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Restaurant Review

Patisserie Philippe


› paulr@sfbg.com

Most of us have our favorite bistros, boîtes, bakeries, and pubs — but patisseries? That seems a little precious, and maybe hard to pronounce. And fattening, since patisseries are all about pastries, and pastries are all about — or largely about — butter and eggs and sugar, with some flour and yeast thrown in, not to mention chocolate, more often than not. Boulangerie is tricky to pronounce too for unschooled Anglophones, but boulangeries are about bread, and bread isn’t really fattening — unless it’s brioche, which is something you’d get at a patisserie, perhaps your favorite one.

Pâtisserie Philippe, which opened earlier this spring in a gigantic new building on the roundabout at the end of Eighth Street, is not a boulangerie, but it does have its boulangerie-esque elements. The handsome glass display cases are full of pastries, including tartes tatins and financiers, but they aren’t full of just pastries. There are panini too and baguette sandwiches and salads. If you said deli with a French accent, you would be striking near the heart of the matter. I don’t know how you say sports bar in French — le sports bar? — but there is one next door (not at all French), and it is loud. Pâtisserie Philippe, by contrast, is serene and civilized, and while you can’t get french fries with your panino, you won’t miss them, since you prefer a salad of mixed baby greens anyway.

The Philippe of Pâtisserie Philippe is Philippe Delarue, formerly of Bay Bread, the large and spreading consortium of bakeries and restaurants run by Pascal Rigo. Delarue’s place does resemble, a little, Rigolo, the Rigo restaurant in Laurel Village. The latter is bigger and has a more extensive menu (including wine), but while the food is good, it isn’t better than Pâtisserie Philippe’s. I was particularly taken by PP’s croque monsieur ($5.95), the classic grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich that here is caked with a béchamel sauce — a bit on the rich side, yes, but the sandwich is European in scale. It’s not huge, in other words; five or six bites and you’re done, and you’re well satisfied. If the sandwich were built out to American standards, it would be two or three times as big and perhaps worthy of the sports bar next door. But … inelegant. Anyway, there are plenty of other savories to sample, and the panini are quite large.

This has much to do with their being assembled on ciabatta bread. The name means slipper in Italian and refers to the loaves’ long, flat shape; sandwiches made from ciabatta are particularly well-suited to the panini press. Pâtisserie Philippe’s versions ($5.95) feature ham or chicken along with melted mozzarella and provolone cheeses. I liked them both but preferred the ham, which was a little more deep-voiced and assertive in the face of all that white goo. If neither appeals, there is a fine spinach quiche ($3.75 for a not inconsiderable slice) — a kind of open-face spanikopita, with a gorgeous flaky-tender, golden pastry crust.

Although the French aren’t known for their vegetarianism, Pâtisserie Philippe is surprisingly vegetarian-friendly. There is a vegetarian baguette sandwich, but even better is the wide array of salads and side dishes. You could make a nice little lunch out of these alone — perhaps a picnic lunch, if you can find a swatch of grass in the neighborhood other than the little lawn in the middle of the roundabout. (The host building, which seems to be at least a block square, or triangular, fills up what was once the parking lot for the handsome old Baker and Hamilton edifice and its warren of eclectic furniture stores.)

We particularly liked a pair of salads ($3.25 each for half-servings of about a cup) made from shreddings of roots that don’t often attain headliner status: carrot and celery root. We noted in each a texture like that of cappellini cooked al dente, and a firm but gentle embrace of well-mellowed vinaigrette. The potato salad (also $3.25) was good too, though heavily dotted with tabs of ham. And at the end of this road we find the drastically unvegetarian pork rillettes ($4.50), a mash of slow-cooked meat mixed with fat to become a ropy paste you spread on rounds of baguette and enjoy with cornichons, the little pickles. The rillettes were slightly undersalted, I thought, but did not lack for satisfying lipidity.

No consideration of a patisserie would be complete without a discussion of the sweets on hand. Plenty of familiar faces here, from a chocolate éclair ($2.50) — milk-chocolaty-ish — to an elaborately layered, single-serve apple tart ($3.50) — excellent pastry, mediocre apples — to a fine bread pudding ($3.75), laced with large blackberries and pregnant with custard. The one standout we found was a bouchée caramel ($2.50), a disk of brioche with a shortcake-like depression in the middle that was filled with caramel. It was a bit like a crème caramel with brioche instead of custard and no ramekin to have to clean up afterward. Here, it seems to me, was the no-muss-no-fuss wisdom of the sugar cone as applied to pastry: the serving vessel was itself edible, and delectable.

Pâtisserie Philippe’s greatest liability could be its location, in the middle of a dark-faced building a long block long with not much to distinguish the storefronts. I can’t say I mourn the erstwhile parking lot, but the design district, of all districts, seems like an odd place to raise such a boring building. *


Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–6 p.m.;
Sat., 8 a.m.–5 p.m.

655 Townsend, SF

(415) 558-8016


No alcohol


Not noisy

Wheelchair accessible



› paulr@sfbg.com

Our town, for all its glories, does have its little shortages here and there. We are, in particular, not as rich as some of the bigger cities in the "littles" and "towns" that give those great metropolises their distinctive scents of ethnic potpourri. Oh, we do have a Chinatown and a Japantown, and our Little Italy can be found living under a pseudonym in North Beach. There’s even a remnant of a French quartier on lower Nob Hill, along a run of Bush Street that includes the Alliance Française, the French consulate, and the Église Notre Dame des Victoires. But for all San Francisco’s affinity for the Mediterranean, many of the Mediterranean cultures are virtually invisible here. I was reminded, after visiting Chicago recently, that we have not only no Greektown but hardly any Greek restaurants, hardly any place where your cheese can be set on fire before your eyes with a cry of "Opa!"

Flaming cheese (not to be confused with the Flaming Homer) is known by the Greeks as saganaki, and it is on the menu at Myconos, a Polk Street stalwart that has survived since the 1970s and preserves an authentic sense of Greek rusticity, as such latecomers as Kokkari and Mezes do not. Greece, we should remember, is one of the poorest countries in Europe; it is quite near both Africa and the Middle East and was ruled rather harshly for several centuries by the Ottoman Turks. (One enduring monument to the struggle against the Turkish occupation is the semiruined Parthenon in Athens, which had been built in the golden age of Pericles in the fifth century BCE and stood intact for two millennia, until, in the 17th century, the occupiers turned it into a munitions dump, which then exploded.) If we ever start wondering why the argument between Christianity and Islam is so bitter, we can get much of our answer simply by considering the Greek case.

Fortunately, everybody likes saganaki, with the possible exception of the American Heart Association. ("I wish they’d never invented fried cheese!" Marge Simpson says in a fantasy graveside scene in which Homer has died of obesity and is being buried in a piano crate lowered by a crane. These are her last words, for the crane then gives way and the crate crushes everyone.) Myconos’s version ($9.95) isn’t detonated tableside, but it does reach the table still spitting blue flames, and it does develop a wonderful golden crust that contrasts nicely with the cheese’s natural citrusy (and not too salty) tang.

Saganaki is probably about as good for you as dessert, so after your sinful beginning, you will be relieved to find that the rest of the menu is dotted with salads, legume dishes, and vegetarian choices. We found the hummus ($4.95) to be non–Middle Eastern despite the accompanying warm pita bread; the chickpea puree was coarse rather than peanut-butter smooth and seemed not to have been mixed with tahini, the sesame seed paste. The dominant flavors, instead, were those of lemon and garlic.

The restaurant’s version of a Greek salad — mixed greens tossed with roma tomato coins, crumblings of feta cheese, and onion slivers — turns up beside many of the main courses. Among these is a rather splendid pastitsio ($11.95), a kind of Greek lasagna that combines layers of tubular pasta, seasoned ground beef, and béchamel cheese sauce into a shape that resembles a large square hamburger (with the béchamel cheese sauce looking like the top half of the bun). The wind blows from the east across the pastitsio, bringing the scent of nutmeg, perfume of the Middle East and even points beyond. This is not surprising; as Elson M. Haas, MD, instructs us in Staying Healthy with Nutrition (Celestial Arts/Ten Speed, $39.95), "the Middle Eastern nations consume a variant of the Indian diet," and Greece is on the fringes of the Middle East.

Novices, neophytes, and the inattentive might be forgiven, in fact, if they mistook the Greek condiment tzatziki — a sauce of yogurt, shredded cucumber, garlic, and onion — for the Indian condiment raita, a sauce of yogurt and cucumber. Tzatziki is the salsa of Greek cooking and has a way of turning up everywhere, but we found it only as an accompaniment to garides souvlaki ($15.95), two brochettes of grilled shrimp plated with roasted potatoes and salad.

I was not impressed with the falafel ($5.95 at lunch), despite the massiveness of the plate: five Titleist-size balls arrayed on a carpet of pita and topped with a blob of hummus that looked like lumpy gravy. The falafel balls were unwarm and undersalted; worse, they recurred on the vegetarian platter, which offered (in addition to the falafel and in place of the cottage potatoes) a dolma — a torpedo of seasoned rice swaddled in grape leaves — and a round of spanikopita, the phyllo pie stuffed with spinach and cheese. These teaser items were tasty enough to distinguish themselves from the falafel but not substantial enough to make up for it.

The wine list is brief but does include a variety of Greek bottlings both red and white, and these tend to be quite good value. Although the Greeks have been making wine since time out of mind, the country’s modern wine industry had fallen into disrepair until recently and was known mostly for retsina, whose turpentine quality can be overwhelming. There is also a selection of Greek beers, including a lovely golden lager from Hillas. After a few of these, even Homer might nod. *


Mon.–Thurs., noon–10 p.m.; Fri., noon–11 p.m.; Sat. 1–11 p.m.; Sun., 1–10 p.m.

1431 Polk, SF

(415) 775-7949



Beer and wine

Can get loud

Wheelchair accessible

Caffe Bella Venezia


› paulr@sfbg.com

The world traveler might arrive in some strange foreign city eager to find enlightenment at the table — to suss out the city’s most interesting and revealing restaurants and ponder the cultural clues they offer — but first there is the matter of jet lag. The world traveler has an urgent need for a good night’s sleep and perhaps a meal that’s somehow authentically local but not too difficult: not too expensive or far away or served at a place that’s difficult to get into. Tourist cities — of which ours is one — must have plenty of restaurants to provide this service, just as they must have plenty of other places to provide dazzle and memories while charging prices that keep the local tourist economy well watered and in bloom.

We don’t lack for the second, lofty sort of restaurant, of course, but you might be surprised that we have examples of the former too. While stepping into Caffé Bella Venezia one recent mild evening, I noticed a huge youth hostel on the other side of Post Street, and I was glad. For a city that so self-consciously links itself to youth culture, ours is a fearfully — I might even say prohibitively — expensive place for youth to visit. Youth tends to be impecunious, and that won’t get you very far at the Ritz-Carlton or even the Phoenix, no matter how charming and chic your pennilessness. If the concierge is nice, you might be sent down to the hostel on Post Street, not far from Union Square and the theater district, and welcomed there. And if you’re hungry, you might next be sent across the street to Bella Venezia, which isn’t exactly Venetian — except for all the wall art, with its many depictions of gondoliers and canals — but is appealingly pan-Italian, with a rich selection of pastas. If money is one language everybody speaks, pasta is another.

Venice has long been the most eastward-looking of Italian cities. For centuries it was the western terminus of the Silk Road to China, and after the horrendous Fourth Crusade in 1204 — in which Venetian forces sacked the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, instead of carrying on to the Holy Land — it was handsomely decorated with Byzantine gewgaws looted from that ancient city. One associates certain oriental perfumes, of cinnamon and nutmeg, among others, with the cooking of Venice, and while you’re not likely to catch a whiff of these at Bella Venezia, you might catch a latter-day Silk Road echo: the chef is Italian, and his Filipina wife runs the front of the house with the help of their son.

Meanwhile, much of the clientele speaks little or no English. While we did note several solitary, possibly Anglophone, diners roosting forlornly at tables on various evenings, we were more struck by the parade of high-spirited young people moving in packs and speaking, say, French. Of course the French like and serve pasta, even if they’re French Canadian. And just about everyone would like Bella Venezia’s fettuccine arlecchino ($9.95), a lively and colorful mélange of zucchini coins, black olives, and sun-dried tomatoes in a sauce of garlic and goat cheese and a heaping tangle of pasta. Even better is gnocchi ($5 for a small plate that’s not that small), which isn’t really a pasta but is often grouped with the pasta family. Bella Venezia’s house-made lobes are achingly tender, stuffed with gorgonzola, and bathed with a mushroom cream in which we detected, we thought, a hint of brandy breath.

I was surprised to find that I did not quite care for the lasagna ($9.95). So seldom am I disaffected in this way that I can’t recall the last time it happened, if it ever did. But BV’s lasagna, though served in an immense portion, had an unbecoming sweetness; too much minced onion mixed in with the ground beef? We noted a similar problem with the minestrone ($4.50), a run-of-the-mill vegetable soup heavy with carrots, onions, celery, zucchini, potatoes, and shreds of spinach — but no tomatoes, white beans, or pasta. Both lasagna and minestrone responded to salting, the latter more smartly than the former.

A nice feature of the menu is that you can get little versions of pizzas, pastas, and salads for $3 to $6 each. A pair of these makes a nice two-course dinner for someone who isn’t starving or is watching carb intake or feels a little jet-lagged. Pizza regina ($4.75) is a daughter of the full-figured pizza margherita, topped with the same combination of tomatoes, oregano, basil, and mozzarella — plenty of mozzarella. Pizza salsiccia ($8.95) is (to extend our familial imagery) an uncle, a brawny pie of meaty mushrooms and lots of fennel-charged Italian sauces. If the current vogue of thin-crust pizza has left you fatigued, you will appreciate BV’s slightly thicker, breadier crusts.

