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Restaurant Review

If on a winter’s night …



Chef Magnus Nilsson of lauded restaurant Fäviken Magasinet in the furthest reaches of northern Sweden recently sledded into town to cook up a cutting-edge rustic 12-course meal with Chef Daniel Patterson at Coi, Patterson’s Michelin two-star Mecca of California cuisine. Nilsson’s new book Fäviken (Phaidon) lavishly illustrates why food editors and writers trek hours to his secluded spot for elemental yet exquisite dishes utilizing ingredients like lichen, moss, and open-fired meats. The unique tastes and earthy experiences — conjured with Bay Area ingredients that Nilsson and Patterson foraged for themselves the morning of the showcase meal — were unreal. Here are some highlights.

All photos by Virgina Miller, www.theperfectspotsf.com

Rich Table



APPETITE Not since State Bird Provisions and AQ opened towards the end of 2011 have I been as excited about an opening. Evan and Sarah Rich’s new Rich Table is, kinks and all, even in the first month, well-rounded and satisfying. With efficient, informed service, reasonably priced wine list, few but well-crafted cocktails, a comfortable dining room with rustic-urban decor, and most importantly, a number of exquisite dishes, Rich Table is primed for greatness.

The Riches, a husband-and-wife chef duo, both worked at Bouley in New York and Coi here in San Francisco. Evan was also at Quince, Sarah at Michael Mina — and the couple hosted memorable pop-up dinners at Radius last fall. This fine dining pedigree infuses their mid-range menu. At other restaurants, dishes don’t often surprise beyond a menu reading. But here numerous dishes are more fascinating than their descriptions suggest. At AQ, dishes are works of art unfolding in layers of unexpected flavor. At Rich Table, there’s an approachable comfort elevated with refined nuances.

On the light bites side, everyone (and I mean everyone) has been buzzing about paper-thin potato chips ($7) with sardines interwoven through the center, dipped in horseradish cream. I’m a big sardine fan : these are not overrated, worth ordering every time. I brushed past Castelvetrano olives ($5) as common — thankfully a dining companion ordered them on one visit. Brightened by celery leaves and preserved lemon, the olives pop.

On an early visit, popcorn soup ($10) tasted like buttery, pureed popcorn in a bowl. Yuzu kosho (a fermented paste of chili peppers and yuzu rind) perks up the creamy bowl. Outstanding squid dishes ($14) morph with seasonal ingredients. The first incarnation wowed, the plump squid lively with watermelon yet simultaneously savory in black olive vinaigrette, dotted with crispy onions. This sweet-tangy, fresh-grilled dish was such a joy, I couldn’t help but be a little let down by its successor: squid with figs, crisp onions and lardon draped across the top. The breezy luminosity brought by the melon felt a bit weighted down with figs, though still a winning dish. Crushed peas ($14) with California yellowtail and saltine crackers to scoop up is vivaciously fresh, but comes in a slight (i.e. miniscule) serving.

The menu is not easily categorized nor a copycat of anyone, but is packed with pleasures peeking out in unforseen places. Case in point? The pasta. I could come here for pasta alone (one dinner I ordered all four pasta dishes on the ever-changing menu). None shines more than a divine duck lasagna ($19). A smile crosses my face just thinking of delicate, melting sheets of pasta, layered with braised duck, light béchamel, and tart Santa Rosa plums. It’s a glorious pasta dish with no equal in this town… or in any other. Other pasta dishes may not reach these heights but each is worthwhile, even excellent, whether rigatoni bolognese ($18) elevated by bone marrow and crispy kale or beets, or spaghetti ($18) tossed with Jimmy Nardello peppers and clams.

On the entree front, lichen-poached rabbit ($25) is heartwarming as it is gourmet, mingling with cippolini onions, radicchio leaves and broccoli raabe. Pork belly panzanella ($24) is the classic Italian bread salad of tomato, basil, cucumber and toasted bread cubes tossed with fatty pork belly, though I took to a hearty tomato-braised oxtail on toast ($25) even more. While accompanying grilled octopus and collard greens seemed disparate, the meaty toast alone makes it worthwhile, as satisfying as Southern BBQ.

Sarah Rich’s desserts (all $8) maintain the comfort-meets-craft spirit of the restaurant from a bright melange of chilled melon to caramelized olive oil cake in strawberries, a heightened strawberry shortcake. Panna cotta lovers shouldn’t miss Sarah’s silky rendition with changing seasonal accents.

Wines are priced by glass, carafe or bottle, conveniently grouped in three white and three red price categories, with strong options like 2010 Christian Moreau Chardonnay from Burgundy, or a 2011 COS Frappato from Sicily. The cocktail list ($10 each) is short — no more than four or five at a time — and I’ve sampled six different ones. While some fare better than others (the Barn Wood, with Buffalo Trace bourbon and bitters, was a bit too musky-sweet from stone fruits), most offer understated elegance, actually different than other cocktail menus in simple purity.

The star is the lush, green Big Night, which looks like a healthy, green veggie drink, but is subtly smoky Del Maguey Vida mezcal mixed with nasturtium and ginger, topped with an edible flower. It’s clean, strong, memorable. As is Land’s End, the Riches’ answer to a martini, using the incomparable St. George Terroir Gin, dry vermouth and foraged Monterey cypress. On the light, soft side, Let’s Go is a refreshing sipper of Encanto pisco, coconut water and lime.

Sarah, Evan, and the engaged staff serve a warm vibe at their table in Hayes Valley — and an ever unexpected menu that focuses simultaneously on flavorful comfort and elegant simplicity.


199 Gough, SF.

(415) 355-9085


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Aim for these



APPETITE Most memorable restaurants boasts an overarching standard of quality to their menus. Other times, one dreams of specific items from certain spots. Here are a few places worth trekking out to for unique dream dishes.



Lasagna… there are few foods as evocative of my childhood. Until now, Gaspare’s in the Outer Richmond was typically where I’d get my old school lasagna fix. Since May, though, Dogpatch now has a lasagneria, of all fantastic things. Marcella’s Lasagneria and Cucina is a humble corner shop selling Chef Massimo’s aioli spreads (like black truffle or spicy Chardonnay) and other housemade food products, paninis, soups, and pizzas for eating in or taking out. Best of all, six kinds of lasagna to choose from.

Jovial Massimo hails from Italy’s Abruzzo region (I’m charmed by the 1980s-looking photo of him above the counter in chef’s hat with a glass of wine), who regales with tales of early kitchen work and family. The shop is named after his daughter, while his friendly son sometimes works the counter. On a typical visit (open weekdays, 11:30am-7pm), lasagna options are butternut squash, bolognese, wild mushroom, spicy eggplant, spicy sausage, and pesto zucchini. I buy a whole lasagna for a family birthday — yes, it’s celebratory-good — and bring home three slices for dinner (8.50 each), reveling in savory-sweet red sauce and ultra-thin pasta sheets redolent with but not overcome by ricotta and mozzarella.

Butternut squash lasagna is typically white, so that the squash shines. Here it still does, while benefiting from a bit of red sauce. Earthy wild mushroom, spicy eggplant or pesto ricotta are winning. I like classic Bolognese best, the version my mother used to make. Massimo corners lassagna balance: there’s never too much of any one ingredient. The entirety melts in your mouth, as heartwarming as your Italian mama’s cookinge.

1099 Tennessee, SF. (415) 920-2225, www.marcellaslasagneria.com



There are not many Thai joints in the Marina (Yukol Place has been keeping it real for years), and certainly not one like Blackwood. High ceilings and shades of black and grey set a chic tone, while non-traditional dishes like mushroom egg rolls and unfortunately named Marina Strips — Wagyu beef strips wrapped in baby hearts of palm — fill the menu. Many dishes are larger, more artfully arranged, versions of typical Thai dishes, like papaya salad or Pad See Ew (spelled Pad See You). Thai fusion is apparent in a Thai Wagyu burger ($12) on brioche loaded with a Thai salad of cucumber, carrot, cilantro, sesame. Or in generous, sizzling stone pots ($14-16), akin to Koran bibimbap filled with rice, veggies, meat of choice (I like crispy red snapper in plum dressing), topped with a fried egg.

However, the one destination item is merely a $5 add-on to a breakfast platter (served daily, 8am-4pm). And what an add-on! Blackwood’s only been open since June, but the millionaire’s bacon has already been named on the Discovery Channel Destination America’s United States of Food. Two hefty strips of bacon are dense, shimmery, chewy beauties, caramelized and slightly sweet and smoky. Despite bacon burn-out over the past decade, with bacon gracing every dessert and dish possible, these juicy strips renew and refresh the love, reminiscent of Southern ham in gourmet jerky-like form.

2150 Chestnut, SF. (415) 931-9663, www.blackwoodsf.com



Bluestem Brasserie is no run-of-the-mill downtown shopping break. In fact, it has improved since opening in summer 2011, honing in on its menu, house charcuterie, and whole-animal butchery practices (no part goes to waste). With new executive chef Francis Hogan, there is fresh life in the space frequented by tourists, shoppers, and the Moscone Center crowd. While wine on tap, grass-fed beef, and whole-animal practices are common in SF at large, being centrally situated downtown between SoMa and Union Square, Bluestem is exposing a new range of clientele to the delicious taste of sustainability.

Besides satisfying house pâté (on the charcuterie platter) of pork, pistachio, and the like, a whole roasted branzino ($29) is flaky, perked up with roasted summer chilis or your choice of side, while grass-fed six-ounce filet ($31) or 12-ounce ribeye ($34) steaks are appropriately tender, medium rare, with choice of sauce ($3.75), like bourbon espresso or horseradish-roasted garlic cream. The dish I found myself trekking back for whether at lunch or dinner is Calabrian chile spaghettini ($19). Though I would prefer some heat from Calabrian chiles (I detected none), the heaping bowl of pasta is topped with Early Girl tomatoes, arugula, and basil — the pièce de résistance being melted burrata flowing over the pasta in lush waves. A gentle zesting of lemon rind perfects it. Dessert ($9.50) is no afterthought. The Peaches and Herb “Reunited” sundae was a layered summer treat, but the jar filled with mini-cookies baked in-house, including lemon sugar and peanut butter, made me feel like a kid again. There were so many cookies, I finished the rest for breakfast the next day with coffee.

One Yerba Buena Lane, SF. (415) 547-1111, www.bluestembrasserie.com


In FiDi, a Turkish gem



APPETITE With the Guardian’s recent move to the Financial District, I’ve frequented downtown haunts, returning to old favorites, discovering new gems. Humble, tiny spaces like La Fusion (475 Pine, SF. www.lafusion-sf.com) delight with Peruvian-influenced Nuevo Latino dishes, including rotisserie chicken and warm bread salad, vivid ceviches, cinnamon-clove inflected sangria, and fried empanadas dipped in huacatay sauce and piquillo pepper aioli. However, the biggest standout of new FiDi dining spots has been an upscale Turkish restaurant, Machka.

Walking up to Machka, directly across from the Transamerica Building behind a line of motorcycle and Vespa parking, you feel as if you’ve stumbled upon a chic cafe in Rome. In fact, Machka is Turkish, with a brick-walled dining room with massive chandelier, whose lighting casting an appealing glow on fellow diners, while a flat screen plays classic Turkish films, like Kirik Plak (1959), visible through a glass wall from inside the restaurant.

Machka was just opened in July by lawyer Farshad Owji and his wife Sibel. The chef is Reynol Martinez, who served those delightful duck confit tacos and some of SF’s best fish tacos at Potrero Hill hidden gem, Papito. (He also cooked at Globe, Aperto, and Epic Roasthouse.) Service is one of Machka’s strong suits, including the professionally engaging warmth of Jessica — who was a server at Nopa — or Gulhan, who recently moved here from Turkey, his gracious hospitality setting a familial tone. P.S. he’s also an inspiring reader of Turkish coffee grounds.

Starting with the SF standard — locally sourced, mostly organic ingredients — one journeys to Turkey in rare form. Although there have long been hole-in-the-wall treasures like A La Turca in the Tenderloin or the Mission’s mid-range Tuba, the Turkish list has been short. Machka fills a gap, faring well with both traditional and creative Turkish. In the meze-starter realm, pistachio-crusted goat cheese ($11) is easy to lap up. Spread the subtle, soft cheese, crunchy with pistachios, over toasts, sweet and savory with caramelized onions, golden raisins and wildflower honey. There’s only a handful of lamb tartare dishes in town (Gitane’s being one of the best), and Machka’s version ($13) is brightly gratifying, tossed in mint, grainy mustard and argan oil, with haricot verts.

Tender, grilled octopus ($13) is mixed with chickpeas and celery, doused in lemon and olive oil — it’s a delicate smattering of celery leaves that adds a garden-fresh aspect to my favorite invertebrate. Blue cheese and chorizo-stuffed dates ($9) are a crowd-pleaser, particularly wrapped in pastirma (Armenian cured beef) in a sherry wine-mustard vinaigrette. The only missteps seemed to be a bowl of fava beans ($10) which sounded like the ideal veggie dish, mixed with English peas, snap peas, cilantro, mint, sumac in lemon and a smoked paprika vinaigrette, but was surprisingly bland. A traditional fattoush salad ($11) was likewise humdrum, a mere couple tomatoes, cucumbers and pita crisps unable to bring the greens to life.

