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Restaurant Review

Restaurant 1833



APPETITE There’s nothing quite like Monterey’s Restaurant 1833 in San Francisco. Yes, we boast fantastic food, cocktails, wine and beer lists that are competitive with the best in the world. But 1833’s magical setting sets it apart, truly the whole package. Housed in an adobe structure from 1833 (hence the name), I was captivated from the moment I stood on the patio lined with firepits, beneath a sprawling oak. A giant palm tree and redwoods tower over an expansive side deck. 1833 evokes New Orleans or haunted Savannah in Spanish-influenced California architecture.

A broad wood door opens onto a series of enchanting rooms. Red velvet antique couches sit in front of a roaring library fireplace, an absinthe bar is tucked away upstairs, dining rooms are presided over by ghosts that have haunted the house over a century (note Hattie’s Room upstairs). There’s an intimate, one-table dining room, Gallitan’s Room, with a boar’s head guarding relics from the restaurant’s former incarnation as Gallatin’s, a restaurant where presidents and movie stars dined in decades past. The bar is mesmerizing — an illuminated white onyx top glows under slanted roof rafters, imbibers perched in coveted raised booths gaze down at the scene.

But what about the food? This no style-over-substance scenario. Chef Levi Mezick’s menu wanders from whole-roasted meats to pizzas and pastas. There’s bone-in ribeye for two ($75) or a real splurge (temporary until the foie ban kicks in this June) of whole roasted lobe of foie gras ($150). Whole truffle chicken ($38) is blissfully decadent. The chicken is brined for two days with truffle butter injected under the skin. Pizzas ($16-17) are topped with Dungeness crab and leeks or pineapple and sopressatta, while dense, pillowy gnocchi ($22) rest in Parmesan cream with Swiss chard, chanterelles, pickled onions, and crispy croutons.

Appetizers shine, like a delicate beet salad ($12) accented with Greek yogurt and hazelnuts, or a heartwarming helping of bone marrow ($16) with horseradish crust. Bites offer more gourmet delights, particularly fresh, raw hamachi ($6) dotted with pickled jalapenos, avocado, oranges. Among the best items on the entire menu are $4 biscuits: sundried tomato feta biscuits with roasted garlic basil butter or a bacon cheddar biscuit with maple chili butter. Both are flaky, dreamy delights, warm and soft under a smear of butter.

Generous portions leave you fat and contented, while drink offerings threaten to outshine the food. Wine director Ted Glennon curates a playful, sophisticated wine list highlighting the best of the Central Coast and the world. His passion and palate have deservedly led to accolades such as being named one of 2012’s Food and Wine’s top 10 sommeliers. Glennon’s wine list is whimsically annotated with comments such as this one about Chardonnay: “The blonde bombshell has taken the hearts of so many…”


There’s no slacker in any of his pairings. I was absolutely smitten with 2000 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rosé ($50 bottle). This stunning rosé is unlike any I’ve ever had, crisp and acidic, yes, but also funky, earthy, with notes of mushroom and ripe cheese. As it sits it sweetens, evoking sherry while maintaining its crispness.

Local highlights were 2006 Caraccioli Cellars Santa Lucia Highlands Brut Rosé, a dry, floral, sparkling beauty, and 2007 Pelerin Wines Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, from a Santa Lucia micro-winery producing age-worthy California Pinot. With acidity and body, green tea and licorice notes play with cranberry and dark cherry — lovely with the truffled chicken.

As a cocktail destination, 1833 has no equal in the entire area. Bar manager Michael Lay oversees aging cocktails in barrels with colonial names like Betsy and Abigail. Lay’s talent is apparent in a range of classically influenced cocktails like Commander in Chief ($11), Bulleit Rye whiskey, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, Campari, Cherry Heering, and orange bitters with a peaty Laphroaig Scotch rinse.

Besides a tableside absinthe cart (brilliant), offering some of my favorites like Duplais or Vieux Pontarlier, Lay makes a mean Hot Buttered Rum prepared tableside. His recipe is perked up with pumpkin pie spice and lemon peel. My favorite cocktail here is a twist on the Penicillin, a Penicillin No. 2 ($11). Instead of Scotch, Lay uses Tres Agaves Reposado Tequila and tops the drink with smoky mezcal, alongside the usual lemon and candied ginger. Further fun is had comparing barrel-aged Negronis, a nine-week-aged Abigail ($12) using Tanqueray gin, Campari, Amaro Nonino, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, and Ruth-Anne, a more gin-forward Negroni.

