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

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.

May
01
2013

The Latest

Blair Warsham's bao at American Bao Bar

Blair Warsham’s bao at American Bao Bar

ASIAN NEWCOMERS:
From Food Truck to Pop-Up

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Dining at Nabe

Going Japanese hot pot at Nabe

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

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

KOJA KITCHEN, Food Truck

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Koja & Kamikaze fries

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

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

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

Visionary XLB dumplings

Visionary XLB dumplings

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

Soup shots & shrimp chips

Soup shots & shrimp chips

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

IMG_7147

Rice disc holding an egg

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

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

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

Stunning dumplings

Stunning dumplings

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

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

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

Chicken liver

Chicken liver

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

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

Avocado salad

Kale salad

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

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

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

Nabe's sleek space

Nabe’s sleek space

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

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

Generous side of veggies comes with hot pot order

Generous side of veggies comes with hot pot order

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

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

Those excellent chicken wings

Those excellent chicken wings

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

Pajeon

Haemul pajeon

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

Written by in: The Latest | Tags: , ,
Jan
15
2013

Top Tastes

Muguboka's killer hae-mool (seafood) dolsot (stone pot) bibimbop

Of Banchan, Ramen & Squid Innards

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Delicious banchan spread at Muguboka

Authentic Asian cuisine of every category is one of California and the Bay Area’s strengths, with constant new openings from hole-in-the-walls to hipster hotspots. Busy dining at a slew of Asian newcomers, like the Richmond’s mellow Daigo Sushi, or Szechuan outpost Chili House, these three restaurants stand out for one (or a few) reasons.

MUGUBOKA, Inner Richmond (401 Balboa St. at 5th Ave., 415-668-6007)

An acquired taste at Roku: shio-kara (fermented squid & innards)

Passing Muguboka many a time over the years, I meant to visit but never did until recently. What I found is a humble, all-day respite serving an impressive array of banchan (mini-dishes accompanying a Korean meal), whether kimchi or myeolchi bokkeum (crispy mini-anchovies). Free, generous banchan and bottomless tea make even upper teens-priced entrees a deal. Dining alone, I attempt to finish the banchan… and fail. There’s a plentiful selection of soups and stews featuring tofu or Korean sausage, and dishes like go dung uh gui (broiled salted mackerel), or hae-mool pajeon, those ever-fabulous seafood-green onion Korean pancakes. I finish with a complimentary, cool pour of sujeonggwa, a sweet Korean punch alive with cinnamon, ginger, peppercorns, dried persimmon.

Best dish: Muguboka serves a mean hae-mool (seafood) dolsot (stone pot) bibimbop ($16.95), the scorching stone pot arrives sizzling with rice, egg, squid, shrimp, mussels, veggies and nori on top.

Best suited for: A mellow setting with copious amounts of Korean food. Expect two meals for the price of one.

RAMEN SHOP, Oakland (5812 College Ave. near Birch, 510-788-6370)

Show-stealer: wild nettle fried rice

Open just since the beginning of the year, this is an early word on Oakland (Rockridge, to be exact) hotspot, Ramen Shop, packed since day one with long waits (no reservations). A short, ever-changing menu offers three types of ramen, one dessert and a handful of appetizers so it’s possible to try the entire menu in one visit. Chez Panisse alums, Sam White, Jerry Jaksich and Rayneil De Guzman already have a hit on their hands, if crowds are any indication. Though early Yelp comments are trending towards the frustrated-to-spend-$16-on-a-bowl-of-ramen kind, this is quality ramen… house-made noodles, salt-cured eggs, ultra-fresh ingredients. Meyer lemon infuses shoyu ramen ($15) with bright dimension, while spit-roasted chashu (literally pork roast, often known as char siu) adds heft to particularly flavorful spicy miso ramen ($15).