On the entree side, I crave the durum (flatbread) wrap ($12) to-go when I don’t have time sit down and savor the restaurant’s soothing setting. I love the falafel wrap (also available as a $9 starter), laced with cacik (light, seasoned yogurt), pickled cucumber, lettuce, grilled red onions, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and tahini sauce. The elements weave together into the ideal wrap: fresh, textured, filling — also available with chicken, lamb or beef. Speaking of lamb, Machka does it right: as a burger ($15), curry-marinated in a kebab over rice pilaf (one skewer $13, two $26), or in my top choice, a marinated ground beef and lamb sausage, the adana kebab.

Chef Martinez displays vision in entrees like a seared branzino ($25). The flaky fish is interspersed with roasted fennel and cherry tomatoes, which taste like another glorious fruit altogether — sweet, sour, fantastic — roasted in a balsamic pomegranate reduction. It’s an elegant entree that takes an unexpected turn with the tomatoes.

The wine list ($9 for a five ounce glass, $14 for eight ounce) includes interesting Turkish wines, like an acidic, zippy 2010 Kavaklidere Cankaya Emir from Ankara, and from the same producer, a balanced, fruity red: 2011 Kavaklidere Yakut Okuzgozu. Another wine that worked well with starters was a tropical fruit-laden 2011 Pinot Gris from New Zealand, The Ned.

You couldn’t do better than a dessert of kunefe (or kanafeh, an Arab cheese crusted in shredded pastry, often phyllo dough — Jannah in the Western Addition also makes a beauty of a version). Soft, white cheese oozes from crisp, shredded phyllo soaked in honey and rosewater syrup, a finish sweet and satisfying as the overall experience in this latest Turkish respite.

Matchka 584 Washington, SF. 415-391-8228 www.machkasf.com

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Cocktail harvest



APPETITE Judging a cocktail contest in Calistoga and sampling Wine Country cocktails early in 2011, I witnessed a rise in quality congruent with the cocktail renaissance exploding across the nation, beyond longtime torchbearers like SF and NYC. This is especially notable in tourist-heavy Wine Country, where shaking off the all-consuming culture of the grape is an uphill battle (so local bartenders tell me). Although you won’t see many cocktail bars opening up, restaurants continue to refine their cocktails and spirits selections. You’ll now find a few city-quality drinks among the vineyards. Here are two intriguing spots in Napa, perfect for harvest-time exploration.



Scott Beattie has long been considered the number one talent in Wine Country — he crafted exquisite cocktails in sleepy, chic Healdsburg at Cyrus long before many of the country’s big cities had clued in, leading the way in farm-fresh, artisanal cocktails (see his book, Artisanal Cocktails, www.scottbeattiecocktails.com), torching kumquats and crisping apple slivers from his backyard as garnishes.

When Beattie left Spoonbar to take over the bar at St. Helena’s Goose and Gander, which opened in April, Sonoma’s loss was Napa’s gain. Goose and Gander is in the former Martini House in a 90-year-old craftsman bungalow with idyllic yard and patio. Red walls, bookshelves, brown leather booths, fireplaces, wood ceilings and floors impart a charming hunting lodge feel. Beattie works alongside talent like Michael Jack Pazdon, who previously supervised the bar program at SolBar and has won numerous cocktail contests. Beattie, Pazdon, and crew serve fantastic drinks from a handful of cocktails (all $11) on the regular menu. Ask for “the book” for a more extensive selection — and peruse an impressive spirits collection lining the bar.

The Mellivora Capensis (a.k.a. honey badger) is a prime example of Beattie-style cocktails: Eagle Rare 10 year bourbon, honey, and lemon sound like a classic base, but it gets interesting with a touch of peat from Ardbeg Scotch, pineapple, black cardamom, and chili, with coconut foam contributing texture, and edible flowers the crowning touch. A Cucumber Collins (Square One cucumber vodka, yuzu, lemon, fresh and pickled cucumber, huckleberries, seltzer) is classic Beattie: striking visuals, artfully refreshing.

Executive Chef Kelly McCown’s food is notable. Spicy whole blue prawns ($16) are large and juicy, skillet-roasted brown, swimming in shallot garlic butter, rosemary, and chilis over polenta. A bright crudo of Hawaiian lemon snapper ($17) is lined up next to heirloom tomatoes dotted with shaved tomatillos and sea beans. As a twist on the ever-gratifying wedge salad, a Berkshire pork belly “wedge” ($15) is an understandable hit: a disc of iceberg topped with a hefty chunk of pork belly and Shaft’s blue cheese dressing. Jersey cow’s milk ricotta gnocchi ($18) melt joyously in the mouth, intermingling with cherry tomatoes, basil, and tomato coulis, crowned by a light Parmesan crisp. Goose and Gander is the whole package and works both as a romantic date locale or relaxed stop for bite and drink.

1245 Spring, St. Helena. (707) 967-8779, www.goosegander.com



Follow the vintage neon signage of the former Fagiani’s, where The Thomas opened just last month in a 1909 building restored by New York’s AvroKO Hospitality Group. First visiting during opening week, I dined on the partially covered third floor terrace (although housing a second bar, this floor is for diners only) gazing out over downtown Napa. As the sun set over the river below, rooftops and hills peeking above the the deck, I was transported to Europe, a timeless moment on a summer night.

I was immediately hooked, but I’m waiting to see how the place evolves, particularly with just-launched brunch and recently named bar manager Jim Wrigley of London’s Albannach and the Lonsdale. During my visit, AvroKO cocktail director Naren Young was in town serving drinks from the menu he co-created with Linden Pride, with whom he runs Saxon+Parole in NY. Drinks are classic, simple, playful with the ubiquitous (though not so much in Napa) Negroni on tap ($12), and a generous White Manhattan on tap ($15), utilizing Death’s Door white whiskey, white vermouth, kirschwasser, jasmine bitters. An ideal aperitif is Jasmine ($14), made of Campari, Beefeater Gin, Combier triple sec and lemon juice. Dessert was a winning round of a Grasshopper and an elegant whiskey cocktail with biscotti, ideal alongside dreamy dark chocolate pot de creme with cookies or decadent monkey bread.

Though it’s a bit too early to call, there’s plenty to enjoy on Executive Chef Brad Farmerie’s casual, comfortable American food menu. (he’s formerly of The Public in NYC.) On a warm night with an icy-cool White Manhattan, a raw bar seafood tower (mini $22, medium $67, large $125) suited perfectly with a sampling of East and West Coast oysters, smoked mussels, Dungeness crab, and plump shrimp. Grilled chorizo sausage ($13.50) was lively, with txiki cheese, black bean chocolate puree, and padron peppers.

The three-story space has a big city energy, with much of the staff from NY, imparting a welcome cosmopolitan vibe atypical of the area. The bottom floor boasts a vintage oak bar and pressed-tin ceiling, which looks like it’s been there for 100 years, in keeping with the historicity of the building, freshly incarnated.

813 Main, Napa, 707-226-7821, www.thethomas-napa.com

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Beer for dinner



BEER + WINE Craft beers are in their heyday, alongside craft everything else — it only makes sense that they would begin to take prominence on local menus next to intricately prepared and finely sourced dishes. San Francisco beer luminary Dave McLean has been brewing Magnolia beers, among my favorites anywhere, at his Upper Haight brewpub for nearly 15 years, now expanding to a new Dogpatch location. Like Magnolia, modern classic Monk’s Kettle in the Mission has focused since its 2007 opening on serving food to match its beer offerings, and new Maven in Lower Haight is innovative in its extensive beer-food pairings menu. (And we haven’t forgotten more casual beer-and-sausage options like Gestalt and Toronado-Rosamunde.) Now, two new restaurants arrive where food is equally important to beverage, with exciting beer slants.



Opened in May with great wine world buzz, St. Vincent is owned by sommelier David Lynch, known for his impeccable wine list at Quince. Accordingly, the wine list at St. Vincent (named not for the popular indie musician but for a third-century Spanish deacon known as the patron saint of winemakers) is global and excellent, with many bottles in the $30–$50 range, plus affordable by-the-glass pours like a crisp, floral 2011 Domaine de Guillemarine Picpoul de Pinet.

Wisely, Lynch brought on beer director (and certified cicerone) Sayre Piotrkowski, whose brings his beer knowledge and keen eye for the unusual from his former position at Monk’s Kettle. Piotrkowski has made spot-on drink recommendations on every visit, and the friendly staff are well-versed on the menu. I’ve tasted many of the eight rotating beers on draft, like those from Oakland’s Linden Street and Dying Vines breweries, or delightful beers from tiny Pasadena micro-brewery Craftsman Brewing Co., including a Triple White Sage Belgian-Style Tripel or a 1903 Lager, pre-Prohibition style. Splurge for a $22 bottle of fascinating Birrificio del Ducato’s Verdi Russian Imperial Stout, spicy with hot chile from Parma, Italy. ($11 if you can find it at liquor store extraordinaire Healthy Spirits, btw.)

New Jersey native Chef Bill Niles (most recently of Bar Tartine) exhibits a strong dose of New Southern in his California cooking. Although dishes like she-crab soup ($14), utilizing sea urchin, sugar snap peas and Carolina gold rice in a corn-lobster chowder, or rabbit burgoo ($24), a mélange of white turnips, baby green okra, white corn grits, and rabbit loin sausage with unusual lamb’s quarter herb, are nothing like the she-crab soups I’ve loved in South Carolina or the burgoo stews I’ve dined on in Kentucky, Niles has reinterpreted the regional dishes with care — and a distinctly West Coast ethos.

Beet-horseradish or curry pickled eggs ($3 each) are a predictably a good time, while a hand-rolled pretzel with mustard and butter ($5) is a bit small and forlorn. I searched for the listed clothbound cheddar in the baked Vidalia onion soup ($9), where even onions didn’t impart the hoped-for flavor intensity. Rarely-seen, ultra-salty Welsh laverbread ($18) is a hunk of Tartine wheat bread lathered in Pacific sea laver (seaweed), Manila clams, and hen of the woods mushrooms, ideal with beer. Entrees like roasted duck leg ($22), surrounded by buttered rye berries, griddled stonefruit, celery, and pickled mustard are heartier, but, unexpectedly, I preferred a vegetarian entree: an herb-laden spring succotash ($18) of butter beans, white corn, and dandelion, perfected with padron peppers.

Though St. Vincent’s food voice feels like it’s still finding itself, I appreciate that it is not the same iteration of gastropub food we’ve seen a thousand times over.

1270 Valencia, SF. 415-285-1200, www.stvincentsf.com



Abbot’s Cellar opened in July and is Monk’s Kettle sister restaurant. The Lundberg Design (Moss Room, Quince, Slanted Door) space immediately impresses with 24-foot ceilings illuminated by skylights, and a long, 3000-square-foot dining room marked by reclaimed woods for a rustic, urban barn feel. A two-story stone cellar houses beer at proper temperatures, listed in a book that pulls out from the side of each table.

The volume lists more than 120 rotating beers — curated by co-owner and cellarmaster Christian Albertson with co-beer director Mike Reis — grouped by style (sours, saisons, etc.), with two pages dedicated to drafts. There’s a wall of glassware suited to every type of beer served, whether Jolly Pumpkin’s Madrugada Obscura Sour Stout from Dexter, MI, or Italian 2004 Xyauyu Etichetta Rame. A pricey ($14.50 for a six-ounce pour) Belgian Brouwerij De Landtsheer Malheur Brut is a dry, elegant Champagne-style beer served on the stem, one of ten offerings in a by-the-glass selection from large beer bottles rarely available by the pour.

As a temple dedicated to beer, the Cellar succeeds immediately. The bar and chef’s counter are ideal perches from which to sip, accompanied by hand-pump cask engines (sample Firestone Walker’s Unfiltered Double Barrel Ale from these classic pumps), and a reading shelf lined with Dulye’s collection of cookbooks.

Chef, co-owner, and experienced craft beer restaurateur Adam Dulye explores flavors optimal to brews. Dishes — a la carte options or tasting menus: three course $45, $60 with pairing; 5 course $65, $90 with pairing — are well-crafted and artful. As at St. Vincent, some dishes stand well above others, although there’s generally promising possibility. A coon-striped shrimp salad ($11) makes a dramatic presentation but, similar to crawfish, you’ll struggle to pull a tiny bite of meat from the shrimp. Cumin-roasted heirloom carrots ($11), elegantly displayed with quinoa, oyster mushrooms and sprouts, lack distinctive flavor.

Alternately, braised rabbit on tender handkerchief pasta ($23), dotted with English peas and hen of the woods mushrooms, is heartwarming, particularly with beer. “Wow factor” is in play with a unique beef bone marrow ($12) dish. The bone is topped with crispy house pastrami, alongside spicy greens, more pastrami, pickled mustard seeds, and rye croutons — one of the more exciting of countless bone marrow dishes I’ve had. While roast pheasant ($24) with lacinato kale and non-existent (but listed) cauliflower puree was too dry, a generous pork chop ($25) is insanely juicy and satisfying over chewy caraway spaetzle, topped with grilled peaches. A dessert of warm, roasted parsnip cake ($9), co-mingling with whipped cream cheese and a ginger molasses cookie, is a homey highlight, lovely with the coffee-almond malt of Great Divide’s Yeti Imperial Stout.

742 Valencia, SF. 415-626-8700, www.abbotscellar.com



Ever since savoring a fantastic New England cider pairing with each course of a fall dinner at NYC’s Gramercy Tavern years ago, I’ve wondered when we might witness the arrival of urban cider bars. SF’s new Upcider and Bushwhacker in Portland are it thus far.

