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Restaurant Review

Phone home



COCKTAIL HOUR I’m not sure whether it was completely unintended, but after my night at new SoMa gastropub the Willows, one thing was clear: I need to call my mother.

A sister bar to the Mission’s Sycamore, the Willows opened a few weeks ago on the corner of Folsom and 12th, in one of those cursed spots that’s seen a lot of turnover ever since Hamburger Mary’s decamped a decade ago. (Here’s hoping the Willows breaks the curse and settles in.) It’s walking distance from my job, and at 6pm I had a serious case of the Mondays and was ready to drink.

The place is divided into two parts: a main bar room and a smaller, cozier room dedicated to serving craft beers. The main room is huge with large windows letting in lots of natural light. There were couples sitting at tables doing whatever couples do, people playing pool near the door, and arcade games in the back of the bar. Just a nice open space.

As befits the Willows’ arboreal name, the craft beer room has wooden walls and a few wooden tables out in the open, with a couple of intimate booths as well. Relieved by the emptiness, I took a seat in the smaller room and ordered a malt beer. I chatted with the bartender — a friendly young man who looked like a lost member of Vampire Weekend — and waited for my friends to arrive.

When they showed up, we all dove into the menu. This is when you get a bit of nostalgia for home. The food menu takes you right back to your childhood: burgers, roast beef, sloppy Joes (“Just like Mom’s” was the caption on the menu), and the aptly titled “Mom’s Meatloaf.” Just reading it makes you feel like a kid waiting anxiously at the dinner table. Unfortunately, we weren’t too hungry at the time. But we decided to order the pork-belly donuts anyway. I mean, how could you not?

They were delicious. And then came the drinks. Most of the cocktail menu consists of traditional classics with a tiny twist — but I think what we enjoyed most was the menu itself. Filled with fun names (Oh, Trisha!, Mom’s Mai Tai, Donkey Show) and captions (“A distinctive drink for a discerning drinker” for the 007 Perfect Martini), we had a blast reading it. There was even had a drink called Fuck You, Grandpa!, which is something my mom would totally say.

My buds and I all ordered a couple each. They were pretty good for the most part, but the hands-down winner was the Willows’ version of a sidecar. At $12, it was the most expensive drink on the menu and worth every penny — and having ordered about four, there were a lot of pennies. When ordering the last of these, the bartender told me rather candidly that she hadn’t memorized the bar’s recipe yet.

“This is just how my mom likes it,” she shrugged. I should have asked if her mom was a bartender.

So, to recap: The Willows may not be the place to take your mom — but if you want to feel right at home, here you go.

THE WILLOWS 1582 Folsom, SF. (415) 529-2039, www.thewillowssf.com


‘A’ for effort?



COCKTAILS Novela, the new literary-themed lounge in SoMa, is undoubtedly beautiful: plenty of window light pours in during the evening, highlighting tall black shelves packed full of color-coordinated books. The space, a collaboration between acclaimed bar stars Alex Smith and Kate Bolton, is littered with huge, cozy reading chairs as well as low comfy couches.

But my friend and I just somehow felt out of place.

Perhaps this was a case of misplaced expectations: this wasn’t the bar atmosphere I envisioned at all. With dance music (“Is this MGMT?” my friend asked as we sat down) blaring at around 7pm on a Tuesday, and an all-female service staff dressed in tight black clothing with gold jewelry accents and very high heels, it’s fair to say this place lacked the unshowy intimacy I associate with reading.

Despite our unease in the party environment, we decided to stay and give the libations a try. Novela has several “Cocktails with Character” on its menu, named for famous literary figures (duh). But it prides itself in its punches — six on tap, all made with fresh seasonal ingredients. Since the cognac punch was unavailable, I settled for a glass of the “Tequilla” (as spelled on the menu) punch while my friend, Michelle, tasted the gin one. Both weren’t anything to write home about. Tequilla was just not my cup of tea — the tequila, mezcal, hibiscus, grapefruit, and lime failed to gel — while I don’t remember much about the gin punch. Maybe it had too much rhubarb. Michelle and I pondered the thought of a book-themed bar having a typo on the menu, however deliberate, and realized that it perfectly encapsulated our thoughts of the place so far.

Once the after-work crowd poured out, we settled into some reading chairs near the back of the bar and ordered more drinks. This is when we found ourselves in the middle of a light show — the lights behind the book-filled walls started flashing, as did those along glass and metal liquor shelves. Disco time!

And with that, I suddenly felt like Novela was the one out of place. I can appreciate wanting to expand the notion of the “library bar,” of which our city has many examples, from the library at Bourbon and Branch to Two Sisters in Hayes Valley. But with Novela, I just plain could not see the purpose. San Francisco is a city rich with culture and character, and none of that is reflected here. It felt artificial: all flash and no substance, right down to the cocktail menu (every high school sophomore knows a drink named after Jay Gatsby should be based on gin, not bourbon) and the forced sorority-esque look of the staff.

Back to the drinks: Michelle ordered the Atticus Finch with bourbon, earl grey honey, and bitters — she originally ordered the pisco-based Sherlock Holmes but the birch beer was too overwhelming — while I ordered that Jay Gatsby, with bourbon, scotch, amaretto, calisaya, and nocino. They were both nice but, again, didn’t quite make the grade. In the end, Michelle and I walked out into the night with more questions than answers — a mark of great literature, perhaps, but not of great bars.

NOVELA 662 Mission, SF. (415) 896-6500, www.novelasf.com


Foggy holiday



COCKTAILS Having worked in retail for the past five years, I’ve had Memorial Day off precisely zero times in the past half-decade. That means never enjoying the pleasure of spending the unofficial start of Summer barbecuing in the park, leisurely sipping ice cold beers with friends as the sun gets higher and the shorts get shorter. So when I got the email from the CEO of my new gig telling us all to go out and enjoy the holiday, I was delighted. That is until, in pure San Francisco fashion, the fog rolled in and all my visions of patios, grills, and parks misted over. What to do? My friend. Danielle and I didn’t take too long to figure it out: um, bar crawl.

We started at the Blarney Stone (5625 Geary, SF. (415) 386-9914) in the Outer Richmond. Along with some guys aching to watch a baseball game, I found myself waiting promptly at 2pm for the doors to open. Yes, that’s dedication. After taking my seat, Nathan behind the bar mixed me me a Paloma with freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, and I pulled out my book, waiting for my habitually late partner to arrive.

I’m a Blarney regular (I live a couple blocks away) and over the past four years of frequent Stoning, I’ve gotten to know the bartenders, who have gladly introduced me to some new spirits. And friendly fellow patrons have creatively helped me dodge uncomfortable encounters with any creepy visitors, all while enjoying said spirits. Can’t complain with that.

After several Palomas (at $7 each) and an Irish coffee (which was paid for by a gentleman who was probably a might too caffeinated by Irish coffees himself) — and after Danielle finally showed up — we hit the road and headed for Trick Dog (3010 20th St., SF. www.trickdogbar.com) in the Mission. I’ve been longing to hit up the Dog for some time now. If you’re a cocktail enthusiast, you already know why. Owned by Josh Harris and Scott Baird, otherwise known as swashbuckling bar-consulting duo the Bon Vivants, it’s been the hot spot ever since it opened this January.

Although all the seats were taken, we were lucky enough to be able to grab a standing spot by the window immediately after walking in. Danielle shifted through the cocktail menu made to look like a paint color swatch, while I ordered the mezcal-based Polar Bear ($11). Along with the mezcal, the Polar Bear is made with dry vermouth and Creme de Menthe. It’s a bit like a Glacier mint served up in a stemmed cocktail glass: minty and clear, instantly refreshing and smoky at the same time. I loved it. Danielle ordered the Straw Hat ($11), a Calvados (French apple brandy) drink with chestnut honey, hard cider, vermouth, rosemary, and lime served on the rocks, and I could tell in an instant she was into it. I moved on to a Baby Turtle: reposado tequila, Compari, cinnamon, grapefruit, and egg white (a weakness of mine in cocktails). It was frothy, pink, and lovely.

Blackbird (2124 Market, SF. www.blackbirdbar.com) at Church and Market, has been one of my favorite bars for a while now. Here’s hoping it remains popular but doesn’t get too crowded once the new tenants of all the condos being constructed on Market move in.

I love that the artwork inside changes as much as the drink menu (although I’m longing for the day the amazing Grape Drink returns). But nothing can beat the happy hour special. $5 sours? Yes, please.

Already floating a heavy buzz, we strolled in and easily sat at the bar. Whiskey sours would top off our night just right. Even better, more egg whites topped the yummy sours. I believe I had about three of these frothy treats before our Sidecar arrived to take us home.

After squeezing 10 drinks into six hours, I don’t remember much about the ride home (and I don’t dare look at my bank statement). But a Memorial Day filled with new drinks and new friends — cheers to that.

Gang’s all here



THE BLOB We so very want to love the brand new Sydney Town Tavern (531 Commercial, SF. www.sydneytownsf.com) in the Financial District, named after a roving gang of Australian, Irish, and English convict-rogues who terrorized the Barbary Coast. The Blob certainly loves a bad boy or five! The pedigree is right: Syndney Town is sister to Irish Times, right around the corner. And the drinks are nice — a huge, like pint-glass huge, pomegranate margarita will solve any afternoon problems, and a refreshing orange crush replicates an Orangesicle, though not too sticky-sweet. But the menu falls too much on the typical gourmet bar snacks side, executed not-so-stellarly: fish was leathery and its chips were a droopy few; meatballs were firm but unmemorable; truffle mac and cheese was dry and pasty. Channel your namesake and do something naughty, Sydney Town Tavern!

