Top Tastes: Fine Dining, Okonomiyaki, Seafood & A Tea House

Beautiful chocolate finish at Benu

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.

UPSCALE

Nori Buckwheat “Bread” to start

BENU, SoMa

Let’s get this out of the way now: yes, Benu is a noteworthy new fine dining destination from former French Laundry executive chef, Corey Lee. And, yes, it will take you weeks, if not months, to get a reservation, though it just opened (I made my reservation a month before it opened or I’d never have gotten in).

Let’s say you forgo the $160 tasting menu required for the whole table, which is way too much  for a non-special occasion, and opt for a la carte? The bill still came to $300 for two with four courses and two glasses of wine each, and though Benu is ‘the whole package’, I couldn’t help but recall recent visits to Commonwealth and Sons & Daughters, assuredly less refined experiences in terms of atmosphere and service, but when it comes to food, have a similar ethos, abandon and presentation… for less than half the price. I’m just saying.

Snapping Turtle Veloute

For those able to drop this kind of cash, it’s a welcome addition to our fine dining scene, even if not the best on offer in that category. The dining room is minimalist and understated, a total transformation from the former Hawthorne Lane/Two space. You won’t recognize it.

Decadent Carnaroli Risotto topped w/ Sea Urchin

Lighting and minimal artwork in the intimate side dining room create a clean, minimalist feel. But the space feels museum-like and sterile if it weren’t for truly gracious service. I went merely one week into opening and they already had service down like a well-orchestrated concert… other than system billing issues that caused a 15 minute delay in getting my bill.

Benu’s museum-like space

The staff made it all right with their unobtrusive attentiveness and warm smiles. Two somms recommend wine pairings: Head Sommelier, Yoon Ha, and Sommelier, Michael Ireland.

The meal begins with the gratis bits: Buckwheat Lavash with nori, a crunchy, paper-thin flatbread, delicately hot with chili. Then a lovely amuse bouche: Spherification of Tomato with cucumber and Summer blossoms in a dashi broth. The tomato sphere explodes, while the skin of the sphere dissolves, allowing the full flavor of the tomato to coat the mouth.

Artistic Berkshire Pork Loin

As is all too often the case, first courses stole the show. Paired with the sweet dill and mustard notes of a 1996 C.H. Berres Spatlese Riesling from Mosel ($11 a glass), I was immediately wowed by Snapping Turtle Veloute ($16), a lush broth with bits of turtle meat poured over Langoustine (small lobster) and vegetable matignon. This dish was the young, vibrant girl of the menu: intelligent and full of promise, playful and enticing.

Veal Sweetbread Grenobloise ($14) with cauliflower, parsley, lemon and caper was none too shabby. Though I prefer the turtle dish, this is an impeccable sweetbread creation. Add in a glass of 2008 Depaquit Chablis ($11) and I moved on to pastas. Egg Tagliatelle ($16) with chicken liver, chanterelles, tomato, chive blossoms, is perfectly-executed pasta ribbons… but somehow the overall dish bored me a little. Thankfully, my thrills came in the other top dish of the meal (along with the turtle): decadent, lush Carnaroli Risotto ($22) with sea urchin, corn, lovage and black truffle.

Sea Scallops in white miso, w/ bacon, apple, turnip

Big Fin Squid ($26) with summer squash came off a bit bland but for squid ink pain de mie, a soft bread dark with squid ink that soaked up olive oil – a unique play on texture and color.

Sea Scallops ($22) are a lovely rendition, if not above other equal or superior versions of this type of dish. Certainly cabbage, white miso, turnip, fatty bacon and green apple make happy scallop partners.

Blackberries w/ Douglas fir

Berkshire Pork Loin ($28) with smoked belly, black soy beans, sauteed lettuce and clam sauce is, once again, not an uncommon dish, though the clam sauce was ridiculously addictive. I wished for more of it with the dry but tasty pork loin – and the presentation was a step above the usual. Dry-aged “Pre-sale” Lamb Rack ($30) with garlic sausage, potatoes, lemon peel and coastal succulents is a well-crafted lamb dish.

The biggest “wow” post-Risotto came with a subtly intriguing dessert of Blackberries ($12) accented by Douglas fir meringue on top of a candy cap mushroom sable giving a little crunch to the softness of natural cream and blackberry sorbet.

Romance a la Sons & Daughters

SONS & DAUGHTERS, Downtown/Union Square

Sons & Daughters is exciting like eVe in Berkeley or Commonwealth in the Mission are exciting: young, visionary chefs creating fine dining worthy dishes with molecular touches… at insanely reasonable prices. In the case of Sons & Daughters, it’s a $48, four course prix fixe (four wines added for $36). A la carte dishes range from $9-24. It almost seems a given I would return to a place like this long before I’d return to Benu (above) due to quality-to-price ratio alone. I actually prefer the intimate chic of Sons & Daughters‘ black and white, chandelier glow, feeling like a European bistro with a romantic, youthful edge.

Kumamoto Oysters bathed in celery juice

So many highlights… can we say, nearly all dishes? Kumamoto Oysters ($9 for 3, $16 for 6, $22 for 9) topped with a tinge of fresh horseradish and yuzu in celery juice are a briny, delightful intro. Herb Salad ($11) is a surprise of garden joys and delicate curds and whey over quinoa. Eucalyptus takes it to regions salads don’t always go… it feels like diving nose first into a vibrant, exotic garden.

