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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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

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Jan
30
2013

Top Tastes

Tender ribs crusted in 17 spices

SOUTHPAW Brings It Home

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

SOUTHPAW BBQ, Mission (2170 Mission St. between 17th and 18th, 415-934-9300)

Fried oysters & beer

Road tripping through the South for music and BBQ remains one of my most memorable trips ever: driving through four states, studying sauces and smokers, singing along to Loretta and Conway, George and Tammy, Dolly and Porter, Johnny and June, as the countryside passes by. As I’ve bemoaned before, finding authentic ‘que outside of the Deep South is a rarity. Southpaw BBQ opened late 2011 on Mission Street, a BBQ oasis of the gourmet kind, brewing their own beers in a couple in-house tanks. Welcoming staff and flaky catfish impressed me early on, but watery sauces, dry ribs and brisket, deflated BBQ hopes. Fast forward a year.

Smoked pulled goat & fry bread

With new Chef Max Hussey on board, I’m back, working my way through much of the food, cocktails and beer. As a Massachusetts dishwasher/prep cook, Hussey boldly slipped a resume to Emeril Lagasse at a book signing, moving to New Orleans a month later to eventually become Executive Sous Chef of Emeril’s Delmonico. Melding Southern with San Francisco, he’s cooked at 25 Lusk and Epic Roasthouse.

No regrets drinking Mishi's Regret

Under his watch, BBQ staples (pulled pork, brisket, ribs) have all improved. While ribs look dry crusted in 17 spices, they’re tender, aromatic, addictive. Appropriately fatty beef brisket is smoked for 14 hours. If you must do chicken at a BBQ joint, you could do worse than whiskey-brined. Catfish is still strong, lightly pan-fried and available on a sandwich ($9), which begged for a little more remoulade on melting-soft brioche. Newly-added quail explodes with boudin sausage. Each meat and catfish comes as a platter ($14-19) with hushpuppies and choice of two sides. Choosing sides ($5 each or 4 for $14) is a challenge. Cheddar grit cake hides a juicy hamhock, mac ‘n cheese comes alive with red pepper, sweet potatoes are whipped soft with bourbon, sweet chili-braised Southern greens and a new creamed “lollipop” chard kale make eating greens nearly dreamy.

Brewing beers at Southpaw

Creativity shines in starters like smoked pulled goat ($12) with salsa verde and house pickles scooped up by Southern fry bread, or roasted duck breast and goat cheese rosti ($12). Abandon all, however, for Natchez ($12), named after the Mississippi town, sounding a lot like “nachos”. Think warm potato chips falling apart under pulled pork and black eyed peas, drenched in pimento bechamel and hot sauce. Divine bar food.

Hussey also perfects fried oysters. These delicately fried bivavles exude briny freshness unusual for fried oysters. Currently, they’re loaded with bacon and onions on a sandwich ($11). While BBQ sauces like sweet potato remain a bit watery, lacking in flavor punch for me, Memphis smoked sauce is briskly gratifying. But all praise goes to better-than-ever Alabama white sauce: mayo-based, packing pepper and vinegar bite, it makes just about everything sing. I’d rather fill up on savory options than desserts ($8), but banana pudding with house ‘nilla wafers evokes childhood comfort.

A brand new (dreamy) side: bourbon whipped sweet potatoes

Divine bar food: Natchez

Drink is as important as food at Southpaw. Brewer Phil Cutti started homebrewing in 1995 after shopping at SF Brewcraft. Learning from Speakeasy founders Steve and Mike Bruce, homebrewing led to his own gypsy label, Muddy Puddle Brewing. Southpaw’s small program allows him to experiment with a range of beers and collaborate with other brewers.

Catfish sandwich

House brews ($6) are balanced, readily drinkable crowd pleasers. Posey Pale Ale is subtly hoppy, Pisgah Rye Porter is complex without being heavy, and a Smoked Cream Ale is smooth with a smoke-tinged finish. As active members of SF Brewers Guild, which puts on the fantastic SF Beer Week coming up February 8-17th, Southpaw hosts intimate classes and tastings, like a collaboration beer pairing dinner with San Diego’s famed Stone Brewing on Feb. 11, one of the brewers they feature on their hand-selected draft menu ($6-9 a glass).

Pecan Rye Old Fashioned

In addition to beer, founder/manager Edward Calhoun’s American whiskey selection and cocktails make fanatics like me smile. Growing up in his father’s North Carolina bar, Calhoun honed bar chops in three cities that know how to drink well: Savannah, New Orleans, San Francisco. Playful balance exemplifies the cocktails ($9), whether a Rye Old Fashioned sweetened by pecan syrup or Rescue Blues: smoky Scotch and Combier Rouge dancing with cocoa nib syrup. My favorites? Mishi’s Regret No. 2, hot with habanero, smoky with Mezcal, brightened by lemon and cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), or cheekily-named Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari’s character on my beloved Parks & Recreation) where sarsaparilla/root beer notes of Root liquor intermingle with lemon and Shiraz wine.

Banana pudding

Get educated with whiskey flights ($12-16) grouped in themes like Peated American Single Malts (Seascape, Leviathon I, Corsair Triple Smoke) or Bay Area Whiskey (Cyrus Noble, St. George’s Breaking & Entering Bourbon, Moylan’s Rye), or flights featuring a craft distillery like High West (Son of Bourye, Campfire, Double Rye).

