Jun
15
2014

Top Tastes

Aveline's gorgeous "vegetable garden"

Aveline’s gorgeous “vegetable garden”

My Top Food Recommends, New Openings & More: June 1-15

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my 15 articles/posts a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to just some of this coverage here – you can sign up for Zagat’s weekly newsletter for the Bay Area 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).

New Bay Area Openings

10 Hottest NEW SF RESTAURANTS

12 innovative dishes at the new AVELINE FROM A TOP CHEF ALUM

What to eat at funky new Chinese American eatery, CHINO

What to eat & drink at the new Paris-meets-NY chic hotel bar, THE EUROPEAN

KAIJU EATS serves creative izakaya and ramen

Every Friday: 25 NEW RESTAURANTS TO TRY IN THE BAY AREA

Where to Brunch: SoMa’s NEW RED DOG from Chef Lauren Kiino

1058 Hoagie Turns into a JEWISH DELI called Rye Project

3 Summer STRAWBERRY DESSERTS to try at new restaurants

Events/Dinner Series

ACQUERELLO’s 25th ANNIVERSARY DINNER SERIES all summer with guest chefs from NY to Seattle

Underrated & Established Spots

The 8 BEST SEAFOOD SPOTS in the Bay Area

The BIG 4 IS BACK: 9 picks from the new menus

TONY’S PIZZA NAPOLETANA pours beer into pizza

Napa

3 reasons to visit PRESS ST. HELENA, including a unique wine cellar, a new patio with fireplace, and a brand new chef from none other than Blue Hill in NYC

Interviews

CHEF ALEXANDER ALIOTO on his upcoming Summer restaurant, Plin, the Alioto family and more

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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)

A

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.

s

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)

Beng

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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Nov
15
2012

Around the Bay

Jittery John’s bracing cold brew coffee sold and served at Doughnut Dolly

DOUGHNUTS & BAGELS in OAKLAND

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Beauty’s beauty of a bagel and lox

Bagels and doughnuts in their many iterations (beignets, malasadas, bomboloni, etc…) are two of the more comforting breakfast – or any time – foods. It’s tougher than it should be to find proper bagels, but alongside notable SF sources, the East Bay welcomes a few new arrivals.  I stop first for fuel at Berkeley’s just-opened coffee and wine bar Bartavelle for a well-executed Sightglass Coffee cappuccino in the tiny-but-charming former Cafe Fanny space next to Kermit Lynch and Acme Bread.

Coffee at the new Bartavelle

First, bagels. Like anyone who has ever lived near or in NYC, I miss New York bagels. There’s nothing like properly boiled and baked bagels, with dense, chewy insides and cracklin’ exterior, topped with excellent schmear and lox. In Manhattan, I’ve schooled my California born-and-raised husband, The Renaissance Man, on NY bagels, journeying to different neighborhoods, from Barney Greengrass and Ess-A-Bagel, to favorites like Russ & Daughters.

Outside NYC, we get little that is comparable. In the Bay Area there’s the likes of short-lived Spot Bagel or now the excellent Schmendricks in pop-up form at Fayes Video & Espresso Bar on Wednesday and Friday mornings or by individual order. I’m impressed by Schmendricks bagels from Brooklyn native, Dave Kover, his wife Dagny Dingman, lawyer-turned-baker, Deepa Subramanian, and her husband Dan Scholnick. While I anticipate a permanent storefront for Schmendricks, Wise Sons‘ bialys, as a cousin to the bagel, fill a void.

Beauty’s Bagel Shop

Then there’s Montreal-style bagels, less chewy than a NY bagel, slightly thinner yet dense, with a touch of char from wood-fired baking. Beauty’s Bagel has been the rave of Oakland since opening this Summer, their bagels hand-rolled, boiled in honey water, then baked in a wood-fired oven. Yes, it’s NY prices: $9 for closed, $12 for an open-faced bagel sandwich, or $1.65 per individual bagel (in a few choice flavors like sesame, poppy, onion, or everything). But the quality is a significant step up from most. After apprenticing at a Montreal bagelry and working as a chef at Delfina, Blake Joffe and girlfriend Amy Remsen, made roughly 800 bagels a week at Addie’s Pizza Pie in Berkeley before opening Beauty’s. Serving Healdsburg’s coffee king, Flying Goat, they also craft chopped chicken liver, deviled eggs, cream cheeses/schmear and pickles in house, sourcing smoked trout and lox. It’s a fresh lox, scallion schmear, tomato, red onion and capers bagel sandwich that makes me smile, almost as if I’m back in Manhattan on the hunt for a perfect bagel and lox… including the Manhattan prices.