We’ve seen each of these parts, yes, but not this exact whole. I long for more settings in my own city as bewitching and multifaceted as 1833. Thankfully, Monterey is not too far away. *


500 Hartnell, Monterey

(831) 643-1833


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Southern obsession



APPETITE Southern food has a profound hold on me. No, I’m not a Southerner — but few cuisines the world over elicit in me such yearning and comfort. Finding the real deal in the Bay Area is tricky, although a recent Southern trend has helped. Aside from my beloved Brenda’s and delightful Boxing Room, the following spots fulfill cravings.



Recently opened downtown, Hops and Hominy has the charm of being tucked away at the end of an alley off bustling Grant Ave. I must admit, when I saw packed crowds and a neon maraschino cherry (versus a quality brandied one) in my cocktail, I doubted H&H, opened by three Florida natives. But in this early stage, it shows promise.

Despite the cherry and too much ice, a Smoked Bacon Old Fashioned was more balanced than I expected. Using Bulleit bourbon infused with bacon, the drink is thankfully light on maple syrup. This is not exactly a cocktailian’s destination but you can get a decent beverage. Better to go with the beer menu: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA and Ommegang Hennepin Saison are examples of the greats they have on tap.

In terms of food, a couple dishes jump out. The most unusual for this setting is espresso-cured chocolate duck ($12). Rare duck is perched on a potato pancake with mascarpone drizzled on top. Chocolate and coffee notes are subtle, adding an unexpected seductiveness to the dish. While the potato pancake doesn’t exactly fit, it doesn’t detract either. Mac ‘n cheese is so common, but here, served piping hot in a skillet ($8), it’s oozing with cheddar goodness and typical house cured bacon. Crispy sage leaves elevate it.

Buttermilk battered chicken ($19) is not the best in town, but free-range chicken is tender and generously portioned. This dish is an ideal way to also try the mac and cheese, a companion along with Brussels sprouts. Deep water shrimp and cheesy Southern grits ($19) work but don’t recall the best of the South.

1 Tillman Pl., SF. (415) 373-6341, www.hopsandhominy.com



Hog and Rocks has grown into one of our great casual gathering spots, with better-than-ever cocktails and food, and a winning American whiskey selection. I’ve been a huge fan of the ham platters (the hog) and oyster selection (the rocks) since they opened, particularly when H&R offer such incredible Southern hams as one from Tennessee’s G&W Hamery, lightly drizzled with sweet Fresno chili syrup.

The impetus for recent visits was a new Scott Beattie-designed cocktail menu and new bar manager Michael Lazar. There are longtime Beattie favorites on the menu, like the fall-influenced, whiskey-apple-ginger lushness of his John Chapman. (Oh, that Thai coconut foam!)

Two original drinks are Lazar’s bright Calabria ($11) — Old Grandad 114 bourbon, bergamot, honey, and Averna, bright with ginger beer — and Beattie’s Coastal Collins ($10.50) which stood out with St. George’s fabulous Terroir gin, lemon, soda, bay laurel and huckleberries. It’s a refreshing, herbaceous sipper. Ask Lazar to make you a Hanky Panky, a classic London Savoy cocktail. Lazar tweaks the measurements of gin, sweet vermouth, and Fernet Branca for a more complex, sexy whole.

Foodwise, I’ve long found the pimento cheese in a jar ($7.50) the best in town — bordering on addictive. Recent enjoyments include hefty meatballs ($12.50) in whiskey barbecue sauce over cheddar cheese grits and white cabbage, and fat cheddar beer sausages ($13.50). Standout dish: a Berkshire pork cutlet ($16), prepared like German schnitzel (pounded flat, breaded), in a smoky maple syrup and hot pepper relish alongside Red Russian kale evoking collard greens. Here’s to chef Scott Youkilis’ upcoming BBQ venture across the street, Hi-Lo, due to open this Summer.

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



The Front Porch’s garage sale, drafty charm still works. Over the years, it’s been a consistent source of quality, quirky Southern eats in cozy, worn red booths beneath pressed tin ceilings.

Crab fritters ($9) won me over immediately, packed with fresh, flaky crab meat, dipped in remoulade. Discounting Brenda’s incomparable take and 1300 on Fillmore’s refined twist, Front Porch serves the best shrimp n’ grits in town ($18.50). Bacon and less traditional wild mushrooms add heft to white wine-doused arbuckle grits. The Porch does right by fried chicken ($17 for 3 pieces, $34 for 9 pieces). Though it’s not the ultimate version, tender Rocky Jr. organic chicken satisfies alongside garlic mashed potatoes and collard greens.

