Mar
01
2014

Top Tastes

Still wriggling on the plate: live, raw spot prawns at R&G Lounge

Still wriggling on the plate: live, raw spot prawns at R&G Lounge

HOLDING STRONG at SF Standard-Setters

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

In the midst of the latest, hottest, buzzed about new openings, the greats get forgotten. Whether it’s old school classics like seafood at Tadich Grill, or arguably the best souffles in the US at Cafe Jacqueline, where Jacqueline has dedicated decades to churning out perfect souffles every night, many of our greats keep their steady following yet stay under the radar. Recently, I’ve gone back for East German comfort at Walzwerk, ever impeccable Greek feasts at Kokkari, rounds of crab, garlic bread and chowder at Anchor Oyster Bar, and live – still wriggling on the plate – raw spot prawns at R&G Lounge… all restaurants I’ve been going to since I moved here 13 years ago.

In the meantime, I’ve been returning to more recent greats opened in the last few years, remaining impressed, particularly by these dishes:

STATE BIRD PROVISIONS, Lower Fillmore
Changing the game nationally with its level of dim sum-style, playful creativity

Curry rabbit roti

Curry rabbit roti

Wow factor abounds at playful-casual, if extremely difficult to get into, State Bird Provisions. There’s usually a few hits every meal but recently it was curry rabbit roti ($20) that made an impact. Warm, floppy Indian roti bread scooped up aromatic curry graced with tender rabbit, black trumpet mushrooms and lentils.

Dessert was equally memorable: piping hot buckwheat bao ($8), a bun with a sugary-cinnamon crust, partnered with a cup of coconut cream and carrot jam dotted with maple pecans. Savory, vegetal and sweet played together harmoniously, a burst of winter joy.

BAR TARTINE, Mission
Setting a national standard for modern Eastern European-influenced fare

cake

Celery root-scallion cake

Bar Tartine chef Nick Balla keeps expanding the boundaries of what modern Eastern European (strongly influenced by his Hungarian roots) food can be, doing things I’ve yet to see any US chef do with that category. Balla revived the fried bread that haunted my dreams since my travels in the Hungarian countryside in 1999 with his menu mainstay of langos ($12), fried potato flatbread radiant with garlic, sour cream and dill.

That ever remains a highlight but recent visits impressed particularly in the form of a warm square of rice flour-based celery root and scallion cake ($14). Moist and savory, the cake rests atop a spread of nettle puree, given umami complexity under shaved dried tuna flakes and celery leaves.

CONTIGO, Noe Valley
Idyllic modern Spanish, neighborhood dining

Cinco Jotas' Jamon Iberico de Bellota

Cinco Jotas’ Jamon Iberico de Bellota

I sure miss the years of rolling out my front door on 24th Street and moseying half a block to Contigo for  some of the best Spanish food in the city paired with gorgeous, crisp Spanish and Portuguese wines (like a 2012 Raventos i Blanc “La Rosa” pinot noir Rose from Penedes, Spain). Whether those perfect jamon croquetas/fritters ($3) oozing with bechamel sauce, or the ever-comforting, changing coco (flatbreads), like a recent pie laden with broccoli rabe, smoked bacon, spring onions, and manchego cheese ($15), Contigo does it right.

Contigo coca

Contigo coca

But when the ultimate level (5J) of Spain’s legendary cured ham, Cinco Jotas‘ Jamon Iberico de Bellota ($25), is on the menu, I cannot resist. It’s pricey but  the paper thin, pink and white sheets of acorn-fed Spanish heritage “Pata Negra” ham from Jabugo, Spain, melt and dissolve on the tongue like the finest of silk… if silk were succulent and meaty.

LOLINDA, Mission
Raising Argentinian steakhouse stakes (no pun intended)

Lolinda NY steak

Lolinda NY steak

Granted, there’s not a ton of competition in the Argentinian dining category, but of Argentinian restaurants I’ve been to anywhere, Lolinda nails it. Yes, crowds reach a deafening roar in the dramatic, chic dining room and I recently experienced a frustrating wait even with a reservation, but each dish that arrives is downright delicious, from traditional beef, egg and raisin empanadas ($7) where the pastry shell is no throwaway, to those juicy steaks, appropriately charred on the outside, rare on the inside, like the a 13 oz. New York steak ($29) with lively chimichurri sauce, a staple of Argentina steak culture.

Lolinda ceviche

Lolinda ceviche

But I’m all about their exceptional ceviche ($14), often in the options of octopus or silky, sashimi-like ono tossed in bright lime with aji amarillo peppers, sweet potato and fried corn in fritter-like form. The texture contrast and impeccable freshness only enhances the vibrant flavor of a standout in a city where it’s not difficult to find good ceviche.