A box full of Donut Savant

On to doughnuts. SF masters the best in both old school Bob’s Donuts (particularly at 1 or 2am when they’re pulling those gems out of the oven) or the newer gourmet wave at Dynamo Donuts, with their beautiful Campari or spiced chocolate donuts, to name a few. Oakland gained two doughnut newcomers this summer, Donut Savant and Doughnut Dolly.

Doughnut Dolly, down a cheery Temescal alley

Downtown Oakland’s Donut Savant serves essentially glorified donut holes, their Twitter feed making me crave flavors like key lime, pumpkin or an Old Fashioned with Bulleit bourbon glaze, Angostura bitters cream and a twist of lemon, which they introduced at Oakland’s Art Murmur in August. This led to disappointment when first crossing the Bay Bridge weeks after they opened only to be met with a sign during regularly scheduled morning hours saying they’d return hours later with more donuts.

When I was able to trek back to the humble shop and find actual donuts, I bought every one in sight. Flavors were straightforward, rather than the interesting aforementioned. Chocolate coconut donut holes won over chocolate or vanilla, though a dark chocolate donut with a light dusting of sugar was plain but more satisfying. One topped with butter cream stood out with creamy contrast and candied ginger strips.

Doughnut Dolly’s filled doughnuts

Doughnut Dolly charms in an alley off 49th Street. Pastel-striped walls and a friendly woman graciously attending to each customer makes it feel immediately like a beloved neighborhood secret. By the bottle or glass, Jittery John’s (JJ’s) Cold Brew Coffee is bracingly strong, New Orleans’ style chicory coffee, made by a Oakland local – adding cream or milk makes one $10 bottle stretch to 4-5 glasses of iced coffee. Dare I say it’s almost worth stopping in just for this eye-opening brew that reminds me of Nola? Doughnuts are the filled kind (no holes), the strawberry jelly donut superior to a childhood favorite with fresh jam inside. On my visits, flavors were a little basic for my tastes, the “naughty cream” basically a standard vanilla, with the chocolate pudding-like vs. dark and seductive, but the donut itself has a soft, gratifying texture. When taking a few additional donuts home, a few seconds in the microwave ensured they melted warm in my mouth.

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Oct
01
2012

Top Tastes

Despite bacon overkill the past decade, you’ll dream of the bacon at Blackwood

DESTINATION BITES: Lasagnas, Millionaire’s Bacon, Melted Buratta Spaghettini, Explosion Burger

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

There are restaurants weaving together the whole package, a melange of atmosphere, service and most importantly, memorable food. Sometimes there’s the overarching solidity of a menu… other times, one walks away dreaming about that one specific item. Here are four such dishes from four locations, worth going out of your way for.

MARCELLA’S, Dogpatch (1099 Tennessee St. between 20th & 22nd, 415-920-2225)

Utterly gratifying: Bolognese lasagna

Lasgana… there are few foods as evocative of my childhood. Being Sicilian, my mother did pasta best. Her lasagna was always of the Bolognese kind, bubbling over with cheese, meat and perfect red sauce. Until now, Gaspare’s in the Outer Richmond is typically where I’d get my old school lasagna fix. Since May, Dogpatch now has a lasagneria, of all fantastic things. Marcella’s Lasagneria & Cucina is a humble corner shop selling Chef Massimo’s aioli spreads/dips (like black truffle or spicy Chardonnay) and other food products produced on premises, as well as paninis, soups, and pizzas for eating in or taking out. Though pizzas aren’t necessarily the strong point, who needs pizzas when you have six kinds of lasagna to choose from?

Marcella’s humble, welcoming dining room

Jovial Massimo hails from Italy’s Abruzzo region, regaling with stories of chef days in Italy (I’m charmed by the 1980′s-looking photo of him above the counter in chef’s hat with a glass of wine) or about his family, who clearly play a big part in the business. The shop is named after his daughter while his friendly son sometimes works the counter (note: currently they are only open Monday-Friday, 11:30am – 7pm). On a typical visit, lasagna options are butternut squash, bolognese, wild mushroom, spicy eggplant, spicy sausage and a pesto zucchini. Buying a whole lasagna for a family birthday (yes, it’s celebratory-good), I thank Chef Massimo for making each available by the slice ($8.50). I’ll bring home three slices for dinner, reveling in savory-sweet red sauce and ultra-thin pasta sheets redolent but not overcome with ricotta and mozzarella.

