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.
I’ve started the new year eating a lot (how is this different from any other year?) I’ve devoured sandwiches at new openings like Hayes Valley’s Straw and Inner Sunset shop Wooly Pig, plus burgers at Bistro SF Grill. I’ve returned to places like Waterbar, Plow and The Plant Cafe Organic. Rising above, here are highlights from recent eats…
BROWN OWL, Taraval – Parkside is lucky to get this brand new coffee shop. Brown Owl charms – with cozy, wood-planked space and husband/wife owners. Not only do they make impeccable cappuccinos and a mean cup of coffee, but they roast their own beans. Brown Owl is competitive with the best of what the Mission and SoMa offer in their overabundance of superb coffee … yet way out on the Western side of the city. And affogato lovers, take note. They make a lush one with Straus vanilla ice cream.
ICHI SUSHI, Outer Mission – Restaurant industry insiders sidle up to ICHI’s sushi bar for impeccable fish and preparation from Tim Archuleta and crew. Forget typical cuts of fish you find at every other sushi bar. Archuleta keeps it seasonal and unusual, while also affordable. Many sushi spots charge more for less interesting slices.
On a recent Monday night, I reveled in succulent chutoro sashimi ($10.50), sagoshi mackerel nigiri ($6.75), spicy scallop maki ($5.75), even Miyagi and Kumamoto oysters on the half shell ($2 each) with ponzu, tobiko and yuzu kosho. Outside of seafood, there’s the artistic presentation of beef tataki ($14.50), all-natural beef seared sous vide, accented with bits of radish, kimchee, white ponzu and crispy burdock root. Value for the quality here is higher than most.
SUSHIRITTO, SoMa – Sushiritto is over-hyped. It’s not worth insanely long lunch lines. But I’ve picked up “sushi burritos” at the 11am opening time, sans line, finding it a welcome, fresh meal. Basically giant maki (sushi rolls), they’re more filling than you’d expect. A downside? All rolls needed extra sauce, bordering on dry, but there wasn’t even a packet of soy sauce to be found.
They are already talking of additional locations. Given a demand for healthy, fun lunches, I think this place would do well whatever neighborhood it’s in. I like Three Amigos ($10.50): fish trio of tuna, salmon, hamachi, with yuzu tobiko, avocado, asparagus, cucumber and a barely-there wasabi mayo; and Latin Ninja ($9): salmon, mango, avocado, asparagus, Meyer lemon (wish I could have tasted that), pickled red onion, cilantro and ginger serrano sauce.
FIFTH FLOOR, Union Square/Downtown – With executive chef David Bazirgan recently on board at fine dining Fifth Floor, there’s some noteworthy new dishes (order a la carte or the $85, six-course tasting menu – I tried each).
Mendocino Uni Flan ($16) jumped out at me immediately. It arrives unceremoniously, a little bowl of foam. Dig into that “saffron air”, however, and underneath lies lush Dungeness crab fondue and uni flan, heightened by aged Kaffir lime and Sichuan pepper. A layered treat for the taste buds. Equally lush is butter-soaked Maine Lobster ($35) with white beet, radishes, Meyer lemon and braised baby savoy cabbage.
Lounging in the bar continues to be a worthy night out for bites, wine and cocktails. Fifth Floor has long had an impeccable spirits selection and strong bartenders. On my lastest visit, we were lucky to have Jacques Bezuidenhout behind the bar creating a variation on a Negroni with Beefeater Winter Gin, Carpano Antica and Campari, infused with hints of allspice, cinnamon, licorice. Head bartender, Morgan Young, creates lovely Winter’s Market cocktails with farmer’s market ingredients.
Rising star Sommelier, Amy Goldberger, poured winning pairing after pairing. An Austrian 2008 Hielder Loss Kamptel Gruner Veltliner ($39 bottle) brightened Tai Snapper (from the tasting menu), while a 2008 Le Clos du Caillou Cotes du Rhone ($52 a bottle) is bold with pepper and fruit. Entrees were happily matched with Northern California beauties, 2008 Murietta’s Well Zarzuela (from Livermore, $60 bottle), and the acidic butter contrast of a 2008 MacRostie Chardonnay (from Sonoma, $14 glass).
SPQR, Pacific Heights – I’ll straight up say it: I’ve enjoyed SPQR more since Matthew Accarrino became exec chef. Roman Italian sensibilities still dominate, but the creativity is further reaching than the excess fried dishes that occupied the menu in early days.
Pastas are interesting, even if all do not thrill. Spaghetti ($17) glistens with guanciale (pig jowl bacon), brussels sprouts and aged Parmesan. Gemelli made from squid ink ($18) is not quite as flavorful but interesting in a puttanesca ragu with Dungeness crab and sea urchin. Funghi trifolati risotto ($17) is earthy with three kinds of mushroom, delicata squash and Andante Dairy’s Etude cheese. Quail ($23) is a tiny bird, yes, but packed with chestnut-farro stuffing in a burnt orange sauce, it’s heartwarming.
But all these pale in comparison to bite-sized starters. Burrata crostino ($8), milky burrata cheese running down two toasts, sweetened with honey, hazelnuts, a hint of chili, is like savory, silky dessert. Spiced ricotta fritters ($7) are similarly savory sweetness: melting, soft, a hint of smoked maple syrup adding nuance. Both are so addictive, if I could snag a seat at the bar with these bites and a glass from Shelley Lindgren’s impeccable, Italian-only wine list, I’d call it a night.
CHEZ PAPA BISTROT, Potrero Hill – I hadn’t been back to Chez Papa Bistrot in awhile, despite numerous visits in years past.
New chef, Shawn Paul (who has worked everywhere from The French Laundry to 1300 on Fillmore ), has a grasp on French classics and Chez Papa stand-bys like various Les Moules (mussels and frites; $14 each) or a rich, meaty cassoulet. He sweetens seared Sonoma foie gras ($17) with blackberry ginger compote and blackberry gastrique.
Where I witnessed his promise, however, was in an amuse bouche of a plump shrimp on celery root puree. Pesto, tomato and truffle oil perked it up with a spirit reminiscent of classic shrimp remoulade in New Orleans.
Here there’s an essence of authentic Parisian bistro exemplified in the charming owner and waitstaff who consistently give a genuine French welcome.
VELVET ROOM in the CLIFT HOTEL, Union Square – In the wake of Asia de Cuba’s closure in the striking Clift, Velvet Room opened. Chichi and often frequented by out-of-towners, I must say a recent passed hors d’oeuvres evening offered above-average bites from executive chef Ewart Wardhaugh. The one I kept going back for was Truffled Egg and Salmon on toast. Chef Ewart says he may top flatbread with the earthy, truffled eggs and fresh salmon. I’d take on toast, flatbread or any other way he wanted to serve it.