Dec
15
2014

Top Tastes

Game Restaurant, new on Nob Hill in the legendary Masa's space

Game Restaurant, new on Nob Hill in the legendary Masa’s space

My Top Food Articles: December 1-15

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my many articles a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to some coverage highlights here – you can follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily, or on my own @ThePerfectSpot via Twitter or Facebook.

Special Features & Year-in-Review

Interview with the owners of Kokkari, SF’s #1 Zagat-rated restaurant

Bay Area Holiday Dining Survival Guide

SF’s 5 Hottest Dining Neighborhoods of 2014

2014 Bay Area Food & Drink Trends

New SF Openings

$10 Lunch: healthy and packed with flavor – lunch at the new Picnic on Third in SoMa

5 things to try at the Marina’s new Seed + Salt – all of it vegan and gluten free

3 things to eat at the new Game (in the historic Masa’s space) on Nob Hill

Ideal neighborhood market Bom Dia opens in Noe Valley

Hottest new pizza openings of the year

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

Picnic on Third - new, healthy, gratifying in SoMa

Picnic on Third – new, healthy, gratifying in SoMa

Underrated & Established Spots

4 things to know about the new chef and menu at Gitane

RN74 from a vegetarian perspective – an array of creative new vegetarian dishes

Oliveto’s innovative new sound system addresses noisy dining

Wine Country

Napa Valley newcomer: what to love at Archetype in St. Helena

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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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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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Jun
01
2013

The Latest

Linger at B Patisserie

Linger at B Patisserie

BAKED… GOOD: Two of 2013’s Best New Bakeries (To Date)

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Flour+Co's cheery interior

Flour+Co’s cheery interior

FLOUR + CO, Nob Hill (1030 Hyde St. between California and Pine, 415-992-7620)

Flour + Co, a cheery little bakery that opened in April, is just what Nob Hill needed. Communal tables and shades of soft baby blue with hints of orange charm in the friendly space thankfully not serving typical baked goods. My first visit was the day they opened and it already felt as if Flour + Co was a neighborhood fixture.

Flour+Co

Flour+Co

Owner/baker Emily Day (blog here) is clearly having fun with the likes of monkey bread in the shape of a muffin, or pop tart-esque pastries filled with nutella, banana and chocolate. On the savory side, there might be the smoked salmon (lox) pretzel sandwich, or better yet, the best of both in a tart packed with bacon, brie and apricot preserves. With a cup of Stumptown Roasters (the house coffee) in hand, I find it hard not to want to order everything in site.

Choosing from the goods at Flour + Co

Choosing from the goods at Flour + Co

B PATISSERIE, 2821 California St. at Divisadero, 415-440-1700)

A table at B Patisserie

A table at B Patisserie

Lines began forming the first week B Patisserie opened in February. Why? Pastry wizard Belinda Leong already had quite a following dedicated to the French-influenced pastries at her Ferry Building pop-up. Even further back, she boasts fine dining pastry accolades baking at heavyweights like Gary Danko and Manresa.

Leong opened B Patisserie with Thorough Bread and Pastry founder Michel Suas (who Leong met while taking his class at San Francisco Baking Institute), and it is clearly a shrine to all things pastry.

Artful baked goods

Artful baked goods

Despite selling out of baked goods well before closing in opening weeks, B Patisserie has found its groove. Its bright, airy space encourages lingering with clean walls and yellow chairs. Part Parisian café, part San Francisco bakery, Leong’s beautiful kouign amann (pronounced “queen ah-mahn”) and macarons nod to the French side, while the SF side appears in elegant East-meets-West items like a kalamansi citrus tart or passion fruit-orange yogurt panna cotta served as a layered verrine with citrus cream, grapefruit-orange pulp, lemon gelee, and purple wheat-almond granola.

There’s savory offerings of flammenkuche (Alsatian flatbread) and quiche, or heartwarming baked classics with a twist, like chocolate banana scones. Pull up to the Italian marble counter top and just try to resist over-ordering.

 

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May
01
2013

The Latest

Blair Warsham's bao at American Bao Bar

Blair Warsham’s bao at American Bao Bar

ASIAN NEWCOMERS:
From Food Truck to Pop-Up

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Dining at Nabe

Going Japanese hot pot at Nabe

The Bay Area already boasts some of the best Asian food in the US, in a diverse range of categories. Though I can’t recreate the settings from the months I spent traveling Southeast Asia, I can find some of those flavors… and many more from places I long to visit… authentic and complex here in the Bay Area.

