May
15
2014

Top Tastes

Schroeder's, the historic beer hall and restaurant, reinvented and now a destination - but thankfully those beautiful murals remain intact

Schroeder’s, the historic beer hall and restaurant, reinvented and now a destination – thankfully those beautiful murals remain intact

My Food & Drink Recommends, New Opening Early Tastes, and More: May 1-15

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

As I write a few articles a day in my new role as Zagat Editor, I will summarize and link to just some of this extensive coverage for easy access (you can sign up for Zagat’s weekly newsletter for the Bay Area here for some highlights and follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF where I post daily articles).

As I have been for over a decade, I’m on the ground looking for early standouts at each new opening (and there has been a slew of high profile openings the last few weeks), I also share underrated and forgotten dishes and places you’ve seen me write about here at The Perfect Spot for years, and continue with plenty of drink coverage (cocktails, wine, spirits, beer).

News

JAMES BEARD WINNERS INTERVIEWS: Charles Phan and Daniel Patterson react to their big wins

New Bay Area Openings

SMOKESTACK – Killer BBQ, beer and cocktails in one cool Dogpatch space from brew master Dave McLean

PRUBECHU – Guam cuisine and tasting menu steal

SCHROEDER’S – Legendary German beer hall and restaurant reborn

4505 BURGERS & BBQBBQ, burgers and more from butcher king Ryan Farr

HOG ISLAND OYSTER BAR – More than doubled in size, and now with cocktails

MANOS NOUVEAU – Under-the-radar Mission opening serves lovely ceviche and Mexico-meets-Peru cuisine

LA RONDALLA – A historic Mexican classic reborn after being closed since 2007

HOMESKILLET – Potato chip-stuffed burgers and breakfast all day at the newcomer from Little Griddle folks

GRUBBIN‘ – Pastrami and meat-heavy sandwiches in friendly Parkside shop

BISSAP BAOBAB OAKLAND – SF’s longtime Senegalese favorite opens a second Oakland location

Drink Coverage

TRENDSPOTTING: Coffee and soda, coffee and tonic

3 LOCAL WHITE WINES to Pair with take-out

5 BAY AREA ROSE WINES for a Spring afternoon

3 COOLING COCONUT MILK COCKTAILS on SF menus now

9 CURRENT HAPPY HOURS with a view, quality food and drink, and more

Napa

12 ESSENTIAL NAPA RESTAURANTS – Tough to choose but here are 12 iconic, important spots from Napa to Calistoga

CITY WINERY NAPA: The third location of the NY music venue and winery puts music, wine & food under one roof

Underrated Spots & Dishes

SECRETLY AWESOME: Fang’s Peking Beef Bao

5 UNUSUAL BRUNCH DISHES

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Written by in: Top Tastes |
May
01
2014

Top Tastes

 A dreamy vegetarian course: tender potato gnocchi filled with liquid cauliflower sauce, colorfully marked by Pantelleria (Sicilian-style) capers and romanesco broccoli.

A dreamy vegetarian course: tender potato gnocchi filled with liquid cauliflower sauce, colorfully marked by Pantelleria (Sicilian-style) capers and romanesco broccoli.

Celebratory Spring:
Quince’s Artful New Menus

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Here’s my May 1st photo slideshow and article on a few of the great dishes from Quince, a 2 Michelin-starred, Italian-influenced fine dining great in San Francisco, for Zagat: www.zagat.com/b/san-francisco/quinces-spring-menu-our-12-favorite-dishes-tastes.

Splurge on the Spring menu: a $40 supplement adds in Tortelli alla Cecilia Chang, a decadent pasta tribute to the great Chinese restaurant legend and SF local, Cecilia Chang. The tortelli pasta is filled with smoked sturgeon and potato, marked by dill and generous dollops of caviar.

Splurge on the Spring menu: a $40 supplement adds in Tortelli alla Cecilia Chang, a decadent pasta tribute to the great Chinese restaurant legend and SF local, Cecilia Chang. The tortelli pasta is filled with smoked sturgeon and potato, marked by dill and generous dollops of caviar.