Spicy miso ramen

But my favorite aspects aren’t ramen. Meyer lemon shows up again in unique kimchi/house pickled Napa cabbage ($5), to winning effect, a spirited contrast to chili. Then, wild nettle fried rice steals the show (see “best dish”). The third best element is liquor. While wine and beer work quite nicely, it’s a rarity (I can’t think of any other local example) to see cocktails with ramen. Straightforward, refreshing mezcal or rye-based punches ($10) make fine ramen companions, as does a classic hi-ball ($12) of Hibiki 12-year Japanese whisky and soda. A nutty-tasting black sesame ice cream sandwich ($5) in brown sugar cookies is the right finish.

Best dish: Easy… wild nettle fried rice ($9) interlaced with Monterey Bay squid and Llano Seco pork is as comforting as it is gourmet.

Best suited for: The joyous convergence of ramen and Japanese whisky – and for those with time on their hands.

ROKU, Castro (1819 Market St. at Octavia Blvd., 415-861-6500)

Roku yakitori

Opened in October by JapaCurry‘s Jay Hamada, Roku sits at busy Market and Octavia. Similarly bustling inside, groups of friends down Japanese beer and fried chicken in the form of karaage ($7) or chicken nan ban ($8), the latter a specialty of Kyushu, Hamada’s hometown island in southern Japan. Under warm wood walls graced with unframed, vintage Japanese posters, I opt for the likes of house-made noodles and mochi bacon yakitori (though I couldn’t help but long for FuseBOX’s supreme bacon-wrapped mochi).

Hotate butter w/ membrane skirt & stomach intact

During opening weeks, I went straight for dishes I’ve never tried, like shio-kara ($4): room temperature, fermented squid swimming in its own innards. Salty and gummy, it is, as the menu states,”an acquired taste.” Likewise, hotate butter ($12) topped with the vivid orange of tobiko/fish roe is unexpected. Scallops are sautéed in butter, but unlike most of our Westernized experiences with the succulent bivalve, the stomach and membrane skirt are left on around the scallop flesh. Call it umami, call it funky, the taste is more accurately both.

Though I find preferred renditions of classic izakaya dishes elsewhere, it’s items like the seafood salad (see “best dish”) or rare dishes for a bold palate that make Roku interesting.

Refreshing seafood salad

Best dish: Surprised to prefer a seafood salad ($13) in an izakaya, this one is laden with red king crab and smoked salmon, tobiko, boiled eggs, yellow bell pepper and tomatoes over romaine, bright in a yuzu wasabi dressing.

Best suited for: The hardcore who want authentic dishes they won’t find on typical menus. Also for groups of friends.

Written by in: Top Tastes | Tags: , ,
Nov
01
2012

The Latest

Work of art at Sugoi Sushi: sashimi draped over bundle of twigs

SUSHI TIME

Sushi bars proliferate around SF with two more brand new spots on Russian Hill and in the Mission.

ELEPHANT SUSHI, Russian Hill (1916 Hyde St., between Green St. & Delgado Pl., 415-440-1905)

Fantastic walu/escolar nigiri & sashimi

Think of Elephant Sushi as on “island time” (read: chilled out) and you’ll enjoy your experience all the more. Reminiscent of early days at the original Sushi Bistro in the Inner Richmond when it first opened, dreadlocked waitstaff and reggae tunes set a relaxed, island vibe at Elephant. Soft opening in late August in the former Sushi Groove space, Elephant is in its infancy. Besides the Japan-meets-Jamaica spirit of the cozy space, Elephant sets itself apart at first glance with real wasabi (which I love eating on its own), housemade soy sauce and pots of intense, pickled ginger.

Flaming seabass doused in sake

Winning points for doing what so few sushi restaurants do, even in our eco-conscious region, they source mostly wild or sustainably farmed fish, going the funky-fun route in their rolls and appetizers but not without freshness and precision in plain sight. Walu (Hawaiian term for escolar, the fish occasionally known to cause potentially unpleasant side effects in the… ahem… bathroom) is succulent and buttery here ($5 nigiri/$11 for 5 piece sashimi), among the best walu I’ve ever tasted. Sizzling mango seabass ($12) wins on presentation, arriving on fire in mini-cast iron skillet, thanks to sake and vodka, doused in masago aioli, Japanese chilis and scallion. But the dish was bland, a let down from the flashy flame of presentation.

