Jan
01
2015

Best of 2014

One of the great restaurants in the world: Narisawa in Tokyo

One of the great restaurants in the world: Narisawa in Tokyo

Best Restaurants of 2014

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Another year, another 600+ restaurants (YES, this is my annual average). Though I didn’t repeat the marathon travel of 2013 (over 25 cities in 10 different countries!), this year was still packed, taking me from Japan and Hong Kong, back to “regulars” like NYC and New Orleans.

2014 was rife with revelatory flavors, regional dish discoveries, memorable newcomers and wonderfully consistent veterans. Given the vast range, I have three 2014 lists (as well as best in drink here): 10 Best New Restaurants in SF, 8 Best Meals Around the US and 10 Around the World.

The opening date range for SF covers December 2013 to November 2014.

10 Best New SF Restaurants

Kusakabe

Kusakabe

Mitsunori Kusakabe at work

Though nothing replicates the 3 Michelin-starred sushi omakase meals of Tokyo, I am transported back to Japan with the sleek, blond-wood lines of the intimate, 30-seat sushi bar (offering only omakase/chef’s choice menus) at Kusakabe, from Mitsunori (aka Nori) Kusakabe whose sushi I’ve long loved at legendary Sushi Ran in Sausalito.  He’s taken things up another level here with one artful course after another of nigiri and a few cooked dishes.

Lazy Bear

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

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

In its initial weeks, Lazy Bear sold out its ticketed dinners from lawyer-turned-chef David Barzelay whose underground pop-up of imaginative tasting-menu dinners gained a huge cult following (and had long waiting lists) over the years. Their permanent brick-and-mortar location in the former Hi Lo space opened in September with an inviting upstairs lounge where dinner begins with imaginative bites and cocktail punch before heading downstairs to two long communal tables for a multi-course, shared, social experience.

Chubby Noodle

Oh, that hot fried wild snapper at Chubby Noodle

Oh, that hot fried wild snapper at Chubby Noodle

Long a fan of Chubby Noodle in the back of Amante bar in North Beach, I figured Chubby Noodle, the brick-and-mortar open in the Marina this summer, would be its part two. I was surprised to find the boisterous, hot space (due to tables right in front of the kitchen) to be the kind of restaurant I crave — one where you toast glasses of draft sake with others at your communal table over flavor-packed Chinese and Japanese-influenced dishes so delicious, I want to order every dish on the menu — and all this set to a soundtrack hitting ’80s and early ’90s rap to Fergie remixes and even a little Sinatra.

Les Clos

Les Clos' frisée aux lardons salad

Les Clos’ frisée aux lardons salad

Les Clos is my dream cafe: impeccable (French/Burgundy-heavy) wines, coffee, classic French dishes and desserts backed by world class pedigree from sommelier/owner Mark Bright of neighboring Saison, chef Shawn Gawle (Saison’s pastry chef) and cellar master/sommelier Cara Patricia Higgins. As a wine bar-cafe-retail shop, it could easily be boring or expected but by offering the best of the best in each category from coffee to Humphry Slocombe ice cream (and certainly in wine and classic French dishes), it is the cafe food and wine lovers wish they had in their ‘hood.

ABV

ABV grilled salad wedges

ABV grilled salad wedges

ABV is not only the new drink/cocktail industry hangout of the year, thanks to owners Todd Smith (Bourbon & Branch), Ryan Fitzgerald (brand ambassador for Del Maguey Mezcal) and Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud (Dalva/The Hideout owner), but it’s also an excellent new casual eats restaurant thanks to chef Kevin Cimino’s (formerly St. Vincent) whose Southern roots show in creative dishes like his awesome pimento cheeseburger on a house sweet potato bun or his “South Carolina Carnitas” or pulled pork tacos.

Kin Khao

Yum Kai Dao at Kin Khao

Yum Kai Dao at Kin Khao

Kin Khao is the kind of Thai restaurant I’ve been waiting for, albeit hidden in a hotel near Union Square on the edge of the Tenderloin. Proprietor Pim Techamuanvivit (author of The Foodie Handbook, and the blog Chez Pim) serves made-from-scratch Thai dishes and curries hearkening back to her Bangkok childhood, highlighting more obscure dishes and using painstakingly-sourced ingredients, like a brand of palm sugar imported only to LA.

Urchin Bistrot

Urchin Bistrot's mussels served escargot-style

Urchin Bistrot’s mussels served escargot-style

Chef Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani (owners of St. Helena’s Terra and Bar Terra and Ame) opened the casual, idyllic Urchin Bistrot in the former Wo Hing General Store space in August. Chef Michael Morrison and GM Susan Naderi Johnston aid in making this my favorite of the many new modern French bistros with an inviting, long bar… the ideal neighborhood hangout with impeccable drink, food and warm service.

Trou Normand

Superlative house charcuterie at Trou Normand

Superlative house charcuterie at Trou Normand

Manhattan meets Paris at an all-day cafe with San Francisco-quality ingredients and a house charcuterie program that makes others look (and taste) lackluster) at Trou Normand, a new French-influenced restaurant and bar from Thad Vogler and the Bar Agricole crew. Housed in the historic Pacific Telephone Building, the space is dramatic with lofty ceilings, massive booths, exposed brick and a curved bar beneath a tasteful nude drawing. Chef/butcher Salvatore Cracco (Bar Agricole, Adesso) cuts  meats from Mangalitsa pigs raised exclusively for the restaurant by Devil’s Gulch Ranch and the house selections of Calvados, Cognac and Armagnac are the backdrop for elegant cocktails featuring French spirits.

The Commissary

The Commissary

The Commissary

Open in May in the Presidio, Traci Des Jardins’ The Commissary is housed in a former army mess hall in the Montgomery Street Barracks circa 1895. Tabletops are made from salvaged Douglas fir in the multi-room space and the chef’s counter is my favorite spot from which to watch chef/culinary director, Robbie Lewis (who cooked at Rubicon and was executive chef of Des Jardins’ Jardiniere for eight years), executive chef Reylon Agustin (also Jardiniere and Manzanita in the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe) and their team work their magic with the heavily Spanish-influenced menu  showcasing common tapas favorites – albondigas (meatballs), pulpo (octopus), croquetas – as well as creative dishes with California flair. More memorable dishes here.

La Taberna, Napa

La Taberna Napa

La Taberna Napa

This is just what Napa needed. With a chalkboard of changing daily tapas in a sleek downtown Napa space, almost everything at La Taberna is $4-7 — and absolutely delicious. Craft beer, wine — both local and international — a sherry by-the-glass list and low proof cocktails featuring sherry and port seal the deal.

Honorable Mentions: Alembic‘s new food menu, ICHI Sushi + Ni Bar, (it’s new incarnation is better than ever), Pabu from MICHAEL MINA (killer nigiri tasting menus from Chef Ken Tominaga and unreal sake pairings), Prubechu (unique Guam cuisine), Lolo Cevicheria, Dirty Habit, Plin, The Tradesman, Hog Island Oyster BarRed Hill Station, Bartlett Hall, Archetype in St. Helena, Farmer & the Fox in St. Helena, alaMar in Oakland

BEST CHEAP EATS: The Hall, Burma Bear, Crepe La Vie, Project Juice, Hearth Coffee Roasters,
BEST NEW BAKERIES: Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, Hearth Coffee Roasters, Noble Folk Pie & Ice Cream in Healdsburg, Marla Bakery
BEST NEW COFFEE SHOPS:  Snowbird Coffee, Tiny Warrior, Hearth Coffee Roasters, Andytown

Orsa & Winston cuttlefish in Los Angeles

Orsa & Winston cuttlefish in Los Angeles

8 Best Meals Around the US

Eleven Madison Park, NYC

Waldorf salad prepared tableside at Eleven Madison Park

Waldorf salad prepared tableside at Eleven Madison Park

Three Michelin stars, # 4 on Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (the highest in the US), a 28 rating for food, service and decor in Zagat, the accolades for Eleven Madison Park go on and on. Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, Chez Wong in Lima, Peru, Narisawa and Sushiso Masa in Tokyo, and other unforgettable meals made perfect with all the right elements and people… EMP is among the rarified group of the best lifetime meals. My photos and favorite dishes from this year’s visit here.

Bestia, Los Angeles

Bestia's excellent

Bestia’s excellent burrata, tomato, Castelvetrano olives, oregano & fermented chilies piiza

Bestia has been at the top of every kind of restaurant list since it opened in 2012 and is still one of the hardest reservations to secure in LA. Despite almost deafening noise when the place is full, I found the bar (first come, first served, though I recommend getting there before they open) not overwhelmingly loud, with full food menu available and knowledgeable bar staff, in line with the best restaurants here at home or around the world. Alongside some of LA’s greatest wine and cocktail menus, the food is likewise seamless and delicious, whether a lovely grilled cuttlefish ($19) accented by chanterelle mushrooms, kabocha squash puree, sprouting broccoli, aged balsamic and chili or dreamy pizzas and pastas — try the signature cavatelli alla norcina ($29): ricotta dumplings, house pork sausage, black truffles and Grana Padano cheese.

