Top Tastes

Dining at 2 Michelin-starred Saison - interview with Chef Josh Skenes below

Dining at 2 Michelin-starred Saison – interview with Chef Josh Skenes below

My Top Food Articles: June 15-30

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my 15 articles/posts a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to just some coverage highlights here – you can sign up for Zagat’s weekly newsletter for highlights here and follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily.

As I have been for over a decade, I’m on the ground daily looking for early standouts at each new opening, while sharing underrated places and dishes you’ve seen me write about here at The Perfect Spot for years, and, of course, plenty of drink coverage (cocktails, wine, spirits, beer).

My biggest feature article of the last two weeks hit yesterday, in line with Best Thing We Ate lists in each Zagat city around the US – here is my list of the top 12 Best Thing We Ate dishes in the Bay Area this year so far.


Chef JOSH SKENES on SAISON’s New $498 Test Kitchen Dinners and Winemaker Dinner Series

New Bay Area Openings

What to eat at MARLA BAKERY’s restaurant, just open in Outer Richmond

First Look at BELCAMPO MEATS new San Francisco restaurant and sustainable, ethical butcher shop



URBAN PUTT GETS BOOZE – and what to eat one month in at the quirky mini-golf restaurant/bar

Day Trip: Port Costa

If Savannah (or other quirky, historic Southern town) met a California Gold Country Western town, it might feel a lot like PORT COSTA, home to one of the country’s best dive bars and a cosmopolitan restaurant and cocktail bar

East Bay

Early Tastes at PERDITION SMOKEHOUSE in BERKELEY from Mikkeller Bar SF & The Trappist Founder

What to eat & drink at downtown OAKLAND‘s new CAPTAIN & CORSET

Secretly Awesome: TRABOCCO’s pizza and pasta in an ALAMEDA strip mall

Rockridge’s (Oakland) OSMANTHUS renews your fried brussels sprouts crush

Underrated & Established Spots

8 reasons to revisit LOCAL KITCHEN & WINE MERCHANT in SoMa

The 8 BEST HOT DOGS in San Francisco

Unsung Heroes: SF’s best Afghani food for over 20 years at HELMAND PALACE




South Bay/Peninsula

LEXINGTON HOUSE, a destination restaurant and cocktail haven in LOS GATOS

Elegant weekend escape to CARMEL (where your boutique hotel houses a Michelin-starred restaurant)

Silky crudo, standout salads and Carlos Yturria’s cocktails at LURE + TILL in PALO ALTO

Events/Dinner Series

ICHI, Commonwealth and more join STONES THROW CHARITY DINNERS throughout the summer


On the Town

Skates recently underwent a dining room revamp


By Andi Berlin

To celebrate an extensive, month-long revamp, Berkeley Marina institution Skates on the Bay staged an evening of old school decadence.

“Raw” was the word of the night: although more comfortable furniture and updated carpeting had been put in, mouths were buzzing about the new raw bar offering fresh Miyagi oysters, Dungeness crab and nigiri sushi. To crown the affair, bartenders poured hard lemonades straight through an ice carving of a leaping salmon (the liquid came out from a tube inside its tail). White-shirted waitstaff circled the room carrying silver platters of Bloody Mary oyster shots and miniature crab cakes.

Most drinks were simple – sparkling wine, a house red, Dark & Stormy cocktails – but plentiful. A jazz band complete with vibraphone carried the evening along until the ceremonial “lifting of the blinds,” when employees lined up to let in the evening light offering spectacular views of the shimmering bay and distant SF skyline. Familiar cocktails and seafood aside, when the wind is pulsing and your heart aflutter, there’s no sunset like the scene from Skates on the Bay.

