Oct
01
2013

Top Tastes

Dining under red-inflected paintings as Tom Waits plays softly in the background

Dining under red-inflected paintings as Tom Waits plays softly in the background

RUSSIAN HOME COOKING

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

RED TAVERN, Outer Richmond (2229 Clement St. between 23rd & 24th Avenues, 415-666-3420)

Eggplant

Butter-dipped eggplant

Childhood memories are richly intertwined with one of my dear girlhood friends in Southern California, a Russian whose mother and grandmother cooked meals that still haunt me. Sleeping over at her house turned into an event when her mother spent hours making homemade blintzes, tender, filled with fluffy, warm cheese. We’d repeatedly exclaim to each other that blintzes were coming, then sit down at the table with glee as we doused our blintzes in sour cream and jam. Never have any blintzes topped these.

Similarly, afternoons at her grandmother’s Whittier home reached their apex when she called us in from the yard for pirozhki (akin to Polish pierogi but baked or fried buns) filled with cheese or meat.

Sour cherry vareniky

Sour cherry vareniky

Just as I yearn to understand every category of cuisine as a way of getting to know a culture or a country, I crave Russian food. Thankfully, the Richmond District is essentially down the street, long fascinating me with its dense Russian population, churches and aggressive Russian mamas who shove their way in front of me in line at Russian bakeries.

Red cabbage salad

Red cabbage salad

One of my favorite Russian restaurants is Red Tavern, which opened quietly in 2011 on Clement Street. I’ve loved Katia’s for over a decade, and certainly get a warmer welcome there from the delightful mother-daughter Russian team. While the welcome at Red Tavern is not near as warm, service has been pleasant during each of my visits and I feel the conviviality of the place from fellow diners. Each visit I’m transported, surrounded by Russian families and the elderly, all speaking Russian.

Red Tavern dining room

Red Tavern dining room

Beef blintzes

Beef blintzes

First and foremost, I go for the food, each dish surprising with flavor and heart. There’s items you’d expect at a Russian restaurants: a bowl of borscht ($6.95), vividly red with beetroot, and a blini tower (2-3 people, $28) tiered with smoked fish and salmon caviar. Or splurge on 2 oz. Black Russian American oestra caviar ($68) with blini and condiments.

Siberian vareniky

Siberian vareniky

The dumpling/vareniky section (deemed “Dough Course”) gets me every time. Chicken, fried or potato dumplings ($9.95-10.95) please, but on the meat side, I prefer tender veal in Siberian vareniky. The ultimate dish, which is the must-order on the menu, are sour cherry dumplings ($12.95). Warm, tart and served (of course) with sour cream, they are the epitome of comfort. I could eat them for an entree, dessert, breakfast – any time – they are that good.

Cabbage rolls

Cabbage rolls

Ground blintzes ($7.50) are soft and meaty with shredded beef encased in paper-thin crepes, while a sesame-heavy red cabbage salad ($7.95) dotted with golden raisins and tomatoes, provides needed color and flavor contrast to rich dishes. More appetizer standouts include zucchini pancakes ($11.95) graced with smoked salmon tartare and salmon roe caviar, then drizzled in crème fraiche, or butter-dipped, delicately fried eggplant ($11.75) topped with a mound of eggplant “caviar” or essentially chunks of eggplant mixed with onions and tomatoes.

Zucchini cakes

Zucchini cakes

Entree highlights (besides dumplings) are delicate cabbage rolls packed with beef, rice, carrots ($14.95), or slowly-braised rabbit stew ($21.95) in a cream, wine, and shallot broth.

Portions are generous, the food homey and gratifying, the space blissfully not hipster or “buzzy”. But that doesn’t mean it’s not one of San Francisco’s best restaurants for experiencing Russian cooking. Though missing the familial welcome, it’s almost like dining in a Russian friend’s dining room.

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Sep
01
2013

Top Tastes

One of the must exciting dishes all year: deboned chicken feet bao

One of the most exciting dishes all year: deboned chicken feet bao

PROMISE on NOB HILL

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

PARALLEL 37, Nob Hill (600 Stockton St. between California & Pine, 415-773-6168)

Couches & bright colors warm up the bar area

Couches & bright colors warm up the lounge/bar

When Parallel 37 first opened at the end of 2011, it looked rather corporate for the Ritz-Carlton on Nob Hill, though touches of orange, comfy couches in the bar/lounge, and elegant black and white photography of trees on the back wall warmed up the space.

Closing the celebrated Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton run by Chef Ron Siegel (who is now at Michael Mina), it was understood that the Ritz was moving away from fine dining in keeping with nationwide trends, though still upscale. In the early days of Parallel 37, the food, though good, seemed to lack sparkle, even passion, despite the talent of Siegel, the first U.S. citizen to win in Kitchen Stadium on Iron Chef in 1998. I wondered how long the place might last.

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Whipped strawberry mousse, basil granite, Szechuan peppercorn tuile

Since Chef Michael Rotondo came on board in January of this year, there’s been a fresh wave invigorating the restaurant. Originally from Massachusetts, he cooked for eight years at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, and also worked in Michelin kitchens around Europe for two years, including time with Paul Bocuse in France. In 2008, he was named “Most Promising Chef” when competing in the US Bocuse d’Or. A couple months after he arrived at Parallel, he brought on sous chef Mitchell Nordby and pastry chef, Andrea Correa, both alums at Trotter’s. Correa brings impressive international perspective having cooked in some of the most famous kitchens in the world, with six months at none other than El Bulli and a year at Noma.