Marcella’s “slow food” ethos proudly displayed

All recipes I’ve had or made of butternut squash lasagna have been white so that the squash shines. Here it still does, while benefiting from a bit of red sauce. Earthy wild mushroom, spicy eggplant or pesto ricotta are winning lasagna offerings, though in reference to my upbringing – and because meaty lasagna is the ultimate – I like classic Bolognese best (the Italian sausage lasagna is ideal for larger chunks of meat). Massimo corners balance: though layering each lasagna with bechamel sauce and fillings, there’s not too much of any one ingredient. The entirety melts and dissolves soft in your mouth, as heartwarming as your Italian mama’s cooking… or the one you dreamed of.

BLACKWOOD, Marina (2150 Chestnut St. between Steiner & Pierce, 415-931-9663)

Blackwood’s version of Mieng Kum Kung topped w/ crispy tiger prawns

Blackwood is an unusual Marina restaurant. There are not many Thai joints in the neighborhood to begin with (though Yukol Place has been keeping it real for years), and certainly not one like this. High ceilings and shades of black and grey set a chic tone, while non-traditional dishes like mushroom egg rolls and unfortunately named Marina Strips – Wagyu beef strips wrapped in baby hearts of palm – fill the menu. Many dishes are larger, more artfully arranged, versions of what you’d find in most Thai restaurants, like papaya salad or Pad See Ew (spelled Pad See You). Their Thai fusion label is apparent in a Thai Wagyu burger ($12) on brioche loaded with a Thai salad of cucumber, carrot, cilantro, sesame, or in generous, sizzling stone pots ($14-16), akin to Koran bibimbap, filled with rice, veggies, meat of choice (I like crispy red snapper in plum dressing) and topped with a fried egg.

Like Korean bibimbap, a Thai stone pot

However, the one destination item is merely a $5 add-on to a breakfast platter (served daily, 8am-4pm) – and what an add-on! Though only open since June, Blackwood’s Millionaire’s Bacon has already been named on the Destination America’s United States of Food on the Discovery Channel. Two hefty strips of bacon are dense, shimmery, chewy beauties, caramelized and slightly sweet and smoky. Despite bacon burn-out over the past decade, with bacon gracing every dessert and dish possible, these juicy strips renew and refresh the love, reminiscent of Southern ham in gourmet jerky-like form.

BLUESTEM BRASSERIE
, Downtown/Union Square (One Yerba Buena Lane between 3rd & 4th Sts., 415-547-1111)

Calabrian chile spaghettini topped w/ melted burrata

Bluestem Brasserie is not your typical downtown shopping break. In fact, it has improved since opening in summer 2011, honing in on its menu, house charcuterie and whole-animal butchery practices so no part goes to waste. With new Executive Chef Francis Hogan there is fresh life in the space frequented by tourists and locals shopping along Market Street or the business, tech, Moscone Center crowd. While wine on tap, grass-fed beef, and whole-animal practices are common in SF at large, being centrally situated downtown between SoMa and Union Square, Bluestem is exposing a range of clientele who otherwise would not be exposed to just how good sustainability can taste.

Bluestem’s charcuterie platter

Besides satisfying house pates (on the charcuterie platter) of pork, pistachio and the like, a whole roasted branzino ($29) is flaky, perked up with roasted summer chilis (or your choice of side), while grass-fed 6 oz. filet ($31) or 12 oz. ribeye ($34) steaks are appropriately tender, medium rare, with choice of sauce ($3.75), like bourbon espresso or horseradish-roasted garlic cream.

Peaches & Herb ‘Reunited’ Sundae

The dish I found myself trekking back for whether at lunch or dinner is Calabrian chile spaghettini ($19). Though I would prefer some heat from the chiles (I detected none), the heaping bowl of pasta is topped with Early Girl tomatoes, arugula and basil, the pièce de résistance being melted burrata flowing over the pasta in lush waves. A gentle zesting of lemon rind perfects it.