What follows are noteworthy dish/es, including fresh dumpling and Malaysian street food interpretations, from six new Asian restaurants (two being pop-ups, one a food truck) open a few months or less.

KOJA KITCHEN, Food Truck

20130418_181348

Koja & Kamikaze fries

One of the best food trucks to come along, well, maybe ever, is Koja Kitchen. While they make a steady run around the Bay Area, I catch them in my own ‘hood at Off the Grid Haight. Koja ($6 each) are essentially sandwiches where “bread” is toasted rice patties. My favorite is sweet, ground bulgogi beef, mixed with sautéed onions, sesame vinaigrette slaw, and their house red sauce.

I’m most in love with their crosscut fries (the Kamikaze Combo works best at $10.50 for koja, fries and a drink). The fries are elevated by soft, ground Korean bulgogi beef tossed with sautéed onions, kimchi green onions, house sauce and Japanese mayo… a sweet, savory mound of comfort.

AMERICAN BAO BAR, Mission (pop-up locations below)

Visionary XLB dumplings

Visionary XLB dumplings

Chef Blair Warsham traveled through Southeast Asia, taking inspiration from street food-rich countries like Malayasia to create the dishes in his current pop-up, American Bao Bar. Check Bao Bar’s Facebook page to confirm pop-up dinners, but currently they’re at Nombe on Monday nights and Southpaw BBQ on Tuesdays.

Soup shots & shrimp chips

Soup shots & shrimp chips

Changing dishes arrive in a filling $35 tasting menu, which started strong recently with red curry chicken XLB soup dumplings. Warsham’s XLB (xiao long bao, aka Shanghai soup dumplings) are tender, the dumpling wrappers chewy, al dente, encasing vivid curry and fowl. This is XLB like you’ve not had it before. Three bao or “hot buns on a plate” are stuffed with cumin lamb belly, grilled chili paneer and crispy five-spice smoked pork, the former a tad dry, the latter being my favorite.

IMG_7147

Rice disc holding an egg

Visually striking crispy rice forms a disc around an egg, served with hen and spring vegetables, while chicken is wrapped in plantains, inflected with a savory banana sambal sauce. Shrimp, pineapple and coconut pop on a shrimp chip accompanied by shooters of creamy Malaysian bouillabaisse, my other favorite after the XLB.

Dessert from Batter Bakery is understated perfection: mini-ice cream sandwiches, like chocolate five spice caramel ice cream in chocolate cookies, or oatmeal coconut cookies filled with gloriously tart kaffir lime sherbet.

HOUSE of PANCAKES, Parkside (937 Taraval between 19th & 20th Ave.; 415-681-8388)

Stunning dumplings

Stunning dumplings

Service is slow and Parkside is out of the way for many, but House of Pancakes serves delights worth trekking out for. Yes, there are Asian pancakes aplenty, but it’s the house-pulled noodles and fresh, al dente dumplings that enchant. Pancakes ($3.95-7.95) are solid, particularly simple green onion pancakes… but not the highlight. Think hand pulled noodles and dumplings.

Watching noodles hand pulled through the kitchen door is mesmerizing, as it is at Martin Yan’s new MY China… but House of Pancakes’ noodles ($6.95-7.95) are far more gratifying: think chewy comfort in broth, served with likes of lamb or seafood. The dense joy of the noodles carries over into impeccable, doughy dumplings ($5.95-8.95), filled with lamb or pork and chives, even fish of the day. Other than painfully slow service, House of Pancakes is one of the more exciting hole-in-the-wall Chinese eateries to come along in awhile and added to my favorites list.

HUTONG, Cow Hollow (2030 Union St. at Buchanan; 415-929-8855)

Chicken liver

Chicken liver

When I moved to SF at the beginning of 2001, restaurants like Ti Couz and Betelnut were on my regular dining circuit. Thankfully, the spirit of ever popular Betelnut remains, as does Chef Alex Ong. Betelnut was recently reincarnated as Hutong, with artful graffiti and bolder dishes fusing his Malaysian childhood, once part of a “secret” Blackboard Eats menu. But as of last week and one day after a negative review from the Chronicle’s critic, Michael Bauer, Hutong switched back to Betelnut. I’m disappointed as I witnessed promise in the more ambitious menu that was still working out kinks.