Brilliant

Brilliance with tomatoes & pulled pork

“Promising” is certainly an appropriate descriptor when it comes to Rotondo and team, though “arrived” is more how a multi-course meal feels at Parallel. Having dined here a handful of times this year, each visit I marveled at the artfulness of a Rotondo or Correa dish, and the array of flavors, running $14-26 a dish or $33-50 for larger entrees – there’s also a chef’s tasting menu for the whole table.

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Guanaja dark chocolate cake, blood orange, caramel ganache, blood orange curd, mint

One of the most exciting, unusual dishes I’ve had all year (and that includes internationally, researching food and drink in over 15 cities around the world so far this year alone) is Rotondo’s crispy chicken feet in a bao bun with grapefruit and pink peppercorn. These aren’t just any chicken feet. They are actually deboned, full and meaty, the skin savory and crisp. Chicken feet never tasted so good. Paired with a bright 2011 Erdener Treppchen Mühlenhoff Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel, Germany, the dish feels blessedly high and low brow. Like elegant street food or playful fine dining with a mischievous wink.

Muscovy duck, tomatillo, coconut milk, green curry

Muscovy duck, tomatillo, coconut milk, green curry

Correa skillfully weaves herbaceous notes into her desserts, making them vivacious, fresh, and blessedly not too sweet. I’d often take another savory course over dessert, but not in the case of Correa’s desserts, which can be a highlight of many courses at Parallel.

The best approach (always) is to try an array of dishes and give yourself over to the taste experience. Some dishes are more revelatory than others but it’s the entire experience that remains worthwhile.

Parallel 37 Coddled egg - Virginia Miller

Lentils, spring garlic, Spring asparagus, black truffles, coddled egg

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Sep
01
2013

Top Tastes

Grilled onion side at Elmira Rosticerria

Flavor-rich side of grilled onions at Elmira Rosticerria

MUCH MORE THAN A SANDWICH:
Colorful Lunches Around Town

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

AMAWELE’S SOUTH AFRICAN KITCHEN, SoMa (Rincon Center, 101 Spear St. between Mission & Howard, 415-536-5900)

Amawele's twins welcome in the Rincon Center

Amawele’s twins welcome in the Rincon Center

There’s no “sit down” at Amawele’s South African Kitchen. In fact, it’s a counter in the Rincon Center open only during the week for lunch so unless your office is nearby, order a few items to go. Amawele is the Zulu word for “twins”, chosen by twins Pamela and Wendy Michaelson, who brought their South African favorites from their hometown, Durban, to SoMa in May.

Chicken masala pie

Chicken masala pie

The cuisine is what they describe as native African melded with English, Indian, Dutch and Malaysian cuisines. A short menu, represented by display dishes, leans to the comfort/street food side of things, like a frikadella (meatball) “slap chip roll”. Meatballs are cooked with onions, mint, green peppers, fennel, lavender basil, thyme and packed in a roll with grilled onions and fries ($7.95).

I remember the first time I tried South African dish, bunny chow, years ago, at Amawele’s a hollowed-out loaf of bread packed with a chicken curry or butter-lima bean stew ($8-8.50). Cape Malay rice (vegetarian – $7.50; chicken – $9) is redolent of cinnamon and cardamom, but my favorite item is their chicken masala pie ($6.50), a flaky, creamy pie, redolent of curry… don’t call it “pot pie” as “it contains no pot”, I was informed with a smile.

ELMIRA ROSTICERRIA, Civic Center (154 McAllister St. at Hyde, 415-551-7332)

Elmira's relaxing space

Elmira’s relaxing space

Elmira Rosticerria is a culinary gem near the Civic Center. Whereas the best food in the area has historically been Vietnamese or Brenda’s Soul Food, Elmira is a day time respite for bing cherry scones ($2.50) in the morning or lovely caponata ($8) at lunch, a traditional mix of eggplant, zucchini and red currants on sourdough crostini.

Fernet & Ginger Beer Float

Fernet & Ginger Beer Float

The menu changes constantly, utilizing what’s fresh and seasonal. Salads are blessedly not throwaway – nor merely for health. Case in point: a crispy pork salad ($10) tossed with mixed greens, shaved fennel and juicy Frog Hollow peaches in whole grain mustard-tarragon vinaigrette. Or there might be a rich lampredotto (slow-cooked tripe) sandwich doused in salsa verde on ciabatta roll ($7.50).

Don’t miss the refreshing menthol, boozy kick of a fernet and ginger beer float ($6), where Bundaberg ginger beer is poured over fernet sorbet made exclusively for Elmira by SF’s great Humphry Slocombe. This peaceful space is clearly a foodie’s work break.

CURRY UP NOW, Mission (659 Valencia St. between 17th & 18th, 415-735-3667)

Chaat & Naughty Naan

Chaat & Naughty Naan

Curry Up Now‘s playfulness is its charm. From the food truck that sold a million (I’m sure far more) Indian burritos, to this casual eatery with refillable mango, mint and rose lassis ($3), Curry Up successfully kept Indian food fun.

Irreverence is the name of the game with dishes called Naughty Naan ($9 – tikka masala flatbread) or a dessert of “hot balls on ice” ($5), a traditional gulab jamun on kulfi, aka rose ice cream over fried dough balls.

Chaat & lassis

Chaat & lassis

My picks are Thee Unburger ($7), aloo tikki (an Indian potato patty) or a samosa on a buttered bun doused with chutney and onions, that somehow evokes childhood in a comforting, soft mash alive with flavor. Order from an array of pleasing chaat ($5), or snacks, like one of my favorites, papdi chaat, crisp “chips” topped with chickpeas, chilis, yogurt and tamarind chutney.