My early favorite at Elephant: Boom Box roll

Sipping sake or Sapporo on draft, I ordered crudo ($14) served in four spoons, two of young yellowtail in truffle oil, ponzu sauce, garlic chips and scallions, two of seared scallop in heirloom tomato, pickled wasabi stem and a tangy yuzu vinaigrette. If not quite the exquisite bites served at Bar Crudo, this crudo still pops with fresh flavor. Though varying in taste, maki (rolls) seems to be where their whimsical ethos best shines. Spicy King salmon ($9) rolled with cucumber, orange peel and masago roe in chili sauce is heavy on the orange notes, while the White Out ($15) is a mix of hamachi and avocado draped in more of that luscious walu (seared in this case – I prefer it raw).

Elephant's funky, cozy space

The roll that stayed with me is the Boom Box ($10). I adore raw scallop, here with avocado, crunchy garlic chips and English cucumber. It’s set apart draped in ripe banana with sweet soy glaze, a spanking fresh, of-the-sea dessert. Continue the banana theme with neighboring Swensen’s banana ice cream ($3), placing Elephant Sushi firmly in the sleepy Hyde Street ‘hood, a welcome addition I anticpate watching come into its own.

SUGOI SUSHI, Mission (1058 Valencia St. between 21st and 22nd, 415-401-8442)

Trio of scallops, escolar, albacore

The building formerly housing Spork and pop-up Rice Broker was too cool to stay empty for long. In August, Sugoi Sushi opened in the space serving nigiri ($4.25-$7 for two pieces), five piece sashimi ($12-15), sushi rolls/maki ($6-$13), and a quite reasonable omakase tasting menu of roughly $40 for a few rounds of sushi. Mini-two person booths remain intact, while red walls, pillows of lime green and red brighten the space.

Friendly staff bring out plates that border on works of art, as fine sushi does, but in this case, even a step above many. Case in point: a sashimi platter as part of the omakase arrives on a stone slab,  a bunch of twigs are bound together, covered in shredded daikon radish, draped with cuts of fish: masaba ($6) – Japanese mackerel, toro ($10) – blue fin fatty tuna, and kanpachi ($6) – baby yellowtail.

Fresh crudo bites

Another trio – raw scallops, escolar dotted with lemon seed mustard, and albacore belly bin toro – is presented three ways: in a cup, on a shell, on a pile of daikon.

While presentation immediately impresses, in each visit, there’s been a funky piece of fish or two, though they emphasize sourcing fresh daily. Maybe it’s source or style, but Japanese mackerel one visit was almost unbearably salty, while Japanese red snapper with truffle oil and sea salt was nearly gummy. Yakitori ($3) at times disappoints, namely a hot dog-like spicy pork sausage, while tender chicken thigh fares better. 

Sugoi maki/rolls

Rolls are filling and bright, like Golden Mountain ($14) packed with toasted salmon, scallop, crab, avocado, in curry tempura, or Hot & Cold Tuna ($12), of deep fried spicy tuna covered with maguro roe and seaweed salad. Sashimi-like slices of seared blue fin toro ($18) are a bit salty but fresh in chili sesame sauce and curry onion tempura, adding a rich, savory layer to the fish.

While Sugoi is still clearly on the hunt for its identity with consistency issues, the funky, relaxed space on Valencia Street and the artful eye of its sushi chefs hold promise, steps beyond other sushi restaurants lining the street.

Sugoi's fun space on Valencia Street

Written by in: The Latest | Tags:
Nov
01
2012

Top Tastes

Kobe beef for shabu-shabu at Shabuway in the Inner Richmond

Three Affordable JAPANESE Meals

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Japanese woods and individual grills at the new Camp BBQ

The nuances and clean lines of Japanese cuisine have long intrigued. I grew up during East Coast days with my lifelong best friend, who is half Japanese, discovering authentic cuisine in her home and around New York City, fondly recalling the first time I had sushi, okonomiyaki and sake, shabu-shabu in Manhattan.

