Sep
01
2014

Top Tastes

Broccoli and cheese re-imagined at The Tradesman in the Mission

Broccoli and cheese re-imagined at The Tradesman in the Mission

My Top Food Articles: August 16-31

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my many articles a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to just some coverage highlights here – you can follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily, or on my own @ThePerfectSpot via Twitter or Facebook.

Essay/Opinion Piece

Changing Tastes: You Can Learn to Eat (Even Like) Everything with Commentary from Harold McGee

New Bay Area Openings

Spanish-Californian Gem in the Presido: Traci Des Jardins’ THE COMMISSARY

Killer peanut butter cheddar burgers and other better-than-average bar food gems at THE TRADESMAN

Bruleed lobster pretzel rolls and other seafood gems at JACK’S OYSTER BAR & FISH HOUSE in Oakland

Early Tastes at Spanish Newcomer in the Castro, BESO

Every Friday: 25 NEW RESTAURANTS TO TRY IN THE BAY AREA

Underrated & Established Spots

The Results of our 1st National BEST BURGER SURVEY – and my round-up of HONORABLE MENTIONS

WHERE TO EAT NEAR BART: My 10-stop guide, station-by-station

Secretly Awesome: GOOD LUCK DIM SUM in the Inner Richmond for best dim sum takeout

My Top 4 VEGETARIAN BURGERS

South Bay

Day Trip: What to Eat & Drink in LOS GATOS – my 4 favorite spots

Events

The 6 Best Things I ate & drank at OUTSIDE LANDS 2014

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Jul
01
2014

Top Tastes

Dining at 2 Michelin-starred Saison - interview with Chef Josh Skenes below

Dining at 2 Michelin-starred Saison – interview with Chef Josh Skenes below

My Top Food Articles: June 15-30

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my 15 articles/posts a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to just some coverage highlights here – you can sign up for Zagat’s weekly newsletter for highlights here and follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily.

As I have been for over a decade, I’m on the ground daily looking for early standouts at each new opening, while sharing underrated places and dishes you’ve seen me write about here at The Perfect Spot for years, and, of course, plenty of drink coverage (cocktails, wine, spirits, beer).

My biggest feature article of the last two weeks hit yesterday, in line with Best Thing We Ate lists in each Zagat city around the US – here is my list of the top 12 Best Thing We Ate dishes in the Bay Area this year so far.

Interviews

Chef JOSH SKENES on SAISON’s New $498 Test Kitchen Dinners and Winemaker Dinner Series

New Bay Area Openings

What to eat at MARLA BAKERY’s restaurant, just open in Outer Richmond

First Look at BELCAMPO MEATS new San Francisco restaurant and sustainable, ethical butcher shop

New PIATTINI ADDS A SLICE OF VENICE to Mission St.

Every Friday: 25 NEW RESTAURANTS TO TRY IN THE BAY AREA

URBAN PUTT GETS BOOZE – and what to eat one month in at the quirky mini-golf restaurant/bar

Day Trip: Port Costa

If Savannah (or other quirky, historic Southern town) met a California Gold Country Western town, it might feel a lot like PORT COSTA, home to one of the country’s best dive bars and a cosmopolitan restaurant and cocktail bar

East Bay

Early Tastes at PERDITION SMOKEHOUSE in BERKELEY from Mikkeller Bar SF & The Trappist Founder

What to eat & drink at downtown OAKLAND‘s new CAPTAIN & CORSET

Secretly Awesome: TRABOCCO’s pizza and pasta in an ALAMEDA strip mall

Rockridge’s (Oakland) OSMANTHUS renews your fried brussels sprouts crush

Underrated & Established Spots

8 reasons to revisit LOCAL KITCHEN & WINE MERCHANT in SoMa

The 8 BEST HOT DOGS in San Francisco

Unsung Heroes: SF’s best Afghani food for over 20 years at HELMAND PALACE

The 10 BEST PLACE FOR FRIED CHICKEN in San Francisco

NICO ADDS NEW ROSE PAIRING and LOW PROOF COCKTAIL menus with these dishes

THREE TWINS ORGANIC ICE CREAM & GOTT’s ROADSIDE join forces

South Bay/Peninsula

LEXINGTON HOUSE, a destination restaurant and cocktail haven in LOS GATOS

Elegant weekend escape to CARMEL (where your boutique hotel houses a Michelin-starred restaurant)

Silky crudo, standout salads and Carlos Yturria’s cocktails at LURE + TILL in PALO ALTO

Events/Dinner Series

ICHI, Commonwealth and more join STONES THROW CHARITY DINNERS throughout the summer

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Aug
15
2013

Around the Bay

Sampling beers at Steins in Mountain View

Sampling beers at Steins in Mountain View

3 Reasons to Dine South (Bay, that is)

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Oh, that burger: Steins

Oh, that burger: Steins’ dry-aged short rib-brisket-sirloin patty

As with any part of the Bay Area, the South Bay offers plenty of culinary riches. It may be Silicon Valley, the ‘burbs, numerous towns rather than a metropolitan city, but exploring Indian food from Mountain View to Santa Clara or international hole-in-the-walls in San Mateo can gleefully feel like eating through another country.