Dessert ($9.50) is no afterthought. While the Peaches & Herb ‘Reunited’ Sundae was a layered summer treat, it’s a jar filled with mini-cookies baked in-house, from lemon sugar to peanut butter, that made me feel like a kid again. There were so many cookies, I finished the rest for breakfast the next day with coffee.

EPIC ROASTHOUSE, Embarcadero (369 The Embarcadero between Folsom and Harrison, 415-369-9955)

Cocktail with a view from Epic’s dining room

With those stunning Bay Bridge views and a newly opened patio, a sunny lunch or brunch at Epic Roasthouse celebrates the beauty of San Francisco with a masculine-chic, light-filled dining room appropriately striking as the vantage point for such a vista. While historically their steaks were not among my favorites, Epic has a number of strong dishes and sides, though its most crave-worthy item has evolved into one of the best upscale burgers in the city. While $20 is steep, the Explosion Burger ($20) is more than one person can finish, changing over time to become an elaborate “explosion” of burger stuffed with cheese in the middle of the patty.

Explosion burger oozes cheese from its center

Whether morbier or aged cheddar, the giant patty oozes cheese, on a toasted, soft bun accompanied by a wooden tray of toppings in little cups, from a corn salad to just-grilled bacon bits, and an array of house pickles. The main issue I’ve had with steaks here is receiving them overcooke, even medium well, when I requested medium rare, but the burger comes appropriately medium rare, pink, drizzling with meaty juices. I cannot possibly finish one of these alongside crispy frites… but I am happy to try.

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May
15
2012

Featured Neighborhood

Pristine sushi at neighborhood favorite, Hama-Ko

The Best of UPPER HAIGHT & COLE VALLEY

Walking Cole Street, connecting Haight & Cole Valley

I’m constantly asked what my favorite restaurant is. It’s an impossible question. Inquire about my favorite taqueria, German, tea house, French bistro, and I’m ready to talk. There’s a favorite for every style and mood in a metropolitan, dense city such as ours. My current home is on the cusp of Haight-Ashbury and Cole Valley, which, like every neighborhood in our food-rich city, has its treasures. We’ll explore it’s best here.

I’m ever making a plea for quality spots to replace much of the touristy swill that lines Haight Street (FYI: the El Balazo space is up for grabs; Papazote will open in the former Eos space from the Mamacita folks). Funny enough, it’s the expanded Haight Street Market, new Whole Foods and Off the Grid Upper Haight that have improved the food tenor of the ‘hood. It’s understandable why Upper Haight rarely places on budding restaurateurs’ horizon: uber-high rents and less-than-food-saavy tourist crowds. But it only takes a few to turn a neighborhood’s tide (note: Western Addition, Dogpatch, et. al.), and we already have pioneers like Dave McLean who’ve made this a better eating and drinking neighborhood for all.

Alembic cocktails

1. ALEMBIC
Thank God for The Alembic. The bar has been one of SF’s best since it opened, thanks to bar manager Daniel Hyatt, whose expertise on American whiskey equates an ahead-of-the-curve selection. Alembic claims many gifted bartenders, like Danny Louie and Janiece Gonzalez, and I’m never disappointed when asking for an off-menu cocktail creation. The food is destination-worthy in its own right – maybe the best in the Haight. Whether at the bar with jerk-spiced duck hearts and a bowl of shishito peppers, or dining on caramelized scallops and sweetbreads over kabocha squash spaetzle, I continue to leave satisfied.

2. MAGNOLIA PUB & BREWERY

Beer flights at Magnolia

Owner/brewmaster Dave McLean opened Magnolia Brewery over 14 years ago, brewing the best beers in SF (in my humble opinion). Magnolia’s space has old world, gastropub charm in black leather and wood booths and antique floor tiles. They serve the best brunch in the area (sorry, Zazie and Pork Store), like decadent BBQ belly over Anson Mills cheddar grits, or quinoa hash and eggs if you want to cut down the fat quotient. For lunch and dinner, house sausages delight (rabbit currywurst!) as does savory mushroom bread pudding or a near-perfect Magnolia pub burger.