Two of the restaurant’s best dishes turn up as appetizers. Caprese salad ($6.95) is often routine, a tried-and-true medley of sliced tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, but here it is lightly doused with a pesto vinaigrette that enlivens each constituent while bringing them together. (All salad dressings are supposed to do this, but few do it this well.) And sautéed mussels ($9.95) arrive in a pool of garlicky tomato–white wine sauce that will have you motioning for more of the house-made focaccia to sop it up with, since it is impolite to do so with your fingers, even if you’ve just flown in from Venice and have jet lag. *


Dinner: nightly, 5 p.m.–midnight

720 Post, SF

(415) 775-1156


Beer and wine


Not loud

Wheelchair accessible

Quixote’s Mexican Grill


› paulr@sfbg.com

Literary nerds will note a slight irony in the naming of a Mexican restaurant after Don Quixote — a.k.a. Alfonso Quixano — the touchingly quixotic unhero of Miguel de Cervantes’s novel El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, first published in Spain in 1605. The novel has nothing to do with Mexico, though Mexico has plenty to do with Spain, beginning with a shared language and faith and including a certain goriness in cultural mythology. The restaurant in question, Quixote’s Mexican Grill (which opened toward the end of winter in a little run of shops behind Muni Metro’s Forest Hill station), serves an excellent sangria. I love sangria and soak it up like a sponge, but sangria (the name is derived from sangre, "blood") isn’t Mexican. Sangria, as probably most of us know, is a wine cocktail, and Mexico produces almost no wine. Spain, on the other hand, produces tons; it is one of the world’s great wine-producing lands, and sangria is a distinctively Spanish drink, something to sip, or swill, late on a sun-splashed afternoon under a parasol somewhere on the Costa Brava.

I come not to pick nits, though, because Quixote’s is a charming neighborhood place that turns out some interesting, unexpected dishes, and sangria is lovely whether on the Spanish coast or at the wild intersection of Dewey and Woodside, with a cold city summer sweeping in on wings of Dickensian fog. Sangría de rojo ($7 for a goblet) slyly raises expectations, and the kitchen at Quixote’s, while capably turning out the Mexican standards that have become American favorites (tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and so forth), also offers a dish, Sancho’s borrecherra ($18.95), that features a sauce concocted from beer and wine. New World meets Old, and they dance; more on this anon.

Let’s begin in the middle of the degree-of-sophistication scale, with an old friend that gets restaurant treatments of varying appeal: the chile relleno ($5.95). My companion, a connoisseur of chiles rellenos, wrinkled his brow skeptically when the plate was set before him, but he was relieved to find the pepper — the proper kind, a poblano, deep green and tapered, with a breath of heat — had been roasted and peeled, not dunked in batter and deep-fried. He also approved of the cheese inside (molten queso blanco, oozing) and of the ranchero sauce. I agreed, while noting with satisfaction the sets of ketchup squirt bottles on each table, one filled with red salsa, the other with green. Caveat: the red kind is quite hot.

Caveat, continued: a number of the dishes can be quite hot, as we discovered at dinner one evening. We opened with a sweet-tempered queso fundido ($5.50), a crock of melted cheese presented with a foil envelope containing a huge flour tortilla cut into quarters. The most sensitive palate could have eaten this dish and enjoyed it as we did. That same palate would also have responded warmly to the ocean tacos ($3.50 each), filled with grilled mahimahi, shredded lettuce, and mango dice for a bit of ripe sweetness. But the firestorm was not far off.

Sancho’s borrecherra — a prawn dish — looked tame enough, its sauce the rich color of ale, the prawns peeled and easy to eat. But the seemingly benign amber liquid turned out to be so spicy that the prawns themselves, lightly splashed with it, were little torches, bearers of flame, though shrimp flesh is famed for a delicate marine sweetness. My companion, who has grown less tolerant of spicy food over the years, accepted my offer of a straight-up trade for my mahimahi tacos, and we agreed to joint custody of the borrecherra’s two side dishes, black beans and cayenne corn.

The black beans were fabulous, deeply tasty with no incendiary properties. But the cayenne corn was another matter. Corn, like shrimp, is naturally sweet and takes well to a judicious enlivenment with cayenne pepper. But … not too much! Too much, and you set people’s mouths on fire. My companion, having abandoned the shrimp to me, soon abandoned the flaming corn niblets as well, and while I have retained a higher tolerance for hot food, even I in the end found the corn and shrimp to be a bridge too far. It was as if the sorcerer’s apprentice were working the stoves that night and had by accident knocked over an entire jar of cayenne pepper into a pot, turning a pinch into a fistful. We sought refuge in dessert — in particular, the escudo ($5.95), which our server told us was a Mexican version of the s’more. He was right: What appeared in due course was a plateful of deep-fried pastry triangles dotted with half-melted minimarshmallows and a generous piping of chocolate sauce. If, in some alternate universe, nachos are dessert, then the escudo plate is from that universe. And the only heat we noticed was the physical heat of oven and deep-fryer, pleasantly waning.

Although Quixote’s occupies your typical midblock storefront, a certain amount of thought and effort has been put into making it attractive. The blond wood banquettes have a Scandinavian angularity to them — they could be in a sauna — while the walls have been coated in textured plaster and painted a sunburned almond color to give the sense of old adobe. I associate old adobe with Mexico, not Spain, but I probably do so a little less after a glass or two of sangria. *


Mon.–Thurs. and Sun., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.

406 Dewey Blvd., SF

(415) 661-1313

Beer and wine

Moderately loud


Wheelchair accessible

Weird Fish


› paulr@sfbg.com

The fishing-out of the oceans, like all disasters, has produced its share of odd delights. Fish that were considered junk a generation ago — monkfish, grouper, skate — suddenly didn’t look so shabby when cod and bluefin tuna became scarce. Today’s weird fish is tomorrow’s lovable fish, mostly because it’s still there. But these little discoveries of necessity tend to end up amplifying the problem, as species go from being overlooked to sought after and thus overfished. Skate: one of nature’s most fabulous fish to eat, and a no-no.

At Weird Fish, a distinctly Mission-style seafood joint that opened late last year, you aren’t going to find much in the way of weird fish on the menu. You will find, in a host of guises, tilapia and catfish, a pair of river species (the former native to the Nile) that have become favorites of aquaculture. Farmed versions produce filets of mild white flesh that, like chicken, lends itself to sassy preparations and accompaniments, which the kitchen at Weird Fish ably supplies. But you aren’t stuck with them; in the evening the menu opens out to include such interesting, though far from weird, specimens as trout and ahi.

The restaurant’s physical setting is striking, despite the ordinariness of the storefront space: a deep, high-ceilinged, and narrow shoebox with a single aisle, as on a cramped airliner. The interior design includes swatches of blue-green paint and mirrors that look like portholes, but the overall effect doesn’t say "seafood house" so much as "Mission hipster café." If you’re in any doubt, the loud, bad music should clear it up. Here is yet another restaurant that does not need to be adding decibels beyond the ample number provided by the clientele. We did like the tabletops of pressed-tin ceiling remnants under glass.

Seafood takes far better to spicy handling than conventional wisdom — with its delicate sauces of butter, shallots, and white wine — seems to understand, and Weird Fish isn’t afraid of laying it on. A catfish po’boy ($7) wouldn’t be much without its bayou-style rémoulade, just a slab of breaded, deep-fried fish filet on soft bread. But the sweet heat of the sauce, essentially a mayonnaise reinforced with mustard and cayenne, provided enough voltage to power the sandwich. For an extra $2.50 you can get a side of fries — a blend of potato and yam sticks — but, given the scale of the handsomely bronzed stack, sharing is a thought to consider. Salting up is another. In this connection, the vegetarian black-bean chili ($3 for a cup) deserves a mention; it was dotted with corn niblets and was excellent in a mild-mannered way once a few good licks from the saltshaker had been applied. A few good licks of chipotle pepper would have been nice too, but I didn’t see that shaker.

Not everything on the menu is strongly seasoned. A sandwich of grilled tilapia ($7), for instance, was quite tasty despite an absence of any condiment other than coleslaw, but then, grill smoke is basically a spice. And a split-pea soup ($3.50 for a cup) was hearty and textural and didn’t seem to miss a powerful organizing flavor. But another soup, the ballyhooed tortilla (also $3.50) — almost like a thick salsa decorated with chunks of avocado and a blob of sour cream, with thin strips of crisped tortilla arranged around the edge of the bowl like a rib cage — delivered a forceful wallop of capsicum heat that would have done the black-bean chili proud.

We found the Jamaican-style catfish ($7) to be on the docile side despite a thick smear of jerk sauce spooned over the top of the poached filet. The jerk tended toward sweetness rather than menace; it was like a defensive fortification, a blanket draped over some weak-kneed (though firm and moist) fish, rather than a swaggering man-o’-war presence. But a daily-special starter, ahi tuna tartare ($10), did swagger. The cubes of ruby flesh were gently tossed in a ginger-soy-cayenne bath before being arranged atop a trio of deep-fried wonton skins, like a set of magic carpets bronzed as mementos of some exotic childhood in Lilliput.

And the evening’s "suspicious" dish ($10; the price varies), a kind of chef’s surprise, turned out to be spectacularly tasty despite being a pasta — linguine, in fact, tossed with a medley of bay shrimp, clams, and prawns in a garlic–<\d>white wine sauce perfumed with cilantro. The sauce gave a pleasant tingle on the lips, and the clams and small shrimp were fine in their supporting roles, but we did find the larger prawns to be noticeably dry and mealy: had they been frozen and thawed? Frozen too long or mishandled in some other way? This was an unexpected shortcoming in a restaurant that announces its commitment to high-quality ingredients in a posting at the doorway.

Apart from some hinky shellfish and too much noise, Weird Fish gives us a mostly bracing vision of a modern San Francisco seafood house. It is not the obvious descendant of such old-timers as Tadich Grill and Sam’s, nor is it the clear relation of such temples of luxe as Farallon and Aqua — but it does, perhaps, have some wisdom to impart to these august places despite being a whippersnapper. Its emphases on sustainability and the ingenious making of lemonade from the lemons of fish farming do raise the hope, however modest, that the weird fish of today will still be there tomorrow. *


Mon.–Thurs. and Sun., 9 a.m.–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 9 a.m.–midnight

2193 Mission, SF

(415) 863-4744


Beer and wine



Wheelchair accessible

David’s Kitchen


› paulr@sfbg.com

In the kitchen of David’s Kitchen, a tiny restaurant in the Sunset, you will find David. The kitchen is of the semiexhibition sort, viewable from the snug dining room through a rectangular aperture that looks as if it once might have housed a picture window or maybe a large plasma flat-screen television. Was this space once home to a sports bar? David is David Chang, a native of China who opened the place with his wife, Terri, about four years ago. He could have called it David Chang, if he’d cared to join the trend of to-the-greater-glory-of-me chef-owners who name their restaurants after themselves. I have sometimes wondered how often these grand people can actually be found in their own kitchens. "David’s Kitchen" suggests to us that David is actually in the kitchen, and so he is, perhaps cooking your lunch after taking your order. At lunch it can be just you and him; it’s like having your own short-order chef. He seats you, writes down what you want, then makes and serves it. You are happy, even when he presents the bill, which your own short-order chef would never be so crass as to do. But then, even the best fantasies have limits.

It would be difficult to overstate the intimacy of David’s Kitchen. Like Thai Time, the fabulous and impossibly small restaurant on Eighth Avenue in the Inner Richmond, David’s Kitchen has only a handful of tables and fills to near capacity when a few parties of three or four come through the door at about the same time. If there had been an Asian restaurant on Skylab, the makeshift space station from the 1970s, it might have looked something like this. While David’s menu does include a strong Thai element, it’s pan-Asian in a way Thai Time’s isn’t; there are even a few New World items thrown in — for fun? Or because of neighborhood demand? One of them, the chicken barley soup ($3.50), we found to be insipid, but that was the only dish we came across that failed to sing in a clear, strong voice.

Even among the Asian dishes, one finds the occasional global touch. Although fat seafood noodles ($5.95 at lunch) spoke with a pronounced Thai accent — the sauce was coconut-milk green curry, with a strong subplot of chile heat — the noodles themselves were fettuccine, for a slight Marco Polo twist. The seafood, meanwhile (shrimp, mussels, clams, and whitefish, leavened with zucchini quarters), was immaculate, in keeping with the restaurant’s assurance that "we use only the freshest ingredients."

XO chow fun noodles ($5.95), on the other hand, were the broad, glistening Chinese rice-flour kind, tossed with shreds of boneless chicken, bean sprouts, scallions, and (the star ingredient) XO sauce, a Hong Kong–<\d>style paste of dried shrimp and scallop along with garlic, onion, and chile peppers. This saucing gave the dish a flat, fierce heat, like an August day on the Great Plains — quite different from the rounded punch of the fat noodles — with a strong hint of onion breath and some soy saltiness.

Although many of the appetizers will seem familiar to anyone who’s eaten at a Thai or Chinese restaurant in these parts (and who hasn’t?), David’s versions are mostly executed with a soupçon of panache, which helps make them memorable. The crispy fish cakes ($5.75), for example, will never be mistaken for tortilla chips, but they do minimize the characteristic rubberiness of the average fish cake and achieve a delicate stiffening around the edges. It helps that they’re quite flat, like small griddle cakes.

Spring rolls ($4.95) were nearly ordinary, despite a weighty filling — of shredded chicken, bean sprouts, and shiitake mushrooms — and a crime-scene-red dipping sauce redolent of chiles and garlic. But the veggie pancake ($5.25) was unlike anything I’ve had before, a kind of soft Asian crepe, like a socca or farinata, made from ground lotus and taro root (instead of chickpea flour) and spruced up with water chestnuts, scallions, and pesto.

We also detected European influences, or echoes, in a duck curry stew ($9.95), a crock of meat, potatoes, and carrots that resembled beef burgundy, except that the beef was duck (a little fatty, but tasty) and the sauce had no red wine but plenty of yellow curry, mildest of the Thai curries. Spicy sunflower chicken ($6.75), on the other hand, though not yellow, was straight from Thailand — a larb, really, of minced white chicken tossed with a lively combination of Thai basil, garlic, and chiles. The meat was heaped in the center of a large plate, with canoelike leaves of endive set around the perimeter like hour markings on a watch. The endive was convenient for the scooping up of the minced meat, of course, but even after the leaves had run out, all the members of our table, forks in hand, were jostling for a crack at the last of the chicken.

The kitchen at David’s Kitchen doesn’t much look like the kitchen at Canteen, Dennis Leary’s small boutique place downtown. Leary’s kitchen is L-shaped, for one thing, and also more exhibitiony: you can sit at the counter and watch the chef work the stoves.

But to be at either place is to be aware that the restaurant as a labor of love is a phenomenon that persists even in this overpriced city — and that there are a few fine chefs who still do their own cooking. And then some. *


Lunch: Tues.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Dinner: Tues.–Thurs. and Sun., 5–9:30 p.m., Fri.–Sat., 5–10 p.m.

