Feb
15
2014

Around the Bay

Views from the new Luna Blu in Tiburon

Views from the new Luna Blu in Tiburon

WHERE to EAT NOW: MARIN

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

M.H. Bread & Butter

M.H. Bread & Butter

Suburbs, nature, charming main streets… family-heavy Marin has always had a few culinary gems. But a spare few of them though sandwiched between one of the great food cities of the world and the gustatory pleasures of Napa and Sonoma.

Bakeries like Beth’s Community Kitchen in Mill Valley are reminiscent of San Francisco bakeries (what is now standard Bay Area), while San Rafael’s Ponsford’s Place is a bread and pastry lover’s destination. Just open since June 2013, M.H. Bread & Butter in San Anselmo is the latest and greatest in Marin bakeries, doing classics like quiche and almond croissants right, alongside cookies, traditional French cakes and breads.

New openings and new chefs continue to pop up, some – like those below – worth crossing the bridge for.

Sausalito

SUSHI RAN, 107 Caledonia St, Sausalito, 415-332-3620

Coconut soup

Coconut soup

Amid relative newcomers like Pizzeria Rossetti and Barrel House Tavern, the longtime great Sausalito restaurant, Sushi Ran, recently promoted executive sushi chef Takatoshi Toshi to master chef alongside Executive Chef Scott Whitman. Mitsunori “Nori” Kusakabe, sushi chef since 2004, left in December to open a kaiseki restaurant, Kusakabe, in SF’s Financial District in the former Machka space.

While I am thrilled to see Kusakabe come to the city, I’m delighted to say, having recently returned to Sushi Ran – one of my all-time top sushi restaurants – that it’s still shining with Chefs Whitman and Toshi, under the same ownership of Yoshi Tome.

Vegetable tasting

Vegetable tasting

Ten piece sashimi platters ($32.50) or six piece sushi ($19.50) are sustainable “when possible” and pristine. Rolls/maki are not an afterthought, whether an elevated creamy scallop roll ($10.50) or the crisp of a spicy soft shell crawfish maki ($13.50), enhanced by cucumber, Japanese 7-spice, spicy crab and crawfish legs dramatically kicking out of the top.

Squid

Grilled squid

Non-sushi items are just as much a highlight as raw fish. A cup of corn coconut soup ($4/8), lush with red crab, chive and truffle, goes down like silk. In fine winter form, Fuyu persimmons ($9) are a sweet contrast over crisp kale, marcona almonds, shaved radish, and creamy hunks of Point Reyes Toma cheese.

Wagyu beef carpaccio in wasabi oil

Wagyu beef carpaccio in wasabi oil

Grilled squid ($13) is a bit of revelation, served in a form I haven’t not seen before. A fat tentacle is cut in segments, standing tall like a tower, topped with a grilled sliver of lemon, surrounded by mounds of smoked citrus sabayon (an egg yolk sauce) dusted with pepper powder. This dish stands out, but surprisingly, so do vegetables (generally $7). A vegetable tasting ($12) is the best way to try three of them at once: spiced roasted cauliflower, kale tossed with dates and puffed rice, and kimchee brussels sprouts. Each is spanking fresh, alive with flavor. This is the way to eat your veggies.

Sush Ran’s sake book is extensive and impressive with helpful tasting notes and categorizations. Try unusual beauties like the uniquely funky Amabuki Sunflower by Amabuki Shuzo made with sunflower yeast. Or there’s a dry, clean, almost spring mountain water-esque junmai sake, Man’s Mountain by Oto Koyama. To finish, I love the umami richness of Kiminoi “Emperor’s Well” yamahai junmai ginjo sake.

Sushi Ran's crawfish maki

Sushi Ran’s crawfish maki

F3, 39 Caledonia St. Sausalito, 415-887-9047

Mousse

Chicken liver mousse

Even if the food at Le Garage Bistro never blew me away, the open air patio and water views always felt quintessential Sausalito. From the same owners as Le Garage and L’Appart Resto, Fast Food Francais, aka F3, may be the most realized of the three in terms of the food. It may be “just” a burger restaurant but with additional dishes showcasing French cooking technique, Vespa delivery to locals, friendly service, and solid wine list in a casual space that formerly housed Plate Shop, it’s fast become a town favorite that comforts without sacrificing quality.

Flinstone burger

Flinstone burger

The burger list ($9-14) is certainly a draw, particularly with the likes of the Flinstone, a juicy, bacon aioli and shallot confit-smothered burger, decadently partnered with bone marrow. It’s ideal smeared across the bun. Crispy, shredded duck confit makes up the Quack burger, perky with black pepper chèvre cheese and red onion marmalade.

F3 Cocktails

F3 Cocktails

The Herbivore actually keeps up with those two on its own terms: a flavor-rich patty of French lentils and jasmine rice, subtly spiced with ras el hanout (North African spice mix), marked by yogurt, apple compote and frisée.

All beef used is organic grass fed, lamb is natural in the lamb burger, and a mountain of Brussels sprout chips ($6) dipped in buttermilk are as gratifying as the better versions of fried Brussels leaves elsewhere over the years.

