Top Tastes

Lazy Bear: the view from the upstairs lounge overlooking the main dining room

Lazy Bear: the view from the upstairs lounge overlooking the main dining room

My Top Food Articles: September 16-30

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my many articles a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to some coverage highlights here – you can follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily, or on my own @ThePerfectSpot via Twitter or Facebook.

New Bay Area Openings

First Look at sold out, ticketing-only LAZY BEAR, a cult pop-up turned restaurant

First Look inside the newly-renovated QUINCE

HECHO opens in the Castro with Mexican-American food (with a Tex Mex slant) & tequila/mezcal cocktails


Underrated & Established Spots

10 Hottest SF & Oakland BRUNCH SPOTS now

Authentic Oaxacan dishes at AGAVE MEXICAN in HEALDSBURG

7 Hottest SUSHI RESTAURANTS now in the Bay Area

Top dishes on HAKKASAN’s new fall menu

Best Thing We Ate: RICH TABLE’s raw halibut with bone marrow “puree”


MICHAEL MINA’s Tailgate Parties and new Bourbon Steak & Pub at the 49er’s LEVI STADIUM

What’s new at OFF THE GRID’s TWILIGHT at the PRESIDIO – sunset by Golden Gate Bridge with cabana rentals and fire pits

SOBA NOODLE & PASTA Workshops in SF and Healdsburg (Sonoma County)


Written by Virginia in: Top Tastes | Tags: , , , ,


New cocktails at La Urbana in celebration of their 1 year anniversary

New cocktails at La Urbana in celebration of their 1 year anniversary

My Top Drink Articles: September 16-30

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my numerous articles a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to some of this coverage here – you can follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily, or on my own @ThePerfectSpot via Twitter or Facebook.


Seminars not to miss and legendary whisk(e)y figures at this year’s WHISKYFEST on October 3


2 new OAKLAND COCKTAIL destinations, from Tiki-meets-Africa to an art deco Uptown hangout

New cocktails to celebrate LA URBANA’s one year anniversary

Top cocktails on HAKKASAN’s new fall menu

Mezcal and tequila collection & cocktails at AGAVE MEXICAN in a HEALDSBURG strip mall

Not your average football drinks: COCKTAILS at the 49er’s new LEVI STADIUM

Trendspotting: refreshing FLIP COCKTAILS

HECHO opens in the Castro with Mexican-American food (with a Tex Mex slant) & tequila/mezcal cocktails



Written by Virginia in: Imbiber | Tags:


The Dead Rabbit - cocktails in tea cups

The Dead Rabbit –  punch in teacups

COCKTAIL-ing in Manhattan

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Naren Young's cocktails at Saxon + Parole

Naren Young’s cocktails at Saxon

Back in my beloved New York, home of my teenage years. Until just a few years ago, it was the place I’d come home to for the holidays when my parents still lived in New Jersey.

Despite only a couple lovely days out of a ten-day visit in late May through early June (the rest were either pouring rain or sweltering hot and suffocating), my last research trip visiting friends and family, involved dozens of restaurants and cocktail bars, plays and treks through Eataly for espresso and rooftop beers.

Here’s a list of drink standouts – and the overrated – from this trip (highlights in food and dining here):

The Best

At the now-closed Beagle: series of twists on Old Fashioneds with changing bases from navy strength gin to Calvados with marriage/divorce-themed names like Remember the Alimony

At the now-closed Beagle: series of twists on Old Fashioneds with changing bases from navy strength gin to Calvados with marriage/divorce-themed names like Remember the Alimony

Two of my best bar experiences all year were in New York City at bars with now-changed circumstances: one is The Beagle, which sadly just closed, where Tom Richter churned out of some of the great understated drinks in all of NYC in a relaxed setting tinged with Old World elegance. Richter also happens to be a genius with the often forgettable category of beer cocktails, crafting winners like the Hop Over, mixing a hoppy IPA,  lemon, Bols Genever, orange flower water, and house Velvet Falernum, or Smog Cutter, combining mezcal, Negro Modelo, ginger, tonic and lime, garnished with a cucumber. I miss the Beagle.

Young's gorgeous cocktails at Saxon+Parole

Young’s gorgeous cocktails at Saxon+Parole

The second is Saxon + Parole under Naren Young. Young recently came on board at Empellon, no doubt even better under his watch. When he was in charge of the menu at Saxon (along with The Daily and other bars), each drink, like a Celery Gimlet, sounded straightforward. But Young’s cocktails are among the finest examples of nuance and balance that I have tasted anywhere. They exhibit complexity and robust flavor in plainclothes. As a master of balance, I’d drink at whichever bar Young is crafting cocktails.

AMOR Y AMARGO, East Village

Amor y Amargo

Amor y Amargo

Amor y Amargo is what I’d want out of an amaro bar. A beautifully bitter respite in the former Carteles sandwich shop that was once the entrance to neighboring bar Cienfuegos, the space is tiny, intimate, welcoming. With a broad selection of amari, bitters and bitter liqueurs, there’s a range of cocktail possibilities, and a wealth of”bitter knowledge from former chef, now Beverage Director at Amor, Sother Teague.


The Daily

The Daily

The Daily, managed by Naren Young when I last visited (who now runs the bar at Empellon, see below), is an urban respite with a straightforward, daily changing cocktail menu and welcoming, skilled bartenders. There’s one cocktail to choose in each category like bottled, up, “on the rock” and frothy. Start with the likes of a bag of house chili “cracker jack” and an Orchard Sidecar lush with Poire Williams (pear liqueur), Calvados, fresh apple and lemon.

THE DEAD RABBIT, Financial District

Dead Rabbit's glowing space

Dead Rabbit’s glowing space

The Dead Rabbit is as special as you’ve heard. Though the raves and accolades in this, its first year, have been excessive, there really is no bar like it, with a cocktail geek’s attention to detail and history. Reading through the book that is the cocktail menu is an event in itself – and how I wish for a copy on my bookshelf. Recipes from as far back as the 1600 and 1700’s come with stories, history and artwork, best perused over classic punches served in teacups.