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Mar
15
2014

Top Tastes

Joe Obegi in front of his iconic burger joint on its last day

Joe Obegi in front of his iconic burger joint on its last day

Tribute to a SAN FRANCISCO LEGEND:
Goodbye, Joe’s Cable Car

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Joe's burgers

Joe’s burgers

Pulling into the Joe’s Cable Car parking lot 15 minutes to its 11am opening time, I made it just before a steady stream of cars, news crews, even a firetruck full of fireman, filled the legendary diner for their last Joe’s burger. On its final day of business, March 16 – after 49 years run by the same wonderful, 75-year-old owner – Joe Obegi served burgers, chatted and took photos with patrons.

Love those root beer freezes

Love those root beer freezes

Fresh-ground meat, old school-delicious burgers, quirky diner decor and Joe’s constant personal touch make losing this iconic burger joint a real loss for San Francisco and for food lovers. It’s been a favorite of mine since I moved to SF in 2001.

Here’s my photo goodbye to Joe’s on it’s last day of business. Tragically, it seems the diner will likely be torn down to make way for condos. The wrong places go.

Fresh ground meat daily

Fresh ground meat daily

Iconic roadside sign

Iconic roadside sign

Joe's exterior

Joe’s exterior

Joe's Cable Car3-Virginai Miller

Exterior sign

Joe keeping an eye on diner's on the diner's final morning

Joe keeping an eye on diner’s on the diner’s final morning

Beautiful 1946 Mercury in Joe's parking lot

Beautiful 1946 Mercury in Joe’s parking lot

Peeking into the kitchen

Peeking into the kitchen

My favorite of the many parking lot signs

My favorite of the many parking lot signs

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Mar
01
2014

Top Tastes

Still wriggling on the plate: live, raw spot prawns at R&G Lounge

Still wriggling on the plate: live, raw spot prawns at R&G Lounge

HOLDING STRONG at SF Standard-Setters

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

In the midst of the latest, hottest, buzzed about new openings, the greats get forgotten. Whether it’s old school classics like seafood at Tadich Grill, or arguably the best souffles in the US at Cafe Jacqueline, where Jacqueline has dedicated decades to churning out perfect souffles every night, many of our greats keep their steady following yet stay under the radar. Recently, I’ve gone back for East German comfort at Walzwerk, ever impeccable Greek feasts at Kokkari, rounds of crab, garlic bread and chowder at Anchor Oyster Bar, and live – still wriggling on the plate – raw spot prawns at R&G Lounge… all restaurants I’ve been going to since I moved here 13 years ago.

In the meantime, I’ve been returning to more recent greats opened in the last few years, remaining impressed, particularly by these dishes:

STATE BIRD PROVISIONS, Lower Fillmore
Changing the game nationally with its level of dim sum-style, playful creativity

Curry rabbit roti

Curry rabbit roti

Wow factor abounds at playful-casual, if extremely difficult to get into, State Bird Provisions. There’s usually a few hits every meal but recently it was curry rabbit roti ($20) that made an impact. Warm, floppy Indian roti bread scooped up aromatic curry graced with tender rabbit, black trumpet mushrooms and lentils.

Dessert was equally memorable: piping hot buckwheat bao ($8), a bun with a sugary-cinnamon crust, partnered with a cup of coconut cream and carrot jam dotted with maple pecans. Savory, vegetal and sweet played together harmoniously, a burst of winter joy.

BAR TARTINE, Mission
Setting a national standard for modern Eastern European-influenced fare

cake

Celery root-scallion cake

Bar Tartine chef Nick Balla keeps expanding the boundaries of what modern Eastern European (strongly influenced by his Hungarian roots) food can be, doing things I’ve yet to see any US chef do with that category. Balla revived the fried bread that haunted my dreams since my travels in the Hungarian countryside in 1999 with his menu mainstay of langos ($12), fried potato flatbread radiant with garlic, sour cream and dill.

That ever remains a highlight but recent visits impressed particularly in the form of a warm square of rice flour-based celery root and scallion cake ($14). Moist and savory, the cake rests atop a spread of nettle puree, given umami complexity under shaved dried tuna flakes and celery leaves.

CONTIGO, Noe Valley
Idyllic modern Spanish, neighborhood dining

Cinco Jotas' Jamon Iberico de Bellota

Cinco Jotas’ Jamon Iberico de Bellota

I sure miss the years of rolling out my front door on 24th Street and moseying half a block to Contigo for  some of the best Spanish food in the city paired with gorgeous, crisp Spanish and Portuguese wines (like a 2012 Raventos i Blanc “La Rosa” pinot noir Rose from Penedes, Spain). Whether those perfect jamon croquetas/fritters ($3) oozing with bechamel sauce, or the ever-comforting, changing coco (flatbreads), like a recent pie laden with broccoli rabe, smoked bacon, spring onions, and manchego cheese ($15), Contigo does it right.