SF boasts one of few Japantowns in the US – the oldest and largest Japantown in the country – and a dense Japanese community, so restaurant and market options are vibrant. Sushi is one of my greatest cravings, and the izakaya-Japanese pub/bar food wave seems to re-hit SF every few years with a slew of openings. Outside of these two dominant categories, we’re blessed with Kappou Gomi’s memorable small plates (buttered scallops, tempura crusted in macadamia, almonds and other nuts), Kare-Ken and Muracci’s Japanese curry, intimate Minako for organic, unusual dishes, Macha Cafe and YakiniQ Cafe for matcha tea, sweet potato coffee, and Japanese-influenced treats, Kitchen Kura for an okonomiyaki menu, Delica for Japanese deli goods, the list goes on. These three younger Japanese restaurants offer comforting food at a reasonable cost.

CAMP BBQ, Inner Richmond (4014 Geary Blvd. between 4th & 5th Ave., 415-387-1378)

Pork, ready for grilling

Opening this summer, Camp BBQ is Japanese grilling taking its cues from Korean BBQ. The long space is lined in rustic Japanese woods, roomy tables surrounding individual grills. Like Korean BBQ, mini-bowls of dipping sauces (like a house miso) arrive, then platters of vegetables, such as a “rainbow mix” ($6) of carrots, bok choy, onions and garlic cloves wrapped in foil, ready for the grill. Scallops soak in garlic butter ($7), tender and buttery in foil.

Pork cheek & corn on the cob to grill

When it comes to meats, there’s many options, sliced thin, generally tender – only the pork cheek, though juicy, was a little tough to bite. Kobe-style Kalbi chuck short rib ($13 for 3.5 oz.) and ox tongue ($8) are two worthy beef options, though I find the cheaper, savory qualities of spicy pork ($4) and pork cheek ($5) even more appealing. Portions are small enough to mix-and-match while sipping sake, Japanese beer, even pineapple or watermelon slushies. Moving away from the grill, cheese pockets ($5), essentially wontons supposedly filled with cream cheese and shrimp, are disappointingly empty. The setting is mellow with families and friends grilling and singing along (in the case of the kids during my last visit) to somehow appropriate dance pop tunes as backdrop.

SHABUWAY, Inner Richmond (5120 Geary Blvd. between 15th & 16th Ave., 415-668-6080)

Shabuway’s delicious takoyaki

Hot pot stylings of shabu-shabu are the basis for Shabuway, the first SF location of a local Bay Area chain that began in 2004 in San Mateo, growing to locations in Mountain View, San Jose, Union City, Santa Clara. Eiichi Mochizuki launched Shabuway using meats from animals fed on all vegetarian diets: Angus Prime, American kobe, Niman Ranch lamb, Kurobuta Berkshire pork. The result translates into a fresher than average shabu experience. In keeping with the meaning of shabu-shabu (“swish-swish”), one selects thinly-sliced meat of choice, chooses spicy miso or seaweed broths, then swishes raw meats in boiling broth until done. Vegetables (like cabbage, carrots, enoki mushrooms) and mini-bowls of soy and crave-inducing gomadare (an almost creamy sesame sauce) arrive, filled up when running low, with add-ons like udon or ramen noodles a mere $1-$1.75. When finished cooking meats and veggies, flavor-rich broth is poured over rice, eaten soup-like as a finish.

Choosing both styles of broth: spicy miso and seaweed

There is little besides shabu-shabu on the menu, an appreciated focus, but a special I’d recommend if you see it is takoyaki ($4.50), octopus dumpling balls topped in benito flakes, essentially okonomyiaki (the fantastic Japanese  “pancake”) in bread-y ball form, dotted with customary mayo and savory-sweet okonomiyaki sauce.

