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.
GRUB, Mission - The new Grub surprised me. I expected a hip Mission eatery with overdone comfort favorites mac n’ cheese and gourmet burgers, albeit with fun, mix-and-match toppings. It was hip, the decor bright and colorful with funky art on walls and tables. Our server was engaging, his fine dining background showing in his impeccable service. The menu reads as typical urban comfort food at first glance, but upon deeper examination, has a few unusual touches.
Far from a vegetarian, I still was drawn to Semolina-crusted Tofu Frites ($9), which is actually thick slices of crusted tofu over a salad of sauteed brussels sprouts, Spanish onions, dried apricots and smoked bacon (yes, bacon!) A twist on a salad or veggie dish. A generous portion of crab is packed into Pan-seared Lump Crab Cakes ($13), another past-its-prime dish that here remains fresh with cucumber and pineapple salsa.
Mac N’ Cheese ($9, plus $1 for each additional item) is more satisfying than many versions, and quite filling, so share or consider it your entree. White and sharp cheddars are used, while grana padano Parmesan breadcrumbs deliver subtle crunch. I added caramelized onions, applewood smoked bacon, peas, and rock lobster (too little of the latter)… and did not regret it.
COTOGNA, Financial District – A cheaper alternative to its sister restaurant Quince, the much celebrated upscale Italian from Michael Tusk, Cotogna just opened next door with warm, glowing hearth fires and woods. Decor is rustic urban, an overdone, yet ever welcoming, style. The menu is similarly rustic Italian with farm-fresh ingredients. I’ve seen these types of dishes over and over for years. But… it’s all prepared expertly and with gusto. Tusk’s pastas remain a stand-out, as they do at Quince. Service is seamless and professional, high quality for a place in a more casual price range.
Wines are all Italian and in a refreshing twist, all cost $10 per glass or $40 per bottle. Certainly makes choosing easier. A small selection of bottled beers, elegantly light yet nuanced cocktails ($10), aperitifs ($9) and non-alcoholic sips ($4) round out drinks. Windmills & Cashmere is delicately sweet and floral with genever gin, plum lavender chutney, orgeat and egg white (which they call meringue). I could have used more flavor from each ingredient but for drinkers not used to musky genever, it’s a fine intro. I preferred the tart of the light Cydonia Fizz with apple brandy, quince, almond, lemon, seltzer and egg white.
Hands down, my favorite is Spinach Sformato ($12). A small but rich appetizer, this lush, spinach custard is drizzled in ridiculously addictive grana padano fonduta, a cheese sauce so good I all but licked up each drop. An entree of of Spit-roasted Pork ($20) is certainly fatty, but it’s the fat and skin that deliver the most flavor, with a light touch of fennel and satsuma orange slices. Al dente Venetian-style Bigoli noodles ($16) are enriched with octopus and an earthy, brown tomato sauce. A side of tiny, fresh carrots ($6) are like dessert in honey with a hint of anise. None but the Sformato wowed, yet all was satisfying. For those who live close by, it’s a fine neighborhood restaurant.
HONG KONG LOUNGE, Inner Richmond – Waits are long at Hong Kong Lounge, a dingy, bustling dim sum favorite. It’s almost stressful hearing the host’s shrill cattle call while mass crowds huddle on the sidewalk. Like the greatest of dim sum spots, not only is a meal here blessedly cheap (generally $2-6 for dim sum plates), but preparation and taste of many of the usual items, plus a few unusual ones, make it one of SF’s best dim sum options.
On the unusual tip, don’t miss Coffee Ribs, a plate of lightly fried pork ribs for about $6, sweet/savory and lush with coffee flavor. Egg Yolk Almond Balls are doughy balls made, yes, with egg, filled with a yellow substance that looks like a yolk but is sugary, reminiscent in taste of a Chinese egg custard. The ball is coated in almond shavings for crunch and comes out piping hot. I’m in love with this dessert.
The usual dumplings are solid here but Chiu Zhou dumplings ($2.75) are my top choice. In clear, tapioca flour wrappers, they are stuffed with chili pork, peanuts, mushrooms, dried shrimp, water chestnuts. Their Turnip Cake is the best I’ve ever had: rich, not slippery like typical dim sum turnip cakes. A $6 plate of “broccoli” in oyster sauce is broccoli stems and leaves steamed to retain flavor and crunch.