Square Root, New Orleans

Liquid nitrogen dish at Square Root

Liquid nitrogen dish prepared at Square Root

Square Root is easily the most exciting New Orleans’ newcomer this year on the dining side — and the same holds true for its upstairs bar/lounge and cocktails. The historic building boasts a balcony and a wrap-around upstairs bar from which bartenders turn out impeccable cocktails, dishes and bites akin to the creative quality I love at their parent restaurant, Root. Downstairs is a 16-seat bar surrounding a live kitchen where executive chef Phillip Lopez and team turn out sophisticated, international dishes (sometimes with molecular touches) right in front of you. It’s a 12-15 course dinner ($150 per person) and changes constantly so each experience is unique. My photos and favorite dishes here.

Barnacle, Seattle

Intimate Barnacle

Intimate Barnacle

The quartet of restaurants from Renee Erickson are consistently amazing, three of them taking up my top Seattle recommends. I visited each of Erickson’s restaurants with low expectations and every time have come away impressed and delighted, finding each to be “quintessential Pacific Northwest cuisine,” or what one hopes that term would exemplify. None more so than Barnacle. Sitting at one long counter in an intimate space hidden upstairs across the hall from the Walrus & the Carpenter, Barnacle is an intimate seafood lover’s treasure serving a short chalkboard menu of daily changing small plates, all seafood focused, and ideal parings of Italian amaro in simple but well-executed cocktails.

Rubirosa, NYC

Rubirosa pizza

Rubirosa pizza

At his cozy, low ceiling Little Italy haven, Rubirosa, Angelo (A.J.) Pappalardo serves recipes inspired from his father Giuseppe’s Staten Island restaurant, Joe & Pat’s, since 1960. A.J. opened Rubirosa with his father and chef Al Di Meglio. His paper-thin, almost cracker-like pizzas are dreamy, laden with cheese and meat, among my favorite pizzas in Manhattan (slices available at lunch only). The family-friendly, rustic space begs for an amaro cocktail and hearty bowl of fantastic “Sunday sauce”, a changing weekly option of pasta and red sauce. Recently I had the choice of spaghetti or rigatoni ($21) in a downright fantastic red sauce, savory from multiple meats: braciole, meatball, braised rib and sausage, topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Night+Market, Los Angeles

Night+Market

Night+Market

It’s painfully noisy in the back dining room  — next time, I’d ask to sit at the (too) quiet bar but still better than the almost piercing shriek of a merely half-full dining room. That annoyance aside, Night+Market is rightfully popular given the authenticity of its fantastic Thai dishes (which sometimes means authentic Thailand heat, so be prepared) partnered with lovely Rieslings and other crisp whites appropriate for the heat. I was transported straight back to my months in Thailand.

Orsa & Winston, Los Angeles

Uni risotto at Orsa & Winston

Uni risotto at Orsa & Winston

Although I find restaurateur Josef Centeno’s Baco Mercat still my favorite of his restaurants, Orsa & Winston did not disappoint. The staff is knowledgeable about wines and pairings were spot-on with imaginative tasting menu-only dishes. Out of 8 courses, plus amuse bouche, more than half were very good to excellent and the creative flavor combinations were sealed by that most important of ingredients: a squeeze of citrus (often yuzu), tying each dish together with subtle acidity.

Yuzu, Beaverton, OR

Natto fried in shiso leaves at Yuzu

Natto fried in shiso leaves at Yuzu

Yuzu is in Beaverton, a suburb of Portland, and worth the trek out for Japanese food aficionados. A humble hole-in-the-wall in a strip mall known for their sake and their ramen, we fared best on authentic Japanese small plates/pub (izakaya) fare. Yuzu shines in affordable dishes like tender, thinly shaved beef tongue, grilled sardines and natto (funky, fermented soybeans) deep fried in shiso leaves.

Amber Hong Kong's (at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental) stunning dining room

Amber Hong Kong’s (at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental) stunning dining room

10 Best Meals Around the World

It feels almost cruel to have to number these meals from Japan and Hong Kong when each is so stellar they are not only best of the year, but many of them among the best in my life — and I left out other memorable meals from my recent Asia travels.

1. Sushisho Masa, Tokyo, Japan

Master Masa-san at work

Master Masa-san at work

Think 40 courses of sushi, bite-sized, delivered with basic English instructions (“as is, no soy”) on how to eat them. There are only 6 seats at Sushisho Masa, a half-basement closet of a dining room where the master himself, Masa-san, with the aide of his couple assistants, slices every piece of fish himself and hands it directly to you, while your sake and ice cold draft beers are replenished. And you won’t just get Hokkaido uni (sea urchin), for example, known to be some of the best in the world.

40 brilliant sushi courses

40 brilliant sushi courses

You’ll get 3 kinds of urchin from varying parts of the island of Japan, different shades and flavors. You’ll try fish you’ve never seen before and Masa and crew will point to them in an encyclopedic fish book if the Japanese word isn’t translating. At 3 Michelin stars, it’s a superlative experience and the single best sushi meal of my life (roughly $250-300 per person, cash only, which is common in Japan).

2. Narisawa, Tokyo, Japan

Bread fermenting tableside at Narisawa

Bread fermenting tableside at Narisawa

Black sea snake with the poison removed, dried, aged and shaved into a soup? Japanese chestnut and pickled green yuzu lemon confit bread, the yeast making the bread slowly rise tableside? These are just a few of the world class, imaginative dishes at (rightfully) 3 Michelin-starred Narisawa, easily one of the most exciting fine dining experiences of my life — with excellent wine list and service.

3. Raku-tei, Tokyo, Japan

Raku Tei rounds of tempura goodness, from ginko to shrimp legs

Raku Tei rounds of tempura goodness, from ginko to shrimp legs

Since owner-chef Shuji Ishikura opened it in 1970, Raku-tei is yet another superlative Tokyo experience — a city with more Michelin stars than any in the world, even Paris. This 2 Michelin-starred tempura haven is a sacred, church-like experience where at a 6-seat only bar (merely 4 people when I recently dined) in a music school building, one experiences a two hour meal of tempura-fried courses from a hunched-over master who, with one assistant, pulls the head off of wriggling prawns before gently frying them up, juicy and buttery, they are so perfectly fried. As he serves you everything from eggplant to fish, you are amazed you don’t weary of fried courses, while his wife serves each course with reverence. A once-in-a-lifetime kind of meal.

4. Yardbird, Hong Kong, China

Tsukune (chicken meatballs) at Yardbird

Tsukune (chicken meatballs) at Yardbird

Yakitori that rivals the best in Japan? Yardbird has won numerous (rightly deserved) accolades, including being named one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. It’s tough table to snag as there are no reservations and the convivial two floors are perpetually packed. But if you do get a table (I’d recommend arriving before opening), you’ll be rewarded with an incredible meal where every dish, including the remarkable KFC (Korean Fried Cauliflower) threatens to outshine the last, and all manner of chicken parts take center stage. Run by Canadians Matt Abergel and Lindsay Jang, another highlight is the excellent Japanese drink menu: cocktails, beer, sake, shochu, awamori, house special cans of Suntory highballs and plenty of whisky (yes, there are Ichiro bottlings).

5. Aberdeen Street Social, Hong Kong, China

Creative blood sausage at Aberdeen

Creative blood sausage at Aberdeen

Open in May 2013, Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton turns out ambitious dishes in the upstairs restaurant at Aberdeen Street Social, with a cocktail lounge and bites downstairs. Think dishes like raw Hokkaido scallops accented by dashi jelly, apple, shiso, avocado and wasabi purée, or duck breast and heart marked by honey spiced beetroot, pickled pear and a purée of dates and Earl Grey tea. Aberdeen is also one of Hong Kong’s creative, garden-fresh cocktail destinations.

6. Amber, Hong Kong, China

Amber's artful amuse bouche

Amber’s artful amuse bouche

One of my favorite Hong Kong meals was Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental. In a dramatic, elegant dining room, chef Richard Ekkebus turns out gorgeous dishes that initially sound like typical fine dining ingredients, from foie gras to caviar. But nothing is typical about chef Ekkebus’ whimsical, delicious interpretations, including his famed foie gras, raspberry-covered lollipops marked by beetroot chips and gingerbread. The wine list is equally world class and international.

7. Fook Lam Moon, Hong Kong, China

Fook Lam Moon's dim sum

Fook Lam Moon’s dim sum

There’s dim sum and then there’s dim sum in Hong Kong, home to Cantonese cooking, where excellent dim sum spots are ubiquitous, from low to high end. Fook Lam Moon is a 2 Michelin-starred, upscale dim sum palace where one can still spend a reasonable $60 USD for two to feast on tender dumplings or wontons with unreal flakiness akin to a French croissant. There are other superb dim sum restaurants in the world but dining on dim sum in HK ratchets everything up another notch and makes me long for such perfection at home.