ROKA AKOR, North Beach
Catering to a wide range of diners with impeccable sushi & robata

Roka Akor sashimi

Roka Akor sashimi

Chain aspect aside, Roka Akor has acclimated to San Francisco quite well. They’ve done so with professional service, impeccable sushi and sashimi and robata grill dishes in an area that reaches everyone from tourists to the FiDi (Financial District) business set.

Their sashimi selection ($34/$46) is impressive in presentation and freshness, while their rolls/maki are above average, appropriately delicate rather than fried or heavy with sauce. At lunch, ubiquitous miso black cod arrives in unique form – on skewers ($18 with salad), while cocktails utilize Japanese herbs, citrus and flavors to partner with dishes.

Avo & asparagus tempura roll

Avo & asparagus tempura roll

On my most recent visit (after a couple lunches here, I love it for lunch, though there’s also that appealingly dim, underground bar), I was surprised to be most taken with a new vegetarian maki ($11.50). What sounded absolutely typical, a light roll of ever-so-softly fried avocado and asparagus, weaves with Japanese herbs, sprinkled artfully with edible flowers – a statement veggie roll, if there ever was one.

Lolinda's dramatic dining room an bar from an upstairs table

Lolinda’s dramatic dining room & bar from an upstairs table

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Nov
01
2012

On the Town

Young turnips rest under decomposing leaves that must be dug through by hand

One Night Only: SWEDEN’s MAGNUS NILSSON & SF’s DANIEL PATTERSON Cook Together at COI

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Near the kitchen, Coi staff welcomes Magnus on a chalkboard wall

Food lovers in the know are well aware of Chef Magnus Nilsson and his restaurant Faviken Magasinet in the furthest reaches of northern Sweden, the small restaurant causing the biggest food magazines in the world to trek hours from anywhere for a meal. They return glowing, with photo spreads capturing meats hanging from a rustic wood ceiling, ingredients like lichen, moss and open fire meats turned into delicious, elemental art, all sourced within miles of the restaurant, and the young Nilsson in his nearly iconic fur coat.

His just released new book, Faviken (with charming, traditional Scandinavian art cover), is a pleasure to walk through. Lucky us, Nilsson’s US book tour featured only two nights of cooking in the whole country, one in Charleston at Husk with Sean Brock, one on October 20 at Coi here in San Francisco with Daniel Patterson. I savored all twelve courses of the collaborative dinner and will let photos and brief descriptors do the talking as imagination could not quite envision the unique tastes and earthy experiences reflecting Bay Area ingredients Nilsson and Patterson foraged for themselves that morning.

Think tofu made from water sourced deep within the ocean around the Farallon Islands or turnips one must dig for by hand through a pile of decomposing leaves and you’re on the right track.

Powerhouse chef team of Daniel Patterson (L) and Magnus Nilsson (R)

Entering Coi in North Beach for this one night only dinner; we are served sides of whole wheat milk bread & excellent rustic black olive caraway bread

Starting with “crackers and dip”: flaxseed chips with a dreamy, of-the-sea blue oyster emulsified dip (L) & brown rice crackers with kale dip (R)

Unreal course: “Earth & Sea” tofu made from deep ocean water pulled from a spot of the Farralon Islands, pasteurized & coagulate into ricotta-like tofu and served with cherry tomatoes & seaweed, in Silver Leaf olive oil

Most aromatic, striking course of the night: Pacific oysters moldering in redwood and pine

Chanterelle mushrooms, clean & unadorned with Meyer lemon, peas & lovage salt

Kohlrabi root crusted in tobacco & vinegar, laced with dill, edible flowers, Thai basil, mint and surrounded by pomegranate sauce

One of my favorite courses: Monterey Bay abalone grilled in nettle dandelion salsa verde, crunchy with spicy breadcrumbs

Cauliflower cooked in white soy and vinegar with S’Peters English Ale whipped cream

Emigh Ranch lamb slow-poached in olive oil & cooked over direct fire, with Swiss chard leaves & stems in garum (fermented fish sauce) and rosemary

Superb: almond milk ice cream dotted with wild bay oil and chocolate crumbs

Passion fruit-white chocolate baba topped with honeycomb, in shiso sauce

 

Finish: candied raspberries

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Sep
01
2012

The Latest

An array of Nick Balla’s artful smorrebrod at Bar Tartine during new daytime hours

SANDWICH-ing in the MISSION

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Two unusual, new Mission sandwich options: one of the city’s best restaurants launches lunch with Scandinavian influence (part of the Nordic culinary wave finally reaching the West Coast), and a low-key panini shop opens, refreshingly real with Middle Eastern touches.