PS: Cherries are amazing right now; grab some at the farmers market this week.



Friends, we are living in an era of $9 juice. There’s a complex story behind the founding of Juice Shop by brothers Charlie, Ben, and Jake Gulick (and Charlie’s wife Linda) involving miraculous liver cleansing, which we won’t relate here, because “liver cleansing.” We will relate, however, the taste of our glass-bottle pint of cold-pressed, unpasteurized, kale-parsley-spinach-romaine-etc. A+ Deep Green juice, purchased at a rustic-cute streetside stand in the FiDi (there’s one in Cow Hollow, too): “Deeep Greeen deeelightful. Immediately, the Blob was ready to conquer her day — probably aided by some sort of squeaky super-clean hyper-liver.

Other options include Coco-Clorophyll, pineapple pear chia, Alpha Green, Beta Beet, and apple lemon ginger. Juice Shop will also program an entire 1-10 day cleanse to suit your needs, including an array of juices, plus aloe and blue-green algae, starting at $62. Has there ever been a kickstarter for a personal cleanse?

353 Pine, SF. www.juiceshopsf.com



So long ago seem the days when the concept of gourmet Jewish deli food was unconcepted, and that cute guy with the dreads from Wise Sons was hawking chocolate babka out of a hand cart on Ferry Plaza. Wouldn’t you know it, here we are, digging with both hands and a fork into the mountain of meat Shorty Goldstein presents as a pastrami on rye ($12). Lean is definitely not the byword here, with thick, peppery, fat-laced slices piled up like brisket on solid, if completely overwhelmed, rye (mustard and accompanying pickle provided). The Blob cannot lie — it took her two days to finish this giant, which comes out to $6 per lunch. Not bad, and helps explain the lines down the street.

As if that were not recommendation enough, when we showed a picture of said sandwich to our very Jewish uncle from the East Coast, he grunted in condescending amusement, which in old-school East Coast Jewish terms is the closest any gourmet West Coast deli food is going to come to approval, so what’s to complain?

We piled on a hefty side of farm fresh veggies as a treat ($5) — that day it was rainbow carrots roasted with a hint of mint. Other sandwich options include exactly what you’d expect: corned beef (every day), egg salad (Mondays), beef tongue (Thursday), etc. Go eat, already.

126 Sutter, SF. www.shortygoldsteins.com



Let’s waltz out of the Financial District and its parade of newbies, and right into SoMa for an old favorite, Walzwerk, which was hopping on an early Sunday evening. (If there’s ever a time for wonderful, heavy East German food, Sunday dinner time is it.) The Blob had not been there for at least one historico-dialectical cycle, but the giant etchings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin on the walls still amused, the fabulously direct waitress remembered us, and the German Democratic Republic memorabilia remained fascinating and somehow hilarious.

And the food. Oh, the food. Mouthwatering sauerbraten with pickled cabbage and hefty dumplings covered in gravy, chicken breast stuffed with apples and bacon, awesomely firm cheese spaetzle, “soljanka” cabbage soup with salami, bacon, and pickles. Treat of all treats? Tangy, dill infused matjes herring (mildly salted herring served “housewife-style”), with fresh fillets soused in sour cream with apples, onions, and pickles — a light, sweet take on Thousand Island dressing, maybe, served with firm pumpernickel for spreading. We love you, tangy-sweet East German housewife!

381 South Van Ness, SF. www.walzwerk.com




DINING “Never judge a book by its cover” — if ever there was a place that warranted that old saw, it’s KronnerBurger. Standing across from the Mission burger joint’s ramshackle facade, its name spelled out on the marquee atop a grungy window display, beneath an unlit “Tonight” neon sign, it was hard to believe this was the same place I’ve been practically begging my friends to attend with me. As we inched closer to the entrance, we noticed a little old-fashioned TV in the window displaying the restaurant’s logo on a background of static. My friend and I looked at each other warily and stepped inside chef Chris Kronner’s joint.

Even around 8pm on a rather sunny evening, light inside Kronnerburger was practically nonexistent. Besides the wooden, almost -’70s inspired light fixtures at the bar in the corner of the restaurant, sources of illumination are few and far between, with only a couple of other lights scattered throughout the dining area and a Mexican-style devotional candle at every table. It took my eyes a while to adjust but once I did, I was pleased to see walls of exposed brick and ample seating. Before long, the hostess emerged from the darkness and, despite the absence of a member of our party, seated us at a table anyway.

Once our party was complete, we ordered drinks. I must say that half of the reason I wanted to eat at Kronnerburger was to try its Carbonated Motherfucking Margarita ($10, $54 pitcher). But after looking over the paper menu — which included curiosity-spikers like scotchocolate milk and sasparilla Old Fashioned — I was torn between my original choice and the mysterious Stranger Juice ($9, $50 pitcher). A friend went for the Stranger, so I was able to get a taste of both.

As for food, both of my friends decided to get the eponymous KronnerBurger burger with a single patty ($11, $18 double), one with a $4 side of bone marrow, and the other with the addition of bacon ($3). I decided on getting a crispy Crabburger ($14, also available grilled). For sides, we got some onion rings ($6) and fries ($4).

Naturally, our drinks came out first and while both the margarita and Stranger Juice were perfect choices on an unusally hot day in the city, if I had the option to reconsider, I would have ordered the Stranger Juice for myself. Loaded with gin, Aperol and I’m guessing (they’re secretive) sweet vermouth, the Stranger Juice was surprisingly fresh, light, and floral. The Carbonated Motherfucking Margarita was tasty and bubbly, but a little bit too sour for me.

While waiting, my tablemates and I peered through the darkness to see what the other guests were ordering. We saw the burgers we couldn’t wait to sink our teeth into and a delicious plate full of marrow and fries — a twist on French Canadian poutine, also with cheese curds and beef cheek gravy.

Once it came out (not long) it took a while to dig in, because it really was too dark to get a good look at what was on our plate. As we waved our Jesus candles over our food, everything looked small but tasty. Small but decadent-looking patties on our burgers, a small but crispy portion of fries. We were, however, given an absolutely huge portion of onion rings. A little bit too much for the humble amount of delicious dipping sauce that accompanied it, alas. As for the taste, what can I say? The burger was moist and solid — and isn’t that everything a burger should be?

For dessert, we got the only item on the menu: strawberry bread pudding. Topped with chocolate ice cream, the warm dish was so gooey and flavorful that even though we had three people sharing the small portion, we couldn’t finish it.

After throwing in the towel on the dessert, we ordered a round of beers, talked some shop, and then asked for the check. When we stepped out of the restaurant around 10pm, the night was nice and warm. And while the “Tonight” sign still hadn’t been lit, we wondered if it would be when we returned.

2379 Mission, SF. (415) 656-9871, www.kronnerburger.com

Mean Greens



THE BLOB Good green goddess, we’re only midway through the season but your Blob is getting asparagused out! This year, that delectable spring stalk seems especially abundant on menus about the Bay, from the warming canh cua mang tay (crab and asparagus soup) at PPQ Dungeness Island (www.ppqcrab.com) in the Outer Richmond to the verdant asparagus ice cream served at a Blob friend’s garden party. Along the way: zingy asparagus lemon pizzetta with prosciutto at Per Diem (www.perdiem.com) in the FiDi, using Zuckerman Farm in Stockton’s trademark purple variety, and the snap of a Shattuck tempura roll with battered yam at Mission vegan Japanese go-to Cha-Ya (762 Valencia, SF).

The following treats are deliberately void of nubby spears — you can asparaguess why. Yet they’re pretty veg-tacular all the same.



As the Blob was rolling through the diner-riffic wonderland that is West Portal — seriously, the bottomless coffee per square footage of this neighborhood is out of countrol — she remembered a sustainable, construct-your-own salad green spot had sprung up among the laden hash brown platters: Market and Rye. (There’s also one on Potrero Hill.) With choices like strawberries, flax seeds, crispy onions, and, yes, roasted asparagus, it was a lunch lock. It was also lunch rush, and the supercute staff seemed a might stretched to put together everyone’s picky orders, so the Blob chose a signature Wolfgang salad ($10.50) instead. It’s a twist on your old school Asian chicken salad, loaded with roasted chicken, red cabbage, carrots,

toasted sesame seeds, mandarin oranges, crunchy Asian trail mix, and hot mustard soy vinaigrette.

The dressing was just a might too creamy-thick for the Blob’s taste. But if there’s one thing

she loves, it’s a twisted Asian chicken salad. So she sat right down at the rustic space’s communal table with her Mason jar of strawberry water — and Wolfganged that ish right down. You can also order yummy premade salads like spring pea with lemon dressing or broccolini Waldorf by the scoop, like ice cream, which is neat.

68 West Portal and 300 De Haro, www.marketandrye.com



The Orbit Room is such a special splice of atmospheric Europe cafe into artisanal SF cocktailia that the Blob hates to risk ruining it by overpromotion. Its spring drink menu is stunning ($10 each — add egg white for two more dollars, cluck cluck). The Blob stopped in with tasty amiga the Tablehopper (www.tablehopper.com), who recounted her scandalous Coachella exploits while enthusing over a Koriander — practically a salad in a glass, with leafy cilantro, tequila, ginger syrup, lime, and celery bitters. A Spring Shrub shapes a traditional American shrub (a colonial-era cocktail using sweetened vinegar syrup) with strawberry balsamic and black peppercorn base, vodka, lemon, a splash of rosé, and mint seltzer.