Two aspects of Upcider jump out immediately: Ozgun (Ozzie) Gundogdu and his sister’s warm welcome — Ozzie opened the bar with former roommate and co-worker Omer Cengiz — and a second story upstairs space with floor to ceiling windows overlooking Polk Street. One can sit at the windows, gazing below at a busy street scene, enveloped by low-ceilings and a cozy glow, transported to a European bar or maybe even one in Turkey, Ozzie and Omer’s homeland.

The bar, lined with rustic, reclaimed wood, houses a range of bottled ciders — 19 producers, 40 varieties of cider (and growing) at $5–$26 a bottle, the most expensive being a 750ml of Etienne Dupont Brut De Normandie from Victot-Pontfol, France. You’ll find big brands like Magners or ones we’ve seen often in SF like Fox Barrel, Crispin, and Two Rivers. But you’ll also discover three ciders from Wandering Aengus Ciderworks in Salem, OR, or J.K. Scrumpy Organic, a sweeter cider from Flushing, MI. On the dry side (there’s also a medium-dry option), I liked Hogan’s Cider from Worcestershire, England. A new discovery was Julian Hard Cider from Julian, CA, a small Gold Rush town inland from Escondido and San Diego.

Its tart, dry Cherry Bomb ($11 for 22 oz. bottle) is a fascinating cider with a funky finish. There are Basque ciders, mead, wines, and beers, and bar food from chef Tony Carracci (Cha Cha Cha). For the time being there are no ciders on tap, but that is due to the intensive plumbing rebuild necessary to meet city requirements. Hopefully, there will be a way to provide draft ciders in the future.

Whiling away summer evenings in Upcider feels like traveling. I noticed the neighborhood’s Middle Eastern community gathering below for friendly banter, a refreshing alternative side of a street lined with raucous partiers and bar-hoppers.

1160 Polk, SF. 415-931-1797, www.upcidersf.com

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APPETITE A fledgling new restaurant is a work in progress, evolving. Often I’ll visit restaurants in their opening week, then return three to four weeks later, noticing a marked improvement in rhythm and flow, if not a dramatic change in food (often first food impressions prove to be consistent).

Returning a few months into a restaurant’s life, if things are heading the right direction, a distinct voice emerges, reflected in service and menus. Other times, one still searches for a point of view, a compelling enough reason to return. Opening in May with big vision and standouts on the plate, Dixie in the Presidio struggles to find cohesion after three months of visits.

The Southern intention of chef Joseph Humphrey (a Florida native) is just the sort of thing I get excited about: California-fresh with a New Southern ethos, not dissimilar to some of the Southern-influenced mashups I find at the likes of Maverick, the new St. Vincent, or in the best food cities of the South. Humphrey cooked at Michelin-starred Meadowood and Murray Circle, and in New Orleans with none other than Dickie Brennan & Co. South truly meets West in Dixie.

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

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

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

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

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

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


One Letterman Dr., SF

(415) 829-3363






APPETITE The world has become hooked on New Nordic cuisine in recent years, thanks to Copenhagen’s Noma, often referred to as the world’s best restaurant for three years straight, sparking a global interest in all things Scandinavian and a new generation of chefs.

Before this renaissance I dined at New York City’s Aquavit, back in the days when Marcus Samuelsson was still its chef. I reveled in Samuelsson’s clean dishes and shots of the restaurant’s eponymous liquor infused with horseradish or dill. As a fan of pickled herring, cured fish, and the like, I’ve long been drawn to Germanic and Eastern European cuisines. Perhaps my love for Scandinavian food was a forgone conclusion. I dream of taking a trip to the region to eat lutefisk (air-dried whitefish), and breathe in crisp air during long hours of summer daylight.

But then Pläj (pronounced “play”) opened in SF in June, tucked behind the Inn at the Opera and within sight of City Hall. I dined there during its opening week, and have returned multiple times since. Granted, what you’re about to read is an early take. The newborn restaurant needs time to come into its own.

Yes, Pläj is a hotel dining room, and off-putting smooth jazz and clubby Euro tunes often intrude, altering the mood of a meal. But bright orange accents and fireside seating warm up the blessedly peaceful space, and service is warmly welcoming, staff attentive and gracious.

Pläj isn’t so much New Nordic or Scandinavian-style minimalist. It’s more reminiscent of Aquavit: traditional dishes interpreted with a fresh regional spin, Scandinavia by way of Northern California. Chef-owner Roberth Sundell hails from Stockholm but has been in the Bay Area long enough to be well-acquainted with local ingredients, putting them to good use in Nordic-influenced dishes.

Working my way through every dish on the initial menu, I was happiest in the Fjord-seafood section that highlighted the best parts of Scandinavian cooking. A creative “taste of herring” trio ($12) brought fish served à la ginger-smoked soy, saffron tomato, and with coriander, chile, and lime on rye crackers. Rustic bread arrived at the table, artfully served in a paper bag.

Krondill (crown dill) poached lobster is the seafood of choice for Sundell’s skagen, which is typically toast topped with a mixture that often includes poached shrimp, mayo, caviar. Beautifully reinterpreted here, lobster swam in a foam akin to bisque that was also made of lobster, with horseradish, avocado, and a hint of chili, all of it accented by white fish caviar.

Norwegian salmon belly gravlax ($9) proved to be buttery, thin slices of cured salmon over lemon crème fraîche, spicy grain mustard, and dill purée. Only the Alaskan halibut ($21) felt closer to typical: the fish came seared in herbs and partnered with shaved asparagus in a chanterelle emulsion. In a similar, though more traditional vein of meat and veg entree was the tender, porter-braised ox cheek ($22) topped with a mountain of fried onions. Other than the vibrant red, whipped beetroot the ox rested atop, the dish was well-executed, if not particularly memorable. Next time I’d go for traditional, comforting Swedish meatballs ($15), which were juicy in their pan gravy and bed of mashed potatoes, served with lingonberries and pickled cucumber that added a much-desired contrast of sweet and vinegar.

On the Hagen (“pasture”) or vegetarian section of the menu, burrata ($12) was pleasant, but its presentation was similar to countless burrata plates everywhere — heirloom tomato and greens. At least it wasn’t beets, which are obvious, overdone burrata companions. Barely-there aquavit in the vinaigrette could have set it apart if it was kicked up a few intensity levels. I found a subtle smearing of beetroot under a salad ($14) piled with Jerusalem artichoke, watercress, hazelnuts, and thinly-shaved layers of Västerbotten cheese and black summer truffles more interesting. Equally intriguing were the potato dumpling kumla ($12), dense and doughy dumplings in brown butter sauce that were savory with onion ragout and, once again, lingonberries.

Desserts ($8) are certainly pleasing — particularly the rhubarb crumble pie — but none left a major impression. Cocktails ($11) thankfully utilize Scandinavian spirits like vodka and genever (Dutch gin, often aged in wood so as akin to whiskey as gin.) Spirit-cocktail aficionados may crave more depth in a menu that leans toward sweet, subtle, and light cocktails. The Midsommar is promising: Pernod absinthe that delivers herbaceous notes to a Flor de Cana light rum, lime, and dill simple syrup. It was garden-fresh, a fine companion to seafood.

An all-Scandinavian beer list is spot-on, with pours like HaandBryggeriet Norwegian harvest ale ($14) or cheaper, refreshing Einstock Icelandic white and pale ales ($6 each.)

Pläj is a welcome newcomer to the SF dining scene — one I hope thrives as it dares to bring what we lack. What a delight it would be to form a “best of” list of Scandinavian eateries here, as we can with so many cuisines.


333 Fulton, SF

(415) 294-8925

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APPETITE Opened on July 13 way back in 2005, Maverick is a longtimer by modern day restaurant standards. I’d posit that it’s better than ever with new executive chef Emmanual Eng, brought on last year by owners Scott Youkilis and Michael Pierce (who is also the general manager and wine director). In contrast to its more casual, younger sister Hog and Rocks, Maverick’s food has grown more sophisticated and focused over the years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I appreciate that even sans hard liquor license, Maverick attempts creative cocktails ($9) using vermouth and sake in low alcohol aperitifs. Some work better than others, but the attentive use of local products like Sutton Cellars vermouth is something I wish more wine and beer only restaurants would do. The most consistent drink is a ginger lemon fizz, utilizing Sutton’s dry vermouth, bright with ginger, Meyer lemon, and dreamy honey foam.

At Maverick, attentive staff, intimate dining room, and unique explorations of a well-known regional cuisine exhibit what makes Southern cooking so beloved in the first place: heart.


3316 17th St., SF



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Double visions



APPETITE A strong concentration of cutting-edge American chefs are right here in the Bay Area. Widely acknowledged in food publications and among global diners, Bay Area creativity has been ascendant in recent years. Collaborative dinners between local chefs and with chefs from countries beyond our borders uniquely showcase the forward-thinking cooking coming out of our region. I’ve been privileged to attend recent one-of-a-kind dinners (like the one this week between culinary “it” town Copenhagen chef Christian Puglisi of Michelin-starred Relae and Bar Tartine’s visionary chef Nick Balla).

During a weekend in May, one of Australia’s star chefs, Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne (www.attica.com.au), joined the incredible David Kinch at Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos (www.manresarestaurant.com). Both chefs are known foragers, utilizing local bounty in their restaurants in bursts of pure inspiration — Manresa sources its produce from nearby Love Apple Farms (loveapplefarm.typepad.com), which holds classes on urban goat-raising, cidermaking, edible perennials, and more. The hours-long dinner was not just a visual feast of color combinations, it was a dream of freshness in unexpected forms, heartwarming in taste.

Shewry started with walnuts in their shells, unadorned and tender, while Kinch offered carrots, clams, and savory, textural granola dotting vegetable marrow bouillon. Shewry’s fresh crab and artichoke leaves arrived softly layered, dotted with citrus cream. Unlike any crab dish I’ve had before, it nearly dissolved on the tongue, a striking as the sea yet elegantly subtle. A stunner. As was his beauty of diced sweet potato, purslane, and egg doused in a creamy pool of Cabot clothbound Vermont cheddar. Kinch’s gorgeous dessert was a silken, custard-like mound of white chocolate surrounded by crispy quinoa, goat’s milk ice cream, and a strip of rhubarb resembling an elevated fruit roll-up.

Manresa is a destination any time, with garden-fresh cocktails, impeccable service, and excellent wine list. The partnership this particular weekend showcased two world class chefs side-by-side, melding their visions.

As part of SF Chefs’ (www.sfchefsfoodwine.com) current Dinner Party Project, which teams up local chefs in themed dinners leading up to the big food and drink classic swiftly approaching August 2-5, inventive chefs Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn (www.ateliercrenn.com) and Jason Fox of Commonwealth (www.commonwealthsf.com) partnered at Dominique’s restaurant, for a special dinner on July 8. Both chefs connect over a similar ethos apparent in their delicate yet bold, often playful, cooking styles. Alternating courses, they produced bright, summer-spirited dishes.

An amuse bouche certainly did amuse: little white chocolate shells dubbed “Campari explosions” actually exploded with vivid, joyously bitter Campari reduction, paired alongside a Campari and blood orange cocktail aperitif. Both chefs rocked the tomato in unexpected ways. Fox played with green tomato in the form of a jelly disc gracefully dotted with silky uni, shiso mint leaves, and refreshing cucumber granita. Crenn saluted the glories of red and yellow tomatoes in varying forms and textures — peeled, sorbet, etc. — in a vibrant bowl accented by goat cheese, edible flowers from her home garden, and a strip of lardo, that beauty of pig fat salume, for rich contrast.

Unpredictable touches jumped out, like Fox’s frozen “white snow” over corn pudding topped with grilled sweetbreads and tempura-fried okra (paired beautifully with a 2006 Pierre Morey Bourgogne Chardonnay), or another Fox hit: bone marrow puree animating hearts of palm, skinned red potato and poached ruby fish, happily paired with a cup of duck consommé tea. The meaty tea seamlessly interacted with the vegetables and bone marrow, highlighting a masculine mischievousness in Fox’s stylish cooking. Besides her truly imaginative take on tomatoes, my other favorite Crenn dish arrived dramatically on a scooped stone slab graced with a chocolate branch and an edible, glistening silk nest filled with dehydrated vanilla pods over sweet corn and porcini mushrooms. Like a treasure found in an enchanted forest, the dish explored both savory and sweet whimsically, a feminine wildness tempered by refinement.

We’ll see more from both skilled chefs — and many others — during SF Chefs days’ long extravaganza, which I look forward to every year in tented Union Square. It’s a pleasure to witness our region’s best collaborate with each other and the finest globally, a reminder as to how the Bay Area is in the midst of yet another culinary renaissance, one of many the past few decades.

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Five for summer



APPETITE Time to dive into summer — at least nominally. These five playful dishes recently made an impression, and brought a little sunshine to the table.