3. GIOVANNI’S PIZZA at CLUB DELUXE

Retro gem: Club Deluxe

Upper Haight’s best hidden gem is Giovanni’s, a pizza kitchen in the back of Club Deluxe (eat in the bar or take-out). Giovanni’s pies aren’t so much Neapolitan perfection as a mix between Italian and East Coast styles, with classic margherita and pesto pizzas. Diavola is spicy fun, laden with pepperoncino, salami, Parmigiano and a Belizean hot sauce, while Friggin’ Meatball is dotted with meatballs, smoked provolone and caramelized onions. Save room for a West Coast rarity: a fresh cannoli, sweet ricotta stuffing brightened with orange blossom oil.

Retro Ice Cream Bar

Club Deluxe’s drinks are of the Mojito, Greyhound kind. Not exactly a cocktailians destination. What makes Deluxe special? Nightly live jazz in a well-loved bar that thankfully hasn’t changed decor for decades, with 1950′s, cozy bar feel. Bands rotate: trios, duos, quartets, even organ, providing some of the best jazz in the city – generally free. If only, like New Orleans, our neighborhoods were lined with such clubs.

4. ICE CREAM BAR & SODA FOUNTAIN
I’ve written much of Ice Cream Bar here and in the Guardian, so I’ll send you there for fascinating details of this truly unique, 1930′s era soda fountain. It’s my top pick for dessert.

5. PARADA 22

Cheery Parada 22

Parada 22 is a vibrant little space with aquamarine walls and vintage South American food products lining the shelves. The casual eatery feels vacation-like, offering Puerto Rican food. My favorite dish here is Camarones a la Criolla: sauteed shrimp, tomato and onions in a dreamy-light cream sauce. Sides like plantains and red or white beans in sofrito-based sauces, are fresh and appealing. They’ve recently joined forces with sister restaurant Boogaloos serving their brunch every weekend.

5. THAI DUO

Inside Ploy II

PLOY II and SIAM LOTUS – While maybe not worth crossing town for, Haight-Ashbury has two unexpectedly strong Thai spots serving authentic dishes. Ploy II is upstairs in an old Victorian space, with dingy carpet and decor (elephants, tapestries) straight out of Chang Mai’s Night Bazaar. They do standards well, while I crave their mango panang curry: spicy, creamy with coconut milk AND peanut sauce. Siam Lotus also is reliable on Thai classics, though it’s their daily changing chef’s special board that sets them apart. Thankfully on the permanent menu, their Thai tacos are a must. Though the paper thin crepes fall apart to the touch, a filling of ground chicken, shredded coconut, mini-shrimp, peanuts and bean sprouts make for one of the more fun Thai dishes anywhere. When available, they rock a mango sticky rice.

6. HAMA-KO

Hama-Ko’s simple interior

Hama-Ko husband-wife owners, Tetsuo and Junko Kashiyama, may open when they are ready to open (vs. dependable hours), they may treat regulars best, service is slow, and certainly there are no California rolls. It’s straightforward sushi: silky scallops, bright-as-the-sea tai (red snapper), melt-in-your-mouth unagi and avocado maki.

This nearly 30 year classic is one of those neighborhood secrets that locals return to and fish devotees enjoy. You won’t find the rare fish found at Zushi Puzzle, but you will find impeccable freshness (Tetsuo sources his fish from the same place The French Laundry and Chez Panisse gets theirs, he proudly tells me) from a couple who cares.

The Rest

COFFEE

Brand new Flywheel Coffee

Coffee has long been rough in the Haight. Until Haight Street Market opened a Blue Bottle kiosk in their store, one couldn’t get a proper cup. While appealing cafes like Reverie boast a welcome back patio, and the La Boulange chain on Cole serves substantial pastries, none offers a cappuccino or espresso to satisfy coffee snobs. But just in the last week or so, there’s a quiet coffee revolution afoot with two new cafes. Flywheel Coffee Roasters looks like a hipster Mission coffee spot with a handful of laptops and industrial-stark interior. Though they aren’t going the foam art/microfoam route at this point and they have not begun roasting their own beans in-house as they plan to, initial cups are promising. The other new spot is Stanza in the Coco Luxe space. They’ll be doing coffee cuppings on the first Thursday of each month (7pm) and have their coffee roasted by Augies in Southern California. They DO have foam art and proper cappuccinos. A welcome neighborhood addition.