But the delicious Hayes Valley Farm coated the Blob’s gullet. It’s a classic bee’s knees cocktail, popular during Prohibition, with honey from the farm down the street, gin, lemon, celery juice, and rose water — all romantically garnished with dried rose petals. Sweet, but also bittersweet: sweet because the Hayes Valley farm honey came back after a massive bee die-off in 2010, bitter(ish) because the farm itself will be demolished next month for pricey condos. (The stalwart farmers claim to be OK with this, appreciating the brief time they had.) In 50 years, will people believe there was once a thriving farm there, not in 1813 but in 2013?

1900 Market, SF. www.orbitroomcafe.com



If you’re going to name something “the feast of all feasts” and price it at $30 per person, you know the Blob’s gonna check it out — even if it’s at a mall (in this case under the dome, thus “cupola,” at the Westfield Center). And yes, even though it does that awful phony four percent HealthySF surcharge thing, which the Blob didn’t know until she got the bill. Up to that point, she would have recommended it profligately.

Strap yourself in for eight or so random courses from handsome Lark Creek offshoot Cupola’s impressive Italian menu, decided by the kitchen. (A complementary “Festa Di Bacchus” wine journey can be had for $17.) As in: two-plus hours of well-portioned food — no flighty tasting menu flim-flam here, these are actual dishes. As in: the Blob and her companion Pinky received two whole Neapolitan pizzas (margherita and spice sopressata), a gloriously delicate handkerchief pasta with simple red sauce, a butter lettuce and gorgonzola salad, another salad of chopped veggies and wine-marinated croutons, an al dente squash and (sorry) asparagus dish, and frothy strawberry tiramisu. The highlight? A somehow feather-light artichoke lasagna — they do pasta soft here — accompanied by an arugula-cashew salad. Finally, the Blob was stuffed!

Westfield Center, 845 Market Street, fourth floor, www.cupolasf.com





DINING When you name your restaurant Coqueta, Spanish for “flirt,” you’re really putting it all out there in terms of your food and atmosphere — playful yet unwavering, open but with a hint of mystery, and definitely attentive. After visiting Coqueta during its opening week, I’m confident celebrity chef Michael Chiarello’s new venture will score.

Opened April 13th, Coqueta is seductive on every level. Located on Pier 5, the restaurant is intimate: 60 leather seats in the buzzing main room, wooden tables, stone walls, flickering candles. Nearly every seat has a view of the kitchen — nothing to hide here. On the left side of the restaurant is Bar 5, a glass-enclosed terrace that seats an additional 30 people in rows of long, wooden, family-style tables.

Chiarello’s garnered an exciting following from his days running Napa’s Tra Vigne restaurant and stints on TV, so it was no surprise that there was a wait to get seated. Just a 15-minute delay past our reservation time, though — my friend and I were kindly invited by staff onto the terrace for a drink. (In fact service all round was abundantly attentive; I was even lead to the restroom.)

Immediately, the drink menu swept me off my feet. Created by bar director Joe Cleveland, it ranges from modern classics to San Francisco-inspired creations, solid Spanish gin and tonics to sherry cocktails (all $9–$14 each), plus pitchers of sangria and other Spanish party classics for groups. My friend started out the evening with the El Cazador, a bright sherry cocktail with lime, honey, and Campari. My first choice was the San Francisco-inspired Engine Co #5, a bourbon drink with tobacco-infused cream sherry, lemon, and zurracapote (red wine mixed with fruit, sangria-like but steeped for several days). By the time our drinks were finished, we were seated.

The menu consists of lovely, rustic-looking tapas-sized dishes ($9–$14 each), both hot and cold, along with cheese plates, bite-sized skewers, cured meats, mini open-faced sandwiches, and larger family style dishes. After being offered some sparkling water in beautiful hammered brass tumblers, we decided to start our night with a couple of bite-sized skewers, Chiarello’s light-hearted take on Basque-country pintxos, at $2.50 each. Quail egg with mustard seed and serrano? Why not. Jamon serrano with manchego cheese and apricot? Oh, I couldn’t possibly. Chorizo with artichokes and peppers? Two, please. All tiny bits of deliciousness. Enamored, we ended up ordering two more, the baby beets with spring onions and citrus fruit with more spicy chorizo.

Narrowing down our main dishes was a challenge. We settled on four plates: three hot tapas and one cold one. We first dug into the cold tapa, a cured cod crudo with tomato fresco, hearts of palm, arugula, and citrus dressing. It was a refreshing way to begin our foray. Our next dish was Gambas de Negro, whole prawns grilled with chili and black garlic. The most savory and comforting dish, though, was a sunny side up egg presented with shrimp, crispy potatoes, and a chorizo dressing. Finally came the “Tattas” Bravas, a spin on tater tots — and that classic Spanish bar standard, patatas bravas — with an array of jambon and potato nuggets served with salsa and aioli. Those popped right into our mouths.

While eating, we also ordered a couple tequila drinks. The first was the Castro, a unique tipple consisting of tequila blanco, fruity curaçao liqueur, pepper and lime. The second was The Sun Never Sets, creamy and scrumptious with tequila anejo, Licor 43, lime, fresh pineapple juice, and pineapple espuma brulee. As he made it, Cleveland told me this was his personal favorite.

Although we passed on the desserts, two of them were generously given to us by a guest at the next table — was this flirting? We were definitely beguiled by the sangria pop-rocksicles, tasty and mischievous adult treats, and the cool berry gazpacho, which floated us into the night.

I left the restaurant nearly vowing to Chiarello, who introduced himself to our table (there’s that attentiveness again), that I would return. I probably should have teased it out a little.

Pier 5, Embarcadero, SF. (415) 704-8866, www.coquetasf.com


Spring breakers



DRINK San Francisco: the best bars, mixologists, and produce — not to mention drinkers — in the country. And once the weather warms up (fingers crossed), can a bloom of excellent fruity cocktails be far behind? In honor of the lengthening sunlight, here’s a full day’s selection of spring drinks picks.



This bustling bar nestled in the FiDi — and brought to us by the contemporary speakeasy minds behind Bourbon and Branch and Tradition (see below) — gets a lot of attention. In fact, I couldn’t stop hearing about its cocktails (most $10–$12) made with fresh fruit and local produce. And when I stepped inside early one sunny afternoon, I wasn’t disappointed. The bar was stocked with vibrantly colored jars of berries, citrus, and mint leaves. Joined by a friend, I quickly dived in.

Our first round of drinks consisted of the Kentucky Buck and the Paloma, a Mexican classic. The Buck, served with soda, is a combination of Bourbon infused with organic strawberries, fresh lemon juice, ginger beer, and bitters. It’s a smooth drink that still packs a punch, so don’t be deceived. The Paloma, a fizzy mix of tequila and grapefruit soda (in Mexico, usually Jarritos or Fresca; here housemade, of course), could be considered a more refreshing version of a margarita. True to the meaning of its name (“dove”), it’s light and floaty.

(Perhaps inspired by our fruit journey, our friendly bartender next treated us to his own invention, consisting of strawberries, cinnamon, and whiskey. It wasn’t named or even perfected yet — but when it’s on the house, I’ll gladly take it.)

Next round: the Pleasant Evening and my personal favorite, the Berry Bramble. With sparkling wine, crème de cassis, peach bitters, and grapefruit juice, plus a beautiful lemon twist garnish, The Pleasant Evening is also perfect for a warm and boozy afternoon. But the Berry Bramble topped my spring-quest list. Crushed berries and gin with crushed ice yields an invigorating but not overly sweet cocktail, uncloyingly fun, tropical without all the cheesiness.

246 Kearny, SF. (415) 398-2827, www.rickhousebar.com



I’d been dying to go to lovely Mission outpost Nihon for its expansive, Japanese-leaning whiskey collection — and its selection of half-off happy hour drinks (many of them $6) provided the perfect opportunity. When I looked at the impressive cocktail menu, I knew I wasn’t ordering anything neat.

I asked our waitress for her recommendation for a nice springtime cocktail and she came back with the California Love, a pretty bourbon cocktail with orange juice, yellow chartreuse liquor, and orange oil. The citrus snaps the bourbon to life, but the drink is a bit too strong for early afternoons: you’ll want to sip this one after work while watching the sun set through Nihon’s windows. (Warning: it does get a bit crowded). If you want my advice, though, grab the Luxury Mojito instead. Topping off silver rum, nigori sake, mint, lime, and sugar with a dash of champagne turns this summer favorite into a bubbly springtime joy.

1779 Folsom, SF. (415) 552-4400



With its emphasis on presenting a global selection of cocktail favorites, there isn’t really a season you shouldn’t drink at Tenderloin hotspot Tradition. But I have a great cocktail for you to try during a cool spring night: the Paper Plane ($10). Made with bourbon, Aperol, bittersweet Amaro Nonino, and fresh lemon juice, its zing will launch you skyward. (The drink isn’t on the regular walk-in menu, but appears on the extended menu offered with table reservations, so call ahead.) A variation with honey, adding a level of smoothness, is also amazing. Before you know it, you’ve downed several of this babies, and left any lingering winter blues far behind.

441 Jones, SF. (415) 474-2284, www.tradbar.com


Eats everything



THE BLOB This coming week sees most of our smaller neighborhood farmers markets resuming their merry little trade, the familiar young faces behind the stalls and bushy green produce spilling forth a sunny welcome after grueling — grueling — months of eating only in-season citrus and avocado. OK, this is California, so pretty much everything’s in season all the time, which is great news for an ever-voracious Blob. But it’s nice to meet with your neighbors on the street for reasons other than complaining about dog poop. (The Blob usually just devours its problem neighbors, but the point is farmers markets are nice.) Here are some tasty eats that also have us communing with a spring-like vibe.