Here’s three restaurants where food and drink lightheartedly co-mingle, promising delights for the foodie, the gourmand, the drink aficionado, or the plain hungry.

STEINS BEER GARDEN, MOUNTAIN VIEW

Fried chicken

Fried chicken

There’s no better beer-with-food outpost in the South Bay (besides pastrami or brisket with Belgian beers at The Refuge in San Carlos) than Steins. Boasting a sunny beer garden, their spare, cavernous space features over 20 beers on tap, many of them rare kegs, and large, communal tables, ideal for larger parties.

Steins beer hall setting

Steins beer hall setting

EAT: Chef Colby M. Reade is clearly having fun with the menu. There’s obvious (but no less delightful) beer pairings like warm, house-baked pretzels ($6) coated in lye for golden brown color, sprinkled with Maldon sea salt, dipped in caraway beer mustard. Or a stunner of a burger ($11) – best medium-rare – a house-ground blend of dry-aged short rib, brisket and sirloin on brioche (add Danish blue, cheddar or Swiss for $1, pork belly, over easy egg, or mushroom for $2). Alternately, they serve a juicy fried chicken sandwich ($12) topped with apple slaw and spiced honey on ciabatta.

Summer Squash

Summer Squash

Unexpectedly, Chef Reade also offers seasonal, garden-fresh beauties that make me feel less guilty for chowing down on burgers, beer and pretzels. This summer it was thinly shaved and diced squash ($12) over a mound of roasted corn and cracked wheat in herb pesto and lemon vinaigrette. There’s good times to be had with Breakfast for Dinner ($15), a meaty hunk of smoked pork belly under poached egg in maple Dijon vinaigrette. End with cinnamon sugar crullers (doughnut-like pastries, $8) dipped in dark drinking chocolate.

Dessert platter:

Dessert round: Devil’s Food chocolate cake, flourless almond cake w/ raspberry sorbet, crullers with dark drinking chocolate

DRINK: Just a few of the possible draft joys waiting to be poured from the ever-changing drafts at Steins? A rare cask of Dogfish Head Positive Contact ($8), an ale brewed with Fuji apple cider and spices, slow roasted farro, cayenne and fresh cilantro. Or try High Water Brewing Campfire Stout ($9) which is actually brewed with chocolate malt, marshmallow flavoring and actual graham crackers. Sounds like junk food, yes, but it’s a marvelously meaty, smoky-sweet brew. Happily co-existing with food might be Ninkasi’s Total Domination ($7), an IPA with citrus, floral notes and hoppy richness from Carahell and Munich malts.

NICK’S NEXT DOOR, LOS GATOS

Beef tartare

Beef tartare

Expect a warm welcome from Nick himself, who moves effortlessly between kitchen and guests, ensuring everyone is having a good time. Nick’s Next Door is a South Bay gem with front garden/patio, a neighborhood restaurant filled with regulars and upscale enough (though definitely relaxed) to feel like a night out.

Nick's patio

Nick’s patio

EAT: There’s a Cali-fresh sensibility to the cooking and playful twists on some of my beloved favorites like steak tartare ($14). Here, a mound of silky tartare is topped with fried (vs. raw) sunnyside egg, surrounded by pommes frites and toasted sourdough crostini. Their “NOT your traditional Caesar” ($6) salad is a generous portion of baby spinach, wild arugula and radicchio littered with Pt. Reyes blue cheese, bright anchovies, garlic croutons and crispy bacon.

Nani's meatloaf

Nani’s meatloaf

Entrees aren’t a let down either, particularly house staple Nani’s meatloaf ($21), a tender mound of beef partnered with whipped potatoes and sauteed broccolini, in a mushroom gravy. A special might be plump, seared scallops ($28) over a duck fat-infused faro grain. The dish is decadent in Parmesan cream and parsley lemon oil with crispy sheets of lollipop kale for contrast. Finish with a scoop of tarragon ice cream in port cherries ($4).

DRINK: Choose from a California-only wine list or sip a ginger-spiced Bulleit Rye whiskey cocktail, Bitter Old Man ($12), softened by lemon, Grand Marnier, ginger and basil, served up with a candied ginger garnish.