Garden-fresh Herb Salad

Salmon Tartare ($12) doesn’t rest in its usual fatigued territory. This one offers the crunch of potato chip with miso, chevril, juniper berry and runny quail egg. Sweetbreads ($18) please, as they usually do for me, but this version, again, ventures away from typical by adding fresh Dungeness crab, garbanzo beans, baby greens and a Djion mustard foam into the mix.

A brilliant dish, my top one of the meal, is Seared Foie Gras ($24) with a glass of tart yogurt and Concord grape granite. Silky (foie) pairs with silky (yogurt), while the granite casts a bright, refreshing zing over the rich dish.

Squab Breast ($22) comes appropriately medium rare with a confit leg, chickpeas and potatoes. Buffalo Loin ($22) is equally well-prepared, accented by barely and onion, with a dollop of herb puree.

Chocolate Truffle Cake w/ spearmint ice cream

One dessert is essentially a glass of Melons with Watermelon Sorbet ($7), ratcheted up a notch with basil seeds on top. My ecstasy dessert moment came with Chocolate Truffle Cake ($7), however. Oozing warm, reminiscent of molten lava cake, the earthiness of truffle with chocolate sent me to bed with delicious dreams. But add in fresh spearmint ice cream and crumbled pistachios and it’s all over. Consider me a fan, Sons & Daughters.

Melon w/ basil seeds

Young Wine Director, Carlin Karr, offered welcome pairings, particularly the honeyed spice of a 2005 Chateau Haut Peyraguey Premier Cru Sauternes with Foie Gras, 2009 Domaine du Salvard Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire with the Herb Salad, and 2008 Green & Red Chiles Canyon Zinfandel with the Squab.

Jardiniere’s Heirloom Tomato Salad

JARDINIERE, Civic Center

Sitting at Jardiniere’s bar for a last ‘hurrah’ from bartender extraordinaire, Brian MacGregor, before he heads off to Delfina’s soon-to-open venture, Locanda, I ate what could be just another (lovely, no doubt) Heirloom Tomato Salad ($16). The addition of Padron peppers changed the whole tone of the salad. Salty Castelvetrano olives, piquant peppers and sweet, luscious tomatoes melded beautifully over arugula, while croutons added crunch. I could eat this one often.

MID-RANGE

Enchanting Dartealing Lounge

DARTEALING LOUNGE, SoMa

Dartealing Lounge is my new go-to tea shop. It’s a darling, restful respite, well-spaced out (unlike, let’s say, crowded Lovejoy’s) and the food is actually quite good.

Strawberry Scones w/ Devonshire cream

On a non-descript SoMa block, you go out of your way to be rewarded with  delicate tea sets, comfy chairs and flavorful sandwiches (I particularly like Chicken Curry). They do scones and Devonshire cream well, too – another important tea factor. There’s a range of tea services with food and bottomless pots (from $15-25), but everything is a la carte as well, making this an ideal lunch stop. I was won in by its charms immediately and feel already, even though merely open a few months, it could be the best smaller tea house in SF.

Japanese Cucumber Salad

ROCKETFISH, Potrero Hill

You’ve heard me mention Rocketfish before, a regular lunch stop near my office at the Guardian.  My recent dinner visit yielded the surprise of creativity outside of the usual fish and sushi offerings from their gifted chef, Kenichi Kawashima. He serves some fine tempura or delicately fried calamari (with Fresno chilies), but if you ask for what’s in season, you might get Japanese and lemon cucumbers wrapped around red miso quinoa.

On the specials’ board, Pig Ears ($4) sauteed with garlic and lime, are a savory treat, sure to convert those afraid to eat an ear. They’re also on the regular menu with a radish and cucumber salad.

The 88 at Rocketfish

Unexpectedly, a stand-out dish is Farmers Tomato Salad ($7): heirloom tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella, which is ever one of the purest and best combos possible, but not something you’d look for at a Japanese restaurant. Here it takes on a whole new dimension with caramelized fennel, honey balsamic and ume salt. I truly love this dish.

I was surprised at cocktail quality: The 88 ($8) is the right balance of herbal, refreshing and spirituous with gin, maraschino, lemon, grapefruit and thyme… and is refreshing with fish and tempura.

CHEAP EATS

51st STATE, SoMa street cart

51st State’s concept is a fun one, especially for a street cart: feature different American regional dishes in approachable, street food form. Maybe it’s Brunswick Stew ($8) from Virginia/Georgia? Or Wild Long Grain Rice & Potato Pancake ($7) with sauteed mushrooms from the Pacific Northwest.

51st State’s idyllic setting

You know I went straight for the South: Cornmeal-dusted Quail ($9) with jalapeno cheddar grits and spiced maple syrup to dip the quail in. Add in a side dish of Texas Caviar ($3 – black-eyed peas to you) with sweet bell peppers, tomato and cilantro, and you have a gourmet spread. I’ve eaten from many a street cart and the food at this one is superior to many, particularly the excellent quail. Not to mention they park in a cul de sac near the Embarcadero with radiant Bay Bridge views making this taste journey round the country a quintessential San Francisco experience.

KITCHEN KURA, Inner Sunset

Kitchen Kura’s octopus Okonomiyaki

Kitchen Kura may not be the best Japanese food around but it is a delightful haven of peace and quiet on Irving with KDFC tuned in for classical music in a tiny, homey space.

With self-proclaimed “homemade Japanese food”, the draw for me is an Okonomiyaki menu, those Japanese “pancakes” I am crazy about but don’t see often enough. Though I’ve had better versions from places like Namu, I like that Kitchen Kura offers seven different versions that come out piping out in a cast iron skillet, such as the Osaka ($7.99) with octopus, red ginger and green onion.

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