Gracious founder/manager Elizabeth Wells, an Alabama native, sets Southpaw’s down home tone. She moves about the restaurant, attending to needs of each table. Staff follows her lead, ready with a smile, a platter of ‘que and a glass of bourbon. Down home, indeed.

Southpaw's inviting dining room & brewery

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Sep
15
2012

The Latest

St. George Terroir Fizz at Dixie

Searching for Southern Comfort

Deviled eggs and chicharrones

A fledgling new restaurant is a work in progress, an evolution. Often visiting restaurants in opening week, I’ll return 3-4 weeks later, noticing a marked improvement in rhythm and flow, if not a dramatic change in food – often first food impressions prove to be consistent. Returning 2, 3, 4 months into a restaurant’s life, if things are heading the right direction, a distinct voice emerges, reflected in service and menus. Other times, on still searches for a point of view, for a compelling enough reason to return. Opening in May with big vision and standouts on the plate, I struggle to find cohesion at the new Dixie over three months of visits.

DIXIE, Presidio (One Letterman Dr., Chestnut at Lyon, 415-829-3363)

Watermelon fresh: Dixie Triple S

With Southern roots as a Florida native, chef Joseph Humphrey’s cooking is just the sort of thing I get excited about: California-fresh with a New Southern ethos, not dissimilar to some of the Southern-influenced “mashups” I find at the likes of Maverick, the new St. Vincent, or in the best food cities in the South. No surprise: Humphrey cooked at Michelin-starred Meadowood and Murray Circle, and in New Orleans with none other than Dickie Brennan & Co. South meets West in Dixie, which he was involved in from the ground up.

In the former Pres a Vi, Dixie hints at Southern plantation feel on the roomy veranda – ideal for their just-launched brunch – clearly the best area in the roomy restaurant. Though dreamily set in the Presidio surrounded by trees, the Palace of Fine Arts standing majestically across the lawn, inside even a remodel hasn’t quite covered up the space’s corporate feel. Rich woods and musical instrument art installations warm it up but neutral tones and a subdued air communicate “bland”.

Fried quail on waffles with cabbage slaw

Nearly condescending, cold service on my first visit had me actually dreading a return. There are thousands of meals one can leave feeling good about – dread should never be on the menu – especially at this price. In another visit, I dined in the back space where at 7:30pm on a Saturday night more than half the tables were filled with thankfully well-behaved children. Here service improved: sweet if unsure.

Red miso black cod in silky bourbon-green apple foam

Food is the highlight at Dixie and Humphrey’s skill shines in chicken-fried quail on garlic waffles ($15), a twist on my soul food favorite with cabbage and kale slaw and a subtle kick from Thai chilies in the syrup. Another excellent dish is chicken and dumplings ($24). “Dumplings” are melting-soft ricotta gnudi surrounding tender cuts of chicken draped with baby carrots. This reinterpretation does what it should: make you rethink, but still thoroughly enjoy, a classic.

A loose musical decor theme

Red miso black cod ($23), silky in apple and bourbon-tinged foam, was so good it was the one dish I re-ordered. Accompanied by lobster mushrooms, only a mound of farro was flavorless and forlorn. I couldn’t help but long for Hog & Rocks’ perfect pimento jar when eating pimento cheese curds ($8) or 4505 Meats/Ryan Farr’s unparalleled, dissolve-in-your-mouth chicharrones when chomping on the harder, overly-salty version ($6) with nori salt here. Abalone and pickled jalapeno peek out of creamy corn soup ($14), while horseradish deviled eggs ($7) are smartly topped with fried chicken liver. Despite the promise of shaved tasso ham (I adore tasso), a Dixie chopped salad ($12) is almost banal, the ham more like two big slices of deli meat draped across an otherwise unadorned salad (merely lettuce in creamy shallot dressing with a smattering of radishes), rather than sliced up and in the mix.

Smoked corn soup w/ abalone, pickled jalapeno, gumbo filé

Wine or a pour of whiskey were the more gratifying drink choices. On the cocktail front, a pricey Terroir Fizz ($14) utilizes amazing, local St. George Terroir gin with lemon, lime, Cointreau, lemon verbena and egg white for froth. Though I commend the move away from sweet, it was so sour (and I’ve been to known suck on lemons, that’s how much I crave sour), balance was lost in what could have been a beautiful aperitif – a bigger blow when this town is packed with excellent cocktails in the $8-12 range. Dixie Triple S ($12) fared better in balance of sweet/smoky/spicy (the triple “S”) with Espolon silver tequila, lime, watermelon-jalapeno puree, and a hickory smoked salt rim. 2 Bens is a playful tribute to “what dad and granddad drank” – a pint of Guinness and shot of Jack Daniels – but I cannot fathom paying $16 for a pour of such basic brands.

Pimento cheese curds w/ toasts

Dixie’s musical, New Southern vision is among my dream restaurant concepts but in actuality feels incongruent and out-of-sync despite supreme moments of taste. After the bill arrives at well over $100 for two, walking out into misty Presidio air before a green expanse leading to the Bay, the first thought is where to go next to fill up.