Cocktails are soft and catered towards a suburban crowd with toned-down or thankfully subtle fruit flavors. There’s a range of local and French wines to choose from and a few French-ified starters and small plates like a lush chicken liver mousse ($10) over rustic bread, happily given contrast from sweet golden raisins, pickled red onions and cornichons.

Celebrating it’s one year anniversary this Valentine’s Day, this could be the place to last in a space that has seen a lot of turnover.

LUNA BLU, 35 Main St., Tiburon, 415-789-5844

Outside on Luna Blu's deck

Outside on Luna Blu’s deck

Open barely a month, Luna Blu is not so much about the food as about that stellar Tiburon view over boats and docks, across the Bay to San Francisco. Thankfully, the food isn’t cause for suffering as some unnamed Tiburon restaurants can be. It’s straightforward Italian with “red sauce” dishes like Eggplant Parmigiana ($16) given a “healthy” touch from a smattering of crisp, green peas, or ravioli ($18) filled with pear, decadent in Asiago cheese and walnut cream sauce.

Eggplant parm

Eggplant parm

Though I long for more authentic Sicilian dishes from Taormina-born chef Renzo Azzarello, the warm welcome exuded by Chef Azzarello and his wife, Crystal (from Oxford, England), makes an impression. The two of them came to and fell in love with Tiburon on their honeymoon. They’re back, putting down roots with their own restaurant set to stellar, only-in-the-Bay-Area views.

Dec
01
2013

The Latest

Cicchetti hour at Pesce

Cicchetti hour at Pesce

Venetian Escape in the Castro

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Pesce's spacious new setting

Pesce’s spacious new setting

Whenever I visited the intimate, humble Pesce on Polk Street over the past decade plus, I was consistently impressed with the impeccable seafood and Venetian focus. It evoked an escape to Venice, Italy (minus the unmatchable, magical setting), for its blessed ritual of snacking: cicchétti, or hot and cold bites preferably taken with drink.

Having just returned to Venice for a third time this October, the food at the expansive, new Pesce on Market Street (opened in August) is stronger than most meals I’ve ever had in Venice. Being the only Italian city I’ve been to where meals are generally subpar (I’ve traveled throughout Italy in four visits over the past 12 years), Pesce re-imagines Venetian food with California sensibilities.

Bigoli

Bigoli pasta

The result is a better-than-ever restaurant with expanded menu, cocktails added to the already strong, Italian-centric wine list, and an inviting, spacious dining room exuding an openness the original restaurant did not quite possess.

I am most drawn to Pesce’s long bar. Pulling up a stool at the elegant marble countertop presents a European ethos, whether snacking on cicchétti or indulging in a full meal. It’s a comfortable perch from which to dine solo or with a friend, to eat a little or a lot, and to leave satiated.

Pizzette

Pizzette

Using all sustainable seafood, it’s no surprise that seafood is a strength here… as are pastas. Late afternoon/early evening cicchétti hour ($2.50-3 per bite) is a pleasure with a glass of Sardinian Vermentino or Lagrein from Italy’s Alto Adige region accompanied by the salty pleasures of cured fish roe (bottarga) in the form of a polenta fritter, or fried arancini balls oozing mozzarella from saffron-inflected rice.

Hamachi crudo

Hamachi crudo

When ordering small plates, besides typically going for the most unusual dishes if applicable (and it is not here), I also consider range and variety (here, Pesce has plenty to offer). At Pesce, that may mean silky-raw hamachi crudo ($13) delicately accented by citrus olive oil, pink peppercorns and micro greens, or the tender crisp of green beans (fagiolini, $6) enlivened with garlic and red bell pepper.

Pizzette ($7-8), or mini-pizzas, are strong. Bubbling crust and quality ingredients speak to traditional Neopolitan pizza stylings, particularly in the case of a pizzette exuding subtle heat from Calabrese chiles in a pool of savory-sweet tomato sauce, punctuated by capocollo, paper-thin Italian pork salume.

Gamberoni

Gamberoni

Pastas are even better. Sleek, wide pappardelle pasta ($13) is meaty with braised duck, the tomato sauce imparted with porcini earthiness. Whispers of the sea come forth in a tuna Bolognese sauce over wheat bigoli noodles ($14), invigorated with Calabrese chili, a decorative chili plunked in the middle of the mountain of pasta. One of my favorite dishes from all visits was when they first opened but is not currently on the menu, being a seasonal summer dish: a side of crisp, white corn ($6), ultra-smoky and meaty with bacon.

Cocktails at Pesce's bar

Cocktails at Pesce’s bar

Cocktails ($10) aren’t exceptional so much as gratifying, a fine alternative to wine or beer, with some local spirits prominent behind the bar. One pleasant aperitif or food accompaniment is City Lights, an amaro-heavy sipper of Punt e Mes sweet vermouth and Italian herbal liqueur Strega underscored by autumn spices.

There are other menu highlights, like plump, grilled mint-lime gamberoni (shrimp, $12) in a bowl of farro grain, but it’s the overall experience – one of casual elegance and ease – that leaves an impression. Service, if not exceptionally attentive, is relaxed, encouraging lingering and inspired conversation. Pesce improves upon meals I’ve had in the otherworldly, incredible, but touristy City of Love, Venice.

