Jul
15
2013

Around the Bay

Sunset on the Jenner coastline

Sunset on the Jenner coastline

REMOTE SONOMA COASTLINE:
Weekending at TIMBER COVE INN

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

The historic Timber Cove Inn

The historic Timber Cove Inn

Driving north up Highway 1 along the Sonoma Coast to Jenner feels worlds away from San Francisco or even “typical” Wine Country towns. Though I’ve lived in the Bay Area over 12 years, weekending and day-tripping in remote towns all over, I had not driven this stretch of coast further north from Bodega Bay, well south of Mendocino. As with the rest of Highway 1 and Sonoma County, it’s an inspiring, if slow, drive. Taking in rocky coasts, dramatic waves, rolling, green hills, farmland and vineyards is absolutely rejuvenating.

View from my living room

View from my living room

A June weekend away at historic Timber Cove Inn, particularly as they celebrated their 50th anniversary, was the ideal way to experience this remote stretch of California coastline. The closest town (and ATM machine) is a 30 minute drive away. Once you arrive, you become enveloped by the waves, moonlight, sunrise and birds cruising the coastline.

Magic evenings around the campfire

Magic evenings around the campfire

Timber Cove celebrated their June 1963 opening with a weekend of festivities: a “Vintage & Vino” classic car show and wine tasting, Friday night live jazz, and an afternoon cocktail session from spirits educator (and friend) Danny Ronen. Encouraged to dress retro/vintage if so desired, I sported my everyday wardrobe. Evenings around the campfire are a communal affair where guests of the hotel converge. I found myself sharing a dram of whisk(e)y and cigars with friends and strangers… a highlight of the visit.

Spirits education & cocktail hour with Danny Ronen

Spirits education & cocktail hour with Danny Ronen

Though there is a dated aspect to the hotel, it is charmingly so, from the warm, open lobby with massive stone fireplace to giant stones lining the restaurant wall. The spirit of the 1960′s hasn’t left the place, keeping it humbly appealing as it remains pampering. AS part of a media weekend for the anniversary celebration, I did not stay in the recently remodeled rooms overlooking the cove but did take a peek in that wing where remodeled rooms are modern and refined, boasting stunning views.

Timber Cove's cozy lobby

Timber Cove’s cozy lobby

My roomy suite was upstairs off the lobby with a living room jutting out and ocean vistas viewable from windows on three sides. There was a fireplace, our own private deck and absolutely stunning views of the sea. Entering the room felt like a retreat, cradled by the wind and an eternal ocean skyline. Curling up on the couch with a book, listening to the waves as you fall asleep or gazing at the lush, green coast from the deck with a cappuccino in the morning, is healing.

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Fresh-caught seafood – a highlight at Alexander’s

Though far from any restaurants or options but the hotel’s restaurant, Alexander’s, I was surprised at the quality of the dinners. Breakfasts entailed long waits for average food, but dinners yielded multiple delights from Chef William Oliver, originally from Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. His CIA (Culinary Institute of America) education and years as Sous Chef with Chef Joachim Splichal show in his skill with local ingredients and seafood.

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Eggplant Parmesan

I sampled Alexander’s $50, three-course anniversary dinner, available all June, a fresh interpretation of dishes from their original menu in 1963, including photos and history outlined in a special menu.

Juicy, 5-spice pork ribs

Juicy, five-spice pork ribs

On the regular dinner menu, even common dishes, like fresh Dungeness crab with grapefruit, is impeccably fresh and generous, enlivened by pink peppercorn dressing and fennel puree. Asian-style, five spice pork ribs ($13) are also the kind of dish I’ve seen often over the years but here they are juicy and well-prepared in sweet chili glaze with Asian coleslaw.

Burrata & Heirloom tomato salad

Burrata & Heirloom tomato salad

Roasted duck breast ($32) is appropriately medium rare and tender, brightened by tart Bing cherries, comforting alongside German spaetzle and fava beans. Unexpectedly, an elevated rendition of eggplant parmesan ($21) was a favorite, serendipitous after a discussion about my Jersey years and craving for “red sauce”, American-Italian cuisine smothered in sauce and cheese. This was a Cali-fresh version that remained blessedly cheesy with creamy house ricotta and mozzarella, balanced by sweet-savory tomato sauce made with Heirloom tomatoes just coming into season.