MANRESA, LOS GATOS

Rare Belon oysters

Rare Belon oysters

Manresa is a fine dining temple to produce (sourced from their own Love Apple Farms) and experimental cooking, thanks to Chef-Proprietor David Kinch. They are widely acknowledged internationally, hosting some of the world’s greatest chefs when they’re in town (like an unforgettable collaborative dinner last year with Chef Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne, Australia). If that weren’t enough, they own a coveted two Michelin stars.

s

Strawberry gazpacho

EAT: Needless to say, this isn’t everyday dining for many of us. That’s why I was pleased in early June to taste through their just-launched lounge menu, a still delicate, exotic sampling of Manresa’s creativity without the price of the prix fixe ($130) or seasonal tasting ($185) menus.

In the small lounge, the tasting menu is five changing “bites” for $48, starting with warm garden beignets, and a seasonal dish like vibrant, sweet-savory strawberry-red bell pepper-cucumber gazpacho poured over Marcona almonds and lemon balm curd.

Goat milk ice

Goat milk ice

Then there might be silky Japanese sea bream in yuzu, or a rare treat of a Belon oyster from Maine (originally from Brittany, France) over seaweed ice. Dessert from Pastry Chef Stephanie Prida might be goat milk ice, layered with kumquats, tapioca-like pearls and crumble, drizzled in a rum sauce.

Manresa cocktails

Manresa cocktails

DRINK: This peek at what goes on in a world class restaurant is ideally savored with wines from their impressive 600+ list.

Cocktails include the soft Golden Orange ($16), with a subtle taste of the Templeton Rye whiskey and Campari base, lemon, Amaro Nonino and bit of kumquat jam, or a Pumpernickel Twist ($16) using St. George’s Dry Rye gin, infused with caraway infusion, mixed with lemon, mole bitters, decanter bitters.

LODGING AND ACTIVITIES

While recently weekending in Los Gatos, which is about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco, I crashed at Toll House Hotel off the main street and easily walkable to all restaurants. My husband, The Renaissance Man, and I raided their in-house DVD collection for film noir and movie classics one night, complete with Scotch (which I brought) and chocolates from Amour Patisserie just up the block. I also recommend Amour for proper French pastries like pain au chocolat and almond croissants with Blue Bottle Coffee in the morning, and Garrod Farms in neighboring Saratoga where we spent a lovely morning riding horses through scenic trails with Bay views in the distance.

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Jan
09
2013

Around the Bay

Saltfish and ackee, Jamaica's national dish, at Miss Ollie's in Old Oakland

ISLAND BREEZES: Searching for Caribbean

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Though not an island girl, I crave sorrel, that cinnamon-spiced, rosy-purple juice made from the petals of a sorrel plant, or multi-colored Scotch bonnet peppers, both common in the Caribbean and ideal together, sorrel cooling off the pepper’s scorching heat. One of my closest friends is Jamaican and we’ve been exploring local Caribbean food for years, though lacking in abundant options.

A Caribbean staple: sweet, grilled plantains

Saddened to lose Penny’s Caribbean Cafe – a tiny Berkeley dive with excellent Trinidadian home cooking – when Penny moved back to Trinidad a few years ago, I’ve trekked to San Leandro for festivals (Jamaican cornbread fritters) and curry goat at Sweet Fingers, savored the sunny patio though more Americanized food at Primo Patio Cafe tucked away in SF’s SoMa, dined at now defunct pop-up Kingston 11 in Berkeley, and appreciated Sarah Kirnon’s inventive Caribbean fusion (Jerk Cornish hen!) from her days as chef at Oakland’s Hibiscus.

Caribbean foods can also be found at Oakland grocers like Minto Jamaican Market and Man Must Wak where you can stock up on authentic ginger beers and Ting (beloved Jamaican grapefruit soda), to name a few items, and I’m curious about San Francisco-based caterer Lehi Cooks Jamaica. Thanks to my dear friend and her family who get their Jamaican food fix at this tiny haven, I’ve found my favorite Caribbean outpost in the most surprising of locales: Menlo Park.

BACK A YARD, 1189 Willow Road, Menlo Park, 650-323-4244 (also San Jose)

Drinking Ting with Friday's escovetich special

With squeaky front porch door and perpetual line out the door, closet-sized Back A Yard is clearly a locals’ favorite in suburban Menlo Park. The term “back a yard” refers to the way things are done “back home”, appropriate to this humble, comforting spot. Chef Robert Simpson began his cooking career in Jamaica, gained European perspective in Belgium, then cooked at various Caribbean resorts before coming to the Bay Area.