Small bites: salmon with creme fraiche and capers

White-buttoned waiters are a classy throwback

Cocktails: Dark & Stormy and hard lemonade with Finlandia grapefruit vodka











Yummy tuna tartare with yuzu sauce on a housemade chip

Best bite of the night: Crab cakes with celery remoulade, topped with radish

The soaring salmon sculpture

A scene from the new raw bar: shrimp and Dungeness crab

Stunning sunsets through the dining room windows

Skates at night: a parting view from the outstretched pier

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Top Tastes

Saru Sushi Bar’s “spicy cracker” tempura-fried seaweed topped w/ spicy tuna and avocado


Saru’s clever tasting spoons

Despite countless lauded sushi restaurants I’ve eaten at in NY and LA, I find San Francisco more than keeps up, whether with the staggering range of fish (and lovably surly attitude) Roger delivers at Zushi Puzzle (pencilfish or flying fish, anyone?), the sustainable efforts of Tataki and Sebo, or the pristine precision of Sausalito stalwart Sushi Ran, which tops overrated Nobu restaurants, in my book.

Here is one new SF spot, and one revamped Berkeley restaurant, adding more welcome sushi diversity to the Bay Area.

SARU SUSHI BAR, Noe Valley (3856 24th Street at Sanchez, 415-400-4510)

Saru’s spot prawn nigiri

Why couldn’t Saru Sushi Bar have been in Noe Valley all the years I lived right by this 24th Street storefront? The space’s original two sushi incarnations were less than desirable, where I was once subjected to smelly, rubbery fish. The closet-sized restaurant is completely revamped to the unrecognizable point. Still tiny, it feels roomier with large front windows and sleek brown color scheme. Cheery service pleasantly elevates the experience, particularly on a sunny day at lunch.

Noe’s new Saru Sushi

I’d claim the space has finally arrived. There’s not just the usual hamachi and sake (salmon), but rather playful, unique bites prepared with care. “Spicy cracker” ($7) is a sheet of seaweed fried in tempura, topped with spicy tuna and avocado – a textural bite. Bright halibut tartare is drizzled in lime zest, yuzu juice, and Japanese sea salt. Though I ever appreciate sampling options, some tasting spoons ($7) work better than others. One that worked: young yellowtail (kanpachi) in truffle oil and ponzu sauce, with garlic chips and scallions.

I know I’m good hands if raw spot prawns (amaebi) are on the nigiri menu ($7 two pieces). Bright and firm, they taste as if they were caught fresh that morning. Snappy rolls (maki) are not overwrought.

Popcorn Tuna Roll

Quality raw scallops are a favorite so I appreciate Naked Scallop ($12), a roll wrapped in light green soy paper, filled with snow crab, avocado, masago (smelt roe), and, of course, scallop.

Not near as junk-food-sushi as it sounds, is the fresh, fun, subtly crispy Popcorn Tuna roll ($10): panko-crusted spicy tuna is topped with masago (smelt roe), scallions, spicy mayo, and a sweet soy glaze.

Noe Valley finally has a destination sushi bar.

JOSHU-YA BRASSERIE, Berkeley (2441 Dwight Way at Telegraph Ave., 510-848-5260)

Joshu-Ya’s seared albacore

At first glance, Joshu-ya Brasserie could be another hip Berkeley student hang-out: a funky, converted old house with red gated front patio. But step inside the recently remodeled space and bamboo and dark wood exude an Old World Zen. A fountain out front murmurs soothingly while the sun warms the partially covered patio.

A chalkboard lists fish specials, but also rabbit tacos and Kobe kimchi sliders (the latter cooked too medium-well for me). One immediately realizes this is no typical sushi or even Japanese restaurant.

Miso starter w/ Sho Chiku Bai Organic Nama

Young executive chef/owner Jason Kwon’s vision is bigger. Yes, he is going for the Bay Area standard of seasonal, sustainable, locally-sourced ingredients – after all, he founded Couteaux Review, a culinary organization promoting sustainable agriculture. But it’s French influence and unique twists that keep things interesting with dishes like pan-roasted rib-eye medallions in blackberry balsamic reduction, or duck confit with buckwheat noodles, nori and bonito flakes. In some ways, the vision feels beyond what the restaurant has yet fully grown into, but the intriguing elements hold promise.

Surrounded by a red gate: Joshu-Ya Brasserie

The $35 omakase is a steal, particularly when chef Kwon informs you his fish supplier is the same The French Laundry and Morimoto buy from. After a starter of seared albacore, fresh and bright, if a little too doused in fried onions and ponzu sauce, a giant, artistic sashimi platter hits a number of high notes with actual fresh wasabi (always a good sign), aji tataki (horse mackerel) from Japan, kanpachi (young

Fried red bean ice cream

yellowtail) from Hawaii, hirame (halibut) from Korea, and chu-toro (bluefin tuna) from Spain. Only one fish on the platter arrived too cold and firm. The rest were silky and satisfying.