Written by in: The Latest | Tags:
Jul
01
2013

Around the Bay

Still dreaming of A16 Rockridge's fried pizza with smoked tomato sauce

Still dreaming of A16 Rockridge’s fried pizza with smoked tomato sauce

Get Thee to Oakland for
FRIED PIZZA & AMARO at A16 Rockridge

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

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Seventh Circle cocktail

There’s only a few places in the country where one can find fried Neapolitan pizza, a twist on Italy’s perfect pies. There’s Forcella and La Montanara in NYC, and now A16 Rockridge. Even in Naples, there are few restaurants making this style of pizza. The owners of A16, included Wine Director/Sommelier Shelley Lindgren, fell in love with fried pizza in Naples, wanting to replicate it at their brand new, second location of A16, open merely a month.

The original A16 opened in San Francisco in 2004, well before the Neapolitan pizza craze that hit much of the country in ensuing years. Rockridge is not merely a copycat of the original. Yes, it boasts Lindgren’s impeccable, regional Italian wine selections and authentic pastas and pizzas. But there are two draws the SF original does not have: the aforementioned fried pizza and a full bar, including one of the best amari/Italian herbal liqueur collections in the Bay Area.

Chef's antipasti selection ($14)

Chef’s antipasti selection ($14)

First, the bar, which offers plenty of excellent small batch, craft spirits to choose from. Though not touted as an amaro bar, in the first week of opening, I was immediately impressed with a full shelf of Italian bitter liqueurs, aperitifs and digestifs. There was not a bottle I wasn’t familiar with, but it’s unusual to see the convergence of rare amari (plural for amaro) I find at bars nationwide all in one place. Typically, when I come across such a selection, it’s an amaro-specific bar, like Balena in Chicago or Amor y Amargo in NYC, not merely one aspect of a restaurant bar.

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Monterey anchovy crudo

Amongst the cocktails ($9-11), there are light, aperitif sippers like Amalfitano (limoncello, soda, Amaro CioCiaro, mint) on to boozy beauties like Catch 22 (gin, Cynar, vermouth, orange bitters, olive). I immediately took to the lively Giusto, bracingly elegant with aged grappa, Campari and Punt e Mes vermouth, and to the subtle heat of a lush Seventh Circle, the spice of rye whiskey playing off the bitter of Campari, and the heat of Calabrese chilis balanced by lemon and honey.

Impressive amaro collection

Amari collection

But how can one stick to only cocktails when Lindgren’s wine selection is calling? Explore specific regions of Italy and if you’re lucky enough to be there on a night Lindgren is, ask for her pairing recommendations with each course. Expect unusual, thoughtful pairings. I continue to recall the earthy, fruity sparkle of Cantine Federiciane Lettere Penisola Sorrentina, a frizzante-style red from Campania which Lindgren paired with a couple of my plates.

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Geoduck Cavatelli

Executive Chef Rocky Maselli serves a range of dishes, all happy companions with the wines, like Monterey anchovy crudo ($11), a fresh acqua sale ($11) salad of cherry tomatoes, green melon and sesame-semolina croutons, or silky burrata ($12) with crostini, crumbled pistachio and dragoncello (aka tarragon). An impressive cavatelli ($12/20) of cannellini beans and geoduck sugo has been my favorite dish in initial opening weeks (outside of the fried pizza). Rarely is strange-looking geoduck this buttery and delicious.

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Coffee cocktail for dessert

Then there is fried pizza. The Montanara Rockridge pizza ($17) is only at the Rockridge location and is alone worth trekking across the bridge for. Where a Montanara pie would typically be a straightforward marinara, olive oil, basil proposition, the mozzarella is sometimes smoked and the pizza dough is lightly fried, ending up even more puffy and crispy than the typical Neapolitan pie.  A16 takes it a couple steps further using the creamiest, most expensive mozzarella: burrata; then they smoke the tomato sauce vs. the cheese, adding a fantastic layer of sweet-savory tomato smoke.

It’s hard to write about this pizza without wanting to drop everything and head straight to Oakland for another.

Written by in: Around the Bay | Tags: ,
Jun
15
2013

Around the Bay

Equator Coffee's first cafe in Mill Valley

Equator Coffee’s first cafe in Mill Valley


MARIN TALES: Coffee, Beer, Italian Feasting

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Join me at three Marin stops in coffee, beer and food, including one newcomer as of this week, another that opened in 2010 – now coming into its own, and one classic that remains great for a decade.

EQUATOR COFFEE at PROOF LAB SURF SHOP, 244 Shoreline Hwy, Mill Valley, 415-209-3733

Strada espresso machine

La Marzocco Strada espresso machine

Equator has long been a favorite Bay Area coffee, with 18 years roasting some of NorCal’s finest beans. I awaited their long-rumored cafe that never opened in San Francisco. Their first cafe arrives, opening June 21st in Mill Valley at Proof Lab Surf Shop. I attended a preview with female owners,        Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell (Brooke is also the master roaster), who founded Equator in 1995, roasting in a garage for years, then opening their roasting facility in 2003 in San Rafael.