For vegetarians, Back A Yard's jerk tofu retains a meaty, grilled quality to silky tofu

Under fluorescent lighting, crammed into a handful of tables, I down a Ting which cools off the Thursday-Saturday tender curry goat special ($12.75). Generous platters come with sides of sweet plantains, green salad, and coconut-laced rice ‘n beans, different from New Orleans’ version but equally heartwarming and moist. Another top side are warm, honey-sweet festivals, like a doughnut meets cornbread. Jerk chicken ($9.50) appropriately shines, though jerk tofu ($8.95) likewise exhibits meaty, grilled tones amidst silky texture. Friday’s special is escoveitch: it was snapper on a Friday I visited. Choose a grilled filet ($12.75) or whole fish (market price), head and eyeballs intact, not so much an immaculate fish dish as Caribbean comfort food, recalling days I’d polish off a whole grilled fish in the countryside of Vietnam.

Thu-Sat special: tender curry goat

Jamaica’s national dish, saltfish and ackee, is a must, served here only on Saturdays ($14.50). Salty cod is sautéed with Scotch bonnet peppers and subtly sweet, soft ackee, a fruit related to the lychee. This version shines compared to others I’ve had, confirmed by my friend as authentically reminiscent of saltfish and ackee she grew up with in Jamaica. Dessert ($3.25) is the one letdown, whether a blandly cold sweet potato pudding or a sliver of key lime pie lacking the tart oomph I crave in what is one of my favorite pies. Nonetheless, this hole-in-the-wall is a treasure bringing heartfelt Caribbean cooking to South Bay folk… and worth a trek for hardcore foodies.

MISS OLLIE’S, 901 Washington Street at Ninth St., Oakland, 510-285-6188

Pull up to Miss Ollie's bar for chicory coffee & Creole doughnuts (call for availability)

Chef Sarah Kirnon (formerly of the aforementioned Hibiscus) just opened Miss Ollie’s at the beginning of December, currently only during Tuesday-Friday lunch in a corner location of Swan’s Market in Old Oakland. Visiting opening week, lines were already long and waits for food even longer (30 minutes), not ideal for a low-key, eat-in or take-out lunch. Despite opening kinks, Oakland is clearly craving quality Caribbean, packing communal wooden tables in a spacious, spare dining room.

Named after, and in tribute to, Kirnon’s grandmother, the food is decidedly more casual than in her Hibiscus days, modeled after the Caribbean one-stop shops she grew up with: affordable (under $10) daily changing dishes from curry goat to her popular fried chicken – grandma’s recipe.

Sorrel & Creole ham salad

Initially, dishes were uneven, whether flavorless, cold Creole ham and sweet potato salad ($7.50), or a two-note (salty and HOT) saltfish and ackee ($8), begging for more plantains and ackee to contrast Scotch bonnet peppers and uber-salty cod. But Miss Ollie’s sorrel is a superior, refreshing rendition, while lamb patties ($7) in a puff pastry evoke an Indian-Caribbean empanada, redolent of cardamom and allspice.

Daily specials are announced via Facebook, like fresh loaves of Jamaican hard dough bread or chicory coffee sweetened by condensed milk with Creole doughnuts. Miss Ollie’s fills a needed void and is certainly one to watch.

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Jul
15
2012

Top Tastes

Dominique Crenn wows at Atelier Crenn with a silken, edible nest filled with dehydrated vanilla pods over sweet corn and porcinis

VISIONARY CHEF COLLABORATIONS
at Manresa & Atelier Crenn

Chef Shewry's straightforward, elegant amuse: fresh walnuts in the shell

A strong concentration of the US’s cutting-edge chefs are right here in the Bay Area. Widely acknowledged in food publications and amongst global diners, there’s been an uptick in Bay Area creativity buzz in recent years. Collaborative dinners between local chefs and with chefs from countries beyond uniquely showcase the forward-thinking cooking coming out of our region. I’ve been privileged to attend recent one-of-a-kind dinners like the one this week between culinary “it” town Copenhagen chef Christian Puglisi of Michelin-starred Relae and Bar Tartine’s visionary chef Nick Balla.

Manresa's dining room

During a weekend in May, one of Australia’s star chefs, Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne, joined the incredible David Kinch at Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos (which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month a series of collaborative dinners with guest chefs). Both chefs are known foragers, utilizing local bounty in their restaurants on par with art form, Manresa sourcing their produce from nearby Love Apple Farms (which hosts a series of classes on everything from gardening to cider-making). The few hour dinner was a dream of freshness in unexpected forms, heartwarming in taste – not merely visual.

Shewry started with walnuts in their shell, unadorned and tender, while Kinch offered carrots, clams and savory, textural granola dotting vegetable marrow bouillon. Shewry’s fresh crab and artichoke leaves arrived softly layered, dotted with citrus cream. Unlike any crab dish I’ve had before, it nearly dissolved on the tongue, fresh as the sea yet elegantly subtle. A stunner.

