Top Tastes

Sorting through cacao beans at Dandelion


Clearly we can’t get enough chocolate. As chocolatiers continue to proliferate around the country, we are blessed with an endless wealth of fine chocolate to choose from. Tirelessly sampling chocolates from every possible corner of the world, including every city and country I travel in, there are standouts from numerous angles, some perfecting a certain truffle, others a pure bean-to-bar process. Join me on a local and international journey through just a few of the best.


Dandelion Chocolate's new shop on Valencia Street

– With their new Victorian-era Mercantile on Haight Street and a brand new, second shop just opened up in North Beach, Buyer’s Best Friend is among the best gourmet food selections in the city on many levels. When it comes to chocolate, they often have samples of rarely seen, small chocolatiers from around the globe, many of which they are the sole source. Start asking questions and you’ll discover a whole world of chocolates you never new existed.
– Eccentric and delightful, Noe Valley’s Chocolate Covered has long been the chocolate shop of SF, with rare and varied selection. I lived directly across the street from it for six years – a dangerous proximity.
– Tiny but well-curated, Russian Hill’s shiny Candy Store has long been a source for rare and old fashioned chocolates and candies.

One of the world’s great modern day chocolatiers from London, Paul A. Young (see International section) wrote Adventures with Chocolate, a visually striking book first exploring chocolate making details from combining beans for best flavor profiles to making the perfect ganache. Primarily, it is a cookbook utilizing chocolate in recipes from boozy drinks or teas to savory dishes and desserts.


Many local greats are made here in the city, like SF classic Recchiuti, single-minded treasures like Hooker’s Sweet Treats, playful Poco Dolce and forward-thinking TCHO. Here are a few more:

BEST BEAN-TO-BAR: Dandelion Chocolates

Wrapping bars at Dandelion

There’s chocolate and then there’s bean-to-bar. Whereas most chocolatiers start with already fermented cacao beans (yes, cacao beans go through fermentation), a few oversee the entire process, from sourcing to processing. Dandelion Chocolates was launched right here in SF by chocolate lovers who experimented with bean-to-bar as a hobby, which then turned into a business. Purity of the cacao is their passion so they make chocolate with merely the bean and sugar, no cocoa butter. Tasting their bars side-by-side is like sampling wines or coffee, nuances and terroir apparent in each. There’s lush, malty notes of Rio Caribe, Venezuela (my favorite bar), bright citrus-strawberry expression of the Ambanja, Madagascar bar, and earthy, tannic notes from Elvesia, Dominican Republic. Dandelion is easily already one of the superior chocolates around.

Visiting their Dogpatch factory last month, I witnessed the entire process from roasting, cracking, sorting, winnowing, and grinding, to conching, tempering, molding and packaging, happening in one small space. Dandelion is moving to their new Mission location on Valencia (though also keeping their Dogpatch space), which is factory, tasting room, shop and cafe all in one. Opening this month, it’s sure to be a hit. It’s inspiring to see passion lead to success… and we all reap the benefits.


Working my way through a box of chocolates from the now closed Shokolaat in Palo Alto

Many artisan chocolatiers boast a couple of exceptional truffles, but none I’ve tried have the volume of Feve Artisan Chocolatier, formerly Au Coeur Des Chocolats (found in shops like Bi-Rite or on their website). Owners Shawn and Kathryn Williams have traveled Europe extensively, visiting many of the world’s best chocolate makers. Besides artful, elegant precision in presentation, Shawn’s truffles succeed first and foremost in flavor.

Expecting a burst of curry or lemongrass or the like, the intended flavor of many expensive truffles (at the standard $1.50-$3 a piece) is often barely discernible, instead of refined yet prominent and lively. Typically, I’ll find one or two standouts in a line of truffles, but with Feve, I struggle to name a favorite. There’s cherry vanilla (dark chocolate and lemon ganache layered with cherry vanilla gelee), cardamom punchy with Scotch, sesame vanilla crispy with praline, dreamy banana caramel, pistachio rosemary caramel with pistachio praline, and vivid passion fruit or yuzu… each exquisitely lush.


Chocolatier Blue's welcoming 4th Street shop in Berkeley

– Chocolatier Blue’s Berkeley shops serve fresh, creative truffles like Ants on a Log filled with celery seed, peanut butter and currant, a tart caramel apple, or peanut brittle crunch with caramelized banana and creamy peanut butter.
Saratoga Chocolates‘ Caramel Cin, a heart-shaped treat of dark chocolate oozing decadent cinnamon caramel.
Sixth Course Artisan Confections‘ aromatic caramels, like rosemary or sage and brown butter.
Wine Country Chocolates‘ Elvis truffle of peanut butter and banana ganache rules, while the cinnamon and clover honey oozes honey goodness.
Maison Bouche, Oakland’s elegant, French-spirited bars, a standout being salty Fleur de Sel using Brittany salt.


– Alma Chocolates in Portland makes an insanely good Thai peanut butter cup with ginger, Thai chiles, lime, even red volcanic sea salt, sometimes available at Portland chocolate haven, Cacao.
Antidote is a quality, raw, NY-based bean-to-bar line made in Ecuador with dark chocolate bars in flavors like banana cayenne, lavender red salt, and almond fennel. Expect subtlety and a earth-like taste in each. At Buyer’s Best Friend.

Chocolat Moderne's bistro bars (photo source:

Chocolat Modern is a longtime New York favorite of square “bistro bars”, dark and filled with the likes of bananas and Cognac, pumpkin praline, apricot and Bas Armagnac, zesty grapefruit. There’s a rotating selection available at The Candy Store.
– The best local chocolates I’ve had from Los Angeles, Compartes creates dark chocolate truffles and bars, including the apricot & shichimi 7-spice chocolate bar ($8), and truffle highlights: Smoked Salt, Peanut Butter, Pink Peppercorn & Raspberry.
Fine & Raw is a Brooklyn-based, raw chocolatier with high dark chocolate content and cacao butter, managing to maintain creamy texture and flavor. Their most interesting bars are cacao & coconut or lucuma & vanilla. At Buyer’s Best Friend.
– Though I fear the healthy, superfood label when it comes to pleasures like chocolate, Boise, Idaho-based Good Cacao creates lemon ginger immunity and coconut omega-3 bars that taste like a tropical vacation. At Buyer’s Best Friend.
MarieBelle’s elegant banana chocolate (65%) bar shines from this New York favorite with a Soho tea salon and cacao bar.


– Dublin’s Cocoa Atelier makes the best chocolate I had in Ireland, a chic outpost of drinking chocolate and elegant truffles using local specialties, like pot still Irish whiskey.

Paul Young's "Adventures With Chocolate" book

Coco Chocolate is my Edinburgh favorite, a darling shop focusing on handmade bars, like rose and black pepper, pink peppercorn and nutmeg, and a tropical-inflected lime and coconut, invigorating with dark chocolate.
Kopali Organics is packaged as vegan health food from passionate founders living off-the-grid in Costa Rica. Their fair trade dark chocolate covered banana bites taste like vivid, fresh banana chocolate instead of dried, chocolate-covered fruits. At Buyer’s Best Friend.
– If in Bordeaux, don’t miss charming La Maison Darricau. The romantic shop sells chocolate and creative truffles made fresh daily, like wine-filled Médoc, basil, Szechuan pepper, curry date, and an excellent blend of prune, almond paste, Armagnac.
– Among the best chocolates I’ve had in the world is Paul A. Young, with three London shops – the supreme example of what fresh truffles and exotic bars should be. Go funky with Marmite truffles, or herbaceous peppermint leaf. Whatever you do, when in London, don’t miss it.
– In London’s Borough MarketRabot Estate is a rustic-hip shop with staff pouring cups of free dark hot chocolate and bars like chili with a lush Santa Lucia-grown dark chocolate.