Highlights were on the raw/crudo side ($12-14), like sea bream in chili-lemon soy with radishes and mizuna, ahi tuna in apple-mustard sauce, or tombo tuna dotted with creamy wasabi, tobiko and lime. The raw great, however, was briny oysters icy dotted with Sriracha-lemon granita ($1.50 each). Chicken livers tossed with onions in black pepper sauce ($6.50) were on Ong’s secret Blackboard Eats menu, evolved into a seamless, meaty liver dish. Giant whole Gulf prawns ($3.74) were plump, wrapped in bacon and dipped in chili jam, while thin slices of lamb belly ($8.88) in jalapeno vinegar, a mainstay from Betelnut, are not at all gamey but clean, savory.

Avocado salad

Kale salad

A wise move at the short-lived Hutong, one I wish more restaurants would embrace, is offering four salads ($8.88) that couldn’t be labeled “throwaway”, but boast interesting combinations beyond being merely nutritious. Roasted beets derived texture from cardamom yogurt, contrasted by salted plum vinaigrette, while the now ubiquitous kale salad arrived with Asian pears, cucumbers, roasted peppers, avocado in a bright lime-mustard dressing.

Hutong was still finding its footing with some misses (overly sweet cocktails, for one), but it seems rather than continuing to find ways to stay fresh and age into a new decade, they are reverting back to the past one.

NABE, Inner Sunset (1325 9th Ave. between Irving & Judah; 415-731-2658)

Nabe's sleek space

Nabe’s sleek space

Another hot pot outpost, Nabe (its name derived from nabemono – pronounced “nay-bay-mo-no” – referring to nabe cooking pot/hot pot) is a Zen-yet-hip space lined with empty sake bottles, benefiting from sweet service and sustainably sourced Snake River Farms meat.

To start, Kurobuta pork gyoza ($7) are pan-seared dumplings exhibiting the right contrast of crispy and chewy, dipped in chili ponzu. A nabemono set ($19 regular/$24 large) comes with choice of meat, udon noodles and generous, assorted vegetables. I like shabu shabu choices of Washugyu beef or Kurobuta Berkshire pork in spicy miso broth – there’s also seafood (shrimp, salmon, scallops, clams) in dashi broth.

Generous side of veggies comes with hot pot order

Generous side of veggies comes with hot pot order

The crowning moment of this interactive dinner is included: a traditional Japanese finish to hot pot/shabu shabu as our server explained, rarely seen in the States. Our server removed excess broth from our finished hot pot, retaining just enough for flavor. She then filled it with rice, stirred slowly, cracked an egg in it, stirred awhile longer, then topping with shaved nori (seaweed). It’s called zosui, a rice soup/porridge akin to Chinese congee (or jook) but with more flavor. As breakfast the next morning, it was perfection – I  stir fried the leftover zosui with more egg.

SSISSO, Japantown (1700 Post St. at Buchanan, 415-441-1522)

Those excellent chicken wings

Those excellent chicken wings

In soft opening mode merely a couple months, Ssisso (Korean word for “seesaw”) is still sorting things out. With traditional and non-traditional Korean dishes, plus cult classic Frozen Kuhsterd for dessert, one can’t help comparing to other local Korean joints. Haemul pajeon ($9.95, $12.95), the ever addictive seafood pancake that turned me on to Korean food as a teen in NY, is gratifyingly (but not overly) greasy and crisp here, though I prefer versions at restaurants like Manna in the Inner Sunset.

Pajeon

Haemul pajeon

Similarly, I think of Aato’s japchae – sweet potato noodles stir fried with beef, soy, onion – when trying Ssisso’s one-note (salty) version ($9.95 lunch, $13.95 dinner). Early on, the best dish remains one from downstairs karaoke lounge, Playground: fried Ssisso chicken ($9.95 lunch, $14.95 dinner), a superior pile of wings doused in sweet soy and loads of garlic. Put a plate in front of me and I’ll devour.

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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
15
2013

The Latest

20th Century Cafe’s rhubarb tart, Buddha’s hand dark chocolate cookie, rugelach

KNISH’in: Eastern European Baked Goods

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

We obsess about every kind of food in the Bay Area, but the knish (pronunciation: kə-nĭsh) hasn’t gotten enough respect. This doughy, flaky potato snack has its roots in Eastern Europe and Jewish cultures, knish being a Yiddish word, translating to dumpling or “a kind of bun.”