Shewry's crab & artichoke leaves - a revelation

As was his beauty of diced sweet potato, purslane and egg doused in a creamy pool of Cabot clothbound Vermont cheddar. Kinch’s gorgeous dessert was a silken, custard-like mound of white chocolate surrounded by crispy quinoa, goat’s milk ice cream, and a strip of rhubarb like an elevated fruit roll-up for the gourmand.

Manresa (namely Kinch’s cooking) is a destination any time, “the whole package” with garden-fresh cocktails, impeccable service and wine list. The partnership this particular weekend showcased two world class chefs side-by-side, expressing their gifts, melding their visions.

Manresa chef David Kinch's art form of a dessert melds goat cheese and white chocolate with rhubarb and quinoa

As part of SF Chefs‘ current Dinner Party Project, teaming up local chefs in themed dinners leading up to the big food and drink classic swiftly approaching August 2-5, inventive chefs Dominique Crenn and Jason Fox (Commonwealth) partnered at Dominique’s restaurant, Atelier Crenn, for a special dinner on July 8th. Both chefs connect over a similar ethos apparent in their delicate yet bold, often playful, cooking styles. Alternating courses, each flowed out bright with Summery spirit.

Campari Explosion!

An amuse bouche certainly did “amuse”, awakening the taste buds: little white chocolate shells dubbed “Campari explosion” actually exploded with vivid, joyously bitter Campari reduction, paired alongside a Campari/blood orange cocktail aperitif. Both chefs rocked the tomato in unexpected ways. Fox plays with green tomato in the form of a jelly disc gracefully dotted with silky uni, shiso mint leaves and refreshing cucumber granita. Crenn salutes the glories of red and yellow tomatoes in varying forms and textures – from peeled to sorbet – in a vibrant bowl accented by goat cheese, edible flowers from her home garden, and a strip of lardo, that beauty of pig fat salume, for rich contrast.

Commonwealth chef Jason Fox delights with a beauty of disc of green tomato topped with uni

Unpredictable touches jump out, like Fox’s frozen “white snow” over corn pudding topped with grilled sweetbreads and tempura-fried okra (paired beautifully with a 2006 Pierre Morey Bourgogne Chardonnay), or another Fox hit: bone marrow puree animating hearts of palm, skinned red potato and poached ruby fish, happily paired with a cup of duck consommé tea. The meaty tea seamlessly interacted with the vegetables and bone marrow, highlighting masculine mischievousness in Fox’s stylish cooking.

Crenn's dreamy melange of tomatoes in varying textures & forms

Besides her truly imaginative take on tomatoes, my other favorite Crenn dish arrived dramatically on a scooped stone slab graced with a chocolate branch and an edible, glistening silk nest filled with dehydrated vanilla pods over sweet corn and porcini mushrooms. Like a treasure found in an enchanted forest, the dish explored both savory and sweet whimsically, a feminine wildness tempered by refinement.

Fox's rubyfish w/ bone marrow puree & hearts of palm

We’ll see more from both skilled chefs – and many others – during SF Chefs days’ long extravaganza, which I look forward to every year in tented Union Square (event schedule here). It’s a pleasure to witness our region’s best collaborate with each other and the finest globally, a reminder as to why the Bay Area is in the midst of yet another culinary renaissance, one of many the past few decades.

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May
01
2012

Around the Bay

Brasa's sunny, charming back patio

NEW EAST & SOUTH BAY CHEAP EATS

In the spirit of my new SF cheap eats article last issue (and recent Guardian column), here are two noteworthy new cheap eats joints East and South: Berkeley and Palo Alto.

ASIAN BOX, Palo Alto (855 El Camino Real, 650-391-9305)

Fresh, Asian eats in Palo Alto

Asian Box is a newer take-out shop (with one narrow communal table inside and a couple tables outside) in a mobbed Palo Alto strip mall. What could be just another casual Asian food joint has two key things going for it. One is two former San Francisco chefs behind it: executive chef Grace Nguyen, of Out The Door’s Bush Street location, and Chad Newton, who many of us followed at Fish & Farm (where he created one incredible burger).

The other is that Asian Box’s affordable food ($6.95-$8.25) is ultra-fresh and satisfying. It’s an assemble-your-own meal, starting with short or long grain rice, Asian vegetable salad or rice noodles. Choose a protein – I like juicy garlic soy glazed beef or creamy coconut curry tofu, and finish with add-ons like jalapeno, bean sprouts, carrots, peanuts, mint, basil, pickled vegetables, lime – all at no additional charge (except for a .95 caramel egg).

