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

Written by in: Best Of,Top Tastes |


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



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.

Written by in: Best Of,Imbiber | Tags:

Top Tastes


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


Photos and article by Virginia Miller


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


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)


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.


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

Written by in: Best Of,Top Tastes |

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.

Written by in: Best Of,Top Tastes |


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.


The Latest

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


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.

Written by in: Best Of,The Latest |

Top Tastes

Acquerello’s dreamy cheese cart

ACQUERELLO: Fine Dining Gem

(1722 Sacramento St. between Van Ness & Polk, 415-567-5432)

“Chef’s surprises” to start

One doesn’t often hear about Acquerello in dining circles these days. But we should. Not readily visible from the street, the restaurant’s lobby opens into a glowing dining room that at first glance appears an older clientele’s respite for an elegant meal. After a recent return to this classic since 1989, I’d venture to say it is that but much more. I’d call it San Francisco’s great underrated fine dining destination, though it has received a coveted Michelin star for six years running.

Acquerello serves unexpectedly forward-thinking food alongside heartwarming classics, but it’s the service that initially stands out. Upon arrival, one is ushered to one of a few thoughtfully spaced tables, intimate yet engaged in a room transplanted from Italy. In soft peach and beige, its subtly dated in a European way, inviting and quiet under striking wood rafters – but not so quiet as to be museum-like.

Shot of carrot-apple-ginger juice w/ vanilla foam

A team of waiters, three sommeliers and co-owner Giancarlo Paterlini, alternately attend to each table, the head waiter having been at the restaurant since the 1980’s, along with Paterlini’s son, Gianpaolo, who is also the Wine Director, and chef/co-owner Suzette Gresham-Tognetti. One of the more delightful chefs I’ve ever met, Suzette came out and greeted those of us that lingered into the evening, clearly still so passionate about what she does. She works closely with young chef de cuisine Mark Pensa on all menus (classic tasting menu: $95 + $75 wine pairing; seasonal tasting menu: $135 per person + $95 wine pairing; a la carte: three courses of your choosing $70, four for $82, five for $95).

Delightful, delicious: “baked potato” gnocchi

For an experience of Acquerello past and present, I recommend both the classic and seasonal menu (if a dining couple, each could order one), although a la carte is an excellent way to try exactly what you wish.

There is nothing “done” about Acquerello past. In fact, this classic, “greatest hits” menu through the decades still offers some of the best dishes on any menu. It will be a gourmand’s loss when the ridged pasta in foie gras and Marsala wine sauce scented with black truffles goes away in a couple weeks. Ultimately the most ecstasy-inducing dish is this dreamy take on foie gras in sauce form over al dente pasta, long one of their most popular dishes. Another classic is juicy chicken breast decadently stuffed with black truffles over a leek custard and an artful mini-potato gratin, topped with shaved Cremini mushrooms.

Acquerello’s dining room

Dessert: cucumber sorbet w/ lime curd












To start, “chef’s surprises” are delicate hints of what is to come, like warm arancini of asparagus and Parmesan cream or profiteroles filled with lush herbed cream.

Saikou salmon: bright w/ horseradish

On the regular menu exist treasures like pear and foie gras “ravioli”: the chefs slice dry-farmed, organic Comice pears into thin, pasta-like skin, filled with truffled foie torchon. Saikou, a New Zealand farm-raised salmon, is bright and clean from high, cold elevations. They poach it for seconds in a layer of horseradish, crusting it with chevril, pine nuts and parsley, an herb pesto of sorts. Each dish explodes with flavor yet corners refinement, maintaining a Cal-Italian ethos, while not playing safe.

Snake River Kobe w/ shaved hazelnuts

On the seasonal menu, Chefs Gresham-Tognetti and Pensa work closely together on inventive takes to rival the better fine dining meals I’ve had. An amuse of raw yellowtail is alive with seabeans and arugula blossoms, while red abalone pairs with cabbage “seaweed” in porcini broth. Snake River Kobe beef is tender pink, cooked sous vide under shaved hazelnuts. The cheese course is a warm, oozing round of Gorgonzola DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protella, or Protected Designation of Origin) beautifully co-mingles with potato, onion, mustard seeds and nasturtium. Probably the most delightful, unique dish is “baked potato” gnocchi, a playful take on a baked potato, starting with doughy gnocchi topped with chive crème fraiche, pancetta and paper thin, fried slivers of potato skins.