Recently, the Blob had the occasion to experience a NorCal classic — a warm creamy bowl of artichoke soup at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero, about half an hour towards Santa Cruz. The Blob’s in-laws were visiting for a sunny coastal drive, but the Blob did not eat them, much as we may have wished. Instead, we feasted on another of Duarte’s tributes to its famous local vegetable, a spectacular artichoke ravioli ($14). Its enveloping pasta perfectly al dente, the rich, peppery artichoke-ricotta stuffing had an unexpected granular texture that nonetheless melted on the tongue. (The Blob topped it all with zesty marinara, a special request.)

Plentiful deep-fried calimari, baked Pacific oysters erupting with hot butter, local ollieberry pie (think blackberry-meets-raspberry with a pinch of tart), a biker-family clientele, and that famous soup are Duarte’s stock-in-trade. Add a walk around Pescadero’s vintage California-quaint downtown, presto! A day trip to content any in-law.

202 Stage Rd., Pescadero. (650) 879-0464, www.duartestavern.com



Kitchen Story replaced midrange white tablecloth stalwart Tangerine last November, bringing an Asian fusion sensibility and some comfy decor — granite tile, wood bookshelves — to the Castro spot. (It also brings a hint of panic: “Due to high volume, we respectfully request no substitutions on the menu,” it announces repeatedly.) Although it’s open for Thai-heavy dinner, so far brunch is the name of the game for regulars. And the brunch items of choice are stuffed-to-perfection ricotta pancakes, a sweet yet satisfying banmi panini, and millionaire’s bacon, a sassy little item consisting of thick bacon slices marinated in brown sugar syrup and chiles that’s popular at the owners’ other restaurants, Blackwood and Sweet Maple.

The Blob is a contrarian however, and also a sucker for a good salad, so the mango salad with prawns ($13) was our chosen victim on the most recent visit. It took a few minutes to get some attention, but the food came out of the kitchen fast (1:30pm on Saturday is a great time to go). The Blob’s companion Krispy substituted anyway — gasp! — asking for an extra two poached eggs placed atop his grilled veggie and cilantro aioli “morning melt.” He found the kitchen willing and the combo delicious. The mango salad, a riotous heap of bright color, was brimming with mango. Grilled prawns, however, were scarce, and the smoky-lime dressing a tad too acidic: fruit-based salads need only the merest brightening hint of vinegar; this was over the top.

Nothing a giant mimosa ($8, bottomless $16) couldn’t cut through, but we eagerly await the chance to dive into chapter two of this story: dinner.

3499 16th St., SF. (415) 525-4905, www.kitchenstorysf.com



Maybe it’s because we ate our way through Peru a few springs ago, but pisco sours always put us in a warmer mood. The Blob defaulted to this classic at Peruvian pioneer Limon’s outpost on South Van Ness when purple corn miracle drink chicha morada had sadly run out. (Weird, since Limon possesses its own house brand, Inca Blu.) SF has a long and passionate relationship with the spunky Peruvian brandy — the pisco punch was invented here around 1893, and there are several versions on Limon’s menu. And to no Blob’s surprise, the basic pisco sour ($8), with lime juice, angostura bitters, and simple syrup was excellently sweet-tart without cloying or spiking. And it came with a smiley face drizzled into its heavenly egg white foam. Unbeatable accompaniment to crispy pollo empanadas and meaty tartara de tuna.

Limon Rotisserie, 1001 S. Van Ness, SF. (415) 821-2134, www.limonsf.com

BLOB TIP: Hey kids, tired of bologna-on-white and bit-sized Snickers in your bag for lunch? Tell your parents that Hayes Valley’s too-cute, newly spiffed Talbot Cafe (244 Gough, SF. 415-553-4945, www.talbotcafe.com) will pack your bagged lunch for them. Simply order from its regular menu — grilled cheese, BLT, chicken and havarti sandwich, mixed greens ($6–$8) — fill out a paper bag with school, name, grade, class, and date, and the Talbots will deliver something fresh and yummy to your school before 10:45am. They can’t deliver spring break early, however, so sorry.


Latin highs



APPETITE Nothing replaces actually experiencing a cuisine served in its place of origin, but regional dinners are one way of traveling vicariously (and, perhaps, with less of a carbon footprint).

Occasionally, you get more than a meal, as with a January 23 dinner at Oakland’s Latin American haven, Bocanova (www.bocanova.com), which hosts the monthly Rick’s Supper Club, highlighting South American cuisine. As a lucky few dug into wild shrimp and lobster ceviche or smoky, steamed mussels, dinner sponsor LAN Airlines surprised attendees with free round trip tickets to fly to any South American destination… a freak out “Oprah moment.” In lieu of that kind of bell and whistle, here are two restaurants fiercely dedicated to uncovering the subtlety of their chosen cuisine.



Every year I’d anticipate legendary Whole Hog dinners at Oakland’s temple to regional Italian cuisine, Oliveto, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. I dropped off after chef of 15 years, Paul Canales departed — he just opened buzzed-about restaurant-bar-music venue Duende. But I returned this year to the warm and stylish upstairs restaurant (there’s a more casual cafe downstairs). Just over a year ago, young chef Jonah Rhodehamel took over. With consummate host-proprietors Bob and Maggie Klein thankfully still running the restaurant, Oliveto maintains its purpose as a culinary community stalwart akin to Chez Panisse (community journal, whole-animal history, food activism), with regional Italian focus and themed dinners.

Rhodehamel honors Oliveto history while unafraid to experiment. Pastas ($15-18), which remain the highlight, might be a traditionally-influenced spaghettini neri of squid ink pasta, shrimp, and chili pepper, but he’ll add chocolate to tomato-braised oxtail corzetti, use red winter wheat in penne alla Bolognese, or infuse Floriani Red Flint corn polenta under duck giblet ragu with intense lavender vanilla notes. The fritto misto ($13) stands out from what is often merely a pile of fried food. Rhodehamel fries up the unusual: scungil (whelk), herring, blood orange, and shirako (cod milt, ahem, I mean, sperm).

The only lackluster starter was miniscule pan-fried frog’s legs ($14) with a parsley sformatino (like savory panna cotta). Charcoal-grilled meats are impeccable: buttery, crispy pork porterhouse ($30) sits amidst cannellini beans and braised chard, while rare Piedmontese ribeye ($36) is crispy on the exterior, radiant pink inside, next to creamed spinach and Yukon Gold potatoes. Espresso chocolate stracciatella ice cream ($8) is a lush, caffeine finish, though after trying all recent desserts, I’d also take fluffy ricotta cheesecake ($8) with candied kumquats.

5655 College Ave., Oakl. (510) 547-5356, www.oliveto.com



Since opening in 2008, Gitane is easily one of our sexiest restaurants. Ducking into an alley, down a couple steps into the lush reds, tapestries, and chandelier glow of a tiny, two level space… so begins your seduction by a lover who knows how. Executive chef Bridget Batson has been here since the beginning. In November, the restaurant shifted directions with the addition her husband, co-executive chef Patrick Kelly (of La Folie and Napa’s Angèle), and chef de cuisine David Martinez.

Staying true to the meaning of gitane — gypsy woman — the new menu wanders gypsy-like through Southern Spain, changing cities (Andalusia, Sevilla, Valencia) every few weeks. In keeping with the celebratory setting, the appropriately deemed “passport” tasting menu is $65 for five courses (wine pairings from new wine director, Sarah Knoefler, $45), available in the intimate upstairs dining room. Bar and alley/patio seating offers an a la carte menu ($12-36) or bar bites.

Though they’ve combined Spanish and Moroccan influence since day one, Bridget and Patrick’s recent Spain travels allow them to now dig deeper into regional Spanish cuisine. The first regional focus was Valencia. The tasting menu began with a salad of baby beets, fuyu persimmon, Marcona almonds, citrus, nasturtium paired with honeysuckle notes of a Musva Moscatel from Valencia. Moving on, Dungeness crab and cuttlefish were touched with sea urchin vinaigrette and pineapple. A delight of fatty Iberico pork cheeks, Matsutake mushroom and raw Nantucket Bay scallops sat in a brilliant golden raisin-saffron-mushroom coulis. Fourth course: pan-roasted duck breast in tempranillo chili puree accented by oloroso sherry-compressed pears (yes!) The finish? A winning pumpkin creme caramel.

An à la carte meal yielded an over-salted but beautifully seared scallop with crispy sweetbreads ($16). I preferred crisped, roasted artichokes piled with sunchokes and Manchego cheese ($13), or an entree of rabbit (conejo) two ways ($32): roasted saddle and a dreamy riletta, accompanied by braised snails and caramelized squash. Ramon Garcia remains Bar Manager, still serving refreshing cocktails ($12) like an elegantly smoky Chimenea: mezcal, rye, allspice dram, maple syrup, orange bitters.

6 Claude Lane, SF. (415) 788-6686, www.gitanerestaurant.com

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Can Yan noodle?



APPETITE Style-over-substance at popular restaurants grew old in my Los Angeles days. A pretty package matters little if food isn’t excellent. In SF, we tend towards the other direction. Thank goodness for places like Gitane, Bix, Foreign Cinema, which manage both — a little style is welcome. With the entry of two new, upscale Chinese restaurants, we get style aplenty. One, the international Hakkasan chain, feels oh-so LA or NY, and the other, M.Y. China, is inside a mall (very Southern California) from famed chef Martin Yan.