Being less of a sweet tooth, I’d rather have finished the omakase with another savory dish than tempura red bean ice cream. Generous scoops of fried ice cream and pound cake were a little weighted after such a refreshing meal. Seared salmon in truffle creme sounds like a fine dessert to me.

Artistic sashimi platter – a steal as part of a $35 omakase

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Around the Bay

Brasa's sunny, charming back patio


In the spirit of my new SF cheap eats article last issue (and recent Guardian column), here are two noteworthy new cheap eats joints East and South: Berkeley and Palo Alto.

ASIAN BOX, Palo Alto (855 El Camino Real, 650-391-9305)

Fresh, Asian eats in Palo Alto

Asian Box is a newer take-out shop (with one narrow communal table inside and a couple tables outside) in a mobbed Palo Alto strip mall. What could be just another casual Asian food joint has two key things going for it. One is two former San Francisco chefs behind it: executive chef Grace Nguyen, of Out The Door’s Bush Street location, and Chad Newton, who many of us followed at Fish & Farm (where he created one incredible burger).

The other is that Asian Box’s affordable food ($6.95-$8.25) is ultra-fresh and satisfying. It’s an assemble-your-own meal, starting with short or long grain rice, Asian vegetable salad or rice noodles. Choose a protein – I like juicy garlic soy glazed beef or creamy coconut curry tofu, and finish with add-ons like jalapeno, bean sprouts, carrots, peanuts, mint, basil, pickled vegetables, lime – all at no additional charge (except for a .95 caramel egg).

Choose-your-own ingredients

In terms of sauces, creamy peanut sauce with lime and coconut stands out, while there’s also Sriracha and a no oil fish sauce. Vietnamese iced coffee and tart lemon lime marmalade ($2.95 – both winners) flow from juice dispensers, while, much as I wanted to try it, house Jungle jerky ($2.75) was sold out on my recent visit.

Though SF residents needn’t trek from the city, if you’re in the area, it’s easily one of the best cheap meals in Palo Alto and would be a lunch hit in SF if they had a Financial District location.

BRASA, Berkeley (1960 University Avenue at Milvia; 510-868-0735)

Brasa Peruvian

In the space were eVe used to be (which I included in the Guardian’s 2010 Best of the Bay), husband/wife owners, Veronica and Chris Laramie, reopened the place as Brasa, a casual Peruvian eatery with lime green and neutral walls, and idyllic back deck. While they hope to revisit the eVe concept in a bigger space eventually, Veronica tells me the current goal is to open another Brasa.

The menu is simple, heartwarming Peruvian fare, if not solely worth heading across the bridge for, is worthwhile if in the area. Classic Peruvian favorites like Lomo Saltado here become a sandwich ($8.25) packed with hangar steak, red onion, tomato, soy sauce, and French fries.

Brasa's small dining room

Their house specialty is rotisserie chicken (quarter to whole chicken with 1-2 sides: $8.75-$21.75), crispy skin dotted with herbs. We have quality rotisserie in SF, but dipping sauces are a plus here, featuring common Peruvian peppers, aji amarillo and rocoto, my favorite being a green hucatay, sometimes referred to as Peruvian black mint, though it is actually an herb related to marigold and tarragon. The sauce is spicy, herbaceous and creamy.

Sip a refreshing chicha morada ($2), a sweet, purple corn Peruvian juice laden with clove and cinnamon, and finish with house alfajores ($3.50), dulce de leche sandwich cookies (though my favorite alfajores remain Sabores del Sur in SF) or Straus soft serve ice cream (cone $3, pint $6) infused with coffee caramel.



Drinking Destination: EAST BAY

Honor entrance

It’s true: the East Bay cocktail scene is growing by leaps and bounds lately, with a slew of new bars (many opened by San Francisco bar stars) popping up from Albany to Alameda. Two comfortable, new hang-outs just debuted January 3rd serving cocktails for the geek and casual imbiber alike. Both claim noteworthy bartenders covering various shifts. I spent an evening tasting through their menus, offering an early peek at cocktail stand-outs… plus more go-to spots around the East Bay.