Fried cheese cake bites ($5) are creamy-sweet on their own, but they make a uniquely savory dessert over daal lentil halwa ($5), sweet-savory lentils.

Cana's Cubano

Cana’s Cubano

CANA CUBAN PARLOR & CAFE, Mission (500 Florida St. at Mariposa, 415-580-7888)

In roomy Cana Cuban Parlor, it’s transporting sipping a Cafe Cubano ($2.50) or Cortadito ($2.75) coffee… or maybe a customized rum flight ($19-20) served with shots of soda water and fresh-pressed cane juice from their in-house sugarcane press.

Cana's rum flight

Cana’s rum flight

Lunch time offers unexpectedly gratifying sandwiches. A Cubano ($10), of slow roasted pork, black forest ham, dill pickles, Swiss, and mustard on pressed Cuban bread, is one of the better renditions of the classic in the city, while a Cuban fried chicken sandwich ($10) is a crispy pleasure of fried chicken breast in mojo criollo (Cuban white wine garlic sauce), topped with coleslaw.

Empanadas ($10-11, 2 per order) are flaky and warm, whether a picadillo filled with Cuban ground beef and sofrito (tomato, bell pepper, onion, garlic sauce) or veggie picadillo, packed with sauteed crimini, button and portobello mushrooms, manzanilla olives and golden raisins.

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Jul
01
2013

Top Tastes

Modern day cantina, Padrecito

Modern day cantina, Padrecito

MEXICAN TALES: 5 New Mexican Spots

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Sidewalk tables beckon at Copita, Sausalito

Sidewalk tables beckon at Copita

Mexican food of all regions and categories is not only commonplace in California, it’s essential to our culture, intertwined as we are with our Mexican heritage. One can find Mexican food of every stripe across this massive state, whether San Francisco’s vibrant Mission District taquerias, the farming communities and eateries of hot, inland Central California, to the rich cuisines of LA’s 50%+ Mexican population, which I grew up with.

Mezcal tasting at Nopalito

Mezcal tasting at Nopalito

In an already dense sea of choices, the past year has brought yet another wave of new Mexican restaurants to the Bay. There’s been high profile openings, like Joanne Weir’s sunny but hit-and-miss (in terms of food and service) Copita in Sausalito, or trendy cocktail haven, Comal in Berkeley. Popular Nopalito opened a second location in the Inner Sunset, though I’ve never been obsessed with Nopalito as many are. Despite appreciating its ultra-fresh approach, I’m somehow left wanting, craving a little greasy authenticity (i.e. flavor).

Rosa Mexicano highlight: seasonal guacs prepared tableside

Rosa Mexicano highlight: tableside seasonal guacs

New York chain Rosa Mexicano attempted the potentially crazy: bringing their version of upscale Mexican to California. It hasn’t exactly been a hit among foodies despite being bustling during workday lunches. Though overpriced at $14, their seasonal guacamole prepared tableside can be deliciously unusual, like a fall rendition with pear, pomegranate seeds and toasted hazelnuts.

Amidst the newcomers, these five stand out for varying reasons – whether one shining dish or strong food/drink menus – in settings as varied as hole-in-the-wall sandwich joint to a Cole Valley hotspot.

PADRECITO, Cole Valley (901 Cole St. at Carl, 415-742-5505)

Tacos

Carnitas tacos

My favorite new Mexican restaurant in SF is Padrecito. Nevermind that it’s crazy-difficult to get a reservation even at 5:30pm on a Tuesday (hint: arrive during opening hour on a weeknight when there’s seats at the bar and eat there instead).

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Smoked bacon chilaquiles

Padrecito wins in quality across the board: food, drink, decor and service. A warm tone is set with relaxed service and elevated cantina décor – colorful tiles, navy blue walls in the bar, Mexican art, booths. Most importantly, Executive Chef/Owner Luis Contreras, Sous Chefs, Antonio Rivera and Juan Hernandez, and Bar Manager David Roark Ruiz, ensure the star is the food, cocktails, tequila and mezcal selection.

Cozy bar booths

Cozy bar booths

Tacos are reason enough to go. Gourmet, yes, but authentically flavorful slow-cooked meats, housemade tortillas and salsas. I’m a sucker for crispy calamari ($9) juicy, in this case, with chimichurri aioli and chipotle-chayote slaw. Another winner? Goat barbacoa tacos ($10) topped with avocado and kale sprouts (essentially fried kale, also as a $7 side), are both gratifyingly meaty and “green”. My favorite taco is irresistibly tender duck enmarmalada ($10). Shredded duck is textured with a smear of refried black beans, lush with arbol marmalade and manchego cheese.

Crispy, warm churros

Crispy, warm churros

I have yet to find a dud on the menu, comforted by breakfast-worthy smoked bacon chilaquiles ($13), layered with sweet peas, salsa amarilla, pumpkin seeds and cojita cheese, or colorful salads, like ensalada fresca ($9): a mound of jicama, chicories, kumquat and spiced pepitas in lime-agave vinaigrette. Head out blissful after a finish of homey churros dipped in mocha/coffee mascarpone ($9).

Drink is equally destination-worthy here, starting with a strong tequila and mezcal selection. Ruiz’ approachable tequila/mezcal-heavy cocktail list ($8-11) sets the standard with a Padrecito, their rendition of a margarita, a tinge of mezcal adding whispers of smoke. The cocktail star is La Copa Verde, a savory yet refreshing imbibement of mezcal, cilantro and lime doused with chipotle powder – vivid green in a coupe glass. Though there are many worthwhile cocktails on the menu, the Verde stands out like a memorable dish: layered with spicy, vegetal notes.