Contigo coca

Contigo coca

But when the ultimate level (5J) of Spain’s legendary cured ham, Cinco Jotas‘ Jamon Iberico de Bellota ($25), is on the menu, I cannot resist. It’s pricey but  the paper thin, pink and white sheets of acorn-fed Spanish heritage “Pata Negra” ham from Jabugo, Spain, melt and dissolve on the tongue like the finest of silk… if silk were succulent and meaty.

LOLINDA, Mission
Raising Argentinian steakhouse stakes (no pun intended)

Lolinda NY steak

Lolinda NY steak

Granted, there’s not a ton of competition in the Argentinian dining category, but of Argentinian restaurants I’ve been to anywhere, Lolinda nails it. Yes, crowds reach a deafening roar in the dramatic, chic dining room and I recently experienced a frustrating wait even with a reservation, but each dish that arrives is downright delicious, from traditional beef, egg and raisin empanadas ($7) where the pastry shell is no throwaway, to those juicy steaks, appropriately charred on the outside, rare on the inside, like the a 13 oz. New York steak ($29) with lively chimichurri sauce, a staple of Argentina steak culture.

Lolinda ceviche

Lolinda ceviche

But I’m all about their exceptional ceviche ($14), often in the options of octopus or silky, sashimi-like ono tossed in bright lime with aji amarillo peppers, sweet potato and fried corn in fritter-like form. The texture contrast and impeccable freshness only enhances the vibrant flavor of a standout in a city where it’s not difficult to find good ceviche.

ROKA AKOR, North Beach
Catering to a wide range of diners with impeccable sushi & robata

Roka Akor sashimi

Roka Akor sashimi

Chain aspect aside, Roka Akor has acclimated to San Francisco quite well. They’ve done so with professional service, impeccable sushi and sashimi and robata grill dishes in an area that reaches everyone from tourists to the FiDi (Financial District) business set.

Their sashimi selection ($34/$46) is impressive in presentation and freshness, while their rolls/maki are above average, appropriately delicate rather than fried or heavy with sauce. At lunch, ubiquitous miso black cod arrives in unique form – on skewers ($18 with salad), while cocktails utilize Japanese herbs, citrus and flavors to partner with dishes.

Avo & asparagus tempura roll

Avo & asparagus tempura roll

On my most recent visit (after a couple lunches here, I love it for lunch, though there’s also that appealingly dim, underground bar), I was surprised to be most taken with a new vegetarian maki ($11.50). What sounded absolutely typical, a light roll of ever-so-softly fried avocado and asparagus, weaves with Japanese herbs, sprinkled artfully with edible flowers – a statement veggie roll, if there ever was one.

Lolinda's dramatic dining room an bar from an upstairs table

Lolinda’s dramatic dining room & bar from an upstairs table

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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

Top Tastes

Campton Place's brilliant Spice Pot

Campton Place’s brilliant Spice Pot

Michelin-Starred Dining in San Francisco

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Saison's inviting bar

Saison’s inviting bar

We live in one of the great culinary cities of the world – and certainly the US – graced with many a Michelin-starred restaurant from Napa to the South Bay.

While I have dined at 30 of the 38 Michelin-starred restaurants in the Bay Area, and many more around the world, I’ve recently had a heavy dose of restaurants graced with this highest European accolade. In the last 8 weeks alone, I’ve dined at 1 to 3 Michelin starred destinations in Modena, Italy, Salzburg, Austria, Zurich, Switzerland, and A Coruna, Spain.

Campton's

Campton’s lime ginger ice

Coming home to meals at these two San Francisco Michelin-starred restaurants (two stars for Saison, one for Campton Place), I’m proud of our quality in the international mix – and that Campton in particular is half – or even a third – the price of the European restaurants.