1713 Taraval, SF

(415) 566-6143

Beer and wine


Moderately loud

Wheelchair accessible

Piccino Cafe


> paulr@sfbg.com

Although restaurants can be, and often are described as being, sexy, they aren’t really sexy in that way, the people way. So far as we know, and for reasons that I need not get into, they don’t actually indulge. Which means that Piccino Cafe, a petite jewel of a restaurant that opened a few months ago on a quiet Dogpatch side street between the furies of I-280 and Third Street, cannot be the love child of, say, Universal Cafe and A16. Although such a union is flatly impossible – Universal and A16 have never met, never been alone together – one can’t stop wondering. Piccino’s serious yet warm industrial look (stainless steel, blond wood, glass), the almost tissue-thin pizza crusts coming out of the kitchen, and the ingredients obtained from impeccable sources all seem profoundly familiar if not familial.http://www.youtube.com/
YouTube – Broadcast Yourself.

If Piccino were a child, we might have our answer by waiting for it to grow up a bit. But, as the name suggests, the restaurant is tiny, with just a half dozen or so tables (not counting sidewalk seats) in a space largely given over to the kitchen. It’s almost like a catering kitchen or the original Citizen Cake; the setup seems tilted more toward making food than serving it to people, and we did notice quite a few takeout pizza boxes being whisked away by people who clearly live in the changing neighborhood. But despite the tight space, service is sharp; each table is swiftly brought a Straus Organic Creamery milk bottle filled with water (chilled but not filtered) and a plate of crispy flatbreads, and even at the outdoor tables, one’s needs are continually seen to.

It is a fact that sometimes restaurants, like children and even love children, do grow up: Delfina began in quarters no roomier than Piccino’s and is now an order of magnitude bigger, plus an adjoining pizzeria. Part of Piccino’s charm is its snugness, but the food is so good that demand is bound to raise the issue of expansion sooner or later, probably sooner. While that question simmers, wedge yourself in at one of the knee-to-knee tables, pour yourself a tumbler of water from your personal stash, have a bite of flatbread, and scan the brief menu.

What do you see? A selection of pizzas, of course, including such staples as margherita and napoletana ($9.25) – the latter swabbed with blood-red tomato sauce and dotted with halved black olives and bits of anchovy – along with special pies that vary according to season and inspiration. The people at the next table could be overheard urgently discussing a pizza topped with, among other things, speck.

"Maybe it’s fish," one of them said doubtfully. Her companion furrowed his brow. Only moments before, we too had furrowed our brows in bafflement about speck before asking our server. His answer: smoked prosciutto. The speck pie ($10.75), a bianco, was also topped with fresh arugula and mild white cheese. Since we like arugula, we’d started with a simple arugula salad ($7) decorated with Parmesan shavings and drizzled with balsamic vinegar – a simple and perfect combination, like an unforgettable piece of chamber music.

A weightier opener is the antipasti platter ($8.50), a blending of some usual suspects – country pate with Dijon mustard, thin coins of salume, black and green olives (mind the pits!) – along with a few special guests, including a chickpea spread that wasn’t hummus (coarser of texture, no tahini) and a bouquet of pickled baby carrots and radishes. There was flatbread on the side, of course, for clean-up duty.

The evening menu differs from its midday confrere mainly in the addition of a few nonbready main dishes. We did not try the evening’s risotto, though a plate that arrived at the next table (opposite the speck-flummoxed folk) looked fabulously creamy. We did try the duck confit ($14), a gently crisped leg and thigh half-recumbent on a bed of dandelion greens given some sweetness and crunch by sections of pixie tangerines and rubbly little bits of crushed hazelnuts. Duck confit is one of those ideal dishes for restaurants – it’s elegant and slightly exotic, highly skill- and time-intensive, with most of the work being done days beforehand and not much to do at the finish besides crisping the skin and warming the meat through – and Piccino’s version does honor to the kitchen. I wouldn’t have minded some lentils on the side, though maybe they’re considered cliche now, or maybe Americans just don’t have much use for legumes other than the peanut. And even with peanuts, we prefer the artifice of grinding them into paste.

There was at lunch an interesting minestrone ($5.50) that consisted largely of a mocha-colored cranberry-bean puree in which orecchiette floated like inner tubes on a muddy summer river. Perhaps legumes are more acceptable to the American palate if pulverized so as to be unrecognizable? And where there is soup, there is likely to be sandwich: of salume cotto ($8.75), slices of warm cured meat on grilled country bread. With arugula! And a nice heap of vinegar-modulated lentil salad on the side, with the legumes daringly left intact.

The advent of Piccino tells us which way the wind is blowing in the Dogpatch. In the evening the neighborhood’s streets are quiet (all the traffic is on the freeway a few blocks west and Third Street a few blocks east), and the houses show a friendly dowdiness, like a grandmother’s dresses. But the restaurant’s crowds are young and knowing, and if they’re not sure what speck is, they expect to find out. *


Mon.-Wed., 7 a.m.-3 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Sun. (coffee bar only), 8 a.m.-3 p.m.

801 22nd St., SF

(415) 824-4224


Beer and wine

Cash only (credit cards pending)


Wheelchair accessible

Scott Howard


> paulr@sfbg.com

As an aficionado of the men’s-club look, I was swept into Scott Howard as if into some beautiful dream. Beyond the set of fluttering drapes that shield the host’s station from errant breezes blowing near the front door lies a world of coffee- and tea-colored wood (floor, table and chairs, wall trim), gently dim lighting, a slightly sunken floor like that of some kind of arena, and a brilliantly backlit bar standing against one wall like a sentinel.

But … we weren’t really under any delusion of having stepped into White’s or the Athenaeum in London; although Scott Howard’s interior design relies heavily on traditional materials, it gives them a spare, modern look. Lines are clean and frivolities few, and you feel that the restaurant is meant to appeal to tasteful people who know how to make much of time. There is no wasted motion or idle effect. The Cypress Club (which long occupied the space) is indeed gone for good.

The masculine cast of things isn’t surprising, if only because the restaurant’s chef-owner and eponym bear a name of double-barreled maleness. Yet Scott Howard (the restaurant, and maybe the man too) is all about elegance, not ESPN, and elegance here is understood as flowing from understatement. In this sense the place makes an interesting contrast to nearby Bix (just around the corner, on brick-lined, lanelike Gold Street), whose aura, while also male, has a distinctly more fanciful, Great Gatsby retro element. You could easily stand at Bix’s bar and indulge a brief fantasy of waiting for Nick Carraway; Scott Howard, by contrast, is very much of the here and now, spotlighted by halogen sconce lamps in the ceiling.

The tables are set comfortably far apart – a subtle touch that helps the restaurant breathe more easily and allows the restaurant’s patrons to converse in ordinary tones. And what would they be conversing about? Why, the prix fixe, of course, an innovation Howard returned to the one-and-a-half-year-old restaurant a few months ago. The deal is $32 for a three-course dinner – starter, main dish, and dessert, with a couple of choices available in each category – or $47 for the same dinner with wine pairings. (No choices as to the wines, and none needed, so far as I was concerned. The pairings were superior.)

A la carte devotees and other iconoclasts need not fret, for an entire side of the menu card is given over to the regular menu, whose entries, from a pork chop to Maine lobster to hamachi, reveal Howard’s distinctive blending of European, Asian, and all-American cooking. His style is a bit like Bradley Ogden’s, but with a less overt Middle Western bent.

It is sometimes said by cognoscenti that when visiting London and Paris, you should always go to London first so as not to be disappointed. If you start in Paris, you might find London, for all its splendors, a little tatty. A similar advisory ought to apply to Scott Howard’s tuna tartare ($12), a disk of chopped fish atop a bed of cubed avocado, with a well-modulated chorus of piperade and crisped chorizo bits on the side and, throughout, a subtle perfume of vanilla oil. This dish is so sublime that you will struggle not to order a second one (we struggled unsuccessfully), and if you start with it, you might find that it casts a shadow over everything that follows. One solution would be to have it for dessert, but this would seem odd, despite the vanilla; another would be not to have it at all, but this would be a heavy loss.

Only marginally less rapturous but considerably earthier is the orzo "mac and cheese" with tomato jam ($7 for a sizable crock), which could pass as an especially creamy risotto. ("That stuff is evil!" our server said to us with barely restrained glee. He meant "evil," of course, in the best possible, the Dame Edna, sense.) If Howard’s sensibility glides gracefully between the earthy and the sublime, then the prix fixe cooking finds a balance somewhere near the middle, in happy-medium country. The cooking here is sophisticated rather than dazzling – the kind of food your table considers for a moment in quiet admiration but does not hesitate to eat, while talking about other matters.

A tomato soup, for instance, was rich and thick, with a few flicks of fennel pollen (which looked like black pepper) cast over the molten surface and a faint hint of smokiness that suggested roasting. A plate of smoked salmon draped over a potato pancake – really more of a fritter – and garnished with a dollop of sour cream was a classic presentation, the kind of thing you might be served at your club, if you belonged to one. (Wine pairing for both: a crispy-rich albarino.)

The recurrence of salmon – Scottish, as a main course, with hedgehog mushrooms and coins of fingerling potatoes in a tarragon broth – didn’t quite make it up the mountain for me. The poached fish was fishy, the broth watery. Much better was roasted lamb loin, ruby rose in the middle, laid in two pieces atop a bed of braised spinach and scallions and finished with dribbles of truffled jus. Your club would definitely serve this with pride. (Wine pairing for both: an intense but controlled California primitivo.)

Prix fixe desserts seldom set the world on fire, and Scott Howard’s are no exception, though the sparkling moscato sounded a festive holiday note. Warm chocolate cake with blackberry coulis and whipped cream? Nice, but a rerun deep in syndication. There was nothing showy about butterscotch pudding either, except that it was dense and good, sweet but not too. Can a dessert be manly? *


Dinner: Tue.-Sat., 5:30-10 p.m.

500 Jackson, SF

(415) 956-7040


Full bar


Well-managed noise

Wheelchair accessible



› paulr@sfbg.com

Spanish food may have struggled for recognition in this country and will almost certainly never be as well loved as its near relation, Italian cooking, but in the last decade or so the Iberian peninsula has given us at least one big present: the tapa. Tapas, the little plates that could, are so big now that they’re often not even remotely Spanish: we find Cuban and nuevo Latino and even American versions, while small plates from other cultures end up being called "tapas" for convenience’s sake. People might not know about, and might be chary of ordering, a meze platter, but if you call it Turkish or Greek tapas, they’re in.

At Esperpento, which turns 15 this year (the name means "absurdity"), the tapas are still tapas, still Spanish — the kinds of things you’d have with a beer or a glass of verdujo or rioja in the middle evening at some restaurant near the Plaza Mayor in Madrid. The venue itself, with its forest of support columns and cheerful, well-scuffed yellowness, looks like such a place and offers us a reminder that restaurant interiors evolve or accrete meaning through use and are not necessarily complete when created, no matter how elaborately and expensively they are designed. But what most amazes about Esperpento is the paella, which is actually better than good — quite near excellent, in fact. While I cling to my view that the best paella is likely to be made by a home cook, I can no longer say that restaurants can’t pull it off. Esperpento can and does, though, as with soufflés, you are given notice that there will be a 30-minute wait.

If you have to wait a spell for your main dish, what better way to pass the time than by noshing on tapas in a house of tapas? Esperpento’s selection is huge, turn-around time is short, and a surprising number of the small plates are vegetarian friendly. You could easily order up a meatless feast here without disappointing meat eaters in the slightest. Especially fabulous are the alcachofas a la plancha ($5.50), disks of thinly sliced artichokes grilled with a simple combination of garlic and parsley. And not far behind are the patatas ali-oli ($4.50), crispy-tender new-potato quarters generously spattered with garlic mayonnaise. If you like your potatoes a little less free-form, you might prefer the tortilla de patata ($6), which the menu describes as an "omelet" of potatoes and onion but is really more like a cross between a quiche and a tart and is far tastier (and substantial: the pie yields six decent-size slices) than its modest list of ingredients might imply.

As in Italian cooking, simple preparations yield potent results. Mushrooms sautéed with garlic ($5.25) were as meaty and fragrant as chunks of kebab. A salad of roasted julienne red pepper ($5.50) dressed with a house vinaigrette was gorgeous, even though the peppers were just the ordinary kind rather than the fancier (and slightly hotter) sort from Navarre. Boquerones ($5), Spain’s famous white anchovies, were dipped in batter and flash-fried, so they resembled french fries, while calamares a la plancha ($6.50) took a turn on the grill quick enough to keep them tender. One plancha-style dish did disappoint: clams ($6.25), which were not bad, just pallid despite garlic, parsley, and olive oil. And a salad of white beans ($4.75) could have used a boost of something.

A common booster in Spanish cooking is pimentón ahumado, or smoked paprika. This is the spice that gives Spanish chorizo its distinctive flavor, and it turned up big in the sauce of the rabbit stew ($6.75), a quasi-signature dish. The meat itself, still on the bone, was fine if not remarkable, but we carefully sopped up all of the sauce with rounds of white bread from the continually replenished basket.

The paella — de carnes y mariscos ($26 for two, but plenty for four if sufficiently preceded by tapas) — arrived in due course and was inspected. We noted the traditional two-handled pan, the wealth of meat, mussels, prawns, and green peas, and the bright yellowness of the rice — an indication that there has been no stinting on the saffron. The grains of rice were plump and glistening, a sign that they had just been cooked straight through rather than parboiled, left to wait, then finished in haste.

Best of all was the caramelized crust that had developed at the bottom of the rice layer. One of the big differences between risotto and paella is that the former is stirred more or less constantly, with a creamy result, while the latter is stirred hardly at all. The result of this stasis is the crust, which is something of a delicacy, though scraping it off and folding it into the rest of the dish can be an indelicate operation.

Paella is one of life’s more festive dishes, and Esperpento, despite its advanced age, has to be one of the more festive restaurants in the not-exactly-somnolent Mission: large parties wait at the door, tables are pushed together, cheerful voices are raised, plates laden with tapas fly from the kitchen (to return a few minutes later, stripped clean), service staff move nimbly among the tables like performers in some high-wire circus act. It is chaos, yes, but functional chaos, absurd as that might sound. *


Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Dinner: Mon.–Fri., 5–10 p.m. Continuous service: Sat.–Sun., noon–10 p.m.

3295 22nd St., SF

(415) 282-8867

Beer and wine



Wheelchair accessible


UB V2?


› paulr@sfbg.com

The obvious question to ask about V2 is: what about V1? What happened there? Was it an experimental version that didn’t quite pan out, like one of Hitler’s 11th-hour rockets? Or is it still out there somewhere? Fearless of spirit, we put our obvious question to our server and were told that V2 — a small but spiffy Malaysian restaurant that opened toward the end of January in a rapidly changing quarter of SoMa — is in fact the younger sibling of V Café, which occupies the old Whiz Wit space on Folsom near 10th Street and serves a menu similar to its predecessor’s, with the cheesesteak at its center.