8. Ham & Sherry, Hong Kong, China

Excellent fried potatoes, grape and egg dish at Ham & Sherry

Excellent fried potatoes, grape and egg dish at Ham & Sherry

In the bustling Wan Chai district, Jason Atherton and Yenn Wong (of nearby 22 Ships and also Duddell’s) opened Ham & Sherry at the end of 2013. Intimate yet sunny, Spanish blue-and-white tiles gleam around a tiny, open kitchen that turns out excellent tapas with a Hong Kong spin (try those killer prawns) as well as platters of Iberico ham, cured meats. Pair with sherries from the generous list.

9. Giro Giro Hitoshina, Kyoto, Japan

Starting with a range of bites at Giro Giro

Starting with a range of bites at Giro Giro

Dubbing themselves “punk rock kaiseki”, they did not do the food writer right sitting her upstairs away from the visual action of the chef’s table, although I preferred a mellow, individual table to the packed, literally rubbing shoulders, seats around the open kitchen in the cramped downstairs space. I would have liked to witness the action, however.

Though lacking the finesse in service and setting from most of the other notable dining experiences I had in Kyoto and Tokyo, Giro Giro Hitoshina’s tasting menus are imaginative, farm-fresh and youthful, a needed change of pace in these parts where kaiseki tasting menus are near reverential. In addition, it’s a steal and Japan rarity at barely $100 USD for two sans drinks.

10. Okakita, Kyoto, Japan

Okakita

Okakita’s tentoji don

One of the most unforgettable Kyoto meals was among the simplest. Despite the wait outside, we entered Okakita to a quiet, Zen-like setting turning out affordable, true Kyoto-style udon, soba noodles and donburi. While the classic udon is indeed top notch, it’s the tentoji don — large, perfect prawn tempura over udon in a creamy egg broth — that I have been craving ever since I left.

Dining on dried snake (in soup) at Narisawa in Tokyo

Dining on dried snake (in soup) at Narisawa in Tokyo

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Written by in: Best Of |
Jan
01
2015

Best of 2014

Y & M Kisling in Tokyo

Y & M Kisling in Tokyo

Best Bars of 2014

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Another year, another few hundred menus tasted and perused around the globe. Though my 2014 wasn’t quite the travel schedule 2013 was (25 cities and 10 countries!) with my job as Zagat SF/Bay Area Editor, it was still a nonstop year that took me from places like Tokyo to New Orleans, NYC to Hong Kong.

Here are my 2014 best bars lists (more for best in food/dining here) covering the Best New Bars in San Francisco (opened December 2013 to November 2014), my 6 Best Bar Experiences USA and my 10 Best Bar Experiences Global, which are not necessarily new but those in which I tasted the best drinks and had the best service of the year.

Click on each bar name for my original articles – some I will be reviewing in the coming weeks. The San Francisco portion of the list was first published here at Zagat on December 29, 2014.

10 Best New Bars in San Francisco

1. The Coachman

Robert Burns' Hunting Flask at the Coachman

Robert Burns’ Hunting Flask at the Coachman

Thanks to bar manager John Codd and bar master Erik Adkins (Slanted Door, Hard Water), The Coachman is one of the great new bars in SF where each drink is expertly made, based off of obscure, historic recipes and the Scotch and rum selections are strong… as is the food from Charles Phan and team.

2. ABV

Todd Smith (founding bartender of Bourbon & Branch, currently also The Hideout), Ryan Fitzgerald (formerly Beretta and brand ambassador for Del Maguey Mezcal) and Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud (Dalva/The Hideout owner) have opened what is easily the new drink (and food) industry hangout, welcoming everyone with a smile, quality cocktails across a range of spirits and creative bar food from one of our Zagat 30 Under 30 chefs this year, Kevin Cimino.

3. Trou Normand 

Cocktails at Dirty Habit

Cocktails at Dirty Habit

Trou Normand feels like Paris meets NY in SoMa with house charcuterie that makes all others seem lackluster. The elegant, high ceiling bar — from Bar Agricole owner Thad Vogler and crew — is all about house selected barrels of Armagnac, Cognac and Calvados and refined cocktails made with these French spirits (and beyond).

4. The Interval at the Long Now Foundation’s Salon

The pioneering Long Now Salon has one of the coolest bars in this (or any) city, complete with salon talks and a library to restart civilization with. Thanks to Bar Manager Jennifer Colliau (the mastermind behind some of the best cocktail modifiers out there, Small Hand Foods), multiple menus-within-a-menu are pioneering, including a Drinking Around the World menu highlighting drinking customs from many countries.

5. Dirty Habit

Cocktails from Danny Louie at Chino in the Mission

Cocktails from Danny Louie at Chino in the Mission

Upscale Fifth Floor transformed to Dirty Habit as of May 1st, thankfully with the same team in effect: chef David Bazirgan, pastry chef Francis Ang, master sommelier Emily Wines, sommelier Jose Maria Aguirre and lead bartender Brian Means. The space was completely remodeled and the sleek outdoor patio with rectangular rock fireplace is one of the coolest downtown hangout/gathering spots. But most importantly, besides memorable food, Means’ cocktails — and an extensive selection of whiskies and rarities — still make it a strong bar.

6. Chino

Danny Louie (formerly of the Alembic) has long been one of SF’s great bartenders and now he has a menu to showcase his talent and playful use of Asian spirits like baijiu, Asian teas, boba (think boba slushie cocktails) and all manner of spirits and ingredients in his creative, fun cocktail menu that is the draw at the new Chino.

7. Lolo

Lolo's playing card cocktail menu

Lolo’s playing card cocktail menu

A new location and first time bar for longtime Mission creative-Mexican gem, Loló (also with a new sister Peruvian-Mexican restaurant, Loló​ Cevicheria), resulted in a solid initial cocktail menu. But at the end of summer, bartenders David Gallardo and Leon Vasquez stepped up the game with Trick Dog-esque artistry: a cocktail menu lineup of playing cards from Tablero Loteria, a Mexican card game reminiscent of bingo. Call it most improved within a couple months of opening.

8. Arguello

Alongside gratifying Mexican dishes from none other than Traci Des Jardins, Arguello opened in the historic (and just remodeled) Officers’ Club in the Presidio this October with an agave spirits list (tequila- and mezcal-heavy, as well as less common agave spirits sotol and bacanora) and excellent cocktails from Enrique Sanchez (formerly of Puerto 27, La Mar Cebicheria). His ever-balanced, delicious cocktails are even better invigorated by fresh air within the white walls of the restaurant’s outdoor patio surrounded by majestic cypress and eucalyptus trees.

9. Smokestack

Urchin Bistrot cocktails

Urchin Bistrot cocktails

Opened in May in the Dogpatch, Smokestack is an ever-bustling source for BBQ and Magnolia beers (since the owner is Dave McLean of Magnolia). But bar manager Eric Quilty’s cocktails are a real draw, adding an elegant-yet-approachable touch to beer and ‘cue in the wood-lined, hip space.

10. Urchin Bistrot

One of the new bars I most want to hang out at is Urchin Bistrot. The restaurant serves excellent modern French bistro fare at reasonable prices and the France-and-beyond wine list is sophisticated yet approachable. But cocktails from former Comal bartender Rafael Jimenez Rivera are also a draw, sometimes highlighting French aperitif liqueurs and Italian amaro. There often seems to be a seat at the bar and a warm welcome, making the space feel like the best neighborhood bars/restaurants of Europe.

Best New Bars in the East Bay & Napa

Longitude, Oakland

Longitude in Oakland

Longitude in Oakland

Longitude opened this summer in downtown Oakland, an oasis of tropical design with elegant Tiki and rum cocktails partnered with pupu platters. Behind covered windows wrapped in vintage maps lies an otherworldly space that feels like Africa-meets-Polynesia circa 1930s, with plenty of green, bamboo, palms, mounted wall masks and artwork — much of it collected personally by owner Suzanne Long — from Indonesia to Africa. A fantastic exotica soundtrack transports in Polynesian-Tiki style with refined, rum-centric cocktails.

La Taberna, Napa

Though The Farmer & the Fox and Archetype are both Napa Valley newcomers doing quality cocktails, La Taberna, in downtown Napa, feels like what was missing from all of Wine Country. With a chalkboard of changing tapas in a sleek downtown Napa space, most tapas are merely $4-7 — and absolutely delicious. Craft beer, wine — both local and international — a sherry by-the-glass list seals the deal with a few transporting (takes me back to Spain) low proof cocktails utilizing sherry, port and the like. The quality is high and the price is right.

Honorable Mentions: Hapa Ramen, Kin Khao, The European, Gaspar Brasserie, Charles Phan’s South, Pathos in Berkeley
Beer Bars: Hopwater Distribution, Smokestack, Brewcade, Liquid Gold, Lost & Found in Oakland
Wine Bars: While there were a number of notable newcomers this year, like these three, this year, it was all about Les Clos.