Brunch at one of the city’s best bars, 15 Romolo, is a pleasure, and blessedly unmobbed. Arrive at opening (11:30am), and you’re likely to secure a table instantly. Greeted with complimentary waffle shots — yes, rounds of waffle bites resting in a mini-pool of maple syrup and boozy rum — you’re then guaranteed impeccable mid-day cocktails ($9–$10), like zippy, frothy absinthe showcase (not for the anise or licorice averse) Famous Fizz, made with St. George absinthe, shaken with strawberry-thyme shrub, cream, egg white, finished with seltzer. Or try a Breakfast of Champions # 2, rich with Manzanilla sherry, Nocino walnut liqueur, maple syrup, coffee tincture and house banana cordial — warmly gratifying, not cloying. Exciting drinks are a given here, but the menu’s no slouch. This has been true at night and it’s likewise true at brunch. The one that makes me salivate is the breakfast biscuit sando ($9). In keeping with other brunch dishes, portions are generous: a moist, green chile biscuit filled with crispy fried chicken, the perfect kind of bacon (not too crispy, fatty), fried egg, house pickles, and a vivid arugula walnut pesto. Hash browns accompany, and after adding on a hefty, savory house rye sausage patty ($3), I practically rolled out post-meal, blissfully fattened.

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



Though one can experience both highs and lows at downtown Oakland’s upscale Southern sanctuary Pican (like uneven desserts or cocktails — oh, would that that sweet Mint Julep be less syrupy and served in a proper Julep cup), staff are eager to please and the American whiskey list is extensive. New executive chef Sophina Uong (Waterbar, 900 Grayson) continues introducing vibrant dishes to the menus. Even as I begin digging into new menu items like playful blue crab profiteroles, my heart belongs to classic smoked brisket meatloaf ($21). It’s genius, really: shaved slices of Creekstone natural beef brisket are baked into a meaty-yet-light loaf, served with BBQ tomato jam, on roasted sweet corn salad with Cajun cheddar aioli. Mom’s home cooking, upscale Southern treatment, California creative-fresh spin — a veritable mash-up of cuisines.

2295 Broadway, Oakl. (510) 834-1000, www.picanrestaurant.com



Merely a couple weeks old, downtown Palo Alto’s Rangoon Ruby boasts chefs Win Aye and Win Tin, formerly of Burma Superstar, serving fresh, vivid Burmese dishes. The chic, clean space boasts a nice spirits collection (all three St. George gins can be found here, along with Camus Cognac) and tiki-focused cocktail menu, including lava and scorpion bowls for two or four. While still working out opening and service kinks, owner and Burma native John Lee presents a gracious, hard-working aesthetic grown from his own experience working in the restaurant at San Francisco’s Fairmont. Beloved Burmese salads ($10-13), from tea leaf to ginger, are done right here — brightly generous and served in its superior version: strips of mango atop greens, that fantastic hint of savory imparted by fried onions and garlic, accented with cucumber and dried shrimp. Also try nan gyi nok ($12), a heartwarming mound of rice noodles doused in coconut milk chicken and yellow bean powder, accented with a squeeze of lemon and a hard-boiled egg.

445 Emerson, Palo Alto. (650) 323-6543 www.rangoonruby.com



Showdogs corners dogs in a space that continues to improve Market Street’s less culinary-inclined blocks, adding on old school sign and sidewalk seating enclosed by hedges since they opened. I have a number of go-to sausages (plus a rocked-out corn dog), but it’s the pickled hot link ($6.95) that remains truly different. A hot link, plump and pickled in apple-cider vinegar for a couple weeks: it’s tangy, slightly blackened as it’s grilled to order, topped with Crater Lake blue cheese sauce and arugula leaves.

1020 Market, SF. (415) 558-9560, www.showdogssf.com



As part of an affordable seven-course Kaiseki dinner ($39.95) at Nombe, chawan mushi or Japanese savory egg custard has been prfected by chef Noriyuki Sugie. Though numerous izakayas, particularly Nojo, make memorable versions, I was recently hooked on Sugie’s uni chawan mushi, lush with uni’s seaworthy, umami notes, woven into a silky, custard, topped with more fresh uni, served traditionally in a covered dish. Order a pour from Nombe’s impressive sake list — ask co-owner and sake sommelier Gil Payne to recommend a pairing for you — and settle into black booths in the quirky, comfy Mission diner space.

2491 Mission, SF. (415) 681-7150, www.nombesf.com

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Rio Grande



APPETITE Who needs menus when the bartenders are this good? The granddaddy of the speakeasy resurgence, New York’s Milk and Honey, has been doing the menu-less thing since 2000, while places like LA’s Library Bar get their inspiration from daily changing, farmers market produce. Two fascinating new SF bars are serving custom cocktails their own way, only able to go sans menu because of strong talent behind the bar. Reviewed online on the Guardian’s Pixel Vision blog is the intimate, amusingly named Big; here is my take on the other menu-less charmer, Rio Grande.

I’ve written about Bon Vivants (cocktail designers Scott Baird and Josh Harris, operations specialist and behind-the-scenes mover Jason Henton) numerous times over the years, from early days at 15 Romolo to recent cocktail menu creation at Berkeley’s new Comal. Anticipating their long-awaited Mission bar Trick Dog, I’ve been having fun in the meantime with multiple visits to Rio Grande, a bar they just launched as part of ATO (A Temporary Offering) in the Kor Group’s Renoir Hotel, a genius pop-up project where local entrepreneurs can test concepts, from FoodLab restaurants to shops and art events.

Using the hotel’s vacant, three-room space, revolving projects invigorate the stretch of Market near Seventh Street. Rio Grande is unlike any other bar in town. Evoking a South of the Border cantina, or what the Vivants dub “Tarantino and Once Upon a Time in Mexico meet border town roadhouse,” here funky kitsch glitz marries laidback ease, as tequila, mezcal, whiskey, and canned beer flow.

Under the gaze of Wild Turkey bourbon and Espolon tequila logos emphasizing the bar’s whiskey-tequila union, the ceiling sports a Virgin of Guadalupe shrine in front of a painting of 1970s adult film actress Vanessa del Rio, a Baird crush after whom he named the Del Rio cocktail (reposado tequila, fino sherry, St. Germain elderflower, orange bitters). The Del Rio will soon be served on tap, while the current on-tap cocktail is an Old Fashioned.

The bar was initially launched as a pop-up, in keeping with ATO’s rotating offerings, but the Renoir folks like it enough to try and find a way for it to stay. If it can’t, the Vivants will move it to various locales as a gypsy bar. Here’s hoping it remains while they launch other nomadic bars — a fine concept.

Rio Grande was, impressively, built out in three weeks: Henton says there were days they’d still be wielding power saws at 5:30am, building high-top tables or implementing one of Harris’ many estate sale-flea market finds. (He stalks local sales for vintage pieces like the bar’s fascinating ceiling fans and the cowhide splayed in the entrance. Harris even gathered Mexican national newspapers from 1945-’47 to became the wallpaper behind the bar.) The bar itself boasts a pole on either end for whatever shenanigans might ensue, while a mini-stage is set for live music. Even without bands, tunes are perfection: a little hard rock, a lot of classic country — think Waylon, Hank I and II, your general outlaw cowboy musicians.)

To exist sans menu, it’s crucial that bartenders be talented, knowledgeable and versatile. Rio Grande couldn’t be more on the right path with hand-chosen barkeeps Morgan Shick and Russell Davis, assisted by Trick Dog chef Chester Watson. Shick is one half of Jupiter Olympus, a bar-restaurant consulting company that throws some crazy, imaginative parties. I’ve judged a number of cocktail contests where Shick (who’s worked at bars from Marzano to Michael Mina) was an entrant: his sense of balance and ingenuity stand out every time. Davis, besides being named Nightclub and Bar’s 2012 Bartender of the Year, recently crafted a brilliant soda fountain menu at Ice Cream Bar and can be found actually igniting flames at Rio Grande for special cocktails.

According to Harris, the Vivants wanted “to take all the pretentiousness out of the bar scene and make it fun”, which is why Tecate and Dos Equis flow just as freely as Del Maguey. During my visits, I’ve sipped a mezcal and yellow chartreuse winner and a bitter amaro beauty on crushed ice (Julep snow cone-style). Speaking of ice, it’s hand-cut here, a pleasure to watch. During one visit, Shick made a mezcal, grapefruit soda drink accented with crème de cassis (black currant liqueur), lime, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, and salt: smoky, salty and citrusy. Spiced fall notes shine in his mixture of Siete Leguas anejo tequila, made with Averna for a tinge of bitter balance, Angostura orange bitters, sweet vermouth and apple brandy. I’m in love with a finish of Old Bardstown bourbon, Nocino walnut liqueur, Balcones’ rum-like Rumble (made from Texas wildflower honey, Mission figs, turbinado sugar), plus dry vermouth and triple sec. Dry, sweet, full, it’s still bracing enough to put hair on your chest.

“Watch for some potentially interesting surprises musically,” says Harris of the tiny stage, and for Tarantino Tuesdays, when Tarantino films and soundtracks accompany your pour.


1108 Market, SF

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That’s amore



APPETITE After moving from Southern California to New Jersey at age 14, I learned what a true city was when I discovered New York City. Whenever in that New York state of mind, I miss its boundless energy, frank people, eclectic neighborhoods, and, yes, East Coast-style Italian. I reminisce about family dinners filling up on mountains of cheese, doughy pasta, and impeccable red sauce — which, to achieve perfection, should exhibit both sweet and savory notes. In both NYC and NJ, it was often perfect. (I miss you, Cafe L’Amore).

It can be challenging getting my red sauce Italian fix here. I crave old school, heartwarming places, whether drinking a Manhattan in the brilliant time capsule of Joe’s of Westlake, dining on Gaspare’s “real deal” lasagna, Mozzeria’s oozing, baked mozzarella, or a plate of my beloved guanciale (pig jowl bacon) and garlic-heavy spaghetti alla matriciana at Ristorante Marcello. Enter Original Joe’s, a reborn San Francisco classic appealing to a blessedly broad demographic, satisfying East Coast cravings.

You couldn’t be blamed for initially assuming the sizable Original Joe’s off North Beach’s idyllic Washington Square Park is a tourist destination or primarily for older clientele. There is a more mature set dining here, a factor I welcome and at times seek out intentionally. But families, couples, residents, and tourists alike mingle in this new home for a restaurant founded here in 1937, yet closed since a 2007 fire at its Tenderloin location. Though impossible to replicate the original locale’s dive-y 1970s charm, the new space feels more old school NYC than modern-day tourist trap. Roomy red leather booths and a tuxedoed waitstaff immediately comfort.

The food surprises with an amped-up dose of quality compared to the old days on Taylor. A market price crab cocktail is expensive at $25 but the crab is clean and plentiful. A daily special of fresh burrata and Spring pea salad could have come from any current SF restaurant. Joe’s Italian chopped salad ($15.95) ends up being one of the quickest transports East. Ordering it to share, it arrives split, a half portion plenty for one. Chopped romaine is doused in Italian dressing, with garbanzo beans, olives, cherry tomatoes, silvers of salami, provolone, fennel, and the necessary pepperoncini. It’s brighter — and almost as satisfying — than heavier, loaded versions I used to fill up on back in Jersey.

As in the old Joe’s, there’s plenty of tender, juicy beef, from flat iron steak ($24) to a porterhouse (25 oz. at $44) and prime rib on Saturdays. But when in such an setting, I crave red sauce. It doesn’t get much comfier than spaghetti with meat sauce ($13.95) or meatballs ($16.95). Even if Joe’s is not the superlative version, it hits the spot, as does classic ravioli ($16.95), although I tend to prefer Jackson Fillmore’s housemade ravioli over the years. Another way to my East Coast Italian heart is parmigiana, whether chicken, veal, or eggplant. Here I’m drawn to the eggplant ($16.95), not too smoky, layered in cheese, breading, and, of course, red sauce.

I was tickled to find that $6 cocktails, including simple but revered favorites like a whiskey sour or negroni, are actually well-made — completely unexpected and at this price, one of the best drink values in town for solid classics.

Another unexpected pleasure is impeccable spumoni for dessert ($5 for a few generous scoops). Often in spumoni, unnatural cherry, chocolate and pistachio ice cream flavors are cluttered with nuts and candied fruits in what feels like a dated flavor that should be relegated to the past. Joe’s version delivers authentic, rich flavor with smattering of crumbled pistachios on top, demanding me to rethink, and once again enjoy, this classic ice cream rumored to have Neapolitan roots.

Joe’s isn’t revolutionary gourmet or cutting edge cuisine, but what it does, it does well. Its clientele reminds me of the history and sense of place San Francisco possesses that makes it one of the truly great cities in the world, now ideally situated in a neighborhood that fiercely maintains reverence for and ties to that history. Amid SF’s influx of tech-attracted newbies, Joe’s attracts that breed we often forget is here: the San Francisco native. Feeling like a family/group restaurant first and foremost, it’s a place I’d bring visiting family and Sicilian relatives with hefty portions and friendly service. But I’ve also had a cozy date night with my husband here, transported to decades past… but with fresher ingredients.


601 Union, SF.



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APPETITE There are but few whispers about Acquerello in dining circles these days. This is an oversight. Not readily visible from the street, the Nob Hill restaurant’s lobby opens onto a glowing dining room that at first glance appears to be an elegant oasis for an older clientele — a classic that has been loyal to the city since 1989. After a recent return to Acquerello, I’ll venture that it is this, but much more as well. For me, this is San Francisco’s great underrated fine dining destination, despite the fac that it has won a coveted Michelin star for six years and counting.

Even with the promise of Acquerello’s forward-thinking food and heartwarming classics in the air, it’s the service that initially stands out. Upon arrival, one is ushered to a table thoughtfully spaced apart from its neighbors, intimate yet still engaged with the Italian decor. In soft peach and beige, the dining room is subtly dated in a way that speaks of the old country, inviting and quiet enough under striking wood rafters but not so hushed as to be museum-like.