BRUNCH

Pork belly grits at Magnolia

I’ve never gotten Zazie‘s endless brunch waits. Sure, it’s a charming, little Parisian space, though I’ve had better luck with non-brunch meals. But for 1-2 hour waits (they do have a nice system now that alerts you when your table is ready), it’s amazingly mediocre. Personally, I wouldn’t wait any amount of time for mediocre. There are so many delicious brunches in the city, I am flummoxed as to why, after all these years, this remains many local’s favorite. The original Pork Store Cafe likewise has waits (though not as painful as Zazie’s) which I likewise don’t find worth it. I once had a “sausage” scramble here that was hot dog slices. Yuck. What it does have is quirky, old school diner charm and clientele. My brunch recommend in the ‘hood, though, is always Magnolia. Arriving before noon, I’ve never had a wait and the food is quality (plus there’s Blue Bottle coffee and beers).

FOOD 

The original Cha Cha Cha

Kezar Bar (the one on Cole, not the pub on Stanyan) can occasionally surprise with above-average bar food, like giant potato pancakes with Andouille sausage, applesauce, sour cream – in a cozy, pub atmosphere. Despite the crowds and its faded glory, there’s still something appealing about the original Cha Cha Cha. Maybe it’s Mother Mary presiding over the bar, plants surrounding tables for that tropical effect, the festive atmosphere, plantains and black beans, or that damn tasty sangria. Citrus Club’s food is pretty hit and miss – downright average, really (who has time for that in this city?) – but many adore it because it’s cheap and easy Asian “fusion” (they mix and match Asian cuisines with abandon).

Burgermeister

For burgers, if you’re not eating Magnolia‘s fab burger, local chain Burgermeister is the best bet as Burger Urge just doesn’t cut it. Since the ’70′s, Say Cheese is a tiny Cole Valley gem of a market. Their small selection of cheeses, meats, wines, chocolates, is well curated, the staff are responsive and they make worthy deli sandwiches (like Cajun turkey, creole mustard, pepperoncini, pepper havarti), ideal to take to nearby parks.

DRINK

Classic Aub Zam Zam

Us spirits and cocktail lovers have a soft spot for Aub Zam Zam. These are not cutting edge cocktails.

Rather, it’s a slice of SF history, with a strong spirits selection and older, seasoned bartenders who are knowledgeable and sweet (since lovably cantankerous Bruno passed away, God rest his soul, there’s no kicking people out on a whim anymore).

They make a mean gin martini, boozy and bright. The space evokes the Art Deco era with an exotic, Moroccan slant. Divey and dingy, it’s a classic I hope we’ll never lose.

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May
15
2012

Top Tastes

A DAY OF MEATY COMFORT in Three Meals

Oxtail three ways, a hammy biscuit, gourmet meatloaf… comfort comes in each of these forms at new spots (or in the case of Presidio Social Club, with a new chef) in meat dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

BREAKFAST: HAM HEAVEN

AMERICAN EATERY, Embarcadero (1 Ferry Building at Market St., 415-391-0420)

Barrel aged cocktails at Presidio Social Club

Prather Ranch is to be commended for raising sustainable, humanely-reared meats with a whole-animal (let no part go to waste) sales model. I’ve long enjoyed sausages and quality meats from their Ferry Building butcher. A few months ago, they opened American Eatery, providing their meats to go in drool-worthy dishes like Chuck Wagon chili ($6.50), a mixture of pork, pinquito beans, sharp cheddar, scallions and sour cream, or Munich-style white bockwurst sausage ($7) with whole grain mustard sauce and sauerkraut.

American Eatery executive chef Erica Holland-Toll came from the former ACME Chop House and Lark Creek Inn. Long using Prather Ranch meats at her restaurants, she was well-qualified to oversee the Ferry Building menu. Breakfast is playful with unusual offerings like braised pork scrapple ($8), a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch mix of pork trimmings, cornmeal, flour, and spices in a sort of panfried loaf. Their burgers tempt, even at breakfast, particularly The Stonebreaker ($12), laden with cheese curds and meat gravy.

Divine ham & cheese biscuit at American Eatery

I go for their maple smoked ham. Try it in an Acme Torpedo roll ($10) joined by avocado and Eatwell Farms egg, perfected with basil and cheese curds. I’m particularly smitten with the maple smoked ham and cheese biscuit ($8). The thick biscuit cushions Prather Ranch’s thinly shaved slabs of ham, San Joaquin Gold cheese, a fried egg and red eye gravy mayo. Biscuit Bender’s flaky buttermilk biscuit is the right choice – a local baker whose biscuits can also be found at Mission Cheese and Hollow, they wisely make larded and non-larded versions. Ah, lard! Kudos for keeping tradition alive.  I devour the sandwich with a Blue Bottle cappuccino, then sigh with contentment.