Vibrant cocktails at Padrecito

Vibrant cocktails at Padrecito

EL TECHO de LOLINDA, Mission (2518 Mission St. between 21st & 22nd, 415-550-6970)

Oh, that view

Oh, that view

While Lolinda downstairs is a more exciting, consistent menu in food and cocktails, El Techo de Lolinda, Lolinda’s upstairs rooftop lounge, is about two things: that fantastic rooftop bar and view – which we’re grateful to have access to again – and the house chicharrones de carne. These are not your crispy, chip-like chicharrones. This is more like chicharrones I’ve downed roadside in Peru: roasted pork shoulder (half lb. $12, 1 lb. $18, 1.5 lbs $29), falling apart, with a crisp exterior dusted in cayenne and sugar. Wrapped up in tortillas and squeezed with lime, it’s groan-worthy good. Being an obsessed chicharrones fan, Ryan Farr has long reigned with the best local pork cracklin’-style versions at 4505 Meats. But for the braised/roasted meat kind, El Techo’s are pretty damn great.

Divine chicharrones

Divine chicharrones

Additional dishes don’t come close to the chicharrones, but guacamole ($7), elote ($5 – corn on the cob, replacing traditional mayo, it’s smeared with sour cream, chili, lime), and chuzos (skewers, $6-29) make for solid snacking. Similarly, cocktails ($8-12; $30-45 pitchers) aren’t particularly memorable, especially compared to Lolinda downstairs, but a tall Pina Colada or Pisco Apricot Tropical (pisco, lime, apricot liqueur, pineapple, bitters) are solid and far better than options in the space’s former incarnation, Medjool.

Foodies will want to try those chicharrones at some point – they’re almost worth having to check in with a doorman downstairs (someone has to monitor the crowds flocking here for that view).

Festive spread at El Techo de Lolinda

Festive spread at El Techo de Lolinda

La CIUDAD de MEXICO, Inner Richmond (200 6th Ave. between California & Clement, 415-422-0636)

La Ciudad's tiny storefront

La Ciudad’s tiny storefront

Only open a few weeks, I’m delighted to grab sandwiches and snacks from the family that runs this closet-sized, takeout-only shop. They hail from Mexico City, hence the name.

Huitlacoche (corn fungus) quesadillas ($4.25) are a highlight, dotted with fresh, white corn, while there’s other interesting quesadillas that happen to be vegetarian-friendly, from squash blossoms to grilled cactus.

Breakfast sandwiches ($4.25) are cheap and packed with ham or chorizo and egg, while the menu includes tortas/Mexican sandwiches ($5.25-8.50), breakfast burritos ($4.75) and alambres, a melange of bell pepper, onion, bacon with choice of meat ($7.95). My favorite torta is the Cubana ($6.50/8.50), jam-packed with generous amounts of ham, pulled pork, chorizo and egg, lathered in mayo, refried beans, onions, cheese and avocado. It’s so rich I go for the pequeno (small), which is still quite filling.

COSECHA, Oakland (907 Washington St. between 9th & 10th Sts.; 510-452-5900)

Cosecha's sunny interior in Housewives Market

Sunny interior in Housewives Market

Oakland’s best new-ish taco joint is actually approaching the 2 year mark. Cosecha in the Housewives Market in Old Oakland, is a foodie destination. Specials change daily and ultra-fresh, yet authentic, Mexican dishes interplay with healthy, flavorful additions like mango kumquat salad ($6.75) tossed with cucumber and pumpkin seeds, in a citrus dressing.

Though I miss the proliferation of fish tacos essentially ubiquitous in SoCal, one has to know where to go in the Bay Area for the best, and I’d count Cosecha’s fish tacos among them. They are a “Blue Plate Special” on Wednesdays and Thursdays, typically using California cod, fried Baja-style. There’s chicken, beef or pork Torta Ahogada ($7.95-8.95), hearty sandwiches smothered in a chile guajillo sauce, and quesadillas ($7.75) melted in Oaxacan cheese and filled with roasted yams or pasilla peppers.

Communal tables

Cosecha’s communal tables

Their happy hour (Monday-Wednesday, 2:30-7pm, Thursday 5-7pm) offers $4 agave wine margaritas, $4 pints of beer, $5 house Napa wines. Mexican-American owner, Dominica Rice, and staff strive for authenticity while remaining conscious of quality and source. The common to source locally in the Bay Area, Cosecha lists local farms from which each of their ingredients (produce, fish, meats) come from on a board.

After downing tacos at a communal table, I never leave the market without stocking up on the still awesome Louisiana-influenced (the best Louisiana boudin blanc this side of the Mississippi) sausages of Taylor’s, next door to Cosecha.

NIDO, Oakland (444 Oak St. at Fifth; 510-444-6436)

Nido's charming interior

Nido’s charming interior

Visiting Oakland’s Nido a few times has been a pleasure first and foremost due to its charmingly decorated interior and cozy, rectangular bar. Rustic woods, white lights, even soft pinks, make it an atypical Mexican food setting. Cocktails aren’t mind-blowing but are well executed mezcal and tequila classics, sticking mostly to a margarita or Paloma format, ideal with house chips and guacamole ($6).

