classics (like a twist on a Gibson with Tanqueray gin, dry vermouth and a garnish of baby pickles) and creative house drinks like Opium, a Scotch-based drink laced with peach, lime and poppy seed milk.

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Written by in: Best Of | Tags:
Jan
01
2015

Top Tastes

Starting with exquisite bites (oh, that sausage!) at The Progress, from State Bird Provisions' owners, just open mid-December

Starting with exquisite bites (oh, that sausage!) at The Progress, from State Bird Provisions’ owners, just open mid-December

My Top Food Articles: December 16-31

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my many articles a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to some coverage highlights here – you can follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily, or on my own @ThePerfectSpot via Twitter or Facebook.

Special Features: Year-in-Review

My Year in Dining & Drink article

My NYE (and New Year’s Day brunch) Bay Area Guide

New SF Openings

What to Eat & Drink at Chris Cosentino’s new Cockscomb

State Bird sister restaurant The Progress opens next door

What to eat & drink at Union Square’s new 398

3 things to know about STEM, the new Mission Bay restaurant with edible gardens, bocce ball and Bay views

What to order at downtown’s new SOMA Eats & Bottle Shop

SoMa’s new Crepe Madame, Brittany-style crepes in a charming, tiny cafe

Every Friday: 25 NEW RESTAURANTS TO TRY IN THE BAY AREA

The brilliant "ham" burger at Chris Cosentino's new Cockscomb

The brilliant “ham” burger at Chris Cosentino’s new Cockscomb

Underrated & Established Spots

Unsung Heroes: Matterhorn, an authentic fondue escape to Switzerland on Van Ness

3 Italian dishes with Japanese flair at Plin in the Mission

Hot Dish: octopus uni risotto at RN74

Hot Dish & Drink: barrel aged cocktail and sweet potato dish at Per Diem

$10 Lunch: Puerto Rican food in the Upper Haight at Parada 22

Wine Country

Weekending at Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford

Trendspotting: Brittany-style crepes

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