Shorty Goldstein’s excellent knishes

This dumpling-like bun is set for revival, with a nod to what just might be a Jewish deli renaissance: Wise Sons and now brand new Shorty Goldstein’s, the latter selling three potato knishes for $7, divinely doughy knishes with a mashed potato-like softness – my favorites in town if you can get them before they sell out each day.

Two chefs are either focused solely on the knish (King Knish), or are serving an array of Eastern European-influenced baked goods, including traditional knish (20th Century Cafe). Typically encased in flaky dough, filled with the likes of potato, ground meat, sauerkraut, cheese, then fried, baked or grilled, knishes first appeared in New York bakeries and delis in the early 1900’s. Consider the knish a cousin of the Polish pierogi or Russian pirozhki.

My early knish experiences were relegated to New York, with a few forays in Chicago. No surprise: as they revive here, ingredients are elevated, sometimes with a saucy twist (chocolate dipped curry, maybe?) In the case of 20th Century, there’s much to love across the baked goods front, pulling from Austro-Hungarian influences, one of the great baking regions of the world.

20th CENTURY CAFE

Retro aprons & fantastic tarts

Fiery red hair, retro style, and vintage aprons: Pastry Chef Michelle Polzine buzzes about with her kitchen staff, dressed in 1940’s-1950’s dresses (my scene entirely), during a recent Sunday run at State Bird Provisions, a “sneak preview bake sale” of her upcoming 20th Century Cafe slated to open in Hayes Valley this April. Polzine’s passion for baking is apparent in the artful deliciousness of her food (Bon Appetit’s recent interview is a sweet read). Her SF cooking history includes stints at now-shuttered Bacar, Delfina, Chez Panisse, and Range.

Knish & sauerkraut tart

Polzine credits Hili Revzan, her assistant at Range where she worked for seven years, for introducing her to Hungarian baking. Hooked from then on to Eastern European baked goods, she experimented with traditional recipes, traveled to Prague, Vienna, and Budapest (a region I have fond memories of traveling through). Her vision for 20th Century Cafe is, according to Bon Appetit, to “do a sort of a mini grand cafe, like those in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, but with everything made in-house.”

Russian coffee cake

Trying an array of visually striking baked goods, there are numerous treasures, supreme among them, the tarts. Paper thin slivers of rhubarb illuminate a rosy pink rhubarb tart ($6), tart and sweet simultaneously. A savory sauerkraut tart ($7) confirms it: I want more of Polzine’s kraut, which she works to perfect. Sweet and vinegary, it sits happily atop a flaky, thin dough with duck prosciutto and apples, recalling the glories of Alsatian flatbread… and begging for a white Alsace wine.

Poppy seed rugelach

Poppy seed rugelach ($2) is blessedly less dry and more flavorful than many rugelach I’ve been subjected to at traditional bakeries. Little dark chocolate cookies ($2) explode with the tart of Buddha’s hand citrus. Only Russian coffee cake ($5) was a tad dry, but for a couple juicy huckleberries. As for the potato knish ($3)? These are classic, straightforward (i.e. heartwarming) knishes. Inside, Yukon gold potatoes, garlic and onions are lush with butter, topped with poppy seeds.

We are not without an impressive amount of world class bakeries in San Francisco. Polzine smartly brings a fresh angle to a saturated market: a retro, Austria-meets-Hungary-meets-San-Francisco bakery. Thankfully, April is just around the corner.

KING KNISH

A range of King Knish

King Knish first appeared on my radar at the New Taste Marketplace in St. Gregory’s on Potrero Hill, recalling a Middle Eastern food market in its art-filled, bustling space. The chef behind King Knish is Ramni Levy, who also runs Ramni Levy Catering & Events. Chatting with him even briefly, it’s clear he’s enthusiastic about food. Living in my other two top US cities, New Orleans and New York, before moving to San Francisco in the late ’90’s, Chef Levy once ran Bistro 1650 in the Richmond District, which he sold in 2005, catering ever since.

It requires some effort to track down King Knish: place an order here (you can go as small as a dozen at $5-7 each or mini knishes for cocktail parties), or catch him this weekend, March 17, at Hazon Jewish Food Festival. Besides tender texture in a pretty, little package, the joy of King Knish is how Levy circumvents the traditional. His sell-out knish (rightly so) is filled with pastrami. Enough said. If you happen upon the pastrami knish, snatch it up. My other recommend is meat-laden: a curry beef and potato knish. Savory and doused in poppy seeds, it makes a supreme snack.