A team of waiters, three sommeliers and co-owner Giancarlo Paterlini, alternately attend to each table, the head waiter having been at the restaurant since the 1980s, along with Paterlini’s son, Gianpaolo, who is also the wine director, and chef and co-owner Suzette Gresham-Tognetti. The latter came out to greet those of us that lingered into the evening, clearly still passionate about what she does. Gresham-Tognetti works closely with young chef de cuisine Mark Pensa on all menus. (The classic tasting menu runs for $95 plus $75 for wine pairing; the seasonal tasting menu is $135 plus $95 for wine pairing; you can also choose three courses a la carte for $70, four for $82, five for $95.)

I recommend trying both the classic and seasonal menus, even if the a la carte menu gives you a chance to pick and choose among favorites. Ideally, a dining couple could order both for a glimpse of Acquerello’s entire timeline, past and present.

Maybe the dishes on the classic menu have been around for awhile, but they are far from stale. In fact, the “greatest hits” lineup still offers some of the restaurant’s best dishes. It will be a gourmand’s loss when one of Acquerello’s most popular plates, the ridged pasta in foie gras and Marsala wine sauce scented with black truffles, goes away in a few weeks. The most ecstasy-inducing dish on any menu is this dreamy take on foie gras, served as a sauce over al dente pasta. Another classic is juicy chicken breast decadently stuffed with black truffles over a leek custard and an artful mini-potato gratin, topped with shaved cremini mushrooms.

In contrast, the “chef’s surprises” menu is filled with delicate hints of things to come, like a warm arancini of asparagus and parmesan cream and some profiteroles filled with lush herbed cream. The regular menu holds treasures like pear and foie gras “ravioli” — the chefs slice dry-farmed, organic comice pears into a thin, pasta-like skin, filling it with truffled foie torchon. Saikou, a New Zealand farm-raised salmon, is bright and clean from high, cold elevations. It is poached for a few seconds in a layer of horseradish, and crusted it with chevril, pine nuts, and parsley; an herb pesto of sorts. Each dish explodes with flavor yet corners refinement, maintaining a Cal-Italian ethos that won’t play safe.

On the seasonal menu, the chefs work together closely on inventive takes that rival the better fine dining meals I’ve had. An amuse of raw yellowtail is alive with seabeans and arugula blossoms, while red abalone pairs with cabbage “seaweed” in porcini broth. Snake River Kobe beef is tender and pink, cooked sous vide under shaved hazelnuts. The cheese course is a warm, oozing round of gorgonzola D.O.P. (denominazione di origine protella, or protected designation of origin) beautifully co-mingled with potato, onion, mustard seeds, and nasturtium. Probably the most delightful, unique dish is “baked potato” gnocchi, a playful take on a baked potato made with a base of doughy gnocchi topped with chive crème fraiche, pancetta, and paper thin, fried slivers of potato skin.

Palate cleansers include a shot of carrot-apple-ginger juice with vanilla foam and a refreshing starter of orange juice, vermouth, and bitters. On the seasonal menu, a vivid dessert from pastry chef Theron Marrs marries cucumber sorbet with tart lime curd, sweet strawberry consommé, and herbaceous mint granita. As at Gary Danko, the cheese cart is one of Acquerello’s shining glories. The cart traverses the restaurant covered to contain the smell of its stinkiest offerings. Diners have their work cut out of them to select from among its unusual, largely Italian cheeses. An impression was made with earthy Blu di Valchiusella from Piemonte wrapped in walnut leaves and an impeccable Beppino Occelli in Barolo wine leaves.

Boasting input from no less than three sommeliers, Acquerello’s extensive wine list is novel-thick, dense with Italian wines. There’s an impressive range of varietals and vintages stored in its wine cellars. Suggested pairings meld seamlessly with each dish, whether it be a classic, lovely Nebbiolo d’Alba (2008 La Val Dei Preti), an unusual Langhe Rosso Burgundian-style Italian Pinot, or D’antiche Terre Taurasi Riserva, which transforms when sipped with fabulously rich veal and truffled mortadella tortellini Bolognesi.

For a special occasion, I’d place Acquerello among the best fine dining experiences in San Francisco — even up against hot newcomers and pricey minimalist restaurants. This is a place with a sense of history and a vision for the future.


1722 Sacramento, SF

(415) 567-5432


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Who to drink



SUMMER DRINKS Incas at Heaven’s Dog with a side of Stax? A Cherry Bounce at Comstock Saloon with some Booker T and the M.G.’s? How about just a nice, perfectly made sazerac? Whether through years of bartending or expertise in classic cocktails and spot-on service, the five respected mixers below have long encapsulated what has made San Francisco a leader in the cocktail renaissance of the past decade-plus. To get a (summer) taste of their different styles and recommendations, we asked them to fill out a questionnaire delving into their personalities and cocktail prowess. The responses showed that the past is more present than ever as a delicious, tipsy inspiration in finer Bay bars.



Savoy Stomp, Heaven’s Dog

Erik Ellestad first landed on the cocktail map in 2006 with his blog, Savoy Stomp (www.savoystomp.com) — during his off hours as a tech engineer he began working his way through the classic Savoy Cocktail Book, one recipe at a time. This led to monthly gathering and demonstration Savoy Cocktail Book Nights at revered Upper Haight cocktail hotspot the Alembic since 2008, and bartending at chic SoMa Chinese restaurant Heaven’s Dog since its opening in January 2009. He’s an expert on classic recipes; his technically-minded side informs his precision and sense of balance.

SFBG Where did you grow up, and how did that influence your bartending style and taste?

Erik Ellestad I’m from a small town near Madison, WI. Other than developing my taste for beer, cheese, and Old Fashioned cocktails, I don’t think growing up in Wisconsin particularly affected my bartending. However, the 10 years I spent as a line and prep cook while living in Madison definitely affected both the way I approach cocktails and how I prioritize tasks while bartending.

SFBG What’s your area of expertise or obsession?

EE Pre-Prohibition American beverages. Almost all my real favorite cocktails go back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, or before.

SFBG What do you drink most during off hours?

EE To be honest, now that I’ve nearly finished the Savoy Cocktail Book Project, I’ve been taking a bit of a break from drinking cocktails. You’ll most often find me drinking esoteric beers or interesting wines.

SFBG What cocktail is exciting you lately?

EE I try to learn a new cocktail or perfect an old one every week just so I can have an answer to the inevitable cocktail nerd question, “What have you been working on lately?” This week I was inspired by Leopold’s Navy Strength Gin to perfect the Inca cocktail:

3/4 oz Leopold’s Navy Strength Gin

3/4 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth

3/4 oz Carpano Antica Italian Vermouth

3/4 oz Manzanilla Sherry

1 tsp Small Hand Foods Orgeat

1 dash Orange Bitters

Add ice and stir until well chilled. Strain into a small cocktail glass and garnish with an orange twist.

SFBG Favorite off-hours food or drink hangouts? 

EE I live in Bernal Heights, so the places I get to most often are in the neighborhood: Gialina for pizza, Papalote for burritos, Front Porch for soulful American food, and Ichi Sushi, for, well, awesome sushi. If my wife and I are splurging, we’ll go out to Bar Tartine, Bar Jules, or Commonwealth. Other than the bars I work in, Rock Bar, Royal Cuckoo, Glen Park Station, St. Mary’s Pub, and Wild Side West are the bars I’m most likely to be found in.

SFBG Your bartending playlist? 

EE The core of my playlist at Heaven’s Dog is the box set of Stax-Volt Soul singles from 1959 through 1968.




Jeff Lyon has been tending for about 16 years, the last five being at Range in the Mission, where he’s currently the restaurant’s bar manager. Besides a keen love and knowledge of whiskey and tequila, he’s well-versed in music and sets an utterly comfortable tone at his bar with his dry, sly sense of humor.

SFBG Where did you grow up, and how did that influence your bartending style and taste? 

Jeff Lyon I was born in Long Beach, CA, but bumped around CA until I was 20, then moved to Minneapolis to become a rock star with my brother. In order to fund our impending international success (ahem), we waited tables, but I noticed bartenders had way more fun than waiters. So I watched what they did and asked a lot of questions. Eventually I lied and told my boss I knew what I was doing, and they let me behind the bar. Minneapolis influenced my bartending style in that I picked up a strong work ethic. It wasn’t about “mixology” — it was about being nice, working clean and fast, having fun.

SFBG What’s your area of expertise or obsession?

JL I’m a whiskey guy and Bourbon is my favorite, but right now I’m really excited about the wine-based world of vermouth, sherry, and Madeira. I wouldn’t call it an area of expertise, but I find the variety and subtlety of this stuff endlessly fascinating. Who needs crazy tinctures, bitters, and infusions when you can simply pour a Barolo Chinato over a big chunk of ice? Done!

SFBG What do you drink most during off hours?

JL I drink more beer and wine than anything else.

SFBG What cocktail is exciting you lately?

JL I’m proud of a cocktail I do called Dante that’s inspired by the sazerac’s “whiskey, sugar, bitters and a rinse” structure. I stir up Angel’s Envy bourbon, Perucchi Blanc vermouth, and Rothman and Winters Pear Orchard liqueur to provide sweetness, and Peychaud’s to balance it out. Standing in for the absinthe is a generous rinse of St. George Spirits pear eau de vie.

SFBG Current favorite off-hours hangouts for food or drink?

JL More often than not, I go to dive bars. I do my share of cocktail R&D right in my neighborhood — Wo Hing and Locanda are rockin’ it. Beretta is always great. Outside the neighborhood I love the usual suspects: 15 Romolo, Alembic, Bar Agricole, Comstock. The great thing is that there are so many bars raising the standards, even dive-y bars are making better drinks.

SFBG Your bartending playlist?

JL If I could have a night full of Bill Withers, Django Reinhardt, and Thelonious Monk, balanced with Nirvana, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, I could smile through just about anything.



Hotsy Totsy, Dogwood

A true veteran of cocktailia, Aurora Siegel has been tending bar for the better part of 17 years. Having worked as a GM and beyond, she deeply understands service and the full restaurant-bar experience. Years at North Beach classic Rose Pistola honed her skills in numerous aspects of management and bar service, and she’s quite the cook herself (she makes a mean kimchi). You’ll currently find her rocking the East Bay at Albany’s Hotsy Totsy and Oakland’s Dogwood.

SFBG Where did you grow up, and how did that influence your bartending style and taste?

Aurora Siegel I grew up in Hawaii where hospitality is key and a cold refreshing drink while caressed by a light breeze makes all feel right with the world. That background influenced my style on many levels, hospitality being the most important. I believe if you don’t truly like serving people you shouldn’t because it always shows. I happen to love it. The drinks I tend to create are often light and refreshing: four dimensional, not eight; balanced but not too complicated; drinks you can make in under a minute — with a smile, of course. So you can sit back and say all is right with the world, even without the tropical breeze!

SFBG What’s your area of expertise or obsession?

AS My obsession is balance. Balance of sight, smell and of course taste. I’m often making ingredients to help me meld balance with speed such as my own home-brewed ginger beer, tonic base, and falernum.

SFBG What do you drink most during off hours? 

AS Pisco sours: I just love ’em! Or a good sazerac, negroni, or Old Fashioned. I like trying new drinks but a well-made classic will almost always win out in the end.

SFBG What cocktail is exciting you lately?

AS Robert Hess’ Trident [with sherry, Cynar, aquavit, peach bitters]! I think it’s one of those drinks that will go down in history.

SFBG Current favorite off-hours hangouts for food or drink?

AS Three of my favorite spots are Comstock for the whole package: good late night bites, great drinks, and real bartenders! Madrone on Divisadero: nice staff, good drinks, and unique music. Or Tony Nik’s in North Beach, where the staff are true pros and drinks are good, too.

SFBG Your bartending playlist?

AS Anything from the ’80s just gets my hips shaking, but I must say we have one of the most diverse and fun playlist at the Totsy. I’m almost always feeling the groove there!



Comstock Saloon

A bartender for the past 16 years, Jonny Raglin is an English lit major with a sense of style that includes several evolutions of mustache. He started tending in SF over a decade ago at Stars, then B44, then the early days at Absinthe with Jeff Hollinger, with whom he eventually opened Comstock Saloon in 2010, a haven for classic cocktails in a historic Barbary Coast space with live jazz (and the occasional Gold Rush tune) and honky tonk and classic country vinyl Sundays.

SFBG Where did you grow up, and how did that influence your bartending style and taste?

Jonny Raglin I’m from Oklahoma. It certainly does influence my style of bartending. I’m cavalier, self-taught, hard-working, hard-headed, whiskey-slinging, whiskey-drinking, a lover not a fighter — except when fighting — and the fastest hand in the West!

SFBG What’s your area of expertise or obsession?

JR My obsession is the 9/10ths of bartending that has nothing to do with “mixology.” That is what I try every day to improve upon. Not to say I’ve given up on the drink itself, but I am certainly concerned with what Leary called “set and setting,” i.e. a perfect cocktail can only be had in perfect company.

SFBG What do you drink most during off hours?

JR Margaritas with my wife. I typically order dry martinis at any given bar since its REALLY hard to fuck up cold gin.

SFBG What cocktail is exciting you lately?