The atmosphere of the intimate, upstairs bar is the second high point besides the menu: low ceilings, candelight and hurricane lamps, an upright piano played soothingly in the background by a local pianist, a bronzed eagle atop the bar and paintings of figures in colonial history lining the walls.

Dead Rabbit cocktails

Dead Rabbit cocktails

Cocktails can be uneven (like the candied medicine taste of a Kilrain mixing Rhum J.M., Rabarbaro Zucca, raspberry cordial, Dead Rabbit Orinoco bitters, rhubarb root tincture and mint, topped with berries), particularly given the extensive drink selection, but there are thoughtful high points like an Evening Daisy of nettle tea-infused Jameson Black Barrel Irish Whiskey, Chase elderflower liqueur, lime, fennel syrup, dashes of Pernod absinthe and cucumber soda. It’s both refreshing and nuanced.


Looking across Evelyn's bar into second room

Looking across Evelyn’s bar into second room

An East Village gem, Evelyn: A Drinkery is all about punches ($7 small – love this option; $11 large), phosphates charged with Co2 (same pricing), and egg creams ($9), both with and without booze. The two-room, candelit space invites lingering while bright, rosy concoctions like Neverland Ranch, a phosphate combining Bombay Sapphire gin, crème de cacao, house beet shrub, orange and lemon, go down all to easy.

Boozy egg creams

Boozy egg creams

In addition, there’s cocktails, “Twisted Classics”, long drinks ($12 each), and stirred and boozy cocktails ($14), making it one of the more playful, fun menus in Manhattan, exemplified in their “Drinking Language” terminology (e.g. “If the bartender doesn’t say ‘hello’, ‘hey’, ‘how’s it going’, or offer some sort of greeting, call him/her out on it.”)

Intriguing cocktails include Daisy Ferrigno (Oxley gin, Green Chartreuse, pineapple, jalapeno syrup, lime, cilantro, served up), Improved Hit By A Car Number 2 (Fidencio Classico Mezcal, Tequila Ocho Plata, Green Chartreuse, Aperol, chipotle agave, lime, grapefruit bitters, served up), and my favorite, the savory, vibrant Mo F*#King Way (El Jimador Blanco Tequila, Benedictine, chipotle agave, Memphis BBQ bitters, passion fruit, lemon, Perrier, cayenne).

PDT, East Village

PDT flips

PDT flips

In a few short years, PDT is legend in the cocktail world, thanks to Jim Meehan. But for those of us who spend every day in restaurants and bars around the world, fighting through people pushing into a phone booth in a hot dog shop, Crif Dogs, trying to get into this famed “speakeasy” is far more work than we have time for to get a drink. However, if you happen to find yourself in the intimate bar, as I did upon my first return visit in years, I’d encourage you to go off-menu and ask for a flip (meaning it includes a whole egg) or a beer cocktail. While menu cocktails didn’t quite enchant, those two categories did.


PDT cocktail using the yet-to-be-released-in-the-US Nardini Bitter liqueur

Head Bartender Jeff Bell crafted a beauty when I asked for something using house-infused Four Roses bourbon, smoky with Benton’s incomparable Tennessee ham, which they use in their popular house Old Fashioned. Wittily named Nose to Cock-tail, he mixed the bourbon with lemon, orange, demerara syrup, and whole egg to decadent perfection. Ditto with a Black Flip using Brooklyn Brewery chocolate stout as a base with whole egg. Another beer cocktail highlight? Beer Cassis combining Ommegang Witte beer, the bitter-sweet of Byrrh Quinquina, and Caledonia elderberry cordial.


Sadly, my photos did not turn out from my visit to Pouring Ribbons but it is one of NYC’s great bar newcomers since fall 2012. Once you deal with yet another speakeasy-doorman scenario, head upstairs to a chill, roomy space where the cocktail menu is famously charted by taste profiles: refreshing to spirituous, comforting to adventurous.

PDT's friendly bar bear

PDT’s friendly bear

Cocktails please with approachable but not-too-simplistic combinations – like Gentleman’s Agreement ($14), mixing Beefeater gin, lime, like Spanish citrus-vanilla Licor 43 and cinnamon bitters with a five-spice salt rim.  The unique feature of the bar, however, is the extensive Chartreuse selection, some of it dating back to the 1940’s. My Chartreuse flight, thoughtfully selected by bartender Otis Steven Florence, included a 15 year old V.E.P. Liqueur Fabrique Par Les Peres Chartreux (green 54%, yellow 42%) and the now-defunct Sussex Green Chartreuse with fascinating notes of ginseng, heavy chamomile and fresh-cut grass.

THE RUM HOUSE, Times Square

In love with the Rum House

In love with the Rum House

The best thing to happen to Times Square in ages? The Rum House. This classic bar was revamped by the crew behind Ward III back in 2011, entirely to its benefit. While maintaining a dim, “lived in”, Old World feel, the spirits – particularly the rum – selection is stellar and the cocktails vastly improved. A heavenly respite from the madness of Times Square and the tourist throngs outside, its a true cocktail haven that feels like stepping onto an old movie set. Here, over a luxurious Negroni Leoni ($16), mixing Santa Teresa 1796 Solera rum, Ilegal Mezcal, sweet vermouth and Campari, I feel as if I’m in the Manhattan of old, comfortable in my vintage dresses, open to intriguing conversations with strangers at the bar, soon to become friends.

The Rest


Beautiful city views from Eataly's rooftop

Beautiful city views from Eataly’s rooftop

No, this isn’t about cocktails. It’s all about a stunning rooftop bar in view of the Flatiron building and the Manhattan skyline, idyllic on a warm day. Cask-conditioned beers ($10 a pint) and wines (like Bastianich wines on tap, $12-18) are the drinks on offer.