Visiting

Visiting Fort Ross Vineyards

The wine menu is heavy on nearby, local Sonoma Coast wines, particularly from what is Sonoma’s newest AVA, Fort Ross-Seaview, including wines like the highly lauded Flowers Chardonnay. Of the few vineyards in the region, most are not open to visitors, but I had an appointment at Fort Ross Vineyards, about a 20 minute drive up the mountainside at 1500 feet. A striking orange-rust-colored winery – matching the gates to the property – sits on a crest surrounded by trees, with views to the ocean. Fort Ross is known for their Pinot, so I tasted through various Pinot Noir vintages, as well as Chardonnay, Rose and Pinotage (the latter a nod to South Africa – Pinotage territory – where husband/wife owners, Lester and Linda, are from).

Timber Cove is a retreat from the city or anywhere, really. One that actually feels like a retreat: removed and restorative.

Written by in: Around the Bay | Tags: , ,
Apr
01
2013

The Latest

At Hillside Supper Club: Mount Lassen trout over Israeli couscous, marinated beets, horseradish yogurt

Three for Spring:
Jambalaya, Trout, Roasted Crab

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Boxing Room jambalaya

Typically eating at two more or places a day, I dine at far more places than I can write about. Often, there are high points but not enough to warrant a full review or in the case of a casual hole-in-the-wall, there might be a noteworthy dish but not a list of reasons to visit. From time to time, it helps to highlight dishes from recent excursions. Here I cover noteworthy dishes from one restaurant just reaching its second birthday (Boxing Room), the other two just open within the last couple month.

BOXING ROOM, Hayes Valley (399 Grove St. at Gough, 415-430-6590)

Cornbread-stuffed quail

Being on board with Boxing Room’s authentic New Orleans cuisine since day one, it’s their jambalaya that has me rhapsodizing akin to glorious meals in the one-and-only Big Easy. The biggest compliment I could give is that it’s distantly reminiscent of Coop’s Place, the best jambalaya I’ve ever had in a classic New Orleans’ dive bar. In reality, it is a pretty different dish. But unlike most mediocre jambalaya we’re typically subjected to (often more like a basic rice dish), Chef Justin Simoneaux’s jambalaya ($11/$21 with duck confit) is appropriately moist, dark with shredded duck meat and sausage, bright with tomatoes. Officially my favorite jambalaya outside of New Orleans, I’m grateful to get my fix at Boxing Room. Bonus dish: Tender cornbread-stuffed quail ($23) over dirty rice and pumpkin puree… I’m craving this divine cornbread stuffing for Thanksgiving.

HILLSIDE SUPPER CLUB, Outer Mission (300 Precita Ave. at Folsom, 415-285-6005)

Hamachi crudo

Beloved pop-up Hillside Supper Club, formed by two college classmates and young chefs Tony Ferrari and Jonathan Sutton, is now a brick-and-mortar restaurant on the corner of Precita Park (the street where I first lived in SF 12 years ago). Hillside is still sorting out its identity as a restaurant: the space is drafty and cold, there are pacing issues with dishes, and food runs about 50/50 with only half the dishes leaving an impression.

Hillside's dining room

But a friendly, neighborhood welcome is intact from the host and stronger dishes intimate possibility. While a hamachi crudo ($10) is fresh, with lively accents of blood orange, hearts of palm and Fresno chilies, it’s drowning in yuzu sauce, and a dessert of English chocolate pudding ($8), though brilliantly weaving Baileys Irish Cream with subtle smoke in a smoked whipped cream, was quite dry. The shining dish was Mount Lassen trout ($22), with crispy skin, the fish is tender and flavor-packed. Over Israeli couscous, marinated beets and smears of horseradish yogurt, it hits hoped-for flavor, texture, and technique.

MISSION STREET OYSTER BAR, Mission (2282 Mission St. between 18th & 19th, 415-621-6987)

Dramatic seafood gazpacho

Bright and cheery in aquamarine and blues, Mission Street Oyster Bar is a welcoming neighborhood seafood joint that feels like the old Mission I knew over a decade ago: decidedly not hipster, it’s fresh and friendly, if a bit unremarkable.

While it hurts to pay $28.95 for one dish at a casual joint, it’s for a whole roasted crab – a solid price for a whole local Dungeness doused in garlic cloves and herbs. Though I prefer roasted crabs at local family-style Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants, this is a hearty meal, accompanied by a generous, cold seafood gazpacho ($16.95) loaded with crab legs, shrimp and avocado, looking like a giant Bloody Mary with a celery stalk standing tall in the glass, it tastes a bit muddled, lacking focus.

Chowder & garlic bread

Purer tastes come in the simple: oily garlic bread ($4.95) and a cup of creamy Boston clam chowder ($3.95, bowl $5.95). Mission Street Oyster Bar’s sunny setting and service comfort, making me grateful these kinds of humble restaurants are still opening in the Mission.