Guac, chips & margaritas in mason jars

Guac, chips & margaritas in mason jars

Chef Silvia McCollow (formerly at B Restaurant and Cosecha) goes ultra-fresh with organic or locally sourced ingredients when possible, elevating a Chuleta de Puerco ($16), aka grilled pork chop, with toasted almond chile mole, accompanied by butternut and calabazita squash. A ceviche crudo ($12) of wild caught shrimp marinated in agua-chile and accented by cucumbers, red onion, jicama, avocado is clean and bright.

Nido

Nido

Tacos – on housemade tortillas – are a highlight and my dish of choice here, available all day and during the “happy hour” lull of Tuesday-Friday (3-6pm).

Bonus: Pietisserie serves their pies inside the restaurant (eat in or take out), in mini or large format, irresistible in daily-changing flavors like banana chai or Okinawan sweet potato.

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Apr
01
2013

Top Tastes

Garaje flair

Two of the Bay’s Best Burgers Under $10

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Tacos at Garaje

Burgers come in degrees: layered with expensive accoutrements, whole egg, foie gras, and the like… or simple, without pretense. I crave a burger in all degrees, whether upscale, knife and fork versions, or down and dirty. On the cheap, two burgers incite salivation in memory alone. One is at a brand new SoMa dive that also serves winning tacos, the other is Alameda’s shining jewel of burgerdom.

GARAJE, SoMa (475 Third Street between Bryant and Harrison, 415-644-0838)

Garaje’s laid back space

Call me food snob (it’s too late to reverse the palate now) for wanting even my go-to dive to serve quality deliciousness, but brand new Garaje is my kind of dive. Sipping long excellent Old World-style California wine greats on tap in a garage with cheap burgers and tacos? A few visits in and I’m smitten.

Reluctantly I write about Garaje, dreading the day it’s overrun with crowds aware of its utter value. A  haphazard, funky setting initiates its charms. Goodyear and Ducati signs glow across a long, former garage space. Restored mini diner booths in dingy mauve line the center of the room, while vintage fast food boards list offerings. A retro red, 1950’s refrigerator door houses taps: eight beers, three impressive on tap wine options, including Au Bon Climat Chardonnay, and owner Al’s tart, sassy house Sangria Roja.

The best $6 burger in SF

On the taco front, corn and flour tortillas arrive daily from La Palma, the best Mexicatessen in existence. It’s apparent from this detail they mean business. There’s a range of tacos: $5 for two street style tacos of skirt steak asada, mojo chicken, or carnitas ($2 at happy hour) or $4 for one generous fish taco, either grilled tilapia and guacamole or beer-battered tilapia (using sustainable fish). After trying four different tacos, my unexpected favorite is Thai prawn ($5), a corn tortilla piled with plancha-grilled Gulf prawns, cilantro, cabbage. Creamy lime mayo intermingles with salty peanuts in a delight of Thai flavors.

Behold the drive-in cheeseburger ($6), a charbroiled 1/3 lb. certified Angus patty (cooked medium) slathered in cheddar, griddled onions, pickles, lettuce, tomato, 1000 Island dressing on an Acme bun.

On tap

Straightforward and humble, the burger is like an elevated In ‘n Out – and just as gratifying. Typically, I don’t repeat dishes at a worthwhile spot until I’ve tried just about everything on a menu. Yet every visit to Garaje, I must reorder this burger. The only slight misstep has been beer battered fish & chips ($11), though still good, served with classic, creamy slaw: the tilapia tasted slightly fishy one visit, though fresher-tasting on tacos. ­­

How to they manage to source local ingredients “whenever possible”, fry in rice bran oil, use quality ingredients like Acme Bread, yet keep prices so low? I’m grateful. The owner remembered my face from one visit to the next, welcoming me back. Each staff member has been friendly and attentive.

Big score for SoMa.

Garaje’s funky, fun space

SCOLARI’S, Alameda (1303 Park St., 510-521-2400)

Scolari’s tiny, bright shop

Now an Alameda staple, it is worth detouring for non-Alameda residents to pick up one of the best burgers I’ve ever had at Scolari’s. Drawing me like a beacon as I pass by on the 880 freeway, their $9 cheeseburger elicits sighs of contentment, nearly melting with onions and cheese. Direct and unfussy – with lettuce, tomato and onion – it’s what a burger should be.

Scolari’s does plenty of things well – from sandwiches to strombolis – in a closet-sized space, using quality ingredients. Even fries ($5) are no afterthought, served with aioli of the week, or available in special form like garlic scampi fries doused in lemon and chilies ($6.50), or Buffalo fries laden with crumbled bleu, shaved carrot, celery ($7).

Scolari’s perfect burger

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Mar
01
2013

Top Tastes

Lahmacun, a Turkish flatbread covered in minced beef, chilies, onions, garlic, paprika

TROYA, Part Deux: Turkish on Fillmore

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Troya's sleek interior

Call it Cal-Med, Mediterranean or Turkish, there’s plenty of the former, less of the latter in the Bay Area. In terms of Turkish eateries, you can count them. For over a decade, A La Turca has been my hole-in-the-wall stop for affordable Turkish eats, including warm, cheesy pides (like the calzones of Turkish food – flatbread stuffed with cheese, veggies or meat). More recently, Machka delighted with elegant yet approachable Turkish cuisine in a lovely Financial District space set to classic, black and white Turkish films. Tuba is a comfy, mid-range Turkish respite in the Mission, while more commonly, neighborhood restaurants like Potrero Hill’s Pera mix Turkish with other Mediterranean cuisines. My favorites for over a decade include hearty wraps at dive-y, classic Truly Mediterranean.

