Oct
01
2014

Top Tastes

Lazy Bear: the view from the upstairs lounge overlooking the main dining room

Lazy Bear: the view from the upstairs lounge overlooking the main dining room

My Top Food Articles: September 16-30

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

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

New Bay Area Openings

First Look at sold out, ticketing-only LAZY BEAR, a cult pop-up turned restaurant

First Look inside the newly-renovated QUINCE

HECHO opens in the Castro with Mexican-American food (with a Tex Mex slant) & tequila/mezcal cocktails

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

Underrated & Established Spots

10 Hottest SF & Oakland BRUNCH SPOTS now

Authentic Oaxacan dishes at AGAVE MEXICAN in HEALDSBURG

7 Hottest SUSHI RESTAURANTS now in the Bay Area

Top dishes on HAKKASAN’s new fall menu

Best Thing We Ate: RICH TABLE’s raw halibut with bone marrow “puree”

Events

MICHAEL MINA’s Tailgate Parties and new Bourbon Steak & Pub at the 49er’s LEVI STADIUM

What’s new at OFF THE GRID’s TWILIGHT at the PRESIDIO – sunset by Golden Gate Bridge with cabana rentals and fire pits

SOBA NOODLE & PASTA Workshops in SF and Healdsburg (Sonoma County)

SCHROEDER’S OKTOBERFEST Events

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Mar
01
2014

Top Tastes

Still wriggling on the plate: live, raw spot prawns at R&G Lounge

Still wriggling on the plate: live, raw spot prawns at R&G Lounge

HOLDING STRONG at SF Standard-Setters

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

In the midst of the latest, hottest, buzzed about new openings, the greats get forgotten. Whether it’s old school classics like seafood at Tadich Grill, or arguably the best souffles in the US at Cafe Jacqueline, where Jacqueline has dedicated decades to churning out perfect souffles every night, many of our greats keep their steady following yet stay under the radar. Recently, I’ve gone back for East German comfort at Walzwerk, ever impeccable Greek feasts at Kokkari, rounds of crab, garlic bread and chowder at Anchor Oyster Bar, and live – still wriggling on the plate – raw spot prawns at R&G Lounge… all restaurants I’ve been going to since I moved here 13 years ago.

In the meantime, I’ve been returning to more recent greats opened in the last few years, remaining impressed, particularly by these dishes:

STATE BIRD PROVISIONS, Lower Fillmore
Changing the game nationally with its level of dim sum-style, playful creativity

Curry rabbit roti

Curry rabbit roti

Wow factor abounds at playful-casual, if extremely difficult to get into, State Bird Provisions. There’s usually a few hits every meal but recently it was curry rabbit roti ($20) that made an impact. Warm, floppy Indian roti bread scooped up aromatic curry graced with tender rabbit, black trumpet mushrooms and lentils.

Dessert was equally memorable: piping hot buckwheat bao ($8), a bun with a sugary-cinnamon crust, partnered with a cup of coconut cream and carrot jam dotted with maple pecans. Savory, vegetal and sweet played together harmoniously, a burst of winter joy.

BAR TARTINE, Mission
Setting a national standard for modern Eastern European-influenced fare

cake

Celery root-scallion cake

Bar Tartine chef Nick Balla keeps expanding the boundaries of what modern Eastern European (strongly influenced by his Hungarian roots) food can be, doing things I’ve yet to see any US chef do with that category. Balla revived the fried bread that haunted my dreams since my travels in the Hungarian countryside in 1999 with his menu mainstay of langos ($12), fried potato flatbread radiant with garlic, sour cream and dill.

That ever remains a highlight but recent visits impressed particularly in the form of a warm square of rice flour-based celery root and scallion cake ($14). Moist and savory, the cake rests atop a spread of nettle puree, given umami complexity under shaved dried tuna flakes and celery leaves.

CONTIGO, Noe Valley
Idyllic modern Spanish, neighborhood dining

Cinco Jotas' Jamon Iberico de Bellota

Cinco Jotas’ Jamon Iberico de Bellota

I sure miss the years of rolling out my front door on 24th Street and moseying half a block to Contigo for  some of the best Spanish food in the city paired with gorgeous, crisp Spanish and Portuguese wines (like a 2012 Raventos i Blanc “La Rosa” pinot noir Rose from Penedes, Spain). Whether those perfect jamon croquetas/fritters ($3) oozing with bechamel sauce, or the ever-comforting, changing coco (flatbreads), like a recent pie laden with broccoli rabe, smoked bacon, spring onions, and manchego cheese ($15), Contigo does it right.