Buzz has been nonstop about these two, where I’ve spent a pretty penny, from lunch to dessert. I disagree with the racist-tinged complaint that typically cheaper, ethnic cuisines shouldn’t cost more, but the reason any cuisine should is quality of ingredients and reinvention or reinterpretation of classic dishes. Stir-fry, for example, shouldn’t cost double what it would in a hole-in-the-wall if it’s virtually the same dish. After multiple visits, my assessment is mixed, each restaurant boasts strong points, but neither reinvents Chinese cuisine, which begs the question: are the prices worth it?



Early on, Hakkasan succeeds on a number of points: seamless service from a team that seemed to work in sync from opening day. Though the second floor restaurant overlooking Market Street is a bit scene-y, especially around a large, central bar, I can’t help but applaud a space that says “night on the town”… particularly when the food is quite good. Similar to dining at the subterranean London Hakkasan, I find the overall experience satisfying if someone else is paying.

Drinkwise, I’m delighted with a refreshing, elegant Plum Sour of Yamazaki 12 year Japanese whisky, umeshu plum liqueur, lemon, Angostura bitters and egg white, or a robust Smoky Negroni (Rusty Blade, Carpano Antica, Campari, smoke-infused Grand Marnier), but the $12-15 cocktails aren’t superior to or necessarily equal to lower-priced cocktails around town. Similarly, roasted silver cod in a Champagne honey sauce is silky and lush but at $39? Countless Japanese restaurants worth their salt serve a fantastic version of similar miso cod at half that price.

As with M.Y. China below, dim sum is a highlight, but $7–$26 for a few dumplings is a struggle when far cheaper, quality dim sum is plentiful around town. Worthwhile dishes are atypical dim sum, like roasted duck pumpkin puffs or black pepper duck dumplings. Whether noodles ($12–$39) or stir-fry ($12–$58), I haven’t had a bad dish here. But leaving lunch for two over $100 lighter, or the same for drinks and a couple appetizers, I can’t help but conclude: food, drink, and service shine… on someone else’s dime.

1 Kearny, (415) 829-8148, www.hakkasan.com/sanfrancisco



Growing up, I loved watching “Yan Can Cook.” To this day I’m inspired by Martin Yan’s energy and childlike exuberance. His anticipated SF restaurant opening, M.Y. China, is more affordable than Hakkasan, conveniently under the dome at the Westfield Center mall for a post or pre-movie meal. Despite all the noodle attention, including a world-champion noodle puller and noodle pulling stations viewable while dining, spectacle doesn’t necessarily equal stellar noodles. For example, squid ink snap noodles ($18), more like torn pasta squares, tossed with shrimp, scallops and calamari in Shaoxing wine, fail to exude much flavor. Dan Dan noodles ($12) are a stronger choice, and the favorite of everyone I’ve talked to is lush scissor noodles ($14), cut by kitchen scissors then wok-cooked with wild boar.

Wild boar shows up everywhere, a mild version of the robust meat (i.e. inoffensive for those afraid of boar), in lettuce cups ($9), dumplings (four for $8), and more. Every visit yielded disappointingly average wok-tossed dishes, and flavorless small plates like portabello sliders ($8) or mapo tofu ($8), which gets its sole perk from Sichuan peppercorn oil. Teas are a comforting choice, while cocktails ($10-13), which are better but pricier at Hakkasan, have been off balance, like a too sour Three Gorges, with a base of #209 Gin and lemon, lacking absinthe’s nuance or clean bitter structure from Cocchi Americano.

Each meal there’s a singular standout category: dim sum ($6-19). Spicy seafood dumplings (six for $9) are a joy in vivid green spinach wrappers loaded with scallops and shrimp, as are plump, lightly crispy whole wheat potstickers filled with pork and cabbage. Go for decadence with pork and black truffle dumplings ($18). Dessert includes Delise cafe ($4) offerings, among my favorite locally made ice cream, with flavors like Chinese almond, toasted rice or lemongrass.

Despite the mall setting, “under the dome” is the Westfield’s striking feature while chic design and noodle pulling entertainment set the experience apart. As for me, I’ll return for unusual dim sum.

Westfield Center, 845 Market, 4th Floor, (415) 580-3001, www.mychinasf.com

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APPETITE As I’ve often bemoaned, finding authentic ‘que outside of the Deep South is a rarity. Case in point: Southpaw opened late 2011 on Mission Street, a BBQ oasis of the gourmet kind, brewing its own beers in a couple in-house tanks. Welcoming staff and flaky catfish impressed me early on, but watery sauces and dry ribs and brisket deflated my BBQ dreams.

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

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

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

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

Drink is as important as food at Southpaw. Brewer Phil Cutti started homebrewing in 1995 after shopping at SF Brewcraft. Learning from Speakeasy founders Steve and Mike Bruce, homebrewing led to his own gypsy label, Muddy Puddle Brewing. Southpaw’s small program allows him to experiment with a range of beers and collaborate with other brewers. House brews ($6) are balanced, readily drinkable crowd pleasers. Posey Pale Ale is subtly hoppy, Pisgah Rye Porter is complex without being heavy, and a Smoked Cream Ale is smooth with a smoke-tinged finish. As active members of SF Brewers Guild, which puts on the fantastic SF Beer Week (www.sfbeerweek.org) coming up February 8-17, Southpaw hosts intimate classes and tastings, like a collaboration beer pairing dinner with San Diego’s famed Stone Brewing on Feb. 11, one of the brewers they feature on their hand-selected draft menu.

In addition to beer, Southpaw founder-manager Edward Calhoun’s American whiskey selection and cocktails make fanatics like me smile. Growing up in his father’s North Carolina bar, Calhoun honed bar chops in three cities that know how to drink well: Savannah, New Orleans, San Francisco. Playful balance exemplifies the cocktails ($9), whether a Rye Old Fashioned sweetened by pecan syrup or Rescue Blues: smoky Scotch and Combier Rouge dancing with cocoa nib syrup. My favorites? Mishi’s Regret No. 2, hot with habanero, smoky with Mezcal, brightened by lemon and cassis, or cheekily-named Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari’s character on my beloved Parks & Recreation) where sarsaparilla-root beer notes of Root liquor intermingle with lemon and Shiraz wine. Get educated with whiskey flights ($12-16) grouped in themes like Peated American Single Malts or Bay Area Whiskey, or flights featuring a craft distillery like High West.

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

Southpaw BBQ 2170 Mission, SF. (415) 934-9300, www.southpawbbqsf.com

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A shot of warmth



APPETITE Let’s be clear: the Bon Vivants crew’s newly opened Trick Dog in the Mission — featuring a cocktail menu modeled after a Pantone swatch book — is the hot food and drink destination of the moment (see my early review on the Pixel Vision blog at SFBG.com). But slipping at the bar at these three restaurants, ranging from elegant to festive, offers some of SF’s best cocktails with incredible bites on a long winter’s eve.



It’s impossible to get a reservation at Rich Table, one of the most buzzed about restaurants in the country right now, but I find seats at the bar open up often on a Monday, and arriving when they open at 5:30pm is ideal.

With new bar manager Jason “Buffalo” LoGrasso (from Quince and Cotogna), already lovely cocktails expand from four-five offerings to seven on the regular and four on the dessert menu. After tasting every LoGrasso cocktail ($10), I’m in love with the Carnegie Martini. Inspiration is genius — a pastrami sandwich from Carnegie Deli, where my Dad took me for my first reuben as a teenager. LoGrasso combines elements of the ultimate sandwich into a clean, refreshing whole. Wisely using St. George’s Dry Rye Gin as a base, caraway comes in the form of Combier’s Doppelt Kummel Extra liqueur, an aromatic caraway liqueur redolent of cumin. LoGrasso adds drops of mustard oil and a pickle.

Other heights include a lively Shivered Timbers, red with pomegranate touched by ginger and cinnamon, evoking rhum agricole but using Smith & Cross Pot Still Rum. Top aperitif? Figaro Chain — bright, stimulating Swan’s Neck vodka, Averna, lemon, and ginger. Dessert cocktails shine, too. Rich Coffee is a harmonious blend of Fernet, Sightglass coffee, and pistachio cream. Carthusian Hot Cocoa sings with chocolate, Green Chartreuse, mint, and pineapple marshmallow.

Eat with: doughy, savory doughnuts ($7) topped with shaved dried porcini, the clincher being thick raclette dipping sauce. Amuse bouche “Dirty Hippie” elevates granola to gourmet with cool buttermilk panna cotta doused in pumpkin seeds, sprouts, and spices. Divine tajarin ($27) egg noodles (a Piedmont pasta style) in house cultured butter under shaved Perigord black truffles dissolve in the mouth. Sigh.

199 Gough, SF. (415) 355-9085, www.richtablesf.com



Carlo Splendorini has crafted some of the most elegant, balanced cocktails anywhere. In my travels sampling cocktails the world over, it’s rare to experience the precision and finesse Splendorini brings to drinks ($11-14). Prime example: the way barrel-aged Bols Genever and Beefeater Gin seamlessly weave with pine-y notes of Clear Creek Douglas Fir eau de vie, the earthiness of sencha green tea, brightened by tart yuzu, lemon, and grapefruit foam. This combination could easily go wrong, but it’s exquisitely layered. Similarly, Yamazaki 12-year Japanese whiskey, chamomile tea, and a spoonful of Yellow Chartreuse over a shiso leaf dramatically cast against a giant ice cube in a wine glass make a striking sipper.