Whole roasted crab

Written by in: The Latest | Tags: ,
Nov
15
2012

Top Tastes

Winning Dungeness crab sandwich with Southern touches at Georges

SEA CHANGE

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Two unrelated seafood restaurants have quietly undergone chef and menu changes in the last year. Less than impressed with both when they debuted, they’ve taken a turn for the better. There’s a low-key Mission seafood outpost with a vegan emphasis, Weird Fish, now Dante’s Weird Fish, and a Financial District restaurant catering to the FiDi set, Georges, with upscale-casual seafood.

WEIRD FISH, Mission (2193 Mission St. near 18th St., 415-863-4744)

Cozy Weird Fish

Tiny Weird Fish has been around a few years, pleasing vegans and hipsters alike with grilled fish alongside seitan tacos. Owner Tim Holt left in 2011 to focus on Roshambo Farms in Healdsburg, which still supplies the restaurant with much of its produce. Holt opened Weird Fish with Peter Hood, who is back as owner alongside Ryan Simas, returning to roots of fish and vegan options, infused with new life. Simas knows seafood as chef de cuisine at Farallon, where he’s worked for nine years, now simultaneously co-owner at Dante’s and its neighbor, The Perch, eventually supposed to open next door.

Dante’s all day hours and a playful, affordable menu (discounted during lunch hours) are its selling points. Portions are small but it’s rare to see fish entrees under $10 – think of it as piecing together a meal, while dishes like fish and chips are filling on their own.

Affordable, well-prepared grilled fish

I can’t say the hit-and-miss aspects of the former Weird Fish has entirely changed changed, but I notice greater consistency and higher “high points” than before. “Pete’s famous clam chowder” ($4.75 cup, $6.75 bowl) is one surprise. Unlike the bland tortilla soup, their creamy chowder is flavor-rich with spanking fresh clams. Fish and chips ($11 for two pieces, $14 for three) features fresh fish of the day, flaky and light in Speakeasy’s Big Daddy IPA beer batter. A mix of sweet potato and regular potato fries falls flat, but fried fish dissolves comfortingly.

Waco taco

A vegetarian Waco Taco ($5) is one of their best bites. Though I’m a fish taco fanatic, a tilapia fish taco tasted over-salted and lifeless under mango salsa compared to the lively Waco Taco packed with mashed yams, spinach, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), and guacamole. Fried calamari ($9.50) is perked up by fried lemon and sage leaves, dipped in lemon aioli and oh! chipotle sauce. Among fish entrees, I’ve fared best with Dijon-almond encrusted rainbow trout ($9.50) alongside buttery mashed yams ($4.75) laced with coconut milk and curry.

Dante’s casual, rock-and-roll (sometimes blaring a bit loud in the small space) attitude is a bright spot on Mission Street, uncommon if not “weird”, amidst a sea of taquerias and 99 cent stores. In its Dante’s incarnation since March, Weird Fish captures the quirk of former days with greater focus on the food.

GEORGES, Financial District (415 Sansome St. between Sacramento & Commercial, 415-956-6900)

Georges entrance

Admittedly, when Georges took over the Financial District’s classic London Wine Bar in 2010 (which lacked an impressive wine list but boasted dated charm), completely revamping the space from dim, old school to white and airy, I dined during opening weeks, immediately turned off by overcooked fish at high prices. I didn’t return until a couple months ago, hearing good things about Chef Michael Bilger who came on in early 2011 from Wayfare Tavern, and now defunct Moose’s and Vivande Porta Via. Bilger’s skill with seafood is a marked improvement since my 2010 visit. Serving sustainably-sourced seafood per Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch standards, Georges’ focuses on sustainability in numerous aspects like crushing raw bar shells into fertilizer for their farmers -  local, of course.

Fish & chips

Being in the FiDi, lunch is a bustling, convivial time to dine. As with lobster rolls, a Dungeness crab roll is expensive ($21), but it’s a beauty. White, lush crab is packed between bread with basil, piquillo pepper, and pleasing Southern touches of fried green tomatoes and remoulade accompanied by housemade BBQ potato chips. A silky crudo ($15) of albacore tuna cleans the palate alongside a crisp white wine. Six cuts of tuna rest on hearts of palm, reasonably doused in garum (a fermented fish sauce I’m seeing on many menus lately), McEvoy Ranch olive oil, and vivid Meyer lemon. Mussels and frites ($16 for mussels, $20 with fries) comfort on a chilly day, particularly with beer. Bilger steams plump mussels in Ommegang Witte beer, the broth exhibiting notes of fall from Rubinstar apples, savory with smoked bacon and leeks.