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Aug
01
2012

Top Tastes

Deliciously visual: dayboat scallops w/ compressed watermelon, pineapple mint, Padron peppers, lipstick pimento sauce, ancho chile/pumpkin seed pesto


MAVERICK at 7: Better Than Ever

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

MAVERICK, Mission (3316 17th St. between Mission and Valencia, 415-863-3061)

Divine (upscale) fried chicken

Opened in 2005, by modern day restaurant standards, Maverick is a longtimer. I’d posit at its 7th anniversary (July 13), it’s better than ever with new executive chef Emmanuel Eng brought on last year by owners Scott Youkilis and Michael Pierce (GM, Wine Director). In contrast to its more casual, younger sister Hog & Rocks, Maverick’s food has grown more sophisticated and focused over the years, though the space is tiny and low-key.

Maverick’s interior

The menu delights (and evolves slightly each visit) with whispers of Southern influence (and beyond) married to forward-thinking culinary vision. Evoking “New Southern” cuisine, the likes of which I’ve seen in cities such as Charleston and Atlanta in recent years or as I dine at SF newcomers like Dixie and St. Vincent, traditional Southern ingredients and dishes are a springboard for cutting-edge interpretation.

Maverick has not slumbered into laziness with age but seems, especially with talented, young Chef Eng on board, to continue challenging itself. An artist and Portland native, in moving to SF, Eng boldly walked into Indigo in 2000, offering to work for free to learn the ropes. He eventually became line cook at Aqua, Quince and Foreign Cinema, then sous chef at Boulevard and Sons & Daughters. His experience at some of SF’s top restaurants shows in his bold-yet-refined cooking.

Lobster bread pudding topped with smoked cod

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: their signature fried chicken ($24) is as fantastic as ever. Juicy inside, crispy outside and not at all greasy, the batter is touched with cinnamon, cayenne, and white pepper. Recently served with blackened patty-pan squash, succotash, pickled watermelon rind, and cornbread croutons, it’s the ham hock and mustard gravy tying it all together, eliciting sighs of delight. It’s hard not to want to return to this one over and over again – and many diners do.

Tasso-cured duck “proscuiutto” w/ heirloom melon and cucumbers, lime, anise hyssop

But you’d be remiss not branching out. There’s nothing Southern about a squash blossom stuffed with brandade ($10), rosso bruno tomatoes, Calabrian chilis, and basil, but it’s delicious. Italian spirit is also present in burrata cheese, made nearby on 16th St. ($12), but rather than being just another burrata starter, Eng layers flavors with ashed rind from corn husks, baby leeks, arugula pisto, pickled fiddlehead ferns and zucchini. Just before the foie gras ban (which I am not happy about), a duck butcher plate ($16) impressed with foie, tasso-cured duck breast (there’s your Southern touch: fantastic tasso ham), strawberry mostarda, white peach, lime, and duck rilette croquette. Summery as it was rich, it’s the mostarda I craved more of.

Light alcohol aperitifs: ginger lemon fizz

Another inspired Southern reinterpretation is porcini mushroom and Anson Mills grits ($12.50). It’s not remotely a traditional grits dish, in fact, there’s just a smattering of creamy grits amidst tender porcinis, pearl onion, snap peas and a smoked soft-poached egg running over ingredients when punctured. For a vegetarian dish, it’s almost meaty and soulful. Massachusetts Dayboat sea scallops ($13) are seared just right, but it’s accents of compressed watermelon, pineapple mint, Padron peppers, dotted with lipstick pimento sauce and ancho chile/pumpkin seed pesto making it memorable. Lobster bread pudding draped in smoked cod ($26) is a brilliant twist on traditional New Brunswick stew – in this case, a creamy mussel chowder touched with jerky-like strips of linguica, clams, corn, and sea beans (seaweed). Dessert is no afterthought. In fact, a chocolate Samoa truffle ($9) feels like vacation, a chocolate mound spiked with chocolate bark in a pool of caramelized coconut accented by crumbled shortbread.

Grits reimagined w/ porcinis & smoked egg

Pierce’s wine pairings and frank, engaging welcome are another key part of what makes Maverick special. Yes, we share a  New Jersey past, while his love of wine has grown since his days at Sociale to opening Maverick with Youkilis. The thoughful wine list is inclusive of some of California’s more interesting small labels like Wind Gap or Le P’Tit Paysan. A 2009 Cru Pinot from Monterey is perfection with the grits, while anise hyssop dotting tasso-cured duck “prosciutto” pops paired with a floral, crisp 2011 Domaine de la Fouquette Grenache/Cinsault/Syrah/Rolle rose from Provence. Ask Pierce about his Junk Food Wine Pairing series – he’ll pair wines with the likes of Slim Jim’s and Doritos.

Dessert: chocolate Samoa truffle

I appreciate that even sans hard liquor license, they attempt creative cocktails ($9) using vermouth and sake in low alcohol aperitifs. Some work better than others but the attentive use of local imbibements like Sutton Cellars vermouth (for example, in Dark Sunset: Sutton Cellars dry vermouth, orange juice, cardamom, bitters, smoked paprika, Cava) is something I wish more wine and beer only restaurants would do. The most consistent drink is a ginger lemon fizz, utilizing Sutton’s dry vermouth, bright with ginger, Meyer lemon and dreamy honey foam.

At Maverick, attentive staff, intimate dining room and unique explorations of regional American food exhibit what makes Southern cooking often the best in America: heart.