Best of all, beers are brewed rooftop in glistening gold tanks (“made 30 feet from where you sit”), are unfiltered and unpasteurized, naturally carbonated, and served at traditional cellar temps of 50-55 F. I enjoyed Wanda (chestnut mild ale), Giuseppina (Italian-American IPA), and Patrizia (American dry stout brewed with Wellfleet oysters from Matthew Shellfish Co.)

BOOKER & DAX, East Village

The glow of Booker & Dax

The glow of Booker & Dax

Despite the molecular raves (I ever long for the experimental side of cooking and cocktails to be prevalent in the mix next to classic and straightforward) and though I loved Dave Arnold‘s cocktails at national events, I was a bit disappointed in my experience at Booker and Dax. Much like my visit a few years ago to its already legendary parent restaurant Momofuku Ssam next door, things sounded better than tasted.

Booker & Dax cocktails

Booker & Dax cocktails

In the case of a Lechuga ($14), a mix of gin, lemon, and bibb lettuce freeze-dried then muddled into powder,  the end result is little flavor. I guess I should have expected that with bibb lettuce, but I was hoping for vegetal notes in a fresh, clean cocktail. It tasted like icy water with a backbone of gin. Likewise, a BDX Marg, sounded delightful, combining mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, Cointreau, and lime served over shave ice (a nod to Hawaii and Japan), but tasted more icy than nuanced. The cocktail that worked for me was surprisingly the sweetest and best as dessert, a Banana Justino. Merely two ingredients – Zacapa 23 rum and bananas – are run through a centrifuge, yielding a thick elixir, sweet and bracing.

CASA MEZCAL, LES (Lower East Side)

Casa Mezcal

Casa Mezcal

Charming, funky Oaxacan decor (Day of the Dead paraphernalia, colorful lights and artwork) and friendly service goes a long way in making Casa Mezcal a worthwhile stop, though I haven’t eaten here so can’t vouch for the food. Mezcal cocktails aren’t exactly noteworthy, especially given the average $14 and up price tag. But they are good and the mezcal selection strong (menu grouped by agave plant varietal). Over mid-afternoon cocktails with grasshopper salt, it feels as if I’m right back in Oaxaca.

EMPELLON, East Village

Empellon cocktails

Empellon cocktails

With one of my two best bar experiences of my 20+ bars this visit being Saxon + Parole under Naren Young (see above), I am eager to return to Empellon Cocina, no doubt even better under his watch. That being said, there were already some players on the menu, particularly a rosy, beet and reposado tequila cocktail, tinged with mezcal smoke, alive with ginger, vanilla, lemon.

ELSA, East Village

Elsa's classic book bill holders

Elsa’s check holders

Settling in to my East Village apartment rental directly above Elsa, I was pleased to have a charming, intimate bar downstairs, replete with vintage touches (like old books used as check holders and Victoriana-style menus). I was less thrilled, however, with only big brand liquor behind the bar – given their “craft” style, there was a nary a smaller brand to be found – and solid but not memorable cocktails. Black Book ($12) sounded lovely, mixing bourbon, rhubarb rose water reduction, cucumber, Aperol, and lime rhubarb bitter. But as with all the cocktails I tried here, the more vegetal, herbal I hoped would shine, were barely discernible.

MILK & HONEY, LES (Lower East Side)

Milk & Honey

Milk & Honey

As essentially the speakeasy that launched the speakeasy trend of the past decade plus way back in 2000 (if you’re not counting Angel’s Share, a favorite haunt of mine in the ’90’s with hidden cocktail bar upstairs through an Asian restaurant), I will always have a soft spot for the original Milk and Honey through a dingy door on a sketchy, Lower East Side block. That’s all gone now as LES is plenty gentrified, while the original, dim, dive-y space is now Attaboy, a similar bar from the same owners.

The new Milk & Honey reminds me a bit of Dutch Kills in Queens or The Varnish in LA or any other derivative spot across the country, with elegant, understated, Prohibition-era decor. That is to say, I don’t find it particularly original or memorable – but when in the Flatiron District, the swank location of M&H is a solid stop for well-made cocktails and doo-wop over the sound system, as was the case on my last visit.

PRESERVE 24, LES (Lower East Side)

Preserve 24's downstairs bar

Preserve 24’s downstairs bar

Having just opened when I rented a nearby apartment, Preserve 24 is most notable for its Jules Verne-esque, old world look. Circa 1800’s underwater diving equipment, beer taps made from piano pedals, an eclectic mishmash of woods and antiques in a two-floor, multi-room space are delightful.

I haven’t tried the food, but the cocktails are lovely in concept and solid, if not as balanced/nuanced as I would hope for, like a Compass Rose ($13) mixing pisco, bourbon, Green Chartreuse, house strawberry rhubarb preserves and Peychaud’s bitters, or a smoky-soft El Hecho combining mezcal, velvet falernum, lime and parsley honey.

THE WAYLAND, East Village

The Wayland's

The Wayland’s Garden Variety Margarita

Though it can be a bit too noisy to talk, the glow over over rustic wood floors, vintage ceramics and glassware is all-encompassing at The Wayland. Their famed Garden Variety Margarita ($11) is really is all that, laden with blanco tequila, ginger, lime, agave nectar, smoked sea salt and beautiful use of kale. Not merely trendy, I could happily do more kale cocktails. Another winning mix? Indian Summer ($11), combining Ford’s Gin, lime, curry, cilantro and chili salt. Hail to refreshing, savory cocktails!

WHITEHALL, West Village

Whitehall cocktails

Whitehall cocktails

Impressive as Whitehall’s gin collection is, the understated cocktails don’t quite showcase the beautiful botanical spirit.

They are simple, understated, yes, but also forgettable, even soft and muddled in terms of flavor. Too bad, as the cool, white ceramic walls and relaxed bar staff make it an inviting place to pop in while in the West Village.