The line of descent seems a little skewed here. If you like V Café, you aren’t necessarily going to be prepared for V2, though you might like it as well or even more. Despite the laconic sleekness of the name and the modesty of the physical plant, V2’s kitchen turns out striking, full-flavored dishes at prices that almost seem as if they’re part of a throwback promotion. Virtually everything on the menu, even at dinner, costs less than $10, and portions are not small.

Tomorrow, meanwhile, rises like Kuala Lumpur a few blocks away, in the form of those huge residential pillars of glass under construction on Rincon Hill. There has already been a certain amount of hand-wringing about the self-containedness of these sky-suburb developments, but the popping up of V2 in the vicinity is a sign that the occupants of the towers are, at some point, expected to grow hungry and come forth in search of food — good food, the kind you find in your favorite neighborhood restaurant. While at the moment V2 is a neighborhood restaurant waiting for its neighborhood to take shape, its presence means the area will not be entirely given over to such chain gangers as Starbucks and Au Bon Pain.

Malaysian food per se isn’t yet a commonplace around here, but because Malaysia is part of Indochina and counts as its neighbors Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore — with China and India not too much farther away — the cooking is not all that foreign. Curry figures widely in V2’s seasoning repertoire; there is an obvious kinship to Indian and Thai curries, with the Malaysian varieties being a little smoother and richer than those of India and a little less fruity and hot than their Thai counterparts.

Malaysian curry beef ($7), for instance, consists of strips of meat and cubes of potato in a thick, reddish brown sauce reminiscent of the gravy (supposedly concocted of ketchup and cream to appeal to English tastes) that gives the Anglo-Indian dish tikka masala its endearing character. The curry nose was more pointed in (as the name implies) Indian mee goreng ($7), a stir-fry of spaghettilike noodles in a chili-fired, onion-breath red sauce. You can get chicken or (shelled) prawns for a buck or two extra, but even if you don’t, you will find items of interest folded among the noodles, among them flaps of wonton skin, like slices of gratin potatoes, and little stir-fried flour dumplings we thought at first might be tofu. There was an even sharper curry bite, along with a faint yellow iridescence, in cabbage with minced pork, one of the continually varying lunchtime specials. (You get two choices for $7.) There was a faint acridity here, and one suspected the use of commercially prepared curry powder.

If not curry, then sambal belachan (belacan is a more common English spelling), a paste of chiles and shrimp that’s used as a condiment in much of Southeast Asia. It turns up, mutedly, in a lunchtime stir-fry of chicken and neatly trimmed string beans; we detected a slight brininess and some heat, but the dish looked so Chinese that we had trouble understanding it as not Chinese. The distinctive flavor of shrimp, interestingly, also went missing in the prawn crackers ($2), those pastel-colored undulations of flash-fried rice flour that, when gathered on a plate, look like miniature versions of all those fake-rock Class M planet surfaces Kirk, Spock, and the gang were forever beaming down to. Despite the prawn deficit, we inhaled them.

One of the liveliest preparations on the menu is beef ribs in OK sauce ($6). The ribs are knuckle-size, and the meat’s a little tough — you must use your fingers for efficient separating of flesh from bone — but the sauce is sensational. It looks like cherry Jell-O that hasn’t yet set and combines elements of sweetness and barbecue savory to near-addictive effect. We were scooping up the last of it with spoons long after the final bone had been stripped bare.

Dessert means bananas, fried. We opted for honey ($2.95) rather than vanilla ice cream, on a wan theory of calorie containment. But it probably didn’t make much difference in the end, since either way you end up with a half dozen banana fritters: chunks of the fruit dunked in egg batter and deep-fried until golden. We couldn’t finish them.

V2 occupies a midblock storefront, which means it’s basically a large shoe box with a single set of windows, looking southeast. Nonetheless, the visual flavor is clean and modern, from the cinnamon-colored bamboo floors to the serene beige paint scheme on the walls, along with a few photographs of Kuala Lumpur. As in all such simple, Spartan spaces, noise is a concern; the shrieks and giggles of a trio of iPod-equipped young women several tables away filled the restaurant and actually made us flinch a few times. But that’s so often the way it is with neighbors. *


Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–8:30 p.m.; Sat., 12:30–8 p.m.

518 Bryant, SF

(415) 974-1922

Beer and wine license pending


Slightly noisy

Wheelchair accessible


Open city


› paulr@sfbg.com

There could hardly be a more welcoming name for a restaurant than aperto — "open" in Italian, and Aperto is an Italian restaurant — except, possibly, Welcome. The north face of Potrero Hill is home to lots of restaurants, but Welcome isn’t one of them, at least not yet. While we wait, we can wait at Aperto, which offers a handsome wooden bench outside the front door for the convenience of those whose tables aren’t yet available and are too weary to stand. Aperto is small, and it is busy, and everyone seems to know about it. This is fitting, because it’s been there since 1992 and over its 15 years of life has become the jewellike Italian restaurant every urban neighborhood should have at least one of.

For some or no reason, Aperto is a place I’d never been to until recently. Regular reports, most of them favorable, did reach me from friends who seemed to go all the time, and these debriefings perhaps soothed my curiosity. I had noticed that the restaurant, after reaching a crest of sorts in the mid-1990s as one of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s top 100 restaurants, seemed to have receded in later years from public awareness. This could be due to fatigue, but it is certainly not due to the focaccia, which flows from the open kitchen to the dining room in a steady stream and is just exemplary: soft (though with a hint of crust), warm, and gently scented with olive oil. It’s the bread equivalent of the perfect hotel pillow and is at least as good as the focaccia at Blue Plate. And that means it’s awesome.

When you are dishing out complementary focaccia of this quality and keeping water glasses full and prices modest for well-executed, lovable Italian dishes, you are likely to be a successful restaurant. Aperto isn’t up to anything radical; its look and food are classical and timeless, and the restaurant, as an experience, presents itself unobtrusively. It’s like a favorite coat, well made and warming, you might wrap around yourself on a chilly night.

Few cuisines can match the Italian for inventive frugality. Despite a public image of flamboyance, Italians tend not to waste food. Stale bread finds a home in panzanella or ribollita, while grape pomace (the mush left over from the wine crush) is fermented and distilled into grappa. (Then exported and resold to us at a tidy profit.) Because Aperto’s menu is pasta-rich and pasta is among the most flexible of starches, the restaurant’s recycling program uses it to impressive effect. One (chilly!) evening I found myself staring into a broad white bowl of papardelle ($13.50) sauced with a sugo of osso buco. Osso buco, also known as braised veal shank, is a tine-intensive production, not ordinarily to be undertaken just to come up with a pasta sauce. But, should there be surplus from the night before, the leftover meat makes a lovely pairing with pasta, rich and just hinting of the beefiness that makes veal so attractive. Throw in some spinach for color, add some grana shavings on top, and you have a dish of elegant simplicity.

Glancing slightly upmarket, we find striped sea bass ($17.75), coated with arugula pesto, roasted, then plopped into a beanbag chair of lemon mashed potatoes, with an encirclement of ratatouille and a hairpiece of microgreens. This was a handsomely composed, colorful plate of food whose lemon mashed potatoes actually carried a distinct whiff of the advertised ingredient and whose seafood star (as I learned ex post facto from Seafood Watch) is in the "best" category. I give Aperto a big gold star for this alone. If a smallish neighborhood restaurant can keep itself within the boundaries of sustainability without making a huge fuss or overcharging, then everybody can.

The restaurant doesn’t give short shrift to seasonality either. On one late-winter menu we found crab cakes ($9.75 for a crottin-shaped pair), presented on a bed of shaved fennel and radicchio, with pomegranate seeds scattered around the plate like rubies and squirts of spicy aioli atop the cakes themselves. The same menu yielded strands of fat spaghetti ($11.50) tossed with shelled fava beans, leeks, sun-dried tomatoes, and goat cheese — a distinctively NorCal when-seasons-collide moment.

Given the limitless focaccia, which produces a filling effect similar to that of chips and salsa in Mexican restaurants, the first courses are in some danger of superfluousness. Among the best of the lot is the platter of oven-roasted mussels ($9.50), swimming in a buttery shellfish broth perfumed with fennel and garlic. The broth is nicely soppable with the accompanying spears of well-grilled levain (topped with the customary rouille), and when that was gone, we picked up the slack with focaccia.

Only the soups seemed flat: good, but a little slow out of bed in the morning. Lentil ($4.50) did feature shreds of crispy pancetta, but the floating chunks of celery seemed slightly clumsy, like flotsam after some sort of accident. And cream of roasted tomato ($5) was creamy — and cheesy! — but might have been made more interesting, visually, at least, by an addition as simple as minced parsley.

If the overhead chalkboard listing the day’s specials includes the mascarpone brownie ($6), you won’t be sorry if you ignore your diet and have it. Brownies sound juvenile, but this one isn’t; it’s marbled, moist, and just sweet enough, like homemade cake. Whipped cream? Yes, but not too much; same with the hot fudge sauce piped around the edges of the plate. The brownie might not be authentically Italian, but I suspect even a lot of authentic Italians would be open to its charms. *


Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.; Sun., 5–9 p.m.

1434 18th St., SF

(415) 252-1625


Beer and wine



Wheelchair accessible


Spam reconsidered


› paulr@sfbg.com

We can’t quite say that spam has become a blight, since it was widely unloved (except for the Monty Python bit) even before the word’s great shift in meaning. Everyone hates the new spam — except, I suppose, the spammers themselves, forever importuning the e-mail world on behalf of the mysterious Fifth Third Bank — but the old spam had a good deal to say, much of it unpretty, about America. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s, Spam was the rectangle of salty chopped pork that came in a blue tin (with the little pin you turned to roll open the top, like a can of sardines) and was the basis of many an improvised or emergency meal. Spam (supposedly a truncation of "spiced ham") served early on as military food, sustenance for World War II soldiers at the front; later it made a curious marriage with the pineapple and became a mainstay of prememorable, and perhaps preedible, Hawaiian cuisine. Hawaii was and remains basically a huge military base, and Spam’s high visibility there can’t be coincidental.

I found some tabs of Spam recently, floating in a large bowl of saimin served to me at Eva’s Hawaiian Cafe, and under their saline spell I took a brief waltz through the portals of memory. Spam is ridiculous — ridiculous word, ridiculous product, a kind of pork surimi, processed beyond recognition — but I had not objected to it as a child. It came out of a can, like Campbell’s soups, and I liked Campbell’s soups. It was salty the way candy bars were sweet — excessively, deliriously so. But I gave up candy bars years ago, and I can’t remember the last time I even saw a can of Spam, let alone let a bit of the stuff actually pass my lips, until the fateful moment at Eva’s.

The saimin ($4.95), interestingly, was not only not ruined by the Spam but gently enhanced by it. Deployed sparingly, the Spam chunks turned out to be useful as a salt condiment, like soy sauce with a meaty texture. They played well against the smokiness of the barbecued chicken flaps and the mildness of the submerged mop head of noodles at large elsewhere in the big bowl, and their presence meant that the quite intense chicken broth could be undersalted without losing punch. Also: even today, nothing says "Hawaii" quite like Spam, unless it’s Spam with pineapple, maybe on a pizza, though not in a bowl of saimin.

Eva’s Hawaiian Café belongs to a chain (as I learned ex post facto from reading the fine print on a takeout menu) — in fact a rather large chain — but other than that, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it, except that the chili mayo ($3.25), served with French fries, was too sweet and not hot enough. We requested an emergency supply of ketchup, and this prayer was quickly answered, just as most others were anticipated: more water and napkins, plates quickly cleared, dishes brought promptly and in a pleasing sequence. And all this in a semicafeteria service! I can think of quite a few full-service places charging twice as much or more that don’t manage anything near this level of cheerful attentiveness or serve better food. Meanwhile, there always seems to be at least one staffer moving around the bright red, yellow, and blue dining room on a mission to clean; the perfect scorecard posted in the front window from a recent inspection by the health department did not come as a surprise to us.

Considering the coffee shop modesty of the place (people sit at tables reading newspapers, perhaps this very newspaper), the food is fresh, tasty, nuanced, and inexpensive. The basic model is the Hawaiian lunch plate: a big platter of something (often a sandwich), accompanied by some combination of fries, rice, and macaroni salad. Since this is California, the salad state, you can get a green salad instead of the macaroni if you prefer.

The mahi mahi sandwich ($5.25) didn’t rise much above the level of ordinary and echoed of McFish. For a batter-fried item, the shrimp ($8.95) are better; they’re butterflied, which means they cook more quickly and retain more of their basic character. Better yet: the kalbi short ribs ($7.95), marinated and grilled, juicy and tender, from which we discreetly gnawed the last of the meat from the bones.

It’s the small plates, the pupu starters, that give the most delight. Redondo Portuguese sausage musubi ($2.25) is like a piece of nori-wrapped sushi, except the treasure wrapped inside is a brick of garlic-chile sausage instead of fish. Fresh ahi poke ($5.25) — cubes of ruby red tuna tossed with soy, sesame seeds, and cayenne — offers immaculately fresh fish and enough chile heat to awaken the somnolent, while lumpia ($3.25), the Philippine treats that are something like a cross between pot stickers and flautas, have an almost phyllolike delicacy. Best of all might be the Portuguese bean soup ($4.25 for a gargantuan bowl, so not really a pupu), a jumble of kidney and white beans and macaroni tubes in a thick, spicy tomato broth scented with okra. It’s like a vegetarian gumbo.

Eva’s isn’t luxurious or even especially pretty — the primary colors have a kindergarten brightness — but the whole experience of being there is so agreeable that we are reminded how much the simplest human touches count. The service staff are cheerful and knowledgeable, and they work to keep their restaurant tidy; all this counts for a lot and proves that true hospitality need not involve charging patrons exorbitant amounts of money. If you can’t get to Hawaii, bundle up and come here instead. *


Continuous service: Mon.–Thurs. and Sun., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.

731 Clement, SF

(415) 221-2087

No alcohol


Slightly noisy

Wheelchair accessible


Mythic pizza


› paulr@sfbg.com

The perfect pizza, like its near relations the perfect golf shot, the perfect holiday, and the perfect sentence, is an apparition of memory. We all have some recollection of a pie (or three-wood from the rough to within 10 feet of the pin) that achieved sublimity. We might have eaten this pie in Rome or Naples, on Chestnut Street or Columbus Avenue, or even in our own kitchen. What we know for sure is that no pie before or since has topped it.