Albacore tuna crudo

One seafood misstep on a follow-up visit was an overcooked, dry albacore tuna confit in bucatini pasta, tossed with zucchini, Calabrian chilis, Castelvetrano olives and pleasant dose of bread crumbs ($16 lunch/$19 dinner). An affogato, a robust shot of espresso drowning lush vanilla gelato, the glass covered with a waffle cone crisp, is an ideal finish and caffeine boost before returning to work.

Georges is pricey but not out of line with the FiDi or the quality of ingredients. It’s not the same restaurant I dined at when it opened… and for this the entire staff deserves kudos.

Written by in: Top Tastes | Tags:
Jun
01
2012

Top Tastes

Years later, Bar Crudo's crudo is still fabulous

SEAFOOD TREASURES:
Satisfying Artistry and Appetite

Fish makes me happy. Raw, grilled, seared, any which way. One new restaurant and one established favorite are glorifying the fish, and seafood in general, in many formats.

LOCAL’S CORNER, Mission (2500 Bryant St. at 23rd, 415-800-7945)

Fresh, bright uni

Local’s Corner just opened in March on a mellow corner of the Mission’s East side. The sunny space is mostly white, evoking a cozy-chic New England seafood restaurant serving exquisite, California fare. Dinner service was just launched mid-April, a delicate array of tastes of the mostly seafaring kind, though the menu simultaneously lists a “land” section.

Prior to opening, I was excited for this new seafood restaurant offering the likes of sardines and smaller, more sustainable fish, and they do deliver. The immediate downside is how quickly dishes add up. Small plates hover in the low teens while no dish tops more than mid-twenties, but as you finish each plate, hunger is not exactly satiated. There is little in terms of heartier fare, which is fine – you don’t come to here for “hearty”. But $100 later (for two with a glass of wine), I leave a couple dishes away from satisfied.

Local's sunny space

Crisp and bright as the equally crisp, bright space, a nice range of rosés and white wines pair ideally with fish offerings and rotating oysters ($2.50-3.50 each). A small plate of uni ($14) is alluringly punctuated by English peas, preserved Meyer lemon, and mint leaves, while Dungeness crab ($13) arrives glistening with snap peas, Cara Cara oranges and spring onion. Cured halibut ($13) dances with radishes, grapefruit and dill. Each is delicate, slight, tickling the taste buds, if not quelling the appetite.

Two flavorsome bites are cured anchovies and guanciale (Italian bacon made from pig’s jowl or cheek) on toasts ($10), or a dollop of smoked trout rillettes and creme fraiche ($12), also with toasts. Both delight, but are so small-portioned, one is just hooked when it’s gone.

Smoked trout rillettes

For $22, an entree of black cod on top of leeks, carrots, and watercress is likewise minimal and subdued. I was more satisfied with a “land” offering of beef tartare in a small pot, topped with quail egg ($15). Bread is (again) the filler, while the raw beef is glisteningly fresh.

Beef tartare

Brunch is such a pleasant experience in the sunny space, it is tough having few seafood choices (only one currently) and a prix fixe only, though since opening, they lowered the price from mid-twenties to $18 for toast, two courses, and coffee or juice. Weekday lunch offers more seafood, which is primarily what one comes here for, though still few options compared to dinner.

Local’s Corner is still in its infancy, exhibiting promising meticulousness and fresh tastes. I realize upping portions of the likes of uni and abalone is a costly thing and maintaining delicacy is crucial with such ingredients. It seems a worthy mission: satisfying appetite alongside artistry.

BAR CRUDO, Western Addition (655 Divisadero St. between Hayes & Grove, 415-409-0679)

Ultra-satisfying chowder

One place that has long cornered artistry and appetite in my estimation is Bar Crudo, one of my top SF restaurants since its early days in the tiny Bush Street space, where Bouche is located now. Though the cavernous but narrow Divisadero space lacks the quirky charm and warm glow of the original location, service remains such that even as the place is packed nightly and waits are common, staff comes by offering wine, keeping me informed as to how much longer they expect the wait to be.

Whole roasted branzino

Their crudo, essentially Italian-style sashimi, are small and delicate (a sampler is $13 for four pieces, $25 for eight) but so uniquely delightful, they’re worth every dollar. A visit here would not be complete without a bite of raw arctic char, lively with horseradish creme fraiche, wasabi tobiko and dill, or creamy butterfish crudo topped with apples, pear vinaigrette, and beet saffron caviar.