Written by Virginia in: Imbiber,Wandering Traveler | Tags: ,

Wandering Traveler

Ever magical from my girlhood and now... the view from Empire State Building on a clear May night

Ever magical since my girlhood: the view from Empire State Building on a clear night

NEW YORK: Edible in the Big Apple

Photos & Article by Virginia Miller

Empire State of Mind

Empire State of Mind

Back in my beloved New York, home of my teenage years. Until just a few years ago, it was the place I’d come home to for the holidays when my parents still lived in New Jersey. I miss the more constant visits of my past even as I still return to visit my lifelong best friend, dear friends and colleagues.

Despite only a couple lovely days out of a ten-day visit in late May through early June (the rest were either pouring rain and sweltering hot and suffocating), my recent “research” trip visiting friends and family, involved dozens of restaurants and cocktail bars, plays and treks through Eataly for espresso and rooftop beers.

Here’s a list of standouts from this trip – and the overrated, which always happens in New York, still a place of extremes – the best and the worst (e.g., even as NY Times’ 10 Best Restaurant Openings were just announced, I found two of them, Hanjan and Alder, below, disappointing). Best in cocktails and bars in my next newsletter:

East Village & LES (Lower East Side)

ALDER, East Village

Best dish in my early visit

Best dish in my early visit

Excitement for pioneering molecular Chef Wylie Dufresne’s latest aside, eating at Alder merely seven weeks after opening was a real disappointment in terms of flavor and even “ordinary” combinations. As much as I’ve long admired Dufresne for his pioneering molecular experimentation, I found little to thrill after trying multiple dishes here. Surprisingly, the best dish? Ubiquitous beets, perfected with fluffy coconut ricotta and aromatic Thai basil.


Barrio Chino mole

Barrio Chino mole

Coming from a “spoiled” Californian (and regular traveler to Mexico), the tacos at Barrio Chino are just ok, but it’s the mole negro (“mama’s recipe”) that sold me, transporting me right back to Oaxaca. The languid, open-air casualness of lunch on a warm day is idyllic over Mexican food and solid margaritas.


Nearly a decade ago, my sister & I were charmed by hole-in-the-wall Doughnut Plant when it was just a little counter offering a handful of doughnuts. Now it’s an expansive, tightly-run shop of all varieties of doughnuts – from filled to yeast to cake doughnuts – and better than ever.

Salsa tasting at Empellon

Salsa tasting at Empellon

EMPELLON, East Village

Pastrami tacos

Pastrami tacos

Empellon Cocina was smart to recently sign on Naren Young to run their bar program. The refined balance he brought to bars like Saxon + Parole and The Daily is now Empellon’s gain. This summer, just before Young came on board, Empellon’s cocktails were already solid, particularly a rosy, beet and reposado tequila cocktail, tinged with mezcal smoke, alive with ginger, vanilla, lemon. I’m eager to see how Young further improves the cocktail, tequila and mezcal program at Empellon Cocina and Taqueria.

Crab & mango

Crab & mango

As for food, Empellon is among the more ambitious Mexican restaurants to come along in NYC, a city I’ve long struggled to find an honest-to-goodness Mexican meal in. Back east (really, in most of the US), Mexican food is shadow of the quality commonplace in California and Mexico, and far from as fresh in terms of produce.

Empellon cocktails

Empellon cocktails

Amid a few misses, there are moments of brilliance on the Cocina menu, not the least of which is their array of salsas. A tasting of all seven ($3) is the part of the meal that stands out, even months later. Perfecting salsas is no easy task, yet here it’s a vivid journey of textures and flavors, from a salsa de arbol made of arbol chilies, cider vinegar, sesame and pumpkin seeds, to a thick smoked cashew salsa laden with chipotle.

While classic tacos ($8-24) like carnitas are a bland disappointment, shortrib pastrami tacos sing, feeling appropriately New York dotted with pickled cabbage and mustard seed salsa. Likewise, Chef Alex Stupak’s creative vision shines in seafood starters like raw, paper thin shrimp ($14) punctuated with sea urchin mousse, or thinly sliced mounds of mango dotted with arbol chile, lime and a peekytoe crab salad. It’s all pricey, served in a dim, understated dining room, but there peak moments that reach beyond many other Manhattan hotspots.


Il Laboratorio

Il Laboratorio

Il Laboratorio del Gelato is one of my NYC loves for nearly a decade when it was a tiny shop serving only a few flavors a day.

Now it’s a large, pristine ice cream laboratory crafting some of the best ice cream/gelato in the US on par with the great, true gelatos in Italy. Just try to resist bracing Guinness, chocolate Thai chili, or lime fresh mint.


Lobster Joint

Lobster Joint

Just blocks from my East Village/Alphabet City apartment, Lobster Joint, a casual, spanking white restaurant, was ideal for Dark & Stormys, buttery Connecticut or herb mayo New England lobster rolls, and hearty lobster shepherd’s pie. This trip also included return to visits to my all-time favorite lobster roll outpost (and favorite NY seafood restaurant), Pearl’s Oyster Bar, and to my second favorite, Mary’s Fish Camp. When in the Lower East Side, Lobster Joint is a solid lobster roll stop.

LUZZO’S, East Village

Luzzo's ceiling

Luzzo’s ceiling

There are better pizzas in New York, but being NY, Luzzo’s Neapolitan-style pizza is still quite good, cooked in a 100 year old coal oven.

The beloved locals restaurant exudes a dated, bustling charm in dingy browns, with furniture dramatically upside down on the ceiling, and the place packed with festive friends drinking cheap Chianti over rounds of pies and pasta.

MACARON PARLOUR, East Village/Alphabet City

Macaron Parlour

Macaron Parlour

Macaron Parlour creates not only some of the best macarons in New York but in the whole country.

Though many macaron-makers across the US get classic macaron texture right, often flavor is weak and diminutive compared to divine Parisian macarons. Not so at the Parlour where vibrant peanut butter and banana or maple cream cheese studded with hunks of candied bacon are as alive with flavor yet elegant as Paris macarons.