KIRIMACHI RAMEN, North Beach (450 Broadway St. between Kearny & Rowland, 415-335-5865)

’50′s diner chairs at Kirimachi

Ramen is akin to pho in Vietnamese food or other filling soups in Asian cuisine. Maybe it was the month I spent in Vietnam eating far less than fresh pho (think greasy broth and unidentifiable meat) at locals only pho bars around the country, or most likely it’s my craving for bold, pronounced flavors that have made me not so much averse to basic broth soups as just bored by them.

Sapporo-style miso ramen

Typically, I prefer udon or soba noodles when it comes to Japanese soups for more texture and emphasis on the noodles. I may never be obsessed with ramen, pho or the like but Kirimachi Ramen, a months’ old spot tucked away in North Beach with 1950′s diner chairs and laid back vibe, does well by the genre. All bowls are hefty at$10, with veggie, pork or chicken as a base. They told me they haven’t found a reliable organic pork source yet but use Marin Sun Farms chicken, focusing on fresh ingredients. I took to Sapporo-style miso ramen with chopped pork, Chinese chives, bean sprouts, corn, with additional toppings ($1) including kikurage mushroom, fish cake and soft-boiled egg.

Written by in: Top Tastes | Tags: ,
Jul
01
2012

Top Tastes

Pican's dreamy smoked brisket meatloaf

FIVE PLAYFUL SUMMER DISHES

Here’s five dishes that made a recent impression, from meaty, current-day classics in Oakland, at a bar brunch, and along Market Street, to fresh new joys in Palo Alto and SF – each bringing a little sunshine to the table.

15 ROMOLO – Fried Chicken Bacon Breakfast Biscuit Sandwich

Free flowing brunch punch specials ($4 per glass)

Brunch at one of the city’s best bars, 15 Romolo, is a pleasure. The well-spaced room tucked off a North Beach alley is blessedly unmobbed. Arrive at opening (11:30am), late by breakfast standards, and you’re likely to secure a table instantly. Greeted with complimentary waffle shots – yes, rounds of waffle bites resting in a mini-pool of maple syrup and boozy rum – you’re then guaranteed impeccable mid-day cocktails ($9-10), like a zippy, frothy absinthe showcase (read: not for the anise/licorice averse), Famous Fizz, made with St. George absinthe, shaken with strawberry-thyme shrub, cream, egg white, finished with seltzer water. Or try a Breakfast of Champions # 2, rich with Manzanilla sherry, Nocino walnut liqueur, maple syrup, coffee tincture and house banana cordial – not cloying but warmly gratifying.

Fab breakfast biscuit sando w/ rye sausage patty

Drinks are a given but one of the many joys of Romolo is that food is never a slouch. This has been true at night of items like their Challah @ Cha’ Boy ($7 – grilled banana, nutella, pickle, bacon sandwich on challah bread) and it’s likewise true at brunch. The one that makes me salivate is the breakfast biscuit sando ($9). In keeping with other brunch dishes, portions are generous, while a moist, green chile biscuit converts, filled with crispy fried chicken, the kind of bacon odes are written to (not too crispy, fatty), fried egg, house pickles, and a vivid arugula walnut pesto. Hash browns accompany, then adding on a hefty, savory house rye sausage patty ($3), I nearly rolled onto Romolo Place post-meal, blissfully fattened.

PICAN – Smoked Brisket Meatloaf

Romolo's waffle shots

Though one can occasionally experience a few highs and lows at downtown Oakland’s upscale Southern sanctuary, Pican (like uneven desserts or cocktails – oh, would that watery, sweet Mint Julep be less syrupy and served in a proper Julep cup), staff are eager to please and their American whiskey list is extensive. New Executive Chef Sophina Uong (of Waterbar, 900 Grayson, Betty Zlatchin Catering), who was helming the kitchen at one of my recent return dinners, introduces vibrant new dishes to the menus.