Truffles at Paul Young's Islington, London shop

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Wandering Traveler

View from my Kimpton RiverPlace hotel room over the Willamette River

Staying Satiated in Portland:
From Coffee to Bakeries

Hotel Monaco's chic lounge, scene of truly unique wine happy hours (see Red Star Tavern below)

Visiting over 50 places in one week, I may have just gotten started in Portland, but I certainly made a dent. So much so that I’ll need to break this into a 4-5 part series. Here’s my restaurant list – now I cover Portland’s famous food carts, ice cream, coffee (all important), chocolate, farmers markets, bakeries and other memorable snacks.

Soaking wet from rain half the week (no, it’s not just a mist), I biked to neighborhoods East, West, South and North with my usual (if cold and grumpy) tenacity to dig in and really taste the soul and breadth of a place rather than its tourist veneer. Join me as I eat my way through the rainy town up north.


Starting of a Forktown tour right w/ a sparkling aperitif at Besaw's

Forktown Food Tours are led in either the Alphabet District (Fridays 2-5pm) or North Portland (Mississippi Ave., Saturdays 2-5pm), worth $65 for three hours of tasting and exploring, meeting with owners and tastemakers behind each location. Starting at Besaw’s, an adorable, historic restaurant since 1903, I took a tour led by Forktown’s lovely founder through the Alphabet District, which I had explored a few days before on my own. Impressed with the range and quality of stops, from a distillery and bakery to ice cream and restaurants, the tours give you a real peek behind the food and drink businesses in the area.


EuroTrash's chorizo & chips

In one week, you can merely scratch the surface of Portland food carts (often permanent carts vs. roving food trucks), a vibrant scene allowed to thrive due to looser city legislation and costs than we face in SF. There are numerous food cart “pods” throughout Portland – I visited the main ones downtown and the playful D Street Noshery across the street from Pok Pok on the East side of town. I sampled through about eight food carts on a couple different days, some delightful, others just ok, but taking in the scene in general is all kinds of fun (makes me grateful SF just launched the beer-friendly, permanent food truck “pod”, SoMa StrEat Food Park).

Downtown PDX food carts

Of Portland carts tried, EuroTrash was a standout, not just because of its bright, neon colors, but for good times with mostly fried seafood, like fantastic Squid Fana, a curried squid sandwich on toasted french baguette layered under spicy curry slaw, or fun, fried anchovies – order the heads separately. Chorizo and chips (house fried potato chips) doused in grilled chorizo, cilantro, giardiniera, and a curry aioli, are likewise memorable. Another cart winner? Addy’s Sandwich Bar serves fresh baguettes wrapped in paper, a worthwhile special-0f-the-day being a sandwich laden with pickled herring and avocado.


Biscuits & chicken fried to order from Pine State Biscuits at PSU Farmers Market

The lush, shaded grounds of Portland State University’s campus in downtown Portland make a welcome setting for a bustling Saturday farmers market. The PSU market is an ideal way to sample a range of Portland bakeries (like Lauretta Jean’s Pies and Pearl Bakery, below), charcuterie (like Olympic Provisions), etc… all in one location, particularly if you have limited time in town. Seely Family Farm’s peppermint patties – made with natural Oregon peppermint – were a standout snack, but, of course, I am crazy about intense, fresh peppermint.

Portland obsession, Pine State Biscuits, however, were a disappointment. With the longest, slowest line by far at the market, I waited 30 minutes for a biscuit sandwich,

Walking PSU Market

grateful to scratch one of many breakfast go-tos off my list here. Chicken and biscuits are appealingly fried before you, while the restaurant’s classics are all here, including the beloved Reggie ($7): fried chicken, bacon, cheese, topped with gravy. I’m used to such lines at home for street food, etc…, and am a biscuit and Southern food fanatic, so it was rough to find the biscuit bland, not even close to the top 25 I’ve had, much less a “best”, and similarly so with the fried chicken. Oddly enough, the cheese is a bewildering grocery store-style slice thrown in the sandwich, every element but the gravy a letdown.

Ice Cream


Dreamy ice cream at Salt & Straw

Worth crossing town for, Salt & Straw is truly exciting ice cream. With two locations (the first opened last Summer), I visited the brand new Alphabet District cafe, a white, airy space winning me over with common flavors done their way, like ubiquitous salted caramel which I first saw as an ice cream at SF’s Bi-Rite years ago before witnessing it pop up all over the country. Here it manifests a local slant using salt selected by Portlandian Mark Bitterman, author of the book, Salted.

Rather than one of the more unusual flavors (and I sampled over 20 here), I was surprised my favorite was Arbequina olive oil. I’ve had olive oil ice creams for years, but this one was uniquely vivid and creamy, standing out above combos like Apricot Sweet Heat with Bridgeport Beer and candied scotch bonnet peppers.

Salt & Straw's menu

Banana walnut was evocative of childhood, while honey lavender is very different from Bi-Rite‘s more elegant, subtle honey lavender, which they were making many years before. Salt & Straw’s beauty is purple, floral, even soapy, but not overwhelmingly so. A rather genius combo is their fresh mint ice cream laced with candied lemon peel – my other favorite.

Salt & Straw sweet coffee offerings

Salt & Straw was just launching a much buzzed about round of custom ice creams in collaboration with individual restaurants, from Pok Pok to Aviary. For example, at new restaurant hotspot Ox, they’re utilizing the chef’s flavor profiles, making a foie with veal stock and s’mores ice cream. I’m in! I love everything about this place, from friendly staff to not-too-sweet flavored coffees, using Stumptown beans.


With only a handful of flavors at the Pearl District location (right by Powell’s Books), Mio Gelato is traditional Italian gelato in basic pistachio, lemon, mascarpone, and the like. But this creamy goodness is reminiscent of real, Italian gelato – a welcome treat when in the area.



Little Big Burger

Little Big Burger is a local mini-chain doing your basic burger, cheeseburger and veggie burger, all small, all under $3.75. I’d heard the Pearl District location was the best so that’s the one I tried. Friendly servers and the right price made it an ideal snack, though the clientele was mostly teenagers and there was a minuscule smattering of cheese on one side of the cheeseburger. Though decent, I couldn’t help but recall similarly simple – but far superior – burgers at Super Duper in SF or Burger Joint and Shake Shack in NYC.


Seductive bites & port/bourbon cocktail at Red Tavern

Inside funky, chic Hotel Monaco‘s Red Star Tavern, an unexpected delight arrived during a special media tasting: marshmallows encased in coffee crumbles and chocolate truffles rolled in tobacco. Served with a cocktail of 10 year tawny port, Bulleit bourbon, maple syrup and Angostura syrup, it was an earthy-sweet joy of a dessert. P.S. Hotel Monaco boasts a truly unique happy hour with wine, Voodoo Doughnut, balloon animals, and other quirky treats.


Kenny & Zuke's satisfying Reubens

While some locals tell me Kenny & Zuke’s isn’t quite as consistent as it used to be, I found this funky, fun Jewish deli ferments some damn fine pickles (in cinnamon, allspice, mustard seed, etc…) and makes a mean Reuben ($13.45) with their own rye bread and house-smoked pastrami or corned beef in a coriander crust, cured seven days, smoked ten hours, then steamed for three. I prefer ultra-smoky pastrami on the satisfying Reuben (and you know I’m picky about my Reubens from coast to coast), especially paired with dry-hopped Oakshire Watershed Brewing IPA from Eugene on draft.



Excellent quiche at Lauretta Jean's

With a shop for pick-up downtown and a weekly stand at the aforementioned PSU Farmers Market, Lauretta Jean’s bakes some blissful, all-American pies, lattice-topped and all. Rhubarb is a joy, while tart cherry is the ultimate: tart, juicy, flaky, nurturing. Their quiches are likewise strong – maybe the best breakfast item at the farmers market, like a fresh quiche of snap peas and fromage blanc.


My top Portland bakery, after visiting Pearl Bakery, Two Tarts and PIX (all winners – Portland does it right on the bakery front), is Ken’s Artisan Bakery on the Northwest side. Properly done croissants (ham, thyme & Gruyere croissant!) and morning buns made me feel like I was back home, but with local touches like Oregon berries in a sweet pastry. Order a cup of Stumptown coffee to go with.