JR I’m really digging making cocktails from who I consider to be the two queens of the cocktail in New York: Julie Reiner and Audrey Saunders. I feel like they have a firm grasp of not only the classic cocktail but also the modern palate. I find myself in the Savoy Cocktail Book for inspiration as I have for the past five years or so. And people sure like the Cherry Bounce at Comstock which is a recipe I came up with (made from the juice of house-made brandied cherries).

SFBG Favorite off-hours food or drink hangouts?

JR To me the best place to eat and drink in SF is Cotogna. God bless the Tusks [Michael and Lindsay] for their little trattoria a block from us at Comstock!

SFBG Your bartending playlist?

JR When Booker T. and the M.G.’s comes on, I’m the fastest bartender on the planet. On Friday lunch at Comstock, we play Buddy Holly radio on Pandora. It’s a bit of a sock hop with bow ties and suspenders, giving away lunch, selling booze… and fun!



Smugglers Cove

Tending bar since 1997, Steven Liles dons a Hawaiian shirt and mixes it up tiki-style to exotica tunes at the Cove, after having spent years crafting cocktails at fine dining spots like Boulevard and Fifth Floor. Besides his stylin’ wardrobe and hats, Liles has his own 1930s home bar, an extensive music collection (start asking him about ’60s soul), and is well-versed on classic recipes and spirits distillation.

SFBG Where did you grow up, and how did that influence your bartending style and taste?

Steven Liles I was born in Compton, California, but mainly grew up in Lancaster, in the Mojave Desert. So my style is dry, like my humor. Growing up in California with all of its diversity has developed a sense that I should explore the different facets of my career as much as possible. I am defined by the desire to expand the definition of myself.

SFBG What’s your area of expertise or obsession?

SL I’ve never been the type to focus on one particular thing as a bartender. I prefer a more rounded approach. Working at a rum-centric bar is fun and fascinating, but I also pay attention to other spirits and styles of tending bar. I love pisco, gin, Calvados, and so many other amazing spirits with amazing stories.

SFBG What do you drink most during off hours?

SL It varies. My go-to cocktails are the martini and negroni. I love a glass of champagne — or a bottle. With so many great cocktail bars, I always try out new ideas that bartenders are creating. It’s a lot of fun.

SFBG What cocktail is exciting you lately?

SL With 75 drinks on the menu at The Cove, I can’t help but be excited: it is a great challenge. I love making new drinks but that’s not really a big focus of mine. I have a regular, Paul Cramer, that I make original creations for all the time. I don’t bother writing anything down. I find that fun, to just go off he cuff, in a care-free way.

SFBG Favorite off-hours food or drink hangouts?

SL I love Maven, Comstock Saloon, AQ, Heaven’s Dog, Jasper’s, Wo Hing, Bar Agricole. There are so many more.

SFBG Your bartending playlist?

SL Sam Cooke’s “Good Times” is a great bar song to me: “We are going to stay here ’til we soothe our souls, if it takes all night long.” That’s perfect.

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Namu Gaji



APPETITE Although Asian outpost Namu Gaji is brand new, the presence of Namu restaurant itself and owners the Lee brothers — Dennis, David and Daniel — has been felt in San Francisco for years. Since 2006, the Lees have been weaving Korean, Japanese, and other Asian cuisines with California spirit in the original, now shuttered Richmond restaurant and eventually Namu’s Ferry Building farmers market stand on Tuesdays and Saturdays. In early April, the brothers opened their Mission incarnation, Namu Gaji.

Its kitchen is in direct view of the small dining room, as Dennis Lee and Chef de Cuisine Michael Kim (Craft Los Angeles, SPQR) cook at a grill fired with bincho-tan, a low smoke, Japanese charcoal. The Lee brothers’ aunt, direct from Korea, will oversee a house fermenting program, bringing with her bacteria strains from the family’s Korean village. The chefs do the usual sourcing from local farms but, in an unusual slant, have commissioned farmer Kristyn Leach to grow exclusively for them on a one-acre plot at Baia Nicchia Farm in Sunol, where she’s raising rare Korean chiles and herbs — quite a treat.

I already miss the chic, spare Richmond dining room compared to the cramped Mission space, despite its striking communal table and tree branch sculpture weaving dramatically from the ceiling. Granted, the Dolores Park location is prime real estate, particularly when it comes to daytime takeout, perfect for picnicking in the park, possibly my favorite way to enjoy Namu Gaji. But the Mission is saturated with hip dining destinations in a way the Richmond, one of our great underrated neighborhoods, is not. This was an understandably strategic move, but the new space gets progressively warmer and noisier as an evening evolves. For those who don’t enjoy yelling through dinner, I’d suggest dining early, although do note the actual dinner menu doesn’t start until 6pm.

In multiple early visits, truly unique dishes flow from the kitchen. The menu is grouped in categories like raw, broth, salad, crispy, grill, and comfort, with a handful of key choices under each heading. The “raw” section is pricey ($18), but raw King salmon, topped with pickled red onion, a dollop of whipped yuzu cream, and shiso (Japanese herb from the mint family) is generously portioned, bright sashimi. Uni sure is fantastic fried — what isn’t? — as tempura ($14) alongside fried shiso leaf, lemon zest, and market veggies, which on a recent visit were fava beans and a yellow onion. Grilled octopus ($14) is a tad bland compared to other grilled octopus dishes around town, though pleasingly plated with English peas, spring onion, fried garlic, and that fabulously pungent Korean chili paste, gochujang.

It gets exciting with an off-menu special of buckwheat gnocchi, pan seared in black garlic gastrique, with English peas and pea shoots (can you tell peas are in season?) This non-traditional gnocchi is earthy, lively, playful. “Fish parts” ($18) arrive on a wood slab, generously portioned and artfully arranged, more hearty than fussy. The fish parts change, but one night I dined on impeccable wild salmon belly and spine, with caramelized, crispy-sweet skin. Its partner requires a more adventurous palate: ahi tuna roe, cured and grilled. A dining companion bluntly called this large hunk of meat what it was: a giant egg sac. If you didn’t know, however, you’d think the pink, meaty fish a more savory, funky cut of salmon. Either way, I was delighted to be served something I’d never had before.

One evening after a 90-minute dinner, I waited nearly 30 minutes after all dishes had been served (and eaten) for a dessert which my sweet, adept server kept informing us was about to arrive. Though next time I’ll skip dessert under those conditions, I was pleased with shaved ice ($8), or shave ice as it’s known in Hawaii, which you can order doused in Four Barrel coffee and cocoa crumbles. My top choice is in coconut cream with coconut crumble and strawberries. The ice is creamy soft, feathery… and quickly devoured.

The brothers’ Korean heritage shines best in their street food-style dishes, available at the Ferry Building Farmers Market as well as during the day at Namu Gaji, ideal taken across the street to Dolores Park. Their beloved nori “tacos” ($3) and okonomiyaki ($10 lunch, $16 dinner) still delight, while BBQ belly and Korean BBQ-style marinated chicken thigh ($10) are packed into pan de mie bun layered with Swiss cheese, soy glazed onions, pickled daikon, aioli, Dijon mustard — a buttery, fatty pleasure of a sandwich. Gamja fries ($10), essentially organic fried potatoes piled with short ribs, kimchee relish, gochujang, kewpie mayo, and green onions, are the fast food of your dreams. KFC ($12) is a quarter of a Marin Sun Farms chicken tossed in sweet and tangy sauce with dashi gravy. Each of these heartwarmers not only satiate but illuminate best why the Lee brothers have become an SF staple.


499 Dolores, SF

(415) 431-6268


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APPETITE Fish makes me happy. Raw, grilled, seared, any which way. One new restaurant and one established favorite are glorifying the fish, and seafood in general, in many formats.


Local's Corner just opened in March on a mellow corner of the Mission's east side. The sunny space is mostly white, evoking a cozy-chic New England seafood restaurant serving exquisite California fare. Dinner service was just launched mid-April, a delicate array of tastes of the mostly seafaring kind, though the menu simultaneously lists a "land" section.

Prior to opening, I was excited for this new seafood restaurant offering the likes of sardines and smaller, more sustainable fish, and they do deliver. The immediate downside is how quickly dishes add up. Small plates hover in the low teens while no dish tops more than the mid-20s, but as you finish each plate, hunger is not exactly satiated. There is little in terms of heartier fare, which is fine — you don't come here for "hearty." But $100 later (for two with a glass of wine), I left a couple dishes away from satisfied.

Crisp and bright as the equally crisp, bright space, a nice range of rosés and white wines pair ideally with fish offerings and rotating oysters ($2.50-3.50 each). A small plate of uni ($14) is alluringly punctuated by English peas, preserved Meyer lemon, and mint leaves, while Dungeness crab ($13) arrives glistening with snap peas, Cara Cara oranges, and spring onion. Cured halibut ($13) dances with radishes, grapefruit, and dill. Each is delicate, slight, tickling the taste buds.

Two flavorsome bites are cured anchovies and guanciale (Italian bacon made from pig's jowl or cheek) on toasts ($10), or a dollop of smoked trout rillettes and crème fraîche ($12), also with toasts. Both delight, but are so small-portioned, one is just hooked when they're gone. For $22, an entree of black cod on top of leeks, carrots, and watercress is likewise minimal and subdued. I was more satisfied with a "land" offering of beef tartare in a small pot, topped with quail egg ($15). Bread is (again) the filler, while the raw beef is glisteningly fresh.

Brunch is such a pleasant experience in the sunny space, it is tough having few seafood choices (just one currently) and a prix fixe only: now $18 for toast, two courses, and coffee or juice. Weekday lunch offers more seafood, which is primarily what one comes here for, though still few options compared to dinner.

Local's Corner is still in its infancy, exhibiting promising meticulousness and fresh tastes. I realize upping portions of the likes of uni and abalone is a costly thing while maintaining delicacy is crucial with such ingredients. It seems a worthy mission: satisfying appetite alongside artistry.

2500 Bryant, SF. (415) 800-7945, www.localscornersf.com


One place that has long cornered artistry and appetite in my estimation is Bar Crudo, one of my top SF restaurants since its early days in the tiny Bush Street space, where Bouche is located now. Though the cavernous but narrow Divisadero space lacks the quirky charm and warm glow of the original location, service remains such that even as the place is packed nightly and waits are common, staff comes by offering wine, keeping me informed of the wait time.

The crudo, essentially Italian-style sashimi, are small and delicate (a sampler is $13 for 4 pieces, $25 for eight) but so uniquely delightful, they're worth every dollar. A visit here would not be complete without a bite of raw arctic char, lively with horseradish crème fraîche, wasabi tobiko and dill, or creamy butterfish crudo topped with apples, pear vinaigrette, and beet saffron caviar.

One easily fills up here, supplementing ethereal crudo with whole-roasted fish. Recently, I enjoyed a branzino ($26) with two friends. With the large fish, two smaller shared plates and a crudo sampler, we left full. The fish is generously sized, buttery, flaky. We devoured the cheeks, the head, every part, resting in butter beans, Swiss chard, oyster mushrooms, poblano peppers, and orange oil.

A flavor explosion comes in large head-on Louisiana prawns ($14) swimming in a spicy red brood, vivid and savory with shishito peppers and fresno chilies. I nearly drank it up. To fill up, there's always Bar Crudo's classic seafood chowder ($7/$14), a creamy, rich bowl of fish, mussels, squid, shrimp, potatoes, and applewood smoked bacon that elicits a moan of pleasure at first spoonful.

Coupled with a strong wine list (by glass or bottle) and equally strong craft and Belgian beer list, Bar Crudo remains not only one of San Francisco's seafood treasures. *

655 Divisadero, SF. (415) 409-0679, www.barcrudo.com

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New cocktails now



APPETITE Wet your whistle: Here are a handful of spots in Berkeley, Sausalito, Union Square, and Hayes Valley with new drinks to put on your warm weather radar — and accompanying bites to go with.



Downtown Berkeley has never overwhelmed with excellent dining options, much as I’ve combed restaurants within the BART vicinity over the years. Gather (www.gatherrestaurant.com) is my top recommend in the area, but Oaxacan newcomer Comal promises to be a favorite. It’s owned by the former manager of the band Phish with executive chef Matt Gandin, formerly chef de cuisine at Delfina, running the kitchen. The hook for drink lovers is a cocktail menu created by the Bon Vivants (www.bonvivants-sf.com), Josh Harris and Scott Baird. I went on opening night, May 5, and no surprise from that expert bartending crew: each drink tried was a winner, featuring South of the Border spirits from tequila to mezcal.

Jack Satan ($9) is not remotely evil. Despite a tinge of heat from the “infierno tincture,” the whole effect is tart loveliness with Tres Agaves Reposado, hibiscus syrup, lime, and salt. Another immediate standout is a Black Daiquiri ($10) mixing Pampero Aniversario Rum, Averna, lime, sugar, and Chiapan coffee tincture. Tart, bitter, sweet and robust, coffee notes do not dominate but add a hint of earth and body. Mexican classics like the Paloma get the Vivants treatment — the Palomaesque ($9) which substitutes Don Amado Rustico Mezcal for tequila, ups the bitterness ante with Cocchi Americano alongside grapefruit, and rounds it all out with lime, honey, salt, soda.

Oaxacan food, one of my great cravings (mole!), is the other great draw here in the open, modern space and appealing back patio. Of initial dishes tried, duck mole coloradito (a red mole sauce) enchiladas ($14) already had me jonesing for a return. Duck mole and a little Jack Satan? Sins worth committing.