Faith & Flower

Faith & Flower

6 Best Bar Experiences, USA

Bar Jackalope, Los Angeles

Bar Jackalope

Bar Jackalope

After my recent mind-blowing travels around Japan, I more than appreciate the concept and inspiration behind Bar Jackalope, opened in January, hidden in the back of Seven Grand. Though there are so many ways it doesn’t (and couldn’t) compare to Japan, including the rarity and affordability of the whisk(e)y selection, it is still a blessedly unpretentious, mellow, intimate spot despite the speakeasy nature — with a broad whisk(e)y selection and a cigar porch to boot.

Bestia, Los Angeles

Bestia cocktails

Bestia cocktails

Bestia has been at the top of every kind of restaurant list since it opened in 2012 and is still one of the hardest reservations to secure in town. Despite almost deafening noise when the place is full, I found the bar (first come, first served, though I recommend getting there before they open) not overwhelmingly loud, with full food menu available and the bar staff knowledgeable, in line with the best restaurants here at home or around the world. The white wine and Riesling-heavy (yes!) wine list is impeccable (thanks to wine director Maxwell Leer) and the well-executed cocktails were created by LA bar great Julian Cox.

Faith & Flower, Los Angeles

Faith & Flower's bar

Faith & Flower’s bar

Michael Lay’s (former bar manager at Restaurant 1833 in Monterey) refined cocktails are one of the key strengths of Faith & Flower, open in downtown LA this Spring. It’s one of the more striking dining rooms and bars in LA (a city with plenty of notable spaces): lush with greens, leather booths, velvet, crystal chandeliers, feather fans and, as at 1833, featuring absinthe and amaro carts, historic drinks with modern focus and a robust spirits collection.

Square Root, New Orleans

Square Root

Square Root

Square Root is easily the most exciting newcomer to New Orleans on the dining side — and the same holds true for its upstairs bar/lounge. The lovely space in a historic building boasts a balcony and a wrap-around bar from which bartenders turn out impeccable cocktails, dishes and bites akin to the creative quality I love at their parent restaurant, Root.

Barnacle, Seattle

Barnacle

Barnacle

Easily the most consistent quartet of restaurants in Seattle are those from Renee Erickson that have been consistently amazing, three of them taking up my top Seattle dining recommends. Alongside daily changing seafood small plates blissfully heavy on sardines, oysters and the like, sitting at one long counter in an intimate space hidden upstairs across the hall from the Walrus and the Carpenter, Barnacle is even more a pleasure because of its Italian amaro selection in simple but well-executed cocktails, like a bracingly bitter-refreshing Chinato cocktail, mixing the ultra-bitter Amaro Sibilla with Italian Chinotto soda. More on my top Seattle bar recommends here.

Saxon+Parole, NYC

Saxon + Parole has been one of my favorite NY bars for years since Naren Young used to oversee the program. It remains a favorite in its current days and the best visit of all the many bars I hit during yet another return to my teenage years home of the suburbs of NYC. Under the able hands of Masa Urushido, a gracious bar manager who came from some of Tokyo’s top bars in 2008, seasonal cocktails in particular are stunners, deftly utilizing produce, herbs and spices.

Gen Yamamoto's unforgettable bar

Gen Yamamoto’s unforgettable bar

10 Best Bar Experiences, Global

1. Bar Benfiddich, Tokyo, Japan

Bar Ben Fiddich

Bar Ben Fiddich

Bar Benfiddich is utterly transporting, feeling like a colonial tavern from the 1700s hidden upstairs in an office building, all rustic wood and brick, dim with a Colonial-era painting illuminated behind the bar. Best of all, bar master Benfiddich is a wizard with cocktails and making his own spirits, steeping botanicals on the spot from an ancient book of distilling with recipes he’ll point out to you. Alongside an impressive absinthe collection, he also makes his own absinthe — and if you ask for his house root beer, be prepared to be wowed.

2. Gen Yamamoto, Tokyo, Japan

Gen Yamamoto's austere bar

Gen Yamamoto behind his austere bar

Another “wow” experience is the intimate Gen Yamamoto, run by the masterful Gen Yamamoto himself. Gen keeps an austere yet approachable bar of a mere few, rare bottles in a minimalist room marked by a wide, hand-carved, knotty bar from which one watches Gen work. Cocktails can be ordered individually or as 4-6 course tasting menus, featuring rare spirits from gin to sake and the impressive array of Japanese produce in season at its peak, thoughtfully matched with each spirit. Think luscious, massive Hokkaido Niagara grapes with sparkling Nigiri Sake Dassai 50.

3. Zoetrope, Tokyo, Japan

Zoetrope's unreal selection of Ichiro malts back to the 1980s

Zoetrope’s unreal selection of Ichiro malts back to the 1980s

One of the most uniquely brilliant bar experiences — and whisky collections — in the world, is Zoetrope.  The emphasis is on Japanese whiskies, including all those impossible-to-find Chichibu card series bottlings from the ‘80s, shockingly available by the pour or half pour — and at reasonable prices (no more than $20 a pour). But you’ll also find a number of Scotches and American whiskies. The owner is a huge movie buff so films play on a back screen while his 3000+ film score soundtracks loop. It’s one of the most wonderfully unique bar experiences in the world.

4. Calvador, Kyoto, Japan

Drinking Calvados from 1869 at Calvador

Drinking Calvados from 1869 at Calvador

Japan offers one “best in the world” bar experience after another and Bar Calvador is truly one of the greats in the world. For Calvados (French apple brandy) lovers, it’s unreal. The biggest Calvados collection in the world, over 300 bottles and counting, is housed in a tiny, 2nd floor bar with no more than the symbol an apple as any indication it exists from the street. Bar manager Hiroyuki Takayama is a global Calvados ambassador and offers pours from 50, even 80 year old Calvados… or stunning rarities like an 1869 Calvados. It’s an incredible way to get “schooled” on the great brandy of Normandy.

5. Y & M Kisling, Tokyo, Japan

My first night in Tokyo was sheer magic, thanks to legendary Y & M Kisling (pictured top). Hidden on a 7th floor in Ginza, the dark wood-lined bar glows with a 1930s elegance, jazz softly playing in the background, bartenders in cream-colored jackets and the ever-impeccable collection of Japanese barware and glassware, perfectly stirred or shaken cocktails and the house drink, Kaikan Fizz (created by head bartender Mitsugi Yoshida, who has bartended for over 55 years). Served in a highball glass, it’s frothy and bright, mixing gin, whole milk, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, simple syrup, shaken and topped off with soda water. The experience is so transporting you feel as if you’re both in another world and another time.

6. The Envoy, Hong Kong, China

Adorable yinyuang owl mug at The Envoy

Adorable yinyuang owl mug at The Envoy

The Envoy may be the most exciting of Hong Kong’s newcomers, thanks to bar manager Amanda Wan and star Hong Kong barman Antonio Lai (also behind the bars Origin and Quinary). Soft opening this summer in the gorgeous Pottinger hotel up a cobblestone Central street, The Envoy is tucked upstairs on the third floor, a chic wonderland of elegant wallpaper, alcoves, a long bar — including a corner reservations-only bar within full view of a centrifuge and other house equipment — and a white light-strewn patio. The magic of the space translates to the playful drinks (think a blood bag beet and genever cocktail — delicious despite how it sounds) and tea cocktails embracing the all-important British-Chinese afternoon tea ritual, celebrated here with creative bites.

7. Yoram Sake, Kyoto, Japan

Yoram Sake

Yoram Sake

In the US, there are those rare, incredible sake tastings, like an experience of pairings with sushi from sake sommelier Stuart Morris at Pabu in SF, where you can taste sakes ranging funky and mushroom-y, to pine-y and aromatic. And then there’s Yoram Sake, a once-in-a-lifetime sake bar run by Yoram Ofer, an Israeli sake master who also exports sake to the US and beyond. The quiet, intimate bar is merely a few seats (are you seeing a common theme here in Japan?) and the rarities run from elegant, young sakes to 20-30 year aged sakes that invoke stewed onions and beef jus. It’s an almost sacred experience immediately elevating love of sake to another level.

8. Campbelltoun Loch, Tokyo, Japan

Campbeltoun Loch

Campbeltoun Loch

Harder to find and without a website (yes, the spelling of the name is correct), this tiny bar is not much bigger than a closet but equipped with many rare Japanese whisky and Scotch bottles behind (and lined across) the bar. The kindly owner walks you through treasures like old bottles of now-defunct Karuizawa Japanese whisky and 1980’s Mars Single Malt from the Shinsyu Distillery.

9. Cafe De Dokter, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Cafe De Doktor

Cafe De Doktor

Amsterdam boasts a number of unforgettable dive bars: intimate, historic spots bursting with character, and in the case of Cafe de Dokter, dust. The dust has never been cleaned on bric-a-brac lining the walls of this dim haven enhanced by mellow jazz tunes and a laid back bartender. The bar was founded by a surgeon in 1798, has been run by the same family for generations, and is wonderfully creepy with old clocks, birdcages, ventriloquist doll, a hanging doctor’s bag. It’s about all the atmosphere, not the drinks (hence the “dive” label), so a good pour of whisky is the ideal way to go. You won’t find the like of it anywhere else in the world.