Long having respect for their ethically-sourced, robust coffee, I gained even more after meeting Helen and Brooke. In a male dominated field, it’s inspiring to see humble-yet-savvy business women with such taste for quality, concern for their world, and a pioneering spirit.

Equator is among the first and the only California-based Certified B Corporations, heavy on environmental sustainability and social responsibility, from bio-friendly farming techniques to health and 401k insurance for all their employees. Growing their own plot (200 seeds) of ultra rare (and expensive) Geisha coffee, sometimes referred to as “God in a cup”, they utilize profits towards meaningful contributions like micro-credit loans, and are a coffee of choice for none other than Thomas Keller at The French Laundry.

Gardens with 100% native California plants

Gardens with 100% native California plants

The light-filled, airy cafe is lined with surfboards. Front and back patios are surrounded by greenery from SF’s Flora Grubb Gardens, in a space designed by Boor Bridges Architecture. Making a statement in Equator’s signature red, the building stands out on a busy Mill Valley road across the street from chains like Starbucks and Subway. Proof Lab is a unique community center of classes and activities for youth alongside shops in an alternative retail model. There’s a surf shop, indoor skate ramp, a garden of 100% native California plants, biodiesel fill-up station, music and art labs, a natural backdrop to the Equator cafe.

Artful salad at Mill Valley Beerworks

Artful salad at Mill Valley Beerworks

Equator is serving high end single-origin coffees and espresso drinks made on a La Marzocco Strada espresso machine. Mochas are made with SF’s TCHO chocolate (notable for its “no slavery” mission and scientific approach to flavor profiles in chocolate). Baked goods are delivered fresh daily from nearby Beth’s Community Kitchen (my favorite bakery in the area), and gluten-free, vegan baked goods from Flour Craft Bakery in San Anselmo.

Here’s hoping this might signify more Equator cafes in the future, including one in SF.

Mill Valley Beerworks brewing in-house

Mill Valley Beerworks brewing in-house

MILL VALLEY BEERWORKS173 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley, 415-888-8218

scone

Boysenberry, pistachio, brown sugar scone

Opened in 2010, Mill Valley Beerworks was one of the only places in Marin one could find a draft beer list reminiscent of the range and quality one can find in the city. As it’s now three years old, the restaurant and small brewery has evolved into the place for beer in Marin. Even if there are better local beers, the beer selection on draft alone is worth a detour for beer geeks, ever rotating with beers from Italy and Belgium to Canada and around the US. The bottle selection takes it even further, while house beers are interesting and varied. Local beers are plentiful, too – one might see something like San Francisco’s Almanac Farmers Reserve No. 3, a sour ale brewed with strawberries and nectarines, on draft.

Open faced salmon sandwich

Open faced salmon sandwich

In a narrow, cozy space of dark woods, pressed tin and communal tables (nevermind the somewhat uncomfortable wood stools), food is also of high caliber. Baked goods arrive on a wood slab (or are available for takeout with coffee up front). A warm boysenberry, pistachio, brown sugar scone ($4) is sheer comfort lathered with apricot jam happily contrasted by salted butter. At lunch/brunch (Friday-Sunday only), an open faced cured salmon sandwich ($13) topped with avocado and pickled red onion drizzled in house Thousand Island dressing, boasts pristine, silky salmon. Feel better about downing beer with artful salads like one of lemon cucumbers and roasted beets accented by pickled carrots, creme fraiche and cilantro sprigs ($13).

Beerworks has come into its own, feeling like an oasis for adults in the midst of family-friendly Mill Valley.

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Veal bolognese spinach lasagne at Poggio

POGGIO, Casa Madrona, 777 Bridgeway, Sausalito, 415-332-7771
Sformantino

Sformatino (savory leek custard)

Opened in 2003, Poggio has been an oasis in touristy-yet-dreamy Sausalito. The coastal town that feels like a (rich) Mediterranean village has more mediocre (or worse) restaurants than it does great ones. But Poggio has remained great in its decade of existence, accomplishing that rarity: retaining chefs for years, in the case of Peter McNee who served authentic Northern Italian dishes here for 7 years.

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Dayboat scallops

Poggio has always felt like an escape to Italy in Sausalito. I have memories of sun-splashed weekends lunching open air on fresh sardines and crisp Alto Adige white wines, contrasted by fog laden evenings wrapped in the warmth of Tony’s Negroni (Tony being the restaurant’s longtime barkeep; a Negroni being Italy’s greatest cocktail, and long a ubiquitous San Francisco favorite) and that sigh-worthy house bread baked in rosemary.

House cured prosciutto

House cured prosciutto

Visiting after new Executive Chef Benjamin Balestri came on board earlier this year confirmed quality remains, thankfully still under the guidance of Proprietor Larry Mindel. Young chef Balestri is a Monterey, CA, native who has cooked in Italy and New York City, and was schooled at the CCA (California Culinary Academy), where I used to work.

One warm Spring night, sformatino, a traditional, savory Italian custard – and a starter I feel compelled to order every time I see it on a menu – was a fluffy mound of leek custard paired with English pea puree, mint and ricotta salata ($10). Capesante dayboat scallops ($14) are salty, smooth and golden lined up over sunchoke puree and miners lettuce, punctuated by pancetta and almonds. Though a tad too heavy on the creamy lemon anchovy dressing, gem lettuces ($10) are lush in dressing, garlic and Parmigiano.

