Aug
01
2013

Imbiber

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Blocks of thyme & nicoise olive oil-marinated feta cheese

Middle Eastern-influenced Cocktails

Article and Photos by Virginia Miller

ZIRYAB, Alamo Square/Western Addition (528 Divisadero Street between Fell & Hayes Streets, 415-522-0800)

Jericho Fig Tree

Jericho Fig Tree

Though open for seven years, Ziryab, Divisadero’s Middle Eastern hangout boasting an enclosed front patio, reopened this week from owner Salim Nasser with a brand new bar, liquor license and new food menu. Having the privilege of watching bar manager Zachary Taylor grow up in the Bay Area bartending world the past few years, from places like Oakland’s Bocanova to The Corner Store and Hog & Rocks in SF, I know he’s a dedicated bartender who studies the history and craft of cocktails and spirits.

Which is why I visited Ziryab pre-opening day and again later in the week, tasting through every cocktail on his new menu. Taylor’s creations were crafted with Middle Eastern flavors in mind, co-existing nicely with dishes from Moroccan Chef Khalid El Mourabit (who’s cooked throughout Europe and Morocco), like blocks of thyme and nicoise olive oil-marinated feta cheese ($9) scooped up by warm, housemade pita bread, or crispy sticks of lamb, raisin, almond-filled filo pie ($13) fragrant with ras el hanout (a North African spice blend).

Ostwald Ripened

Ostwald Ripened

Tasting the entire initial cocktail menu (and a chunk of the food menu), I had the most fun with the unusual Ostwald Ripened, which reminds me of New Orleans brunch classic, Absinthe Suissesse. Similarly, Ostwald Ripened is creamy, served on the rocks, but in this case with Bols Natural Yoghurt Liqueur, a fine use of the tart, yogurt nectar. Instead of absinthe, anise notes come from Arak Haddad, arak being a historic Middle Eastern anise liqueur. A splash of muscat grape and orange blossom-based Pavan liqueur and fresh-grated cinnamon rounds out this milky refresher.

Though I’d love taste more fig and garlic in the Jericho Fig Tree, fig-garlic purée adds a whisper of sweet-savory (aided by the rim) to blanco tequila, bright with lemon and Benedictine. Taylor has been perfecting this recipe so I look forward to trying it again in coming weeks. Ziryab Manhattan infuses Dickel Rye whiskey with dates, stirred with sweet and dry vermouths and a subtly smoky strain from lapsang souchang tea-infused Angostura Bitters. It’s lovely alternative to a Perfect Manhattan.

Pajaro Negro

Pajaro Negro

Revived from Pioneers of Mixing at Elite Bars: 1903-1933 by Charles Christopher Mueller is The 1934 Cosmopolitan. Deceptively pink, evoking the 1980′s instead of a cocktail aficionado’s tipple, it’s a classic of Tanqueray Gin, lemon, raspberry syrup and Cointreau, finely mixed by Taylor so as to be seamlessly acidic, sweet, botanical. No taste of the ’80′s here.

Coffee notes of the Pajaro Negro come from Galliano Ristretto, intermingling with smoky mezcal, bitter-herbaceous Cynar (Italian artichoke amaro) and orange peel is exactly what I want for dessert. Or maybe Taylor will be experimenting, as he was during one of my two visits this week, maybe with a layered combination of Zacapa 23 rum, Kusmi Darjeeling tea, lemon, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram and apricot jam.

Despite a non-descript interior, the vibe is friendly and the space already filled with neighborhood locals in initial days. Quality and vision is markedly focused from past years at the new and reinvented Ziryab.

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Oct
01
2012

The Latest

A fantastic, traditional dessert of kunefe, a mild Arab cheese crusted in shredded phyllo dough, soaked in sugar and rosewater syrup

TURKISH GEM in the FiDi

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Machka's chic interior

With the Guardian’s recent move to the Financial District, I’ve frequented downtown haunts, returning to old favorites, discovering new gems. Humble, tiny spaces like La Fusion, delight with Peruvian-influenced Nuevo Latino dishes, including rotisserie chicken and warm bread salad, vivid ceviches, cinnamon-clove inflected sangria, and fried empanadas dipped in huacatay sauce and piquillo pepper aioli. However, the biggest standout of new FiDi dining spots has been an upscale Turkish restaurant, Machka.

