Top Tastes, rather than a list of all-time favorites (another thing altogether), is highlights of the best things I’ve been eating since my last newsletter, often from new openings. Many don’t make the cut, being a revisit previously written about or simply not as stand-out as dishes mentioned.
After years of longingly perusing Oliveto’s emails about their annual feasts (and having always enjoyed meals and impeccable service there over the years), I finally went to their legendary Whole Hog Dinners this month… Oliveto’s Bob Klein was hosting these dinners long before it was trendy to throw the whole hog and butchering dinners we’ve seen proliferate in recent years.
The meal is one orgiastic feast from start to finish. Come starving and you’ll still walk away stuffed, swimming in Potatoes lightly fried in rosemary and pork renderings ($6.50) or spreadable Catalonian salumi and Tuscan wild fennel salsiccia cruda: Sobressada & Sbriciolona ($15). Even those fearful of tripe, could find no fault with Sardinian Pork Tripe ($14) braised in saffron and mint, mixed with aged Provolone and crouton-like Polenta adding crisp to the tomato-rich sauce.
Friulian Bread & Pork Dumplings (Canederli; $16.50) are served in a pork/date sugo, sweet and salty melding with the sticky density of perfect dumplings. Take in the glory of a giant leg of Wild Boar Bacon Chops ($24), charcoal-grilled and cut with the citrus of blood orange wedges and a vegetable salad.
Blissfully sick on pig, my top two dishes in a night of hits, were Choucroute Garni ($31): sauerkraut with a fatty, gorgeous spit-roasted pork Pastrami, a lightly blackened hunk of lush Pork Belly Rib, and a classic Frankfurter. The other dish I wish I could eat about 10 of: Boudin Blanc ($16), served British Wellington-style in a puff pastry with Bhari dates adding sweetness to the savory white sausage. Hallelujah!
There could not possibly be room for dessert, so only a bit of heaven could allow the exception… paired with a dark, crema-rich espresso, a Valhrona Chocolate-Caramel Tart ($10) was basically buttery caramel with a layer of dark chocolate and two candied strips of pancetta languishing across the top. Add in a pinch of vanilla sea salt and I slept the night away awash in sweetly salty dreams.
Lucky we are that our city’s latest Izakaya is such a welcome addition in a quirky, diner setting on Mission Street with two narrow rooms: one diner/bar side with booths, and room full of tables. Nombe’s CIA-trained Exec Chef, Nick Balla, is equally skilled in rare Japanese dishes as he is in sashimi presentation. After choosing from an impressive sake selection or Japanese beers on draft, dig into plump Chicken Heart skewers ($4) or lightly fried Brussels Sprouts ($5) redolent with mint, carrot and lots of lime.
Step into rare territory with specials like Karasumi ($12), or basically, salted mullet roe, a high-priced delicacy in Japan. Balla serves three strips of the house-cured karasumi with bitter greens and a perfectly cooked egg, the yolk breaking and covering the dish in a filmy layer of goodness.
The meal’s highlight was the Sashimi Platter ($38 for 5 different fish, serving size for two people). A work of art, it was a fine of mix of straight fish and creative presentations like Tuna temari “balls” made from tuna, nori and sesame, or Ocean Trout with an egg ever so lightly torched on the top. As far as fish goes, Bigeye Tuna was the silkiest and toro-like. Nice touch to have whipped nagaimo and fresh wasabi with it. Dessert could be an afterthought, but if it’s Beignets ($7) with Seville orange jam and creme fraiche, it’s not. They melt, light as air, in your mouth.
They just launched a brunch I can’t wait to try with Japanese flair married to American breakfast sensibilities. I like the sound of Balla’s nod to a Tuna Melt: poached ahi tuna on grilled sourdough with melted cheddar and fried egg ($12). Nombe, I could really grow to love you.
• You’ve heard me go on before about how much I love Kat and Ryan’s awesome, affordable Southern food out of the back room at Excelsior dive bar, Broken Record. We all lost something special when they left, but they’ve thankfully resurfaced in recent months, more centrally located at Bruno’s. The gang’s all here, from their rockin’ BBQ sandwiches (Pulled Pork, Brisket, $8) to comforting Hush Puppies ($5) with chili-apple butter and dreamy, divine biscuits. Only their sausages didn’t show up here, but there are plenty of great ones in this town so I’m ok to make room instead for Chicken & Sausage Gumbo ($13), Low Country Shrimp & Grits ($11.50), panko Mac N’ Cheese ($6) and those super-meaty Spicy Buffalo Wings ($7) I was crazy about from Broken Record days. Thankfully, you can still save room for Toffee Crack ($1) at the end of your meal… yes, that’s dark chocolate-dipped matzo.
• I’ve written a number of times over the years of the glories of Joanna Karlinsky’s Meetinghouse Biscuits… Her fairly new cafe that is “more than a cafe“, Sweet Jo’s, in the Jewish Community Center (JCC) holds some treasures beyond those dreamy biscuits, not the least of which is Joanna herself. She’s a true New Yorker who makes me homesick for my East Coast days and the frank sincerity of NY/NJ folk. She infuses spunk and care into pizzas ($11.50-$23) named after Jewish Biblical women, like Hannah (eggplant, spinach, feta, caramelized onions, red peppers) or Sarah (white garlic sauce, mozzarella, goat cheese, butternut squash, sage)… all quite tasty.
Chili comes in vegetarian and meat-based versions, plus there’s an array of sandwiches. Her Lucky Dawg ice creams are all-American, rich, thick – I’m partial to Chocolate Caramel Brownie, caramel swirl with crisp from the brownie. At a media dinner, I enjoyed conversing with Joanna and sampling an array of what she offers. I’ve also been for breakfast, grabbing coffee and flaky, buttery scones (like Lemon Currant). It’s a fine neighborhood go-to for a range of eats on the run or to eat-in at the JCC.
• I’ve given Humphry Slocombe boatloads of love (while alerting many a previously unaware friend) since they opened a year ago – but if ever it were deserved… My flavor of the moment is Pepper Mint, cubeb pepper with Valhrona Chips. I’ve also been enjoying their SF Beer Week flavors like Blue Frog Scottish Ale and Speakeasy Prohibition Curry. Beer in ice cream? Hell, yeah! Best news of all, though, was when they started selling their ice cream at the Delessio near my house… since I moved from 24th St, it was a longer trek to get my fix. No more.
• Berkeley’s Ici is even costlier than the already ridiculously overpriced ice creams out there. Though that’s always been its downside for me, at least it’s delicious. Latest favorite? An Anise Almond Grappa Raisin.