SAISON, SoMa (178 Townsend St. between 2nd & 3rd Sts., SF 415-828-7990)

Granted, a $248 tasting menu (plus $148 for wine pairings) is such a steep ticket, I’d rarely be able to indulge – and certainly not on a writer’s income. But on a November visit to scout out the new cocktail menu at Saison, I was treated to a ten course dinner, and was frankly, blown away in a way I never was in the original Saison in the Mission, much as I loved that setting. Entering the new space, one faces a wall of wood logs, high, industrial ceilings, brick walls, open kitchen, and cozy nooks established with sectional mini-couches in the bar.

Saison's kitchen hearth

Saison’s kitchen hearth

With its two Michelin stars, I couldn’t help but recall three and one Michelin-starred restaurants I’d just had the privilege to dine in days before, having just returned from a three week trip in favorite countries, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland.

Saison menu

Saison menu

Dining here, my expectations were in check, not necessarily high. But by the end of the meal, I was proud of my hometown as interpreted through Saison.

Though there are too many fantastic restaurants in San Francisco to count, Saison has a global sophistication about it that immediately impresses. Chatting with Head Bartender Chase White (who was a chef in the kitchen at the original Saison), reminded me of conversations in any of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world as we discussed favorite restaurants, cities and bars around the globe. Executive Chef Joshua Skenes’ cuisine is forward-thinking, made with perfect precision and technique, service is impeccable, and the knowledgeable palate of staff like White is blessedly worldly and experienced.

d

Black cod poached in coconut oil

The dishes begin to arrive and it’s array of complex flavors in surprising iterations, properly sized so as to ensure fullness but not gluttony. The first seven courses on my visit were seafood, a fascinating round of dishes like amberjack (“coal-kissed fish”), subtly kissed with coalfire and cherry blossoms, topped with radish and plum paste. A sliver of Japanese mackerel is briefly placed over the fire, crispy with herring roe and feather boa kelp in a delicate vinegar broth made from mackerel bones. With vinegar bite and smoky-silky fish, the vivid flavor of roe and of-the-sea comfort of kelp meld into a fascinating whole.

Trout roe custard

Trout roe custard

My favorite seafood dish was a lively trout roe custard of custard and roe swimming in grilled fish bone stock (are you picking up on a bone theme here?) contrasted with brightness from “ember preserved” (roasted) tomatoes and a little tomatillo gelee. While that dish was the pinnacle, Monterey Bay abalone “roasted over the embers” (embers and fire are the other common theme) is almost meaty and hearty, accompanied by a little bowl of abalone liver broth.

One of the best dishes of 2013: savory duck liver toffee mousse

One of the best dishes of 2013: duck liver toffee

Chef Skenes creative sensibilities are showcased in combinations like black cod poached in coconut oil, dotted with the red flesh of sweet blood limes and a crispy garnish of paper-thin plantains. But it’s savory duck liver toffee, a mousse-like mound, that pushes through the stratosphere, a bewitching dish that could be both brilliant entree or dessert simultaneously. The silky liver mound is complex with dehydrated olives and caramelized chocolate bread crumbs, topped with milk and dark Bavarian dunkl beer foam. Grapefruit segments hide beneath the mousse, like winter-bright surprises, while a 1968 Boal Madeira makes for a lush, nutty pairing. All together, it’s a bit of ecstasy.

30-day Aged wood pigeon, pigeon boudin stuffed with shitake, warm spices, Blackberry PX sherry and Cognac, sunchokes, dates cooked in coffee, alliums

30-day Aged wood pigeon, pigeon shitake boudin, Blackberry PX sherry & Cognac, sunchokes, dates cooked in coffee

Two courses of dessert from Pastry Chef Shawn Gawle end the meal with the vibrant burst of raspberry marshmallow sorbet (the freshness of a sorbet, but textured like fluffy marshmallow) and Meyer lemon curd, herbaceous with basil. This is followed by a candied black walnut souffle, apples and ice cream, partnered with a honey-sweet glass of 1975 Sauternes that takes on a layered, funky sweetness with black walnuts.

Decadence in a glass: Le Parcoco

Decadence in a glass: Le Parcoco

s

White crafts a No. 2

White’s cocktail menu is draw enough. Paired with a couple plates, the bar is an ideal way to check out Saison without the full price tag. There’s decadence for the taking in the case of a $58 cocktail (!?), Le Parcoco, using the best of the best. Del Maguey Pechuga mezcal is the pinnacle of the great mezcal line made in the classic pechuga style where a chicken is hung, dripping, over the still for a day while spirituous vapors condense into a clear liquid. The Pechuga’s citrus, earth and smoke is tempered by Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, given lovely bitter-sweet backbone from Campari and orange bitters, topped with Krug Grand Cuvee Champagne. It’s sheer decadence.