LUNCH: OXTAIL THREE WAYS

O3, Civic Center (524 Van Ness Avenue between Golden Gate & McAllister, 415-934-9800)

O3 sleek, comfortable space

O3 Bistro & Lounge opened in January in the former, transformed California Pizza Kitchen. The sleek, open space in tones of black, silver, purple exudes an Asian cosmopolitan feel with open windows offering a view of busy Van Ness Ave. Not an obvious foodie stretch, the place is busy with the business/Civic Center set. While there’s a range of small plates ($7-12), from hoisin-glazed short ribs to ahi tuna crudo, dinner adds on pricier ($18-28) entrees such as seared scallops with lobster garlic noodles.

O3′s oxtail grilled cheese

It’s fall-apart tender braised oxtail that calls out to me. At lunch and dinner find it in wonton shell tacos ($8-10) with jicama slaw, while at lunch there’s oxtail hash ($13), a mixture of caramelized onions, roasted red bell pepper, and russet potatoes over kimchi dirty rice, topped with bacon dust and a fried egg.  Does it get much more comforting? At a recent lunch I indulged in an oxtail grilled cheese sandwich on rustic, thick slabs of bread, glorified with sweet spice in the form of five spice raisin jam. Braised oxtail any which way? Bring it on.

DINNER: (SORTA) LIKE MOM WOULD MAKE

PRESIDIO SOCIAL CLUB, Presido (563 Ruger St. at Lombard, 415-885-1888)

PSC’s fresh sardines

Long one of the more uniquely beautiful SF dining rooms, Presidio Social Club (PSC) is set in a 1903 military barracks like a sunny, white, 1940′s clubhouse with hints of red and chrome. Grabbing a bar stool for an Anejo Sour or Aviation from bar manager Tim Stookey and crew is a timeless respite. Their rotating barrel aged menu pleases, particularly the Aged Reasons Rye: rye, Punt e Mes vermouth, Cointreau, orange bitters.

Brightly seductive smashed peas

New chef Wes Shaw hails from Texas, working with longtime chef/owner Ray Tang on a new menu that doesn’t neglect PSC classics like a Dungeness crab Louis sandwich ($18) or their above-average mac n’ cheese ($10). But he also adds new life with TX nods, like 8-hour smoked brisket on Tuesdays or marinated calamari, kicked up with butter beans and chiles. Fresh Monterey sardines ($10) come flaky over chickpea puree, shrouded in celery, while cracked Dungeness crab or a platter of oysters (Thursdays are $1 oysters, 4-7pm) remain ideally suited eats in PSC’s crisp space.

Hefty but elegant PSC meatloaf

Surprisingly, two vegetable sides ($6) are among my favorite menu items, both deftly prepared, as fresh and healthy as they are palate-satisfying. Broccoli di ciccio is tossed in lemon with garlic and chiles, while smashed peas in mint oil are brightly seductive. How about that meat? One of the best dishes on the menu remains classic meatloaf ($17), infused with a new life – a seemingly bigger slice than I remember in years past. Like mom would make if mom was a gourmand, the juicy, meaty loaf rests atop a sea of mashed potatoes, crowned with slivered carrots and fried shallots for a pseudo-light finish.

Who’s ready for more meat?

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Nov
15
2011

Top Tastes

Top Tastes is not a list of all-time favorites, rather the best tastes of the last two weeks (since my last newsletter), often from new openings.

Breakfasting in SF

San Francisco has long been a brunch town. Weekends are packed with brunch attendees staving off Monday. But what about weekday breakfasts? Breakfasting on recent weekdays has yielded three newer options (also open weekends), and one Sunday-only brunch so good I just had to include it.

Baker & Banker's decadent pumpkin donuts... just do it

Sunday Brunch Decadence:
BAKER & BANKER
, 1701 Octavia St. (at Bush), 415-351-2500

Satisfying Eggs in Purgatory

Husband/wife duo, Lori Baker and Jeff Banker, interact with diners during Sunday brunch at their restaurant Baker & Banker (which I named one of last year’s best new openings in the Guardian and The Perfect Spot). Jeff delivers dishes to tables, chatting with patrons, while Lori spends her time between the restaurant and next door bakery.