Whole roasted fish, fileted tableside

Whole roasted fish, filleted tableside

As it has been historically, strengths at Poggio remain house cured prosciutto – in March I savored meat cured for 24 months (during McNee’s run), delicately shaved and on a platter with pear, almond, arugula and Parmigiano ($14) – and sometimes blissful pastas, like spinach lasagna ($18), lush with bechamel sauce, Parmesan cheese, and veal bolognese, oozing comfort. Feeling transported back to coastal Italy happens when sharing a whole fish, like a roasted sogliola (petrale sole – $29) filleted tableside and served with a side of lemon-soaked artichoke, sunchoke and almond.

Here’s to another 10 years, Poggio.

Written by in: Around the Bay | Tags: , ,
Feb
13
2013

Top Tastes

Oliveto's brilliant (unusual) fritto misto of scungil (whelk), herring, blood orange, shirako (cod milt/sperm)

REGIONAL JOURNEYS in Spain and Italy

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Gitane's sexy upstairs dining room

Nothing replaces experiencing a place directly, but regional dinners are one way of traveling vicariously. Occasionally, it’s more than a meal, as with a January 23 dinner at Oakland’s Latin American haven, Bocanova, which hosts monthly Rick’s Supper Club highlighting South American cuisine. As we dined on wild shrimp and lobster ceviche in passion fruit sauce or smoky, steamed mussels paired with wines like a balanced Chilean 2011 Cousino Macul “Chard”, dinner sponsor LAN Airlines surprised every dinner attendee with free round trip tickets to fly to any South American destination… a freak out, “Oprah moment”. When we can’t travel, we have restaurateurs and chefs with deep knowledge of a cuisine and country to lead us through territories via food and wine. These two restaurants are committed to uncovering layers of one country, region by region.

OLIVETO, Oakland (5655 College Avenue, 510-547-5356)

Tomato-braised oxtail corzetti

Every year I’d anticipate legendary Whole Hog dinners at Oakland’s temple to regional Italian cuisine, Oliveto, recently celebrating its 25th anniversary. I dropped off after chef of 15 years, Paul Canales, departed, returning this year to the upstairs restaurant vs. downstairs cafe. A little over a year ago, young Chef Jonah Rhodehamel took over. With consummate hosts and proprietors Bob and Maggie Klein thankfully still running the restaurant, Oliveto maintains its purpose as culinary community stalwart akin to Chez Panisse (note their community journal, whole-animal history, food activism), with regional Italian focus and themed dinners.

Frog legs w/ parsley sformatino

Canales (who just opened buzzed-about restaurant/bar/music venue Duende in Oakland) left significant shoes to fill. Rhodehamel honors Oliveto history while unafraid to experiment. Case in point: pastas, which remain the highlight, might be a traditionally-influenced spaghettini neri ($16) of squid ink pasta, shrimp and chili pepper, but he’ll add chocolate to tomato-braised oxtail corzetti ($17), use red winter wheat in penne alla Bolognese ($15), or infuse Floriani Red Flint corn polenta ($15) under duck giblet ragu with intense lavender vanilla notes.

Piedmontese ribeye

As in early days, the menu lists “Tonight’s produce comes from…”, while local touches include olive oil tasting flights (recently Chalk Hill, Regina, McEvoy). It’s easy to fall for an Italian torta ($13) of potato duck hash, Hedgehog mushrooms, poached egg and Marsala crema. Their fritto misto ($13) stands out from what is often merely a pile of fried food. Rhodehamel fries up the unusual: scungil (whelk), herring, blood orange, and shirako (cod milt, ahem, I mean, sperm). The only lackluster (in terms of flavor) starter was tiny pan-fried frog’s legs ($14) with parsley sformatino (like savory panna cotta) – and I’m a frog leg fan.

Spaghettini nero

Though costly, entrees are lessons in execution. Charcoal-grilled meats are impeccable: buttery, crispy pork porterhouse ($30) sits amidst Cannellini beans and braised chard, while rare Piedmontese ribeye ($36) is crispy on the exterior, radiant pink inside, next to creamed spinach and Yukon Gold potatoes. Espresso chocolate stracciatella ice cream ($8) is a lush, caffeine finish, though after trying all recent desserts, I’d also take fluffy ricotta cheesecake ($8) with candied kumquats.

Ricotta cheesecake

Over the years, I’ve actually never eaten in the more casual, affordable downstairs cafe – I’d lean that direction except for the fact that the restaurant consistently garners stronger reviews. Upstairs, big windows, a warm glow, and seamless service evoke special occasion.

Oliveto remains a restaurant great worth crossing the bridge for.

 

GITANE, Financial District (6 Claude Lane between Bush & Sutter Streets, 415-788-6686)

Crab, cuttlefish, pineapple in sea urchin vinaigrette

Since opening in 2008, Gitane is easily one of our sexiest restaurants. Ducking into an alley, down a couple steps into the lush reds, tapestries, and chandelier glow of a tiny, two level space is seduction from a lover who knows how. Executive Chef Bridget Batson has been here since the beginning. In November, the restaurant shifted directions with the addition her husband, Co-Executive Chef Patrick Kelly (of La Folie and Napa’s Angèle), and Chef de Cuisine David Martinez. The trio also oversees the menu at next door’s more casual, sister restaurant, Claudine.