BAR TARTINE, Mission (561 Valencia St. between 16th & 17th Sts., 415-487-1600)

Bar Tartine chef Nick Balla talks smorrebrod at SF Chefs’ Scandinavian/Eastern European cooking demo in early August

Nick Balla’s forward-thinking, Eastern European cuisine at Bar Tartine is some of the most exciting food in the city right now so new daytime hours (Wed.-Sun., 10:30am-2:30pm) are a gain. Smørrebrød is Danish for “bread and butter” – these open-faced sandwiches (1 for $6; 3 for $15) lead the way on the new menu, though heartier sandwiches are on offer, too, such as beef tongue ($12) generously laden with sauerkraut, onion and that Hungarian staple, paprika, or on the vegetarian side, slab bread filled with lentil croquettes, yogurt, cucumber, padron peppers.

On rustic rye bread, smørrebrød toppings evolve – I find two enough, three for those with a bigger appetite. My favorite is bacon, egg, avocado, dill and roasted tomato in a blue cheese sauce blessedly garlic-heavy, garlic happily present in my mouth for the rest of the day. Creamy chicken liver pate is a gourmand’s option, although such a generous scoop of pate overwhelms accompanying apricot jam. Another toast is topped with smoked eggplant, white beans, olive, roasted tomato, while a sweeter side is expressed in hazelnut butter and rhubarb compote.

Humble, urban charm of the new Hot Press

They’re calling it a sandwich counter and you can certainly take out, but Bar Tartine’s rustic tables and expanded space welcome, ideal for lingering with Four Barrel coffee and that divine Hungarian fried bread, langos ($9), you’ve heard me talk about often – it is on the lunch menu, thank God. Now it’s amped up with toppings like lamb, horseradish cream, summer squash and tomato, or blackberries, peaches and cream. Langos with fried egg, hollandaise and bacon is a breakfast dish of my dreams.

In the spirit of meggyleves, Balla’s Hungarian sour cherry soup that wowed me last summer, there’s chilled apricot soup ($9), not as sweet as suspected, smoked almonds and sour cream adding texture to the savory/fruity broth. Jars of pickled treats line the walls, available in the menu’s snacks section (pickled curried green beans!), refreshing contrasted with a kefir-ginger-strawberry shake ($5). During the launch week of Bar Tartine’s lunch, I noticed the place packed with food writers, sommeliers, and industry folk eating artistic slabs of Eastern European/Scandinavian-influenced eats, already confirming it as a smørrebrød/daytime destination.

HOT PRESS, Mission (2966 Mission St. between 25th & 26th Sts., 415-814-3814)

Middle Eastern influence in Hot Press’ Dream Cream

With a friendly Middle Eastern welcome, the guys at the new Hot Press welcome customers into their humble Mission shop for panini, Caffe Trieste coffee, and Three Twins ice cream by the scoop, waffle cone or sundae. While American sandwiches, like their pastrami loaded Staten Island ($7.75) with Emmentaler cheese, house Dijonaise, cabbage slaw and sliced pickles, it’s Middle Eastern/Lebanese touches and vegetarian offerings that skew unusual. Dream Cream ($6.50) is soft-yet-crusty ciabatta bread slathered in light cream cheese, sauteed peppers, caramelized walnuts and cucumbers, Za’atar spices perking up the mild, comforting panini. On a French baguette, another vegetarian sandwich with Middle Easter leanings is Ayia Napa ($6.99), likewise comforting with melted halloumi (a traditional Cypriot cheese from the island of Cyprus), mint leaves, tomatoes and a douse of olive oil. Pollo de la Mission ($7.75) is a neighborhood tribute of free range chicken on ciabatta in creamy chipotle sauce, pressed with peppers, grilled onions, Colby Jack cheese and corn.

Staten Island: pastrami as panini

Sides ($2.25 1/2 pint; $4.25 pint) range from coleslaw to a salad of spinach leaves, goat cheese and strawberries, while three bean salad – cannellini, kidney and garbanzo beans tossed with onion, parsley, lemon, olive oil – comes in mini-tasting cups with each sandwich. Local ingredients go beyond ice cream and coffee to sandwich bread from Bordenave’s in San Rafael, with neighborhood goodwill in the form of a kids menu and dessert sandwiches like Peanut Butter & Better ($4.99): creamy or crunchy PB, sliced bananas, lavender honey or grape jelly.

The space is non-descript in a refreshing way, with sidewalk seating and Middle Eastern music videos playing on a flat screen. Thankfully, not every new opening in the Mission is a hipster, trendy affair.