Choose-your-own ingredients

In terms of sauces, creamy peanut sauce with lime and coconut stands out, while there’s also Sriracha and a no oil fish sauce. Vietnamese iced coffee and tart lemon lime marmalade ($2.95 – both winners) flow from juice dispensers, while, much as I wanted to try it, house Jungle jerky ($2.75) was sold out on my recent visit.

Though SF residents needn’t trek from the city, if you’re in the area, it’s easily one of the best cheap meals in Palo Alto and would be a lunch hit in SF if they had a Financial District location.

BRASA, Berkeley (1960 University Avenue at Milvia; 510-868-0735)

Brasa Peruvian

In the space were eVe used to be (which I included in the Guardian’s 2010 Best of the Bay), husband/wife owners, Veronica and Chris Laramie, reopened the place as Brasa, a casual Peruvian eatery with lime green and neutral walls, and idyllic back deck. While they hope to revisit the eVe concept in a bigger space eventually, Veronica tells me the current goal is to open another Brasa.

The menu is simple, heartwarming Peruvian fare, if not solely worth heading across the bridge for, is worthwhile if in the area. Classic Peruvian favorites like Lomo Saltado here become a sandwich ($8.25) packed with hangar steak, red onion, tomato, soy sauce, and French fries.

Brasa's small dining room

Their house specialty is rotisserie chicken (quarter to whole chicken with 1-2 sides: $8.75-$21.75), crispy skin dotted with herbs. We have quality rotisserie in SF, but dipping sauces are a plus here, featuring common Peruvian peppers, aji amarillo and rocoto, my favorite being a green hucatay, sometimes referred to as Peruvian black mint, though it is actually an herb related to marigold and tarragon. The sauce is spicy, herbaceous and creamy.

Sip a refreshing chicha morada ($2), a sweet, purple corn Peruvian juice laden with clove and cinnamon, and finish with house alfajores ($3.50), dulce de leche sandwich cookies (though my favorite alfajores remain Sabores del Sur in SF) or Straus soft serve ice cream (cone $3, pint $6) infused with coffee caramel.

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Feb
01
2012

Around the Bay

House eggnog with nutmeg foam served in egg shells

Experimentation: alive & well
at BAUME, Palo Alto

Baume’s glowing sign outside dated, nondescript strip setting in Palo Alto

There are meals that live on in memory: a diorama of conversation, heartwarming food, and that misty glow from a fine bottle of wine. Then there are the game changers, meals that are an elaborate tapestry, weaving complex threads of creativity into an unexpected whole. True: experimentation is useless if it is not also delicious. But if the food is as impacting to the taste buds as to the eye, it borders on art.

Bread course: fig pistachio “focaccia”

Baume (pronounced “bo-meh”) vies for the latter category at a level not seen enough in the Bay Area. Having lived in numerous parts of the country, including near major food cities (New York and Los Angeles), and ever eating my way across the globe, it’s easy to list San Francisco as one of the world’s great food cities. We breathe food from our pores, the quality of ingredients and passion for good cooking as high as you’ll see anywhere… and has been for decades.

Liquid nitrogen Baumetini with sparkling sake, passion fruit ice

Here I never suffer for impeccable presentation, ethnic authenticity, or heartwarming perfection. Where I find myself hunting for inspiration is in the realm of, for lack of a better term,  molecular experimentation? Molecular gastronomy has been deemed by many as “out” (or according to Britain’s seminal chef Heston Blumenthal, “dead”), a “trend” that watched its glory days die with the closing of legendary El Bulli. But if, as Thomas Keller posits, the issue is in the terminology, since the ripple effect of Ferran Adria has so permeated restaurants everywhere as to become “standard”, then experimental cooking is far from irrelevant.

Though the Bay Area has pushed boundaries for decades, one finds countless perfect Neapolitan pizzas or whole animal menus here, but only a handful of molecular menus. Maybe it’s our fierce devotion to purity, our desire to be above pretense, our commitment to letting ingredients speak for themselves that makes the Bay Area somewhat skittish around fussy equipment, even as we played out sous vide and foams along with every other leading food city.

Caviar parfait with green apple, puffed rice, carrot, smoked creme fraiche, gold flecks

We have our masters (e.g. Manresa, Coi, Restaurant at Meadowood, Benu, the great French Laundry). We also claim that growing category of fine dining, molecular cooking in affordable, casual formats (AQ, Commonwealth), a godsend to those of us who want boundaries pushed but not under the weight of stuffiness or stratospheric costs.