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Apr
15
2012

Top Tastes

The glories of barbcue sauce

Hunting for Authentic BBQ in the Bay Area

Growing up in East, West and Middle America, I unexpectedly have a profound affinity to the music and food of the South. Traveling numerous Southern states, my love accelerates. Florida conch and stone crab please, as do Tex Mex and Texas brisket. But when I dream of the South, I think Deep South. Start talking Low Country and Gullah cuisine, or Cajun and Creole cooking, and I become brutally homesick for a home I never had.

Eatin' Brisket

Then there was barbecue. And by barbecue, I mean pulled pork, just as those words are synonymous in the Deep South. Texas brisket? Naturally. Memphis ribs? Hell, yeah. But pulled pork, that tender, shredded, fatty mound of piggy goodness for me is the pinnacle of BBQ. Don’t even get me started on sauces. South Carolina mustard or thick, sweet Kansas City sauce? I’ll take all, thank you. A proper sauce turns impeccable meat into ecstasy.

One of the more memorable journeys the Renaissance Man and I ever took was a two week road trip through four Southern states for BBQ, music, food. Proudly a California girl the larger part of my life, in this glorious state of endless riches, I rarely find barbecue comparable to my Southern exploits… even from those who claim they are Southern natives. There are whispers of true BBQ here, but often something indefinable is lacking. The problem commonly lies in sauces, smoking techniques and woods used, or the meat’s tenderness (I’m sorry: it ain’t real BBQ if it’s not fatty). Even delicious ‘que is missing a certain raw, gut-level sense of place outside the South.

CatHead's picnic tables

Regardless, we have some worthy Bay Area spots to satisfy ‘que cravings. Over the years, Uncle Frank’s is the best BBQ I’ve had in California, which tragically closed last fall. His brisket was thick with fat, served in the back of a dodgy dive bar in suburban, staid Mountain View. In SF, Johnson’s Bar-B-Que cornered Arkansas-style pulled pork, though sadly, it closed as the owner recently passed away.

Of those still open, Bo’s Barbecue out in Lafayette specializes in solid brisket. On a Golden Gate Park golf course is an unexpected gem, Ironwood BBQ, strong on pulled pork. Years ago, Brother-in-Law’s BBQ on Divisadero morphed to Lilly’s and became Da Pitt. Though past its glory days, it’s still a worthy detour, emitting glorious smoke aromas down the street. What of ever popular Memphis Minnie’s? I must admit that despite a love for their rowdy Southern tunes and spirit, I can’t get behind the lackluster meats and watery sauces.

Dining at Cedar Hill

We go through waves of ‘que openings and we’re in the midst of another now. My recent number one was an upscale barbecue/Southern restaurant all the way up in Novato. Southern Pacific Smokehouse unexpectedly closed after merely months of opening, despite the tenderest pulled pork, smoky brisket, plus a killer cocktail and American whiskey menu (best cocktail bar yet in Marin). Their secret was a 2,000 pound Ole Hickory Smoker where meats were slow smoked over hickory wood, then placed in a steam box to temper smoke dominance and impart a tender finish.

Here are five recent BBQ openings:

SNEAKY’S BBQ, 1760 Market Street (at Octavia), 415-431-4200
Sneaky’s BBQ is served out of Rebel Bar from Wed.-Sun. They step outside the traditional with items like Kurobuta pork belly, but more than any other newer ‘que joint, they get Carolina-style pulled pork right – among the best in town. Only down side is price with a single platter of meat and two sides being $17 or a two meat combo $26, compared to $12 and $18 for the same options at CatHead’s BBQ.

Sauces: Vinegar BBQ, spicy jalapeno/habanero, South Carolina mustard, Rooster (creamy version of spicy sauce)

CatHead's smoker

Stand-outs: Aforementioned pulled pork is tops here, as is South Carolina mustard sauce (perfection together). They bring it with Creekstone Farms brisket and baby-back ribs. Sneaky’s is to be commended for using all natural, hormone-free meats, smoked with locally cut almond wood. Sides ($4) include a classic coleslaw, and fresh, not soggy or overcooked, collard greens. Cheeky points for Rebel’s glorified gay biker bar setting with a motorcycle as the room’s centerpiece.

B Side BBQ

CATHEAD’S BBQ, SoMa (1665 Folsom St. at 12th, 415-861-4242)
Nate’s BBQ had quite a following – and coveted home delivery. It recently morphed to CatHead’s BBQ from Tennessee native Richard Park and Pamela Schafer, easily one of the city’s best BBQ options and thankfully still offering delivery. Smokers stand tall behind a long counter. Vegetarians get a nod with cornmeal-crusted BBQ tofu. Mains are wonderfully priced at $7 with a mini-CatHead biscuit and pickles, while a platter with two sides is $12. Of note: their large biscuit is described as the size of a cat’s head

Sauces: Mustard, ketchup based BBQ sauce, North Carolina finishing sauce, habanero, CatHead’s catsup, pepper vinegar
Stand-outs: They had me with Coca Cola-smoked brisket. A subtle sweetness permeates the uber-smoky beef. Ribs are also strong, the best of any place listed. The secret is extra fat, rendering the meat fall-apart tender. All sides ($4 each) are vegetarian, including mustard or spicy habanero slaw. Collard greens taste healthy, a fresh change of pace from traditional collards, though I miss the ham hocks.

B SIDE BBQ, Oakland (3303 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, 510-595-0227)

Old-timey photos line the walls at B Side

Tanya Holland of West Oakland’s beloved Brown Sugar Kitchen opened B Side Barbeque a few months ago, a hip, comfortable space lined with photos of African American cowboys, the air rich with smoked meats (look closely and you’ll see Tanya and her husband in one of the old-timey photos).