Gitane cocktails

Staying true to the meaning of gitane – gypsy woman – the new menu wanders gypsy-like through Southern Spain, changing cities (Andalusia, Sevilla, Valencia) every few weeks. In keeping with the celebratory setting, their appropriately deemed “passport” tasting menu is $65 for 5 courses (wine pairings from new Wine Director, Sarah Knoefler, an additional $45), available in the intimate upstairs dining room. The bar and alley/patio seating offers an a la carte menu ($12-36) or bar bites… I’m transported straight back to Spain with boquerones (white anchovies) or black-footed Iberico ham and a glass of herbaceous, strawberry-tinged 2011 Lechuza Garnacha Rosado ($9/26/36; glass, carafe, bottle).

Peeking down at the alley from an upstairs table

Though combining Spanish and Moroccan influence since day one (I’ll miss what was the best lamb tartare in the city), after Bridget and Patrick’s recent travels to Spain, we can now dig deeper into regional Spanish cuisine. The first regional focus was Valencia. The tasting menu began with a salad of baby beets, fuyu persimmon, Marcona almonds, citrus and nasturtium paired with honeysuckle notes of a Musva Moscatel from Valencia. Moving on, Dungeness crab and cuttlefish were touched with sea urchin vinaigrette and pineapple, served alongside an angular 2009 Conereria d’Scala Dei Garnacha Blanc, that popped with the pineapple. A delight of fatty Iberico pork cheeks, Matsutake mushroom and raw Nantucket bay scallops sat in a brilliant golden raisin/saffron/mushroom coulis. Fourth course was pan-roasted duck breast in Tempranillo chili puree accented by Oloroso sherry-compressed pears (yes!) The finish was winning pumpkin creme caramel paired with musky, butterscotch notes of a sweet 2009 Guitierrez de la Vega Moscatel.

Favorite tasting menu dish: Iberico pork cheek w/ raw scallops

An a la carte meal yielded an over-salted but beautifully seared scallop with crispy sweetbreads ($16) in parsnip cream and lobster oil. I preferred crisped, roasted artichokes piled with sunchokes and Manchego cheese ($13), or an entree of rabbit (conejo) two ways ($32): roasted saddle and a dreamy riletta, accompanied by braised snails and caramelized squash, over nettle coulis. Ramon Garcia remains Bar Manager, still serving refreshing cocktails ($12) like an elegantly smoky Chimenea (mezcal, rye, allspice dram, maple syrup, orange bitters), or lively Los Muertos (tequila, sweet vermouth, grapefruit marmalade, lime).

Pumpkin creme caramel

With the volume I eat, I value proportionate servings. Gitane portions are delicate, and as with upscale dining in general, it’s easy to feel as if one is paying more to eat less, even if elevated technique and creativity is the result. Gitane works the lower end of fine dining: pricey but not outrageous. Upscale yet comfortable. Setting alone makes it a real date night, while the low-key bar and patio are still romantic. Regional Spanish wines and cuisine renew my desire to return to Spain where I spent a few weeks a decade ago. In the meantime, we can play gypsy at home.

Written by in: Top Tastes | Tags:
Jan
01
2013

The Latest

Capo’s feels as if it’s been in San Francisco for decades

CAPO’S: Deep Dish Better Than in Chicago

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Capo’s, 641 Vallejo Street, 415.986.8998, cash only

Slip into red leather bootha named after legendary Chicago mobsters

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana reigns for my best all-around pizza experience because of its range of impeccable pies, from New York to Neapolitan. I’m no stranger to these categories, consuming countless pizzas in my many travels in Italy and years living in a New Jersey suburb of NYC – not to mention living in what has become a damn great pizza town itself: San Francisco.

As an 11-time World Pizza Champion, Tony Gemignani has done the impossible: win the 2007 World Champion Pizza Maker at the World Pizza Cup in Italy, the only American and non-Neapolitan to do so. What makes Tony’s special is the painstaking detail to which each style is prepared, right down to flour and ovens used. In one restaurant, there’s authentic versions of Detroit pizza cooked in a 550 degree gas oven, or a Jersey tomato pie that could make one weep with its garlic and tomato purity.

Quattro Forni: glorified bread cooked four times

Enter Capo’s (“boss” in Italian), Gemignani’s new Chicago pizza endeavor. Consulting four of Chicago’s legendary pizza families (Marc Malnati of Lou Malnati’s, Leo Spitziri of Giordano’s, Jeff Stolfe from Connie’s, Tony Troiano of JB Alberto’s), he chose three ovens (one wood-fired and two brick, heated to different degrees depending on recipe), and is the only West Coast restaurant using Ceresota flour from one of Illinois’ oldest mills, a staple of Chicago’s most revered pizzerias.