Levy’s chutney

Subtle wasabi permeates a potato knish topped in crumbled, crystallized ginger, or potato intermingles with caramelized onions and mushrooms. Levy’s mango chutney and berry compotes are sold by the jar ($7.50-15), vibrant contrasts to mild potato knishes. For those like myself who swoon over sweet and savory combinations, one option is the wasabi-ginger-potato knish dipped in dark chocolate or the beef curry knish in white chocolate (!) There’s also a sweet potato-marshmallow-pineapple-almond knish I’m curious to try.

Levy’s playfulness works, as any great ethnic food mashup does (Korean tacos, Indian burritos, etc…), in subverting the expected and stretching the boundaries of a beloved traditional food… but still making it taste good.

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Jan
01
2013

Top Tastes

Baker & Banker's divine candied bacon doughnuts oozing with bourbon cheesecake

SWEET TOOTH: A slew of new sweet spots
(and a couple worth revisiting)

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Earthy, savory desserts call out to me. Despite diminishing tolerance for excessive sugar, ice cream/gelato remains my biggest weakness, and I’m as appreciative of baked goods and balanced, unique desserts as I ever was. There are a slew of new and noteworthy Bay Area sweets noteworthy sweets – and a couple older spots worth revisiting.

MISO SESAME RICE CRISPIES and SOME of SF’S BEST ICE CREAM
Delise, 327 Bay St., SF, 415-399-9694

Delise's unique "cupcakes"

Run by husband/wife pastry chef dynamo, Dennis and Eloise Leung (their fine dining background included Bong Su, a restaurant I still miss), Delise is a small cafe near Fisherman’s Wharf. Now three years old, the cozy spot is home to some of the best ice cream in SF (you heard right), cupcakes (thankfully unlike the typical “cupcake”), bars, cookies, bagels from House of Bagels, and sandwiches with unique Asian twists like crab salad in ginger turmeric aioli and kaffir lime dressing. Highlights are many, including a matcha green tea cupcake filled with red beans or a miso sesame rice crispy. I dream of ice cream flavors like Triple Threat, possibly the best pumpkin ice cream I’ve ever tasted with candied pumpkin seed and ale, or divine toasted rice ice cream, which is also served – alongside a few of Delise’s sorbets and ice creams – at Martin Yan’s brand new M.Y. China.

IN LIEU of ICE CREAM, THERE’S FROZEN CUSTARD
Frozen Kuhsterd, 415-371-9050

Look for the Frozen Kuhsterd cart (photo source: http://frozenkuhsterd.com)

Since its debut at the Underground Market in 2011, Frozen Kuhsterd (started by Jason Angeles, now run with Alex Lam and Tim Luym) is a Midwestern favorite with roots in Coney Island. Dense, creamy, soothing, it’s like ice cream made with eggs alongside cream and sugar. Available at a few locations, including from their food truck at SoMa StrEAT Food Park (follow on Twitter @frozenkuhsterd), flavors like Cinnamon Toast Crunch (Cereal Milk) and Thai Iced Tea are already a hit, Peppermint Bark and Eggnog Latte hook me for the holidays, and I’m eager to try the likes of Coffee Mint Mojito. Besides unusual sundae toppings, the custard is served in varying formats and collaborations announced via social media, such as in donut sandwiches with Dynamo Donuts or in French pastry favorite kouign amann from B. Patisserie.

CHOCOLATE LAB
Chocolate Lab,801 22nd St., SF, 415-489-2881

Chocolate Lab's floats

Afternoons at Chocolate Lab, chocolate master Michael Recchiuti’s brand new, all day chocolate cafe in the original Piccino space, feel almost Zen-like. Friendly service in cozy, light-filled environs, sitting at the communal table or at high corner tables with a Bay shrimp tartine sandwich, finished off with an affogato… it’s a happy respite. Opt for a Virgil’s root beer or cream soda float layered with Recchiuti extra bitter chocolate sauce and chocolate malt ice cream, then stop off at the shop next door to purchase some chocolates to take home.

INSTEAD of TWINKIES, TRY TWINKS
Pretty Please Bakeshop, 291 3rd Ave., SF, 415-347-3733

Cupcakes at Pretty Please

The first time I visited Inner Richmond’s new Pretty Please Bakeshop was two days post-opening – before the demise of Twinkies. I knew even then these far superior versions (think Twinkies for the gourmand) would be a hit. Trying to decide between red velvet, banana bread, or pumpkin twinks means I just get one of each. The rest of the offerings please, from cupcakes to a quality Ding Dong – yes, they’ve got that covered, too.