In keeping with the delights available for dinner, the fairly recent addition of Sunday brunch offers joys beyond mere scrambles and pancakes. While it’s still Fall, do yourself a favor and order their cinnamon and spice-dusted donuts ($9) filled with a blessedly less-than-sweet pumpkin pie cream. Five to a basket, these warm rounds of fall goodness disappeared from my table quickly. One hopes they will change the filling seasonally, keeping these on the menu.

Smoked trout latkes

On the savory side, there’s house-smoked trout on latkes, roasted squash salad, brisket hash, and Cajun eggs benedict. I’d like to single out mascarpone brown butter polenta as the decadent base for eggs in purgatory ($14). Two semi-runny eggs over polenta are dotted with house sausage, swimming in a spicy sweet tomato sauce adding a Southern Italian dimension. It’s an utterly satisfying breakfast dish seemingly half the restaurant ordered.

Delightfully unhipster yet hip:
LITTLE GRIDDLE
, 1400 Market St. (between Polk & Fell), 415-864-4292

Little Griddle

One of the best things to come along on this stretch of Market in awhile is Little Griddle, a few months old corner breakfast spot and burger joint. Blue collar workers and Civic Center government employees line up for bagels and Zoka coffee in the morning, while a large selection of around 15 burgers is the crowd favorite throughout the day.

Massive scramble plate w/ hash browns & bagel

Little Griddle was serving the sadly now defunct Spot Bagels. They currently offer New York Bagels (from Richmond, CA), delivered fresh daily, topped with lox, cream cheese, and the like. Their breakfast platters of omelets or scrambles are massive, enough for two at roughly $8-11, with crispy hash browns or salad. I like the Sandbox ($10.75): Black Forest ham, apple-smoked bacon, avocado, crimini mushrooms, yellow onions.

Chocolate chip cakes

Griddle cakes ($5-8) are likewise massive and come double or triple-stacked, topped with strawberries and bananas, or dotted with pecans or chocolate chips.

Little Griddle’s space is humble. I relish orange floor tiles and the 1970′s spirit of the tiny, triangular space. It keeps the gourmet, local approach from feeling hipster or put on. In fact, it’s a neighborhood joint equipped for commuters, in keeping with San Francisco food quality and values sans pretension.

Bakery Treats:

Pastry Cupboard's bright interior

THE PASTRY CUPBOARD, 1596 Market St. (at Franklin), 415-864-2755

Near the busy Van Ness Muni/BART stop, The Pastry Cupboard is a couple months old bakery from Chona Piumarta who was executive pastry chef at Slanted Door.

Pastry Cupboard leans towards American baked goods with cakes, pies, cookies and her signature coconut almond macaroons (puffy and cake-like with a caramelized exterior). Scones and danishes cater to a morning appetite, but my poison is a cherry chocolate strudel. With a sugar icing and almonds on top, tart cherries and dark chocolate layer inside a pastry shell with sweet cream cheese. Like a Bavarian version of a danish, it happily pairs with a robust espresso.

A beachside Taste of Ireland:
BEACHSIDE COFFEE BAR & KITCHEN
, 4300 Judah St. (at 48th), 415-682-4961

Irish Breakfast

Beachside Coffee Bar & Kitchen (from the owners of neighboring Java Beach) is a roughly three months old cafe at the edge of the city, merely a block from the ocean. Coffee is a highlight here, made with care, cup by cup, sourcing beans from varying parts of the world.

Beachside, near the ocean

In a cozy, simple space, friendly staff serve vegetarian or vegan bahn mi, fried egg and bacon or sausage sandwiches on brioche, and all things waffles: bacon waffles, Belgian waffles, chicken & waffles.

On a recent rainy morn, I was sold on their Irish Breakfast sandwich ($6.95 regular, or $9.95 large). Transported back to rainier days this Summer traveling Ireland, I was delighted to eat Irish bacon and sausage, white and black pudding, and grilled tomatoes all packed into one sandwich with an egg.  Though not quite the supreme blood sausages I’ve had in Ireland or Scotland, they are well-made and the real deal. With an accompanying chutney to dip the sandwich in, I was transported straight back to Ireland’s windswept shores… not unlike our own on a day of massive waves and fog.

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