One easily fills up here, supplementing ethereal crudo with whole roasted fish. Recently, I enjoyed a branzino ($26) with two friends. With the large fish, two smaller shared plates and a crudo sampler, we left full. The fish is generously sized, buttery, flaky. We devoured the cheeks, the head, every part, resting in butter beans, Swiss chard, oyster mushrooms, poblano peppers, and orange oil.

Head-on Louisiana prawns in spicy brodo

A flavor explosion comes in large head-on Louisiana prawns ($14) swimming in a spicy red brood, vivid and savory with shishito peppers and fresno chilies. I nearly drank it up. To fill up, there’s always Bar Crudo’s classic seafood chowder ($7/$14), a creamy, rich bowl of fish, mussels, squid, shrimp, potatoes, and applewood smoked bacon that elicits a moan of pleasure at first spoonful.

Coupled with a strong wine list (by glass or bottle) and equally strong craft and Belgian beer list, Bar Crudo remains not only one of San Francisco’s best seafood treasures, but one of its great, neighborhood restaurants, dominating the category of excellent crudo and seafood in a casual 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: , , ,
Mar
15
2012

The Latest

Beef cheek ramen lunch at Nombe

The Lunch Hour

Photos & article by Virginia Miller

The lunch hour advances around town with a slew of notable openings or new lunch menus. Here are some of the best lunches from new chefs or recently opened spots (most opened in the last one to six months).

NOMBE, Mission (2491 Mission St. at 21st, 415-681-7150)

Salmon nori rice & oxtail ramen

Nombe faced a bit of a struggle recovering from uber-talented chef Nick Balla’s departure to Bar Tartine, eventually landing on new executive chef Noriyuki Sugie, who has cooked in NY, Chicago, France, Sydney and the like. With Sugie’s cooking, Nombe proves to be as much a gem as it ever was. An excellent sake list and caring service set it apart, but wait till you try Sugie’s ramen (thankfully just added to the dinner menu in addition to lunch). There’s a lot of great ramen out there, but I tend to be one of the unconverted who registers ramen’s comfort factor but can often find the taste bland. I realize once I finally fulfill my dream of traveling to Japan, I may change my mind, particularly if ramen tastes like Sugie’s.

Excellent sake menu

Order: Ramen noodles are house made, subtly chewy, with accompanying meat. While I enjoy options like oxtail, my favorite is a heaping bowl of beef cheek ramen ($13). The tender meat is savory and robust… and, oh, the broth! No blandness here – the broth is layered with flavor. Scallions, mushrooms, umami foam and soy-marinated egg add even more dimension. If not ordering sake, matcha ice milk or lavender oolong ice tea ($4 each) to drink.

903, Bernal Heights (903 Cortland at Gates)

903′s comfortable space

Laid-back Bernal Heights claims one of the best new lunch spots in town. 903 just opened weeks ago from owners of nearby Sandbox Bakery. Similar to Sandbox, Asian influences enliven American food. The former Maggie Mudd’s space was dim and unmemorable, but they’ve transformed it with soothing colors, flowers, a communal table and bench dotted with pillows. There are bento boxes of chicken tsukune or miso salmon, while the bulk of the daytime-only menu is sandwiches and a few breakfast items.

Order: Crispy shrimp balls in a challah hot dog bun ($8.50) may not jump off the menu, but juicy shrimp lightly fried in three crispy balls in a bun are delightful, particularly with garlic aioli, Sriracha and sweet & sour plum sauce. The one vegetarian sandwich is no afterthought. Baked tofu ($7.50) has more texture and flavor than is typical on a “burger bun” made entirely of rice (also with their Japanese karaage fried chicken sandwich). Pickled carrots, soy tahini, baby greens and a layer of nori (seaweed) complete the sandwich.

SWEET WOODRUFF, TenderNob (798 Sutter St. at Jones, 415-292-9090)

Sweet Woodruff’s open kitchen

The TenderNob has a new destination café in Sweet Woodruff, the casual second space opened by owners of upscale Sons & Daughters. With an open kitchen, high ceilings, muted grey/blue walls, and stools lining rustic wood counter tops, the place feels completely San Francisco, with expected gourmet elevation of sandwiches and casual dishes. Take-out is ideal for nearby workers, but giant, corner windows make it a welcome place downtown to linger.

Pheasant Hot Pocket

Order: Pheasant hot pocket ($7) is the most playful of early offerings. A flaky phyllo pastry stuffed with peas, carrots, and, of course, pheasant is warm and comforting. Cream of parsley root soup ($6) nurtures, set apart with green garlic, pine nuts and a welcome tinge of sweetness from golden raisins. A suckling pig sandwich ($9.50) is appropriately tender, contrasted by pickles, though with ghost pepper aioli I expected serious heat (not so).  For dessert, a peanut sweet soy tart ($4) is peanut-y goodness.