You could do worse than finishing with an Abita root beer float — add in bourbon, if you like. Then head across to the street to new sister location, the comfy, divey Rock Bar for a nightcap.

65A 29th St., SF. (415) 695-7800, www.thefrontporchsf.com *

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Lunch hour, part 2



APPETITE Last week we covered four notable new lunch spots. This week, we round off the list with four more.



I said it a year ago when Wise Sons Deli was merely a pop-up and Ferry Plaza outpost: it is refreshing to have this quality level of Jewish food in San Francisco. Lines still run out the door in the brand new brick and mortar location — good luck finding many “off” hours to drop in. But how can I not be delighted to have fresh-baked loaves of rye bread, corned beef hash, and matzo brei available six days a week? (Don’t worry, you can still catch the Sons on your Tuesday commute at Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.)

Order: Chocolate babka bread ($3.50 per hefty slice; sometimes available as a bread pudding) is dreamy. Earthy-sweet chocolate and a crunchy crust weave together in a bread that is better than coffee cake. Chopped liver ($7) is appealing even to those skittish about liver. Challah French toast ($9) is fluffy and sweetened with orange butter and maple syrup. House-baked bialy fills a bagel void, layered with cream cheese ($3) and seasonal smoked fish like salmon or smoked trout ($8/$11). The Sons address my craving for whitefish salad with smoked trout salad ($9), wisely using a more sustainable fish choice. Don’t forget hand-sliced pastrami or corned beef and an egg cream soda. One can only hope the meaty, pastrami bread pudding I sampled at an opening party shows up on the specials board.

3150 24th St., SF. (415) 787-3354, www.wisesonsdeli.com



Square Meals is just what Polk Street needed: a friendly neighborhood café with eat-in, delivery, or take-out foods and dinners, delectable baked goods and sweets from Batter Bakery, (www.batterbakery.com) — the two enterprises share cafe space — Ritual coffee, a wine happy hour, and board games to play in a mellow setting. Offerings include cool, subtle soba noodles with crab, mint, chili, and escarole, plus lasagna, pork schnitzel, flank steak, falafel patties.

Order: The lunch highlight is a daily sandwich special, such as tender halibut enlivened with strips of bacon and silky caramelized onions ($13). Don’t miss Batter Bakery’s sand angel cookie, a glorified, denser snickerdoodle.

2127 Polk, SF. (415) 674-1069, www.squaremealssf.com



Rocketfish (www.rocketfishsf.com) is a happening Potrero Hill sushi restaurant. But by day, it is transformed into Korean fusion (yes, I used the dread “f” word) pop-up Seoul Patch. A few menu items rotate, with a couple more traditional Korean dishes in the mix. Eat in at Rocketfish’s bar top or roomy booths.

Order: A fried chicken sandwich ($10) with daikon slaw has been an early favorite, and with good reason. The chicken is blessed with subtle Asian spices, crispy breading giving way to juicy meat within. The sandwiches can suffer from not enough sauce or contrast, translating to dryness, as in the case of a Korean BBQ pork sando ($8.50) with avocado, tempura onion ring, and a pickle. Though the spicy pork was well-prepared, the sandwich needed a sauce to tie it together. Traditional Korean dishes like bibimbap ($11 for this rice bowl with bulgogi beef and fried egg) are better elsewhere. I prefer a green onion pancake ($5.50) that recalls Japanese okonomiyaki: chewy and moist, it’s dotted with bacon and kimchi, drizzled in kewpie (Japanese mayo with vinegar) and oko sauce, both typically used on okonomiyaki.

1469 18th St., SF. (415) 282-9666, seoulpatchsf.tumblr.com



Industrial South San Francisco roads near SFO are certainly not the place most of us would head for lunch, and certainly not for lobster. But look for the new, bright red truck off Mitchell Avenue, right outside seafood-shellfish source New England Lobster. The best lobster rolls I’ve had have been from the East Coast — the divine, overflowing rolls at Pearl’s Oyster Bar in New York’s Greenwich Village have been excellent for years. But despite the New England moniker, this lobster is not the most flavorful nor is the bread that dreamy, buttery brioche used in the best lobster rolls. Nonetheless, they are satisfying sandwiches, particularly if you ask for drawn butter to drizzle over them.

Order: Lobster corn chowder ($5) is essentially a creamy bisque dotted with corn and chunks of lobster. It’s decadent with a lobster roll. The only other option is a crab roll. If you happen to be nearby or on need lunch before a flight, this is a fun, unusual option.