No. 1 Cocktail

No. 1 Cocktail

The rest of the cocktails are a pricey $18, a price that is still lower than cocktails in many major cities in the world – thankfully the quality and taste is high. Rather than named, cocktails are numbered, covering a range of flavor profiles. Recently, No. 1 is a vivacious, clean Daiquiri-esque blend of Plantation 3 Star Rum, with the purity of young coconut water and lime. This is the kind of drink I’m almost always in the mood for. White uses the Perlini Carbonation Cocktail System to carbonate the No. 2 with subtly bitter Byrrh Quinquina and California-produced Margerum amaro, sweet vermouth, and orange.

No. 4 Cocktail

No. 4 Cocktail

A vibrant standout is the rosy red of beets in the No. 4, a wonderfully earthy-bright concoction with Chamucos Reposado tequila, Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, orange juice, lime and a savory, spicy perk from Memphis BBQ bitters.

In the No. 5, Elijah Craig 12 year bourbon and lemon gain mystique from buttery-salty notes of grilled popcorn and salted caramel. These are the kind of cocktails I seek out: classic in ethos and technique (read: balanced, harmonious), yet inventive, challenging to the taste buds, even fun.

That description applies to the food as well. So excuse me as I dream of scooping up another bite of that lush duck liver toffee and toasting with a Le Parcoco in hand.

Live seafood tanks in Saison's kitchen

Live seafood tanks in Saison’s kitchen

CAMPTON PLACE, Union Square (340 Stockton St. between Post & Campton Place, 415-781-5555)

Campton's serene dining room

Campton’s serene dining room

Only in London have I been able to find a wealth of upscale, inventive Indian fine dining, along with curry houses and casual eateries. We have our share of chaat outposts, dosa destinations and curry houses from SF’s “Tandoor-loin” (Tenderloin) down to Indian-dense Santa Clara. But across the US – even in NYC where I enjoyed restaurants like the now-closed Tabla – there’s been little in terms of upscale Indian cuisine similar to what one finds in London at longtime restaurants like The Cinnamon Club.

Campton Place has been the fine dining restaurant of the Taj Campton Hotel for over 20 years. Though I’ve enjoyed meals in the spare, refined dining room every couple years over the past decade,  my latest visit this December was the best yet. Executive Chef Srijith Gopinathan is creating some brilliant French-and-Indian-influenced dishes blessedly strong on Indian flavors from various parts of that massive country (one of the great food countries I’m still dying to visit). The seamless service team is a strong as ever, attending to each need thoughtfully yet unobtrusively.

Lobster in curry

Lobster in curry

Vibrant amuse bouche and palate cleansers like lime ginger ice dotted with edible flowers or a savory-sweet avocado, arugula, and green apple foam confirm that this meal is alive with flavor… and not easy to pair wine with. Thankfully, Campton’s wine pairings are in the hands of Master Sommelier Richard Dean and Director of Food & Beverage Rahul Nair. Dean was one of the first master somms in the country and is expert at complicated pairings, often focused on small producers, like the charming porcupine label of a 2012 Sergio Mottura Grechetto from Umbria, Italy, paired with Spice Pot, or a small production 2009 Laurel Glen Sonoma Mountain Cabernet paired with lamb.

Hunter spice-crusted lamb

Hunter spice-crusted lamb

On the current regular menu ($70 for 3 courses, $95 for 6), Spice Pot “chaas” delighted me with its North Indian chaat-inspired flavors of tamarind, cilantro, carrots, sugar snap peas and potatoes inside bhel puri, and little puffed rice, swimming in a flower pot filled with yogurt. As the dish is set down on the table, liquid nitrogen around the base of the pot emits an atmospheric smoke. This dish is a prime example of the playful refinement with which Chef Gopinathan interprets Indian cuisine.

On the current Spice Route menu (a worthwhile splurge at $95 per person), a course of grilled cauliflower, kale leaves and grapes is gracefully touched with Meyer lemon milk and tart tamarind, paired with the mineral crisp of a 2011 Laurenz V Gruner Veltliner from an engaging Austrian winemaker I became acquainted with over lunch back in 2011.