I was reminded, in the course of a recent jaunt into the mountains, how imperfect so many California pizzas seem to be and in what ways. The jaunt was spontaneous and came to an inglorious end at a "road closed" sign hanging from a shut gate in a blizzard at 8,000 feet. But an hour or so before that rebuff it had been lunchtime, and we’d stopped in the as yet unthreatening slush to eat at what looked like it might be one of the last restaurants we would pass before scaling the summit.

The pie, presented with great cheer, consisted of a soft, thick, bready crust, like a piece of insulation, carpeted with "Mexican" ingredients, mostly seasoned ground beef, melted cheddar cheese, and raw onions. Since we were hungry and had brought little food of our own, we ate it up and were grateful, and I probably wouldn’t have thought any more about it if we hadn’t eaten the night before at Gialina, Sharon Ardiana’s new restaurant in the reborn Glen Park.

Apparently, while I was blinking, this quaint and intimate village in its sleepy hollow under Diamond Heights has seen fit to give itself an extreme makeover. The most stunning change is the advent of Canyon Market, which opened last fall in a sleek if chilly space of concrete, plate glass, and bakers’ racks and is a full-scale supermarket, something like a cross between Rainbow Grocery and Whole Foods. The market offers meat, fish, and poultry, as well as a good selection of produce, much of it organic. For many Glen Parkers, the market (like the BART station) is no more than a few minutes’ walk away — a blessing, though parking in the village center isn’t difficult. We spent a few minutes wandering through the market while waiting for a table at Gialina, just across the street. The new restaurant is a lot like the original Delfina: narrow, deep, noisy, busy. And word seems to be out that these are among the best pizzas in the city — maybe the best outright — and, given the improvement in the city’s pizza culture in recent years (Pizzeria Delfina, Pizzetta 211, A16), that is saying something.

Let us begin with the crusts, which are hand-shaped into a form that resembles a circle with corners. Around the edges runs a thick bready bead that will sate the puff fanatics among you, but the central plain of each pie is about as thin as seems physically possible. "Cracker thin" is a cliché (and therefore punishable, in my perfect world), but these are even thinner than that.

Toppings, you might suppose, would be applied sparingly, so as not to snap all those points. But the pies are pretty well laded up, though not Sierra-style. The only pizza we came across that couldn’t fairly be described as hearty was the margherita ($10), and it was lovely anyway. The smear of oregano-scented tomato sauce and shreds of mozzarella had been baked to a slightly caramelized bubbliness; the fresh basil leaves scattered (postoven) across the top were like water lilies in a pond.

Ardiana must have a slight thing for pizza bianca — "white" pizza, i.e., without tomato sauce — since two of the better pies on her brief menu are tomato sauceless. The wild nettle pizza ($13) brings that au courant green together with chunks of green garlic, shavings of pecorino, and flaps of pancetta whose edges are lightly crisped by the oven’s heat. This is a fine combination, but it’s bound to change or disappear soon, when the green garlic season ends.

An even finer combination is a pie of broccoli rabe mingled with fennel-breath Italian sausage and blobs of gamy fontina cheese ($13). This is very close to a classic Italian sauce for orecchiette and is quite convincing on a pizza.

We did not get to the puttanesca pie — echo of another classic pasta sauce — but for red-blooded fireworks, the atomica ($12) will more than do. The ancillary toppings here are mushrooms and mozzarella, but the principal actor is the chile-fired tomato sauce, which packs some real heat.

Among the first courses, we found the meatballs ($9) in a spicy tomato-parmesan sauce to be tasty but slightly rubbery. Better was the antipasti plate for two ($11), an array of grilled bread, salume, spicy black and green olives, herbed ricotta, roasted red beets, marinated wild mushrooms, pickled baby carrots, and frisée salad with radish coins — plenty there to keep two people busy while their pizzas are in the oven.

The dessert Goliath is the chocolate pizza ($9), a squarish crust heavily drizzled with hot chocolate sauce and crushed hazelnuts and festooned with mascarpone kisses. It is fabulous, but it does represent starch overkill as some of the other choices do not. The place is noisy, and only in part because of the Scandinavian Designs–looking blond wood panels on the wall. Many of the patrons bring their tiny infants in for a night on the town — or village. In today’s Glen Park, this must be the latest adventure in babysitting. *


Dinner: Mon.–Thurs., 5–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5–11 p.m.; Sun., 4–10 p.m.

2842 Diamond, SF

(415) 239-8500


Beer and wine



Wheelchair accessible


Golden nugget


› paulr@sfbg.com

New restaurants, like trees and kings, have a way of rising from the remains of fallen ones: the restaurant is dead, long live the restaurant. This only makes sense. In the typical hermit-crab situation, a kitchen of some kind is already in place, there might also be some serviceable tables and chairs, and the permit jabberwocky will be slightly less daunting. Easier all the way around.

But this is not the only means of passing fortune’s baton. Some neighborhoods — SoMa springs immediately to mind — are full of restaurants ensconced in spaces once given over to printing plants, warehouses, and other industrial concerns. I had never considered the possibility that someone might one day open a restaurant in an old hubcap emporium — I did not know there were such emporiums — and then, about a year ago, someone did. The restaurant is called Ziryab (named after a ninth-century Baghdadi who moved to Spain and won renown for his discernment in gastronomic matters), and it is to be found along Divisadero in the lower Haight, in a neighborhood still dotted with auto-body and radiator shops.

Given the building’s proletarian past, we might well expect more of a makeover than a fresh coat of paint and new tabletops. We might expect a little pizzazz, a little imagination. And our first glimpse of Ziryab is promising if not quite stunning: a smart golden facade, shining on the gray street front like a nugget in a turbid stream, with the restaurant’s name spelled out in striking, Arabic-styled letters. Just under and behind the facade lies a heated forecourt set with tables and forested with gas heaters. Divisadero is a little rough for the alfresco set, even in mild weather, so the semiwalledness of this garden is relieving.

We step inside and find … well, it’s not quite Vegas, but the interior designer clearly has visited that desert Shangri-la. The restaurant’s basic layout, narrow and deep, is like that of countless other places; there are a couple of tables set in the windows on either side of the door, while the swelling of the kitchen on the right creates a kind of narrows, as at Zinzino. But the Vegas effect has nothing to do with the floor plan and everything to do with the columns and arches of fake marble blocks, which give a faint sense of grotto and a much stronger sense of being in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. All that’s missing is the fake sky of perpetual evening overhead, filled with fake twinkling stars. Also the fancy shops. For some reason I find this kind of plastic fakery charming, perhaps because, like all kitsch, it’s knowing, and because it’s truly not bad-looking. You would never go so far as to suppose that you’d actually wandered into the sultan’s kitchens in the Topkapi Palace, but the thought might cross your mind.

Ziryab’s food comports with the faintly whimsical mood. The basic tenor of things is Middle Eastern (or Mediterranean if you prefer, or eastern Mediterranean), and this means such dishes as shawarma, kabob, dolma, hummus, and so forth: onetime exotica now well integrated into local practice. But there are also more involved and unusual dishes of a related provenance, as well as a few that have nothing to do with the Middle East at all.

In this last category I would put the house burger ($9), adding only that it was among the worst hamburgers I’ve ever eaten, notwithstanding the lovely fries (with their natural curl) and a thimble of Dijon aioli on the side. The patty of meat, though good-size, was cooked beyond well-done to a cinderblock condition, and even this merciless charring couldn’t conceal a certain gamy offness. I felt as if I’d wandered into the pages of Kitchen Confidential. "House"? I would lose that.

Apart from this blemish, we found everything else to be good or better. Lentil soup ($4) had a nice acid charge (from some red wine vinegar?), while paprika oil brought a bit of smoky counterpoint to a sensuously creamy Jerusalem artichoke soup ($5). Kefta kabob ($14) — ground veal and lamb, spiced and grilled — is a common entry on Middle Eastern menus around town, and it usually shows up in the form of meatballs or links. Ziryab’s presentation is quite a bit more stylish: the pieces of meat are given a cutlet shape, then nicely plated on a bed of couscous (or rice, your choice).

Another preparation almost universal in the eastern Mediterranean is the spinach phyllo pie the Greeks call spanikopita. Ziryab’s term is sambosik ($15), and while it includes spinach in a pastry crust, it adds mushrooms, almonds, and feta cheese for a subtle whirligig of flavors and textures.

Araies ($6), on the other hand, I’d never heard of. What turned up was a quartet of half moon–shaped breads heavily topped with spicy ground lamb and flecks of scallion and green bell pepper. It was as if we were eating some superconcentrate of a pizza so meaty even Round Table hasn’t come up with it yet.

My vote for best dish would go to the homemade roast beef sausage with braised white beans ($9). The sausage was perhaps less novel than advertised, the links notable mainly for their garter snake–like slenderness. But the beans, in a thick, rich sauce of tomato confit (dotted with quarters of well-stewed tomato), were really a solid winter stew and would have remained so even if there’d been no sausage.

Dessert? Why, warbat ($5), of course, cheese wrapped in sweet phyllo. Picture a fragment being thrown clear of a collision between a cheesecake and a calzone, and you’ll have some idea. The warbat isn’t huge, but it is shareable (with a spouse or whomever) and makes a nice cap to dinner. *


Continuous service: Mon.–Thurs. and Sun., noon–midnight; Fri.–Sat., noon–1 a.m.

528 Divisadero, SF

(415) 269-5430

Beer and wine



Wheelchair accessible


Upside Woodside


› paulr@sfbg.com

"Are we on the San Andreas Fault?" my companion asked uneasily as we stepped from the car and stood looking at the Bella Vista Continental Restaurant, lit up like something out of a Hans Christian Andersen tale in the soft winter gloaming. "No," I said. "The fault" — really a rift zone, so I’d learned in my college geology class — "is down there." I gestured vaguely past the rambling structure, perched at the edge of a woody abyss, toward the twinkles and shadows below, perhaps at Larry Ellison’s $27 million Woodside backyard. The fault, or rift zone, as I understand it, creates the long, narrow valley that separates Skyline Boulevard and I-280 for much of the northern length of the Peninsula. The valley’s chain of lakes look like Scottish lochs but are in fact reservoirs run by the San Francisco Water Department. Larry Ellison runs Oracle; would we find him at the bar at Bella Vista? Is he a regular?

When we stepped inside, we found no sign of him, but the bar was lightly populated by a quartet of young men in sweatpants and sneakers staring at a flat-screen broadcast of some Stanford game.

"We’re overdressed," my companion hissed, and my heart sank. I remembered the restaurant as being agreeably classy in an Aspen-ish, horse-country way, with a wealth of rustic, roadside-inn touches — exposed wood beams, picture lamps with their cords trailing down the walls, an unpaved parking lot among the cedars — but my last visit had been some years earlier, in the summer of 1980, when Jimmy Carter’s solar panels were still in place on the White House roof and the phrase "President Reagan" was still tinged with irreality. Had the past quarter century brought a down-market slalom to this handsome and atmospheric stalwart, which opened in 1927? Had it become a kind of Dutch Goose with a view, or a rival to Zott’s, the fabled hamburger stand and beer garden (once a stagecoach stop, now called something else) on nearby Alpine Road? We were led to our table, which was set with a red rose and a frosted hurricane lamp with a real candle, and our server shortly appeared in a black dinner jacket and black tie, speaking with an Old World accent we guessed might be Belgian. No, no down-market drift.

Cuisine described as "continental" might have had an alluring patina a generation or two ago, but nowadays it suggests museum cooking. Bella Vista is one of the Bay Area’s premier view restaurants anyway, and views tend to be conversation pieces. The view is why people are there, and the food only has to be good enough to keep them from getting up and leaving in disappointment.

As it turns out, Bella Vista’s food is quite a bit better than that, and while it is old-fashioned — I found myself wondering if the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton might offer a similar menu if it were moved to a lonely mountain road — it’s far from arthritic. Good food always does honor to a restaurant, of course, and is a sound fallback plan for any view restaurant in the event (at some point inevitable) that the view is temporarily obscured by weather or … other forces. We found the air hazy and smoke scented when we arrived; was Larry Ellison hosting a huge barbecue somewhere on the glittering carpet of lights below?

No grilling at Bella Vista. The kitchen’s main instruments are the sauté pan and the oven. New Zealand mussels ($14), for instance — gigantic ones — were arrayed on the half shell, slathered with garlic, parsley, and butter, and briefly roasted. This was fine by us, especially since the puddles of leftover melted butter were perfect for sopping up with the formidably sour sourdough bread.

For the relief of unbearable garlic breath, we were presented with an intermezzo of peach sorbet, spooned into sturdy sherry glasses that resembled dwarf champagne trumpets. Across the way: a birthday gathering of eight or so, with some off-key singing, which grew lustier as the wine disappeared. If we were at all tempted to join in, we were soon distracted by the arrival of our big plates, one of which was a simply gorgeous lobster tail ($55), shelled and sautéed in butter. The less done to lobster, the better; no fancy sauces, please, or incorporations into pasta or risotto. Just butter, and maybe some boiled new potatoes, a ration of seared green beans (squared off and stacked like firewood), and a smear of splendidly orange puree of roasted carrot.

Veal au poivre ($24) was similarly accompanied, except the potatoes gave way to a wild-rice pilaf. The slender, tender sheets of meat were bathed in a Dijon cream sauce dotted with green peppercorns, and while I have become uneasy about meat and almost always shun veal, whose production doesn’t bear much looking into, I was not at all sorry I failed to shun here.

Dessert production tilts toward soufflés for two ($18), and trayfuls emerge regularly from the kitchen. Raspberry was recommended to us (over chocolate and Grand Marnier); I found the soufflé itself to be eggy (with no burst of raspberry inside) but the swirl of sauce on the plate to be a winsome combination of butter, caramelized sugar, and whole raspberries. It could easily have been spooned over vanilla ice cream or pound cake or just eaten like zabaglione from a tall glass. Even if someone (not me!) were seen licking it right off the plate, it would be hard to find fault. *


Dinner: Tues.–Thurs., 5–9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5–10 p.m.

13451 Skyline Blvd., Woodside

(650) 851-1229


Full bar


Pleasant noise level

Wheelchair accessible


The sushi house rules


› paulr@sfbg.com

An old rule of prudence teaches that you should never eat raw oysters in a month whose name doesn’t have an "r" in it — from May to August, more or less — the warm-weather months elevating the danger of spoilage. Rain and cold do present their inconveniences and discomforts, but they are also balm in the matter of seafood, most of which is delicate and turns bad easily if the temperature starts to rise. One does not like to think of oysters being hauled along I-5 on some infernal July afternoon.