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Aug
15
2012

The Latest

Lobster skagen with horseradish, avocado, chili

At PLAJ with SCANDINAVIAN CUISINE

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

PLÄJ, Civic Center (333 Fulton St. between Franklin & Gough, 415-294-8925)

Back room dining table accented with bright orange

The world has become hooked on New Nordic cuisine in recent years, thanks to Copenhagen’s Noma, named World’s #1 Best Restaurant for three years straight, sparking a global interest in all things Scandinavian and a new generation of chefs. Before this renaissance, I dined at Aquavit in New York City, when Marcus Samuelsson was still chef, reveling in clean dishes and aquavit shots infused with horseradish or dill, wishing to see more of this cuisine. As a fan of pickled herring, cured fish and the like, I’ve long been drawn to Germanic and Eastern European cuisines, so loving Scandinavian was a given. I dream of trips to the region (I haven’t been though I’ve traveled Europe extensively), eating lutefisk (air-dried whitefish), breathing in crisp air during long hours of Summer daylight.

Beetroot, Jerusalem artichoke, watercress, hazelnuts, Västerbotten cheese, black truffles

Finally, Pläj (pronounced “play”) opened in SF in June, within sight of City Hall, tucked in the back of Inn at the Opera. I dined opening week, returning multiple times since. Granted, this is an early take as the newborn restaurant needs time to come into its own. Yes, it’s a hotel dining room, but accents of bright orange and fireside seating warm it up, though off-putting smooth jazz or clubby Euro tunes alter the mood. However, the space is blessedly peaceful, service warmly welcoming, staff attentive and gracious.

Rustic bread arrives in paper bag

Pläj isn’t so much New Nordic or minimalist food evoking Scandinavian style (there is much activity around defining New Nordic – case in point, cuisine guidelines from the Nordic Council of Ministers), but is more reminiscent of NY’s Aquavit: traditional dishes freshly interpreted regionally… Scandinavia by way of Northern California. Chef/owner Roberth Sundell hails from Stockholm but has been in the Bay Area long enough to be well-acquainted with local ingredients, put to use in Nordic-influenced dishes.

Norwegian beer & cocktails

Working my way through every dish on the initial menu, I was happiest in the Fjord/seafood section as it highlights what is best about Scandinavian cooking. A creative Taste of Herring trio ($12) is herring in ginger-smoked soy, saffron tomato, and coriander-chile-lime, on rye crackers (rustic bread also arrives at the table in a paper bag). Krondill (crown dill) poached lobster is the seafood of choice for Sundell’s skagen, typically an open-face toast topped with a mixture often including poached shrimp, mayo, caviar. Beautifully reinterpreted here, lobster swims in a lobster foam akin to bisque, with horseradish, avocado, and a hint of chili, accented by white fish caviar.

Fireside seating

Norwegian salmon belly gravlax ($9) is buttery, thin slices of cured salmon over lemon crème fraîche, spicy grain mustard and dill purée. Only Alaskan halibut ($21) felt closer to typical: fish seared in herbs, partnered with shaved asparagus in chanterelle emulsion. Similarly, in a traditional meat and veg entree vein, is tender, porter-braised ox cheek ($22) topped with a mountain of fried onions. Other than the vibrant red, whipped beetroot the ox rests atop, it’s well-executed, if not particularly memorable. I’d go for traditional, comforting Swedish meatballs ($15), juicy in pan gravy over mashed potatoes, with lingonberries and pickled cucumber adding the much-desired contrast of sweet and vinegar.

Porter-braised ox cheek over whipped beetroot

On the Hagen (“pasture”) or vegetarian section of the menu, burrata ($12) always pleases but presentation is similar to countless burrata plates everywhere with Heirloom tomato and greens (beets, though a more obvious cuisine fit, is likewise overdone with burrata). Barely-there aquavit in the vinaigrette could have set it apart if kicked up a few intensity levels. I found a subtle smearing of beetroot under a salad ($14) piled with Jerusalem artichoke, watercress, hazelnuts, and thinly-shaved layers of Västerbotten (Swedish) cheese and black summer truffles more interesting. As is potato dumpling kumla ($12), dense and doughy dumplings in brown butter sauce, savory with onion ragout and, once again, lingonberries.

The check arrives in a Norwegian phrase book

Desserts ($8) are certainly pleasing, particularly a rhubarb crumble pie, though none left a major impression, while cocktails ($11) thankfully utilize Scandinavian spirits like vodka and genever (Dutch gin, often aged in wood so as akin to whiskey as gin). Spirit-cocktail aficionados may notice a leaning toward sweeter, subtle, light cocktails, craving more depth. The Midsommar is promising, however: Pernod absinthe delivers herbaceous notes to Flor de Cana light rum, lime and dill simple syrup – a garden fresh, light sipper, it’s a fine companion to seafood. An all Scandinavian beer list is a spot-on direction, with pours like HaandBryggeriet Norwegian Harvest Ale ($14) or cheaper, refreshing Einstock Icelandic white and pale ales ($6 each).