Sauces: Hot vinegar, Carolina mustard or traditional
Stand-outs: Pulled pork is tender and lush in Carolina mustard sauce, but they shine with smoked brown sugar-rubbed brisket ($9 half order; $16 full order). Fatty beef sings with sugary crust. Ribs are succulent. A side of fresh, spicy coleslaw ($4), light on the mayo, is a happy companion. Food is prepared with care, a step above many East Bay ‘que joints.

CEDAR HILL, Marina (3242 Scott St., 415-934-5403)

Wood for the smoker in the back at Cedar Hill

The Marina has itself a BBQ restaurant. Small, welcoming and lined with rustic artwork and paraphernalia from Texas to the Carolinas, Cedar Hill is a win for the neighborhood. The ‘que is not as soul-satisfying as in the South, but has plenty to offer with Southern dishes like Cajun shrimp on Anson Mills grits topped with Andouille sausage and piquillo peppers ($17), or sweet tea-fried chicken ($7.50-$19 for a quarter to whole chicken).

Regional Southern paraphernalia line the walls

Sauces: Texas red, KC mop sauce, South Carolina mustard, North Carolina vinegar
Stand-outs: Tender smoked pork ($4.50-16) wins out over Texas beef brisket ($4.50-16), while Memphis baby back ribs ($5-25) were a little dry. Worthy sides ($3.50-$11.50, portion to quart) include a fresh, bright coleslaw, or pit beans glorified with burnt tips. Ruth’s buttermilk pie ($5) with graham cracker crust is a creamy delight. Extra points: they serve bottles of North Carolina’s classic wild cherry soda, Cheerwine.

SOUTHPAW BBQ, Mission (2170 Mission St. between 17th & 18th, 415-934-9300)

Honey Bunny cocktail

Southpaw BBQ has the most welcoming, festive atmosphere of any of the new ‘que joints with house beer brewed right in the dining room, additional beers on draft (like Bruery Mischief, Brother Thelonious, Deschutes Green Lakes), and a playful cocktail menu offering Sazeracs made with Germain-Robin craft brandy and tea syrup.

Sauces: Alabama white sauce, Eastern North Carolina, South Carolina mustard, sweet potato habanero, sweet chili vinegar, Memphis
Stand-outs: Slightly smoky Honey Bunny cocktail (blanco tequila, red pepper, orange and carrot juice, agave) is lively and fun.

Southpaw ribs

Their pimento cheese ($5), served with celery and old school white bread, is not near as addictive as at neighboring Hog & Rocks. Platters ($14-19) come with cornbread and two sides. Much as I wanted to love their ribs, brisket and pulled pork, they bordered on either dry or not as flavorful as other ‘que joints.  Though not barbecue, fresh, flaky catfish ($14) from Louisiana is my favorite here: comfortingly fried and not at all fishy.

Southpaw BBQ welcomes on Mission Street

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Mar
15
2012

Top Tastes

G&W Hamery ham drizzled with sweet Fresno chile syrup, one of many ham platters at Hog & Rocks

SOUTHERN OBSESSION

Southern food has a profound hold on me. No, I am not a Southerner. Having grown up in the Midwest, and mostly East and West coasts, it seems to be the major US region my family didn’t move to. Yet few cuisines the world over elicit in me such yearning and comfort.

Hops & Hominy off Tillman Place alley

Whether road tripping through numerous states in the Deep South for barbecue, reveling in Low Country and Gullah cuisines in Charleston and surrounding islands, on bourbon-filled journeys to Kentucky, or returning yet again to incomparable food and music mecca, New Orleans, my connection only deepens.

Finding the real deal outside of the South is tricky, to say the least. Aside from the likes of my beloved Brenda’s and delightful Boxing Room, these two new and two established spots fulfill cravings with more than one dish.

HOPS & HOMINY, Downtown (1 Tillman Place at Grant Ave., 415-373-6341)

Juicy buttermilk fried chicken

Recently opened downtown, Hops & Hominy has the charm of being tucked away at the end of an alley off bustling Grant Ave. I must admit, when I saw packed crowds and a neon maraschino cherry (vs. quality brandied ones) in my cocktail, I doubted H&H, opened by three Florida natives. But in this early stage, it shows promise.

Espresso-cured chocolate duck

Despite the cherry and too much ice, a Smoked Bacon Old Fashioned was more balanced than I expected. Infusing Bulleit bourbon with bacon, the drink is thankfully light on maple syrup. This is not exactly a cocktailian’s destination but you can get a decent imbibement. Better to go with their beer menu: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA and Ommegang Hennepin Saison are examples of the greats they have on tap.

Shrimp n' grits

In terms of food, a couple dishes jump out. The most unusual for this setting is espresso-cured chocolate duck ($12). Rare duck is perched on a potato pancake with mascarpone drizzled on top. Chocolate and coffee notes are subtle, adding an unexpected seductiveness to the dish. While the potato pancake doesn’t exactly fit, it doesn’t detract either. Mac ‘n cheese is so common, it’s not often worth noting, but here, served piping hot in a skillet ($8), it’s oozing with cheddar goodness and typical house cured bacon. Crispy sage leaves elevate it. Buttermilk battered chicken ($19) is not the best in town, but free-range chicken is tender and generously portioned. This dish is an ideal way to also try the mac & cheese, a companion along with brussels sprouts. (I couldn’t help but crave the chicken on waffles instead of solo – maybe for future a brunch?) Deep water shrimp & cheesy Southern grits ($19) work but don’t recall the best of the South, though shrimp are plump and thick grits agreeably cheesy.