Sampling through a sugary Voodoo Doughnut spread

This is only listed because I’ve been asked by many what I thought of the famed, quirky doughnut legend of Portland? Yes, we’ve seen the maple bacon combo a thousand times now, and at Voodoo Doughnut, where they’ve been doing it for years, that bacon-y essence shines. But sampling through five of their doughnuts, including the bacon maple bar, I must admit I did not like one of them. I respect the kitschy playfulness… but each was sickly sweet, old school sugary, leaving me to scratch my head, just as I have for over a decade re: NYC’s Magnolia Bakery with those legendary cupcakes that taste like someone baked a mound of powdered sugar. It’s all too one-note for me – particularly when there are far more balanced, gourmet donuts (and cupcakes) out there. Realizing we’re talking about two different styles of donut-making, places like Bob’s in SF typify to me what classic, old school donuts should be.


Heart's roaster & roomy interior

Obviously, coffee is as quintessential to Portland as constant drizzle. In visiting numerous roasters and local shops, I enjoyed plenty of fine coffee. Disappointed in the subtle, so-as-to-be-somewhat-tasteless coffee (not to mention cold, hipster attitude) at Heart in Northeast Portland, I enjoyed (but wasn’t raving about) Cafe Velo. Yes, I made the required Stumptown stop, though I’ve been drinking Stumptown for years, from NY to the West Coast. Below are my four standout coffee cafes:


Sterling Coffee Roasters is an utterly charming, old world-style coffee window in the Alphabet District, soon to move into a new, equally tiny space around the corner. As a sister outpost to Coffeehouse Northwest, the two smiling gentleman at Sterling are dressed like trendy, pre-Prohibition mixologists in vests, as classy as the beautiful wallpaper lining the closet-sized coffee haven.

Sterling Coffee Roasters

Both baristas were knowledgeable and passionate about coffee, preparing each cup with precision. They serve one guest roaster – on my visit it was Backporch Blend from Bend, OR, boasting almond butter notes. They also feature two additional, changing beans, typically one from South America, one from Africa, which they roast themselves – I enjoyed the Rosario from El Salvador with apricot & toffee notes.

They’re meticulous, even blessedly geeky about the details, like partly using organic milk for more grassy tones in their cappuccinos or not steaming milk past 130 degrees. One of their special treats is a European-style drinking chocolate (not as thick as ones I’d drink in Italy, but appropriately rich) using Michel Cluizel‘s Bolivian chocolate  – which they describe as adding “barnyardy” notes – with a pinch of Portuguese sea salt on top.


Coava Coffee

Coava Coffee’s expansive, artistic space houses woodwork, mural artists and all their in-house roasting. It’s such a cool space, most importantly serving impeccable coffee, that I trekked out to it twice when in the Industrial District.

They source, roast and brew single origin coffees from hand-selected farmers. It’s a special place and one of my top two (alongside Sterling) for coffee in Portland.


Courier Coffee

Sitting in the window at stark but friendly Courier Coffee Roasters with bike messengers, couriers and Portland hipsters is a happy way to while away time working on your laptop, reading or watching the world go by. Especially with cool tunes on the record player, accommodating baristas, and impeccable coffee, like a bracing cold brew served in a mason jar.


With two locations (I visited the Pearl District locale), Barista is not a roaster themselves, rather it’s a small shop properly preparing some of the best beans on the West Coast, like SF’s Sightglass, alongside local Portland roasters. Bonus points for the historic, roughly one hundred year old brick building and wood deck from which to sip your chosen coffee.



Sampling local chocolatiers at Cacao

With two locations (the main cafe in the Pearl District and one “jewel box-sized” outpost in the Heathman Hotel), Cacao is a chocolate haven of assorted chocolatiers and truffles from Portland and beyond, including Alma Chocolates (below), not to mention drinking chocolates, comforting on a wet, Portland day. I happily spent over an hour in this peaceful chocoholic respite.


Alma Chocolates is among my favorite little discoveries in Portland, particularly the Thai peanut butter cup. Genius, is what it is. Ginger, Thai chiles, lime, even red volcanic sea salt, elevate this peanut butter cup (also sometimes found at the aforementioned Cacao). While in Alma’s cafe, you might as well order drinking chocolates (go for shaken and iced on those rare, warm Portland days), or keep it hot with the Caramelita, essentially a 4 oz. shot of decadent  habanero caramel, chocolate, milk and heavy cream (moans of pleasure). 


Top Tastes

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

Wall of hot sauces at Hot Sauce & Panko in the Inner Richmond


HOT SAUCE & PANKO, Inner Richmond (1545 Clement St., between 16th & 17th Ave., 415-387-1908)

Hot sauce fun

Pretty much my favorite opening in recent weeks is Hot Sauce & Panko. Not only is the hot sauce collection about the best around (reaching from the deep South to Japan), but just glance through their blog to witness the owner’s quirky hilarity.

As a chicken wing take-out shop selling a wide range of hot sauces, a good 20+ are available to sample at any given time. However, beware: I’ve already run into a sell-out situation when trying to order wings over the weekend… they were all gone by 2pm (at least they handle it with humor on their blog).

I like Lower Haight’s new Wing Wings, but I LOVE Hot Sauce & Panko (plus they’re the cheaper of the two), cooked to order. I walk away with a tub of wings for $19.99, or plenty for two at $14.99. What makes me giddy? Hot Sauce & Panko lets me choose as many of their appealing preparations as I want. I’ve been known to go home with four different types in a $14.99 order.

Hot Sauce & Panko's specials menu

There’s a regular menu offering classic buffalo or honey mustard, or the likes of kuzu salt & pepper wings. I tried wings & waffles together, which you can get as a combo ($5.99) or merely add a Belgian waffle ($1.99). The specials menu gets crazy with mixes like tequila/chipotle/raspberry jam wings or one week-aged cognac/habanero/lime/bitters wings!?

These aren’t typical menu offerings. Favorites are creamy Thai peanut sauce wings, KFC (Korean fried chicken wings), and a “Pucker Your Mouth” special of wings in lime, Thai fish sauce, garlic, blue agave, red pepper flakes with an orange/garlic/ginger/chili dipping sauce. A side of spicy slaw ($1.99) will further push your heat tolerance.

THE DOG PIT, Parkside (1404 Taraval St., between 24th & 25th Ave.)

A Seoul Dog

Vision for the new Dog Pit came from founder Jason’s roots growing up in Flushing, Queens, with its dense Chinese and Korean population (my favorite Chinese & Korean eats in Flushing here). Hot dogs were plentiful in his youth, but quality… not so much. I heard another customer ask about meat source and found it curious that he wouldn’t divulge the source (this is SF, after all), but these juicy dogs taste of good quality (all-beef dogs: $3.50-$4; veggie dogs: additional $1 – made of organic tofu, garlic, paprika).

Ownership is Chinese, but I particularly like dogs nodding to Korea and Japan. Tokyo Dog gets smoky nuance from bonito flakes and seaweed, with wasabi aioli adding creaminess (though could have used a little more aioli and a little less dry seaweed flakes). Seoul Dog is laden with kimchi (of course), pickled daikon, and korrake aioli (“Korrake” translates to croquette, which, in Korean food, is potatoes shredded and served hash-style with the likes of onions, carrots, cabbage).

Dog Pit menu

You’ll find plenty more than Asian dogs, however. Jason is from NY, after all, so there’s the New Yorker with red onion sauce, or a Baked Italia cheesy with mozzarella, plus onions, garlic and tomatoes. There’s a bit of everything on the dog front: Southern dogs with coleslaw and BBQ sauce, Chicago-style, bratwurst and Louisiana hot links.

Though a a new addition to the Parkside neighborhood, The Dog Pit is already one of its most playful cheap eats options.

KIKA’S TREATS: Crunchy Caramels,

Kika's Crunchy Caramels (photo source:

On a recent night at a Marin “pop-up” drive-in (yes, there is such a thing) watching my childhood favorite, the original Superman, the unanimous top treat in my car was Kika’s Crunchy Caramels ($16 for a box of 9).