Honor Kitchen & Cocktails

1411 Powell Street (between Hollis & Peladeau), Emeryville, 510-653-8667

Jenkins' Ear

Situated in a solo building (with parking lot) not far from Emeryville’s shopping center madness (and E-ville’s other shining bar beacon, Prizefighter, which opened at the end of 2011), Honor Kitchen & Cocktails serves gourmet pub food in a room glowing with vintage signs, a Creature from the Black Lagoon pinball machine, and granite red bar, the center around which the space flows. After passing through an entrance lined with cigar signs, records, even an owl, grab a beer from a tub of ice. It’s on the honor system so ask a bartender to add it to your tab (no surprise: this is already garnering early buzz).

Cocktail menu quality was pretty much guaranteed under bar manager Alex Smith who came from Gitane in SF. I’ve written about his exquisite drinks at Gitane few times, unsurprised to find his offerings at Honor Bar more casual but nonetheless sophisticated, easily exhibiting promise at this early date to be among the best cocktails in the East Bay.

Bucket o'wings with biscuit and Bleeding Monarch cocktail

Honor bucket of beers as you enter the main room

While slurping oysters with St. Germain herb mignonette or dipping Kennebec fries ($3.5) in salt and vinegar aioli or serrano ham jelly, select from cocktails (all $10) grouped under “stirred” (spirituous) or “shaken” (mixed with other ingredients). I’m immediately won over by gently smoky, spicy, bright layers of the Porfiriato. Tequila, guajillo pepper-infused mezcal, Cocchi di Torino, Licor 43, and cinnamon bitters meld in a complex yet drinkable whole.

The spirit of tiki hovers over but does not overwhelm the bourbon-based Bleeding Monarch. Passion fruit lends a tropical air, orgeat adds texture, balsamico amaro and Campari finish with deliciously bitter undertones. Black Sabbath is as badass as it sounds: Laphroiag Scotch dominates with a rough and tumble, smoky presence, given nuance by Averna, absinthe, and orange bitters.

Smith’s established skill with sherry shows in Jenkins’ Ear, highlighting oloroso sherry with aged rum, Angostura bitters and cardamom-spice properties of Hum liqueur – no element out of balance. Dessert with a savory essence can be had in a Winter Flip. Whole egg softens brandy and tawny port, while Smith’s housemade Indian pudding is a cream base (rather than a thick pudding) for layers of spice.

Maybe my top drink: Porfiriato

Black Sabbath













The New Easy

3255 Lakeshore Avenue (between Lake Park & Trestle Glen), Oakland, 510-338-4911

Flambeeing kumquats for Winter Sideshow

In Oakland’s Grand Lake district, Easy Lounge closed, transforming into the New Easy. Big Easy inspiration is evident in upcoming Nola Sundays with BBQ, punch bowls (proceeds go to charities) and New Orleans tunes. The space is funky, eclectic, charming, with boozy quotes etched into one wall, stars painted on another, white lights draped over individual picnic tables. The small back patio is warmed by heat lamps and a skeleton gazing over cactus plants.

The welcoming neighborhood joint focuses on farmers market ingredients. Each Saturday they create a new menu of cocktails using ingredients from the big Grand Lake Farmers Market a block away. Summer-Jane Bell not only created the menu but was hands-on in space design elements, painting stars as she crafted the menu. Her winning bartender team includes Yael Amyra (Circolo, Burritt Room), Ian Adams (15 Romolo, Orson), David Ruiz (Mr. Smith’s), and Morgan Schick (Nopa, Michael Mina).

Carrot juice to good use in the Mad Hatter

Bell’s menu is decidedly playful, reminiscent of American childhood… with booze. The festive theme starts as you receive Chinese take-out boxes of fresh-popped popcorn, while bites of mini sliders and grilled cheese sandwiches are passed around. I had the most fun with Mad Hatter ($10). Sailor Jerry rum and a spicy ginger soda are obvious mates, but the bright orange, creamy drink surprises with golden raisin puree and carrot juice. Bright and healthy, spice and sweetness (but not too much) make it a delightful alternative to an orange creamsicle.