HOG & ROCKS, Mission (3431 19th St. at San Carlos, 415-550-8627)

Refreshing Beattie & Lazar cocktails

Hog & Rocks has grown into one of our great casual gathering spots, with better than ever cocktails and food, and a winning American whiskey selection. I’ve been a huge fan of their ham platters (the hog) and oyster selection (the rocks) since they opened, particularly when they offer such incredible Southern hams as Tennessee ‘s G&W Hamery lightly drizzled with sweet Fresno chili syrup.

Admittedly, the impetus for recent visits was a new Scott Beattie-designed cocktail menu and new bar manager Michael Lazar. There’s long time Beattie favorites on the menu, like the Fall-influenced, whiskey-apple-ginger lushness of his John Chapman (oh, that Thai coconut foam!)

Berkshire pork cutlet with kale

Two original drinks are Lazar’s bright Calabria ($11), Old Grandad 114 bourbon, bergamot, honey, and Averna, bright with ginger beer, or Beattie’s Coastal Collins ($10.50) which stood out with St. George’s fabulous Terroir gin, lemon, soda, bay laurel and huckleberries – a refreshing, herbaceous sipper. Ask Lazar to make you a Hanky Panky, a classic London Savoy cocktail. Lazar tweaks the measurements of gin, sweet vermouth, Fernet Branca for a more complex, sexy whole.

Meatballs in whiskey BBQ sauce

As the bar ups its game, it does not overpower the food. I’ve long found their pimento cheese in a jar ($7.50) the best in town – bordering on addictive. Recent enjoyments are hefty meatballs ($12.50) in whiskey barbecue sauce over cheddar cheese grits and white cabbage, and fat cheddar beer sausages ($13.50), oozing with juices. The standout dish lately is a Berkshire pork cutlet ($16), prepared like German schnitzel (pounded flat, breaded), in a smoky maple syrup and hot pepper relish alongside Red Russian kale evoking collard greens.

Here’s to chef Scott Youkilis’ upcoming BBQ venture across the street, Hi-Lo, due to open this Summer.

THE FRONT PORCH, Outer Mission (65A 29th Street between Tiffany & San Jose Ave., 415-695-7800)

Front Porch's shrimp n' grits

The Front Porch’s garage sale, drafty charm still works. Over the years, I’ve found it a place consistent for quality, quirky Southern eats from cozy, worn red booths under pressed tin ceilings.

Crab fritters ($9) win me over initially, packed with fresh, flaky crab meat, dipped in remoulade. After Brenda’s incomparable shrimp n’ grits, Front Porch serves among the best shrimp ‘n grits ($18.50) in town (also note 1300 on Fillmore‘s deliciously refined version). Bacon and less traditional wild mushrooms add heft to white wine-doused arbuckle grits. They do right by fried chicken ($17 for 3 pieces, $34 for 9 pieces). Though it’s not the ultimate version, tender Rocky Jr. organic chicken satisfies alongside garlic mashed potatoes and collard greens.

Crab fritters & house hot sauce

Sweet potato fries ($6.50) with Creole aioli are not soggy, more like sweet potatoes with crispy edges than merely fries. You could do worse than finishing with an Abita root beer float (add in bourbon, if you like). Head across to the street to their new sister location, the comfy, divey Rock Bar for a nightcap.

TUPELO, North Beach (1337 Grant Ave. between Green & Vallejo, 415-981-9177)

Tupelo, off Grant St.

Enter Tupelo, an uber-casual bar on North Beach’s enchanting Grant Street to find a surprising source of good Southern food in a space that typically housed forgettable bars. Open 5pm-1am weekdays and at 10am weekends, it’s a mellow source for brunch or all-day Southern eats. The bar houses standard, big name brands, but the food is made with unexpected care.

Ham hock croquettes

Croquettes ($10) take a playful, unusual turn filled with ham hocks, accompanied by horseradish and lime sour cream. A side of properly roasted brussels sprouts ($7) is tossed with usual agreeable suspects of bacon, apples and onions. Warm burnt orange yam soup is topped with nutmeg mascarpone ($5), a whisper of bitter orange adding depth. More Southern food-with-a-twist comes in a fried okra salad ($12) mixed with goat cheese, arugula, pistachios. Crunchy citrus buttermilk fried chicken is brightened by a hint of lime. There’s soul food supper plates with crispy pork belly, blackened catfish, or Creole shrimp and a side ($15). Build-your-own grits ($7 + $3-8 depending on topping) are above average (not mealy and pasty white) but not noteworthy.

Yam soup, brussels sprouts and corn bread at Tupelo

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Jul
15
2010

Top Tastes

Thermidor’s open bar

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Top Tastes, rather than a list of all-time favorites (another thing altogether), are among the best eats since my last newsletter, often from new openings. Many don’t make the cut, being a revisit previously written about or simply not as stand-out as dishes mentioned.