Kika’s Treats, a homegrown local since 2006,  makes caramels with coconut palm sugar and that whimsical Kika touch. Dark, bittersweet chocolate and a sprinkle of sea salt tie the caramels together but fun is had as puffed brown rice adds pop and sparkle to what could be typical gourmet caramels/truffles. These babies just won best caramels at SF International Chocolate Salon. Besides being available online, they’re at shops like Bi-Rite, Cheese Plus, and new Little Vine.


AATO KOREAN, Marina (1449 Lombard St. at Van Ness, 415-292-2368)

Aato's entrance

Aato, a new “Korean fusion” restaurant, only just opened. A surprising oasis on busy Lombard Street, decor is tasteful and soothing, while owner Jennie Kim grows herbs in potted plants out front by a little patio strewn with white lights. Despite a pricier menu than one typically sees in Korean eateries ($12-$15 for starters; $13.50-$25 for entrees), Aato is doing things differently, apparent from chandeliers and neutral colors in the dining room, to the use of locally grown, organic ingredients (though common-as-day in SF, unusual for local Korean spots). There’s even chef’s choice, 3-course menus ($32 or $29 for vegetarian), making Aato a bit more upscale.

When it comes to food, I’ve only ordered to-go, a pricey take-out option, to be sure, but each dish was made with gourmet care. The menu continues to evolve in these opening weeks but some initial highlights include Ssam, which literally means “wrapped” in Korean ($25). There’s three versions served with rice, kimchi, veggies and rice paper wraps. I wanted to go straight for Eel Ssam, but Kim talked me into Hangbang (Herbal) Bo Ssam… I wasn’t sorry. Tender, steamed pork, it’s aromatic and nuanced with herbs, expertly prepared and delightful with ssamjang hot sauce and veggies.

Aato's surprisingly elegant dining room

Man-Du Korean Dumplings ($12) are delicately pan-fried, plump with kimchi and shrimp (or veggie), an exemplary appetizer. Jab-Chae ($12) is traditional sweet potato noodles stir-fried with beef and seasonal veggies. They serve Dolsot Bibimbob ($15-16.95, vegetarian to seafood) piping hot in a stone pot (definition of the word “dolsot”). It’s ever my preferred way to have this melange of meat, veggies, kimchi, egg and rice. Seafood Pajeon ($15), the popular Korean pancake loaded with shrimp, squid, oysters and green onion, was satisfying but not my top version (that is currently pajeon at Manna in the Inner Sunset).

Weekend brunch intrigues with the likes of eggs with “Korean-style” hash browns ($9.50), tobiko, salmon, avocado and cheese Fritatta ($12.75), and Man-Du Dumpling Soup ($13). Kudos is deserved for Aato stepping up the quality factor in what I hope will only continue to be ever-diverse Korean options (more on recent Korean openings here).

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Wandering Traveler

Tobago single estate chocolate, beautiful with Angostura 1919 Rum at Taste of London


Curries cooked up in huge vats at Borough Market

It was 10 years ago that I spent a month in England, a country I felt immediately at home in. Returning to the incomparable London last month certainly revealed changes – most for the better, including the ignited culinary and cocktail scene (I covered cocktails last issue). Maybe it wasn’t as devastatingly amazing as some claimed (and produce still falls far behind what I’m used to), but over two weeks, I ate well and broadly, pleased to see London has become a world-class dining city, along with its other endless assets.

"It's Pimm's O'Clock"!

Foodies, do not miss Borough Market, the ultimate London food destination. It may not be a produce mecca like our own Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, but it shows off the best of local foods like cheese, sausages, meats, warm savory pies and pasties, fish, curries, fresh juices (from Natural Smoothie Co.), and, yes, produce.

Sip a Pimm’s while sampling jamon from Tapas Brindisa (loved chorizo rocket sandwiches they were grilling outside). More highlights included African sauces (like coconut chili) from Bim’s Kitchen, Exquisite Deli’s Tyrolean sausages and salami, and a Rosé Spritzer (rosé wine, lemonade, Pimm’s) from Borough Wines. See more favorites below under CoffeeChocolate, Spirits & Wine Shops.

Grapefruit/Campari/Lime Pops from Polka Gelato at Taste of London

Yauatcha's Crispy Duck Salad

Another event I was privileged to attend was Taste of London in idyllic Regent’s Park, similar to food and drink tasting galas in the States. Walking along purple carpets across muddy grass (it has just rained, thankfully clearing in time for the event), we tasted under tents and in makeshift cafes… an excellent way to sample from some of London’s hottest chefs and artisan food and drink purveyors. Highlights were many:

– Caramel-rich Angostura 1919 Rum, paired beautifully with just-launched Tobago Estate, a dark, lush, single-estate chocolate from the West Indies

Walking the purple carpet

– Raved-about restaurant Yauatcha served some of their truly excellent dim sum, including Sweet Potato Mei-Si, Venison Puffs and a Crispy Duck Roll
– Brand new Polka Gelato: the owner and her ice creams/sorbets are delightful, particularly a Pink Grapefruit/Campari/Lime Pop
Creole Soda Bread: I wish I could find a website for these guys, though I did run across a local blogger who felt the same as I did about these addictive breads; each one was better than the last, from Carrot Cherry to Ginger Fig

Union coffee

Union Hand-Roasted Coffee is fair trade – they were doing single drip cups just like I’m used to at home; they roast small-batches, delivered to individual homes, restaurants and cafes
Hendrick’s Gin hosted a gin garden party, complete with a retro-clad hostess (dressed similar to much of my own wardrobe), and refreshing Hendrick’s cocktails
– None other than Heston Blumenthal had an ice cream cart with two flavors: Chocolate & Rosemary, and my tops, Salted Caramel Popcorn

Gelupo gelato

- Ice cream showed strong at Taste… I was crazy about Gelupo, creamy, sexy gelato (with a shop in Soho); just try not to fall in love with their Ricotta & Sour Cherry Ripple; they also served a Granita Cocktail: fresh cucumber and their rose granita doused with Hendrick’s Ginperfecto!

**One note when dining in London: be aware that a majority of mid-to-upscale restaurants offer a dizzying number of menus, different ones for tasting, a la carte, weekends, weekdays, lunch, dinner and so on. Wanting freedom of choice, I found a la carte usually served me best and didn’t lock me into costly tasting menus.

Hendrick's Gin garden at Taste of London


Pinchito's garlicky baby eels

Pinchito, ShoreditchPinchito is your quintessential tapas bar. It’s casual, convivial, and most importantly, delicious. Rounds of padrón peppers, warm cod fritters, patatas bravas, and pork belly with mango flow. Things step up a notch when a garlicky, comforting bowl of Gulas al Ajillo (baby eels) arrive, glistening in oil, slippery like fine noodles. I sip a classic Daiquiri and dive in.

Hawksmoor Porterhouse

Hawksmoor, two locationsHawksmoor claims the best steaks in London… and they may be right. One of the juicier, medium-rare, dry-aged steaks I’ve ever had, their Porterhouse (£6.50/100g) is a lesson in steak perfection with just the right amount of charcoal crust. With a hefty bone one is tempted to grab onto and gnaw off, a side of plump, colorful tomatoes in olive oil adds a feminine yin to the steak’s manly yang.

Hawksmoor Julep

Starters of a half Dorset Crab (£15) with hazelnut butter or Potted Smoked Mackerel (£6) on rustic bread please. Do not miss their impeccable cocktails, which I raved about last issue. One of their visually striking and refreshing-tasting juleps makes an ideal companion to all that North Yorkshire cow.

Cinnamon Club

The Cinnamon Club, Westminster – In the Old Westminster Library, Cinnamon Club’s clean-lined, high-ceilinged library is a memorable space for upscale Indian dining. Scents of curry waft down the street as you pass Westminster Cathedral on your way inside this elegant respite.