MARK, East Village



A humble, funky little dive of a slider bar, Mark serves solid mini-burgers from cheese to bacon.

But the best edible surprise is a meaty-sweet, thick candied bacon milkshake ($7), a decadent thrill accompanied by fries. Feel free to dip them in the shake for the height of salty-sweet pleasure.

PYLOS, East Village

Pylos ceiling

Pylos ceiling

When in NY, do yourself a favor and head to Astoria, Queens, if you want some of the best Greek food outside of Greece. But for Manhattan, Pylos is the best I’ve had over the past 25 years of living near or visiting NY.

The warm, bustling, intimate space has a lovely Greek wine list, creamy moussaka, perfectly-grilled octopus, savory lamb, piping hot pita to dip in lush spreads, and lovely fish entrees like pistachio-crusted bass.


Pastrami or dill lox

Pastrami or dill lox

Along with everyone who knows anything about proper bagels or lox, I’ve raved about Russ and Daughters for years. It is the quintessential, classic NY Jewish deli and bagel heaven (they also do right by a Brooklyn Egg Cream).

Order cuts of their pastrami or dill-cured lox (salmon) on its own or on a bagel and try not to sigh with happiness. Menu bagel sandwiches like Pastrami Russ ($10.75) are well worth your time, too, where pastrami-cured salmon, sauerkraut and mustard oozes from dense-yet-light bagels. When renting a nearby apartment, you can bet a selling point was its three block proximity to R & D.




Tache Artisan Chocolate is a top-notch gourmet chocolatier in the ‘hood serving boozy tequila dark chocolate truffles, mango toffee or Japanese chili bonbons, and ridiculously good toffee, chocolate and beef jerky.




Though I want to heartily recommend the uber-spicy, cheap ($15 for three dishes is the norm) food of literal hole-in-the-wall and beloved NYC Chinese chain, Xi’an Famous Foods, I have two words for you from my meal at the East Village location: food poisoning.

Given my global travels and the fact that I eat everything from animal organs to bugs, I’ve certainly had my share of food poisoning. But it’s been awhile since I’ve had it in the States and it sadly put a damper on otherwise fond memories of fiery hot cold buckwheat noodles, Qi pork hand-ripped noodles and that tasty lamb burger.

Murray's Cheese Bar

Murray’s Cheese Bar

West Village & Greenwich Village


Naked Flock cider

Naked Flock cider

Murray’s Cheese Bar has become one of my favorite NY haunts. The famed cheese shop has been around since 1940 (and ships!), while the West Village Cheese Bar just opened in the summer of 2012. It’s a casual restaurant offering the likes of creamy cheddar grits with Tickler cheddar skin ($6) alongside a kale Cesar in lemon dressing ($12). Pair with a fine selection of wines, beers and ciders, like a dry Naked Flock Hard Cider from Warwick, NY, the town I went apple picking every fall with my family, not far from our Jersey home.

The pinnacle of Murray’s menu is – not surprisingly – cheese flights (from $10-36, or $6 a la carte) grouped in themes like Week in Review, the cheesemonger’s three favorites of the week from the cellar below, matched with house jams, butters and the like. For example, a dreamy upstate NY sheep’s milk cheese is crusted in chamomile, lavender, lemon and thyme, served with tea rose petal jam. Neil’s Yard Welsh cheese is sharp and grassy paired with apple butter, while raw Caveman Blue from the Rogue River region of Oregon is luxurious with toasted nuts and peanut-butter-esque chunky sesame caramel.

RED FARM, West Village

Red Farm booths

Red Farm booths

Unusual dim sum, communal seating, cheerful service and charming upscale farmhouse feel with red and white-checked pillows and cloth napkins warm up darling Red Farm. Food and the cocktails ($12) are hit-and-miss during brunch, although the hits are strong.

Pastrami egg rolls!

Pastrami egg rolls

A Yuzu Caipirnha of Leblon cachaca, lime, agave, yuzu syrup is at least blessedly bright, but ever-wonderful Yamazaki 12 year whisky gets lost in a Suntory Old Fashioned, watered down by improper mixing/too much ice, while the listed nori essence  was indiscernible and could have elevated the tasteless drink. In terms of food, however, Katz pastrami egg rolls dipped in mustard sauce ($7.50) are killer, properly evoking NY and Chinese dim sum simultaneously.

Avocado mango summer rolls ($12) are fresh and crisp, even if pork-crab Shanghai-style soup dumplings (4 for $12) or crunchy vegetable peanut dumplings (4 for $10) are sadly lackluster in flavor and texture.

Seafood tower at NoMad

Seafood tower at NoMad


HANJAN, Flatiron

Hanjan fried rice

Hanjan fried rice

Couple a rude host with average food in the creative-modern Korean bent and I couldn’t help but leave Hanjan recalling superior (and far more interesting) meals at Korean “fusion” places like Namu in San Francisco or far more satisfying hole-in-the-wall Korean meals in LA and Queens, NY. Galbi skewers, salmon sashimi, scallion squid pancake, fried chicken, fried rice… it was all solid (if somewhat one note in flavor – typically salt), but not noteworthy.

NoMad, Flatiron

Elegant corner tables in The NoMad

Elegant corner tables

The ever-hyped NoMad is as gorgeous and sexy as you’ve heard, from a black and gold, 1920’s-esque lobby of the hotel housing the restaurant, to a luxurious red room lined with velvet booths and curtains. Blessedly feeling like a real night on the town, NoMad gets service and atmosphere right alongside their continuously-lauded chicken for two ($79), lush with foie gras and black truffle (reminiscent of the chicken for two that Monterey’s Restaurant 1833 started serving in 2011 with truffle butter injected under the skin).