TROYA FILLMORE, Fillmore/Pacific Heights (2125 Fillmore St. between California & Sacramento, 415-563-1000)

Fluffly house bread & baba ghanoush

Since opening over six years ago, I’ve found the Inner Richmond’s Troya a pleasant, if not overly notable, Mediterranean meal. Its newer sibling (opened last Spring), Troya on Fillmore, however, steps it up with a more sophisticated, minimalist interior and equally chic dishes. Exposed brick and clean walls marked with black and white photographs feel more current, albeit not as warm, as the original location.

Roasted cauliflower

Chef Philip Busacco takes on the typical Bay Area mantra of local and organic wherever possible, covering familiar Mediterranean ingredients (sumac, mint, yogurt, lamb, sesame seeds, etc…), while endeavoring to remain true to Turkey, as with lahmacun ($9-11 flatbreads), a traditional Turkish flatbread covered in minced beef, chilies, onions, garlic and paprika. It looks and taste much like lahmacun I’ve downed in Turkish hole-in-the-walls at home and in other cities… but with fresher ingredients and a pile of baby arugula in the middle. Authentic and gratifying.

Troya

A platter of dips – muhammara (hot pepper), haydari (a tangy, herb-accented yogurt) and a well-balanced baba ghanoush, subtle with eggplant smoke ($14 for all three, $5 each) – is almost a required starter. Scoop it up with warm, puffy Turkish bread, slightly crusty on the outside, doughy within, dusted in black and white sesame seeds. Roasted cauliflower ($9) is simple but well-prepared, slightly browned on the edges, accented by spring onions and spices. Offerings of over 15 meze (essentially Middle Eastern tapas) begs a bar seat and a glass of crisp 2009 Amethystos White Drama, a Greek white blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Assytriko grapes ($9.50 a glass).

Lamb kebabs

Kebabs ($11-16) are generous cubes of meat, onions and peppers, in the case of lamb kebab accompanied by a side of green salad and bulgur wheat salad. Though filling, I’d rather make a meal of various meze or order an equally filling lavash wrap ($9, only at lunch/brunch) stuffed with Turkish meatballs and shaved green onion-fennel salad. Lavash is appropriately thin, lightly crispy, warm. The standout lavash wrap is a vegetarian option loaded with sweetly roasted eggplant, almost like caramelized onions, nestled with feta, peppers and pine nuts.

Turkish meatballs wrap

Though I prefer the melting-soft moussaka at Greek newcomer, Orexi, in West Portal, during dinner, Troya’s Turkish dumplings (called manti, reminiscent of Nepalese momo) exhibit that desired tenderness, where minced-beef, paprika butter and dumpling wrapper nearly dissolve, appealingly contrasted by tangy yogurt.

Kunefe

There’s no finer finish than bracing Turkish coffee or soothing peppermint tea. Kunefe ($6.50), my top Middle Eastern dessert, is on the menu: shredded phyllo dough encrusted around a mild fromage blanc cheese, drizzled in honey, surrounded by grapefruit and pistachio. This rather rather bland version made me wish for Jannah’s (in the Western Addition/NoPa) kunefe, which, along with the best kunefe I’ve tried, oozes warm cheese balanced by phyllo crisp and honey sweetness.

Overall, Troya Fillmore appears to be the spiffed up, Pac Heights-ready version of the original, but after a few visits, I find it to be the realized version, peaceful for lunch, with upscale, fresh takes on Turkish cuisine.

Platter of spreads & house bread

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Feb
13
2013

Top Tastes

Oliveto's brilliant (unusual) fritto misto of scungil (whelk), herring, blood orange, shirako (cod milt/sperm)

REGIONAL JOURNEYS in Spain and Italy

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Gitane's sexy upstairs dining room

Nothing replaces experiencing a place directly, but regional dinners are one way of traveling vicariously. Occasionally, it’s more than a meal, as with a January 23 dinner at Oakland’s Latin American haven, Bocanova, which hosts monthly Rick’s Supper Club highlighting South American cuisine. As we dined on wild shrimp and lobster ceviche in passion fruit sauce or smoky, steamed mussels paired with wines like a balanced Chilean 2011 Cousino Macul “Chard”, dinner sponsor LAN Airlines surprised every dinner attendee with free round trip tickets to fly to any South American destination… a freak out, “Oprah moment”. When we can’t travel, we have restaurateurs and chefs with deep knowledge of a cuisine and country to lead us through territories via food and wine. These two restaurants are committed to uncovering layers of one country, region by region.

OLIVETO, Oakland (5655 College Avenue, 510-547-5356)

Tomato-braised oxtail corzetti

Every year I’d anticipate legendary Whole Hog dinners at Oakland’s temple to regional Italian cuisine, Oliveto, recently celebrating its 25th anniversary. I dropped off after chef of 15 years, Paul Canales, departed, returning this year to the upstairs restaurant vs. downstairs cafe. A little over a year ago, young Chef Jonah Rhodehamel took over. With consummate hosts and proprietors Bob and Maggie Klein thankfully still running the restaurant, Oliveto maintains its purpose as culinary community stalwart akin to Chez Panisse (note their community journal, whole-animal history, food activism), with regional Italian focus and themed dinners.

Frog legs w/ parsley sformatino

Canales (who just opened buzzed-about restaurant/bar/music venue Duende in Oakland) left significant shoes to fill. Rhodehamel honors Oliveto history while unafraid to experiment. Case in point: pastas, which remain the highlight, might be a traditionally-influenced spaghettini neri ($16) of squid ink pasta, shrimp and chili pepper, but he’ll add chocolate to tomato-braised oxtail corzetti ($17), use red winter wheat in penne alla Bolognese ($15), or infuse Floriani Red Flint corn polenta ($15) under duck giblet ragu with intense lavender vanilla notes.