Pican's blue crab profiteroles

Even as I begin digging into new menu items like playful blue crab profiteroles, my heart belongs to their classic smoked brisket meatloaf ($21). It’s genius, really: shaved slices of Creekstone natural beef brisket are baked into a meaty-yet-light loaf, served with BBQ tomato jam, on roasted sweet corn salad with Cajun cheddar aioli. It’s like mom’s home cooking met an upscale Southern restaurant, then married California creative-fresh, a veritable mash-up of cuisines… which, in fact, sounds a lot like the vision behind Pican’s still satisfying food menu.

RANGOON RUBY – Mango Salad

Rangoon Ruby's brightly fresh mango salad

Merely a couple weeks old, downtown Palo Alto’s brand new Rangoon Ruby boasts chefs Win Aye and Win Tin formerly of Burma Superstar’s Oakland and Alameda locations (respectively), serving fresh, vivid Burmese dishes. The chic, clean space boasts a nice spirits collection (all three St. George gins can be found here, along with Camus Cognac) and tiki-focused cocktails, including lava and scorpion bowls for two or four. Burmese native and owner John Lee says the place has already been packed nightly. While they’re still working out opening and service kinks, Lee presents a gracious, hard-working aesthetic grown from his own experience working from the ground up in the restaurant at San Francisco’s Fairmont.

Rangoon's light fixtures

Beloved Burmese salads ($10-13), from tea leaf to ginger, are done right here – brightly generous. But no matter how many Burmese mango salads I’ve tried, Rangoon Ruby’s is a superior version, with strips of mango atop greens, that fantastic hint of savory imparted by fried onions and garlic, accented with cucumber and dried shrimp. Also try Nan Gyi Nok ($12), a heartwarming mound of rice noodles doused in coconut milk chicken and yellow bean powder, accented by a squeeze of lemon and a hard-boiled egg.

SHOWDOGS – Pickled Hot Link

Pickled hot link

Showdogs corners dogs in a space that continues to improve Market Street’s less attractive blocks, adding on old school sign and sidewalk seating enclosed by hedges since they opened. I have a number of go-to sausages (plus they rock a corn dog), but it’s their pickled hot link ($6.95) that remains truly different. A hot link, plump and pickled in apple-cider vinegar for a couple weeks, it’s tangy, slightly blackened as it’s grilled to order, topped with Crater Lake blue cheese sauce (more of that, please) and arugula leaves.

NOMBE – Chawan-mushi

Chawan-mushi (R) alongside buttered brown scallops

As part of an affordable seven-course Kaiseki dinner ($39.95) at Nombe, chef Noriyuki Sugie perfects chawan-mushi or Japanese savory egg custard. Though numerous izakayas (particularly Nojo) make memorable versions, I was recently hooked on Sugie’s uni chawan-mushi, lush with uni’s sea-worthy, umami notes, woven into a silky, custard, topped with fresh uni, served traditionally in a covered dish. Order a pour from Nombe’s impressive sake list – ask co-owner and sake sommelier, Gil Payne, to recommend a pairing for you – and settle into black booths in the quirky, comfy Mission diner space.

Written by in: Top Tastes | Tags: , ,
May
15
2012

Top Tastes

Saru Sushi Bar’s “spicy cracker” tempura-fried seaweed topped w/ spicy tuna and avocado

SUSHI EAST AND WEST

Saru’s clever tasting spoons

Despite countless lauded sushi restaurants I’ve eaten at in NY and LA, I find San Francisco more than keeps up, whether with the staggering range of fish (and lovably surly attitude) Roger delivers at Zushi Puzzle (pencilfish or flying fish, anyone?), the sustainable efforts of Tataki and Sebo, or the pristine precision of Sausalito stalwart Sushi Ran, which tops overrated Nobu restaurants, in my book.

Here is one new SF spot, and one revamped Berkeley restaurant, adding more welcome sushi diversity to the Bay Area.