2020 Shattuck Ave., Berk. (510) 926-6300, www.comalberkeley.com



TV chef and cookbook author Joanne Weir showcases her love of tequila — and recipes from her Tequila — at Copita, Sausalito’s spanking new Mexican restaurant with sidewalk seating, open air setting, and rotisserie chicken, all a stone’s throw from the shimmering Bay. Still working out opening kinks since opening a couple weeks ago, two visits have allowed me to work my way through the entire cocktail menu and enjoyable flights (try the $20 Highlands Reposado flight: Siete Leguas, Ocho, Excellia reposados) with shots of house sangrita: tomato, pineapple, cucumber, orange, celery, ancho chile, lime.

There are cocktails like Joanne’s favorite — one I love to make at home — the Prado: Corazon blanco tequila, Luxardo maraschino liquor, lime, egg white. Fun is the spicy and smoky “Raspado”: Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal, tamarind, with a chile-salt rim hit spicy, smoky and sweet simultaneously. Add anejo to your Oaxacan chocolate milkshake ($6), and don’t miss the restaurant’s most heartwarming bite thus far: Mexico City-style quesadillas ($8), fried and filled with Yukon gold potatoes, a savory, excellent house chorizo and queso fresco with crema on top.

739 Bridgeway, Sausalito. (415) 331-7400, www.copitarestaurant.com



Grand Cafe hasn’t been the obvious place for a quality cocktail, but with new bar manager Kristin Almy on board, there’s a stronger focus on cocktails at the Hotel Monaco bar than ever before. In keeping with the restaurant, French influence resounds with cocktail names like Bardot and St. Tropez. Most drinks dwell on the softer side: fizzy, layered, delicate, though a light Napoleon’s Dynamite ($9) is a fine intro for those who don’t think they’re whiskey drinkers: Bulleit Rye, Dubbonet Rouge, lemon, and grapefruit bitters go down all too easy.

Merci ($8) is an elegant, dry aperitif ideal for afternoon or pre-dinner sipping and light on alcohol: Noilly Prat dry vermouth, sparkling wine (prosecco), and Almy’s house blackberry liqueur. A lovely Three Musicians ($9) is subtly soft, infusing tequila with piquillo peppers, mixing cucumber and lime, topping the drink with Lillet foam. Though ideally I’d like a stronger kick of heat and boldness, I see the dilemma at the Monaco: appealing to tourists and locals alike. This menu challenges the inexperienced palate with an approachable, playful whisper. Add on a round of braised ground octopus flatbread ($14) and it’s a happy hour.

501 Geary, (415) 292-0101, www.grandcafe-sf.com



With recently updated cocktail menu from former bar manager Jeff Hollinger, who went on to open Comstock Saloon (www.comstocksaloon.com) in 2010, classic stalwart Absinthe offers new drinks. If you like it sweet, but a little tart and smoky to keep things interesting, try the Sol Y Fuego, as I recently did. Bartending charmer Raoul mixed a kumquat shrub with nutty-spiced Velvet Falernum, lemon, bitters and a base of Don Amado mezcal. Savor it with fat garlic pretzel sticks dipped in fondue-like Vermont cheddar mornay. Don’t forget to finish with Absinthe’s house specialty: a flaming, cinnamon-laced Spanish coffee. Worth the spectacle alone.

398 Hayes, (415) 551-1590, www.absinthe.com

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Comforts of the flesh



APPETITE Oxtail three ways, a hammy biscuit, gourmet meatloaf… comfort comes in each of these forms at new spots (or in the case of Presidio Social Club, with a new chef) in meat dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.



Prather Ranch is to be commended for raising sustainable, humanely-reared meats with a whole-animal (let no part go to waste) sales model. I’ve long enjoyed sausages and quality meats from the Ferry Building butcher. A few months ago, Prather opened American Eatery, providing meats to go in drool-worthy dishes like Chuck Wagon chili ($6.50), a mixture of pork, pinquito beans, sharp cheddar, scallions and sour cream, or Munich-style white brockwurst sausage ($7) with whole grain mustard sauce and sauerkraut.

American Eatery executive chef Erica Holland-Toll came from the former ACME Chop House and Lark Creek Inn. Long using Prather Ranch meats at her restaurants, she was well-qualified to oversee the Ferry Building menu. Breakfast is playful with unusual offerings like braised pork scrapple ($8), a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch mix of pork trimmings, cornmeal, flour, and spices in a sort of panfried loaf. Burgers tempt, even at breakfast, particularly The Stonebreaker ($12), laden with cheese curds and meat gravy.

I go for maple-smoked ham. Try it on an Acme Torpedo roll ($10) joined by avocado and Eatwell Farms egg, perfected with basil and cheese curds. I’m particularly smitten with the maple-smoked ham and cheese biscuit ($8). The thick biscuit cushions Prather Ranch’s thinly shaved slabs of ham, San Joaquin Gold cheese, a fried egg and red eye gravy mayo. Biscuit Bender’s flaky buttermilk biscuit is the right choice. A local baker whose biscuits can also be found at Mission Cheese and Hollow, Bender wisely makes larded and non-larded versions. Ah, lard! Kudos for keeping tradition alive. I devour the sandwich with a Blue Bottle cappuccino, then sigh with contentment.

AMERICAN EATERY Ferry Building, SF. 415-391-0420 www.prmeatco.com/american-eatery



The Civic Center’s O3 Bistro and Lounge opened in January in the former, transformed California Pizza Kitchen. The sleek, open space in tones of black, silver, and purple exudes an Asian cosmopolitan feel with open windows offering a view of busy Van Ness Ave., not an obvious foodie stretch. While there’s a range of small plates ($7-12), including hoisin-glazed short ribs and ahi tuna crudo, dinner adds on pricier ($18-28) entrees such as seared scallops with lobster garlic noodles.

It’s fall-apart tender braised oxtail that calls out to me. At lunch there’s oxtail hash ($13), a mixture of caramelized onions, roasted red bell pepper, and russet potatoes over kimchi dirty rice, topped with bacon dust and a fried egg. At both lunch and dinner, find it in wonton shell tacos ($8-10) with jicama slaw. Does it get much more comforting? At a recent lunch I indulged in an oxtail grilled cheese sandwich on thick, rustic slabs of bread, sweetly glorified with five spice raisin jam. Braised oxtail any which way? Bring it on.

O3 524 Van Ness Ave., SF. 415-934-9800, www.o3restaurant.com



Possessing one of the more beautiful, unique SF dining rooms, Presidio Social Club is set in a 1903 military barracks like a sunny, white, 1940s clubhouse with hints of red and chrome. Grabbing a bar stool for an Anejo Sour or Aviation from bar manager Tim Stookey and crew is a timeless respite. The rotating barrel-aged menu pleases, particularly the Aged Reasons Rye: rye, Punt e Mes vermouth, Cointreau, orange bitters.

New chef Wes Shaw hails from Texas, working with longtime chef-owner Ray Tang on a new menu that doesn’t neglect PSC classics like a Dungeness crab Louis sandwich ($18) or above-average mac n’ cheese ($10). But he also adds vitality with TX nods, like 8-hour smoked brisket on Tuesdays or marinated calamari, kicked up with butter beans and chiles. Fresh Monterey sardines ($10) come flaky over chickpea puree, shrouded in celery, while cracked Dungeness crab or a platter of oysters (Thursdays are $1 oysters, 4-7pm) remain ideally suited eats in PSC’s crisp space.

Surprisingly, two vegetable sides ($6) are among my favorite menu items, both deftly prepared, as fresh and healthy as they are palate-satisfying. Broccoli di ciccio is tossed in lemon with garlic and chiles, while smashed peas in mint oil are brightly seductive. How about that meat? One of the best dishes on the menu remains classic meatloaf ($17), infused with new life — a seemingly bigger slice than I remember in years past. Like mom would make if mom was a gourmand, the juicy, meaty loaf rests atop a sea of mashed potatoes, crowned with slivered carrots and fried shallots for a pseudo-light finish.

PRESIDIO SOCIAL CLUB 563 Ruger, SF. 415-885-1888, www.presidiosocialclub.com

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Sushi east and west



APPETITE Despite the countless lauded sushi restaurants I’ve eaten at in NY and LA, I find San Francisco more than keeps up, whether due to the staggering range of fish (and lovably surly attitude) Roger delivers at Zushi Puzzle (www.zushipuzzle.com) (pencilfish or flying fish, anyone?), the sustainable efforts of Tataki (www.tatakisushibar.com) and Sebo (www.sebosf.com), or the pristine precision of Sausalito stalwart Sushi Ran (www.sushiran.com), which tops overrated Nobu (www.noburestaurants.com) restaurants, in my book.

Here is one new SF spot and one revamped Berkeley restaurant adding more welcome sushi diversity to the Bay Area.



Why couldn’t Saru Sushi Bar have been in Noe Valley all the years I lived right by this 24th Street storefront? The space’s original two sushi incarnations were less than desirable, where I was once subjected to smelly, rubbery fish. The closet-sized restaurant is completely revamped to the unrecognizable point. Still tiny, it feels roomier with large front windows and sleek brown color scheme. Cheery service pleasantly elevates the experience, particularly on a sunny day at lunch.

I’d claim the space has finally arrived. There’s not just the usual hamachi and sake (salmon), but rather playful, unique bites prepared with care. “Spicy cracker” ($7) is a sheet of seaweed fried in tempura, topped with spicy tuna and avocado — a textural bite. Bright halibut tartare is drizzled in lime zest, yuzu juice, and Japanese sea salt. Though I ever appreciate sampling options, some tasting spoons ($7) work better than others. One that worked: young yellowtail (kanpachi) in truffle oil and ponzu sauce, with garlic chips and scallions.

I know I’m good hands if raw spot prawns (amaebi) are on the nigiri menu ($7 two pieces). Bright and firm, they taste as if they were caught fresh that morning. Snappy rolls (maki) are not overwrought. Quality raw scallops are a favorite, so I appreciate Naked Scallop ($12), a roll wrapped in light green soy paper, filled with snow crab, avocado, masago (smelt roe), and, of course, scallop. Not near as junk-food-sushi as it sounds, is the fresh, fun, subtly crispy Popcorn Tuna roll ($10): panko-crusted spicy tuna is topped with masago (smelt roe), scallions, spicy mayo, and a sweet soy glaze.

Noe Valley finally has a destination sushi bar.

3856 24th St., SF. (415) 400-4510, www.akaisarusf.com



At first glance, Joshu-ya Brasserie could be another hip Berkeley student hang-out: a funky, converted old house with red-gated front patio. But step inside the recently remodeled space and bamboo and dark wood exude an Old World Zen. A fountain out front murmurs soothingly while the sun warms the partially covered patio.

A chalkboard lists fish specials, but also rabbit tacos and Kobe kimchi sliders (the latter cooked too medium-well for me). One immediately realizes this is no typical sushi or even Japanese restaurant. Young executive chef-owner Jason Kwon’s vision is bigger. Yes, he is going for the Bay Area standard of seasonal, sustainable, locally-sourced ingredients — after all, he founded Couteaux Review (www.couteauxreview.com), a culinary organization promoting sustainable agriculture. But French influence and unique twists keep things interesting, with dishes like pan-roasted rib-eye medallions in blackberry balsamic reduction, or duck confit with buckwheat noodles, nori and bonito flakes. In some ways, the vision feels beyond what the restaurant has yet fully grown into, but the intriguing elements hold promise.

The $35 omakase is a steal, particularly when chef Kwon informs you his fish supplier is the same one that French Laundry and Morimoto buy from. After a starter of seared albacore, fresh and bright, if a little too doused in fried onions and ponzu sauce, a giant, artistic sashimi platter hits a number of high notes with actual fresh wasabi (always a good sign), aji tataki (horse mackerel) from Japan, kanpachi (young yellowtail) from Hawaii, hirame (halibut) from Korea, and chu-toro (bluefin tuna) from Spain. Only one fish on the platter arrived too cold and firm. The rest were silky and satisfying.

Being less of a sweet tooth, I’d rather have finished the omakase with another savory dish than tempura red bean ice cream. Generous scoops of fried ice cream and pound cake were a little weighted after such a refreshing meal. Seared salmon in truffle creme sounds like a fine dessert to me.

2441 Dwight Way, Berk. (510) 848-5260, www.joshu-ya.com

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Upper highs, Valley loves



APPETITE I’m constantly asked what my favorite restaurant is. It’s an impossible question. Inquire about my favorite taqueria, German spot, tea house, French bistro, and I’m ready to talk. There’s a favorite for every style and mood in a metropolitan city such as ours. My current home is on the cusp of Haight-Ashbury and Cole Valley, which, like every neighborhood in our food-rich city, has its treasures. We’ll breeze past the touristy swill and explore its best here. Find more of my picks in this neighborhood, from coffee to cocktails, here.



Thank God for The Alembic. The bar has been one of SF’s best since it opened, thanks to bar manager Daniel Hyatt, whose expertise in American whiskeys equals an ahead-of-the-curve selection. Alembic claims many gifted bartenders, like Danny Louie and Janiece Gonzalez, and I’m never disappointed when asking for an off-menu cocktail creation. The food is destination-worthy in its own right — maybe the best in the Haight. Whether at the bar with jerk-spiced duck hearts and a bowl of shishito peppers, or dining on caramelized scallops and sweetbreads over kabocha squash spaetzle, I continue to be satisfied.

