It’s been another month of excellent food from the 10 plus meals I eat out a week, ever hunting for the best. I’ve been enjoying bahn mi sandwiches and Vietnamese coffee in the sunny, new-ish Soapox Cafe on Russian Hill, while I have mixed feelings about VeganBurg, a Singapore vegan burger spot that just opened its first US location in SF’s Upper Haight (patties taste fine but a few of the burgers are dry with an odd offering of meat and cheese add-ons for a place with vegan in the name).
Here are my top 10 December dishes and new openings, some from newcomers, others from established restaurants.
1 & 2. The Keystone’s Soy Calamansi Ribs and Carrots & Red Quinoa
Though off to a shaky start a few months back, The Keystone in the Mosser Hotel is invigorated with new life from chef Banks White‘s (who you may recall years back as chef of FIVE in Berkeley — he’s been cooking in NYC the last couple years) new menu. He pulls from his Southern (Texas) roots influenced by Asia with creative spins like collard green-wrapped pork lumpia ($10) and Pad Thai chicken wings ($13).
White’s soy calamansi-glazed ribs ($13) pop with pickles, pickled okra and fried garlic. They’re ridiculously juicy and epitomize his Southern-Asian style. The surprise is White’s vegetable dishes, especially a carrot and red quinoa dish ($13), which sounds ho-hum and boringly healthy. But the carrots are roasted-sweet perfection over lush vegan cashew “cheese”, the whole dish enlivened by serrano chilies and berbere-spiced citronette (current Keystone drink recommends here).
3. Liholiho Yacht Club’s Coconut Butter Mochi
A meal at Liholiho Yacht Club is always pleasure replete with Hawaiian island breezes and sunny creativity in chef Ravi Kapur’s creative fusion dishes. Now nearly one year old, the restaurant is better than ever.
The off-menu house spam, aioli and furikake rice dish is as fantastic as you’ve heard. I’d go back again and again just for this. Fish dishes (like soy ginger brown butter mackerel) shine, especially a recent special: a massive Alaskan salmon tail over mounds of brussels sprouts, redolent of garlic. But it might have been Kapur’s mom’s recipe of coconut butter mochi ($10), cake-like but chewy, mochi-style, that captured my heart and tasted like home (current Liholiho drink recommends here).
4. Volta’s Herring x 5
This week I went to a preview meal of Volta from Perbacco and barbacco restaurateurs Umberto Gibin and chef Staffan Terje. They are in soft-opening mode the second half of December with an official opening date of January 6th. With a modern European brasserie ethos in a sunny, sleek space, the cuisine will showcase Terje’s Scandinavian heritage (Sweden specifically) and his twists on classic French dishes. I’ve long lamented (before Noma opened, bringing international attention to Scandinavian cuisine) the lack of more Scandinavian restaurants. I’ve been oh-so grateful for places like Plaj and am now delighted to have Volta bringing fresh interpretations to the category.
In the initial dishes I tasted, there is much to love. But the one that excites me most is fully Scandinavian: herring x 5 ($15) actually pulls on multiple interpretations of cured herring that represent various countries and regions in Scandinavia, served as a tasting platter with rye crisps, herbed butter and always-fantastic Vasterbotten cheese (akin to English or Irish cheddar).
There is traditional herring with lingonberries, matjes herring lightly fermented and marinated in a range of herbs — from oregano to clove, a Southern Sweden/Denmark style of herring tossed in Madras curry with creme fraiche and slivers of green apple (my favorite), a Finnish and Swedish style of herring salad diced up with pickled beets, pickles, potatoes and beef cheeks, and a mustard dill herring. All of this cured fish goes beautifully with house aquavit which will change — the batch I tasted was infused with the likes of caraway, fennel, dill flower, juniper coriander and honey.
5 & 6. Spaghetti Bros.’ Spumoni and Eggplant
Just opened in November, Spaghetti Bros. inviting, spacious restaurant is warming up the Marina with American-Italian fare that manages to be comforting yet not overly heavy. Chef Erik Lowe turns out some gems, including an above-average chopped salad ($14) that manages to walk that fine line of healthy while remaining true to a chopped salad with just enough cheese and salami.
I appreciate Lowe’s twist on eggplant parm ($16) sans breading in a dreamy red and white (vodka sauce-style) sauce with fresh Early Girl tomatoes and basil and meaty goodness from bacon. Aaron Toensing’s housemade gelato — using a frozen custard machine ($7 per scoop) — is creamy and rich, with the pièce de résistance being his take on spumoni ($10), a three-scoop treat of milk chocolate, pistachio and brandied cherry ice creams. Growing up on mediocre versions in NJ, I still hold a soft spot for spumoni — and now can enjoy it in gourmand mode (current Spaghetti Bros. drink recommends here).
7. Schroeder’s Smothered Tots
There are a few highlights, from spaetzle to schnitzel, on the modern German menu at restored, historic beer hall/restaurant Schroeder’s, which I’ve enjoyed over mulitple visits since its rebirth in spring 2014. I’ve enjoyed Schroeder’s tots ($6) in visits past, but I don’t recall seeing smothered tots ($14) on the menu before. How did I miss such fun? Think crispy-soft housemade tater tots in a drizzle of beef jus, cheesy in cheddar, with the ideal contrast of pickled jalapeno peppers and freshly shaved horseradish on top. Order dreamy house pretzels with smoked cultured butter and mustard (3 for $12), a beer or beer cocktail and you’re transported to Germany.
8. El Capitan’s Cholula Ancho Chile Chicken Wings
Recently returning to El Capitan, festive on a Friday night with Christmas lights and a convivial crowd, the food is better than ever. Executive chef Mark Furr still turns out silky crudo (even shark!) with tropical flavors and has perfected the breading on the fry bread tacos. Some new (to me) treats on the playful menu? Chicken wings ($14) in a burning Cholula-ancho chile glaze. The pleasurable heat is almost cooled by dipping the wings in accompanying roasted jalapeno crema (current El Capitan drink recommends here).
9. Barcha’s Harissa-Glazed Chicken
Open late October, Barcha is a welcome downtown option for Mediterranean food over lunch and dinner in a striking space with outdoor patio under the gaze of SoMa highrises. Proprietor Kais Bouzidi (who also opened Sens) brings his Paris roots and cultural influences from his French mother and Tunisian father to play in the modern design with subtle North African touches (those lamps!) and warm house flatbread — an unleavened, Turkish-style bazlama ($5), redolent of oregano and garlic.
Executive Chef Michel Adams (also at Sens since 2011) ratatouille ($7) is a pleasing version of the French classic, while entrees gratify, particularly harissa-glazed 38 North half chicken ($26), simple yet nuanced with sweet-savory-acidic facets from dates and lemon contrasting with the tender chicken.
10. Suka’s Borneo Salad
Despite the disjointed offerings of Italian and Indonesian food in one humble Inner Sunset restaurant, Suka opened in November graced with sweet staff and the bonus of Indonesian food, all too rare a food category. I’ve only ordered Indonesian dishes, given the overabundance of excellent Italian food around the city. Borneo salad ($13) immediately stands out as something unique where slivers of daikon radish and galangal root are punctuated by shrimp and basil, all tossed in a toasted peanut sauce. It’s refreshing and light yet packed with flavor.