CHOCOLATE-DIPPED PEANUT BUTTER CUPCAKES… Enough Said
Sweet Bar Bakery, 2355 Broadway, Oakland, 510-788-4997

Sweet Bar Bakery

Opened this December in the historic MacFarlanes Candy & Ice Cream space, downtown Oakland gains new Sweet Bar Bakery – the kind of bakery where just about everything ordered tastes as good as it looks. As a peanut butter fanatic, chocolate dipped peanut butter cupcakes ($3.75) are more than enough reason to stop in. Lightly whipped yet intensely peanut-y PB rests inside dark chocolate coating a chocolate cupcake. They do right by all baked goods, from a savory bacon gorgonzola scone ($2.75) to perfect muscovado ginger cookies ($2).

UPSCALE PASTRY DELIGHTS
Baker & Banker, 1701 Octavia St., SF, 415-351-2500

XXX chocolate cake

Dining at Baker & Banker is memorable, from the tranquil space and service to husband/wife chef duo Jeff Banker and Lori Baker’s finely crafted food. A Chef’s Table and tasting menu (at $75 per person) in their active bakery is a key way to sample their range, including Lori’s exquisite desserts, much of which is available at their bakery during the day. Their cult classic XXX chocolate cake is merely a starting point. A restaurant dessert that stays with me? Divine candied bacon doughnuts oozing with bourbon cheesecake filling under maple glaze. Bacon doughnuts may be overdone elsewhere, but there’s none quite like B&B’s.

Charming Chocolatier Blue Parlor on Berkeley's 4th Street

MORE SWEETS

Thai Sundae at Chocolatier Blue Parlor

While we await the menu launch at the new Dandelion Chocolate factory (read more in my recent chocolate article), the beautiful space sells Dandelion’s exquisite bars, and boxes of collaborative chocolates with two other local greats, Feve Artisan Chocolatier and Kika’s Treats.

Using Domori Italian chocolate in their truffles (like Ants on a Log with celery seed, peanut butter, currant, dark chocolate), there are many other reasons to visit tiny-but-charming Chocolatier Blue Parlor on Berkeley’s bustling 4th Street. Take ice cream with flavors like sweet lime, green apple yuzu, fresh mint or Munich malt beer. One unforgettable sundae of months past? Thai coconut sundae using sweet lime ice cream, topped with roasted peanuts and a coconut dacquoise.

Chic, peaceful Dolce Amore

Newly opened Dolce Amore is a peaceful rarity on traffic-laden Van Ness, transporting me to Italy. Serving Illy Coffee and Gelato Classico in a sleek, white and black space, they showcases miniature art from international artists in museum-like display, with a warm welcome from staff selling Norman Love and Swiss chocolates, pricey ($12.50-$14) sandwiches on Acme Bread, using Straus milk, and blending up gelato shakes- I like a strange-yet-winning mix of pumpkin and peanut butter.

Akin to NY’s Magnolia Bakery, Sift Cupcakes is a darling pink and white striped shop off Fillmore Street with goods from rice krispy bars to macarons, ranging a little heavy on the sweet meter for me. But Stud Muffin, a brown sugar beer cake with a salted caramel frosting and cayenne dusted bacon, maintains balance, and a seasonal pumpkin spice cupcake with coffee buttercream is even better. If I’m going sweet, red velvet whoopie cookies (a whoopie pie made with cookies) layered with peppermint cream are ideal Christmas indulgences.

Peppermint/red velvet whoopie cookies at Sift

Not one to typically be a fan of “free” anything when it comes to food (bring on the fat and flavor!), I’m as surprised as anyone to be recently smitten with pies from a fairly new gluten-free bakery in Humboldt County: Natural Decadence, sold at Whole Foods. Gluten, nut, egg and dairy free, these pies are intense with flavor, particularly a fluffy, decadent pumpkin and blessedly tart lemon sans meringue. Moist crust made of their gluten-free graham crackers seals the deal.

Sift's white chandeliers

Thankfully even in winter months, we can find Pop Nation popsicles – the best in the Bay. My favorites include mango coconut black sesame, strawberry cream rosemary, and banana pudding at varying farmers markets, with local farms the source of many of their seasonally changing ingredients (find locations on Twitter @thepopnation).

Miso sesame rice crispies and sandwich tastes at Delise

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