1725 Haight, SF. (415) 666-0822, www.alembicbar.com



Owner and brewmaster Dave McLean opened Magnolia Brewery more than 14 years ago, brewing the best beers in SF (in my humble opinion). Magnolia’s space has Old World, gastropub charm in black leather and wood booths and antique floor tiles. It serves the best brunch in the area — sorry, Zazie and Pork Store — which includes BBQ belly over Anson Mills cheddar grits, or quinoa hash and eggs if you want to cut down the fat quotient. For lunch and dinner, house sausages delight (rabbit currywurst!) as does savory mushroom bread pudding or a near-perfect Magnolia pub burger.

1398 Haight, SF. (415) 864-7468, www.magnoliapub.com



Upper Haight’s best hidden gem is Giovanni’s, a pizza kitchen in the back of Club Deluxe (eat in the bar or take-out). Giovanni’s pies aren’t so much Neapolitan perfection as a mix between Italian and East Coast styles, with a classic margherita and spicy Diavola, laden with pepperoncini, salami, Parmigiano, and a Belizean hot sauce. Save room for a West Coast rarity: a fresh cannoli, sweet ricotta stuffing brightened with orange blossom oil. Club Deluxe’s drinks are of the mojito, greyhound kind. Not exactly a cocktailian destination. What makes Deluxe special? Nightly live jazz in a well-loved bar that thankfully hasn’t changed decor for decades, with a 1950s, cozy bar feel. Bands rotate: trios, duos, quartets, even organ acts, providing some of the best jazz in the city, usually free. If only, like New Orleans, our neighborhoods were lined with such clubs.

1511 Haight, SF. (415) 552-6948, www.sfclubdeluxe.com



I wrote much of Ice Cream Bar back in February, so I’ll send you to the review detailing my fascination with this one-of-a-kind, 1930s-era soda fountain. It’s my top pick for dessert.

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



Parada 22 is a vibrant little space with aquamarine walls and vintage South American food products lining the shelves. The casual eatery feels vacation-like, offering Puerto Rican food. My favorite dish here is camarones a la Criolla: sauteed shrimp, tomato and onions in a dreamy-light cream sauce. Sides like plantains and red or white beans in sofrito-based sauces, are fresh and appealing. The restaurant has recently joined forces with sister restaurant Boogaloos (www.boogaloossf.com) in the Mission, serving Boogaloos’ brunch menu every weekend.

1805 Haight, SF. (415) 750-1111, www.parada22.com



Haight-Ashbury has two unexpectedly strong Thai spots serving authentic dishes. Ploy II is upstairs in an old Victorian space, with weathered carpet and decor (elephants, tapestries) straight out of Chang Mai’s Night Bazaar. It does standards well, and I crave the mango panang curry: spicy, creamy with coconut milk and peanut sauce. Siam Lotus also is reliable on Thai classics, though it’s the daily changing chef’s special board that sets it apart. Thankfully on the permanent menu, the Thai tacos are a must. Though the paper thin crepes fall apart at the touch, a filling of ground chicken, shredded coconut, mini-shrimp, and peanuts makes for one of the more fun Thai dishes anywhere.

Ploy II: 1770 Haight, SF. (415) 387-9224, www.ployii.com

Siam Lotus: 1705 Haight, SF. www.siamlotussf.com



Hama-Ko husband-and-wife owners Tetsuo and Junko Kashiyama open only when they feel ready and usually treat regulars best, service is slow, and certainly there are no California rolls. But this nearly 30-year-old classic is one of those neighborhood secrets that locals return to and sushi devotees enjoy. It’s straightforward sushi: silky scallops, bright-as-the-sea tai (red snapper), melt-in-your-mouth unagi avocado maki. You won’t find the variety of rare fish found at Zushi Puzzle (www.zushipuzzle.com), but you will find impeccable freshness — Tetsuo sources his fish from the same place The French Laundry and Chez Panisse gets theirs, he proudly tells me — from a couple who cares.

108 Carl, SF. (415) 753-6808

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All together now



APPETITE Incredible burgers in a bowling alley, SF’s deaf community gathering over Neapolitan pizzas, brothers serving food from their hometown of Nice in a tiny restaurant, dining around a U-shaped counter off a FiDi alley… each of the restaurants below opened within the last 6 months, providing a unique communal experience (and, most important, fine food to go with) that makes one feel like actually engaging with, rather than ignoring, fellow diners.



Mission Bowling Club (MBC) is one badass bowling alley. Squeaky clean hipster all the way: there’s no funky smell or dated dinginess in this brand new space. Open and industrial, it boasts a front patio, separate dining room downstairs and one upstairs overseeing six lanes and a wood-lined bar area. Cheer on bowlers from comfy couches while sipping a cocktail (solid, though not noteworthy drinks) and filling up on French onion casserole.

As soon as I heard chef Anthony Myint, Mission Chinese Food and Mission Street Food wunderkind, would oversee the menu, it was easy to guess MBC was going to boast exceptional food. The beloved Mission Burger ($15, $10 during happy hour) is back. I missed the rich, granulated patty, lathered in caper aioli. An avowed carnivore, I was shocked to find the vegan burger ($10) is almost as exciting. A fried chickpea, kale, shitake fritter is brightened up with sambal (Indian chili sauce), guacamole, and fennel slaw. A juicy sausage corn dog ($7) arrives upright in molecular fashion, standing watch over a dollop of habanero crema. Only a hard, small “everything pretzel” ($5) disappointed. Not bad for a bowling alley.

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



Brothers Jerome and Stephane Meloni from Nice infuse their Italian heritage and French upbringing in Italian and Niçoise dishes. I enjoyed Stephane’s cooking at their former Restaurant Cassis, a far roomier Pac Heights space, but their tiny new Castagna lends itself to connection. Stephane cooks within full view, Jerome interacts with diners, and I found myself in conversation with tables next to me. On a good night, it exudes that neighborhood conviviality found in similar-sized restaurants around Europe. Decor isn’t particularly memorable, though red walls always bring a space to life.

Sticking closer to tradition is the best way to navigate Castagna’s menu. Stephane’s classic Niçoise caramelized onion tart ($7.50) is the best dish, silky with caramelized onions in a flaky crust, with (the good stuff) white anchovies on the side, which they explained neighborhood diners weren’t quite ready for — I say place them on top and let diners sort it out. I found the steak in my steak frites ($18) too well done (medium rare, please) despite a lush green peppercorn sauce. I’d opt instead for French-style campagnarde pizza ($15), in the spirit of flammkuchen (Alsatian flatbread), covered in potato sauce, bacon, crème fraîche and raclette.

2015 Chestnut, SF. (415) 440-4290, www.castagnasf.com



The communal award could easily go to the Mission’s Mozzeria. Maybe we didn’t need an umpteenth Neapolitan pizza place, but there’s none quite like this, run by a deaf couple and staff. San Francisco’s deaf community gathers en masse at a hangout where speaking with your eyes and hands is as important as speaking verbally. Of course, verbal processors are welcome, too.

The dining bar is my preferred perch, particularly to engage with chef Russell Stein (who co-owns Mozzeria with wife Melody). He’s hilarious and reads lips like a master, joking with diners as he spreads ingredients over wheels of dough before popping them into a wood-burning oven. His heartwarming Neapolitan pizzas ($12-18) are topped with the likes of caramelized onion, pancetta, mozzarella or goat cheese and eggplant. I must admit, my favorite item, Mozzeria bar ($8), isn’t the most gourmet, but hearkens back to my Jersey youth. Let’s call it what it is: a fried mozzerella cheese log doused in pomodoro sauce and basil. Sheer comfort.

3228 16th St., SF. (415) 489-0963, www.mozzeria.com



Claudine’s chic cafe charms. Big picture windows and corner space on an alley up a half flight of stairs appeal, while a u-shaped bar creates a convivial dining experience, the bar is so small so you can’t help but exchange good will with neighboring patrons. You can dine at a table, but the bar is far more fun, and works for a casual meal all day.

Much has been made of the meatball, kale, and fregola soup ($7/10), and rightly so. It is an unexpected culinary delight: olive oil-laced broth, laden with Parmesan, onions, carrots. I can be bored by broth soups at times, but this one holds my interest with plump veal-pork-beef meatballs and pleasantly soggy kale. Roasted mussels ($12 and $17) arrive aromatic with fennel sausage in lemon and white wine, while even avocado toast ($12) delights topped with dill gravlax, Spanish black radish, and lemon. Leave room at the end for Claudine favorite s’mores ($7) baked in a glass bowl with layers of marshmallow and chocolate on graham cracker crust. My meals at dinner have been more satisfying than at lunch, but each visit improves my opinion.

8 Claude Lane, SF. (415) 362-1988, www.myclaudine.com *

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Gourmet fresh (and cheap)



APPETITE Trekking around the Bay for what is not at all elusive — excellent food — is ever a pleasure. Finding it on the cheap? Options are endless. Sandwiches stand as one of the easiest ways to fill up for less, making the continued glut of sandwich openings unsurprising. (Check out the Richmond’s new Chomp n’ Swig — hard to top the Bacon Butter Crunch sandwich: white cheddar, tomato, bits of bacon, guacamole. Or in the Mission, the Galley inside Clooney’s Pub at 1401 Valencia serves a meaty French Onion sandwich, yes, like the soup and oh so good.) Beyond mere sandwiches, here are some other affordable delights.




West Portal is lucky to claim new Market and Rye, from Top Chef alum Ryan Scott. What could be just another sandwich shop is instead an airy, high-ceilinged cafe in yellows and whites under skylights. Salted rye bread is made specifically for the spot by North Beach’s classic Italian French Baking Company (IFBC’s sourdough and wheat bread choices are also available).

Sandwiches ($8.50–9) offer enough playful touches to keep them unique, like Funyuns on roast beef or Cool Ranch Doritos adding crunch to chicken salad layered with avocado spread and pepper jack. I took to the Reuben chicken meatball sandwich on salted rye, its generous contents falling out all over the place, overflowing with 1000 Island dressing, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, red cabbage caraway slaw, and house chicken meatballs. I almost didn’t miss the corned beef.

Build-your-own-salads offer healthy alternatives, while above average sides ($4 per scoop, $7.50 2 scoops, $10.50 3 scoops) are generous helpings of the likes of roasted zucchini tossed with cherry tomatoes and boccaccini (mini mozzarella balls), enlivened by mint vinaigrette. The side that didn’t work for me was grilled broccoli. It appeared green and verdant, dotted with ricotta and walnuts in red wine dressing, but was so cold, its flavor was stunted.

Housemade root beer float “Twinkies” ($3.50) are a fun finish, though Twinkie-lovers be aware: these are dense, dark cakes filled with a dreamy root beer float cream, neither fluffy nor spongy.

68 West Portal Ave., SF. (415) 564-5950



A jaunt to Jerrold and Third Street leads to a food truck parked in a Bayview oasis: a parking lot filled with picnic tables, potted cacti, and herbs used for cooking. All Good Pizza — open weekdays only: 10am-2pm — just launched this month from neighborhood locals desiring healthy food and “good, sincere pizza,” with a real commitment to the area (check out the site’s community page).

The lot invites lingering over cracker-thin pizzas (a steal at $7), from a basic Margherita to a spicy pie dotted with peppers, fennel, mozzarella, and Louisiana hot links smoked on site. The trailer houses a 650 degree gas-fired oven. These aren’t game-changing pies but there’s nothing like it in the ‘hood — nor are there many healthy salads, like a kale, radicchio, sweet potato crisps, Parmesan, balsamic reserva combo. There are also panini sandwiches ($7) such as a pig-heavy, super salty Nola Muffaletta: Genoa salami, smoked ham, olive salad, fior di latte mozzarella, and provolone cheese.

Italian sodas ($2.50) are all made on premises, like a candy sweet coconut soda evoking coconut oil, beaches and vacation. All this in a Bayview parking lot.

1605 Jerrold Ave., SF. (415) 846-6960, www.allgoodpizza.com



A close childhood pal is Russian and her mother and grandmother often home-baked us unforgettable treats as kids, from blintzes to piroshkis, those little baked buns stuffed with goodness. I still dream of them — a rarity in this town. Not even in Chicago or NY have I tasted any piroshkis as fresh as those at Anda Piroshki, a stall in the tiny but idyllic 331 Cortland marketplace housing a few take-out food purveyors. I’ve eaten Anda at SF Street Food Fest, but the ideal is to arrive at 331 soon after it opens when piroshkis are pulled from the oven piping hot.

The dough is airy yet dense, ever-so-subtly sweet, like a glorified Hawaiian roll. No skimping on fillings — one piroshki ($3.75–4.50) fills me up. Sustainable meats and local ingredients make them relatively guilt-free. Try a button mushroom piroshki overflowing with fresh spinach, or one of ground beef, rice and Swiss, oozing comfort. My favorite is Atlantic smoked salmon and cream cheese accented by black pepper and dill. It makes a savory, creamy breakfast.

The one downside has been a straight-faced, disinterested server who could not be bothered as I asked a question about Russian sodas (like Kvass, a fermented rye soda — pleasing rye notes if too saccharine) and acted the same when I returned a second time… a stark contrast to the friendliness I encounter at every other 331 business. But momentary coldness is still worth those warm piroshkis.

331 Cortland Ave., SF. (415) 271-9055, www.andapiroshki.com

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