Aug
15
2010

Top Tastes

Crispy Pig Ears (R) w/ Shishito Peppers (L) at Commonwealth

Top Tastes, rather than a list of all-time favorites (another thing altogether), are among the best eats 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.

MID-RANGE RESTAURANTS

Commonwealth uncovered this original 1920's mural on their building

COMMONWEALTH, Mission – I’ve been a fan of Mission St. Food (Mission Burger and Mission Chinese Food, too) since inception, so I made an immediate reservation (second day after opening) at Commonwealth from Anthony Myint and the awesome MSF team. It’s great to see former Bar Tartine chef Jason Fox back on the scene as chef here. Though I mourn the closure of the free-spirited St. Food and Burger concepts, I am glad to still have these guys on the scene, now in an uber-chic, cozy space serving $60 tasting menus with molecular gastronomy touches.

I chose to order more affordably a la carte so I could try more dishes (the whole table has to order the tasting menu), even as I wanted the tasting-menu-only Salt-Cured Foie Gras and Goat cooked in hay.

Compressed Watermelon

I started with a liquid nitrogen aperitif, The Narwhal ($11 – visions of LA’s The Bazaar in my head). Slushie-like, it’s a frozen blend of Floc de Gascogne, sake, ambrosia melon and lime. It awakened the taste buds, packing a boozy bite. If only there were more ‘cocktails’ like this on offer (they only serve wine and beer, though it’s a fine selection).

The meal started off high with Crispy Pig Ears ($5) on a julienned pile of carrots and radish. Spiced with chili, they were essentially entirely addictive, fatty chips. Shishito Peppers ($5) come in an unusual presentation of goat cheese foam and cream-colored rose petals.

Chilled Summer Squash Soup/Fried Squash Blossoms

Compressed Watermelon ($10) held loads of flavor, accented by nori, tofu, cucumber, wild greens and togarashi spices.  Potato Gnocchi ($11) does what gnocchi should: it dissolves in your mouth with a buttery sigh. This gnocchi is accented by corn, maitake mushrooms, sage, Parmesan and truffle oil. Fluke Crudo ($14) is a minuscule few slivers of fish but memorable with peach and jicama slivers, rose gelee, and Douglas fir tips. You know I get jazzed by this kind of free-spirited creativity.

A couple cutting-edge pleasers are warm Corn Custard ($15), dotted with sea urchin, chorizo chunks, jalapeno and foamed with lobster emulsion. Then there’s Marrow-stuffed Squid ($12), juicy with tamarind pork, shelling beans, black garlic and cilantro. Marrow oozes out of plump squid and all is right with SF’s dining scene (far from “figs on a plate”?)

Fluke Crudo w/ rose gelee, peach & jicama, Douglas fir tips

Summer Squash ($9) comes in the form of a chilled soup, refreshing and nuanced with vadouvan spices, though the star is delicate, melting fried squash blossoms on the side. More, please.

The dishes I was less enthused about are Brown-butter poached Skate Wing ($13), fine enough with cauliflower and sea beans in a dashi broth, but not particularly memorable compared to the rest of the meal. Young Hen & Spot Prawn ($16) sounded exciting (I adore spot prawns), but I couldn’t quite taste the chocolate or almond in the emulsion and spinach and artichoke bits did little to enhance it. Also, where was the hen?

Marrow-stuffed Squid

Dessert ($8 each) left a final impression of balance with Cinnamon Mille-Feuille, a cardamom marshmallow, chocolate ganache and burnt honey ice cream. The cardamom lingered with me throughout the night. A playful take on a White Russian was coffee ice cream, vodka gelee, raw milk mousse and genoise cake. Each part came together seamlessly, evoking the spirit of that dessert cocktail.

As the disco ball in the rafters above added sparkle to the dining room, I left expectant of what this restaurant could become in the SF dining scene.

Zero Zero's fabulously creepy Pinocchio & food mural

ZERO ZERO, SoMa – I visited the new Zero Zero twice after opening week to get a good feel for Bruce Hill’s latest, as he’s behind spots I’ve long loved, like BIX and Pizzeria Picco in Marin. This hip new SoMa space feels like one ongoing party, both on the packed Monday night I first came in, and an even more mobbed Saturday night visit. I am more a fan of upstairs or the bars (love that they have a bar both upstairs and down), whereas my second visit I was initially sat in a booth  in the corner downstairs by the kitchen. It felt almost corporate and non-descript in that corner, and we were surrounded by three tables full of families with little kids. Not my ideal for a Saturday date night with my husband.

Albacore Tuna Crudo

Upon request, they graciously moved us upstairs, surveying the bustling crowd below. Though it’s noisy everywhere, the vibe is more grown-up upstairs under a fabulously creepy mural of food and Pinocchio (look for it!) Here I was energized by that festive spirit once again.

I am as weary as any food reviewer of the overdone Neapolitan pizza craze, though I could never tire of pizza. And Zero Zero‘s are fun (if sometimes bordering on soggy), rounds of blistered crusts and heartwarming toppings. Market Pizza ($13.50) has house mortadella, Padron peppers, mozzarella, roasted garlic and oregano. I prefer the simple, oozing goodness of Margherita Extra ($13.95) with buffalo mozzarella, Parmesan, basil, De Padova olive oil and tomato sauce.