Eat with: oysters brilliantly accented by drink sauces (Pimm’s Cup, Elderflower Fizz, Bloody Mary) instead of the usual mignonette, or a meaty Monterey bay abalone ($21) grilled over shiitakes, tokyo turnips, mirin-scented rice in a miso broth. A more affordable bar bite: Mina’s signature ahi tuna tartare starter ($19) doused in ancho chile, sesame oil, and mint is $10 during happy hour.

252 California St., SF. (415) 397-9222, www.michaelmina.net



With new chef Robin Song (formerly of Haven and Plum) on board, there are elevated touches to Hog & Rocks’ ever-approachable food, like a special of perch crudo ($14), delicate with nasturtium, puffed rice, minced Manila clams, and blood orange. This suits bar manager Michael Lazar’s robust yet refined cocktails just fine. Chef Song’s amuse bouche of buckwheat gougeres topped with warm, salty lardo is divine with Lazar’s Miller’s Meyer ($11), a vivid winter cocktail of Martin Miller’s Gin, Meyer lemon syrup, and herbaceous Elisir M.P. Roux liqueur lending whispers of anise, verbena, and lavender. My drink of choice is house Willett bourbon, a bracing 130 proof but cut with water. Rye spice and sweet corn notes meld perfectly in Lazar’s Old Fashioned with orange and Angostura bitters.

A refreshing Cider Press Buck ($11) showcases one of the most edible garnishes around: a spiced Arkansas black apple (preserved via Cryovac). This delicious garnish evolves with the seasons, atop Old Fitzgerald bourbon, lime, ginger, and Wandering Aengus dry pear cider, confirming the current cider craze. The Buck pairs with H&R’s always pleasurable ham platters ($16), now with Monte Nevado Jamon Serrano from Spain, Greci and Foizani Proscuitto from Italy, and a stunningly smoky ham exemplifying all I love best in Southern hams, Edwards Surryano from Virginia.

3431 19th St., SF. (415) 550-8627, www.hogandrocks.com

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Banchan, ramen, and squid innards



APPETITE Authentic Asian cuisine of every category is one of California and the Bay Area’s strengths, with constant new openings, including Richmond’s mellow Daigo Sushi (www.daigosushi.com) and Szechuan outpost Chili House (www.chilihousesf.com). These three spots stand out for one (or a few) reasons.



Passing Muguboka many a time over the years, I meant to visit but never did until recently. What I found: a humble, all-day respite serving an impressive array of free and abundant banchan (mini-dishes accompanying a Korean meal), like myeolchi bokkeum (crispy mini-anchovies), and bottomless tea — making even upper teens-priced entrees a deal. Dining alone, I attempted to finish the banchan… and fail.

There’s a plentiful selection of soups and stews featuring tofu or Korean sausage, and dishes like go dung uh gui (broiled salted mackerel), or hae-mool pajeon, those ever-fabulous seafood and green onion Korean pancakes. I finished with a complimentary, cool pour of sujeonggwa, a sweet Korean punch alive with cinnamon, ginger, peppercorns, and dried persimmon.

Best dish: Muguboka serves a mean hae-mool (seafood) dolsot (stone pot) bibimbop ($16.95), the scorching stone pot arrives with sizzling rice, egg, squid, shrimp, mussels, and veggies, with nori on top. Best suited for: A mellow setting with copious amounts of Korean food. Expect two meals for the price of one.

401 Balboa, (415) 668-6007



Here’s my early word on Rockridge hotspot Ramen Shop, opened at the beginning of the year and packed since day one with long waits (no reservations). A short, ever-changing menu offers three types of ramen, one dessert, and a handful of appetizers so it’s possible to try the entire menu in one visit.

Chez Panisse alums Sam White, Jerry Jaksich and Rayneil De Guzman already have a hit on their hands, if crowds are any indication. Although early online comments have been trending towards the “frustrated to spend $16 on a bowl of ramen” kind, this is quality ramen — house-made noodles, salt-cured eggs, ultra-fresh ingredients. Meyer lemon infuses shoyu ramen ($15) with bright dimension, while spit-roasted chashu (literally pork roast, often known as char siu) adds heft to particularly flavorful spicy miso ramen ($15).

But my favorites aren’t of the ramen variety. Meyer lemon shows up again in a unique kimchi of house-pickled Napa cabbage ($5) to winning effect, a spirited contrast to chili. Then, wild nettle fried rice steals the show (see “best dish” below). Another surprising winner? Liquor. It’s a rarity to see cocktails with ramen. Straightforward, refreshing mezcal, and rye-based punches ($10) make fine ramen companions, as does a classic hi-ball ($12) of Hibiki 12-year Japanese whiskey with soda. A nutty-tasting black sesame ice cream sandwich ($5) with brown sugar cookies is the right finish.

Best dish: Easy… wild nettle fried rice ($9) interlaced with Monterey Bay squid and Llano Seco pork is as comforting as it is gourmet. Best suited for: The joyous convergence of ramen and Japanese whiskey — and for those with time on their hands.

5812 College Ave., Oakl. (510) 788-6370, www.ramenshop.com



Since JapaCurry’s Jay Hamada opened Roku in October at the busy Market and Octavia intersection, it’s been imilarly bustling inside. Groups of friends down Japanese beer and fried chicken in the form of karaage ($7) or chicken nan ban ($8), the latter a specialty of Kyushu, Hamada’s Southern Japanese hometown island. Unframed vintage Japanese posters hanging on wood walls impart a warm atmosphere, as do hearty house-made noodles and dishes like mochi bacon yakitori.

During opening weeks, I went straight for dishes I’ve never tried, including shio-kara ($4): room temperature, fermented squid swimming in its own innards. Salty and gummy, it is, as the menu states,”an acquired taste.” Likewise, hotate butter ($12) topped with vivid orange tobiko (fish roe) is unexpected. Scallops are sautéed in butter, but unlike most of our Westernized experiences with the succulent bivalve, the stomach and membrane skirt are left around the scallop flesh. Call it umami, call it funky, the taste is more accurately both. Look elsewhere for better well-known izakaya favorites — Roku’s rare dishes with bold flavor make it interesting.

Best dish: a surprisingly good seafood salad ($13) in an izakaya, laden with red king crab and smoked salmon, tobiko, boiled eggs, yellow bell pepper, and tomatoes over romaine, bright in a yuzu wasabi dressing. Best suited for: The hardcore who want authentic dishes they won’t find on typical menus. Also for groups of friends.

1819 Market, SF. (415) 861-6500, www.rokusf.com

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APPETITE Tony’s Pizza Napoletana reigns for my favorite all-around pizza experience, because of its range of impeccable pies, from New York to Neapolitan. I’m no stranger to these categories, especially after years of living in what’s become a damn great pizza town. As an 11-time world pizza champion, Tony Gemignani has done the impossible: win 2007’s World Champion Pizza Maker prize at Italy’s World Pizza Cup, the only American and non-Neapolitan to do so. What makes Tony’s special is painstaking detail to which each style is prepared, right down to flour and ovens used, whether authentic versions of Detroit pizza cooked in a 550 degree gas oven, or a Jersey tomato pie that could make one weep with its garlic and tomato purity.

Enter Capo’s (“boss” in Italian), Gemignani’s new Chicago pizza endeavor. Consulting four scions of Chicago’s legendary pizza families (Marc Malnati of Lou Malnati’s, Leo Spitziri of Giordano’s, Jeff Stolfe from Connie’s, Tony Troiano of JB Alberto’s), he chose three ovens — one wood-fired and two brick, heated to different degrees depending on recipe — and is the only West Coast restaurant using Ceresota flour from one of Illinois’ oldest mills, a staple of Chicago’s most revered pizzerias.

Capo’s Prohibition-era setting (pressed tin ceiling included) is entirely my scene. From the doorman to a stylish host, it evokes a decades-old North Beach haunt, not a newcomer. Red leather booths named after Chicago mobsters, a functioning 1930’s telephone booth, a restored, 1960’s panoramic painting (found in the floor boards) of Adolf Restaurant once housed in the space… Capo’s is an ode to Chicago and San Francisco’s rich Italian-American immigrant history.

Sweet-spicy house Calabrese sausage ($18) in roasted peppers, caramelized onions, and light tomato cream sauce is dreamy. An antipasti platter ($12) feels sparse compared to antipasti “salads” of my New Jersey youth, dense with meat and cheese, but meats here are hand-sliced daily on an antique slicer in Capo’s front window. I rarely seeing Chicago specialties mostaccioli or conchiglie ($12 in pesto or tomato sauce, $13.50 in meat sauce) on West Coast menus; Tony’s mostaccioli is a beaut. Appropriately cheesy, baked in a wood-fired oven, red meat sauce seals the deal. Capo’s signature dish, quattro forni ($13), is limited to 20 a day due to the preparation required and well worth ordering. Like a glorified garlic bread, or as a waitress described it, doughnut, puffed bread is cooked four times in different ovens, doused in tomato sauce, mozzarella, garlic. If you have room and a warm whiskey crisp is available for dessert, get it.

Then there’s the pizza. While I’ve savored excellent thin crust in Chicago, even after multiple tries at original locations of legendary chains or solo favorites, I’ve yet to find deep dish remotely comparable to Capo’s or Bay Area deep dish havens, Zachary’s and Little Star. I won’t give up the hunt, but thus far for me eating deep dish here is better than going to Chicago (though I’d happily eat my way through Chicago any day).