WISE SONS DELI, Mission (3150 24th St. at Shotwell, 415-787-3354)

Wise Sons brick & mortar location

I said it a year ago when Wise Sons Deli was merely a pop-up: it is refreshing to have this quality level of Jewish food in San Francisco. Just like their pop-up locations, lines still run out the door in their brand new brick and mortar location (in fact, good luck finding “off” hours to drop in). How can I not be delighted to have fresh-baked loaves of rye bread, corned beef hash, and matzo brei available six days a week (they’re still at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Tuesdays)?

Order: Chocolate babka bread is downright dreamy ($3.50 per hefty slice; sometimes available as a bread pudding). Earthy/sweet chocolate and crumbly crust are better than coffee cake.

Pastrami bread pudding

A mild chopped liver ($7) is appealing even to those skittish about liver. Challah French toast ($9) is fluffy and sweetened with orange butter and maple syrup. House-baked bialy fills a bagel void, layered with cream cheese ($3) and seasonal smoked fish like salmon or smoked trout ($8/11). They address my craving for whitefish salad with smoked trout salad ($9), wisely using a more sustainable fish choice. Don’t forget hand-sliced pastrami or corned beef and an egg cream soda. One can only hope a meaty, moist pastrami bread pudding I sampled at an opening party shows up on the specials board.

SQUARE MEALS & BATTER BAKERY, Russian Hill (2127 Polk St. at Broadway, 415-674-1069)

Square Meals’ welcoming cafe

Square Meals is just what Polk Street needed: a friendly neighborhood café with eat-in, delivery or take-out foods and dinners, delectable baked goods and sweets from Batter Bakery (who they share the café with), Ritual coffee, a wine happy hour, and board games to play in a mellow setting. Offerings include cool, subtle soba noodles with crab, mint, chili and escarole ($24 a lb.), lasagna, pork schnitzel, flank steak, falafel patties.

Square Meals’ namesake book

Order: The lunch highlight is a daily changing sandwich, like tender halibut enlivened with strips of bacon and silky caramelized onions ($13). Don’t miss Batter Bakery’s Sand Angel cookies, a glorified, denser Snickerdoodle.

SEOUL PATCH in ROCKETFISH, Potrero Hill (1469 18th St. at Connecticut, 415-282-9666)

Rocketfish is a Potrero Hill sushi restaurant, but by day, it’s a Korean fusion (yes, I used the dread “f” word) pop-up, Seoul Patch. A few menu items rotate, with a couple traditional Korean dishes in the mix. Eat in at Rocketfish’s bar top or roomy booths.

Seoul Patch’s fried chicken sandwich

Order: Their fried chicken sandwich ($10) with daikon slaw has been an early favorite, and with good reason. The fried chicken is blessed with subtle Asian spices, crispy breading giving way to juicy meat within. Their sandwiches can suffer from not enough sauce or contrast, translating to dry, as in the case of a Korean BBQ Pork Sando ($8.50) with avocado, tempura onion ring and a pickle.

Korean pancake

Though spicy pork was well prepared, the sandwich needed a sauce to tie it together. Traditional Korean dishes, like Bibimbap ($11 – a rice bowl with bulgogi beef and fried egg), are better elsewhere. I prefer a green onion pancake ($5.50) that recalls Japanese okonomiyaki: chewy and moist, it’s dotted with bacon and kimchi, drizzled in kewpie (Japanese mayo with vinegar) and oko sauce, both typically used on okonomiyaki.

SOUTHIE, Oakland (6311 College Ave. at 63rd, Oakland, 510-654-0100)

Excellent Southie sandwiches

While I enjoyed Rockridge’s Wood Tavern from the first time I visited years ago, I didn’t exactly rush out after hearing about their sandwich offshoot last year on the same block, Southie. There are hundreds of excellent sandwiches in SF and I needn’t cross the bridge for yet another pork sandwich. But I was pleasantly surprised to find Southie’s sandwiches among the better I’ve had all year. Wine on tap makes lingering at high tables in the narrow space a pleasant lunch respite.

Lobster roll at New England Lobster

Order: A Dungeness crab roll ($18) trumps most crab sandwiches. On a buttery brioche, it explodes with succulent crab meat. Celery root remoulade and Meyer lemon brown butter elevate it to near perfection. An expensive sandwich to be sure, but they did not skimp on crab. “Spicy Hog” ($10) is their popular pulled pork sandwich on an Acme roll. Again, it seems everyone is doing a Southern-influenced pork sandwich these days, but theirs is a shows strong, loaded with coleslaw, pickled jalapeno, and lime aioli.