NoMad Cocktails

NoMad Cocktails

When it comes to the expensive menu, however, it’s hit-and-miss. Beef tartare ($16) with cornichons and horseradish is gratifying but no different than at dozens of other restaurants, while a spring garlic veloute (soup) is far from worth $17 despite welcome inflections of fresh ricotta and ham. I couldn’t even finish a lukewarm, dry suckling pig ($35) contrasted by dried plums, onions and wild greens.

On the “hits” side, a tower of Fruits de Mer “Le Grand Plateau” ($24 per person) is a decadent pleasure of seasonal seafood delicacies, including lobster and caviar. An asparagus bread salad ($24) was surprisingly my favorite dish. Again, it’s costly for a vegetable dish but beautifully executed accented by smoked potato, black truffle and a bright douse of lemon.

Upper East Side



Staying on the Upper East Side means excellent bagels and lox. My two favorite classics, are historic dives serving bagels and creamy schmear (cream cheese spreads): Sable’s and H&H Midtown Bagels, the latter of which conveniently also offers mini-bagels, toasted and schmeared.

Le Churro

Le Churro

In addition to these traditional joys, when staying at my best friend’s lovely Upper East Side apartment, I toted home warm bags of mini, filled churros from Le Churro, like the childhood-evocative peanut butter and jelly (3 for $4.25). I satisfied my coffee snob leanings with a daily coffee run to Oslo Coffee Roasters.

A vegetarian, healthful break was appreciated at one of NYC’s longtime (since the 1990’s) vegan favorites: Candle 79. Though pricey, the mellow space was a relaxing respite from the intense heat that had already hit at the beginning of June.

Vegan sushi at Candle 79

Vegan sushi at Candle 79

Upper West Side

L’ARTE DEL GELATO, Upper West Side

NYC L'arte - Virginia MillerClassically old school Italian gelato, L’arte del Gelato, gets the lush factor right whether in nutty, creamy flavors like peanut, bright/fresh flavors like mint, or a tart fruitt di bosco.

Herring platter at Aamann's Copenhagen

Herring platter at Aamann’s Copenhagen





With my draw to the clean lines of Scandinavian cuisine, I had to check out The Copenhagen, a sunny, white cafe with dramatically high ceilings on a wide, TriBeCa street.

Open-faced smørrebrød sandwiches are a draw for lunch (a deal compared to pricey dinners), but their beautiful trio of herring was the real standout. Though infused aquavits and other dishes were lackluster, there are worthwhile moments at Aamans, even if one would do better to head to Aquavit Bistro.


SALVATION TACO at the POD 39 HOTEL, Midtown East

Chef April Bloomfield’s Salvation Taco was brand new when I was in NY this May-June. The immediate impression of the food? Mediocre.

Salvation Taco/lobby of Pod 39 Hotel

Salvation Taco/lobby of Pod 39 Hotel

Upscale (read: pricey) tacos and Mexican snacks won’t satisfy a Californian or true Mexican food lover. But it’s the funky-cool, hipster Mexican decor in spacious lobbies and Salvation’s restaurant space at the Pod 39 Hotel that make a notable backdrop for chips and guac with a margarita. Really, the destination is the 17th floor rooftop bar. Go early on a weekday to avoid a wait and crowds but brick and pillars outline a dramatic Manhattan view, romantic and striking enough to make one (almost) forget lackluster cocktails.

17th floor rooftop bar at Pod 39 Hotel

17th floor rooftop bar at Pod 39 Hotel

Written by Virginia in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:

The Latest


Causas and all manner of sustainable, Peruvian goodness at La Mar Cebicheria

There’s not enough knowledge around sustainable fish… just ask anyone who knows anything about it. The majority of Americans eat whatever is on a menu with little to regard to where it’s sourced, its health properties (or lack thereof), unaware if the creature they are eating is endangered.

Artwork at SoMa's new Ki, one of the only all sustainable seafood restaurants

I was privileged to attend a recent intimate round-table discussion with Peru’s leading chef Gaston Acurio and management from Monterey Bay Aquarium, the number one seafood source in the nation for what is or isn’t safe to eat at any given time.

Naturally, we met in the offices of La Mar Cebicheria, Acurio’s first stateside restaurant and my tops in SF for Peruvian (New York is about to get their first La Mar outpost). As San Francisco’s breezy, Bay-side location of La Mar just went fully sustainable with its seafood, it was an ideal time to discuss the necessity of sustainability.

Acurio says chefs, cooks, kitchen staff in general, are “the best weapons” to bring about change. While many say the consumer should educate themselves, Acurio rightly assesses the need for education from restaurant staff. He shared a story of a Peruvian restaurant relaying to diners that their children would not know what their beloved local river shrimp tasted like as the shrimp would soon be extinct from over-fishing. With this kind of schooling, consumers themselves began asking every restaurant they dined at not to serve the shrimp. Locals changed habits and potentially saved the shrimp based on what they learned from a restaurant.

Acurio’s commitment to sustainability is apparent. He’s working to spread the message worldwide, just as he has done with his native Peruvian cuisine. “Restaurants are instruments for sharing our culture with the world,” he says. He prefers to train his staff by inspiration, getting them involved and behind a mission, not just performing roles.

He says restaurant staff and individual consumers can do three things to support sustainable seafood consumption, thus preserving the over-fished seafood we are at risk of losing (like ever-popular tuna or mahi mahi – download guides of what to eat or avoid and alternatives at Monterey Aquarium site):

1. Support local fisherman (locally, buy sustainable fish at places like Royal Hawaiian in Potrero Hill or in the Ferry Plaza Building at San Francisco Fish Co.)

2. Eat down the food chain as that is seafood in large supply (clams, anchovies, sardines, mussels, etc…)

3. Avoid aquaculture seafood (farmed fish raised in controlled conditions)

Sustainable sushi at Ki

Acurio believes more creativity happens when cooking with what is fresh and available daily. Rather than being limited by the diner who’s going to be upset you didn’t serve tuna tartare, he challenges chefs to “dream big” to create dishes that could win over consumers with sustainable fish.