Appropriate for a Chicago-influenced spot, there are four types of pies: deep dish, cast iron pan, stuffed, and cracker-thin ($17-35). You can’t go wrong. Meat blissfully dominates most pies (unless you build your own), whether folds of Italian beef, thinly shaved in authentic Chi-town fashion, or house Calabrese, fennel, or Italian sausages, shown off in the likes of the Sam Giancana or Old Chicago pies. Italian Stallion pizza, which I prefer in cracker-thin form, showcases Italian beef, heightened by a drizzle of horseradish cream and insanely good sweet-hot peppers you’ll find on a number of Capo’s pies. Flour-based crust gets texture and complexity from a dusting of cornmeal, while Tony reveals a key to its perfection: European butter and a bit of lard. Fresh cheese oozes, unlike chewy wads of low-quality mozzarella I’m faced with in some of Chicago’s venerable deep dish houses.

Elmer Mejicanos heads up a whiskey-centric bar program, housing over 100 American-dominant whiskies, while Tony mentions finding a few antique whiskey bottles dating back to the 1920s in the basement (when are we pouring?) Building your own Old Fashioned is a key menu focus, alongside a short-but-sweet cocktail list ($12). After trying every one on the menu, I’ve re-ordered only The Silencer. Carpano Antica takes the form of ice cubes melting in Campari, Seltzer Sister Soda and crystals of brandy — an ideally bitter, bright aperitif. A glass of Chianti or Montepulciano is well-suited to all that red sauce: Tony’s longtime business partner Marni McKirahan runs the wine program, also highlighting rare Midwest wineries.

If I seem to be gushing, perhaps I am. Visiting three times in the first month alone, I’ve sampled almost every listed pizza and cocktail. Some new openings are exciting, fresh, visionary. A spare few respect the past, even perfect it.

641 Vallejo, SF. (415) 986-8998, www.sfcapos.com

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We go together


APPETITE A celebratory or comforting drink is just what we crave at this time of year. When it comes with an excellent bite, even better. Here are a few of the most noteworthy drinks, winter cocktail menus, and dishes in SF as 2012 passes into 2013.



It’s not a cocktail, and its blowfish base has long been known as dangerous… but in skilled hands, is entirely safe. Ame Restaurant in The St. Regis serves this fugu (blowfish) fin sake, the most adventurous drink on order this winter. Yes, it’s infused with an actual toasted fugu fin resting in the bottom of a ceramic mug ($15 for 6 oz.), filled with warm Honjozo-style “Karatamba” sake from Japan’s Hyogo prefecture. In Japan, this torafugu is considered to be of the highest quality, the fins traditionally roasted and steeped in warm sake. I couldn’t miss a chance to taste the rarity when it came on the menu a few weeks ago — and it will be available through February 2013. On a brisk, clear winter’s night, it warmed me from within with rich, layered, funky, even umami notes.

Eat with: Sit at Ame’s small bar with a mug of blowfish fin sake accompanied by Ame’s now classic Lissa’s Staff Meal ($16.50), an artful bowl of cuttlefish noodles, appropriate soft and muscled, tossed with brightly fresh sea urchin and quail egg in soy and wasabi.

In the St. Regis Hotel, 689 Mission, SF. (415) 284-4040, www.amerestaurant.com



Launched on December 17, Blackbird’s winter menu offers the most sophisticated, satisfying cocktails in the Castro. Owner Shawn Vergara has been filling this needed niche on Market Street since opening Blackbird in 2009. This brand-new menu features some of Blackbird’s best drinks yet. I adore Italy’s sexy, sparkling red wine, Lambrusco. Here it’s a vibrant aperitif with pear-infused gin in the Poached Pear ($8), balanced by honey and lemon. Crimson King ($9) is another rosy, cool sipper of hibiscus-infused brandy, house pistachio orgeat, cranberry, and lemon. My tops on the new menu just might be Harvest Moon ($10). It’s a Bols Genever and Nocino (green walnut liqueur) base, sweetened with maple and pumpkin butter, balanced by lemon and Angostura bitters, softened with egg whites.

Eat with: Blackbird’s six different bar jars smeared on crispy crackers make for playful snacks, whether you opt for the smoked trout or deviled ham jars. I lean towards the pimento cheese jar laden with piquillo peppers and cheddar.

2124 Market, SF. (415) 503-0630, www.blackbirdbar.com



Running through the first week of January, 15 Romolo’s Sherry Christmas! explores the wonders of sherry in cocktails that don’t taste merely of sherry. The impressive range is no surprise from what has consistently remained one of the best cocktail menus in San Francisco — with damn great food, too. The menu features all sherry styles from fino to oloroso, which act as shining stars or subtle unifiers. Manzanilla sherry subtly backs gin in Gardner’s Delight ($10) next to celery bitters, Dolin blanc vermouth, lemon, and a house thyme shrub — a lively “delight”. White Elephant ($9) illumines white port, sherry vinegar. and spiced liqueur with manzanilla sherry, a dash of absinthe tying this refresher together. Typically when I see rye whiskey, Cynar, and amontillado sherry together, I expect a musky, fall-spiced drink. In the case of a Solstice Sour ($10), these elements are mixed with a light hand, touched with lemon and cinnamon syrup, a cocktail that manages to capture winter in an almost spring-like way. Here’s hoping these sherry beauties stay on past January.

Eat with: Chef Justin Deering added on a few Spanish inspired dishes to accompany sherry cocktails or half bottles of sherry, like gambas a la plancha (shrimp in garlic and lemon), juicy albondigas (beef-pork meatballs), and sherried mushrooms ($5-8).

5 Romolo Place, SF. (415) 398-1359, www.15romolo.com



Bar manager Kevin Diedrich and crew produced another all-star cocktail menu this season at Jasper’s Corner Tap. One of the most unusual, savory drinks you’ll run into anywhere is Diedrich’s Genki ($13), inspired by a dish he recently had at Makoto in DC. With a base of Del Maguey Vida mezcal balanced by Partida Blanco tequila and Combier orange liqueur, Diedrich adds Togarashi syrup, lime, egg white and Matcha salt. Genki is simultaneously spicy, perky, refreshing.

Though there’s many a joy (don’t miss the creamy-but-light, floral Rum Shaker, seamlessly mixing Bacardi 8 Rum, Shipyard Pumpkin Ale, lime, pumpkin syrup, cream, egg white, orange flower water), one of the most playful drinks is a bottled Here Comes the Fuzz! ($11). Charred peach is infused in Jasper’s house bourbon, bottled with Manzanilla sherry (sherry dominates this season!), honey, lemon, pomegranate molasses, peach bitters and Angostura Bitters. Fizzy and vivacious, charred peaches and sherry imbue a gorgeous, nutty hue.

Eat with: With the invigorating drinks above, a trio of deviled eggs ($8 or $4 each) is appropriately light but satisfying. Though deviled eggs seem to be everywhere the last couple years, this trio stays fun with heirloom tomato caprese, “Caesar salad”, chipotle-romesco.

401 Taylor, SF. (415) 775-7979, www.jasperscornertap.com

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Dishing 2012



APPETITE The past year saw a number of openings I hope will be around for years to come — here is my list, in order, of my favorites. As ever, my goal is to include more affordable spots alongside midrange or upscale openings, considering range and uniqueness. It being December, I cannot strictly cover the calendar year so, with each choice open at least two months, the opening date range goes back to October 2011 for a full year.


1. AQ

The one California restaurant nominated for Best New Restaurant in the US at this year’s James Beard Awards, AQ is my top selection for “the whole package.” While I find the food at the next two restaurants listed below equally inspiring, AQ combines food from talented young chef Mark Liberman, reinvented in delightfully surprising ways (think flavors of a pastrami sandwich turned on its head as shaved lamb heart “pastrami” with zucchini bread and house Thousand Island dressing), alongside an inventive cocktail list and accomplished bar staff. I’m still dreaming of this summer’s Maeklong Market Cocktail with a base of peanut-infused mekhong — a sugar cane, molasses, and rice-based Thai spirit — creamy with coconut milk, lime and kaffir lime leaves. As if this weren’t enough, the wine list shines and decor is the crowning touch in a two-level space with sexy downstairs lounge for private parties, plus greenery, glassware, and a bar top that changes with the season. When I’m asked (constantly) where to go by locals and visitors, AQ easily fits the bill for delicious, forward-thinking cuisine with warm service: a destination for both food and drink, with thoughtful attention to the environs.

1085 Mission, SF. (415) 341-9000, www.aq-sf.com



Since Bon Appetit named State Bird Provisions best new restaurant in America this year, none of us can get a reservation in the small, modest space with pegboard and stone walls (like dining in a funky family garage). What makes State Bird so special, besides efficient, engaging service and husband-wife team Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski’s genuine welcome (they often greet diners themselves as they pass by the kitchen in the entrance), is that it’s something truly different. Affordable, unique, and imaginative plates flowing out dim sum-style on carts and trays, ever playful and satisfying — a prime example of what makes SF’s dining scene so exciting right now.

1529 Fillmore, SF. (415) 795-1272, www.statebirdsf.com



From another husband-wife duo, Evan and Sarah Rich’s Rich Table could easily be number one for food alongside State Bird and AQ. All three restaurants boast an uncommon vision in their cooking — Rich Table’s is one of an upscale nature in comfort food garb. Presentation can be exquisite, but the dishes gratify and assuage rather than feel fussy. Getting past the (worthy) din about those sardine-laced potato chips to start, pastas are unexpectedly one of the restaurant’s highlights, a duck lasagne layered with braised duck, light béchamel, and tart Santa Rosa plums, easily standing out as one of the best dishes of the year. Though short and sweet, the 4-5 cocktails on offer (now being updated by brand new bar manager Jason “Buffalo” LoGrasso from Cotogna) are clean, simple-yet-vivid stars in their own right.