Norwegian salmon belly gravlax

Pläj is a welcome newcomer to the SF dining scene – one I hope thrives as it dares to bring what we lack. What a delight it would be to form a “best of” list of Scandinavian eateries here, as we can with so many cuisines. Thanks to Pläj for introducing more to the joys of Nordic cuisine.

Sashimi of white fish with pickled onion, ginger, crispy shallots, hot dill oil

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Apr
15
2012

The Latest

GOURMET CHEAP EATS

Photos & article by Virginia Miller

The Galley sandwiches

Trekking around the Bay for what is not at all elusive – excellent food – is ever a pleasure. Finding it on the cheap? Options are endless. Sandwiches stand as one of the easiest ways to fill up for less, making the continued glut of sandwich openings unsurprising (check out the Richmond’s new Chomp n’ Swig – hard to top their Bacon Butter Crunch sandwich: white cheddar, tomato, bits of bacon, and guacamole; or in the Mission, the Galley inside Clooney’s Pub serves a meaty French Onion Sandwich – yes, like the soup and oh, so good). Beyond merely sandwiches, these affordable new (and one not so new) bites delight.

Inside airy, open Market & Rye

MARKET & RYE, West Portal (68 West Portal Avenue, between Ulloa & Vicente, 415-564-5950)

West Portal is lucky to claim new Market & Rye from Top Chef alum Ryan Scott. What could be just another sandwich shop is instead an airy, high-ceilinged cafe in yellows and whites under skylights.

Salted rye bread is made specifically for them by North Beach’s classic Italian French Baking Company (they also use IFBC’s sourdough and wheat breads).

Chicken meatball Reuben

Sandwiches ($8.50-$9) offer enough playful touches to keep them unique, like funyuns on roast beef or Cool Ranch Doritos adding crunch to chicken salad layered with avocado spread and Pepper Jack. Messy and falling out all over the place, I nonetheless took to the Reuben chicken meatball sandwich on salted rye. It helps that I’m nuts about Reubens, overflowing with 1000 Island dressing, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and in this case, red cabbage caraway slaw and house chicken meatballs. I almost didn’t miss the corned beef.

Fresh salad sides

Build-Your-Own-Salads offer healthy alternatives, while above average sides ($4 per scoop, $7.50 2 scoops, $10.50 3 scoops) are generous helpings of the likes of roasted zucchini tossed with cherry tomatoes, boccaccini (mini mozzarella balls), enlivened by mint vinaigrette. The side that didn’t work for me was grilled broccoli. It appeared green and verdant, dotted with ricotta and walnuts in red wine dressing, but was so cold, flavor was stunted.

House made root beer float twinkies ($3.50) are a fun finish, though twinkie-lovers be aware: these are dense, dark cakes filled with a dreamy root beer float cream, not fluffy sponge cakes. Kudos for full-on root beer flavor.

ALL GOOD PIZZA, Bayview (1605 Jerrold Ave. at 3rd, 415-846-6960)

Spicy Louisiana sausage pizza

A jaunt to Jerrold and 3rd Street leads to a food truck parked in a surprising Bayview oasis: a gated parking lot filled with picnic tables, potted cacti, and herbs used for cooking. All Good Pizza (open weekdays only: 10am-2pm) just launched this month from neighborhood locals desiring healthy food and “good, sincere pizza”, with a real commitment to the area (check out their community page).

Nola Muffaletta sandwich

The lot invites lingering over cracker-thin pizzas (a steal at $7), from a basic Margherita to a spicy pie dotted with peppers, fennel, mozzarella, and Louisiana hot links smoked on site. Their trailer houses a 650 degree gas-fired oven in which they cook pizzas. These aren’t game-changing pies but there’s nothing like it in the ‘hood – nor are there many healthy salads, like a kale, radicchio, sweet potato crisps, Parmesan, balsamic reserva combo. There’s panini sandwiches ($7) such as a pig-heavy, super salty Nola Muffaletta: Genoa salami, smoked ham, olive salad, fior di latte mozzarella and provolone cheese.

Italian sodas ($2.50) are all made on premises, like a candy sweet coconut soda evoking coconut oil, beaches and vacation. All this in a Bayview parking lot.

ANDA PIROSHKI, Bernal Heights (331 Cortland Ave. at Bennington, 415-271-9055)

Hot Piroshki sign signals fresh-out-of-the-oven

A close childhood pal is Russian and her mother and grandmother often home-baked us unforgettable Russian treats as kids, from blintzes to piroshkis, those little baked buns stuffed with goodness. I still dream of them – a rarity in this town. Not even in Chicago or NY have I tasted piroshkis as fresh as Anda Piroshki, a stall in the tiny but idyllic 331 Cortland marketplace housing a few take-out food purveyors. I’ve eaten Anda at SF Street Food Fest, but the ideal is to arrive at 331 soon after it opens when piroshkis are pulled from the oven piping hot.