Start off with Cinnamon Bellinis. They are better than they sound, evoking the space’s signature spice with effervescence. Executive chef Vivek Singh’s creativity with Indian flavors is impressive: you will likely have dishes here in ways you’ve never experienced them before.

Artful Cinnamon Club dessert plate

Tasting menus are a pricey £75 a head. There was a Maharaja’s Express (a luxury train the chef recently traveled with) menu at £50, but I was happiest going a la carte. Thankfully, I got to try one dish each from both tasting menus: Cwalior, a selection of street-food chaat/snacks (like mini-bhel puri), and an innovative Chickpea Cake, moist, with a hint of Indian spices and mint sauce. Out of the ten dishes I tried, a key stand-out was vegetarian: Plantain ‘Kofta’ (£15) came with beetroot chutney in a yoghurt coconut sauce. Layered and exciting, it was bright, healthy and full of flavor.

Benares dips and pappadum

Benares, MayfairBenares may not have been as seamless (or in as beautiful a setting) as Cinnamon Club, but it’s another upscale Indian restaurant with attentive service and inventive Indian food. I could eat Chicken Tikka Pie in a flaky pastry shell with wild berry sauce over and over again. I wasn’t going to complain about Tandoori Pigeon Breast either, especially with beet puree and vanilla beetroot accents. Their satisfying Tandoori Ratan means you can try Fennel Lamb Chop, Mustard Chicken Tikka and King Prawn on one platter. Also a pricey restaurant, a la carte is the best way to go.

A feast in the basement of Hix

Hix, Soho – Over punchbowls with Nick Strangeway, we were treated to an hours-long, private dinner in Hix‘ atmospheric, candlelit basement. Our Chop & Trout Feast just kept coming. Rounds of asparagus salad topped with with soft-boiled Burford brown eggs, British Isles rock oysters, and potted smoked salmon flowed. The baked Bone Marrow shimmered with garlic and herbs, buttery slathered on toasts. It may be the exemplary bone marrow dish among the many I’ve had. Lemon Ginger Nut Cheesecake arrived shaped like a creamy egg, a fine finish to a true feast.

Marrow at Hix

St. John’s, FarringdonFergus Henderson and his restaurant St. John’s revolutionized London (and the world’s) dining scene since it opened in 1994. Nose-to-tail, whole animal, offal… whatever you call it… had its renaissance at the hands of Henderson via this humble restaurant in an open, rustic room, tables lined with butcher paper.

St. John Bone Marrow

Other than having a downright snotty French waiter, which did not suit the environment (and is really unforgivable any time), we enjoyed famed Roasted Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad (£7.10 – although I preferred Hix‘ version, above), Venison Saddle alongside green beans and pickled walnut (£9.70), Ox Tongue with fennel & green sauce (£16.70), and a comforting slice of Welsh Rarebit (£5.20). Though pretty, a Chocolate & Cherry Pot (pot de creme) was an ok finish. Stick to the animal parts as that is what St. John’s is all about.

"Caviar" Blini at Saf

Saf, Shoreditch – I know it may seem strange for a carnivore in London to “waste” a meal on all vegetables, particularly when underwhelmed with produce throughout my weeks here. But it may be because of this very reason I wanted to know there was a place doing produce right and inventively. I’d heard from a couple sources that Saf was hands-down the best vegetarian in London. After I visit, I can see why.

Saf's Aubergine (Eggplant) Manicotti

Eating at the original, sit-down location (not their more casual restaurant in Whole Foods), portions may appear small, but entrees were larger and by meal’s end, I was full. Nothing is over £15.50), which is a steal in London for a hip restaurant such as this.

Of the eight dishes I tried, stand-outs included raw ‘Caviar’ Blinis (£7.50), or rather sweet potato blinis topped with beetroot & herbs balled into tiny ‘caviar’, and a Taco Trio (£14.45) of three mini-blue corn shells filled with pineapple relish, guac or tomato. They were having fun with cocktails like Sgt. Pepper (£8.85): Cazadores Tequila, pink peppercorns, red grapes, peach liqueur, lemon juice. I asked them to tone down the peach liqueur to make it less sweet – they obliged and as I hoped, pink peppercorn and tequila shone through.

Hakkasan's stir fry

Hakkasan, Mayfair - Hakkasan is big in India… and London. The bar serves cocktails on the chichi, fruity side, though there’s a broad spirits selection. With subterranean basement and deafening roar, it’s a bit scene-y for me, but thankfully the upscale Chinese food satisfies. Their dim sum platter is particularly artful, loaded with traditional options like scallop shumai and har gow, but brightened with roe and colorful dumpling wrappings. Meat dishes and stir fries are all tasty, though not exactly traditional Chinese. Crispy Duck Salad was the best dish, with its sweet/salty shreds of duck accented by pomelo, pine nut and shallot.

Guac & chips at El Camino

El Camino (which has become El Camion, though sign still says Camino), Notting Hill – For a hint of where NOT to go, I was struck by just how bad “Mexican” food was at otherwise adorably hip El Camion (sans a single Mexican on staff during my visit). It tasted not much better than the “Mexican” I had in London 10 years ago, though a Mexican food craze has swept the city in recent years. There must be better than this around town (?), but I still find without a significant Mexican population, it seems hard to do Mexican right. Most of the US and the world generally don’t get it right, it only makes sense that London doesn’t either (despite claims I’ve heard to the contrary). That is, unless you consider gummy gunge to be guacamole (with stale grocery store chips), or thick flour tortillas and a worse-than-Pace-Picante red paste (I mean “salsa”) to be the real deal. (PS – in typical London fashion, you’ll also pay nearly $15 US dollars for two little tacos).


Corn Onion Pancakes at Ottolenghi

Ottolenghi, Islington - Brunch at the original location of ever-popular Mediterranean bakery Ottolenghi was as delightful as I’d heard (Yotam Ottolenghi himself is in SF this week and has been blogging rave reviews about the experience). In a clean, white space, creative savory and sweet baked goods make a dramatic mountain piled atop the counter. Just try to decide which cake, tart, muffin or other glorious baked goods you’ll choose. Their breakfast menu is likewise fresh and enticing, especially Sweet Corn & Spring Onion Pancakes (£8.50) with roasted tomato (a British staple), bacon, avocado cucumber salsa, and sour cream.

Poached Tamarillo at Modern Pantry

Modern Pantry, Clerkenwell - Downstairs from our fabulous Zetter Townhouse, off a cobblestone cul de sac, is this charmer of a restaurant. I recommend Modern Pantry’s airy, light-filled space for breakfast. Service was about the most caring I had anywhere in London. When I didn’t finish one plate (due to ordering too many and thus full), they were concerned we didn’t like it. Without a guilt trip, they wanted to replace it and make it right. I insisted all was lovely. And it was. Try Spiced Red Wine-poached Tamarillo (£5.80): tart and robustly red, warm fruit, in a creamy Greek yoghurt drizzled with Manuka honey.

Kipferl's sausage & sauerkraut platter

Kipferl, Islington – Just opened in April, Kipferl, an Austrian café off darling Camden Passage (a narrow, cobblestone-lined street evoking Old World Europe), is nearly museum-like in its quiet. It’s a bit unnerving if you wish to talk (sit in the back for that). The majority of solo diners are in the front room, bright under big, picture windows. I heartily recommend it as a respite to read, write, work or think over a Viennese coffee. Pastries are a bit hit-and-miss (I had a dry poppyseed cake), but made with care, while a long Austrian sausage oozes with cheese inside, draped over a mound of near perfect sauerkraut.

Caravan, Clerkenwell – At the Aussie/Kiwi-influenced Caravan, coffee is impeccable while lemon curd/cream cheese/coconut bread is topped with rhubarb and served for breakfast. Get a table outside along the cobblestone, pedestrian-only Exmouth Market street, and it feels truly like Europe.

Arnold Bennett at The Wolsley

The Wolsley, St.James/Mayfair - Touristy or not, the gorgeous Wolsley Hotel (around the corner from my St. James hotel, Duke’s) hosts a breakfast evoking Old World elegance. Coffee is strong, served in delicate white cups, paired well with a flaky pain au chocolat.