170 Mitchell, South San Francisco. (650) 873-9000, www.newenglandlobster.net

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Lunch hour



APPETITE Lunch-hour quality advances around town with a slew of notable openings or recently launched lunch menus. In a two part series (click here for part two), here are some of the best new mid-day meals.


Nombe faced a bit of a struggle recovering from uber-talented chef Nick Balla’s departure to Bar Tartine. The Mission izakaya now boasts of new executive chef Noriyuki Sugie, who has cooked in NY, Chicago, France, Sydney and the like. With Sugie’s cooking, Nombe proves to be as much a gem as it ever was. An excellent sake list and caring service set it apart, but wait till you try Sugie’s ramen (thankfully just added to the dinner menu in addition to lunch). There’s a lot of great ramen out there, but I tend to be one of the unconverted who registers ramen’s comfort factor but can often find the taste bland. I realize once I finally fulfill my dream of traveling to Japan, I may change my mind, particularly if ramen tastes like Sugie’s.

Order: Ramen noodles are house made, subtly chewy, with accompanying meat. While I enjoy options like oxtail, my favorite is a heaping bowl of beef cheek ramen ($13). The tender meat is savory and robust… and, oh, the broth! No blandness here — it’s layered with flavor. Scallions, mushrooms, umami foam, and soy-marinated egg add extra dimension. If not ordering sake, try the matcha ice milk or lavender oolong ice tea ($4 each) to drink.

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


Laid-back Bernal Heights claims one of the best new lunch spots in town. 903 just opened weeks ago from owners of nearby Sandbox Bakery. As with Sandbox, Asian influences enliven American food. The former Maggie Mudd’s space was dim and unmemorable, but they’ve transformed it with soothing colors, flowers, a communal table, and bench dotted with pillows. There are bento boxes of chicken tsukune or miso salmon, while the bulk of the daytime-only menu is sandwiches and a few breakfast items.

Order: Crispy shrimp balls in a challah hot dog bun ($8.50) may not jump off the menu, but juicy shrimp lightly fried in three crispy balls in a bun are delightful, particularly with garlic aioli, Sriracha, and sweet and sour plum sauce. The one vegetarian sandwich is no afterthought. Baked tofu ($7.50) has more texture and flavor than is typical on a “burger bun” made entirely of rice (which is also available with the Japanese karaage fried chicken sandwich). Pickled carrots, soy tahini, baby greens, and a layer of nori complete the sandwich.

903 Cortland, SF.


The TenderNob has a new destination café in Sweet Woodruff, the casual second space opened by owners of upscale Sons and Daughters. With an open kitchen, high ceilings, muted gray-blue walls, and stools lining rustic wood counter tops, the place feels completely San Francisco, with expected gourmet elevation of sandwiches and casual dishes. Takeout is ideal for nearby workers, but giant, corner windows make it a welcome place downtown to linger.

Order: Pheasant hot pocket ($7) is the most playful of early offerings. A flaky phyllo pastry stuffed with peas, carrots, and, of course, pheasant is warm and comforting. Cream of parsley root soup ($6) nurtures, set apart with green garlic, pine nuts and a welcome tinge of sweetness from golden raisins. A suckling pig sandwich ($9.50) is appropriately tender, contrasted by pickles, though with ghost pepper aioli I expected serious heat (not so). For dessert, a peanut and sweet soy tart ($4).

798 Sutter, SF. (415) 292-9090, www.sweetwoodruffsf.com


While I enjoyed Rockridge’s Wood Tavern from the first time I visited years ago, I didn’t exactly rush out after hearing about its sandwich offshoot last year on the same block, Southie. Do we really need another pork sandwich spot in the Bay? But I was pleasantly surprised to find Southie’s sandwiches among the better I’ve had all year. Wine on tap makes lingering at high tables in the narrow space a pleasant lunch respite.

Order: A Dungeness crab roll ($18) trumps most crab sandwiches. On a buttery brioche, it explodes with succulent crab meat. Celery root remoulade and Meyer lemon brown butter elevate it to near perfection. An expensive sandwich to be sure, but there was no skimping on the crab. “Spicy Hog” ($10) is the popular pulled pork sandwich on an Acme roll. Again, it seems everyone is doing a Southern-influenced pork sandwich these days, but Southie’s is strong, loaded with coleslaw, pickled jalapeno, and lime aioli.