Tandoori quail

Tandoori quail

On the regular menu is butter-poached Maine lobster tail surrounded by rolls of thinly sliced sweet potato, and edamame fennel vada (South Indian fritters/fried balls). Sitting in a curry of coconut, the lobster is accented by turmeric and tamarind, carrying coastal breezes and decadent luxury in each bite… not unlike another lobster gem of a dish up the hill at 1760. Seafood is a continual strong point, whether blessedly medium-rare scallops over an exotic yellow madras potato curry, accented by brussels sprout leaves and turmeric foam, or tender Atlantic Black Cod slow-cooked in a toasted shellfish (lobster, shrimp)and black rice crust.

Atlantic Black Cod with blue lake green beans

Atlantic Black Cod with blue lake green beans

Meat is likewise touched with a golden hand, particularly on the Spice Route menu. Tandoori quail is crusted in Hunter spice, a roll of juicy meat next to a pool of tomato curry, the highlight being an oozing, fried quail egg ravioli. Dean’s pairing of a 2011 Charles Audoin “Les Favieres” Marsannay has just the right acidity to contrast the richness of the egg.

Slow-cooked lamb rack crusted in a panch phoran spice mix (a mix including cumin, fennel, nigella, black mustard, fenugreek seeds) is surrounded by mounds of pine nut pilaf, pineapple nage (pineapple poached in a broth of white wine, herbs, vegetables), and Bloomsdale spinach.

Mignardise

Mignardise

Post-dessert, a small mug of cardamom-laced hot chocolate arrives partnered with mini-toasted marshmallows, while the mignardise platter is graced with seasonal pleasures like cardamom rosemary brown butter bread and pumpkin macarons.

Fine dining has diminished enough in recent years of strained incomes and a declining economy, but Campton’s current menu makes a case for keeping it alive: not as a stodgy remnant but a stimulating, international journey of flavor.

Saison's strategically arranged bar seating

Saison’s strategically arranged, intimate bar seating

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Dec
15
2013

Top Tastes

Guddu de Kahari's beloved tandoori fish

Guddu de Kahari’s beloved tandoori fish

Five Best Dishes Now

Photos & article by Virginia Miller

Breakfast through dessert, here are five of the best dishes at new eateries and restaurants around San Francisco:

WAFFLES at LINEA CAFFE, Mission (3417 18th St. at San Carlos)

Linea's waffles

Linea’s waffles

Look for the tiny, wood-walled shop behind Duc Loi, a bustling Asian grocery in the Mission, with sidewalk table seating only. You’ll find micro-batch roasted coffee from Andrew Barnett, founder of Ecco Caffe. Then there’s salads, like kale, fried shallots, orange and pecans in a guacamole dressing ($10), tossed to order from GreenSalads.org. Most importantly, there’s hot-off-the-iron Lt. Waffle yeasted waffles cooked in Belgian cast-iron waffle makers. All at Linea Caffe, from Mission Street Food’s Anthony Myint, who, it seems, can do wrong.

Soul Groove's eclectic dining room

Soul Groove’s dining room

These are arguably the best waffles in town, crisply-delicate and meant to be eaten straight off the iron. I drive out of my way for a buckwheat waffle ($9) laden with salmon roe, crème fraîche and dill. But my favorite in opening weeks is a sweet, earthy, fluffy waffle ($8) graced with gianduja (hazelnut chocolate), coconut jam, and macadamia nuts.

CHICKEN FRIED SOUL SANDWICH at SOUL GROOVE, Civic Center (422 Larkin St. between Golden Gate & Turk, 415-734-7598)

Though I’d known Soul Groove as pop-up chicken and waffle sandwich maker, the signature sandwich failed to make a real impact on me. I’m a massive chicken and waffle fan back to my heavy concert-going days in Los Angeles in the 1990′s, complete with late night Roscoe’s runs off of Sunset Boulevard. I’m picky about chicken and waffles, loving both greasy-authentic and elevated-gourmet versions (and always doused in hot sauce and syrup). A recent brunch at Soul Groove’s brick-and-mortar cafe near Civic Center delivered some pretty damn tasty dishes, and a chicken and waffle sandwich improved from the early days at events as a pop-up.