The elegant Wolsley dining room

The real winner is a traditional British omelette, the Arnold Bennett (£10.75), originally named after Arnold Bennett at the Savoy Hotel as he loved it there so much, he insisted it be made for him wherever he traveled. It’s a creamy, egg-y dream, salty with smoked haddock, in a creme fraiche and Parmesan cheese sauce. The lovely Sophie Dahl shows you how to cook one  of these sinfully rich breakfasts here.

Blanche, Hammersmith – Out in the friendly, peaceful neighborhood of Hammersmith, I loved Blanche Eatery, a closet-sized shop making an excellent cappuccino, delectable baked goods (like lime poppyseed cake) and various to-go salads (quinoa, Mediterranean-style, etc…)


Monmouth Coffee

Monmouth Coffee, Borough Market near London Bridge – You can’t miss Monmouth Coffee at the edge of the ultimate British market, Borough Market (with two other locations). It’s Blue Bottle-esque for all you Bay Area folk, i.e. lines stretch out the door all day long. And it’s of that caliber. Probably the best cup I had in London.

Caravan on Exmouth Market

Espresso Room, Bloomsbury – On a rainy day (one of many), as I wandered the streets of Bloomsbury and explored Charles Dickens house, Espresso Room was like a beacon in the chilly June air. I was on the hunt for it, knowing it immediately by the carved-wood coffee cup hanging from a storefront on a mostly residential street. I could have been in the Mission in SF watching young hipsters grind beans in a tiny, wood-walled shop. It warmed up the grey day immediately (another nearby respite is The Lamb, a 1700’s pub all-the-more cozy with a good book – purportedly Dickens hung out there).

Third wave, robust coffee – and just a plain good cup – has hit London full force. There’s a long list of spots to sip a proper cup. Here are just a few more to recommend: Taylor Street Baristas, Flat White, Milk Bar, Dose, Store St. Espresso and Kaffeine.


Paul A. Young, Islington – On par with the best chocolates I’ve had anywhere in the world, Paul A. Young’s truffles (£2 each) are so fresh and luxurious, not to mention unusual, I’m still dreaming about them.

Paul A. Young's dreamy chocolates

With a shop on charming Camden Passage (near Kipferl, above), Young was also at the Taste of London. He rose to fame as pastry chef for the likes of Marco Pierre White. Yes, he can do a Sea Salted Caramel and Dark Chocolate Champagne truffle like no other. But try Marmite for earthy, funky fun, or Passion Fruit & Vanilla, or Peppermint Leaf. Even among the best chocolatiers, I love some truffles and not others. But eight truffles later, I was loving every one of Young‘s.

The Rabot Estate, Borough Market - The chocolate stop at Borough Market, Rabot Estate is a rustic, hip shop with staff roaming the store pouring cups of free dark hot chocolate, salvation on chilly, rainy days.

Rabot Chocolates and bright cacao bean

A dark chocolate chili bar particularly won me over with lush base of their Santa Lucia-grown chocolate. You can also order bites from their menu like banana, salted caramel & cacao nibs on toasted brioche or duck confit salad with chocolate dressing and orange marmalade. You can see why I love this place.

Artisan du Chocolat, Borough MarketArtisan du Chocolat is at numerous London shops and high-profile department stores such as Selfridges. I bought a box at Borough Market. Unlike with Paul A. Young, I was disappointed in a number of their truffles, though they are at least half the price of Young’s chocolates. Artisan du Chocolat makes intriguing flavors like banana & thyme, tobacco, or lumi (sun-dried lime). I just wish all tasted as amazing as they sounded.

Spirits & Wine Shops

Borough Market

Whisky Exchange, Borough Market - About the best whiskey shop in the world? Whisky Exchange just off Borough Market could easily contend for that tile. A leading website for whisky, they sure know their Scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskies. But I was impressed with their expertise on American whiskies. Having met many of the world’s greatest distillers, Hector swapped stories and favorite bottles for a good hour with us. He’s a veritable whisk(e)y encyclopedia. We left with a couple special whiskies they bottle in-house. Spirits aficionados, don’t miss this place on your next visit to London.

Utobeer, Borough Market – A truly impressive little section inside Borough Market, Utobeer wows with a well-curated beer selection, including a number of the US’s best craft beers from Goose Island in Chicago to OC’s The Bruery. As some London locals tell me, many Brits don’t believe America has any clue what a good beer is, one of many reasons Utobeer‘s selection is a rarity and a boon for the city. I was particularly impressed with London-brewed craft beer from The Kernel, wishing we had that one here.

Utobeer at Borough Market - an impressive beer selection

Berry Bros. & Rudd, St.James/Mayfair - Around the corner from my St. James hotel, Duke’s, Berry Bros. & Rudd may exhibit a bit of a rarified air, but is a classic spirits and wine shop. Their spirits selection is far smaller than at Whisky Exchange, but extremely well-curated. First and foremost, it’s a wine-lovers destination. Open since 1698, the space evokes Old World London with creaky wood floors, old chandeliers and coffee scales from its original shop. Along with neighboring Fox of St. James, a cigar shop frequented by Winston Churchill who’s chair sits in the basement smoking lounge, and the unreal artistry of John Lobb, a very high end shoe shop and cobbler, St. James Street is lined with historical, evocative shops worth spending time in.


Wandering Traveler

CHICAGO, Part Four

Back to Chicago… neighborhood by neighborhood, in a multi-part series, I’ve been covering some haunts during my last visit. Here’s my three previous columns on Chi-town.


A glorious Hot Doug’s spread

Hot Doug’s – So much has already been said about this fairly recent addition to the Chicago dog landscape. I thankfully got to try about 8 dogs here and they were all awesome, though specials change regularly. And they can be wild. Even if you don’t want foie gras on your dog (I did: Foie Gras/Sauternes Duck Sausage is topped with foie gras mousse, truffle aioli, fleur de sel – $9), there’s something for literally everyone. I’m itching to try a new addition to the menu: Jack Daniels/Fennel-smoked Pork Sausage with roasted yellow pepper anchovy sauce, hickory-smoked sweet Swiss cheese – $7.50).

Foie Gras (foreground) & Apple Gouda Sausages (background)

These are goopy, loaded, all-American dogs, not gourmet chi-chi or even European-style sausages, despite some of the ingredients. Whether going international (Spicy Thai Chicken Sausage with Sriracha mustard/seaweed-sesame salad – $7.50), humorous (The Salma Hayek – $4, a “mighty, mighty, mighty hot!” Andouille Sausage, formerly the Madonna, the Raquel Welch, the Ann-Margret…),or straight-up traditional (The Dog – $1.75), the price is reasonable and Doug himself, a welcoming guy… cheerfully patient with the crowds swarming his place.

Hot Doug’s exemplifies what Chicago’s about. Oh, be aware that by 11:30am, even on a weekday, you’ll already be waiting at least 30 minutes to get in. Good thing I made friends with locals in line. And it’s much further out than you think it’s going to be, nowhere near the El. Take a cab or drive.


Nhu Lan Bakery’s Bahn Mi

Nhu Lan Bakery – One of the better Bahn Mi’s ($3.25) I’ve had comes in house-baked French rolls (it was a pleasure watching them brush butter over rolls as they slid them into the oven) at this non-descript hole-in-the-wall (note: that charming, European-looking structure on their website is NOT their building!) I took the El way north to the Lincoln Square area solely for the purpose of trying these babies which intrigued me from a mention in Time Out Chicago. The area is more suburban-looking, with lawns for everyone. And the area is lucky to have such a tasty, cheap meal.


Andersonville’s Coffee Studio

Ann Sather’s famed cinnamon rolls disappoint me, lard-heavy and what exemplified incredible baked goods in the 1970’s but don’t hold up quite as well now… but Andersonville is one of my favorite Chicago ‘hoods. With a Swedish and Norwegian spirit, the family vibe and charming, cafe and shop-lined street recalls my  longtime home of Noe Valley here in SF. But there’s other influences present, characterized in humble spots like Middle East Bakery & Grocery with tasty warm, mini pies (tried Spinach & Feta and Artichoke & Syrian Cheese – $1.75).