Piedmontese ribeye

As in early days, the menu lists “Tonight’s produce comes from…”, while local touches include olive oil tasting flights (recently Chalk Hill, Regina, McEvoy). It’s easy to fall for an Italian torta ($13) of potato duck hash, Hedgehog mushrooms, poached egg and Marsala crema. Their fritto misto ($13) stands out from what is often merely a pile of fried food. Rhodehamel fries up the unusual: scungil (whelk), herring, blood orange, and shirako (cod milt, ahem, I mean, sperm). The only lackluster (in terms of flavor) starter was tiny pan-fried frog’s legs ($14) with parsley sformatino (like savory panna cotta) – and I’m a frog leg fan.

Spaghettini nero

Though costly, entrees are lessons in execution. Charcoal-grilled meats are impeccable: buttery, crispy pork porterhouse ($30) sits amidst Cannellini beans and braised chard, while rare Piedmontese ribeye ($36) is crispy on the exterior, radiant pink inside, next to creamed spinach and Yukon Gold potatoes. Espresso chocolate stracciatella ice cream ($8) is a lush, caffeine finish, though after trying all recent desserts, I’d also take fluffy ricotta cheesecake ($8) with candied kumquats.

Ricotta cheesecake

Over the years, I’ve actually never eaten in the more casual, affordable downstairs cafe – I’d lean that direction except for the fact that the restaurant consistently garners stronger reviews. Upstairs, big windows, a warm glow, and seamless service evoke special occasion.

Oliveto remains a restaurant great worth crossing the bridge for.

 

GITANE, Financial District (6 Claude Lane between Bush & Sutter Streets, 415-788-6686)

Crab, cuttlefish, pineapple in sea urchin vinaigrette

Since opening in 2008, Gitane is easily one of our sexiest restaurants. Ducking into an alley, down a couple steps into the lush reds, tapestries, and chandelier glow of a tiny, two level space is seduction from a lover who knows how. Executive Chef Bridget Batson has been here since the beginning. In November, the restaurant shifted directions with the addition her husband, Co-Executive Chef Patrick Kelly (of La Folie and Napa’s Angèle), and Chef de Cuisine David Martinez. The trio also oversees the menu at next door’s more casual, sister restaurant, Claudine.

Gitane cocktails

Staying true to the meaning of gitane – gypsy woman – the new menu wanders gypsy-like through Southern Spain, changing cities (Andalusia, Sevilla, Valencia) every few weeks. In keeping with the celebratory setting, their appropriately deemed “passport” tasting menu is $65 for 5 courses (wine pairings from new Wine Director, Sarah Knoefler, an additional $45), available in the intimate upstairs dining room. The bar and alley/patio seating offers an a la carte menu ($12-36) or bar bites… I’m transported straight back to Spain with boquerones (white anchovies) or black-footed Iberico ham and a glass of herbaceous, strawberry-tinged 2011 Lechuza Garnacha Rosado ($9/26/36; glass, carafe, bottle).

Peeking down at the alley from an upstairs table

Though combining Spanish and Moroccan influence since day one (I’ll miss what was the best lamb tartare in the city), after Bridget and Patrick’s recent travels to Spain, we can now dig deeper into regional Spanish cuisine. The first regional focus was Valencia. The tasting menu began with a salad of baby beets, fuyu persimmon, Marcona almonds, citrus and nasturtium paired with honeysuckle notes of a Musva Moscatel from Valencia. Moving on, Dungeness crab and cuttlefish were touched with sea urchin vinaigrette and pineapple, served alongside an angular 2009 Conereria d’Scala Dei Garnacha Blanc, that popped with the pineapple. A delight of fatty Iberico pork cheeks, Matsutake mushroom and raw Nantucket bay scallops sat in a brilliant golden raisin/saffron/mushroom coulis. Fourth course was pan-roasted duck breast in Tempranillo chili puree accented by Oloroso sherry-compressed pears (yes!) The finish was winning pumpkin creme caramel paired with musky, butterscotch notes of a sweet 2009 Guitierrez de la Vega Moscatel.

Favorite tasting menu dish: Iberico pork cheek w/ raw scallops

An a la carte meal yielded an over-salted but beautifully seared scallop with crispy sweetbreads ($16) in parsnip cream and lobster oil. I preferred crisped, roasted artichokes piled with sunchokes and Manchego cheese ($13), or an entree of rabbit (conejo) two ways ($32): roasted saddle and a dreamy riletta, accompanied by braised snails and caramelized squash, over nettle coulis. Ramon Garcia remains Bar Manager, still serving refreshing cocktails ($12) like an elegantly smoky Chimenea (mezcal, rye, allspice dram, maple syrup, orange bitters), or lively Los Muertos (tequila, sweet vermouth, grapefruit marmalade, lime).

Pumpkin creme caramel

With the volume I eat, I value proportionate servings. Gitane portions are delicate, and as with upscale dining in general, it’s easy to feel as if one is paying more to eat less, even if elevated technique and creativity is the result. Gitane works the lower end of fine dining: pricey but not outrageous. Upscale yet comfortable. Setting alone makes it a real date night, while the low-key bar and patio are still romantic. Regional Spanish wines and cuisine renew my desire to return to Spain where I spent a few weeks a decade ago. In the meantime, we can play gypsy at home.