10. Duddell’s, Hong Kong, China

Duddell's

Marek Vojcarcik creations at Duddell’s

In a town rife with cool outdoor patios, Duddell’s may be one of the coolest. The expansive, open air lounge upstairs from the two Michelin-starred restaurant opens out onto a large patio lined with tropical foliage, vintage lawn furniture and tables, surrounded by skyscrapers. The artful, British-influenced menu from salon manager Marek Vojcarcik highlights cocktail classics (like a twist on a Gibson with Tanqueray gin, dry vermouth and a garnish of baby pickles) and creative house drinks like Opium, a Scotch-based drink laced with peach, lime and poppy seed milk.

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Written by in: Best Of | Tags:
Jan
01
2014

Top Tastes

TBD's divine uni over potatoes in jalapeno sauce

TBD’s divine uni over potatoes in jalapeno sauce

Best Restaurants of 2013

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Live lobster (first served raw, then claws fried) at Izakaya Kou

Live lobster (first served raw, then claws fried) at Izakaya Kou

Another year, another 600+ restaurants… or that’s how many I kept track of via spreadsheet – there’s even more in actuality (YES, this is my annual average).

While I’ve long been a global traveler, 2013 was the most full yet: I visited over 25 cities in 10 different countries, so weeding through best tastes is more complicated than ever.

2013 was rife with revelatory flavors, regional dish discoveries, memorable newcomers, and wonderfully consistent veterans. Given the vast range, I have three 2013 lists (and best in drink here): 10 Best New Restaurants in SF, 10 Best Meals Around the US and Around the World.

As ever, my goal is to include cheaper spots alongside mid-range and upscale openings, considering range and uniqueness. The opening date range for SF covers November 2012 to November 2013.

10 Best New SF Restaurants

La Urbana huevos con chorizo

La Urbana huevos con chorizo

1. TBD – My review forthcoming next issue, but suffice it to say, this is the most exciting opening of 2013.
2. Saison – As I found not long after I wrote my review, I’m not the only one raving about dishes like unreal savory duck toffee and the best upscale cocktails in SF.
3. 1601 Bar & Kitchen – Sri Lankan-influenced stunners in a low-key SoMa restaurant.
4. 1760 – East-meets-West with impeccable cocktails and wine list at this Russian Hill newcomer.

Garaje burger

Garaje burger

5. La Urbana – Mexico City chic and experimentation hits SF.
6. Padrecito – The ideal gourmet Mexican neighborhood restaurant opens in sleepy Cole Valley.
7. Izakaya Kou – The best izakaya to come along in years – it also serves quality sushi (review in forthcoming issue).
8. Mason Pacific – Nob Hill’s Mason Pacific shows us how neighborhood restaurants are done.
9. Hi Lo – Through many changes in its opening year, Hi Lo still shines with strong, gourmet BBQ.
10. Garaje – The best converted garage serving killer $6 burgers plus tacos.

HONORABLE MENTION: AltaAquitaine, Pesce, Fog City, Tosca, Coqueta, Stone’s Throw, F3 in Sausalito, A16 Rockridge
BEST CHEAP EATS: Linea Caffé, Amawele’s, Guddu de Karahi, Elmira, House of Pancakes, Juhu Beach Club in Oakland
BEST NEW BAKERIES: B Patisserie, Flour+Co, Le Marais, 20th Century Café, Marla Bakery, Heartbaker

10 Best Meals Around the US

Mendocino sea urchin over ginger-scallion pancakes at State Bird Provisions

Mendocino sea urchin over ginger-scallion pancakes at State Bird Provisions

1. State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, CA – Still fantastic at two years of age, the ultimate dim sum-style, gourmet restaurant.
2. Zushi Puzzle in San Francisco, CA – Who else in the US serves such a range of rare fish – and with the surly attitude of Roger? Still the best.
3. Commonwealth in San Francisco, CA – Better than ever. Just take uni over tapioca fritters as one reason why.
4. Root in New Orleans, LA – If California met New Orleans, the lovechild would be fantastic Root.

Roger's ever-wondrous sashimi platters at Zushi Puzzle

Roger’s ever-wondrous sashimi platters at Zushi Puzzle

5. Enotria in Sacramento, CA – Sac Town shows its promise in dishes that would fit in major dining cities.
6. Lula Cafe in Chicago, IL – Not only the best breakfast in Chicago, but the gourmet, imaginative brunch I wish every city had the like of. No throwaway dishes here.
7. Uncle in Denver, CO – Many a nationwide restaurant is doing hipster ramen, but few are doing it as well as Uncle.
8. Empellon Cocina in NYC – Despite hit-and-miss dishes, the highs (seven salsas; shortrib pastrami tacos!) prove Empellon is here to play.
9. Murray’s Cheese Bar in NYC – The ultimate cheese bar restaurant anywhere.
10. Revel in Seattle, WA – The Asian-fusion craze does well in Seattle thanks to Revel’s funky-fresh interpretations of Korean food.

10 Best Meals Around the World

Food as art statement: Osteria Francescana

Food as art statement: Osteria Francescana

1. Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy – 3-Michelin stars are not too high a rave for this king of restaurants.
2. Chez Wong in Lima, Peru – It doesn’t get any better than Chef Wong’s chifa (Peruvian Chinese food) tossed in a wok or cut up raw before you.
3. Ristorante Badessa in Reggio Emilia, Italy – Among the best meals of my life set in a converted 1600’s Parmigiano Reggiano cheese dairy, this place knows service, food, family and balsamico vinegar.
4. Glass Hosteria in Rome, Italy – From one of the great female chefs of the world, a meal of international vision and creativity.
5. Quintonil in Mexico City, Mexico – What modern day Mexico City is about: chic crowd, impeccable ingredients, taste, and execution.

Ultra-fresh urchin at Il San Lorenzo, Rome

Ultra-fresh urchin at Il San Lorenzo, Rome

6. Central in Lima, Peru – Artistically stunning and delicious – this is Peruvian food.
7. Il San Lorenzo in Rome, Italy – Some of the best seafood I’ve had anywhere in the world: urchin out of its spiny shell or silky, raw shrimp shaved paper-thin.
8. St. Peter Stiftskeller in Salzburg, Austria – The oldest restaurant in Europe – maybe the world – is a romantic haven (carved into a cliff) of excellent food and service.
9. Clouds in Zurich, Switzerland – From atop Zurich, an international treasure of a meal and a wine list.
10. Astrid y Gaston in Lima, Peru – From the chef who took Peruvian cuisine to the world, an experience of quality in relaxed environs.

Chez Wong in Lima, Peru

Chez Wong in Lima, Peru

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Written by in: Best Of,Top Tastes |
Jan
01
2014

Imbiber

Palazzo delle Misture in Bassano del Grappa, Italy

Palazzo delle Misture in Bassano del Grappa, Italy

Best Bars of 2013

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Another year, another few hundred bar menus tasted and perused around the globe. This year was the most full yet: I visited over 25 cities in 10 different countries. Which means weeding through best tastes is even more complicated. Given the vast range, I have three 2013 lists (more for best in food/dining here): 12 Best New Bars in San Francisco (opened November 2012 to November 2013); 10 Best Bar Experiences, USA; 10 Best Bar Experiences, Global.

Click on each bar name for my original reviews on what makes each a standout – some I will be reviewing in the coming weeks.

12 Best New Bars in San Francisco

Novela

Novela

1. Hard Water – American whiskey treasures rarely found and beautiful whiskey cocktails, too.
2. Trick Dog – Artistic menus (Pantone swatches! LP folders!), killer food and varied cocktails – if one can push through the crowds flocking to one of the hottest bars in the US right now.
3. Third Rail – Jerky tasting menu and cocktails to suit a range of palates, Third Rail confirms the Dogpatch ‘hood is coming into its own.
4. Novela – Gorgeous, sleek, color-coordinated books, cocktails as elegant and fun as the literary characters they’re named after.
5. Tosca – Thankfully, the jukebox is intact, as is the look and feel of one of SF’s greatest iconic bars in its new incarnation – and that classic House Cappuccino finally tastes like it was meant to.

Saison's No. 4

Saison’s No. 4

6. Saison – Finally: a fine dining bar destination not as experimental as Chicago’s The Aviary, but as elegant and delicious.
7. 1760 – Christopher Longoria’s ingredient/produce-forward cocktail list is a beaut.
8. TBD – Tim Zohn’s “loopholes” cocktail list and extensive beer on draft menu offers something for everyone – without high ABV and with some of the year’s best food.
9. Padrecito – Killer gourmet Mexican food meets its cocktail match in a mellow SF ‘hood.
10. La Urbana – Mexico City meets SF in experimental cocktails with regional stories of Mexico behind them.
11. Dogpatch Saloon – The Dogpatch is lucky to have two of this year’s best new bars.
12. Alchemist – Spacious and cool, it’s a SoMa haven for films on the wall and low key but quality cocktails.