Gift Horse ($9) was probably the most balanced, making fine use of Hayman’s Old Tom gin, which I haven’t seen much on cocktail menus in awhile. Dolin Blanc vermouth and Bell’s winter bitters made with a tequila base, unfold in floral, dry layers with notes of cranberry and fennel from the bitters. Winter Sideshow ($11) offers the spectacle, even if I prefer the former two drinks. The drink will change with the seasons, a base of Beefeater gin and pür Spiced Blood Orange liqueur the backdrop for Angostura-flambeed kumquats, flamed before you.

The New Easy's inviting glow

Balanced beauty: Gift Horse












Cocktailing Around the East Bay

Hotsy Totsy Club sign glows down San Pablo Ave.

Oakland boasts the biggest concentration and range for East Bay cocktails, some of its consistent best at Adesso, casual drinks with bocce ball at Make Westing, elegant classic-style at Flora, pizza with cocktails at Marzano and Boot & Shoe Service, Miel for tequila/mezcal drinks, Conga Lounge and divey Kona Club for tiki kitsch.

Comfortable, good tunes, under pressed tin ceilings at Hotsy Totsy Club

Berkeley keeps it real with organic drinks at Gather, and artisanal cocktails at Revival Bar & Kitchen. The little island of Alameda hosts the beloved tiki gem, Forbidden Island, launched in part by tiki/rum expert Martin Cate who went on to open SF’s Smuggler’s Cove. Here, cheesy B movie nights, and live bands flow with Banana Mamacows. As mentioned above, Emeryville now has two destination-worthy bars for cocktail lovers: Prizefighter and Honor Bar.

Hotsy Totsy carbonated cocktails

Albany is blessed with three old school classics merely blocks from each other along San Pablo Ave.: the musty, tiki vibe of Club Mallard, the mid-century, retro swank of Kingman’s Ivy Room, and the edgy comfortability of Hotsy Totsy Club. Though none of these three are exactly craft cocktail bars, Hotsy Totsy comes closest, with house cocktail sodas, gracious bar manager Jessica Maria, and stellar guest bartenders like Scott Baird of The Bon Vivants, who bartends here weekly.

They’ve kept on longtime bartender Chet, in his 70’s, who has been tending there the better part of a couple decades. Their gorgeous, restored Wurlitzer jukebox is a treasure of rare and popular 45s, which you can play for free to your hearts content.

Hotsy Totsy encourages lingering with friends under pressed tin ceilings, rocking out to excellent tunes hand-selected by staff. Funky ’70’s garage sale paintings line the walls and hilariously creepy movies (like For Your Height Only starring Weng Weng) play silently on the flat screen, add to the edgy, blissfully divey, convivial spirit.

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Around the Bay


Adesso's Citrus Granita with Gran Classico pour


A couple recent Oakland nights included drinks at the relaxed, new Dogwood (with decent but not stand-out cocktails or atmosphere), and the following return visits:

ADESSO, OAKLAND (4395 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, 94611, 510-601-0305) - You last heard me talk about Adesso in the Guardian and here in 2009. It has been one of Oakland’s best bars since opening with a truly killer happy hour.

Barrel-aged Martini

On a recent return, I was served the earthy, subtle Scottish Witch ($10): Old Raj 110 Gin, Strega, house coriander beet syrup, lemon, with an orange twist. A house Barrel-aged Martini is made with Karlsson’s Gold vodka, a sophisticated, layered vodka martini.

A simple, gorgeous dessert was a special for the day: Citrus Granita ($10) with biscotti and a pour of Gran Classico to douse the granita with. Sigh. Sheer goodness.

WINE on PIEDMONT, OAKLAND (4183 Piedmont Avenue, 510-595-9463) -   One of the best liquor stores I’ve seen in the East Bay is Wine on Piedmont. It’s small but well-curated from all over the globe.