A few local restaurants serving only sustainable seafood:

1. Tataki and Tataki South, Pacific Heights and Noe Valley – The first sustainable sushi restaurant in the US was Tataki, right here in our own backyard.

2. Ki, SoMa – Part of the funky, spacious “Zen Compound” including Temple Nightclub, and a rooftop garden, Ki is an artsy, new izakaya/sushi/drinks lounge.

3. Hecho, FiDi - Sustainable sushi sources named – and tequila to go with.

4. Pacific Catch deems June Sustainable Shrimp Month, serving shrimp from various parts of the world.

Further Reading: Don’t miss local resident Casson Trenor’s book, Sustainable Sushi (Trenor helped launch both Tataki and Ki).

Upcoming Event: The fabulous 18 Reasons throws a “Good Fish” event (cooking demo and lecture, $25-35) Sunday afternoon, June 12, navigating the confusing terms of sustainable fish.

Written by Virginia in: The Latest | Tags: ,

Top Tastes

I never tire of Flying Fish Grill's Crabby Cheese Bread

Top Tastes is not a list of all-time favorites, rather it’s about the best tastes of the last two weeks (since my last newsletter), often from new openings.

With visiting friends and some down time, I’ve been frequenting stand-bys like Flying Fish Grill (in Half Moon Bay), the house, Woodhouse Fish Co., Fat Angel, Tacolicious, Giovanni’s Pizza at Club Deluxe and hitting up re-vamped spots like Citizen Cake and a few other new lunch spots I’m revisiting and will include next issue.


WISE SONS DELI, inside Jackie’s Café, 105 Valencia Street (at McCoppin), 415-787-5534, 9am-2pm Saturdays - Head to the Mission where Wise Sons Deli takes over Jackie’s Café every Saturday. Rolling since January, the young guys behind this pop-up deli have a hit on their hands. Lines form out the door for Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman‘s Jewish food with heart. The menu changes often, and they’re preparing a killer-sounding Passover menu next week at Coffee Bar and for take-out.

Bialy laden w/ house-smoked salmon

True: we don’t have enough Jewish food in this town. But these guys aren’t just doing it, they’re doing it with excellence. Case in point: there are multiple menu items that I’d call ‘must order‘. This is rare enough at a restaurant, much less a small pop-up with limited menu.

I eagerly await the day they will have their own storefront. Until then, here are three items you’d do well to order from their delightful menu:

1. Bialy or Bagel and Smoked Salmon
Whether the day’s menu carries a bagel or bialy (Polish kuchen similar to a bagel but only baked, not boiled), get it. For $8 (or $11 open-faced), bread is laden with their house-smoked salmon, red onion, capers, and pickled veggies on the side. Homesick New Yorkers and bagel-lovers among us may have finally found a little something to assuage that bagel-shaped hole whenever we’re away from NY.

Pastrami Reuben

2. Babka
A sweet yeast cake with Eastern European roots, Wise Sons makes their babka sing with earthy swirls of Guittard dark chocolate weaving a pretty pattern through each slice. Whether you order this brioche-like bread by the slice ($3.50), half-loaf ($11), full loaf ($20), or as French toast with fluffy whipped cream ($6 for one; $9 for two), you know a craving has begun. Complicate things further with chocolate caramel babka ($3.75), made with Clairesquares’ divine caramel.

3. Pastrami or Corned Beef
Watch a massive side of beef being sliced on the sideboard and try not to order a plate. Or better yet, get a sandwich ($12) of either cut of beef on double-baked rye bread, or as a Reuben ($13.5), the supreme sandwich of beef sandwiches. Potato salad or coleslaw plus  garlic-dill pickles accompany, as do meaty dreams of home and all that is good.


Hyde Away Blues

HYDE AWAY BLUES, TenderNob (457 Hyde Street, between Ellis and O’Farrell, 415-678-8894) - New BBQ joints are popping up all over the city lately. This take-out shop for caterer Big May’s BBQ is where all the remaining foods from their catering projects end up for dinner purchase.

The storefront exudes a blues and rock ‘n roll-spirit lined with records and Blues Brothers on TV. Take home huge hunks of NY steak or addictive ribs (among the best I’ve had in the Bay Area) marinated in the likes of cognac and smoked with cherry or hickory. Prices come off a little high ($20 for steak with one tiny side of coleslaw and a corn muffin?), but that slab of beef is massive.

Music lovers after my own heart

Add on collard greens cooked in ham hocks ($3) or Mama’s home cookin’ in a dessert like Banana Rum Puddin’ ($5), layered with ‘nilla wafers.

Most importantly, meats are juicy, toothsome and imbued with a smoky essence reminiscent of my barbecue road trip through the South. This here is Memphis-style, where the meat tastes as if its been in the smoker for hours.

I’d call this newbie one of the better BBQ options in the city. Their gumbo was sold out on my last visit… next time.

Campanula's Negroni (w/ Gran Classico) and Bourbon Smash

CAMPANULA, North Beach (701 Union Street, at Powell, 415-829-7766) - Brand new Campanula (from owners of Russian Hill mainstay Frascati) is a fun, relaxed setting with floor-to-ceiling windows boasting front row views of North Beach’s bustle. There are a few minor downsides (for example, some cocktails are too sweet – classic recipes cater to the North Beach party scene).

As I went with a group, I was able to try a good chunk of the extensive small plates menu (some are small indeed). Only a simple side of white beans ($5) was unpalatable (a bit tough and flavorless), but among over ten dishes, a few impressed.

Our bill added up to $50 per person, high for a casual place with only having a bite of each dish, but we did order two drinks each, which made up a chunk of that cost.

Kobe Beef Burger

Their Negroni ($9) is a revamp version with Gran Classico instead of Campari, Carpano Antica and Plymouth gin. Bourbon Smash ($8), with Four Roses, mint, lemon, sugar, is sweet but fun, faring better than a Corpse Reviver simply titled Reviver ($9), which didn’t achieve balance. A simple Dark ‘N Stormy ($8) refreshes with Kraken rum, Bundaberg ginger beer and lime.