Smoked salmon piroshkis

The dough is airy yet dense, ever-so-subtly sweet, like a glorified Hawaiian roll. They don’t skimp on fillings, in fact, one piroshki ($3.75-$4.50) fills me up. Sustainable meats and local ingredients make them relatively guilt-free. Try a button mushroom piroshki overflowing with fresh spinach, or one of ground beef, rice and Swiss, oozing comfort. My favorite is Atlantic smoked salmon and cream cheese accented by black pepper and dill. It makes a savory, creamy breakfast.

The one downside has been a straight-faced, disinterested server who could not be bothered as I asked a question about Russian sodas (like Kvass, a fermented rye soda – pleasing rye notes if too saccharine) and acted the same when I returned a second time… a stark contrast to the friendliness I encounter at every other 331 business. But momentary coldness is still worth those piroshkis.

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Apr
01
2012

Top Tastes

Txoko’s inviting bar

Improving with Age:
Two Restaurants on the Rise

Photos & article by Virginia Miller

Age is good thing: for wine, whiskey, cheese, wisdom and sense of self, to name a few. Age deepens, fills out, matures, makes whole. In the scheme of things, these two restaurants are youngsters – one could hardly call them “aged”, though Bar Tartine has thrived an impressive number of years since opening in 2005. Txoko is the new kid on the block, taking over a historical space (Enrico’s) just under a year ago. One thing they both have in common is that over the past year, with age, they’ve steadily improved – what was last year at times exceptional is now more consistently so.

BAR TARTINE, Mission (8561 Valencia Street between 16th & 17th, 415-487-1600)

Tray of pickled jars

Bar Tartine has long been a notable restaurant. What it has become is exciting. Last year I wrote of new chef Nick Balla, fresh from Nombe, who launched a Hungarian-influenced menu acknowledging his roots. While the food remains comforting, you won’t see the usual gourmet dishes found across town. Eastern European touches render the food unique, staunchly non-traditional yet exuding down home goodness.

Crave-inducing beet salad

Tripe strikes fear in the hearts of many – I don’t mind it, but only at Oliveto’s 2010 Whole Hog dinner had I found it delicious. Balla’s grilled tripe ($12) stands as the best tripe dish I’ve ever tasted. Silky (not slimy) strips of tripe fill a bowl aromatically entwined with fennel, cabbage and paprika. Beets, an ingredient we’re inundated with in recent years, are electrifying in an Ensalada Rusa ($12) with celery root, dill, chili, peppercress, and plenty of lime. This invigorating expression is stands above the best beet dishes. Another all too common vegetable, brussels sprouts ($7), are fried but instead of being tossed with the usual bacon or apples, are mixed with carrot, mint, anise and serrano chilis. Heat and mint infuse them with fresh life.

Farmer’s cheese dumplings

An entree winner is Hungarian farmer’s cheese dumplings, nokedli ($17). Sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) and wild onion meld with doughy, slightly cheesy, dumplings – sheer comfort. A beloved German dish of mine is pickled herring ($10). Here it is brightly fresh, shrouded in sour cream and onion, served with Tartine’s rye bread.

Puffy, fried Hungarian potato bread, langos ($10), remains the must-order menu item every visit, drizzled in sour cream and dill, it is blissfully garlicky. Not since my travels through the Hungarian countryside have I seen this addictive bread. Mini-jars of pickled vegetables ($4 per jar) are popular menu items – I like pickled tumeric cauliflower and carrot best. Here’s hoping when cherry season hits, we’ll witness the return of Balla’s fantastic version of Hungarian chilled sour cherry soup, meggyleves.

Bright pickled herring

The wine list persists in quality, a recent example being a contrast of two rieslings: a dry, elegant, German 2009 Keller Von der Fels Trocken Riesling ($52 bottle) alongside a lively, unusual but refined, Santa Barbara 2008 Tatomer Vandenberg Riesling ($59 bottle). The wine list is expertly selected, as these two beauties suggest.

After nearly a year since Balla joined Bar Tartine, with the expanded, invitingly glowing space, I’d list Bar Tartine as a personal favorite and one of the best in town.

View from a green leather chair at Txoko

TXOKO, North Beach (504 Broadway at Kearny, 415-500-2744)

Whimsical animal wall paintings

With so little Basque cuisine in our city, I was delighted when Txoko (pronounced “choko”) opened in the spacious, former Enrico’s, promising Basque influence. Lots of small plates and just a few larger ones appealed with an opportunity to try more. Early visits last year yielded delectable small bites, while I found larger plates less exciting. When the menu recently changed to a more traditional appetizer/entree format, I feared it would lose its uniqueness. Pleased I’ve been in recent returns to find Txoko rounded out, entrees keeping pace with starters. I do sense the Basque influence is looser than it was before, however, and would rather not see that aspect fade.