6311 College, Oakl. (510) 654-0100, www.southieoakland.com 

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APPETITE While I miss the sophisticated, out-of-the-box cocktails of former bar managers Carlo Splendorini and Alex Smith (they both continue to craft excellent drinks, Splendorini at Michael Mina, Smith at Honor Bar), I am pleased to say Gitane, one of the sexiest spots in all of SF, is still a drink-worthy location. I’d be remiss not to likewise return to the Moroccan and Spanish-influenced menu that chef Bridget Batson has been rocking for years.

Sitting at Gitane’s bar under massive chandeliers and deep red tapestries, in a narrow, high-ceilinged space, one feels tucked away in some secret European bordello. The tiny, upstairs dining room is equally seductive and intimate, with a view over the bar. Perched on velvety bar stool, I find an ideal locale for drinks, food and chatting with fellow diners.

Batson’s grilled calamari ($16) stuffed with bacon and onion, and her unparalleled lamb tartare ($18) with three spreads remain top dishes on the menu. Bastilla ($13) and chicken breast tajine ($22) are still Moroccan highlights. Bright and wintery, a citrics salad ($12) is tangerines, cara cara and blood oranges vivid on chicories with Serrano ham in a pumpkin seed pesto.

On the entrée front, Caille ($28) is a hearty quail overflowing with chorizo apple stuffing over celery root gratin in pool of cider jus. I can’t imagine doing much better for a simple meal than a coca (Catalan flatbread, $15–$16) and a cocktail. The coca bread bubbles not unlike a blistered Neapolitan pizza crust. Go the vegetarian route topped with wild mushroom, drunken goat cheese, and oregano, or with my favorite, layered with Serrano ham, Bosc pears, manchego cheese, and thyme.

Keeping food pairing ever in mind, the current bar menu focuses on low alcohol cocktails. The bar is now helmed by Ramon Garcia who worked with both former bar managers. He maintains Gitane’s ethos, its continued sherry focus, its gypsy spirit (Gitane means gypsy, after all). Ramon assembled a new menu with spirits expert and Yamazaki Japanese whiskey brand ambassador Neyah White, who, even after all this time, I still miss behind the bar at Nopa.

There’s a lovely nod to cocktails created here in the past: two classic Gitane recipes are rotated regularly on the menu. The bulk of the new menu goes global, wandering Romany-like with various bartenders from around the world, featuring their best sherry cocktails. In keeping with the gypsy theme, the bar will feature a different spirit every couple months from their extensive collection, showcasing cocktails and traditional serving preparations, like Italian amaro on the rocks in the summer.

From the cocktail list, one of Neyah’s Nopa greats, a Sherry Shrub, is a mix of merely two ingredients: barbadillo manzanilla sherry and a seasonal fruit based shrub (a vinegar-based syrup): sour, vibrant, and palate-cleansing. I’m taken with the Bamboo, by Tokyo bartending legend Hidetsugu Ueno, of Bar High Five: dry and refined, combining dry vermouth, amontillado sherry, and two 1890s bitters recipes created by Louis Eppinger at the Yokohoma Grand Hotel.

On a warmer day, I’d gravitate toward the Caipirinha Con Moras by David Nepove, formerly of Enrico’s, and US Bartenders Guild national president. Fruit will change seasonally, but his take on Brazil’s national cocktail mixes Pedro Ximenez sherry and shaved nutmeg with cachaca (sugar cane rum). Another refresher is the Jenibre Smash from Chris Hannah of New Orleans’ French 75 Bar: Dry Sack sherry, Canton ginger liqueur, lemon, sugar, and mint are served over crushed ice. It’s delicately bright and minty, going down all too easy.

Gitane boasts an Iberian (Spain, Portugal, France) heavy wine list, although California is nicely represented. The sherry list is impressive, with plenty of Madeira, Port, brandies, and after dinner sips. An interesting companion to the hearty quail and chorizo entrée is a 2008 Domaine des Ouled Thaleb Benslimane Zenata ($12 glass, $35 carafe, $48 bottle), a 100 percent Syrah from Morocco. It’s big and bold in keeping with warm Moroccan temperatures, but maintains just enough acidity to pair with food. It’s welcome given the strong Moroccan food influence. After dinner pleasures were strongest in an earthy Charleston Sercial Madeira ($15 glass) from Rare Wine Co., and Gutierrez Colosia Moscatel Soleado Sherry from El Puerto ($10 glass).

My favorite cocktail on the new menu is the oldest recipe from 1800’s San Francisco bartending legend, Cocktail Bill Boothby, after whom our local educational spirits hub, The Boothby Center, is named. The Boothby is essentially a Manhattan (bourbon, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters) topped with sparkling wine. It’s lush, sexy, and full bodied… not at all unlike Gitane. 