EXPENSIVE RESTAURANTS

THERMIDOR, SoMa – The Mad Men craze is a natural for me as that era, from clothing to music to cocktails, has never gone out of style in my book. Whether through the Swingers/swing scene craze in Hollywood back in the 90′s, to the Mad Men resurgence currently, I’ve been collecting vintage dresses, obsessed with classic films and listening to records since I was a girl.

Iceberg Daiquiri & Warsaw Mule

So as soon as I hear Thermidor is opening with a circa 1960′s/Mad Men vibe, I’m in. Even better that the menu is rife with classic dishes of the era. I am completely appreciative of the fact that they’re doing something different instead of the usual understated decor and Cali-fresh, charcuterie & pizza or pig-heavy menus. Not that I am not crazy about all those… I love anything done well. But I am ever grateful for a place that doesn’t just copy what is already there in abundance but seeks a lesser traveled road.

I love the look of the place: wood walls, white/Jetson’s-like vintage chairs, chrome chandeliers, wood paneling and high ceilings… 1960′s chic. The bar is inviting, with completely open doorways opening onto Mint Plaza. I’d return to sip the successful take off a Moscow Mule, the Warsaw Mule (cocktails all $9). It’s made with Bison grass vodka (one this non-vodka drinker likes), organic apple juice, lime, sunshine bitters and ginger beer. It’s refreshing but bracing, with a unique, layered profile.

Celery Victor & Cauliflower

I was intrigued by the Iceberg Daiquiri, not being the kind of thing I normally see on menus or would order. Thankfully, it wasn’t sweet, rather strong with a white rum/maraschino liqueur kick, a whiff of vanilla, and tart from grapefruit and lime. But I can’t say I ever want to go back to blended drinks days – I got ‘brain freeze’ from first sip, waiting for the drink to melt more before I could finish it.

Thermidor chandeliers

I’ll get this out of the way now: portions are small in most cases, making prices too high for what you’re getting. The Renaissance Man and myself spent over $100 and didn’t leave full. But… what we had was by and large delicious. Excited as I was for a bit of Chips & Caviar ($6), I’ve had better versions at dinner parties (this one has smoked trout, creme fraiche and caviar on house-made chips).

On the $6 Hors d’Ouevres menu is Crispy Cauliflower, grilled in lemon and mint and quite satisfying. Celery Victor is puzzling (sounded so old school I had to order it). The first two celery stalks were fried and decent dipped in tartar sauce but were really just fried celery.

Lobster Thermidor

When I got to the third stalk, it had a white anchovy layered under the fry (as was listed on the menu) and suddenly perked up. I think they made a mistake: each stalk was supposed to have an anchovy? It transformed the appetizer.

Wood paneling glory

A Mini-Lobster Roll ($15 – deal alert: there’s a full sized roll at lunch for only $3 more) was truly mini with nothing more than a side of (admittedly fabulous) pickled Tokyo turnips. I go on lobster roll hunts and though I’ve never had better than at Pearl Oyster Bar in New York, this one pretty much kicks ass. The brioche roll has the perfect combo of light crisp and melting softness, while the lobster is plump, sweet, coated in butter. Lobster Thermidor ($32), the priciest pinnacle of the entrees (otherwise $21-26), is disappointingly small (half a little lobster) but is ridiculously good, baked in the shell with brandy bechamel sauce and half of a twice-baked potato enhanced by crispy skin.

Coffee, Cigarettes & Doughnuts

Next time I’ll go with our gracious waiter’s recommend for dessert (all $8.50): Caramelized Poppyseed Cake with thyme ice cream. Initially I had to order the one everyone is talking about: Coffee, Cigarettes & Doughnuts. Though I appreciate the notes of Jim Jarmusch in the dessert’s moniker, I couldn’t taste even a hint of tobacco in the white chocolate custard, nor much carrot in the carrot cake doughnuts. Coffee ice cream over crumbled, dirt-like cookie crumbs, was the highlight of a dish higher on presentation than taste.

I look forward to my next visit to this thankfully unique new restaurant, though thinking economically, it’s going to be for lunch or Chicken Kiev and cocktails at the bar.

MID-RANGE RESTAURANTS

Tables at Hog & Rocks

HOG & ROCKS, Mission – I went to a test night of this brand new (sure to be) Mission hot spot, Hog & Rocks, so though I plan to return soon, this initial take comes with the caveat of a number of menu items not yet being available and kinks still being worked out. The space is spare with stainless steel and black, plus plenty of communal seating, and a focus on hams (hog) and oysters (rocks).

Hog & Rocks cocktails

I was pleased to see tasting notes listed under the oysters – this should be standard. I sampled G&W Hamery’s 10-month aged ham from Murfreesboro, TN, with whiskey-glazed peanuts and cress salad, as well as Broadbent’s medium hickory smoked ham from Kuttawa, KY, with frisee and cherry tomatoes ($9-11 a platter). There are five hams to choose from, sliced thinly/prosciutto-like, and eight oysters ($1.50-2.50 each), though the menu changes for each.

Spare, clean interior

Cocktails ($7-9) are classics like a Whiskey Sour, Tom Collins or a Hurricane (with the awesome idea of $1 of the latter going to New Orleans’ Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund). At pre-opening, bartenders were still being trained and the cocktails I tried were solid, though lacking in the finesse you might find in the same drinks elsewhere, though the price point is good.