SARU SUSHI BAR, Noe Valley (3856 24th Street at Sanchez, 415-400-4510)

Saru’s spot prawn nigiri

Why couldn’t Saru Sushi Bar have been in Noe Valley all the years I lived right by this 24th Street storefront? The space’s original two sushi incarnations were less than desirable, where I was once subjected to smelly, rubbery fish. The closet-sized restaurant is completely revamped to the unrecognizable point. Still tiny, it feels roomier with large front windows and sleek brown color scheme. Cheery service pleasantly elevates the experience, particularly on a sunny day at lunch.

Noe’s new Saru Sushi

I’d claim the space has finally arrived. There’s not just the usual hamachi and sake (salmon), but rather playful, unique bites prepared with care. “Spicy cracker” ($7) is a sheet of seaweed fried in tempura, topped with spicy tuna and avocado – a textural bite. Bright halibut tartare is drizzled in lime zest, yuzu juice, and Japanese sea salt. Though I ever appreciate sampling options, some tasting spoons ($7) work better than others. One that worked: young yellowtail (kanpachi) in truffle oil and ponzu sauce, with garlic chips and scallions.

I know I’m good hands if raw spot prawns (amaebi) are on the nigiri menu ($7 two pieces). Bright and firm, they taste as if they were caught fresh that morning. Snappy rolls (maki) are not overwrought.

Popcorn Tuna Roll

Quality raw scallops are a favorite so I appreciate Naked Scallop ($12), a roll wrapped in light green soy paper, filled with snow crab, avocado, masago (smelt roe), and, of course, scallop.

Not near as junk-food-sushi as it sounds, is the fresh, fun, subtly crispy Popcorn Tuna roll ($10): panko-crusted spicy tuna is topped with masago (smelt roe), scallions, spicy mayo, and a sweet soy glaze.

Noe Valley finally has a destination sushi bar.

JOSHU-YA BRASSERIE, Berkeley (2441 Dwight Way at Telegraph Ave., 510-848-5260)

Joshu-Ya’s seared albacore

At first glance, Joshu-ya Brasserie could be another hip Berkeley student hang-out: a funky, converted old house with red gated front patio. But step inside the recently remodeled space and bamboo and dark wood exude an Old World Zen. A fountain out front murmurs soothingly while the sun warms the partially covered patio.

A chalkboard lists fish specials, but also rabbit tacos and Kobe kimchi sliders (the latter cooked too medium-well for me). One immediately realizes this is no typical sushi or even Japanese restaurant.

Miso starter w/ Sho Chiku Bai Organic Nama

Young executive chef/owner Jason Kwon’s vision is bigger. Yes, he is going for the Bay Area standard of seasonal, sustainable, locally-sourced ingredients – after all, he founded Couteaux Review, a culinary organization promoting sustainable agriculture. But it’s French influence and unique twists that keep things interesting with dishes like pan-roasted rib-eye medallions in blackberry balsamic reduction, or duck confit with buckwheat noodles, nori and bonito flakes. In some ways, the vision feels beyond what the restaurant has yet fully grown into, but the intriguing elements hold promise.

Surrounded by a red gate: Joshu-Ya Brasserie

The $35 omakase is a steal, particularly when chef Kwon informs you his fish supplier is the same The French Laundry and Morimoto buy from. After a starter of seared albacore, fresh and bright, if a little too doused in fried onions and ponzu sauce, a giant, artistic sashimi platter hits a number of high notes with actual fresh wasabi (always a good sign), aji tataki (horse mackerel) from Japan, kanpachi (young

Fried red bean ice cream

yellowtail) from Hawaii, hirame (halibut) from Korea, and chu-toro (bluefin tuna) from Spain. Only one fish on the platter arrived too cold and firm. The rest were silky and satisfying.

Being less of a sweet tooth, I’d rather have finished the omakase with another savory dish than tempura red bean ice cream. Generous scoops of fried ice cream and pound cake were a little weighted after such a refreshing meal. Seared salmon in truffle creme sounds like a fine dessert to me.

Artistic sashimi platter – a steal as part of a $35 omakase

Written by in: Top Tastes | Tags: , , ,

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