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Jan
30
2013

Top Tastes

Tender ribs crusted in 17 spices

SOUTHPAW Brings It Home

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

SOUTHPAW BBQ, Mission (2170 Mission St. between 17th and 18th, 415-934-9300)

Fried oysters & beer

Road tripping through the South for music and BBQ remains one of my most memorable trips ever: driving through four states, studying sauces and smokers, singing along to Loretta and Conway, George and Tammy, Dolly and Porter, Johnny and June, as the countryside passes by. As I’ve bemoaned before, finding authentic ‘que outside of the Deep South is a rarity. Southpaw BBQ opened late 2011 on Mission Street, a BBQ oasis of the gourmet kind, brewing their own beers in a couple in-house tanks. Welcoming staff and flaky catfish impressed me early on, but watery sauces, dry ribs and brisket, deflated BBQ hopes. Fast forward a year.

Smoked pulled goat & fry bread

With new Chef Max Hussey on board, I’m back, working my way through much of the food, cocktails and beer. As a Massachusetts dishwasher/prep cook, Hussey boldly slipped a resume to Emeril Lagasse at a book signing, moving to New Orleans a month later to eventually become Executive Sous Chef of Emeril’s Delmonico. Melding Southern with San Francisco, he’s cooked at 25 Lusk and Epic Roasthouse.

No regrets drinking Mishi's Regret

Under his watch, BBQ staples (pulled pork, brisket, ribs) have all improved. While ribs look dry crusted in 17 spices, they’re tender, aromatic, addictive. Appropriately fatty beef brisket is smoked for 14 hours. If you must do chicken at a BBQ joint, you could do worse than whiskey-brined. Catfish is still strong, lightly pan-fried and available on a sandwich ($9), which begged for a little more remoulade on melting-soft brioche. Newly-added quail explodes with boudin sausage. Each meat and catfish comes as a platter ($14-19) with hushpuppies and choice of two sides. Choosing sides ($5 each or 4 for $14) is a challenge. Cheddar grit cake hides a juicy hamhock, mac ‘n cheese comes alive with red pepper, sweet potatoes are whipped soft with bourbon, sweet chili-braised Southern greens and a new creamed “lollipop” chard kale make eating greens nearly dreamy.

Brewing beers at Southpaw

Creativity shines in starters like smoked pulled goat ($12) with salsa verde and house pickles scooped up by Southern fry bread, or roasted duck breast and goat cheese rosti ($12). Abandon all, however, for Natchez ($12), named after the Mississippi town, sounding a lot like “nachos”. Think warm potato chips falling apart under pulled pork and black eyed peas, drenched in pimento bechamel and hot sauce. Divine bar food.

Hussey also perfects fried oysters. These delicately fried bivavles exude briny freshness unusual for fried oysters. Currently, they’re loaded with bacon and onions on a sandwich ($11). While BBQ sauces like sweet potato remain a bit watery, lacking in flavor punch for me, Memphis smoked sauce is briskly gratifying. But all praise goes to better-than-ever Alabama white sauce: mayo-based, packing pepper and vinegar bite, it makes just about everything sing. I’d rather fill up on savory options than desserts ($8), but banana pudding with house ‘nilla wafers evokes childhood comfort.

A brand new (dreamy) side: bourbon whipped sweet potatoes

Divine bar food: Natchez

Drink is as important as food at Southpaw. Brewer Phil Cutti started homebrewing in 1995 after shopping at SF Brewcraft. Learning from Speakeasy founders Steve and Mike Bruce, homebrewing led to his own gypsy label, Muddy Puddle Brewing. Southpaw’s small program allows him to experiment with a range of beers and collaborate with other brewers.

Catfish sandwich

House brews ($6) are balanced, readily drinkable crowd pleasers. Posey Pale Ale is subtly hoppy, Pisgah Rye Porter is complex without being heavy, and a Smoked Cream Ale is smooth with a smoke-tinged finish. As active members of SF Brewers Guild, which puts on the fantastic SF Beer Week coming up February 8-17th, Southpaw hosts intimate classes and tastings, like a collaboration beer pairing dinner with San Diego’s famed Stone Brewing on Feb. 11, one of the brewers they feature on their hand-selected draft menu ($6-9 a glass).

Pecan Rye Old Fashioned

In addition to beer, founder/manager Edward Calhoun’s American whiskey selection and cocktails make fanatics like me smile. Growing up in his father’s North Carolina bar, Calhoun honed bar chops in three cities that know how to drink well: Savannah, New Orleans, San Francisco. Playful balance exemplifies the cocktails ($9), whether a Rye Old Fashioned sweetened by pecan syrup or Rescue Blues: smoky Scotch and Combier Rouge dancing with cocoa nib syrup. My favorites? Mishi’s Regret No. 2, hot with habanero, smoky with Mezcal, brightened by lemon and cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), or cheekily-named Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari’s character on my beloved Parks & Recreation) where sarsaparilla/root beer notes of Root liquor intermingle with lemon and Shiraz wine.

Banana pudding

Get educated with whiskey flights ($12-16) grouped in themes like Peated American Single Malts (Seascape, Leviathon I, Corsair Triple Smoke) or Bay Area Whiskey (Cyrus Noble, St. George’s Breaking & Entering Bourbon, Moylan’s Rye), or flights featuring a craft distillery like High West (Son of Bourye, Campfire, Double Rye).

Gracious founder/manager Elizabeth Wells, an Alabama native, sets Southpaw’s down home tone. She moves about the restaurant, attending to needs of each table. Staff follows her lead, ready with a smile, a platter of ‘que and a glass of bourbon. Down home, indeed.

Southpaw's inviting dining room & brewery

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