Feb
15
2014

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Sardines

Sardines over cubes of cauliflower & horseradish cream

Verbena: A Showcase for Vegetables

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

VERBENA, Russian Hill (2323 Polk St. between Union & Green, 415-441-2323)

Pickled chic

Pickled chic

Gather has been my favorite Berkeley restaurant (alongside, what else? Chez Panisse) since it opened in 2010. Though a staunch meat eater, their vegan “charcuterie” wowed me, like the affordable offspring of Scandinavia’s vegetable-heavy creativity or of SF chefs like Coi‘s Daniel Patterson, who have long been pushing the reaches of what can be done with vegetables.

Artichoke hearts

Artichoke hearts

So it was with gladness that I heard the Gather crew, chef Sean Baker and owners Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster, were opening a San Francisco restaurant, Verbena, which debuted December 18, 2013. High ceilings, warm woods, illuminated walls lined with bottles of (ubiquitous) house pickled vegetables, and a cozy, upstairs dining room… the space is sleek, strong, and inviting, bustling when full without being overwhelmingly loud.

Brassicas - a fascinating entree

Brassicas – a fascinating entree

After three visits in the first seven weeks, it’s clear Verbena’s vegetable-heavy ethos is similar to Gather, including strong meat and seafood options. Dishes are artistic and at its best, this translates to the taste. Baker works layered wonders with vegetables sourced exclusively from Lindencroft Farm in Ben Lomond, CA.

Chicories salad

Chicories salad

My top dish in initial visits is an artful streak of seared artichoke hearts ($14), less common than the pervasive beet, which is also showcased in a dish here. The hearts are dotted with pickled green tomato relish and pine nuts, undergirded by a dramatic smear of black garlic and rice koji “aioli” for another bold layer of flavor. It’s blessedly original… and most importantly, delights the taste buds.

Quail entree

Koji quail entree ($28) with grilled pumpkin and “dirty” pumpkin rice

Comforting and filling, turnips and sunchokes ($13) form a mound marked by shiitake mushrooms and farro “crisps” atop a pool of Moroccan-spiced red hummus, the shining point of the dish. The one vegetable small plate that didn’t work for me, surprisingly? Glazed carrots ($12), which I typically love. Though the carrots were perfectly tender-crisp, smartly touched by verbena and aleppo pepper over an intriguing smoked cashew mousse and topped with fresh greens, they were so sweet I recalled childhood memories of candied carrots sauteed in too much brown sugar that turned me off the vegetable for years.

Meatballs

Meatballs in mole

In general, however, vegetables are the shining star here. Even a seemingly “basic” salad of colorful chicories ($11) is imbued with winter brightness from orange, satsumas, blood oranges and bronze fennel, tossed in a tart, dill-inflected pumpkin seed milk dressing. On the large plate side, brassicas ($23) – in this case, cauliflower and visually striking Romanesco broccoli – line the center of a bowl alongside a standout puree of beluga lentils. Dotted with pickles and hot peppers, half the bowl is filled with… you’ll never guess: creamy cheddar sauce. A blissfully decadent vegetable course.

Seafood sausage ($17) over split pea miso sauce & mussels

Seafood sausage ($17) over split pea miso sauce & mussels

On the meat side, duck/pancetta/chicken meatballs ($16) can’t help but win me over. They’re in mole negro sauce, my favorite style of mole, earthy with chocolate and spices, recalling my journeys in Oaxaca, Mexico. A smattering of collard greens, hominy and whey complete this decidedly Bay Area-meets-Oaxaca dish.

When they say “sardine” ($15), it’s not a typo. They mean one, small sardine, cut into pieces, arranged atop hunks of whipped cauliflower and horseradish cream like mini-sushi. Though tiny, flavor and presentation are fascinating, as the garnish of steelhead roe explodes in the mouth.

Molasses ginger cake

Molasses ginger cake

Desserts are no afterthought. In fact, they are intriguingly complex without feeling overwrought. I couldn’t help but adore an unusual twist on cheesecake served as cubes of kaffir lime cheesecake ($9) over a sheet of burnt turmeric marshmallow. Mini-black sesame meringues add savory crunch, while pomegranate seeds brightly pop. It’s one of the more blessedly original desserts this year. Even molasses ginger bread ($8) could be ho-hum but the moist bread benefits from the vegetal-sweet of carrot sorbet and a dreamy IPA beer caramel sauce.

Noble Bay cocktail

Noble Bay cocktail

In drink, I’m disappointed to say that after trying five cocktails over my visits, none really impressed despite the “right”, quality spirits and pleasing-sounding combinations. For example, I felt like hunting for the celery in Emerald Remedy # 2 ($11), a blend of gin, Pimm’s, Green Chartreuse, celery and lemon. Though I adore each of those ingredients and “green”-forward, vegetal drinks, the combo was indistinctive, lacking focus. Similarly, Noble Bay ($12) sounded like my kind of drink combining Redemption Rye, apple brandy and sweet vermouth with Bay laurel and bitters. Though the Bay laurel was pleasing on the nose, I couldn’t taste even a hint of it in the too-sweet rye spice of the drink.