The study of science and gastronomy has been greatly advanced by locals like Harold McGee and Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas. While we have made notable inroads historically and new ones of late, I wish for just a few more Alinea and Jose Andres’ The Bazaar-type restaurants on our varied culinary map.

Craving comfort and loathing pretension as much as anyone, I don’t want to see us shrink from boundary-pushing. There’s room for it all. With the “dumbing down” of fine dining everywhere in recent years, many fear appearing ostentatious. Hence, “upscale comfort food” has taken over formerly more creative menus ad nauseam. Such a climate makes moves like chef Dominique Crenn opening Atelier Crenn all the more bold.

Alba white truffles shaved generously over cauliflower tapioca risotto

Fatty suckling pig in crispy skin is a winning main with braised endive and ginger sponge foam

Thankfully, Baume is not staying in the safe, comfort zone. Foams may be long over, but for an adventurous food lover, to sit down for three hours with merely a list of ingredients, nearly 20 bites and courses, is an exciting event.

Baume has become one of our best fine dining restaurants. It is artful, employing molecular processes alongside classic French technique. A list of ingredients like vadouvan, Calvados, kabocha, caviar, and like, tease but essentially give little intimation of what lies ahead.

Naming Baume one of 2010′s best new restaurant openings in both SF Guardian and the Perfect Spot, I found Chef Bruno Chemel’s vision inspiring, even as the restaurant was still discovering itself. Returning at the end of 2011, it is coming into its own. Prices reflect this “sense of self”. Formerly just over $100 per person, it’s now a whopping $168 without drink. Add on wine pairings and it’s $288 (or $368 if you desire the premium wine pairing). It’s one mighty expensive night out. But there are more courses than there were before, more intermezzos, bites, and delights at every turn. If you’re going to splurge, Baume is one of the more experimentally satisfying fine dining options in the Bay Area.

Beets and onions with shot of celery beet juice

The setting is understated, modern, but still a little staid, even museum-like. Thankfully, intimacy and bright orange and brown tones keep it from being cold, with one small room of 4-5 tables and additional individual tables behind curtains. Service is seamless, though with this many courses, expect to see waitstaff often throughout the meal. I am always impressed when I can ask even a server filling my water about ingredients and all are well-versed on each dish. This level of care is crucial in a place like Baume. I’m glad to say their staff seem clued in on the vision.

Even a menu of expensive aperitifs (four, ranging from $15-28) is elevated since my last visit. A Baumetini ($18) is dramatically presented with sparkling sake poured over liquid nitrogen lilikoi/passion fruit “ice”, an icy haze erupting from the glass, while the taste is tart, intense, palate-cleansing.

62 Degree Egg over lentils w/ vermouth sabayon

On a white, indented ceramic block sits a round roll of fig pistachio “focaccia” – the bread course. Looking more akin to mochi, the warm, green roll perks up in yuzu glaze and salt flecks. Moving on to juicy beets and onions in panko crumbs with a potent shot of celery beet juice, it’s clear this meal won’t be typical.

Halibut in pumpkin scales, coconut vadouvan emulsion

In 2010, Chef Chemel’s most memorable dish was a 62 degree egg. This is the only dish I recognize from the year before, silky as ever, though presentation is different over lentils in a vermouth sabayon, topped with tiny sage leaves and toasted garlic bread crumbs.

“Echire” French butter served with additional house breads

Produce proves to be a realm where Chemel shines. A delicate Autumn salad is one of the most beautiful and finest tasting dishes. It combines bits of apple, pear, squash, and vivid red leaves with acorn wafers. The dish blossoms with a gorgeous pairing of 2005 Domaine des Baumard Clos du Papillion Savennieres from the Loire, a 100% Chenin Blanc that surprises with orchard fruit contrasted by mineral earthiness.

Other stand-out moments included the add-on course (yes, for even more money) of Alba white truffles from Piemonte, Italy, in season and available for a matter of days. They generously shaved a luxurious truffle over cauliflower tapioca risotto, pairing it with 2006 Morey-Coffinet Morgeot Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru from Burgundy.

Cheese course served with sweet Sauternes wine from Bordeaux

Fatty suckling pig in crispy skin is a winning main with braised endive and ginger sponge foam. Apple plays prominent  in both freeze-dried green apple slices and a sauce of balsamic Calvados (French apple brandy). A bright, acidic 1999 Heitz Cellars Trailside Vineyard Cabernet from Napa alternately displays a raisin richness reminiscent of port, making an ideal apple-pig companion.

Dessert comes in four parts, but it’s a liquid shot that leaves an impression: fizzy, young coconut water soda with a lychee float. After dessert, I was served house eggnog with nutmeg foam in an egg shell. Perfect for December, it’s a playfully refined statement to end a nearly three hour feast.