I am welcomed by the roomy space with covered patio in front, green leather chairs, animal painting on the walls, and a wood-lined bar.

Txoko cocktails

Txoko’s Wednesday night, 4 course foie gras dinners ($55 + $35 wine pairing) are arguably the best way to ride out the remaining months until June when the foie gras ban takes effect in California (read Txoko owner, Ryan Maxey’s eloquent piece on this issue). The menu varies each week though typically finishes with buttery foie gras ice cream. One week I savored silky foie gras torchon on a flaky puff pastry, in a lavender golden raisin sauce redolent with thyme. My main was a gorgeous foie gras a la plancha (grilled), savory and meaty on a mound of beluga lentils, mirepoix, and chorizo, surrounded by strips of duck jamon, topped with crispy chicharrones. A “lighter” foie dish was seared rare ahi tuna lush in Pedro Ximenez sherry sauce, with slices of foie and caramelized pearl onions standing in a potato coulis.

Foie gras a la plancha on lentils

On the regular menu, two dishes left an impression. Warm lamb’s tongue salad ($11) is a surprisingly light salad of lamb mixed with poached potatoes, Manchego cheese, shishito peppers and frisee, surrounded by smoked tomatoes. Different and delightful. A heartwarming dish of grilled venison Denver leg ($29) is served medium rare, draped over mashed yams, in blood orange endive marmelata, dotted with crispy sage leaves and pine nuts. Each dish is artfully presented and generously portioned.

Grilled venison leg

Drink options are vibrantly varied, with choices like a bone dry 2009 Isastegi Basque cider ($6) and wines such as an earthy, plum and berry-inflected 2001 Senorio de P. Pecina Reserva Rioja. Txoko has a full bar with commendable cocktails ($10), like tart-sweet, sparkling Dominican 75, a twist on the classic French 75 with Brugal Extra Viejo rum, lime, simple syrup, and Mont Marcal cava, or a playful, refreshing Cool Hand Luke Fizz utilizing Fighting Cock bourbon, Peychaud’s bitters, egg whites for froth, vivacious with Mexican Coke.

Light warm lamb’s tongue salad

Finishing the evening with moist, Spanish-style bread pudding ($8) is a pleasure, sweetened by prunes, olive caramel and candied marcona almonds, happily paired with a nutty, acidic, sweet Sangre y Trabajadero Oloroso Sherry($7 glass).

I’m expectant to see how Txoko will continue to evolve, a refreshing change of pace in North Beach, and, indeed, the city.

Cozy but roomy corner booth

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Aug
01
2011

Top Tastes

Bottle Cap in the former Washbag space in North Beach

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.

I’ve been eating steady, as usual, from a pleasant, if not notable, Vietnamese meal at My Father’s Kitchen, to trying out brand new trucks (and revisiting favorites) at Off the Grid Upper Haight AND Fort Mason (I find new LA import Nom Nom a bit overrated). I did try the Korean/Japanese place, Ahn Sushi & Soju, mentioned in my last Top Tastes – it was as uneven as I expected.

Eastern Europe Rising

BAR TARTINE, Mission (8561 Valencia Street between 16th & 17th, 415-487-1600)

Meggyleves, sour cherry soup

Nick Balla does it again. As a guy with Hungarian roots, he rocked Japanese food when he was chef at Nombe with delicate artistry gleaned from his travels in Japan. Now he does an about-face at Bar Tartine, keeping their rustic gourmet tradition, but infusing the menu with Eastern European flavors.

Not only do I delight in less-overdone cuisines, but particularly at such an imaginative hand. He’s going a new direction with Eastern European food, one that is visionary yet stays true to humble roots.

Grated Buckwheat Egg Dumplings

I tried not to loudly broadcast my excitement after tasting Meggyleves, his version of a Hungarian chilled sour cherry soup ($9 – I retain vivid memories of attempting this type of soup many years ago – it was delicious but involved exploding cherries from the blender all over my kitchen). Balla’s soup is subtly sweet, sour, earthy, a dollop of sour cream deepening the creamy texture. One spoonful and you know you’re in for a (blessedly) different kind of meal.

Bar Tartine's expanded space

When a puffy slab of Langos ($10) arrived (fried potato bread lathered in sour cream, doused with garlic, onion, dill), I was immediately transported back to 1999 eating a similar bread in the Hungarian countryside at a  festival. It’s so satisfying, one could fill up on this and leave happy.

Cucumber Mizuna Salad ($6) includes a big dollop of herring roe ‘sauce’.  It’s more like a fishy cream, tasting fully of herring. Mini-pickle jars work as palate-cleansers ($4 each) with choice of shredded chile cabbage (reminiscent of kimchi), green cherry tomatoes, carrot/cauliflower/tumeric, or cucumber/dill. Grated Buckwheat Egg Dumplings ($6) evoke a puffier, lighter spaetzle, buttery and in a much bigger portion than expected for a side.