Meat sliced fresh daily

Capo’s Prohibition-era setting under pressed tin ceiling is entirely my scene. From the doorman to a stylish host, it evokes a decades old North Beach haunt, not a newcomer. Red leather booths named after Chicago mobsters (Tony Accardo, Frank Nitii, Jim Colosimo, and naturally, Al Capone), a functioning 1930’s telephone booth, a restored, 1960′s panoramic painting (found in the floor boards) of Adolf Restaurant once housed in the space… Capo’s is an ode to Chicago and San Francisco’s rich Italian-American immigrant history.

Sweet, spicy house Calabrese sausage ($18) in roasted peppers, garlic, caramelized onions, and light tomato cream sauce is dreamy. An antipasti platter ($12) feels sparse compared to antipasti “salads” of my New Jersey youth, dense with meat and cheese, but meats here are hand-sliced daily on an antique slicer in Capo’s front window. An eggplant caprese salad, though small, is drizzled in lush, aged balsamic. But you don’t come here for the salads.

Adolf Restaurant mural

Rarely seeing Chicago specialties, mostaccioli or conchiglie ($12 in pesto or tomato sauce, $13.50 in meat sauce), on West Coast menus, Tony’s mostaccioli is a beaut. Appropriately cheesy, baked in a wood-fired oven, red meat sauce seals the deal. Quattro forni ($13), Capo’s signature dish, is limited to 20 a day due to the preparation required and well worth ordering. Like a glorified garlic bread, or as a waitress described it, doughnut, puffed bread is cooked four times in different ovens, doused in tomato sauce, mozzarella, garlic.

The Italian Stallion, cracker thin

Reveling in deep dish

Then there’s the pizza. While I’ve savored excellent thin crust in Chicago, even after multiple tries at original locations of legendary chains or solo favorites, I’ve yet to find deep dish remotely comparable to Capo’s or Bay Area deep dish havens, Zachary’s and Little Star. I won’t give up the hunt, but thus far eating deep dish here is better than going to Chicago (though I’d happily eat my way through Chicago any day, one of our country’s great food cities).

Baked mostaccioli

Appropriate to Chicago, there’s four types of pies: deep dish ($21-33), cast iron pan ($21-33), stuffed ($23-35) and cracker-thin ($17-20). You can’t go wrong. Meat blissfully dominates most pies (unless you build your own), whether folds of Italian beef, thinly shaved in authentic Chi-town fashion, or house fennel, Calabrese and Italian sausages, shown off in the likes of the Sam Giancana or Old Chicago pies. The Italian Stallion pizza, which I prefer in cracker-thin form, showcases Italian beef, heightened by a drizzle of horseradish cream and insanely good sweet-hot peppers you’ll find on a number of Capo’s pies. Flour-based crust gets texture and complexity from a dusting of cornmeal, while Tony reveals a key to its perfection: European butter and a bit of lard. Fresh cheese oozes, unlike chewy wads of low-quality mozzarella I’m faced with in some of Chicago’s venerable deep dish houses. If you have room and a warm whiskey crisp is available for dessert, get it.

The Silencer cocktail

Elmer Mejicanos heads up a whiskey-centric bar program, housing over 100 American-dominant whiskies, while Tony mentions finding a few antique whiskey bottles dating back to the 1920′s in the basement (when are we pouring?) Building your own Old Fashioned is a key menu focus, alongside a short-but-sweet cocktail list ($12). Trying every one on the menu, I’ve re-ordered only The Silencer. Carpano Antica takes the form of ice cubes melting in Campari, Seltzer Sister Soda and crystals of brandy – an ideally bitter, bright aperitif. A glass of Chianti or Montepulciano is well-suited to all that red sauce – Tony’s longtime business partner Marni McKirahan runs the wine program, also highlighting rare Midwest (Michigan, Chicago) wineries.

Eggplant Caprese

If I seem to be gushing, perhaps I am. Visiting three times in the first month alone and many time since, I’ve tried every listed pizza and cocktail on the menu. Some openings are exciting, fresh, visionary. A spare few respect the past, even perfect it. The comforting kind you want to return to with family and friends and hope stay around forever. Capo’s is the latter.

Capo’s take-home box sports a drawing of Capone

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Oct
01
2012

Top Tastes

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

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

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

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

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

Utterly gratifying: Bolognese lasagna

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

Marcella’s humble, welcoming dining room

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

Marcella’s “slow food” ethos proudly displayed

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

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

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

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

Like Korean bibimbap, a Thai stone pot

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

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

Calabrian chile spaghettini topped w/ melted burrata

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

Bluestem’s charcuterie platter

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

Peaches & Herb ‘Reunited’ Sundae

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

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

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

Cocktail with a view from Epic’s dining room

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

Explosion burger oozes cheese from its center

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

Jul
15
2012

The Latest

Del Popolo's dreamy pies

PIZZA PIE – The Latest Pies in Town

Nick's Pizza, Oakland

San Francisco is a pizza town. We’re obsessed with our pies, particularly the Neapolitan kind. Getting into favorites is a tricky subject as one has to dig through a sea of styles: Neapolitan, NY slice, Chicago deep dish, California creative, and so on, to begin to categorize “bests.” We won’t list all-time favorites now, but scouring joints new and old has taken me from Oakland’s recently opened Nick’s Pizza (the highlight actually being local Temescal Kombucha in jars) to brand new Hayes Valley Bakeworks with potato quinoa crust pizzas (big kudos for their business model: providing employment and training to those at risk or with disabilities).