AND DON’T FORGET: Alta, Bergerac, Brass Tacks
BEST NEW BEER BAR: Mikkeller Bar
BEST NEW BREWERY: Cellarmaker Brewing Company
BEST NEW WINE BARS: 20 Spot, Aquitaine

10 Best Bar Experiences, USA

Saxon + Parole

Saxon + Parole, NYC

Two of my best bar experiences all year were in New York City at two 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 (and kick ass beer cocktails) in all of NY in a relaxed setting tinged with Old World elegance.

The second is Saxon + Parole under Naren Young. Young recently came on board at Empellon Cocina, no doubt even better under his watch. When he was in charge of the menu at Saxon (along with The Daily and other former bars), each drink, like a Celery Gimlet, sounded straightforward. But Young’s drinks 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.

Despite my multiple visits this year, Squeaky Bean in Denver would have made the list but now that Sean Kenyon and crew are no longer on board, I can’t vouch for it’s quality.

Besides these two NY bars, the other top bar experiences of 2013 in the US are:

Liberty Bar, Seattle

Liberty Bar, Seattle

1. LOA Bar in New Orleans, LA – Still the most creative cocktails in New Orleansand among the great cocktail bars in the US.
2. The Aviary (again) in Chicago, IL – The ultimate upscale, imaginative, “fine dining” cocktail experience. Period.
3. Liberty Bar in Seattle, WA – Impeccable spirits selection and cocktails more complex and exciting than the casual neighborhood setting and menu would suggest.
4. The Rum House in NY, NY – The best thing to happen to touristy Times Square: a spirits and cocktail aficionado’s haven just steps from the madness.
5. Amor y Amargo in NY, NY – A tiny gem, the model for what a perfect amaro bar should be.
6. Owen & Engine in Chicago, IL – A beer geek’s treasure that also calls to the spirits and cocktail lover.
7. Essex in Seattle, WA – A laid back respite in a residential area crafting highly approachable but nonetheless intelligent drinks.
8. Old Major in Denver, CO – Denver’s first amaro den, shining bright with all things bitter and robust.

10 Best Bar Experiences, Global

Nu Bar Bologna - Virginia Miller

Nu Bar, Bologna

1. Mezcaloteca in Oaxaca, Mexico – The ultimate mezcal bar, a library of over 400 mezcals served with studious dedication, in the mezcal capital of the world,  enchanting Oaxaca.
2. Tales & Spirits in Amsterdam, The Netherlands – The idyllic cocktail bar and restaurant in Amsterdam… but it’s the “invite only” upstairs bar that made me want to move in.
3. Palazzo delle Misture in Bassano del Grappa, Italy – In the dreamy, mountain/river village where grappa reigns, an unexpected oasis of absinthe, quality craft and classic American cocktails.
4. Nu Bar in Bologna, Italy – A shock: an oasis of proper Tiki kitsch, rum and tropical cocktails in the middle of a few thousand year old Italian city… also serving pizza and pasta, of course… from the unmatchable Daniele Dalla Pola.
5. Fridrich in Salzburg, Austria – Among the most badass wine (and fruit brandy) bars in the world: sip Austrian wines and brandies set to Fridrich’s incredible vinyl and CD collection, played with DJ precision in this sexy, tiny haven of a bar I WISH was my neighborhood hangout.

Tales & Spirits, Amsterdam

Tales & Spirits, Amsterdam

6. Limantour (both locations) in Mexico City, Mexico – The bar that started it all in MX, two sexy dens of craft cocktails beyond merely tequila and mezcal.
7. Open Baladin in Rome, Italy – With over 200 beers and drafts, this welcoming bar showcases the glories and creativity of Italian beer (the most experimental in Europe), alongside craft beers from around the globe.
8. Astrid y Gaston in Lima, Peru – If only bars around the world could showcase pisco the way it is here.
9. Hiding in Plain Sight (HPS) in Amsterdam, The Netherlands – Among the most visually beautiful cocktails I’ve seen anywhere in the world in an intimate, unpretentious Old World setting.
10. La Garre in Bruges, Belgium – In a beer-heavy city (and country), this tiny sanctuary hidden in an alley is the kind of Belgium beer bar you dream of.

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Written by in: Best Of,Imbiber | Tags:
Dec
01
2013

Top Tastes

d

Commonwealth: cured sardines, fresh & salted plum, flowering coriander, romano beans, black rice ($15)

BETTER Than EVER

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

s

Commonwealth: sea urchin, corn and tapioca fritters, coastal succulents, cucumber, tomato water granite ($16)

May these photos be a reminder of why these two restaurants are among San Francisco’s best, an impetus to return and try what are among the best dishes their chefs have created since opening. The best things improve with age.

COMMONWEALTH, Mission (2224 Mission St., between 18th & 19th, 415-355-1500)

Commonwealth, one of my overall top San Francisco restaurants out of thousands, is, at over three years old (opening in 2010), better than ever. Visiting this summer and fall was a striking reminder of why Executive Chef Jason Fox with Chef de Cuisine Ian Muntzert, is among the best in our talent-heavy town.

Vibrant, salty: celery sorbet in verjus soda

Vibrant, salty: celery sorbet in verjus soda

Imagination, flavor and value collide in Fox’s dishes, which are on par with fine dining dishes but at $75 for a tasting menu or in the mere teens for individual plates. I often dine on far pricier dishes around the world that aren’t remotely as fresh or ingenious.

Innovation and flavor “wow” in combinations like voluptuous sea urchin with fried corn tapioca fritters, or Wagyu beef with icy horseradish spheres and onions in varying forms. Texture and flavor unfold like art form in the mouth, without feeling overwrought. More than ever, Commonwealth dishes sometimes hit the point of inspiring.

Salmon confit: lemon verbena gelee, almond gazpacho, charred cucumber relish, frozen grapes

Commonwealth: salmon confit, lemon verbena gelee, almond gazpacho, charred cucumber relish, frozen grapes

s

Commonwealth: corn agnolotti ($15), snow peas, radish, huitlacoche crumble, nasturtium, brown butter

Nopa: Early Girl tomatoes ($10) spiced chickpeas, mozarella, balsamic, mint, lime

Nopa: Early Girl tomatoes ($10), spiced chickpeas, mozzarella, balsamic, mint, lime

NOPA, Western Addition (560 Divisadero St. at Hayes; 415-864-8643)

s

Tasso-spiced ham ($9) flamed grapes, crispy shallots, almonds

Though I rarely have patience to brave the crowds at Nopa for a spot at the bar, keeping my visits to times when I have a reservation, it speaks loudly that Nopa remains difficult to get into even on a Monday night, though it opened back in 2006.

f

Liquid Sword ($10): Illegal Joven Mezcal, pear liqueur, Orchard pear eau de vie

I miss the days when Neyah White was the Bar Manager, discovering rare spirits he’d uncover globally long before they were seen elsewhere, crafting sherry cocktails (and the like) long before it was a “trend”.

I always enjoyed Chef Laurence Jossel’s food, but in recent fall visits, I find more than ever, Nopa is a standard-setting neighborhood restaurant.

Though reading through the menu does not inspire with its seemingly typical-sounding options (avocado salad, tomato salad, flatbread), each dish is an unexpected explosion of flavor and texture, ensured by high quality ingredients.

A “simple” ham platter makes a statement with Southern, tasso-spiced ham partnered with flamed/seared grapes, exploding with juice, fried shallots and almonds. Changing flatbreads have been a staple of Nopa’s menu since the beginning. It’s hard to recall a flatbread I’ve liked more here than a recent spicy fennel sausage, lush with Gruyere cheese, tomato and horseradish.

Flatbread ($15) of spicy fennel sausage, tomato, Gruyere, horseradish

Flatbread ($15) of spicy fennel sausage, tomato, Gruyere, horseradish

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Written by in: Best Of,Top Tastes |
Dec
15
2012

Top Tastes

Unforgettable summer dish at AQ: lamb heart “pastrami” with zucchini bread

10 Best New Restaurants of 2012

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

2012 gave birth to a number of new openings I hope will be around for years to come. As ever, my goal is to include cheaper spots alongside mid-range or upscale openings, considering range and uniqueness. It being December, we cannot strictly cover the calendar year, so with each choice open at least two months, the opening date range goes back to October 2011 for a full year.

1. AQ, 1085 Mission Street between 6th & 7th, 415-341-9000)

AQ cocktails in seasonally changing glassware, on a seasonally changing bar top

The one California restaurant nominated for Best New Restaurant in the US at this year’s James Beard Awards (the food world’s Oscars), AQ is my top selection for “the whole package”. While I find the food at # 2 and # 3 equally inspiring, AQ combines food from talented young chef Mark Liberman, reinvented in delightfully surprising ways (think flavors of a pastrami sandwich turned on its head as shaved lamb heart “pastrami” with zucchini bread and house Thousand Island dressing), alongside an inventive cocktail list and accomplished bar staff (I’m still dreaming of this summer’s Maeklong Market Cocktail with a base of peanut-infused mekhong, a sugar cane/molasses/rice-based Thai spirit, creamy with coconut milk, lime and kaffir lime leaves). As if this weren’t enough, the wine list shines and decor is the crowning touch in a two level space with sexy downstairs lounge for private parties, plus greenery, glassware and a bar top that changes with the season. When I’m asked (constantly) where to go by locals and visitors, AQ easily fits the bill for delicious, forward-thinking cuisine with warm service, a destination for both food and drink, with thoughtful attention to the environs… the whole package.