Verbena Cocktails

Verbena Cocktails

Best bet? Stick with the lovely wine list consulted on by Michael Ireland (Gather, The Restaurant at Meadowood, Wingtip). Without annoyingly trumping up sustainable, biodynamic, and all that, it wasn’t till I spent time digging through the wine book on my second visit that I ascertained all wines, both international and local, fall into those categories. There’s many a pleasure amongst these small producer-growers, like one of my longtime favorite Nor Cal wines, Forlorn Hope, with their crisp 2012 Que Saudade Verdelho ($11), or a gorgeous small producer from Austria’s Kamptal, 2012 Hirsch “Heilegenstein” Gruner Veltliner ($16). On the red side, another Spanish Rioja favorite is represented by balanced glass of 2005 Lopez de Heredia Vina Cubillo Crianza.

Portions are small and prices add up quickly, but right out of the gate, Verbena (aka Gather West?) does what Gather has done well these few years: showcase vegetables, meat, local producers and local ingredients in a sophisticated way.

Kaffir lime cheesecake

Kaffir lime cheesecake

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May
15
2011

The Latest

VEGETARIAN DELIGHTS

SOURCE, Potrero Hill (11 Division Street near DeHaro, daily for lunch and dinner, weekend brunch, 415-864-9000)

House elixirs

Yes, I’m a meat eater. I want animals treated humanely, with loving care and long lives. But I personally don’t feel I could possibly be a full-fledged food writer and not eat virtually everything. Food prejudices are not allowed. My motto is: if any culture of the world eats it, I can, too (which is quickly followed by: if I don’t like something, I keep eating it until I do).

Leave it to two New York brothers to make a vegetarian meal surprisingly hearty, satisfying, and inventive. In Potrero Hill’s Design District, a non-descript warehouse houses Source (with parking out front – take note!). A brand new vegetarian restaurant, the space is modern and peaceful (though not Zen or hippie) with a wall of running water and filtered air circulating through the dining room and open kitchen. A dramatic, gas-fired Mugnaini brick oven is a gaping dragon’s mouth. It certainly stands out, another one-of-a-kind feature that leaves you wondering what this place is really about.

Water comes to your table  triple filtered, ionized and energized ($3.55 a carafe). Executive Chef Mitchell Fox and his brother and co-owner, Andrew Fox, have thought through every detail of the atmosphere, menu and experience. As Andrew says: “Source is more than an eating establishment. It is a place for people to be nurtured – their body, their mind, their soul.”

The awesome pita burger

I dive into the vegetarian/vegan menu of sandwiches, salads, dosas and pizzas prepared to eat fresh ingredients but wondering what the level of flavor and satisfaction will be. They had me at Avocado Oink Bits Mozzarella Burger ($8.95). Ok, let’s say it’s not really a burger but a veggie patty made of black beans, beets, celery, carrots, wild rice and onions inside a pita. I’m a burger fanatic and nothing can replace a perfect beef burger. But this is something entirely its own. The patty retains a smoky, grilled essence, black beans give it heft, and each ingredient adds nuance. It’s fresh yet savory – an exciting vegetarian offering that even a meat-eater could love.

Da Bronx - a brilliant pizza

Moving on to pizzas. The Fox bros. grew up in the Bronx and my old high school stomping grounds of New Jersey and thus know pizza. But I was shocked at how good these pies actually are. The dough, a special recipe 25 years in the making, is actually reminiscent of Una Pizza Napoletana. Yes, I said it. It’s warm, doughy texture is addictive. Pizzas like the Taco ($13.95) come loaded with salad, cheddar, salsa, guacamole and soy sour cream. But I’d go straight for Da Bronx ($9.95) to savor the purity of the dough, sweet/savory tomato sauce, EVOO and homemade mozzarella. Who knew you could find excellent pizza at a vegetarian restaurant?

Though the pizza and ‘burger’ are reason enough to cross town, there are many pleasures here. Fries ($3.95) are fun, particularly with a range of salt choices and delightful dipping sauces like Caribbean banana ketchup, jalapeno jam, and Gilroy garlic aioli. Meat substitute entrees are surprisingly tasty, like Jamaican Jerk Cluck (instead of chicken – $13.95), though in most cases, I’ll stick to actual meat.  Baked goods are another house specialty (vegan and gluten free options), from Whoopie Pies to raw food Rocky Road cheesecake.

Fresh Taco pizza

Another pleasure is the Source elixir bar, created in consultation with an herbalist and alternative doctor. Non-alcoholic sips include fermented elixirs, house sodas, teas, herbal blends, or smoothies with cashew milk. They even do their versions of a New York Egg Cream or Creamsicle. Again, the three drinks I tried were all worthwhile, even elegant.

With an order at the counter set-up and uber friendly staff, this is a welcoming, casual place to eat in or take-out. I’d also venture to say it’s already among the best vegetarian food in San Francisco.

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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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