NEW ENGLAND LOBSTER, South San Francisco (170 Mitchell Ave., South SF, 650-873-9000)

New England Lobster’s new food truck

Industrial South San Francisco near SFO is certainly not the place most of us would head for lunch – and not for lobster. Look for a new, bright red truck off Mitchell Avenue, outside seafood/shellfish source, New England Lobster. The best lobster rolls I’ve had have been on the East Coast (overflowing rolls at Pearl’s Oyster Bar in NY’s Greenwich Village have been excellent for years). Despite the New England moniker, New England’s lobster meat is not the most flavorful nor is the bread that dreamy buttery brioche used in the best lobster rolls, but they are satisfying sandwiches, particularly if you ask for drawn butter to drizzle over them.

Order: Lobster corn chowder ($5) is essentially a creamy bisque dotted with corn and chunks of lobster. It’s decadent with a lobster roll (the one other option is a crab roll). If you happen to be nearby or need a bite before a flight, this is a fun, unusual option.

Oct
01
2011

Top Tastes

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

Bar Agricole Matures

My top dish at Bar Agricole: sweet, earthy, peppers of all kinds, from roasted padron and lipstick, to corno di toro and Jimmy Nardello peppers ($16)

Bar Agricole, SoMa  (355 11th Street between Folsom and Harrison, 415-355-9400)

Bar Agricole has won numerous awards for its unique, forward-thinking design, and a long list of accolades for food and cocktails (often with a rhum agriocle and classic cocktail focus). I went more often in early days last Summer when it first opened, but have been twice again recently, convinced that Bar Agricole has matured and found its stride (not to mention their herb garden is one of the best outdoor dining spots in the city). Cocktails are clean and elegant and chef Brandon Jew’s food is better than ever. Both recent meals included dishes ranging from quite good to outstanding… here are just a few:

Clean, bright tequila cocktails are all over the menu, this one using the hard-to-find Herencia Mexicana

Simple & lovely: Roasted beets ($9) on rustic dark bread smeared with horseradish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fresh, plump sardine roll mops ($6) wrapped around pickles

Heartwarming wood oven-roasted eggplant ($22) with mascarpone, Early Girl tomatoes, basil

A memorable off-menu duck and poached egg dish sent to our table

Grilled squid ($17) with coco nero beans, costata romanesco, purslane and aioli

I’ve tasted over 14 cocktails (all $10) here recently and here were some stand-outs, each clean and classic:

- Sleepyhead (brandy, ginger, mint, lime, sparkling wine)

- Tequila Fix (lime, pineapple gum, hellfire bitters)

- Bellamy Scotch Sour (whisky, lemon, orange, honey, egg white)

- Brown Derby (bourbon, grapefruit, lemon, honey, bitters)

For dessert: chevre strawberry tart ($9)

Gourmet Tavern Fare Downtown

Jasper’s Corner Tap and Kitchen, Downtown/Union Square  (401 Taylor Street at O’Farrell, 415-775-7979)

Negroni on draft (foreground) & a Soda Jerk cocktail at Jasper's

Recently I’ve shared numerous cocktail favorites and small bites picks at the new Jasper’s, a welcome all-day dining option downtown near Union Square with superb cocktails from Kevin Diedrich and team. I’ve tried just about every cocktail on the menu, also recommending the beer and wine selection, offering a comprehensive selection on tap in both categories.

Padron peppers ($5), sausage bites ($5), or a house pretzel ($4/$8) dipped in smoked gouda/cheddar fondue, are all good starters. But don’t discount the salads as a shared starter or an entree. They are satisfying and made with a gourmet touch. An heirloom tomato salad ($13) with buffalo mozzarella, arugula, includes the welcome touch of preserved lemon. Equally fun is the chop-chop salad ($12) laced with seasonal veggies, minced egg, sunflower seeds in a mustard dressing. A fried avocado wedge seals the deal.

Fresh and satisfying: the Chop-Chop Salad

The Ballpark ($13) is executive chef Adam Carpenter’s juicy, house-made sausage wedged in a bun with spicy, horseradish-heavy mustard, brussels sprout sauerkraut on top, and a tiny side of blue cheese coleslaw. Though I prefer the sausage (and other gourmet burgers around town), one can still have a good time with the J Burger ($15). A side frites accompanies griddled wagyu beef, English blue cheese, bacon onion marmalade, and frisee on a baguette bun.