Chicken Fried Soul

Chicken Fried Soul

The kitchen was quite backed up at brunch – taking over 40 minutes to deliver dishes in a half empty cafe. But they did “make good” on the hassle by offering free biscuits and apologies. A brunch special of tequila-glazed pork chile verde, poached eggs, and Louisiana-style red beans and rice tasted like mama was in the kitchen – heartwarmingly good.

Most importantly, that Chicken Fried Soul Sandwich ($6.50) seems to have found itself: maple-cinnamon-redolent waffles couch bacon-wrapped, buttermilk-fried chicken dripping with jalapeno coleslaw and maple BBQ sauce. Sigh. 

Conveniently, all is available to go and easy to order at the counter.

Stone's Throw duck liver pate

Stone’s Throw duck pate

DUCK PATE at STONES THROW, Russian Hill (1896 Hyde St. between Green & Vallejo, 415-796-2901)

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Avocado salad crispy with pig’s ears

Stones Throw is Russian Hill’s new neighborhood go-to, the space more open and warm than in its previous incarnation, the high ceiling now lined with rafters.

The restaurant offers a generous wine, beer and cider (yes!) list. Though the menu at first glance reads “typical” (beets, pork belly, gourmet burger), Chef Jason Halverson (formerly of Michael Mina) ensures an elevated spark to comfort food, like blissfully fatty pork belly ($14) given chewy-crisp from fried pig’s ear, vivid with orange segments and creamy with avocado. There’s almost silken braised octopus ($15), meaty with chorizo, sunny with Meyer lemon. Desserts ($8) call to childhood joys in the form of oatmeal cream pie or peanut butter and jelly donuts.

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Peking-spiced duck breast & thigh over black rice with Asian pear & celery

I was most taken with a dish I would have normally skipped over, given the commonness of pate. Luxuriant duck pate and mousse ($8) is textured, artfully layered, and brightly flavorful with French’s Mustard and cornichons. Slathered on a warm soft pretzel and downed with a bottle of dry-hopped Finn River Cider from Washington, it, indeed, tastes like comfort.

BENGAN BHARTHA and Other Curries at GUDDU DE KARAHI, Outer Sunset (1501 Noriega at 22nd Avenue, 415-759-9088)

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Bengan Bhartha

Myself (and many food lovers) were sadly disappointed when Chef Zulfiqar “Guddu” Haider left my favorite Tandoor-loin (Tenderloin) Indian/Pakistani eatery, Lahore Karahi, taking his beloved tandoori fish with him. The fish is back ($13), and it’s now sustainable tilapia, sizzling and popping with flavor from coriander, yogurt and spices at his new Outer Sunset spot, Guddu de Karahi.

Guddu de Karahi dining room

Guddu de Karahi dining room

Since Guddu opened in October, I’ve happily been working my way through Chef Haider’s new menu, whether for takeout or eat-in. The tandoori fish is as gratifying as ever, particularly just off the grill in the humble, welcoming dining room. But curries are equally made with love, tasting fresh, and greaseless, especially scooped up with alternately blistered and chewy naan – pretty much as good as it gets.

Try a lush bengan bhartha ($7.50), a fluffy curry of onions and tomato sauce subtly smoky with roasted eggplant, or a beauty of a creamy chicken tikka masala ($8.99) capable of reviving interest in the far-too-popular-for-its-own-good curry.

IT IS IT at THE VESTRY, Mission (777 Valencia St. between , 415-551-7306)

It IS It

It IS It

Despite a sadly bland Toulouse sausage ($13) and hit-or-miss cocktails, it’s dessert that delights at The Vestry, the accompanying restaurant and bar to the Mission’s perfectly-sized newer live music venue, The Chapel.

After a glass of wine and the dissolving crisp of lovely squash blossoms ($13) oozing carrot-ricotta puree, splashed with the green of pesto, dessert calls. The Vestry has re-imagined, and dare I say, improved upon a Bay Area classic food item: the It’s It ice cream sandwich. Aptly named It Is It ($7), creamy vanilla ice cream holds firm-yet-soft between house oatmeal cookies, glazed with chocolate. Consider it the non-packaged (read: fresh), gourmet version of a beloved Bay Area product since 1928.

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Dec
01
2013

Top Tastes

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

BETTER Than EVER

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

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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

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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)

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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.

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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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