Cast Iron Octopus

Wine and beer lists are short but thoughtfully chosen (delighted to see an Austrian Zweigelt among the 6 reds), with nods to the welcome, growing trend of a few kegs of wine available by the glass or carafe, and all available in $3.50 half glasses (wish every restaurant did this).

Ham platters

As for the food, it’s a smartly chic menu under $14 of dishes like Fish Pie ($14), Sweetbreads with piquillo peppers ($10), Corned Beef Tongue ($9) and Pickled Sardines ($9). Sadly, none of those were available pre-opening, but I did try Cast Iron Octopus ($10), pleasing enough grilled, with potatoes, pickled jalapeno and a ham vinaigrette.  Chicken Wing Confit ($10) is a generous portion of boneless chicken wings (not sure where the confit part comes in?) in a buffalo wing-style hot sauce with blue cheese dip. My favorite bite (besides sampling the hams) was Crab & Artichoke spread in a jar with Levian bread ($8). There are four different spreads in a jar (the Pimento Cheese, $6, with baguette is creamy, Southern satisfaction), and it’s in their most playful menu items such as these that Hog & Rocks shows its promise.

Grilled Peaches w/ Bellwether Farms’ fromage blanc

GREENS, Marina/Fort Mason – It’s a rare restaurant that survives 30 years. But to survive while maintaining a high standard in the kitchen is even more rare. This year is the 30th anniversary of Greens, the first high profile, upscale vegetarian restaurant in the country, with the lovely, warm Annie Sommerville as Executive Chef… and they have maintained.

Ricotta Corn Cakes

The anniversary is a fine reason to return to a place I frequented more often when I first moved here nearly a decade ago. Though the space has remained the same with simple,  streamlined decor, stunning views of the Bay, Marin and Golden Gate Bridge remain the setting’s star, while the menu showcased the glories of Summer.

Current menu highlights: Grilled Blossom Bluff Peaches ($12) were improved, if that were possible, by Bellwether Farms‘ incomparable fromage blanc and a dab of Snyder’s wildflower honey, while fresh watercress tasted herbal, grassy. I’ve had a lot of corn cakes in my day, but their Ricotta Corn Cakes ($11.50) are among the finer with crispy white corn accented by jalapenos, scallions and smoked cheddar. House creme fraiche, fire roasted tomato salsa and pumpkin seed cilantro salsa accompanied.

Masa Harina Crepe

On the entree side, Masa Harina Crepe ($23) is tortilla-reminiscent, made with corn masa, but a light, paper-thin crepe. More corn played prominent with peppers, poblano chilies, and grilled onions piled inside, accented by salsa and creme fraiche. I couldn’t taste chipotle lime butter on the accompanying grilled grazzini squash. I loved Summer Vegetables (carrots, squash, etc…) Indian Curry ($21.50 large; $17.50 small), a curry rich with coconut milk, ginger, tamarind, chilies, on top of mustard seed basmati rice, beautifully contrasted with a “chutney” of juicy peaches in a cherry glaze.

Indian Coconut Milk Curry

Bing Cherry Almond Cake ($8.75) was heavy on the almond, dry but for plump cherries, and rose geranium ice cream that was a soapy rose bomb. But altogether, it became another dessert entirely, no piece overwhelming the other, cake moistened by a creamy hint of rose.

Greens, after all these years, remains a destination for lovingly-prepared vegetarian cooking. Long may she live.

CHEAP EATS

MCF’s Peking Duck Chinito

Mission Chinese Food, Mission – Recently bereft of our beloved twice weekly Mission Street Food dinners in dingy Lung Shan and Mission Burger in Duc Loi Supermarket, there’s at least comfort in knowing founders Anthony Myint and Danny Bowien are still on the scene, now with playful Chinese food at Mission Chinese Food.

For starters, it’s cheap (under $10), but the killer part is: they deliver… anywhere in the city? Guess who’s been savoring some Ma Po Tofu ($8) – ground pork, fermented black beans, mushrooms, peppercorn, ginger and flaming chili oil over rice – from comfortably behind her desk at the Guardian? You can eat in, too, as they’re open seven days week (11am-10:30pm). However you eat it, something tells me you won’t find the likes of Peking Duck Chinito ($8) anywhere. Think Peking duck confit, cucumber and cilantro wrapped inside a Chinese donut. Then cover the roll in rice noodle and dip it in a spicy Hoison oil. I knew you’d be intrigued…

Zaytoon’s cheerful interior

Zaytoon, Mission – A simple menu of five items, an unassuming, bright green and white storefront, and kindly staff make brand new Zaytoon a worthy Valencia Street stop for Falafel Wraps ($6.95-$7.95), Chicken or Lamb Shawerma ($7.95) or a Mazza Platter ($7.95) of falafel, dolmas, hummus, babaganoosh, tabouleh, cucumber/tomato salad and feta. The place and ingredients are spanking fresh, clean and easy to devour.

Moya’s Vegetarian Lunch

Moya, SoMa – Though not the best Ethiopian food around (favorites here), I love the mother/daughter team working at brand new Moya (just opened 7/12) and their lunch steal of three vegetarian dishes of your choice piled on injera with salad and yet more injera for just $8.

Mr. Pollo, Mission – Want one of the best Arepas in town ($1.50 for cheese, $5.50 with meat)? Head to Mr. Pollo near the 24th Street BART and get a warm off the grill Cheese Arepa, oozing with cheese and a hint of honey sweetness. It’s as good or better even than ones I had in Venezuela.

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