Though wine is the predominant focus, the small spirits section is impressive. Locally-made favorites are well represented from Old World Spirits to Germain Robin. Proprietors Brian Goehry and Susan Sieggreen’s eye for the best means you’ll hardly find a throwaway selection on the shelves. Connoisseurs will be pleased but the proprietors’ knowledge means the novice can also find new treasures.


Phoulourie (split pea & wild nettle fritters)

HIBISCUS, OAKLAND (1745 San Pablo Ave at 18th, 510-444-2626) – Hibiscus has settled into downtown Oakland’s dining scene as a destination restaurant for creative Caribbean food. I wish there were more experimenting as Exec Chef Sarah Kirnon is with island flavors of Barbados and Jamaica.

Crab Cornmeal Porridge

It’s a pleasure to return to Hibiscus, where I find I’m still a fan of the salty excess of Salt Cod & Ackee ($8.50), hot with scotch bonnet peppers. Cool off with house-made Sorrel ($3.50) or a Leeward Mai Tai ($10): Couer de Canne Agricole rum, Cointreau, lime, orgeat (almond syrup), orange peel.

This visit, my love is heaped upon Dungeness Crab Cornmeal Porridge ($18). Creamy, grits-like porridge is laced with chunks of crabmeat, butternut squash, carrots, King Richard leeks, and Bird’s Eye chili for a little heat. Sophisticated comfort food, this is the one I’m craving again.

Plantains in garlic oil

Vegetarians aren’t left out with dishes like Kirnon’s Market Plate ($16). This particular night it was chana (garbanzo beans), braising greens and potato in a flavor-rich cauliflower curry, with a mini-radish salad and gorgeous tamarind sauce.

Plantains are grilled to perfection in garlic oil ($4), while a starter of Phoulourie ($7.50) shows playful possibilities: split pea and wild nettle fritters are bound together in cornmeal and flour, with kumquats, arugula, shado beni providing contrast.

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Around the Bay

Preview of Gaumenkitzel, Berkeley

German china lines shelves behind the counter

Gaumenkitzel jams line the shelves

GAUMENKITZEL, meaning ‘delight for the taste buds’, opens later this week (if all goes as planned) in an open, sunny space on San Pablo Ave. in Berkeley. Owner Anja Voth brings restaurant and patisserie experience from Hamburg and Berlin. Her husband Kai Flache constructed and designed the restaurant with his local firm. They operate as a gracious, complimentary team.

A rustic wood ceiling, huge windows and skylight illuminate the yellows, whites, reds and oranges of the clean, modern room. A spare collection of German china and ceramic dolls line the shelves, adding a homey touch. While the main portion of the room is eat-in, one can order take-out or baked goods. A section to the left of the entrance offers stools and countertops for a quick meal.

Linzer Torte

A pastry chef bakes fresh breads and pastries in-house, including a delicate Linzer Torte with red currant jam. Anja operates as chef with assistance from a chef who worked 15 years at Oakland’s now-defunct Citron. I stopped in for a preview lunch, savoring baked goods, beet salad, an addictive caramel custard, and beef roulade with braised red cabbage and creamy mashed potatoes. The beef roulade is Anja’s mother’s recipe, rolled up with pickles and onions, while red cabbage is equal parts apple with a tart, spiced kick.

Luxurious caramel pudding

A breakfast menu lasts all morning with items like German porridge, house-baked rolls, cold cuts, müsli. There’s afternoon tea (2-4:30pm), while lunch and supper entrees cover the gamut from salmon with rhubarb compote to wild mushrooms with spaetzle. They also make their own seasonal jams, like a pleasantly tart/bitter Meyer lemon marmalade I sampled. Menu prices had not yet been finalized on the menus I previewed, but it will be affordable, mid-range.

Beef Roulade

The joy here is dishes with a predominantly North German focus, a rarity as local offerings are typically of the South German kind. Influences from Anja and Kai’s port city hometown of Hamburg are showcased, like curry (poached fish with curry sauce) and fresh fish (from Monterey Fish Market). Expect authentic German, reliant on local and seasonal ingredients, prepared with care from a couple involved in every aspect of the place.