Blood Sausage over duck roll & sauerkraut

Grilled Fennel Sausage ($18) with bread dumplings, pluots and sour cream is a true beauty of sweet/savory dimensions. Likewise the Kapusnica, a giant Blood Sausage ($22) that  fallsapart at the touch of a knife. It’s different than blood sausages I devoured in Ireland. – an elevated, gourmet version, redolent of Fall and cinnamon as all good blood sausages are. The sausage rests over a duck-filled cabbage roll, sauerkraut, tart dried cherries, hen of the woods mushrooms… plenty big enough for two.

Warm, salty Langos bread

Desserts (all $7.50) convey a savory side with ingredients like beets (Beet & Carrot Cake with goat cheese ice cream) or caraway, but aren’t unrecognizable as sweets. I like Sour Cream Custard with lemon curd, poppyseed, and a cherry/oat/walnut crumble.

Take note: Balla is one of our city’s most innovative and visionary chefs. He’s transformed Bar Tartine, an already strong restaurant, into something truly unique and stand-out. I can’t wait to see where he’s headed.

New North Beach Duo + Pizzas

LE BORDEAUX, North Beach (524 Union Street at Bannam Place, 415-529-1674)

Le Bordeaux's peaceful space on a North Beach alley

Le Bordeaux holds subtle surprises. It’s ultra-traditional French bistro fare. And French staff are light on the English. You can expect dishes like steak frites (but with thick, Belgian-style fries instead of light, crispy French frites?) and duck confit… a curve-ball is thrown with meat fondue.

Sweet & Savory: Boudin Sausage over grilled apples

But there are a few things to set it apart from other classic French bistros. Wood slabs line the front room walls, and an all wood bar and back room evokes a rustic country lodge. With big picture windows on a quiet alley corner, it’s a mix of European city bistro and country getaway.

Espresso finish at Le Bordeaux

There’s no liquor at this point, but an Elderflower Presse ($4) refreshes next to rich French food. I was pleased to see an appetizer of Fried Camembert ($12) with grilled onions and garlic on toast. I adore fried, warm Camembert, but don’t see it on menus enough.

The highlight was a Boudin Blanc entree ($18 – that light, gentle white sausage I love so), atop a mound of caramelized apples and crumbled speculoos, a graham cracker-like cookie/biscuit. It was savory, sweet: like dessert… with sausage.

BOTTLE CAP, North Beach (1707 Powell Street at Union, 415-529-2237)

Grilled Nectarines over goat cheese cream

In what was the former North Beach classic, Washington Square Bar & Grill (aka Washbag), Bottle Cap recently moved in. A comfortable, airy space, its hardwood floors and light-colored walls impart a farmhouse spirit to the comfortable, airy dining room.

Early visits show promise as ingredients are farm-fresh and staff aim to please. Though I find a Negroni without a bitter (whether Campari or Gran Classico) is not really a Negroni (they make theirs with pürspirits‘ spiced Blood Orange liqueur), I appreciate that they go for classic cocktails with a fresh twist, even if not all of it shines.

Heirloom Tomato Salad

Their food menu is straightforward American, showcasing California produce. An Heirloom Tomato Salad ($10) is as fresh as it should be with bits of crispy pork belly, house-toasted croutons and a light buttermilk drizzle. Try not to love the simplicity of a Grilled Nectarine ($8) over a delicate goat cheese cream. Or the comfort of a Grilled Cheese Sandwich ($9) on rustic bread with savory tomato soup to dip it in.

It may not blow one away, but Bottle Cap comforted me. Open daily, I find for a mid-day respite, it remains (as it was as Washbag) a neighborhood staple offering simple, well-prepared American food.

TONY’S, North Beach (1570 Stockton Street at Union, 415-835-9888)

Fear & Loathing Pizza

I recently (and happily) returned to my favorite Tony’s Pizza Napoletana to try some new-ish pizzas, grouped under the “California Style” section. I was disappointed in the Pastrami Pizza ($19), inspired by my beloved pastrami sandwich. With coleslaw instead of sauerkraut, the meat was dry, the pie a bit bland, not coming close to the fabulous pastrami pizza Orson did a couple years ago (please bring it back, Orson!)

Pastrami Pizza

What worked was their new Fear & Loathing ($19): slow-cooked pork is shredded over the pie, dotted with serrano and habanero peppers, tomatoes, queso fresco, and cactus, drizzled with lime and salsa. Instead of being a ‘hot mess’, there’s just a touch of each element, weaving into a spicy, savory whole.

When in doubt, however, Tony’s Cal Italia and simple, beautiful Jersey Tomato Pie always win.

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