One of my favorite courses: an artful Autumn salad

Additional courses:

Matsutake mushroom consomme steeps tableside

- Caviar parfait with green apple, puffed rice, carrot, smoked creme fraiche, gold flecks
- Matsutake mushroom wasabi consomme with 2007 Chateau de Fonselette Blanc, Cotes-du-Rhone – surprisingly excellent pairing, bringing out sweet, mulled cider notes in wine
- Halibut in pumpkin scales with coconut vadouvan emulsion
- Lobster with vanilla coffee foam, lavender, mushroom, paired with 2009 Kistler Chardonnay Les Noisetiers, Sonoma Coast – wine is full bodied, with mineral, passion fruit notes
- Intermezzo: green apple sorbet over green apple sand with marjoram
- Grass-fed filet mignon with leek terrine, truffle jus, black shaved truffle, paired with 2007 Bernard Burgaud Cote Rotie, a Rhone Syrah with dry mouth feel, tart, earthy notes
- Cheese course: funky, earthy, French cow’s milk cheese, L’Ami du Chambertin served with grapes and frisee; creamy, earthy, raw sheep-cow’s milk cheese Il Menalat Robiola, Lombardia, Italy
- Dessert: Pink ruby red grapefruit mint gelee; a “Rocky Road” redux including vanilla orange marshmallow and liquid nitrogen-toasted walnuts; coconut passion fruit blanc mange with Madelienes on a bed of guava

Dessert courses served with coconut water soda

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Feb
15
2011

Around the Bay

All Spice's enchanting cottage

Intriguing bites and openings in other parts of the Bay Area? All Spice is a new, upscale Indian restaurant in San Mateo. Though still working out kinks with some dishes not yet fully realized, the space is romantic and service engaging in a cottage I adored in its former iteration.

Oakland’s Camino is a space I love for different reasons: rustic, glowing, like a hall of an old English home with modern-day spirit. Returning after a year’s absence yielded an imperfect meal with sometimes small portions of dishes I’ve tasted better versions of elsewhere. Still, the overall package holds merit, particularly the drinks.

San Mateo

All Spice's front dining room

ALL SPICE - The magic of the enchanted cottage housing All Spice, enhanced by delightful husband-wife owners,  Sachin Chopra and Shoshana Wolff, is truly the highlight of this Indian gem. Promise radiates in almost every aspect, while service is professionally warm. I anticipate seeing how they evolve.

Without a liquor license yet, I partook of unusual drink offerings like sweet tea masala-infused water ($2), grapefruit-rosemary punch ($5), and, my favorite, a light but creamy passion fruit mint lassi ($2.50).

Farro Chaat

A starter of lavender cumin scallops ($12), may not have been mind-blowing but the trio of scallops were generous in size, while bacon bits over black cardamom pureed potato are inspired accents. Farro Chaat ($8) is aesthetic, shaped in a circle of wheat over purple Peruvian potatoes and cauliflower with chaat masala vinaigrette. Despite it’s beauty, it was served cold, tasting just a little bland.

Bacon-wrapped rack of lamb ($23) in sundried tomato red chile sauce with mushroom marmalade was a solid, savory dish. Poached black cod ($23) was a little salty but had the right texture while rutabaga puree and spiced southern greens underneath were downright addictive.

Chili Mango Bread Pudding

Chili mango bread pudding ($7) with ginger creme anglaise disappointed without a hint of the chili I was hoping for and dried mango bits rather than fresh, warm mango. Presentation stole the show with blackberries dotting the surface. A few tweaks and it could be memorable.

Ice cream trio

Faring better was a trio of house-made ice creams ($6). A bed of nuts and dried fruits under the scoops were a bit of a taste and texture distraction from the flavors of coconut curry, lemon thyme, chocolate anise, but overall it’s a winning finish, particularly the anise kick of the dark chocolate.

Oakland

CAMINO - The main stand-outs at my last visit to Camino were the small but well-prepared drinks. A simple Cocchi Americano on the rocks with a twist of orange ($7) is fine way to get the appetite flowing – a sweetly bitter aperitif. I can’t help but love a Camino Negroni ($9), made with with Gran Classico instead of Campari. This has been done all over SF for awhile, yet remains a lush version of a Negroni.

Pig's head & trotters at Camino

Mezcal works twice: light and fluffy with egg white, lemon, honey and rosemary in Mezcal Drink ($10); smoky and slate-like in the Oaxacan Old-Fashioned ($10 – reposado, mezcal, agave, Angostura bitters). It all flows with dishes like grilled rabbit and pig’s head with pig trotter fritters,  sauerkraut and fresh horseradish ($11), the best dish of the night.

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Written by in: Around the Bay | Tags: ,

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