A winning new truck in town? Casey’s Pizza from an East Coast native seeking to create, “East Coast inspired, Naples born, super old world, gritty NYC dream pie”. Alternately parked between three downtown spots, they hand craft pies with ultra-fresh ingredients, like an arugula pizza, bright with spring onion, and three cheeses (aged mozzerella, fior di latte, Grana Padano), perfected with chili flakes, olive oil and lemon juice. At $17 for a 12″ or $9 for a half (two slices), if you hit up the truck from 1pm on, you can order by the slice.

Top notch sasiccia (sausage) pizza at A16

Most anticipated is Capos, a sister restaurant to unparalleled Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, soon to open in North Beach serving the one style not done at Tony’s: Chicago deep dish. Recently returning to an SF classic, A16‘s pizzas continue to evoke travels in Italy, alongside Campania-style dishes (those melting-ly soft pork meatballs!), and wine director/owner Shelley Lindgren’s impeccable, Italian-centric wine list. I value A16′s consistency over the years, cooking authentic Neapolitan pizza before it was trendy, particularly a joy during lunch when the skylit space is mellow and sunny (note the new 3-course, $20 tasting menu at lunch – a steal).

Del Popolo's $180,000 pizza truck

Of the new pizzas in town, Del Popolo is exceptional. Their much-hyped (and expensive at over $180,000) pizza truck boasts a 5000 lb. wood-burning oven from Naples. Already garnering national press of course means long lines. But even when parked downtown in Mint Plaza (follow on Twitter for locations @PizzaDelPopolo), I find if I arrive a few minutes before “opening” at 11:30am, I avoid a line and have my pie within 10-15 minutes. Serving only two to three basic pizzas ($10-14), what is essentially a classic Italian margherita is a glory of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil.

Tasty prosciuttio, peach, goat cheese pie special at Nick's Pizza

More akin to the incredible pies at Una Pizza Napoletana than thinner, but still bona fide versions at say Beretta or Gialina, Del Popolo is reminiscent of the best in Italy: doughy, dense, charred crust with luxuriously laden with pools of quality olive oil.

In a different style, the other noteworthy newcomer (which is ultimately not so new) is Gioia.

GIOIA PIZZERIA, Russian Hill (2240 Polk St. between Green & Vallejo, 415-359-0971)

Gioia's spare, crisp interior

Cooked in a deck oven vs. wood-fired like the dearth of Neapolitan pizza around town, Gioia’s pies hearken to the East Coast. Not your greasy, fold-in-half NY slice (such as you’ll find at Arinell), but New York-spirited with hearty crust and California-fresh toppings – think Brooklyn’s Roberta’s, but years before Roberta’s existed. Opened in 2004, North Berkeley’s Gioia has long been on my list of beloved places I don’t get to often enough due to proximity. I was delighted when I first heard they were opening a San Francisco location, dramatically different as it is from the Berkeley original which mainly serves pizzas to go. Husband/wife owners Will and Karen Gioia have made the SF locale a full-on restaurant rather than take-out shop. The bright, open space, with marble bar countertop, gleaming white tiles and jars of house pickled items lining the walls, is industrial yet not cold, the kitchen in full view.

Gioia's fresh asparagus ricotta pizza

Gioia’s pizzas (12″ – $16, 18″ – $27) are thankfully sold by the slice as well as whole pie. I know it can be impractical, but I long for all pizza joints to offer slices of every pie they make. Obviously, I have professional reasons to taste as much as possible, but even when I didn’t, I’d sample the entire menu at any given place if I could. There’s the fishy fun of acciughe (Sicilian anchovy) pizza doused in Calabrian chiles and oregano, next to a gorgeous asparagus ricotta pie laden with asparagus, red onions, chiles, ricotta, pecorino cheese. The “white” (sauceless) Julian is heartwarming with fatty prosciutto cotto, parsley, red onion, garlic, aged provolone, chilis. Alongside asparagus ricotta, my favorite reflects the other side of the coin, the salsiccia: housemade Sicilian sausage, pecorino, and Ryan’s pickled peppers.

Cesar salad & a beer

Suffice it to say, pizza is still the number one reason to visit Gioia – just as satisfying and special as it has been in Berkeley these eight plus years. In addition to the pies, they make a classic Caesar ($9) with no visible Sicilian anchovies (though listed), merely a hint in the dressing. At lunch there’s sandwiches, at dinner, joys like fried squid with broccoli di cicco, spring onions, pimenton, and Meyer lemon aioli ($12), or pasta shells stuffed with ricotta, spinach and nettles in red sauce ($17). The just-launched brunch (naturally) tops pizza with an egg, but also dishes up buttermilk flapjacks and frittatas.

Jars of in-house pickling line the wall

As is typical, I prefer to go off hours, midday or whenever I can avoid the crowds already flocking here. No reservations means dinner hours can be rough although add your name to a waiting list and they’ll text when you’re up. Grabbing a slice to go is ideal any time as Gioia is blessedly open all day. In a city awash with world class pizza, Gioia is a refreshing and welcome addition.

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