Contigo coca

Contigo coca

But when the ultimate level (5J) of Spain’s legendary cured ham, Cinco Jotas‘ Jamon Iberico de Bellota ($25), is on the menu, I cannot resist. It’s pricey but  the paper thin, pink and white sheets of acorn-fed Spanish heritage “Pata Negra” ham from Jabugo, Spain, melt and dissolve on the tongue like the finest of silk… if silk were succulent and meaty.

LOLINDA, Mission
Raising Argentinian steakhouse stakes (no pun intended)

Lolinda NY steak

Lolinda NY steak

Granted, there’s not a ton of competition in the Argentinian dining category, but of Argentinian restaurants I’ve been to anywhere, Lolinda nails it. Yes, crowds reach a deafening roar in the dramatic, chic dining room and I recently experienced a frustrating wait even with a reservation, but each dish that arrives is downright delicious, from traditional beef, egg and raisin empanadas ($7) where the pastry shell is no throwaway, to those juicy steaks, appropriately charred on the outside, rare on the inside, like the a 13 oz. New York steak ($29) with lively chimichurri sauce, a staple of Argentina steak culture.

Lolinda ceviche

Lolinda ceviche

But I’m all about their exceptional ceviche ($14), often in the options of octopus or silky, sashimi-like ono tossed in bright lime with aji amarillo peppers, sweet potato and fried corn in fritter-like form. The texture contrast and impeccable freshness only enhances the vibrant flavor of a standout in a city where it’s not difficult to find good ceviche.

ROKA AKOR, North Beach
Catering to a wide range of diners with impeccable sushi & robata

Roka Akor sashimi

Roka Akor sashimi

Chain aspect aside, Roka Akor has acclimated to San Francisco quite well. They’ve done so with professional service, impeccable sushi and sashimi and robata grill dishes in an area that reaches everyone from tourists to the FiDi (Financial District) business set.

Their sashimi selection ($34/$46) is impressive in presentation and freshness, while their rolls/maki are above average, appropriately delicate rather than fried or heavy with sauce. At lunch, ubiquitous miso black cod arrives in unique form – on skewers ($18 with salad), while cocktails utilize Japanese herbs, citrus and flavors to partner with dishes.

Avo & asparagus tempura roll

Avo & asparagus tempura roll

On my most recent visit (after a couple lunches here, I love it for lunch, though there’s also that appealingly dim, underground bar), I was surprised to be most taken with a new vegetarian maki ($11.50). What sounded absolutely typical, a light roll of ever-so-softly fried avocado and asparagus, weaves with Japanese herbs, sprinkled artfully with edible flowers – a statement veggie roll, if there ever was one.

Lolinda's dramatic dining room an bar from an upstairs table

Lolinda’s dramatic dining room & bar from an upstairs table

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Feb
15
2014

Around the Bay

Views from the new Luna Blu in Tiburon

Views from the new Luna Blu in Tiburon

WHERE to EAT NOW: MARIN

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

M.H. Bread & Butter

M.H. Bread & Butter

Suburbs, nature, charming main streets… family-heavy Marin has always had a few culinary gems. But a spare few of them though sandwiched between one of the great food cities of the world and the gustatory pleasures of Napa and Sonoma.

Bakeries like Beth’s Community Kitchen in Mill Valley are reminiscent of San Francisco bakeries (what is now standard Bay Area), while San Rafael’s Ponsford’s Place is a bread and pastry lover’s destination. Just open since June 2013, M.H. Bread & Butter in San Anselmo is the latest and greatest in Marin bakeries, doing classics like quiche and almond croissants right, alongside cookies, traditional French cakes and breads.

New openings and new chefs continue to pop up, some – like those below – worth crossing the bridge for.

Sausalito

SUSHI RAN, 107 Caledonia St, Sausalito, 415-332-3620

Coconut soup

Coconut soup

Amid relative newcomers like Pizzeria Rossetti and Barrel House Tavern, the longtime great Sausalito restaurant, Sushi Ran, recently promoted executive sushi chef Taka Toshi to master chef alongside Executive Chef Scott Whitman. Mitsunori “Nori” Kusakabe, sushi chef since 2004, left in December to open a kaiseki restaurant, Kusakabe, in SF’s Financial District in the former Machka space.

While I am thrilled to see Kusakabe come to the city, I’m delighted to say, having recently returned to Sushi Ran – one of my all-time top sushi restaurants – that it’s still shining with Chefs Whitman and Toshi, under the same ownership of Yoshi Tome.