Gorgeous Gorgonzola dish

Palate cleansers include a shot of carrot-apple-ginger juice with vanilla foam, or a refreshing starter of orange juice, vermouth, and bitters. On the seasonal menu, a vivid dessert from pastry chef Theron Marrs marries cucumber sorbet with tart lime curd, sweet strawberry consommé, and herbaceous mint granita. As at Gary Danko, the cheese cart is one of Acquerello’s shining glories. Covered to contain the stinkiest offerings, it is difficult choosing from unusual, mostly Italian cheeses. An impression was made with earthy Blu di Valchiusella from Piemonte wrapped in walnut leaves and an impeccable Beppino Occelli in Barolo wine leaves. On the cart, treasures await.

Sweets & espresso finish

Last but not least, with no less than three sommeliers, Acquerello’s extensive wine list is novel-thick, dense with Italian wines. There’s an impressive range of varietals and vintages stored in their wine cellars. Pairings melded seamlessly with each dish, whether a classic, lovely Nebbiolo d’Alba (2008 La Val Dei Preti), an unusual Langhe Rosso Burgundian-style Italian Pinot, or D’antiche Terre Taurasi Riserva, which transforms when sipped with fabulously rich veal and truffled mortadella tortellini Bolognesi.

For a special occasion, up against hot newcomers and pricey minimalist restaurants, I’d place Acquerello as one of the best fine dining experiences in San Francisco: a place with a sense of history and vision for the future.

A corner booth

Pear/foie ravioli

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Top Tastes

Txoko’s inviting bar

Improving with Age:
Two Restaurants on the Rise

Photos & article by Virginia Miller

Age is good thing: for wine, whiskey, cheese, wisdom and sense of self, to name a few. Age deepens, fills out, matures, makes whole. In the scheme of things, these two restaurants are youngsters – one could hardly call them “aged”, though Bar Tartine has thrived an impressive number of years since opening in 2005. Txoko is the new kid on the block, taking over a historical space (Enrico’s) just under a year ago. One thing they both have in common is that over the past year, with age, they’ve steadily improved – what was last year at times exceptional is now more consistently so.

BAR TARTINE, Mission (8561 Valencia Street between 16th & 17th, 415-487-1600)

Tray of pickled jars

Bar Tartine has long been a notable restaurant. What it has become is exciting. Last year I wrote of new chef Nick Balla, fresh from Nombe, who launched a Hungarian-influenced menu acknowledging his roots. While the food remains comforting, you won’t see the usual gourmet dishes found across town. Eastern European touches render the food unique, staunchly non-traditional yet exuding down home goodness.

Crave-inducing beet salad

Tripe strikes fear in the hearts of many – I don’t mind it, but only at Oliveto’s 2010 Whole Hog dinner had I found it delicious. Balla’s grilled tripe ($12) stands as the best tripe dish I’ve ever tasted. Silky (not slimy) strips of tripe fill a bowl aromatically entwined with fennel, cabbage and paprika. Beets, an ingredient we’re inundated with in recent years, are electrifying in an Ensalada Rusa ($12) with celery root, dill, chili, peppercress, and plenty of lime. This invigorating expression is stands above the best beet dishes. Another all too common vegetable, brussels sprouts ($7), are fried but instead of being tossed with the usual bacon or apples, are mixed with carrot, mint, anise and serrano chilis. Heat and mint infuse them with fresh life.

Farmer’s cheese dumplings

An entree winner is Hungarian farmer’s cheese dumplings, nokedli ($17). Sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) and wild onion meld with doughy, slightly cheesy, dumplings – sheer comfort. A beloved German dish of mine is pickled herring ($10). Here it is brightly fresh, shrouded in sour cream and onion, served with Tartine’s rye bread.