199 Gough, SF. (415) 355-9085, www.richtablesf.com



A neighborhood diner and soda fountain, Ice Cream Bar deserves accolades for bringing us the kind of soda fountain menu unmatched in the country, yet sure to be copied. Recipes and practices date back to the 1800s with modern sensibility, showcased in drinks like the Bonne Vie No. 2, a citrus-garden delight of basil leaves, basil ice cream, and pink grapefruit, its sour-fresh qualities glorified with citric acid. There are boozy fountain drinks (like a perfect Angostura Phosphate), ice cream (the tart cherry remains my favorite), and darn good sandwiches (egg salad and tuna) on house brioche, with the soda fountain manned by gifted, friendly soda jerks who live and breathe the history of the craft.

815 Cole, SF. (415) 742-4932, www.theicecreambarsf.com



With the food world in Scandinavian mode the last few years (the cuisine to take over where the El Bulli world of Spain ruled for so long), it’s a shame we haven’t had much Scandinavian food to speak of here, particularly of the nouveau wave à la Fäviken or Noma. Pläj (pronounced “play”) is gourmet-traditional Scandinavian fare with modern sensibilities from chef-owner Roberth Sundell, a Stockholm native. In the mellow Inn at the Opera, it’s a respite of a dinner with sincere service, shining particularly bright with seafood in the menu’s Fjord section. Herring trios, Swedish meatballs, Norwegian salmon belly gravlax and rounds of aquavit… I’ve been waiting for this one and hope it opens the door for more.

333 Fulton, SF. (415) 294-8925, www.plajrestaurant.com



Don’t just call it a bakery. Craftsman & Wolves is a heightened sort of cafe where baked goods push boundaries and desserts are works of art. William Werner’s artistic eats, alongside sandwiches and salads, Sightglass Coffee, Naivetea, and dreamy drinking caramel made with salted butter, ensure this is an extraordinary addition to the SF food scene, standing apart from other cafes. Skylights, brick and clean lines make for a modern cafe setting, while items like the Rebel Within, an herb, cheese, sausage-studded muffin with a sous vide egg hidden inside, are already cult classics.

746 Valencia, SF. (415) 913-7713, www.craftsman-wolves.com



This sushi duo isn’t perfect, nor will either be the best sushi meal of your life. But in their infancy, they both represent the ideal neighborhood sushi outposts: friendly, laid back, almost hip, with spanking fresh fish and consistently interesting maki, nigiri, sashimi, tasting spoons (at Saru), and sizzling mango seabass (at Elephant). With a glass of sake, try firm-yet-silky squid in yuzu juice at Saru or bananas draped beautifully over Elephant’s Boom Box roll with scallop, avocado, and cucumber. Those lucky souls who live near either restaurant have themselves exemplary neighborhood sushi bars at which to unwind.

Saru: 3856 24th St., SF. (415) 440-4510

Elephant: 1916 Hyde, SF. (415) 440-1905, www.elephantsushi.com



Mission Bowling Club (MBC) is significant: until now no bowling alley served food this good. Hipster, even upscale for a bowling alley, the open, industrial space, large front patio, and downstairs and upstairs dining rooms (the latter oversees the action) add up to a striking setting for Anthony Myint — he of Mission Chinese Food and Mission St. Food, no less — to unleash his beloved Mission Burger, a rich, granulated patty, lathered in caper aioli. Entrees like blackened salmon on a potato latke marked by salmon roe, cucumber, and horseradish are listed alongside a juicy sausage corn dog dipped in habanero crema. Bowling never tasted this sublime.

3176 17th St., SF. (415) 863-2695, www.missionbowlingclub.com



Despite being open only three days a week for lunch, with just-added Saturday night dinner service (reserve ahead!), FuseBOX is my favorite East Bay addition this year because of its unique approach to Asian cuisine. Such limited hours in a remote West Oakland block makes it a meal you have to work to get to, but the fusion of Korean and izakaya-style Japanese from Sunhui and Ellen Sebastian Chang is a welcoming, tiny haven (with large front patio) for creative Asian fare often in bite-size format allowing ample tasting. There are rotating robata bites or kimchee from bok choy to kale, interesting panchan/banchan (mini-dishes often accompanying a Korean meal), hamachi tartare topped with lime caviar, Tokyo po boys, and an unforgettable bacon mochi. And who else offers kimchee and coffee service with Korean beignets?

2311A Magnolia, Oakl., (510) 444-3100, www.fuseboxoakland.com



Gioia Pizzeria (2240 Polk, SF. (415) 359-0971, www.gioiapizzeria.com) for bringing Berkeley’s best NY pizza to SF; CatHead’s BBQ (1665 Folsom, SF. (415) 861-4242, www.catheadbbq.com) for some of the better BBQ in our city (“real deal” Southern BBQ being difficult to come by outside of the South); Abbott’s Cellar (742 Valencia, SF. (415) 626-8700, www.abbotscellar.com) for one of the best beer menus anywhere and elevated food to accompany it in a sleek-rustic dining room; Orexi (243 West Portal, SF. (415) 664-6739, www.orexisf.com) for daring to bring satisfying Greek food to our Greek-deficient dining scene; St. Vincent (1270 Valencia, SF. (415) 285-1200, www.stvincentsf.com) for a wine and beer geek’s dream menu partnered with forward-thinking interpretations of regional American dishes; Machka (584 Washington, SF. (415) 391-8228, www.machkasf.com) for a chic take on Turkish food.

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APPETITE West Portal has long warmed my heart. Maybe it’s the removed setting, tucked in the shadow of Twin Peaks where T line ends and the M emerges. Or it’s a sense of stepping back in time to a 1970s San Francisco, a sleepy area unfazed by trends and hipsterization. It’s a family neighborhood, residential and small town in feel — and like any corner of our city, has its food gems, like old school blue cheese buffalo burgers at charmingly dated Bulls Head, or vividly fresh sandwiches and salads at the original location of Market and Rye.

For the past couple months, West Portal residents have been flocking to Orexi, which has quickly made a name for itself and is bustling even on weeknights. It’s Greek… sadly a rarity in the Bay Area despite a plethora of Mediterranean eateries. The upscale Kokkari has long been the Greek queen of San Francisco (sister restaurant Evvia rules Palo Alto) and it has no equal. Downtown’s Ayola also offers Greek favorites, but on the cheaper side. Yet I find myself longing for restaurants like Taverna Kyclades in Astoria, Queens, a mid-range, family-style seafood Greek restaurant typical of New York City’s famed Greek neighborhood, convivial with families, rounds of crisp, Greek white wines, and platters of octopus and grilled fish.

Orexi is a step in the right direction — a comfortable, mid-range neighborhood Greek restaurant using quality ingredients. Owners John and Effie Loufas have created an approachable dining experience — I ate here a couple weeks after opening, returning again one month later to the same waiter who remembered a wine I ordered the month before and a busser who recalled the shirt my husband was wearing last visit. No wonder they’re securing repeat diners.

The understated dining room is chic rather than rustic, warm with a honeycomb-like wall hanging and mirrors reflecting the room’s glow. As for the food, first the bad news: grilled octopus ($11 — there’s also an octopus salad for $12.50), typically a favorite of mine, is a bit rubbery over arugula, while gigantes ($7) baked white beans, suffer from blandness but for a dousing of appropriately sweet-savory tomato sauce and crumbled feta on top.

My appetite (the meaning of the Greek word “orexi”) is satiated in unexpected places. House pita bread arrives humbly from the oven, belying its addictive nature, gratifying with small scoops of house dips ($6 each), my favorite being a salty taramosalata, a creamy, fish roe spread laden with olive oil and lemon. The eggplant dip, melitzanosalata, is a balanced expression of the vegetable’s smoky notes, while I wish tyrokafteri, a spicy feta spread dotted with jalapeno, was actually spicy.

Zucchini fritters ($7) with tzatziki (a tangy cucumber yoghurt dip) are a solid starter. Lamb riblets ($9) or lamb carpaccio ($10.75) step it up in tenderness and meaty (not gamey) flavor. In terms of entrees, I’m smitten with homey moussaka ($17). Layers of ground lamb and beef meld with allspice and stewed eggplant under creamy bechamel sauce, reminiscent of the melty, homemade lasagna of my childhood. Simple and also enticing, the “signature” rotisserie chicken ($17) is a generous half-bird (free range, thank you very much), over greens and unremarkable potatoes, marinated in lemon, oil, and spices, tender inside, with slightly crispy, oregano-laced skin.

In the mix with zippy Greek whites and California wines, the wine list holds a rare treat (and I always head straight for the unusual): retsina. Retsina ($6 a glass at Orexi) is a thousands year old Greek tradition of white or rose wine aromatized with pine resin (used to seal ancient wine vessels from excess oxygen). As you might imagine, pine resin gives the wine a foresty flavor, which some describe as turpentine or sap: “Not for everyone,” our waiter clarifies. Its herbal green notes work beautifully with the roasted chicken.

Orexi’s amiable welcome and candelit glow is comfortably gratifying, like slipping on a pair of slippers by the fire. Thankfully not about “the scene” or the next hot trend, the restaurant is about well-executed comfort food in a neglected category with effortless service paramount.


Tue.-Thu., 5-9:30pm; Fri.-Sat. 5pm-10:30pm, Sun. 5pm-9:30pm, closed Mon.

243 W. Portal Ave.





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