Zero Zero's outdoor sign

On the appetizer front, Crudo ($9.75) are delicate, if minuscule, fresh tastes of the sea. Of Albacore Tuna Crudo (with Padron pepper bits, sea beans and coriander aioli) and California Halibut Crudo (with long pepper, lemon, crispy shallot and olive oil), I’d take the latter, the fried shallot adding a savory onion dimension to the fish. Pressed Watermelon Salad ($8.95) didn’t impress as much, but Ricotta-stuffed Fried Squash Blossoms ($6.95) satiate with a winning broccoli raab pesto.

I was won over by Sweet Corn Agnolotti ($12.95) with country ham, pickled peppers, Straus butter and capers, even if portion was quite small. It’s pillowy, buttery and meaty. Soft-serve Straus vanilla, chocolate, or swirl ice cream is an inspired dessert choice, not because you

Fried Squash Blossoms over broccoli raab pesto

haven’t seen it on menus before (such as the one at Pizzeria Picco), but because you haven’t seen it quite this way in hip SF restaurants of this nature. It’s a mix & match dessert menu, where you can order soft-serve on it’s own ($4.95), with a base like cinnamon waffle or double chocolate cookie (another $4), and a range of toppings (50 cents-$1 each) from caramel to candied peanuts. There’s also toppings you see at Pizzeria Picco, my top choices: Da Vero Olive Oil & Sea Salt or Strawberries & Manodori Balsamic Vinegar.

One big misstep for me in these initial two visits has been the cocktails. I’ve tasted four and all but one came off watered-down and lacking flavor. It’s not my mode to send things back unless they’re awful (and I’ve only done that twice in my lifetime, though I eat out a good 10 times a week). I actually considered sending these drinks back. But the complaint of “not being strong enough” never comes off well, even if it was true over both visits.

Soft serve & cinnamon waffles

It’s too bad as the drink menu sounds delicious: Plum Smash ($10) muddles plum (a welcome slant) in my beloved bourbon with  lemon and mint. But despite the use of 100 proof Old Forester bourbon, the cocktail tasted like bourbon-scented water, not something I usually run across in this drinking town. A Jalisco Sour ($12) treated me the same, but redemption came in the form of The High Smolder ($10): Tres Agaves Anejo, pineapple gum syrup, lime, and nectarine jalapeno marmalade. This one had robust flavor and brightness.

Better to stick with fine choices from wines on tap or by the glass (in nice range of glass through 1liter options). I adore fruit and bread notes of a 2009 Palagrello Bianco “Caiti” Alois from Campania ($12 a glass), and found a 2007 Nebbiolo Langhe Cascina Ca ‘Rossa ($12 a glass) from Piedmont an ideal pairing with the pizza.

CHEAP EATS

The Sycamore

SYCAMORE, MissionSycamore, oh, Sycamore… besides being an ideal Mission fit of casual eatery with good beers and wines, happy hour prices and sliders (I like the BLT Slider – $3), the real highlight is Sycamore’s Famous Roast Beef Sandwich ($8) on grocery store-reminiscent sesame buns with BBQ sauce and mayo – a sandwich tributing the roots of the native Bostonian owners. The beef is pink, shredded, both soft and dense, dissolving in your mouth. It makes me feel like a kid again.

PAPITO, Potrero HillPapito surprised me. From the Maktub Group, behind Chez Papa/Maman (yes, French background), I guess I wasn’t exactly expecting authentic Mexican food.

Papito's duck confit & Baja fish tacos

This is certainly a fresh take on Mexican, but I was delighted at just how palatable their Tacos (2 for $8) are. Duck Confit Tacos (Carnitas de Pato) are sweet (with tamarind sauce) but meaty little beauties contrasted with house pickles, habanero peppers, mint, cilantro and chipotle. I am picky about fish tacos since So. Cal. days. Their Baja Fish Taco doesn’t disappoint. In a Negro Modelo beer batter, there’s no fishiness to the rock cod with chipotle remoulade and purple cabbage slaw.

Elote (grilled corn)

Elote Asadao ($5) is a juicy cob of corn, burnt and hardened on the ends, but sweet and juicy overall, covered in mayo and queso cotija cheese with lime and chili salt to add as desired. Instead of being smothered in mayo and cheese, as is traditional, this version has a light covering allowing all tastes to come through without overwhelming.

As Papito is near my work, I look forward to returning for Churros with chocolate ($5 – they were out on my first visit), Guacamole Papito ($6) and Enmolada ($13) – braised chicken with Oaxacan mole. The space is tiny and the kitchen a bit slow when busy, but it’s a surprisingly welcome Potrero Hill addition.

BAKED GOODS

Goody Goodie's window

GOODY GOODIE, SoMaGoody Goodie is a delightful bakery window in SoMa, ideally paired with Vega’s (next door) Blue Bottle Coffee or fine Macau Iced Coffee. I enjoy their cookies (kudos for a mini option), especially “The Circus” with candy popcorn and semi-sweet chocolates. But a couple weeks ago, I was more intrigued by an Olive Cocoa Nib Wafer ($4.50 per paper-thin slab). Olive oil cured, it’s bitter chocolate, earthy and light. As the owner described meat and cheese pairings, I could almost taste the blue cheese or duck confit on top. Yes.

Baker & Banker Bakery

BAKER & BANKER BAKERY, Pacific Heights – I’ve already written of this wonderful restaurant, one of the best to open last year, both in this newsletter and for the Guardian’s 2010 Best of the Bay issue. In the last two weeks, Baker & Banker finally opened their next door bakery. Four Barrel coffee awaits along with ridiculously buttery, goopy Cinnamon Rolls, rich Peanut Butter Chocolate Bars, scones, cookies and cakes. You won’t hear me complaining.

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