2. State Bird Provisions (1529 Fillmore Street, 415-795-1272)

Humble simplicity, fantastic food & concept at State Bird

Since Bon Appetit named State Bird Provisions best new restaurant in America this year, none of us can get a reservation in the small, modest space with pegboard and stone walls, like dining in a funky garage. What makes State Bird so special, besides efficient, engaging service and husband/wife team Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski’s genuine welcome (they often greet diners themselves as they pass by the kitchen in the entrance), is that they’ve created something truly different. Despite being one of the hottest reservations in the country right now, State Bird is ultra-casual, affordable and unique, imaginative plates flowing out dim sum-style on carts and trays, ever playful and satisfying – a prime example of what makes SF’s dining scene so exciting right now.

3. Rich Table (199 Gough Street, 415-355-9085)

Dessert at Rich Table

From another husband/wife duo, Evan and Sarah Rich’s Rich Table could easily be number one for food alongside State Bird and AQ. All three restaurants boast an uncommon vision in their cooking – Rich Table’s is one of an upscale nature in comfort food garb. Presentation can be exquisite, but the dishes gratify and assuage rather than feel fussy. Getting past the (worthy) din about those sardine-laced potato chips to start, pastas are unexpectedly one of the restaurant’s highlights, a duck lasagne layered with braised duck, light béchamel, and tart Santa Rosa plums, easily standing out as one of the best dishes of the year. Though short and sweet, the 4-5 cocktails on offer (now being updated by brand new bar manager Jason “Buffalo” LoGrasso fresh from Cotogna) are clean, simple-yet-vivid stars in their own right.

4. Ice Cream Bar (815 Cole Street, 415-742-4932)

Soda fountain delights at Ice Cream Bar

More a neighborhood diner and soda fountain, Ice Cream Bar deserves accolades for bringing us the kind of soda fountain menu unmatched in the country yet sure to be copied. Recipes and practices date back to the 1800’s with modern sensibility, showcased in drinks like the Bonne Vie No. 2, a citrus-garden delight of basil leaves, basil ice cream, and pink grapefruit, its sour-fresh qualities glorified with citric acid. There’s boozy fountain drinks (like a perfect Angostura Phosphate), ice cream (their tart cherry remains my favorite), and darn good sandwiches (egg salad and tuna) on house brioche, with the soda fountain manned by gifted, friendly soda jerks who live and breathe the history of the craft.

5. Pläj Scandinavian Restaurant and Bar (333 Fulton Street, 415-294-8925)

Checks arrive in a Norwegian translation book at Plaj

With the food world in Scandinavian mode the last few years (the cuisine to take over where the El Bulli world of Spain ruled for so long), it’s a shame we haven’t had much Scandinavian food to speak of here, particularly of the nouveau wave à la Fäviken or Noma. Pläj (pronounced “play”) is gourmet-traditional Scandinavian fare with modern sensibilities from chef/owner Roberth Sundell, a Stockholm native. In the mellow Inn at the Opera, it’s respite of a dinner with sincere service, shining particularly bright with seafood in the menu’s Fjord section. Herring trios, Swedish meatballs, Norwegian salmon belly gravlax and rounds of aquavit… I’ve been waiting for this one and hope it opens the door for more.

6. Craftsman and Wolves (746 Valencia Street, 415-913-7713)

Craftsman & Wolves’ artful desserts

Don’t just call it a bakery. Craftsman & Wolves is a heightened sort of cafe where baked goods move boundaries and desserts are works of art. William Werner’s artistic eats, alongside sandwiches and salads, Sightglass Coffee, Naivetea, and dreamy drinking caramel made with salted butter, ensure this is an extraordinary addition to the SF food scene, standing apart from other cafes. Skylights, brick and clean lines make for a modern cafe setting, while items like the Rebel Within, an herb, cheese, sausage-studded muffin with a sous vide egg hidden inside, are already cult classics.

7 & 8. TIE: Saru Sushi (3856 24th Street, 415-440-4510) and Elephant Sushi (1916 Hyde Street, 415-440-1905)

Boom Box roll at Elephant Sushi

This sushi duo isn’t perfect, nor will either be the best sushi meal of your life. But in their infancy, they both represent the ideal neighborhood sushi outposts: friendly, laid back, almost hip, with spanking fresh fish and consistently interesting maki, nigiri, sashimi, tasting spoons (at Saru Sushi), and sizzling mango seabass (at Elephant Sushi).

With a glass of sake, try firm-yet-silky squid in yuzu juice at Saru or bananas draped beautifully over Elephant’s Boom Box roll with scallop, avocado, and cucumber. Those lucky souls who live near either restaurant have themselves exemplary neighborhood sushi bars in which to unwind.

9. Mission Bowling Club (3176 17th Street, 415-863-2695)

The view from Mission Bowling’s second floor dining area

Mission Bowling Club (MBC) is significant because never up till now has a bowling alley served food this good. Hipster, even upscale for a bowling alley, the open, industrial space, large front patio, and downstairs/upstairs dining room (the latter oversees the action) is a striking setting for Anthony Myint’s (of Mission Chinese Food and Mission St. Food, no less) beloved Mission Burger, a rich, granulated patty, lathered in caper aioli. Entrees like blackened salmon on a potato latke marked by salmon roe, cucumber and horseradish are listed alongside a juicy sausage corn dog dipped in habanero crema. Bowling never tasted this sublime.

10. FuseBOX (2311A Magnolia, Oakland, 510-444-3100)

FuseBOX’s sunny courtyard

Despite being open only three days a week for lunch with just-added Saturday night dinner service (reserve ahead!), FuseBOX is my favorite East Bay opening this year because of its unique approach to Asian cuisine. Such limited hours in a remote West Oakland block makes it a meal you have to work to get to, but the fusion of Korean and izakaya-style Japanese from Sunhui and Ellen Sebastian Chang is a welcoming, tiny haven (with large front patio) for creative Asian fare often in bite-size format allowing ample tasting. There’s rotating robata bites or kimchee from bok choy to kale, interesting panchan/banchan (mini-dishes often accompanying a Korean meal), hamachi tartare topped with lime caviar, Tokyo po boys, and an unforgettable bacon mochi. And who else offers kimchee and coffee service with Korean beignets?

Beer & gourmet dishes at St. Vincent

HONORABLE MENTION goes to Gioia Pizzeria (2240 Polk, 415-359-0971, www.gioiapizzeria.com) for bringing Berkeley’s best NY pizza to SF; CatHead’s BBQ (1665 Folsom, 415-861-4242, www.catsheadbbq.com) for some of the better BBQ in our city (“real deal” Southern BBQ being difficult to come by outside of the South); Abbott’s Cellar (742 Valencia, 415-626-8700, www.abbotscellar.com) for one of the best beer menus anywhere and elevated food to accompany it in a sleek-rustic dining room; Orexi (243 West Portal, 415-664-6739, www.orexisf.com) for daring to bring satisfying Greek food to our Greek-deficient dining scene; St. Vincent (1270 Valencia, 415-285-1200, www.stvincentsf.com) for a wine and beer geek’s dream menu partnered with forward-thinking interpretations of regional American dishes; Machka (584 Washington, 415-391-8228, www.machkasf.com) for a chic take on Turkish food.

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Written by in: Best Of,Top Tastes |
Dec
15
2012

Imbiber

10 Best Spirits Releases of 2012

Article by Virginia Miller, Press photos/from brand websites

Each year holds a range of interesting spirits released from around the globe. As the craft spirit industry continues to explode, there are many exciting newcomers this year. Here are some of the best of what’s crossed my desk in 2012.

FORD’s GIN ($27) –  The 86 Company is a new venture from spirits and cocktail world stars Simon Ford (former International Brand Ambassador for Plymouth Gin), Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric (owners of New York’s Employees Only bar, authors of Speakeasy). Just last month, they released Caña Brava Rum (a Panama rum, aged 3 years), Aylesbury Duck Vodka, and Ford’s Gin. It’s the gin I’ve been mixing with at home in every kind of cocktail from a basic gin and tonic to complex Ramos Gin Fizz. The gin’s bright citrus-juniper properties shine in each – and the price is right. Master Distiller Charles Maxwell, of Thames Distillers, worked with Ford to develop Fords Gin, made with nine botanicals, including juniper, coriander, cassia, jasmine, bitter orange, grapefruit peel. A nice, local connection (and environmental plus): distilled gin is shipped in bulk to and bottled by our own Charbay in Napa, cut with fresh Mendocino County water.