The rule has never been extended to sushi, so far as I know, but it wouldn’t be the worst idea. Although my best sushi experiences have been in balmy Hawaii, and while I have eaten raw seafood here in every season, even our autumnal summer, I am most at ease doing so in winter, when the world itself seems well refrigerated and the albacore tuna, plucked from cold seas, is rushed to the chilly city, where we eagerly await it in a restaurant that, perhaps — with any luck — is well heated.

Barracuda Sushi, which opened last year on a glam stretch of Market Street that includes Café Flore, Bagdad Café, and Lime, is well heated. It is also quite nice looking, with a rust and jade paint scheme, banquettes upholstered in fabrics with fine geometric patterns, and bars fore and aft (the latter a sushi bar). The place is less clubby-looking than Lime (which is a door or two away), but there’s a powerful nightlife pulse nonetheless. If you knew this space as the onetime home of such restaurants as Tin Pan and Repastoria Satyricon, you might not recognize it.

It is one of my pet theories that oft-flipped restaurant spaces at last achieve stability when they become Japanese restaurants. Après le déluge, sushi. Houses of Japanese cuisine must fail occasionally, but the attrition rate is low. So Barracuda (which has a pair of sibling restaurants down the Peninsula) opens with at least one structural advantage.

Another plus, more sensual or aesthetic in nature, is the swirling of Peruvian and Brazilian touches into the food, a reflection not of the kitchen’s whimsy (or not just of its whimsy) but of the large Japanese migrations to South America in the first half of the 20th century. Who could forget that a recent president of Peru bore the unlikely name Alberto Fujimori? Of course, he was forced out in disgrace, but still.

A nice introduction to this pan-Pacific sensibility is the sushi napoleon ($11.95), a disk of rice about the size of a single-serve cheesecake topped with chunks of tuna and avocado — a pair of roll regulars — along with blueberries, slices of mango, and a slathering of mayonnaise. It sounds awful, like something a latchkey kid might throw together as an after-school snack, but it turned out to be both beautiful (with the colors of some elaborate ice cream confection) and tasty-rich in a way Japanese food seldom is.

Most of the food isn’t so aggressively inventive. Gyoza ($5.95), the Japanese pot stickers, are familiar and friendly, though we found the skins to be thinner than usual, and the ponzu sauce on the side was spiked with some minced jalapeño pepper for added excitement. Seaweed salad ($6.95) was presented as an upmarket trio, with three varieties of seaweed (wakame, goma wakame, and hijiki) given three saucings of aji amarillo (mayonnaise-like and made from the mild yellow Peruvian chile), orange tobiko, and lemon. A sushi set ($11.95) consisted of California roll (crab and avocado) and a selection of nigiri, including tuna, salmon, and shrimp; it was good, but you could get it anywhere, even at the supermarket.

But even the fanciest supermarket probably wouldn’t offer anything to compare with the hamachi ceviche ($11.95), the thin bricks of flesh doused with a basil-yuzu-wasabi sauce — truly a New World combination, which produced a memorable sweet pepper-fire effect — and topped with tiny cubes of purplish bronze geutf8 — like jewels — we could not identify. Also distinctive are many of the rolls, including the Barracuda crunchy roll ($12): broiled tuna and avocado wrapped in a long tube of rice, which is then dipped in a light batter and flash-fried. The result is something like a Japanese chimichanga, tasty but quite rich.

We tend to associate Japanese cuisine so strongly with uncooked seafood that we are at risk of forgetting that the Japanese cook a lot of their food too and with their own sort of élan. The lunch menu offers us a series of vivid reminders of this, from udon (the pho-like noodle soup) to various types of panko-crusted cutlets, or katsu. There is even a breaded calamari steak (the poor man’s abalone), which turned up for me in a bento box ($9.50) in the company of a California roll, a pat of white rice, a mixed salad with creamy dressing, and (most welcome on a leaden, tule-fog day) a bowl of miso soup on the side. Across the table, miso soup was neither necessary nor missed, for there came a great bowl of udon ($9.95), steaming like a caldera on some volcanic plain. In the concentrated chicken broth lurked a Medusa’s wig of fat noodles, with flecks of shiso and scallion and slivers of shiitake mushrooms. The tempura shrimp were presented on the side, and we briefly considered the likelihood that we were expected to dump them into the bowl. We didn’t, and they turned out to do nicely when eaten on the side … but had we broken a rule? *


Brunch: Sat.–Sun., 11 a.m.–3:30 p.m. Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–3:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon.–Thurs., 5–10:30 p.m.; Fri.–Sun., 5–11:30 p.m.

2251 Market, SF

(415) 558-8567


Full bar


Noisy if busy

Wheelchair accessible


Mussel systems


› paulr@sfbg.com

When last we looked in on Aqua, the prospect seemed rather marbly and banklike, and the menu included paella. Paella is not a dish you should order even at most Spanish restaurants, let alone at a high-end seafood house, but a member of my party went ahead and ordered it anyway — in the heedlessness of youth — and was afterwards disappointed. "What did you expect?" I asked, from the unassailable position of someone who’d opted for Pacific swordfish grilled in a sheath of prosciutto, the sort of dish you’d expect to find, and enjoy, at a place like Aqua. "I don’t know," was the glum rejoinder.

Years passed, youth faded, and we did not return. The meteoric George Morrone, who’d been in the kitchen when Aqua opened in 1991 and was the chef during our visit — which is what tells me it was in ’91 or ’92 — gave way after a few years to Michael Mina, who ran the show for more than a decade until he left to open his eponymous Union Square restaurant in 2004. His successor was Laurent Manrique, he of the recent foie gras kerfuffle. Manrique does offer foie gras on his Aqua menu, but the offer is a muted one: there is no foie gras cart plying the dining room (whose look, incidentally, seems to have been softened to tones of a summer twilight). There had been such a cart at Campton Place, Manrique’s previous gig. When the foie gras cart and the cheese cart were simultaneously at large in that rather snug dining room, one had a brief vision of dandified bumper cars.

You (which is to say, I) would not necessarily expect a chef renowned for his treatments of foie gras to be the ideal head of a kitchen largely devoted to the cooking of seafood. And yet if this is a paradox, it is a spectacularly successful one; for much (and maybe most) seafood needs a certain amount of dressing up to show well, and at Aqua, Manrique’s instinct for meatiness results in plates of fish neatly balanced between elegance and muscularity.

Part of the Manrique magic has to do with bold spicing. Ahi tuna tartare, for instance, has become something of a commonplace in the past decade. The fish’s reddish purple flesh looks a lot like beef and has its own sort of intensity. But the dish becomes special at Aqua when the cubes are mixed with Moroccan spices (these weren’t specified but had a currylike aura) and a quail egg yolk as a binding agent. (Aqua’s à la carte menu is, like the paella, a thing of the past; today you choose three courses for $72 or a more elaborate tasting menu, with optional wine pairings, for $109.) Across the table, meanwhile, a plate of albacore carpaccio — tissue-thin bolts of flesh looking almost like ice shavings — arrived under a colorful bloom of Fresno chile rings, slivers of daikon radish, and bits of fried shallot: springtime on the tundra.

A whiff of curry subtly recurred in the buttery chardonnay jus our server poured around a grilled filet of walu, one of those marvelously meaty white fish from the deep waters around the Hawaiian Islands. The fish wore a straw hat of pommes alumettes (crispy filaments of potato), while a few quartered baby artichokes lurked at the bottom of the plate. Even meatier was sturgeon, cooked en papillote (in a paper bag) and presented as three cylinders — a kind of faux roulade hedged with braised baby spinach and finished with a rich duck jus, also poured by the server from a small pitcher.

Even if you confine yourself to the more modest prix fixe — and we found three courses to be just the right amount of food — you will be given a few extra treats. There are the warm breads — olive, sourdough, multigrain — in constant circulation through the dining room. There is the amuse-bouche, for us a tripartite presentation on a handsome rack: a lemon oil–slicked sliver of Monterey Bay sardine on celery coins, a profound wild-mushroom soup capped with gratinlike pine-nut pesto, and a smoked-ahi croquette with a perfect and crispy golden crust, despite its fingernail size. And there are the postprandial petits fours, tiny tarts, macaroons, and meringues (including a purplish gray one of taro root) that reach the table as a final bit of punctuation (not counting the bill, of course), at the end of dessert.

You could, if you wanted, dispense with dessert and just double-dip from the list of first courses. But if you do need a sweet fix beyond and before the petits fours, Aqua’s choices won’t disappoint. For the most part they don’t sound spectacular, nor do they have much to do with the restaurant’s aqueous theme. But they are exemplars of their kind, among them the chocolate tart, like a round of bittersweet fudge nested in a butter crust and ringed by a salad of blood orange and mandarin segments, and the Meyer lemon soufflé, lanced with a spoonful of pomegranate seeds and redolent of the citrus’s unmistakable orangey acidity.

I was saddened to find both Maine skate and Atlantic cod on the menu. The latter, in particular, is a decimated species, as the British journalist Charles Clover indicated recently in his book The End of the Line; surely there is something comparable to be had from the better-managed and far nearer Pacific fisheries. For all the hullabaloo about Manrique and his beloved foie gras, no one has suggested that duck and geese are in danger of extinction. But he and Aqua, given their international stature, have a special role to play in ensuring that today’s seafood houses will have seafood to serve tomorrow. *


Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.

Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5:30–10:30 p.m.; Sun., 5:30–9:30 p.m.

252 California, SF

(415) 956-9662


Full bar

Not noisy


Wheelchair accessible


Lemongrass and old grease


› paulr@sfbg.com

The Bad Planner’s Guide to the Galaxy is a little thin in the Valentine’s Day section. It could be that the Bad Planner isn’t very romantic, or it could be that the Bad Planner just isn’t a very good planner — doesn’t get on the stick weeks or months in advance to make restaurant reservations the way our society’s many compulsive, air-traffic-controller types do. The result is often, on the enchanted evening in question, an interlude of sweaty panic: Where to go? Who will have us at the last minute? Or should we just go out for burritos or order a pizza to be delivered in a cardboard box stained by grease and possibly eaten from same?

Yet bad planners are people too. People with feelings. People who deserve to eat out on occasion. And now there is room for them in the hallowed dining halls of Valentine’s Day. The room is at Rasha, a Thai restaurant that opened in November 2006 in the former Kelly’s Burger’s space near the Roxie Film Center, 16th Street near Valencia, center of the galaxy, if not the known universe, for our local cohort of the hungry hip, as well as for interlopers of the bolder sort from farther afield.

There are so many restaurants in this area now, so many of them unusual and worthy, that opening yet another one could be seen either as an act of superfluousness or unimpeachable business logic. (One of my New Year’s resolutions was to use the word impeach in every one of these pieces for a year, and while I have already crashed, it’s still fun to try.) Because places to eat abound, the need for a newcomer is no better than marginal, but — on the other hand — since the sidewalks are filled with hungry prowlers looking at menu cards, the chances seem pretty good that sooner or later they’re going to look at yours.

So far the ravenous classes don’t seem to have taken much note of Rasha ("Business is slow," our server confided to us one arctic evening, and he could only have confided to us, since the place was otherwise empty), but when they do, they are likely to be pleasantly surprised. Yes, the setting still smells of grease, of the ghosts of countless burgers past; and yes, the bordello-red paint job does lack a certain subtlety. But the space itself is quite nice, with a long run of windows down a narrow lane, Albion; and there is good neon signage that shouts out into the night.

Then there is the food, which is quite good and affordable across the spectrum, from familiar to un-. Crowded near the former’s end of the spectrum, we find such crowd-pleasers as larb ($6.75), minced chicken tossed with cabbage shreds in a potent dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, and chiles; and fresh spring rolls ($3.95), chubs of rice paper stuffed with rice noodles, bean sprouts, lettuce, mint, and tofu.

Other comfy favorites include tom yum ($6.95), a gigantic hemispherical bowl filled with a lime- and lemongrass-scented broth, mushrooms, chunks of chicken, and rice noodles. If you’re hungry and need aromatherapy or steamy relief from cold symptoms, you will find much to like here; among other things, tom yum is less rich than its coconut milk–spiked cousin, tom ka. And only slightly novel is duck curry ($9.95), a coconut-milk red curry sauce laden with chunks of roast duck (skin still attached), cherry tomatoes, and cubes of pineapple for some fruity contrast. A word of caution here: we ordered medium spicy and found the dish verging on too hot, and we like spicy food. Proceed to spicy spicy AYOR.

Kee mao ($5.95) is another one of those possibilities most of us have seen somewhere, but not everywhere, before. The dish’s foundation, as with its marginally better-traveled near relation, pad see ew, is a broad, flat rice noodle — a kind of Thai tagliatelle — tossed with a spirited combination of garlic, chiles, basil, and shrimp. Kao soy ($7.95), on the other hand, I’d never seen before: another huge hemispherical bowl, filled this time with fine, crispy noodles, like a bedding of hay in a barn, and finished with a mild yellow coconut-milk curry laced with potatoes, chicken shreds, and slivers of red onion. As a little boy, I feared and hated my mother’s rare forays into Chinese cooking even though her attempts always included crispy noodles — but then, she did not have access to, and had probably never even heard of, coconut milk and yellow curry and the magic that occurs when you mix the two together.

Like most restaurants these days, Rasha features a bar, and like most bars in restaurants (except the very busiest ones), the bar seems to be uninhabited much, if not most, of the time. This despite the flat-screen television mounted high on the wall behind the bar (flashing rather male-oriented programming — ESPN and Spike) and a selection of affordable little bar snacks such as chicken wings, edamame, and wasabi-roasted peas ($2). We found these last to be slightly sweet and also much hotter than the Trader Joe’s kind; if you eat more than one at a time and do not pace yourself, you are likely to find your nostrils on fire — not the prettiest picture on Valentine’s Day or indeed on any day you happen to find yourself seated across from someone you’re hoping to impress. Plan accordingly. *


Mon.–Sun., noon–11 p.m.

3141 16th St., SF

(415) 437-4788

Full bar


Somewhat noisy

Wheelchair accessible


See you in Assisi


› paulr@sfbg.com

Umbria is the center of Italy, pretty much, and that isn’t an easy thing to be. The country has an unconcentric shape, for one thing: a long, booted shank poised to kick a lumpy ball called Sicily, with aloof Sardinia looking on and a curious glanslike flaring in the north, where the peninsula’s long-ago collision with the rest of Europe raised the Alps. Italy is, like California, hot, snowy, mountainous, and flat; it is a land of butter, rice, pancetta, tomatoes, basil, and olive oil. It is close to Switzerland and Africa. It has islands, including Elba, the knob of rock where Napoleon was sent so he couldn’t make any more trouble. (Would today’s Elbans accept another failed warmonger, do you think? Guess who!) It is a lot to be the center of.