•  The Coffee Studio – Probably the best cup of coffee I’ve had in Chicago, it’s Intelligentsia Coffee, which I’ve had prepared well numerous places both in its native Chicago and LA. Coffee Studio does their espressos right with a knock-you-over strength and fine crema on top. It’s housed in a modern, brick-walled storefront next to charming antique and vintage decor shops.

m. henry’s Blackberry Bliss Cakes

•  m. henry – This place is darling, if there ever was a proper time to use the word: an old country storefront modernized with ‘shabby chic’ white wood pieces and gold, lower-case lettering. The back patio is funky, playful and welcoming. The food, however, despite raves as best brunch spot in many circles, is just alright.

It’s definitely a good brunch but upon ordering uber-popular Blackberry Bliss Cakes ($8.95), I suffered sugar-overload from drenched hotcakes in blackberry syrup and vanilla mascarpone cream. I wanted more of that brown sugar oat crust and less of the sopping mess my bottom pancake turned out to be (as my photo clearly displays). Jorge’s Black Bean Cakes & Eggs ($8.75) are decent, with chipotle sour cream, but not particularly memorable. It’s all about the setting.


Vietnamese Coffee, beignets & morning jazz

I stayed in a friend’s incredible loft right in the heart of trendy, hip Bucktown, a mere two blocks from Violet Hour. Disappointment came with mediocre sushi at Coast, and at Rodan, an Asian bistro/bar that intrigued with a brunch menu offering the likes of beignets with Vietnamese coffee (the first bland, the latter lukewarm, too sweet, inauthentic). What I did love at Rodan, however, was a big screen on the back wall playing jazz/big band “music videos” – nice to chill to Ellington as you’re waking up. Too bad the food doesn’t keep up. Sultan’s Market was an affordable little falafel shop and Middle Eastern deli in the ‘hood. Here were my favorites in Bucktown:

•  Violet Hour – The majority of cocktail raves in the city of Chicago center around this refined but youthful bar (refined but for weekend crowds descending rowdy and obnoxious from Illinois or Wisconsin suburbs). It certainly ushered Chicago into the artisanal, classic cocktail realm, though bars like this exist by the dozens in NY or even SF. I find fewer in Chicago of this caliber.

Herbaceous goodness at Violet Hour: Green Chartreuse, Peychaud, Angostura, lemon, lime, pineapple, Velvet Falernum, fresh mint

I visited Violet Hour a couple times (love the name, from a dreamy Bernard DeVoto quote found prominently on their home page). The first was a Friday night with annoyingly long wait, a doorman who let a group of shouting girls who looked about 18 and seemed wasted already, enter ahead of a long line of patient twosomes. Not was I was hoping for at supposedly a classy, cocktailians hang-out. Had it become too popular for its own good? Yes, is one answer to that question. Once we finally entered the graffiti-ed, signless door, we enjoyed our cocktails but Violet Hour fell well below my favorite Chi-town cocktail haven, The Drawing Room.

Thankfully I returned to Violet Hour, for a quiet couple hours at the bar on a Sunday at 5pm. What a difference! I made friends with those sitting next to me, fellow lovers of good food, drink, cities and unexpectedly, literature and poetry. I savored stimulating conversation paired with excellent drink and service… Stephen Cole was a top-notch bartender.

Too dim to get photos of the interior, here is one from

Generally around $12, my first visit entailed Zarzamora, Wild Turkey 101, Fernet, blackberries, house orange bitters, and Hush & Wonder, a refreshing blast of Matusalem rum, lime, Creme de Violette, grapefruit. It was better the second time around when I let the bartender choose. My favorite was a layered  but unfussy mix of Green Chartreuse, Peychaud, Angostura, lemon, lime, pineapple, Velvet Falernum, fresh mint – herbaceous, grassy, fresh. In tribute to my home, he served a Manhattan with Fernet (SF has long been the highest consumer of this bitter Italian digestif), Carpano, Luxardo cherries.

After this visit, I could warrant the fuss more. It’s still not my favorite bar in the country by any means, but I’m glad I got to experience the skill of its bartenders and the savvy of its regulars. Just go early…

Caramel Stout Milkshake at Hot Chocolate

•  Hot Chocolate – I went for a decadent three-course dessert one night and fell in love. The place is bustling, youthful, but noisy and crowded for my tastes. All was forgotten when I took my first bite of a Dark Chocolate Souffle Tart ($11) with salted caramel ice cream and pretzels. Salty/sweet perfection. Try to finish a sensual, lush dark Hot Chocolate ($6 – with a hint of caramel, or available in white or milk chocolate, with espresso, Mexican chocolate style or over ice – something for everyone!)

A Stout Caramel Milkshake ($6) with cookies mixed the malty taste of stout with ever-present caramel. Divine decadence all around. You’ll see why owner, Mindy Segal, has won multiple Outstanding Pastry Chef nominations at the James Beard Awards.


•  Miko’s Italian Ice – This guy rocks, sitting alone at a humble little window off a tree-lined street, scooping up ice flavors of the day.

I visited three of Chicago’s popular Italian ice spots this last trip but Miko’s was by far my favorite.

A tart, simple Lemon reminds me of East Coast Italian ices and Banana with Chocolate Chips is just fun.


On the Town

3/20 SF Chocolate Salon at Fort Mason

Cacao Atlanta's "Salami" di Cioccolato

The annual SF Chocolate Salon is a spread-out sea of chocolate purveyors, plus a small few choco spirits, wines, and cheese thrown in for good measure, in massive Fort Mason. There were few new discoveries for me, and some were just plain awful, plus the disorganized will call check-in made for a frustrating start. As my stomach eventually began to protest, I still made it my mission to taste something from every table – specifically products I hadn’t tried from chocolatiers I may already be familiar with.

Being one who (nerd-ily) keeps an extensive chocolate spreadsheet with my own ratings over the years, it takes something expertly made or unique to stand out. My local favorites remain tops, including Christine Doerr’s Neo Cocoa and the addictive toffee “tiles” of Poco Dolce.

Addictive Chocolate Almonds from Oakland's Vice Chocolates

There were a slew of vegan chocolates, which I must be honest, I always find at the bottom in terms of taste: anything that sacrifices taste is a mark against for me. Chocoveda, at Fancy Food last month, is the only chocolate I’ve personally tasted that didn’t fall far below ‘regular’ chocolate.


  • Socola Chocolatier – I was about to tell you prior to this event about this new Oakland chocolatier, started by two charming Vietnamese sisters, whose truffles I bought last month at Bi-Rite. Trying their range of Western and Eastern truffles at the Chocolate Salon helped round out my recommends. Playful flavors and names appeal, but some work better than others (beer taste is too subtle in Guinness, for example). Le Frog is really Laphroig and it’s peaty, earthy, just like the scotch. Give it to Me Guava and Jasmine Tea stand out. But the winner for me is Notorious H.O.G. (both in name and taste): the crunch of applewood-smoked bacon with Hawaiian sea salt makes a superb truffle marriage of the now common chocolate and bacon.
  • Bacon truffles from Socola

    Vice Chocolates – I’ve written about Vice before, and this one woman chocolate business remains among the best here. I was taken in by her new Vixen truffle. Though I’ve had my beloved passion fruit in many a truffle, the twist here is it’s spiced way up with chili pepper. The other highlight? Subtle White Choco-dusted Matcha Almonds and especially addictive Spicy Orange Dark Chocolate-dusted Almonds, which I can’t stop eating at home.