Puffy, fried Hungarian potato bread, langos ($10), remains the must-order menu item every visit, drizzled in sour cream and dill, it is blissfully garlicky. Not since my travels through the Hungarian countryside have I seen this addictive bread. Mini-jars of pickled vegetables ($4 per jar) are popular menu items – I like pickled tumeric cauliflower and carrot best. Here’s hoping when cherry season hits, we’ll witness the return of Balla’s fantastic version of Hungarian chilled sour cherry soup, meggyleves.

Bright pickled herring

The wine list persists in quality, a recent example being a contrast of two rieslings: a dry, elegant, German 2009 Keller Von der Fels Trocken Riesling ($52 bottle) alongside a lively, unusual but refined, Santa Barbara 2008 Tatomer Vandenberg Riesling ($59 bottle). The wine list is expertly selected, as these two beauties suggest.

After nearly a year since Balla joined Bar Tartine, with the expanded, invitingly glowing space, I’d list Bar Tartine as a personal favorite and one of the best in town.

View from a green leather chair at Txoko

TXOKO, North Beach (504 Broadway at Kearny, 415-500-2744)

Whimsical animal wall paintings

With so little Basque cuisine in our city, I was delighted when Txoko (pronounced “choko”) opened in the spacious, former Enrico’s, promising Basque influence. Lots of small plates and just a few larger ones appealed with an opportunity to try more. Early visits last year yielded delectable small bites, while I found larger plates less exciting. When the menu recently changed to a more traditional appetizer/entree format, I feared it would lose its uniqueness. Pleased I’ve been in recent returns to find Txoko rounded out, entrees keeping pace with starters. I do sense the Basque influence is looser than it was before, however, and would rather not see that aspect fade.

I am welcomed by the roomy space with covered patio in front, green leather chairs, animal painting on the walls, and a wood-lined bar.

Txoko cocktails

Txoko’s Wednesday night, 4 course foie gras dinners ($55 + $35 wine pairing) are arguably the best way to ride out the remaining months until June when the foie gras ban takes effect in California (read Txoko owner, Ryan Maxey’s eloquent piece on this issue). The menu varies each week though typically finishes with buttery foie gras ice cream. One week I savored silky foie gras torchon on a flaky puff pastry, in a lavender golden raisin sauce redolent with thyme. My main was a gorgeous foie gras a la plancha (grilled), savory and meaty on a mound of beluga lentils, mirepoix, and chorizo, surrounded by strips of duck jamon, topped with crispy chicharrones. A “lighter” foie dish was seared rare ahi tuna lush in Pedro Ximenez sherry sauce, with slices of foie and caramelized pearl onions standing in a potato coulis.

Foie gras a la plancha on lentils

On the regular menu, two dishes left an impression. Warm lamb’s tongue salad ($11) is a surprisingly light salad of lamb mixed with poached potatoes, Manchego cheese, shishito peppers and frisee, surrounded by smoked tomatoes. Different and delightful. A heartwarming dish of grilled venison Denver leg ($29) is served medium rare, draped over mashed yams, in blood orange endive marmelata, dotted with crispy sage leaves and pine nuts. Each dish is artfully presented and generously portioned.

Grilled venison leg

Drink options are vibrantly varied, with choices like a bone dry 2009 Isastegi Basque cider ($6) and wines such as an earthy, plum and berry-inflected 2001 Senorio de P. Pecina Reserva Rioja. Txoko has a full bar with commendable cocktails ($10), like tart-sweet, sparkling Dominican 75, a twist on the classic French 75 with Brugal Extra Viejo rum, lime, simple syrup, and Mont Marcal cava, or a playful, refreshing Cool Hand Luke Fizz utilizing Fighting Cock bourbon, Peychaud’s bitters, egg whites for froth, vivacious with Mexican Coke.

Light warm lamb’s tongue salad

Finishing the evening with moist, Spanish-style bread pudding ($8) is a pleasure, sweetened by prunes, olive caramel and candied marcona almonds, happily paired with a nutty, acidic, sweet Sangre y Trabajadero Oloroso Sherry($7 glass).

I’m expectant to see how Txoko will continue to evolve, a refreshing change of pace in North Beach, and, indeed, the city.

Cozy but roomy corner booth


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