MACHKA, FiDi (584 Washington St., between Columbus Ave. & Hotaling St., 415-391-8228)

Pistachio-crusted goat cheese

Walking up to Machka, directly across from the Transamerica Building behind a line of motorcycle and Vespa parking, one feels as if they’re stumbling upon a chic cafe in Rome or Istanbul. In fact, Machka is Turkish, in a brick-walled dining room with massive chandelier, its lighting casting an appealing glow on fellow diners, while a flat screen plays classic Turkish films, like Kirik Plak (1959), visible through a glass wall from inside the restaurant.

Just opened in July by lawyer, Farshad Owji, and his wife Sibel, the chef is Reynol Martinez, who served those delightful duck confit tacos and some of SF’s best fish tacos at Potrero Hill hidden gem, Papito (he also cooked at Globe, Aperto, Epic Roasthouse). Service is one of Machka’s strong suits, whether the professionally engaging warmth of Jessica (who was a server at Nopa), or Gulhan, who recently moved here from Turkey, his gracious hospitality setting a familial tone  -P.S. he’s also an inspiring reader of Turkish coffee grounds.

Lamb kebab & adana kebab

Starting with the SF standard – locally sourced, mostly organic ingredients – one journeys Turkey in rare form. Though there’s long been hole-in-the-wall treasures like A La Turca in the Tenderloin or the Mission’s mid-range Tuba, the list has been short. Machka fills a gap, faring well with both traditional and creative Turkish. In the meze/starter realm, pistachio-crusted goat cheese ($11) is easy to lap up. Spread the subtle, soft cheese, crunchy with pistachios, over toasts, sweet and savory with caramelized onions, golden raisins and wildflower honey. There’s only a handful of lamb tartare dishes in town (Gitane’s being one of the best), and Machka’s version ($13) is brightly gratifying, tossed in mint, grainy mustard and argan oil, with haricot verts.

Falafel durum wrap

Tender, grilled octopus ($13) is mixed with chickpeas and celery, doused in lemon and olive oil – it’s a delicate smattering of celery leaves that adds a garden-fresh aspect to my favorite invertebrate. Blue cheese and chorizo-stuffed dates ($9) are a crowd-pleaser, particularly wrapped in pastirma (Armenian cured beef) in a sherry wine-mustard vinaigrette. The only missteps seemed to be a bowl of fava beans ($10) which sounded like the ideal veggie dish, mixed with English peas, snap peas, cilantro, mint, sumac in lemon and a smoked paprika vinaigrette, but was surprisingly bland. A traditional fattoush salad ($11) was likewise humdrum, a mere couple tomatoes, cucumbers and pita crisps unable to bring the greens to life.

Plump, tender octopus

On the entree side, I crave their durum (flatbread) wrap ($12) to-go when I don’t have time sit down and savor the restaurant’s soothing setting. I love the falafel wrap (also available as a $9 starter), laced with cacik (light, seasoned yogurt), pickled cucumber, lettuce, grilled red onions, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and tahini sauce. The elements weave together into the ideal wrap: fresh, textured, filling – also available with chicken, lamb or beef. Speaking of lamb, they do it right, whether as a burger ($15), curry-marinated in a kebab over rice pilaf (one skewer $13/two $26), or in my top choice, a marinated ground beef and lamb sausage, the adana kebab.

Impressive branzino entree with balsamic-pomegranate tomatoes

Chef Martinez displays vision in entrees like a seared branzino ($25). The flaky fish is interspersed with roasted fennel and cherry tomatoes, which taste like another glorious fruit altogether – sweet, sour, fantastic – roasted in a balsamic pomegranate reduction. It’s an elegant entree and unexpected turn with the tomatoes.

Lamb tartare

The wine list ($9 for a 5 oz. glass, $14 for 8 oz.) includes interesting Turkish wines, like an acidic, zippy 2010 Kavaklidere Cankaya Emir from Ankara, and from the same producer, a balanced, fruity red: 2011 Kavaklidere Yakut Okuzgozu. Another wine that worked well with starters was a tropical fruit-laden 2011 Pinot Gris from New Zealand, The Ned.

You couldn’t do better than a dessert of kunefe (or kanafeh, an Arab cheese crusted in shredded pastry, often phyllo dough  – Jannah in the Western Addition also makes a beauty of a version). Soft, white cheese oozes from crisp, shredded phyllo soaked in honey and rosewater syrup, as finish sweet and satisfying as the overall experience in this Turkish respite.

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Sep
01
2012

The Latest

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

SANDWICH-ing in the MISSION

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

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

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

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

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

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

Humble, urban charm of the new Hot Press

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

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

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

Middle Eastern influence in Hot Press’ Dream Cream

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

Staten Island: pastrami as panini

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

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

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