Winning Salt Cod Brandade



My top dish of the night, Salt Cod Brandade ($14) is a warm dish of Dungeness crab, potato and salty cod dusted with herbed bread crumbs. A dreamy, creamy dip.

Foie Gras & Duck Sausage

Under “Big Plates”, the Kobe Beef Burger ($14) came out medium-rare as asked for, juicy and overflowing with caramelized onions and Calabrian chilies. Satisfying with shoestring fries and aioli.

Brioche "French Toast"

Foie Gras & Duck Sausage ($10) converted my entire table of friends, even the non-foie or duck fans. Slightly sweet, meaty and tart with apple slaw and cider gastrique, I immediately wanted to order another.

On the vegetarian tip, Tuscan Kale “Panzanella” ($7) is a riff on the traditional Florentine bread salad where kale is the base with a few toasts and red onion, accented by gorgonzola. It’s hearty and good for you.

Dark 'n Stormy & Bourbon Smash at Campanula

Dessert held consistent highlights, from three ice cream sandwiches ($5) filled with housemade ice creams like cherry or hazelnut, to peanut butter cream-stuffed chocolate eclairs ($6).

With texture bordering on a melting-soft cloud in creme anglaise, brioche ‘French toast’ ($5) left its mark. It is warm, orange-inflected, comforting, the dessert queen.

Sauteed Pel'meni in curry sauce

KATIA’S RUSSIAN TEA ROOM, Inner Richmond (600 5th Avenue at Balboa, 415-668-9292) - It’s been a couple years since my last visit to Katia’s, a place I always considered tops for Russian food in SF, with charming, no-nonsense mother/daughter running the cozy dining room and kitchen.

Other than a terrible draft on a chilly night next to the window where we were seated (they said their landlord still hadn’t fixed it – we could not take our coats off the entire meal, a real problem), food remains a slice of authentic Russia.

Vinaigrette Beet Salad

Borscht ($5) is a simple but heartwarming broth of beets and veggies, while the Vinaigrette ($6) salad is bright pink with beets mixed with diced potatoes, carrots, dill, and sauerkraut.

Two favorite starters include homemade Peroshkis ($3 for two – beef, mushroom or cabbage). They taste exactly like my Russian friend’s grandmother’s peroshkis. I closed my eyes and my childhood came back to me after one bite. My friend and I would eat as many as we could stand as her babushka plied us fresh-from-the-oven peroshkis.

Another key starter is Eggplant Caviar ($4.50), a mix of eggplant, onions, tomato and garlic that is far tastier than it looks. Reminiscent of  French ratatouille, the Russian version is delightful.

Blini w/ herring, smoked salmon & caviar

On the entree side, Beef Stroganoff ($16) is hearty, while Golubtsi ($15) is very similar to a popular Polish dish: ground beef, onions and rice wrapped in cabbage and covered in a warm tomato sauce. Pel’meni ($13), beef dumplings, are served boiled or sauteed in a light curry sauce (I like the sauteed version).

If cornered, my top Russian dish is caviar and blini. Here, Blini ($19) is four Russian crepes with sour cream and mini-plates of pickled herring, salmon caviar and Norwegian smoked salmon. The Blini are excellent, warm, with a hint of sour cream in the batter.

It may not be vodka on a snowy St. Petersburg night, but with a blustery draft, wine, live accordion and blini, it was transporting.

A highlight: spot prawn nigri topped w/ blood orange & jalapeno ($4 per piece)

HECHO, Financial District, 185 Sutter Street at Kearny, 415-835-6400 - Let me clarify: this is merely an early word on my one visit to brand new Hecho, currently in soft-opening mode (from Joseph Manzare of Globe, Tres and Zuppa).

Hecho offers the delightful combo of tequila and sake with sushi and yakimono (grilled items). The bar area is low-key, conveniently located downtown for post-work meet-ups. A mostly nigiri menu holds such treasures as Canadian Botan Ebi (spot prawn) and Korean fluke. But at $4-5 for one piece, it adds up fast.

Small plates don’t offer more substance but they do convey an artistic eye in stand-out Bakudan ($18): lush uni with ikura (King Salmon roe), botan ebi (spot prawn), and natto topped with a quail egg. Mix it together and spoon over sheets of nori (dried seaweed). It’s merely a few bites but evokes fresh ocean breezes and sea brine.

Bacon-wrapped scallops

Yakimono options are likewise small, from shishito peppers ($3) to three small scallops wrapped in bacon ($7). Thankfully, all is prepared with care, though when a bill totals over $100 for two and you leave hungry, it’s not a good thing. Still, staff and sushi chefs are earnest and the location ensures a steady stream of Financial District workers.

Paloma (L) & 7-Spice Margarita (R)

The tequila menu is another plus though the selection is not so much for the hardcore, made up mostly of well-known brands. A 7-spice Margarita ($10) sounds delightful with a rim of togarashi spices, Pueblo Viejo tequila, fresh yuzu juice and cucumber. It was a bit sweet with Agavero orange liqueur so the spice rim is crucial for balance. Paloma ($10), a simple classic, is blessedly made here with fresh grapefruit juice and soda water instead of the Squirt you get in Mexico. I think it was due to the Renaissance Man’s request that it not be too sweet that it actually was boozy with no taste of grapefruit. Maybe it would have been more balanced without his request?

Lunch service just began and soft opening mode shows service and execution is already on the right track. I wonder if a few more substantial menu offerings might be in order? Otherwise, it works best as a place to get literally a bite and a sip of sake or tequila on the way to dinner.

Bakudan (uni, spot prawn, King Salmon roe) - highlight of the meal

Written by Virginia in: Top Tastes |

Site Admin | Log out | Theme: Aeros 2.0 by TheBuckmaker.com