HIGH WEST CAMPIRE WHISKEY ($54) – Though I’ve been partial to Balcones Brimstone when it comes to a wild and wooly American smoked whiskey (in Balcones’ case, a corn whiskey smoked with Texas scrub oak), High West’s new Campfire continues in that rugged vein,  smoky with Old West charm. Bourbon, rye and smoky single malt are blended together in a spicy, woody, sweet, floral whole that makes me crave BBQ.

IMBUE PETAL & THORN Vermouth ($27) - From Portland and the creators of bittersweet vermouth Imbue (Derek Einberger, Neil Kopplin, and Jennifer Kilfoil), Imbue’s Petal & Thorn is a gorgeously bitter gentian liqueur using homegrown beets for color, alongside cinnamon and menthol – a truly unique elixir that’s lovely with soda on the rocks, in twists on classic cocktails like the Negroni, and on its own.

TEMPUS FUGIT KINA L’AVION D’OR ($35) – Fresh off the heels of their unparalleled Crème de Menthe and Crème de Cacao last year, Tempus Fugit does it again with Kina L’Avion D’or. Reminiscent of Lillet and Cocchi Americano but with a more intense flavor punch and elegant bitter quotient, it’s made from a hundred year old recipe from a Swiss distillery… a shining beauty in the quinquina family of aperitifs, distinct with quinine bite.

1512 SPIRITS Poitín ($39) – Poitín is a rare Irish spirit made in this case from potatoes and barley (the word poteen refers to small pot stills in which the liquor is historically made). Clear, bold and light, it evokes cucumber and Summer, with the spirit of an eau de vie and robustness of a white whiskey. There’s nothing quite like it.

WAHAKA MADRE CUISHE MEZCAL ($80) – New to the US this year, Wahaka Mezcals are solid across the line, from an affordable Espadin Joven ($30) to an award winning Tobala ($80). I especially appreciate the earthier Madre Cuishe ($80), made from the wild agave plant of the same name, evoking fresh earth, cigar ash, citrus even fresh, green vegetables. If you get a taste of their Real Matlatl Tobala Mezcal ($125), it’s blissfully like sucking on a stone, intensely earthy, fascinating – for the mezcal aficionado.

CHATEAU de LAUBADE BLANCE ARMAGNAC ($55) – From a Gascon, family-run Armagnac house established in 1870, this clear, refined Armagnac has more in common with an elegant grappa or pisco than beautifully rough and ready Armagnacs. Airy yet substantial with pear and floral notes, the lack of color is due to it being an unaged Armagnac. The purity of the base, made from 100% Folle Blanche grapes, shines. Consider it the cleaner, lighter side of brandy.

LEOPOLD BROTHERS FERNET ($35) – First tasting Leopold Brothers’ Fernet straight from the vat as it was fermenting when I visited their family-run Denver distillery in Sept. 2011, its release this year yielded a lighter, layered fernet-style amaro, where ginger, mint, cacao and floral notes peek out alongside the menthol bitterness Fernet is known for – the brothers (Todd and Scott) added sarsparilla root and molasses for a distinctly American touch.

GLENFIDDICH MASTER MALT Edition ($90)This limited-edition whisky was released in September from the classic distillery, one of only four in Scotland still owned and run by the same family since the 1800′s. At 18,000 bottles, it’s small production for Glenfiddich, celebrating their 125th anniversary. Malt Master Brian Kinsman crafted this double-matured whisky, which spent roughly 6 to 8 years in used Bourbon barrels, then 4 to 6 years in sherry casks. Sherry characteristics hit first but don’t overpower, with accompanying brine and spice.

FOUR ROSES 2012 Limited Edition SINGLE BARREL BOURBON ($90)  – A bracing bourbon at 100-114 proof, depending on the barrel, with only 3600 bottles released, Master Distiller Jim Rutledge has personally selected these uncut, unfiltered 12 year bourbon barrels for special release this year, among the more noteworthy whiskey tastes of 2012.

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Oct
15
2012

The Latest

Clean, simple, purity in each cocktail on the short (four) cocktail list

PRIMED for GREATNESS

RICH TABLE, Hayes Valley (199 Gough St. at Oak, 415-355-9085)

The most talked about item on the menu from day one: sardine chips

Not since State Bird Provisions and AQ opened towards the end of 2011 have I been as excited about a new opening. Evan and Sarah Rich’s new Rich Table presents itself as the whole package, kinks and all, even in the first month. With efficient, informed service, reasonably priced wine list, few but well-crafted cocktails, a comfortable dining room with rustic-urban decor, and most importantly, a number of exquisite dishes, Rich Table is primed for greatness.

The Riches, a husband and wife chef duo, worked at Bouley in New York, Coi here in San Francisco, Evan at Quince, Sarah at Michael Mina, with the couple hosting memorable pop-up dinners at Radius last fall. This fine dining pedigree infuses their mid-range menu. Dishes don’t often surprise beyond a menu reading, but here numerous dishes are more fascinating than they read. At AQ, dishes are works of art unfolding in layers of unexpected flavor. At Rich Table, there’s an approachable comfort elevated with refined nuances.

Easily among the top dishes of the year, duck lasagne

On the light bites side, everyone (and I mean everyone) has been buzzing about paper-thin potato chips ($7) with sardines interwoven through the center, dipped in horseradish cream. As a big sardine fan, these are not overrated, worth ordering every time. I brushed past Castelvetrano olives ($5) as common – thankfully a dining companion ordered them one visit. Brightened by celery leaves and preserved lemon, the olives became even greater than they are alone.

A surprising treat: popcorn soup

On an early visit, popcorn soup ($10) tasted like buttery, pureed popcorn in a bowl dotted with popcorn. Yuzu kosho (a fermented paste of chili peppers and yuzu rind) perks up the creamy bowl. Outstanding squid dishes ($14) morph with seasonal ingredients. The first incarnation wowed, the plump squid lively with watermelon yet simultaneously savory in black olive vinaigrette, dotted with crispy onions.

Pasta dishes shine

This sweet/savory, fresh/grilled dish was such a joy, I couldn’t help but be a little let down by its successor: squid with figs, crisp onions and lardon draped across the top. The breezy luminosity brought by the melon felt a bit weighted down with figs, though still a winning dish. Crushed peas ($14) with California yellowtail and saltine crackers to scoop up is vivaciously fresh, but a slight (i.e. miniscule) serving.

Sweet/savory perfection: squid, watermelon, fried onions in black olive vinaigrette

The menu is not easily categorized nor a copycat of anyone, but is packed with pleasures peeking out in unforseen places. Case in point? The pasta. I could come here for pasta alone (one dinner I ordered all four pasta dishes on the ever-changing menu). None shines more than a divine duck lasagne ($19). A smile crosses my face just thinking of delicate, melting sheets of pasta, layered with braised duck, light béchamel, and tart Santa Rosa plums. It’s a glorious pasta dish with no equal in this town… or in any other. Other pasta dishes may not reach these heights but each is worthwhile, even excellent, whether rigatoni bolognese ($18) elevated by bone marrow and crispy kale or beets, or spaghetti ($18) tossed with Jimmy Nardello peppers, clams and purslane.

Lichen-poached rabbit

On the entree front, lichen-poached rabbit ($25) is heartwarming as it is gourmet, mingling with cippolini onions, radicchio leaves and broccoli raabe. Pork belly panzanella ($24) is the classic Italian bread salad of tomato, basil, cucumber and toasted bread cubes tossed with fatty pork belly, though I took to a hearty tomato braised oxtail on toast ($25) even more. While accompanying grilled octopus and collard greens seemed disparate, the meaty toast alone makes it worthwhile, as satisfying as Southern BBQ.

Oxtail toast & octopus

Sarah Rich’s desserts (all $8) maintain the comfort-meets-craft spirit of the restaurant from a bright melange of chilled melon to caramelized olive oil cake in strawberries, a heightened strawberry shortcake perfected with the grilled cake. Panna cotta lovers shouldn’t miss Sarah’s silky rendition with changing seasonal accents.

Summer berries with chocolate cream, sorrel

Wines are priced by glass, carafe or bottle, conveniently grouped in three white and three red price categories, with strong options like 2010 Christian Moreau Chardonnay from Chablis, Burgundy, or a 2011 COS Frappato from Vittoria, Sicily. The cocktail list ($10 each) is short – no more than four at a time – and I’ve sampled six different ones. While some fare better than others (Barn Wood – Buffalo Trace bourbon and bitters is a bit too musky-sweet from stone fruits), most offer understated elegance, actually different than other cocktail menus in simple purity.

Grilled olive oil cake w/ strawberries

The star is the lush, green Big Night, which looks like a healthy, green veggie drink, but is subtly smoky Del Maguey Vida mezcal mixed with nasturtium and ginger, topped with an edible flower. It’s clean, strong, memorable. As is Land’s End, their answer to a martini using the incomparable St. George Terroir Gin, dry vermouth and foraged Monterey cypress. On the light, soft side, Let’s Go is a refreshing sipper of Encanto pisco, coconut water and lime.

Again, Rich Table is the whole package, first and foremost because of the warm vibe set by Sarah, Evan and their engaged staff… and an ever unexpected menu.

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Written by in: Best Of,The Latest |

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