There is, then, something elementally Italian about Umbria, a hilly province quite near a pair of famous neighbors, Tuscany and Rome, and like and unlike them. It differs from them in the sense that, apart from the hill towns of Assisi (home of St. Francis) and Deruta (famous for hand-painted ceramics), it is less well-known, especially to tourists. But it resembles its neighbors not least in cuisine, at least if we are judging by the menu at Ristorante Umbria, opened nearly 11 years ago by the fabulously named Giulio Tempesta. Umbria brought regional Italian cooking to San Francisco well ahead of the current vogue.

If you like Italian food, and everybody seems to, you’ll love Umbrian food, at least as the kitchen at Umbria turns it out. And you will like it in a setting that feels as Italian as many places in Italy, a pastiche of exposed wood, terra-cotta tiles, trompe l’oeil, an old armoire, and good-looking service staff speaking spitfire Italian as they do their skillful dance among the tables. Those tables are crowded, especially at lunchtime, when the hungry include a microcosmic mix of today’s SoMa populations: people who work in the area; others who are staying at one or the other of the neighborhood’s many hotels, conventioneering at Moscone, or visiting the nearby museums; and city folk who have ventured downtown because Umbria is, frankly, worth the venture.

Just as Zuni is renowned for its roast chicken with bread salad — a dish halfway competent home cooks can make a run at — so Umbria is notable for its exquisite pastas, which are another staple of most of the good home cooks I know. My interest is particularly piqued when I find a menu with pasta sauces I’ve been making for years, and Umbria has three of them, right in a row: puttanesca (spicy Neapolitan tomato sauce with anchovies, capers, and black olives), amatriciana (classic Roman sauce of pancetta, onion, and tomato), and arabbiata ("enraged" — tomato sauce with plenty of garlic and chili flakes). Of the three, the amatriciana sauce is the one I make least often, in large part because I don’t keep the requisite pasta — bucatini (fat, hollow strands) — in regular stock, and so I lean toward it in restaurants, when I lean toward pasta at all.

Umbria’s version ($11.75) steps around the bucatini issue by using rigatoni, the stubby, hollow cylinders that look like miniatures of underground pipes. Rigatoni are too short to be easily manipulable by a fork; they have to be speared instead. But the sauce, thickly adhesive and deeply flavored, more than made up for the slight loss of convenience, and I was particularly pleased to find the shreds of pancetta had been precrisped, so that they retained some crunch even when simmered with the tomato and onion.

Lasagne al forno ($16.25) was as satisfying as it gets and served at just the right temperature — somewhere between tepid and warm — which reminds us that, until fairly recently, home ovens were rare in Italy, and dishes destined to be baked had to be taken to the village fornaio, then hurried home while still warm. Mezze maniche ($15.75) — a tubular pasta similar to penne — also got the baking treatment; the tubes were jumbled with rounds of spicy sausage and slices of wild mushroom in a tomato-cream sauce before being sealed under a broad cap of melted mozzarella. And oreccheti ($15.75) dodged a cliché bullet by being given an ensemble of diced chicken, strips of red and yellow bell pepper, and a heavy shower of chopped arugula instead of the usual sausage and broccoli rabe.

You are not required to eat pasta at Umbria, of course. You can have pizza; the margherita ($11) is quite good, though it is more a cheese pizza, with basil and tomato (the former a sprig, the latter a lone cherry tomato, halved) serving in an advisory capacity. For meat people: beef carpaccio is an appealing port of entry, the shavings of flesh heavily festooned with grated Parmesan and basil chiffonade. Polpette ($6.50 for five) — meatballs slightly smaller than golf balls — were marvelously moist and mild (because of veal?) in their bright tomato-cheese sauce, and the lamb burger ($13.75) was sensational, a tasty juice bomb served on a focaccia bun and in the company of the crusty roasted potato rounds that have been one of the restaurant’s specialties from the beginning.

Last, there is the matter of tiramisù ($6.50). As a rule I can do without, but I found myself in the company of an expert, a man who has spent some time looking into the matter. He poked and prodded at Umbria’s offering like a scientist trying to pry a DNA sample from some ancient specimen; finally, he lifted a chunk, watched some goo drip lasciviously to the plate below, and pronounced himself pleased.

"It’s not dripping wet," he said. "A good sign."

Elementary, my good sir! *


Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5:30–10:30 p.m. Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.

198 Second St., SF

(415) 546-6985


Beer and wine



Wheelchair accessible


En plein air


› paulr@sfbg.com

If every neighborhood needs a neighborhood bistro, then every neighborhood bistro needs a neighborhood. And is there a neighborhood in the city more charmingly neighborhoody than Cole Valley, the little hamlet tucked in a cleft of the hills near UCSF and fitted out with every romantic accoutrement, from a railway station (Muni’s N-Judah line stops at Cole and Carl after emerging from a mysterious tunnel) to a sunlit boulangerie with well-worn floorboards? The neighborhood’s village center is, like that of neighboring Noe Valley, replete with amenities, including a hardware store and a plethora of interesting restaurants (from a hamburger stand to a sushi bar), but a certain serenity has survived; there are fewer baby strollers and fewer speeding SUVs careering around corners with frenzied drivers shrieking into cell phones than over the hill. While 24th Street, over the last decade, has acquired a Marina patina, or mania, Cole Valley remains one of the most Parisian of the city’s enclaves, a village and city at once.

And it has one of the most Parisian of the city’s many neighborhood French bistros: Zazie, which opened in 1992 and changed hands two years ago, with no apparent drop in atmospherics or quality of food. My overwhelming impression of the restaurant a decade ago was one of narrowness, as if I might stretch out my arms and touch the walls on either side ("the restaurant equivalent of a galley kitchen" was my long-ago phrase). Of course it isn’t really that narrow; snug is more like it, but then, the tendency of memory is to exaggerate. The dining room, with its pair of window alcoves, accommodates about 20 tables of varying sizes, while in the back, past the bar, is a door that opens onto a secret garden, raised and enclosed. The enclosure is softened by bougainvillea and hundreds of little white lights, like stars, while a forest of gas heaters keeps the winter chill at bay even in the evening. If there is one respect in which it’s clearly better to be a French bistro here than in Paris, it has to do with the feasibility of dining under the heavens in January.

Our winters might be milder than those of northern France, but even mild winter weather has its chilly edge, and if you’re eating outdoors, you’re going to want some reinforcement beyond what the heaters can provide. As luck would have it, Zazie’s menu is full of discreetly muscular treats, including a first-rate French onion soup ($6), made with a deeply tasty beef stock sweetened by the slow cooking of the onions and capped by a pad of melted Gruyère cheese, and a chicken liver pâté spread on toasted levain and notable for its whipped-butter consistency.

The pâté appeared, for us, as the first act of a three-course, $19.50 prix fixe. You have your choice from among several — though not all — of the menu’s starters, main courses, and desserts; the permissible terrain is marked off with little asterisks. In a bow to the small-plate-tapas-sharing vogue, the restaurant also offers a $16 starter-sampler platter whose constituents you choose from an approved group. Since I was in the company of a beet lover, we went for the full-scale salade betterave ($8), a gorgeous still-life bundling of red and gold beet coins, avocado wedges, fennel shavings, and mixed greens, the whole thing lightly showered with a vinaigrette of white balsamic and flecks of gorgonzola. Although beets are beautiful to look at, like glistening jewels, I will never love their slightly geutf8ous texture, and the grace of this salad was the presence of everything besides the beets themselves.

Not all the food is French, though most of it is, and the non-Gallic stuff can show a French touch. There is a Zazie burger, as well as a not-tiny crock of macaroni and cheese ($4, and a deal) in which the presence of béchamel (un-American, in a good way) was revealed by a whiff of nutmeg. As for the Provençal fish soup (a prix fixe player), it could easily have been called a stew by virtue of its potato-thickened, slightly spicy red-pepper broth and would have sufficed as a light main course even without the chunks of snapper filet and handful of mussels. Additional spiciness appeared in the form of a trio of toasts smeared with rouille. We were warned against eating the toasts straight out — "Too spicy!" said the comely server — so I was naturally obliged to eat one straight out. I found some heat, nothing unmanageable. The other two toasts were dropped off at the pool as per instructions.

The joy of the prix fixe does ebb down the home stretch. For dessert we were asked to choose between some kind of fruit crumble and a chocolat pot de crème, and since we are confessed chocoholics, this was no choice at all, though we did manage to agonize about it for a few minutes. The pot de crème turned out to be fine in an unremarkable way: a rich, smooth chocolate pudding topped by a generous dollop of whipped cream and served in a handsome crock of white porcelain. As someone who has reached that point in life where the ideal dessert is a taste or two (often of someone else’s), not a massive portion to be consumed solo, I can’t say I was disappointed.

Zazie’s many other graces include knowledgeable, friendly, well-timed table service that seamlessly extends to the garden — always a serious test — and a brisk but sophisticated wine list that features some by-the-glass possibilities you seldom see, including a Quincy and a white Graves, the Bordeaux blend of sauvignon and semillon. The prices for these wines are more than reasonable, as are the restaurant’s prices generally — a welcome bit of proof that superior food and service at a fair price is not yet a paradox, at least not in some neighborhoods.


Mon.–Thurs., 8 a.m.–9:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m.–9:30 p.m.

941 Cole, SF

(415) 564-5332


Beer and wine



Wheelchair accessible


A Tale of two malls


› paulr@sfbg.com

Whether euphemism is entirely a separate language or just a dialect, we need translational efforts to understand what is really being said in its slippery idiom. When foreign ministers tell the media they have enjoyed "frank and cordial discussions," we peek behind the fluttering veil of words to see that they bitterly argued and threatened each other. And when we read hosannas in the San Francisco Chronicle to the city’s burgeoning "service industry" — mentioned in that paper’s recent piece about our present and delightful "golden age" — we should understand that we are reading largely about the business of tourism. We might not yet be the Monaco of the Pacific Coast — a huge, gleaming apparatus whose principal function is to relieve visitors of their money; a bizarro ATM that sucks in cash rather than giving it out — but we are well on our way.

In this connection, we are blessed by the fact that tourists must eat and can be charged for the privilege. Restaurants are becoming our casinos. Not long ago, on a holiday weekend afternoon, I found myself swimming through seas of people in the basement of Westfield San Francisco Centre, the great new mall in the midst of the city. The basement is where many of the food establishments are, and I was en route to a rendezvous at the Out the Door, second offspring of the now world-famous Slanted Door. (The first OtD is in the Ferry Building, along with the mother ship.) If I had squinted slightly, I could easily have convinced myself that I was in the international terminal of some busy airport closed because of bad weather, leaving thousands of stranded travelers nothing better to do than shuffle through shops peddling chichi stuff and eat at fancified restaurants that seem more alike the more they struggle to seem different from one another. (Any casino in Las Vegas answers to this description, incidentally, and so do Honolulu’s Waikiki district and much of Palm Springs.)

As the name implies, Out the Door is set up to offer takeout, and the restaurant offers a small but appealing array of Southeast Asian grocery staples, such as cellophane packages of rice noodles and bottles of fish sauce, at reasonable prices. But there is also a huge dining room whose far wall — a checkerboard of flat glass rectangles in various shades of cream, beige, and brown — looks like a giant version of that sensor panel Mr. Spock was forever scanning on the old starship Enterprise. One difference: Spock’s panels blinked; Out the Door’s panels don’t. Maybe they will someday.

Befitting the restaurant’s pedigree, the food is prepared to a high standard, with immaculate ingredients, although the dishes themselves are modest in origin: a simple steamed bun ($3), say, the size of a baseball and stuffed with minced chicken, shiitake mushrooms, and surprisingly muted ginger. A bit more lively are the Vietnamese-style sandwiches on perfectly tender baguettes, among them a Saigon roast-pork number ($8) whose juicy, five spice–scented meat is enhanced with sprigs of cilantro, and a braised-meatball edition ($8), which includes coarse-ground pork of the sort you often see floating in bowls of pho.

Out the Door doesn’t call its beef noodle soup ($9.50) pho, incidentally, but that doesn’t dim its luster: it’s the one truly exceptional dish we came across, with a golden broth of almost espressolike density and smoothness. If, as a friend said, the measure of pho is the broth, then Out the Door’s pho measures up.

There are dressier, less street-carty choices available, among them grilled prawns over vermicelli ($10.50), elegant but a bit underpowered despite the strong presence of fresh mint, and barbecued pork spareribs ($10.50), beautifully tender under their honey-hoisin glaze. If these are higher-rent possibilities than sandwiches and steamed buns, they are nonetheless honest and sturdy. Still, the sense of being in ritz-land is pervasive. Bloomingdale’s bags everywhere. Diagnosis: affluenza.

Out the back door of Westfield and just a block or so along Mission Street is another mall, less heralded — the Mint Mall — and within its gritty confines a restaurant, New Filipinas, that is one of the very few Filipino restaurants in the city or indeed the metropolitan area. The setting has a run-down, 1970s look, poured concrete and ceramic tiles stained by time, and if you squint your eyes you might think you were at the foot of some faceless high-rise in Manila or Taipei. The restaurant itself is about as modest as it gets: a glass counter for ordering, a clutter of tables and chairs. The feeling is (as a mean birthday card once put it) "You’ve seen better days, but not many."

The food, prepared and served by chef-owner Tess Tuala-Diaz, has the unprepossessing look of an Army hash line: a steam-tray selection of chunked mystery meats stewing in various sauces of varying shades of brown. (A particularly chocolaty-looking tray held, we were told, pork in blood sauce.) There are adobos of pork and chicken, spare ribs, beef with broccoli, a beef and cabbage soup. For $4.90 you get your pick of one, plus a heap of white rice, while $6.50 buys you two picks, plus rice.

An advantage of bleak settings is that, if the food happens to be good, you will not be distracted from noticing it. And New Filipinas’ food is surprisingly good, its flavors deep and direct, its meats slow-cooked to a peak of moist tenderness. It is peasant food, adjusted to a greater fleshiness to reflect the biases and possibilities of this rich, flesh-addicted country. But vegetarians, I will speak frankly and cordially to you: Look elsewhere! Go east, to Westfield, even. *


Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.–8 p.m.

845 Market, space 80, SF

(415) 541-9913


Beer and wine



Wheelchair accessible


Mon.–Sat., 9 a.m.–7:30 p.m.