The Ballpark: a juicy, house sausage

Shepherd’s Pie ($16) remains true to the traditional but with minced lamb, crusted over with mashed potatoes and aged white cheddar. Oddly enough, my favorite plate may be the simplest: grilled cheese ($7) with tomato and onion relish on whole wheat sourdough. Half the sandwich sits atop the other like a mini-tower. Roasted garlic, frisee, and herbs (add avocado $2, pork belly $4) send the sandwich over the top.

My favorite: the grilled cheese sandwich

Dessert is a highlight, too. Cinnamon pretzel doughnut and a shot of Maker’s Mark and espresso with cream ($8) is a little too filling after burgers and Shepherd’s Pie, but sharing it is worth it. Though the doughnut is made from house pretzel dough, it is still somehow light and soft. The bourbon, espresso and cream is affogato-style in a shot glass, ideal to finish off a meal.

But ultimate kudos go to two house ice creams: fresh mint and Maker’s Mark bourbon ($4 a scoop). The bourbon is creamy and boozy, while the fresh mint is bright. Together, it’s a Mint Julep in ice cream form. Sigh.

Doughnut and a shot to finish

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Jun
01
2011

The Latest

Talking SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD with GASTON ACURIO

Causas and all manner of sustainable, Peruvian goodness at La Mar Cebicheria

There’s not enough knowledge around sustainable fish… just ask anyone who knows anything about it. The majority of Americans eat whatever is on a menu with little to regard to where it’s sourced, its health properties (or lack thereof), unaware if the creature they are eating is endangered.

Artwork at SoMa's new Ki, one of the only all sustainable seafood restaurants

I was privileged to attend a recent intimate round-table discussion with Peru’s leading chef Gaston Acurio and management from Monterey Bay Aquarium, the number one seafood source in the nation for what is or isn’t safe to eat at any given time.

Naturally, we met in the offices of La Mar Cebicheria, Acurio’s first stateside restaurant and my tops in SF for Peruvian (New York is about to get their first La Mar outpost). As San Francisco’s breezy, Bay-side location of La Mar just went fully sustainable with its seafood, it was an ideal time to discuss the necessity of sustainability.

Acurio says chefs, cooks, kitchen staff in general, are “the best weapons” to bring about change. While many say the consumer should educate themselves, Acurio rightly assesses the need for education from restaurant staff. He shared a story of a Peruvian restaurant relaying to diners that their children would not know what their beloved local river shrimp tasted like as the shrimp would soon be extinct from over-fishing. With this kind of schooling, consumers themselves began asking every restaurant they dined at not to serve the shrimp. Locals changed habits and potentially saved the shrimp based on what they learned from a restaurant.

Acurio’s commitment to sustainability is apparent. He’s working to spread the message worldwide, just as he has done with his native Peruvian cuisine. “Restaurants are instruments for sharing our culture with the world,” he says. He prefers to train his staff by inspiration, getting them involved and behind a mission, not just performing roles.

He says restaurant staff and individual consumers can do three things to support sustainable seafood consumption, thus preserving the over-fished seafood we are at risk of losing (like ever-popular tuna or mahi mahi – download guides of what to eat or avoid and alternatives at Monterey Aquarium site):

1. Support local fisherman (locally, buy sustainable fish at places like Royal Hawaiian in Potrero Hill or in the Ferry Plaza Building at San Francisco Fish Co.)

2. Eat down the food chain as that is seafood in large supply (clams, anchovies, sardines, mussels, etc…)

3. Avoid aquaculture seafood (farmed fish raised in controlled conditions)

Sustainable sushi at Ki

Acurio believes more creativity happens when cooking with what is fresh and available daily. Rather than being limited by the diner who’s going to be upset you didn’t serve tuna tartare, he challenges chefs to “dream big” to create dishes that could win over consumers with sustainable fish.

A few local restaurants serving only sustainable seafood:

1. Tataki and Tataki South, Pacific Heights and Noe Valley – The first sustainable sushi restaurant in the US was Tataki, right here in our own backyard.

2. Ki, SoMa – Part of the funky, spacious “Zen Compound” including Temple Nightclub, and a rooftop garden, Ki is an artsy, new izakaya/sushi/drinks lounge.

3. Hecho, FiDi - Sustainable sushi sources named – and tequila to go with.

4. Pacific Catch deems June Sustainable Shrimp Month, serving shrimp from various parts of the world.

Further Reading: Don’t miss local resident Casson Trenor’s book, Sustainable Sushi (Trenor helped launch both Tataki and Ki).

Upcoming Event: The fabulous 18 Reasons throws a “Good Fish” event (cooking demo and lecture, $25-35) Sunday afternoon, June 12, navigating the confusing terms of sustainable fish.

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