  • Amano Chocolates – For pure, straight-up chocolate, Amano aims high, as its sweep of the salon’s awards show. Premium dark bars have complex notes and cocoa beans sourced from various countries.
  • William Dean Chocolates – Though I loved their truffle flavor profiles, not all tasted as good as they sounded. What blew me away is their toothsome Pate de Fruit, particularly the Caribbean Cocktail blend of guava, coconut, etc… a whiff of the islands pulsing through lush gelee.
  • Edible Love – Their flashy Moulin Rouge/bordello presentation stands out, if in a theatrical, Berkeley-boho sort of way. What I particular appreciate is Absinthe Truffles, heavy on the absinthe.
  • Kika's new Dark Chocolate Palm Sugar Pecan Caramel

    Kika’s Treats – Kika’s has long been a local hit. I’ve always enjoyed their caramelized graham crackers and Brazilian honeycakes. At this event, I was delighted to try a new product: their caramels are more of the old school chewy/sticky kind, rather than velvety/silky sort, but Dark Chocolate Palm Sugar Pecan Caramel is delectable as a nutty, crunchy confection on its own.

  • Clarine’s Florentines – This is winning crispy, buttery Almond Brittle on bittersweet chocolate from Berkeley.
  • AF2 Fudge – Unlike the heavy, milk-chocolatey fudge of our American youth, this refined dark fudge is light but rich. The one I liked is Espresso Fudge, bitter and laced with espresso beans (Grand Marnier was too sweet for me).
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On the Town

Recchiuti’s Taste Project:
with Michael Recchiuti and Dave McLean

Though renowned artisan chocolatier, Recchiuti, just ended their fabulous tasting series, pairing chocolate with everything from spirits to mushrooms to bread, there will be more ahead so I urge you to sign up on their email list to be notified when they do. I went to my first ‘class’, Beer and Chocolate, not sure what to expect: a tasting, discussion, both?

I entered a intimate, candlelit room in the Recchiuti chocolate factory/headquarters in Dogpatch, where Michael Recchiuti himself, and Dave McLean, brewmaster and owner of Magnolia Pub & Brewery and the Alembic, led us through the two hour class. It certainly was educational, with time to converse directly with these two experts. We were lucky to have a face-to-face tour and demo from Michael, watching him make chocolate truffles, serving them to us fresh out of the molds, a caramel truffle in particular exploding with tender flavor.

Then, the tasting menu: beer in its various stages before and after fermentation, chocolate pairings, creative bites, dishes and rare creations from Michael and Dave just for this class. Myself and the Renaissance Man, my husband, Daniel Stumpf, took a few photos from our time. For aficionados, it’s well worth a $55 class fee for the education and rare tastings.


MALT, a tasting of 3 heirloom malts (malted barely is reminiscent of grape nuts) & an incredible chocolate disc with smoky barley (I tasted a hint of burnt marshmallow in the 64% dark chocolate)

Wort Soda (beer before fermentation) with malt foam cube garnish

Wort Soda (beer pre-fermentation or hops) with malt foam cube garnish

Michael Recchiuti himself makes truffles fresh, then serves some to us straight from the molds - they melt in your mouth!

Michael Recchiuti making truffles, then serving to us straight from the molds - melt in your mouth!

Watching chocolate being made inside Recchiuti's factory

Chocolate making at Recchiuti's factory

Magnolia's Dark Star Mild beer (burnt coffee notes) with Recchiuti's Dark Chocolate Ice Cream

Magnolia's Dark Star Mild beer (burnt coffee notes) w/ Recchiuti's Dark Chocolate Ice Cream

Recchiuti's candlelit "classroom"

Recchiuti's candlelit "classroom"; Michael's films of Magnolia Brewery shown the wall

From Dave McLean's "secret stash" at home, a 2007 Imperial Stout - a rare treat!; Michael's Chocolate Stout Tort with Kulchwort ganache and a Japanese-style Stout Gelee

From Dave McLean's "secret stash" at home, a 2007 Imperial Stout - a rare treat! Paired with Michael's Chocolate Stout Tort w/ Kulchwort ganache and Japanese-style Stout Gelee

Magnolia Beer Flight paired w/ Recchiuti chocolates: (L) Blue Bell Bitter w/ Candied Orange Peel - mulled, spiced notes; (C) India Pale Ale w/ Star Anise/Pink Peppercorn truffle; (R) Brown Ale w/ Burnt Caramel truffle

Magnolia Beer Flight paired w/ Recchiuti chocolates: (L) Blue Bell Bitter w/ Candied Orange Peel - mulled, spiced notes; (C) India Pale Ale w/ Star Anise/Pink Peppercorn truffle; (R) Brown Ale w/ Burnt Caramel truffle

Written by in: On the Town | Tags: ,

On the Town



La Cocina is a neighborhood food endeavor you should know about. Located on a residential Mission block of Folsom (between 25th and 26th), it’s a non-descript building housing over twenty young food businesses in our fair city from gourmet catering to specialty food products to farmers market ventures. They have a lovely commercial kitchen space and offer technical assistance to low-income entrepreneurs as they launch, market and formalize their business. What a friendly, delightful staff they have and a vision that excites me.

On September 12, I went to an afternoon industry-only Open House at La Cocina (which was followed by a public event that evening). A few of the vendors I already knew and tasted (like Kika’s Treats or Sabores del Sur’s alfajores), but many I discovered, delightedly so, for the first time. Best of all, I got to talk to many of the entrepreneurs, mostly women, about what inspired them to start their businesses or the vision behind their excellent foods.

I want to recommend a few of my favorites, so you can check them out, too. I can honestly say there was not a bad one in the house – I was impressed at the consistent quality and taste of every vendor, so it’s tough to narrow it down. Some don’t have websites so read about them on La Cocina’s (which links to sites if they exist) for contact info and where you might find the products.


Hangar One

Hangar One

It helped to have Hangar One/St. George Spirits on hand to wash down all those tastes with little shots of vodkas, whiskeys and Eaux de Vie. After a recent tour of their distillery, I have a fuller appreciation for the craft alcohol they make. Crispin’s Rose Liqueur is a fascinating, hand-distilled, fresh rose petal liqueur I tasted at this event with a subtle rose flavor to compliment the apple and honey tones (



Oh, those pepitas! Botanas Felicitas (email; 415-574-1449) roasts Mexico City botanas (snacks) like pumpkin seeds (pepitas), peanuts and chicharrones to perfection. The Pepitas Con Chile (spicy) or Con Limon Y Sal (with lime and salt) make perfect movie-watching snacks.

el-buen-comerEl Buen Comer is a family owned business that cooks homemade Mexican guisados, mole sauce and chilaquiles at my neighborhood Noe Valley Farmer’s Market on Saturdays (8am-2pm). Yum!

el-golazoEl Golazo – Hearty homemade pupusas.



Sabores del Sur

The aforementioned Sabores del Sur (“Flavors of the South”) is a catering company that makes sinfully decadent Alfajores (classic South American shortbread cookie sandwiches layered with caramel-ly dulce de leche, dusted with powdered sugar). I can’t get enough! You can buy them at the La Cocina booth at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market or in places like Canyon Market on Diamond.

sinful-sweetsBillie Grant makes truly Sinful Sweets, individually packaged brownie-cookie-cake type desserts, my favorite being “Gabrielle’s Delight”, a pecan pie/buttery shortbread-like brownie. Richly satisfying.

kikas-treatsKika’s Treats you’ll see more readily around town in popular shops like Bi-Rite. Their artisanal shortbreads, graham crackers and honey cakes are dipped in dark chocolate. I have to say, I love ALL five of their products, but am especially fond of the Espresso Cardamom Shortbread in Dark Chocolate.

Di Tullio’s is a Cal-Italian family business making Neopolitan foods, including a White Chocolate/Candied Orange Peel Biscotti and Pastiera Napoletana, a signature Naples’ dessert: creamy ricotta cheese cake with the texture of cooked wheat berries? Sign me up!

And maybe my favorite of all…

Neo Cocoa

Neo Cocoa

Neo Cocoa – These handcrafted, “unshelled” chocolate truffles are some of the best I’ve tasted. The chocolate is dark, rich, aromatic and the flavor combinations in perfect balance: Mocha Cinnamon or Toasted Coconut (wow!) I can’t wait to try Key Lime and Roasted Peanut Butter.

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