Vegetable tasting

Vegetable tasting

Ten piece sashimi platters ($32.50) or six piece sushi ($19.50) are sustainable “when possible” and pristine. Rolls/maki are not an afterthought, whether an elevated creamy scallop roll ($10.50) or the crisp of a spicy soft shell crawfish maki ($13.50), enhanced by cucumber, Japanese 7-spice, spicy crab and crawfish legs dramatically kicking out of the top.

Squid

Grilled squid

Non-sushi items are just as much a highlight as raw fish. A cup of corn coconut soup ($4/8), lush with red crab, chive and truffle, goes down like silk. In fine winter form, Fuyu persimmons ($9) are a sweet contrast over crisp kale, marcona almonds, shaved radish, and creamy hunks of Point Reyes Toma cheese.

Wagyu beef carpaccio in wasabi oil

Wagyu beef carpaccio in wasabi oil

Grilled squid ($13) is a bit of revelation, served in a form I haven’t not seen before. A fat tentacle is cut in segments, standing tall like a tower, topped with a grilled sliver of lemon, surrounded by mounds of smoked citrus sabayon (an egg yolk sauce) dusted with pepper powder. This dish stands out, but surprisingly, so do vegetables (generally $7). A vegetable tasting ($12) is the best way to try three of them at once: spiced roasted cauliflower, kale tossed with dates and puffed rice, and kimchee brussels sprouts. Each is spanking fresh, alive with flavor. This is the way to eat your veggies.

Sush Ran’s sake book is extensive and impressive with helpful tasting notes and categorizations. Try unusual beauties like the uniquely funky Amabuki Sunflower by Amabuki Shuzo made with sunflower yeast. Or there’s a dry, clean, almost spring mountain water-esque junmai sake, Man’s Mountain by Oto Koyama. To finish, I love the umami richness of Kiminoi “Emperor’s Well” yamahai junmai ginjo sake.

Sushi Ran's crawfish maki

Sushi Ran’s crawfish maki

F3, 39 Caledonia St. Sausalito, 415-887-9047

Mousse

Chicken liver mousse

Even if the food at Le Garage Bistro never blew me away, the open air patio and water views always felt quintessential Sausalito. From the same owners as Le Garage and L’Appart Resto, Fast Food Francais, aka F3, may be the most realized of the three in terms of the food. It may be “just” a burger restaurant but with additional dishes showcasing French cooking technique, Vespa delivery to locals, friendly service, and solid wine list in a casual space that formerly housed Plate Shop, it’s fast become a town favorite that comforts without sacrificing quality.

Flinstone burger

Flinstone burger

The burger list ($9-14) is certainly a draw, particularly with the likes of the Flinstone, a juicy, bacon aioli and shallot confit-smothered burger, decadently partnered with bone marrow. It’s ideal smeared across the bun. Crispy, shredded duck confit makes up the Quack burger, perky with black pepper chèvre cheese and red onion marmalade.

F3 Cocktails

F3 Cocktails

The Herbivore actually keeps up with those two on its own terms: a flavor-rich patty of French lentils and jasmine rice, subtly spiced with ras el hanout (North African spice mix), marked by yogurt, apple compote and frisée.

All beef used is organic grass fed, lamb is natural in the lamb burger, and a mountain of Brussels sprout chips ($6) dipped in buttermilk are as gratifying as the better versions of fried Brussels leaves elsewhere over the years.

Cocktails are soft and catered towards a suburban crowd with toned-down or thankfully subtle fruit flavors. There’s a range of local and French wines to choose from and a few French-ified starters and small plates like a lush chicken liver mousse ($10) over rustic bread, happily given contrast from sweet golden raisins, pickled red onions and cornichons.

Celebrating it’s one year anniversary this Valentine’s Day, this could be the place to last in a space that has seen a lot of turnover.

LUNA BLU, 35 Main St., Tiburon, 415-789-5844

Outside on Luna Blu's deck

Outside on Luna Blu’s deck

Open barely a month, Luna Blu is not so much about the food as about that stellar Tiburon view over boats and docks, across the Bay to San Francisco. Thankfully, the food isn’t cause for suffering as some unnamed Tiburon restaurants can be. It’s straightforward Italian with “red sauce” dishes like Eggplant Parmigiana ($16) given a “healthy” touch from a smattering of crisp, green peas, or ravioli ($18) filled with pear, decadent in Asiago cheese and walnut cream sauce.

Eggplant parm

Eggplant parm

Though I long for more authentic Sicilian dishes from Taormina-born chef Renzo Azzarello, the warm welcome exuded by Chef Azzarello and his wife, Crystal (from Oxford, England), makes an impression. The two of them came to and fell in love with Tiburon on their honeymoon. They’re back, putting down roots with their own restaurant set to stellar, only-in-the-Bay-Area views.

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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

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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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