953 Mission, SF

(415) 571-5108

No alcohol

Cash only

Bearable noise level

Wheelchair accessible


Eat Global


› paulr@sfbg.com

As a fellow traveler of the Luddites, I am obliged to treat the phrase "digital arts" — as in the Letterman Digital Arts Center, in the Presidio — with some skepticism. Of course I have a cell phone and a computer, a pair of digital apparatuses, and I do regard them as essential to life as we know it — as essential tools. Tools are servants, and although they are not devoid of value, their value is in their usefulness. Whatever value art has, it isn’t usefulness.

"Digital arts" might be considered an oxymoron in some quarters. The classic example of an oxymoron — Herb Caen’s phrase was "self-canceling phrase" — is "military intelligence." On the slightly more ornate side, we now have "Operation Iraqi Freedom." Interestingly, the word oxymoron includes the word moron. As for digital arts: I have an impression of busy-bee activity in the Pixar–Toy Story school, the use of computers to make more vivid monsters or car crashes or intergalactic Armageddon or other of those visual splendors from which, with the atrophy of plot and character, so much of contemporary cinema is constructed.

But … I might as well be trying to rescue the word hopefully, and that would be a waste of time, especially since there is, in one of the LDA buildings, a brand-new and fabulous restaurant and wine bar, Pres a Vi, that cries out to be described. The restaurant occupies a long, L-shaped space on the ground level of Building D (an unfortunate designation more appropriate to a prison). Part of Pres a Vi’s ceiling consists of wine-barrel ribs, giving one the sense of looking up at a segment of the world’s longest reinforced straw, while its eastern wall consists almost entirely of window glass. Through the dinnertime panes glows the pink specter of the Palace of Fine Arts, afloat on evening’s ink as if in a dream, and proof that not all great views in this city must involve bay or bridge.

Chef Kelly Degala’s menu is "global" and is oriented toward smaller plates, and the question presented is whether this diversity is polymathic or dilettantish. I incline toward the first view, since almost all the dishes are rendered with style and verve. But you can order yourself into incoherence, no question, and the little plates from around the world can start piling up as if at some buffet at an Intercontinental hotel: ravioli here, lumpia there, a hit of Thai papaya salad, some potatoes roasted Spanish-style.

If Degala is a culinary globalist, his heart is clearly in the Pacific. He has spent a lot of time in Hawaii, and his cooking reflects the islands’ mix of tropical and Asian influences. He is also attentive to Filipino cuisine, which doesn’t get much attention in the Bay Area despite a large Filipino population. His lumpia ($10 for four bite-size pieces) are exemplary: rolled cilantro crepes (somewhere between taquitos and flautas in size, and not much cilantro flavor, in case you are passionate either way) filled with rock shrimp and served with a spicy peanut dressing. He also offers a version of another Filipino dish, prawn adobo ($12), with the peeled shrimp braised in a slightly sweet soy-vinegar bath and presented on a pad of electrifyingly tasty fried jasmine rice.

Europhiles will not starve. A set of ravioli ($12), like sand dollars, are filled with duck meat and goat cheese before being gently inundated with an earthy (and gorgeously smooth with a smoothness only butter can provide) wild-mushroom sauce. The kitchen had run out of croquettes on one visit, so we jumped to plan B: jo-jos ($6), a good-size bowl of Kennebec potato wedges roasted with shreds of Serrano ham and topped with romesco, which looked like melted Velveeta (for a potato-nachos effect) and carried a slightly-too-harsh charge of smoked paprika.

Degala even manages a nod in the direction of California whimsy. How about a club sandwich ($13) on brioche, with Dungeness crab salad instead of roast turkey? (And plenty of crisp bacon!) If it’s not quite as fancy as Postrio’s lobster version, it’s at least as good. In a similar vein, there’s an ahi tuna melt ($8), the cooked fish here mashed up with red bell pepper dice and bits of cornichon into a kind of salad.

A few of the dishes seem to hold dual citizenship. An example: lobster bisque ($4), rich and creamy, spiked with brandy, topped with crème fraîche and minced chives, and served in a tall shot glass, like a miniature cappuccino. French? New Englander? Excellent, certainly. No aura of vague cosmopolitanism, on the other hand, surrounds the duck buns ($12). Here we have a classic Chinese treat: shreds of poultry, slow-cooked to moist tenderness, set between halves of little steamed buns, like tiny duck burgers. Versions of this dish aren’t hard to find on menus around town, but Degala’s duck, moist and rich and with unmistakable five-spice breath, is superlative.

Although the restaurant opened shortly after Thanksgiving, service is already at a high level, with bread and water flowing liberally and the staff knowledgeable about specials and shortages. Timing from the kitchen can be a little erratic, though, and this matters more than it might at some other place because dinners tend to be improvised arabesques rather than the more usual first course–main course–dessert ballet. You can never be quite sure which dish will show up next, but that’s not such a high price to pay when it could be coming from any place in the world. *


Mon.–Thurs. and Sun., 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.

1 Letterman Dr., Bldg. D, Ste. 150, SF

(415) 409-3000


Full bar

Muted noise


Wheelchair accessible


Let them eat pancakesi


› paulr@sfbg.com

Not too many years ago, the intersection of Church and 30th streets had a distinctly end-of-the-line, Hooterville flavor. It was there that Muni’s J-Church streetcars ran out of track and had to turn themselves around for the voyage back to Market Street. The restaurants were a motley crew too, a helter-skelter bouquet of old, dimly lit places — Italian, Burmese — and a few brash arrivistes, such as Valentine’s and Café J.

Nowadays the southbound J takes a left and disappears for hours, like that model train Monty Burns once gave Bart, briefly his heir, on The Simpsons. ("Where does it go?" Millhouse asks in awe as the toy train chugs into a tunnel, and Bart replies, "I don’t know, but it’ll be gone for three hours, and yesterday it came back with snow on it!") The expansion of public transport is doubtless a good thing, especially in times like these, but the growth of the J line has certainly helped end the backwater days at Church and 30th. In the past few years there has been a tremendous efflorescence of upmarket restaurants south of 26th Street, including Incanto, Bistro 1689, La Ciccia, Pomelo, and Pescheria (from Joseph Manzare of Globe).

A small lacuna in this splendid list — but a striking one, considering Noe Valley’s reputation as the city’s baby belt — has been a place families could eat with small children. Outer Church’s resurgent restaurant row is very much tilted toward hip young adults with money. The baby-stroller set does most of its prowling along 24th Street, with Savor serving as a kind of Grand Central Station for people with little ones. Of course there was Hungry Joe’s, an old-time, greasy-spoon hamburger joint — yet the nearest relation to Hungry Joe’s wasn’t Savor but Herb’s, a place where I’ve never seen many baby strollers or children.

But now that the Naser brothers (Eddie, Anis, and Kamal) have reinvented Hungry Joe’s as Toast — complete with fresh paint the color of sunshine, brilliant new windows, and a shiny redo of the lunch counter — the outer Noe neighbors need no longer herd their tykes, tots, nippers, and other small folk up the long blocks to 24th Street. Toast, launched early in September, is much snugger than Savor, and although it doesn’t serve crepes, the menu does offer pancakes from dawn to dusk and beyond.

If the place also lacks Savor’s rear terrace, where fantasies of being in Nice can plausibly be entertained, it offers plenty of sidewalk seating by way of compensation. This small amenity is already attracting a big brunch crowd on warm weekend afternoons. And lovers of toast will not come away disappointed. Toasted bread, a simple pleasure that really can’t be improved upon, is standard issue for many of the restaurant’s broad array of sandwiches, and while this might seem like a minor detail, minor details have a way of making the difference between good and merely mediocre cooking.

The only untoasted bread we came across was the little loaf of sliced baguette that appeared shortly after we were seated one evening. It was butterable, of course, but it also made nice chunks for dipping into a surprisingly excellent lentil soup ($4.75) dotted with diced carrots and celery and shreds of tomato but also bewitchingly perfumed with an eastern Mediterranean, perhaps Turkish, bouquet of spices. I definitely detected paprika (we associate paprika with Hungary, but the spice was brought there by Ottoman invaders) and possibly sumac. Another small detail that made a noticeable difference.

And yet another: pepper jack cheese, with its agreeable fruity sharpness, along with cheddar in the grilled cheese sandwich ($7.25), whose slices of white bread had assumed pale golden sheen, sign of a quick turn in oil rather than a toaster. And more: heavy gratings of parmesan, a wealth of nicely oily croutons, and a garlicky vinaigrette over perfect romaine leaves in the side Caesar salad, which is a 75¢ upgrade for most of the sandwiches. The corned beef in the Reuben ($8.75) seemed to have been house-cured, judging by the juiciness of the meat and the liveliness of the bits of fat still attached to it. Corned beef has nothing to do with corn, incidentally, except that the cattle might have been fed it in their last days. "Corn" refers to the coarse salt with which the meat is cured; the word used to mean "grain" or "granular" — hence "corn snow."

I did find the ground beef in the patty melt ($8.50) to have been slightly underseasoned, but this deficit was made up by plenty of excellent sautéed onions and slices of (toasted!) rye bread. The side of fries, though not of the elegant French matchstick variety, was flawless and must be counted among the better versions in the city. Like the Reuben, the bacon cheeseburger ($8.50) was made with Niman Ranch beef — 1/3 pound’s worth — but the quality of the meat was largely eclipsed by the intensity of the toppings: a heavy mat of melted cheddar cheese and lengths of well-crisped bacon.

One evening we sat near a young family whose little girls, while waiting for their evening pancakes, were crawling over everything like monkeys — up on the table, down the back of a chair, across the floor, making little squeaks and yips all the way — while their parents patiently shepherded them back toward civilization and kept a conversation going between themselves. The gist of their remarks seemed to be: When will the pancakes arrive, and perhaps, Will we be toast by then? Answers: soon and no, everybody happy. *


Mon.–Sat., 7 a.m.–9 p.m.; Sun., 7 a.m.–4 p.m.

1748 Church, SF

(415) 282-4EAT


No alcohol



Wheelchair accessible


Monkey see


› paulr@sfbg.com

One of the funniest bits of post-dot-com cultural effluvia was a television ad in which a crestfallen yuppie keeps replaying a video of a CNBC broadcast announcing a NASDAQ of 5,000. (That index, as I write these words, is at about 2,400 — a far cry from 5,000, but a decent cry too from the deep crater of 1,100 or so that swallowed the sad yuppie’s stock portfolio.) The spot was funny mainly because of the Cinderella effect: clock strikes midnight, glittering carriages turn back into pumpkins, never to glitter again, apparently, since time — unlike videocassettes — cannot be rewound.

You will not find many pumpkins on the streets these days in the vicinity of Third and Brannan streets, nor for that matter anywhere south of Market. Maybe a few smashed ones around Halloween. What you will find, especially during business hours, is a lot of gleaming, late-model German automotive metal, and I don’t mean Volkswagens. If you didn’t know better, you might well think the big grandfather clock in the hallway had stopped ticking just short of midnight — at the stroke of 1999, say, when all the city was a stage for the profligate spending of venture capital.

When Aom Phanthong and Chris Foley opened their Thai restaurant, Koh Samui and the Monkey, in a warehousey building on Brannan near Third Street in 2003, the venture capital had all been spent. The New Economy’s tide had gone out, leaving a desolate beach scattered with flotsam, and there was little or no reason to think it would rise again. A postindustrial hipster Thai restaurant in SoMa was, in this sense, late for the train. But the food was good, the prices moderate, the vast expanse of polished wood floorboards a work of art, and by these and other means the place survived an interval of exhaustion.

But where there was once exhaustion is now … exhaust. At noontime on a weekday, the area’s streets are choked with cars moving and not, and inside Koh Samui it’s like a staff meeting for the Industry Standard, with everybody in $300 pairs of jeans. There is something disorienting about the observer’s experience here — do I wake or sleep? was it all a dream, or is this the dream? — yet the food is good and not expensive, and the floorboards are remarkably gorgeous. And a more relaxed tone, for those so inclined, can be found in the evenings, when the menu opens out from its prefab, slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am choices (including a bento box) into a longer and more leisurely list that encourages a degree of musing. The slower heartbeat at dinnertime is a clue that while this neighborhood is more residential than it was a decade ago, it will be more residential still a decade from now.

A signature element of Thai cooking is sweet heat, an artful combination of chili firepower with some kind of sugariness. At Koh Samui, you’re more likely to notice the latter than the former; even "spicy" dishes, we were told, are basically medium hot, while sweetness turns up all over the place, sometimes unchaperoned by any heat at all — in the cucumber salad ($3), for instance, a petite ramekin filled with cucumber slivers (and a few carrot threads for color counterpoint) and a vinaigrette almost balsamiclike in its honeyed weight.

Far more sweet than hot too is the golden, marmaladelike sauce accompanying the bags of gold ($7.95), a quintet of rice-paper sachets filled with minced chicken and shrimp, lightly deep-fried, and tied off at the top with dark green threads of nori. The bags would not look out of place hanging from a Christmas tree, though the minced meats inside were reticent and I could have done without the deep-frying. Fritters, on the other hand, we expect to be fried in some fashion, and Koh Samui’s sweet corn patties ($6.95) are worth the hot-oil tariff: irregular little bundles of juicy corn kernels in tender-crispy envelopes. The menu claims a curry spicing, but this was too faint to be noticed; cucumber reappeared as a condiment, this time cubed and tossed with slivered red onions in a vinaigrette more tart than sweet.

Big dishes feature lots of vegetables, even when the advertised ingredient is some sort of flesh. The firecracker sizzling seafood hot plate ($12.95) — fajitas, Thai-style — included a wealth of broccoli florets, green beans, and strips of green bell pepper (lots of green!) in addition to shrimp, squid, scallops, and crab claws. Wok-fried chicken breast ($9.95) added red bell peppers to the green, and also basil, with its distinctive peppery perfume. Prawns with cashew nuts ($10.95) offered a pleasant crunchiness — along with yet more green beans and bell peppers, this time in a sauce that tasted largely of soy.

Considering the congestion and pace at noon, the food is notably polished. A quick set lunch ($10.95) opened with two skewers of tender-grilled beef, along with mildly spicy peanut sauce to dunk them in, and finished with an excellent red-duck curry. (The poultry appeared in its coconut-milk bath as boneless slices still in morning coats of gold-roasted skin.) And grilled pork ($10.95), presented as strips of meat with sticky rice and mango salad, was juicy enough not to need peanut sauce. But most impressive were the po sod ($7.50), a trio of fresh spring rolls like little bells, filled with shrimp, mint leaves, and rice noodles — and no monkey business with the deep fryer! *


Dinner: Sun.–Thurs., 5–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5–10:30 p.m. Lunch: Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–3 p.m.

415 Brannan, SF

(415) 369-0007


Beer, wine, sake


Noisy if full

Wheelchair accessible