2121 San Pablo Ave, Berk.
Daily 6am-6:30pm

Gaumenkitzel's sunny, spacious interior

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Around the Bay

Best Restaurant Openings 2010,

Bay Area

In Top Tastes I list the top ten new restaurant openings of the year in San Francisco. Here I list an additional four best new Bay Area openings: one in the South Bay, two in the East Bay, one in Wine Country. In the midst of Oakland’s continued proliferation as a dining hotspot and the new downtown Napa reign of celebrity chefs from Tyler Florence to Morimoto, here are a few that rose above, in alphabetical order.

BAUME, Palo Alto

In the realm of all-senses-engaged gastronomy temples like Chicago’s Alinea or the whimsical decadence of Jose Andres The Bazaar in LA, San Francisco is shockingly lacking. We have the talent and creativity here of the best food cities in the world. But it seems at times there can be a fear of getting too experimental. Thankfully, in 2010 Chef Bruno Chemel (formerly of Chez TJ) opened Baume in a non-descript, ’70’s-looking Palo Alto building.

Baume's magical dessert spread

Yes, it’s crazy expensive (tasting menus), special occasion dining, but it stands out with well-orchestrated service and a simple but striking dining room of elegant orange and warm browns. You are teased with ingredients, like liquid nitrogen, curry, leek, seaweed, endive, then await the presentation like a gift. The best part is that Baume is not merely molecular showmanship… dishes are rich with flavor and heart. Don’t miss Chef Bruno’s 62-degree sous-vide egg. I had it with wild mushroom and Noilly Prat dry vermouth foam paired with shots of fresh celery and lime juice punctuated by roasted rosemary stalks. Currently, he’s serving the egg with lichee, lilikoi, espresso, chocolate. I’m intrigued.

GATHER, Berkeley
A December 2009 opening, Gather is the best thing to come along in Berkeley in ages. It reads typical Bay Area at first glance: local, sustainable, organic everything, from meats and veggies to spirits, wine and beer. The rounded corner room, with bustling, open space in full view of the kitchen is holistically casual and urban.

Gather's artful vegan 'charcuterie'

And, yes, everything you have heard about the raved-about vegan “charcuterie” is true. Decidedly non-vegetarian, I marvel at this artwork array of vegetables on a wood slab, five delicately-prepared (and delicious) combinations for $16. You might have roasted baby beets with shaved fennel, dill, blood orange, horseradish almond puree and pistachio as one item, then King Trumpet mushroom crudo with parsnip-pine nut sea palm risotto as another. Exec Chef Sean Baker and team do meat right, too. Whether sausage pizza with pork belly and chiles, or house-cured ham topped with crescenza cheeze and cardoon-walnut salsa, carnivores will leave happy. Gather displays an ethos and presentation one can only dream of being a standard everywhere.

PLUM, Oakland

Plum's "snacks"

Easily the best new opening in Oakland in 2010,, Daniel Patterson’s long-anticipated Plum delivers his impeccable technique in heartwarming food. Despite communal seating on uncomfortable wood stools, one is warmed by skillfully prepared food under $20. Chef Charlie Parker recently took the reigns, serving impeccably nuanced soups like ham hock & brussels sprouts or turnip apple soup with miso. Deviled eggs benefit from caperberry tarragon relish, while a rich beef cheek and oxtail burger welcomes the contrast of accompanying Autumn pickles. Patterson’s power continues to be used for gourmet good, and this time Oakland is the recipient.

Farmstead may not be the most exciting restaurant to open in Wine Country in 2010 but I find it among the most satisfying. Part of Long Meadow Ranch, a welcome package of winery, poultry farm, herb garden, grass-fed beef ranch, and olive press, it’s in a modern, converted barn with fireplace, tractors and chairs on the outdoor patio. Inside it’s funky light fixtures, cavernous ceilings and leather booths.

Potted Pig at Farmstead

Their grass-fed beef is, in a word, exemplary. It makes for a decent steak, but my money goes towards the meltingly-good cheeseburger. On a house potato bun, it’s lathered with addictive mustard (they don’t skimp on the horseradish), cheddar and arugula. Order “potted” pig: tender, shredded pig packed in a mason jar with a layer of lard on top, served with toasts and that fabulous mustard. Another humane, locally-sourced restaurant, Farmstead brings a casual playfulness I don’t see often enough in Wine Country.


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