6 Claude Lane, SF

(415) 788-6686


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APPETITE Enter through a corner door into a restaurant lined with high communal tables, upstairs seating area, and a redwood bar backed by a stone wall overflowing with plant life. Formerly RNM, Maven is a sleek new cocktail haven in Lower Haight. I knew the drinks would be good, but I was pleasantly surprised at how strong the food is. Maven opened as a “drink with food pairing” concept venue: the menu lists three pairing columns. In the middle are generously-sized “small” plates, a couple entrées and dessert. To the left is a “distilled” column of cocktails, to the right, “fermented” beer and wine offerings.

While co-owners Jay Bordeleau and David Kurtz (Kurtz is also executive chef) have worked in numerous fine dining and popular establishments like Michael Mina, Saison, Beretta, in keeping with the times, Maven is decidedly casual yet chic, focused on quality over pomp. Sous chef Matt Brimer, formerly of Maverick, works with Kurtz on dishes more interesting than they read on paper.

Wise they were to bring on Kate Bolton to oversee the cocktail menu. Elegant restraint is something she honed during her days at Michael Mina. Working my way through each of her balanced drinks, there was little down time.

Jamie Pait, who worked in pastry at Slanted Door, made the slew of house syrups, like ginger and five spice, which Bolton uses in her recipes. Pait’s hazelnut orgeat simply rocks. Orgeat is a creamy, nutty almond syrup. With hazelnuts instead of almonds it is equally silky — fantastic even on its own. In Nauti’ Mermaid ($10), it adds sexy layers of nuttiness to Jamaican rum, lime, orange and coconut juices. Thai spirit shines in the cocktail’s vacation-like smoothness as it cools a dish of Monterey Calamari ($9) laden with Thai chilies, ginger, coriander. The calamari cleverly comes two ways: fried and grilled.

Another happy match occurs in braised fennel and watercress ($9), again far more satisfying than it sounds. Grilled fennel works beautifully with creamy burrata cheese and charred cherry tomatoes — a twist on a Caprese — over grilled toast. Its cocktail match is International Mistress ($11), a soft but powerful mix of Nonino amaro and Sombra mezcal, luxurious with orgeat and grapefruit, with just a hint of mezcal smoke. Also more exciting than the overwrought sliders category would suggest are Chinatown duck sliders ($9), like a gourmet Chinatown sandwich with tender duck, shiitake mushrooms, bitter greens and a smack of bacon. Its cocktail pairing is the 5 Spot ($10), a bright blend of La Favorite rhum agricole, lime, maple, and house ginger and five spice syrups, crowned with a Thai basil leaf.

Lush and subtle co-exist on the menu — and Bolton generally keeps cocktails light enough on alcohol so as not to overwhelm the food. Global Warming ($11) is a unique aperitif. Not only do you get dry riesling, but sake, even a splash of Ransom’s Old Tom Gin. Tart with lemon, a little scoop of absinthe sorbet permeates the drink as it melts. Brilliant. Its food spouse is a superior scallop crudo ($12), silken paired with hazelnut, shiso, and tart apple.

Contrast raw scallop freshness with rich broccoli agnolotti ($11/$18), a pasta meaty with southern Tasso ham, savory with orange-hued mimolette cheese and cipollini onions. Its drink mate is a full-bodied, but not overwhelming, Hometown Vixen ($9). Bolton infused black pepper in Four Roses bourbon, mixing it with lemon and two house syrups: gomme and a luxurious roasted pistachio.

The only dish I wasn’t as taken with is still well-executed: seared arctic char ($23) swimming in smoked fume broth with carrots and turnips. There’s nothing wrong with the soft white fish — it just lacked the flavor punch found in its accompanying pickled PEI mussels. Its match was one of the best cocktails on the menu, Hibiki Highball ($12), showcasing Japanese whisky — Hibiki 12-year in this case — with a giant ice cube, house ginger syrup, bitters, and soda water. Wine and beer pairings are likewise thoughtful: Hennepin, Ommegang’s farmhouse saison beer, with a mushroom tart, or Poco a Poco’s funky, fun Chardonnay with the arctic char.

Dessert could easily be Beach & Hyde, an off-menu cocktail named after the cross streets of legendary bar Buena Vista. Inspired by Buena Vista’s famed Irish coffees, the drink is Evan Williams bourbon, coffee brewed with cocoa nibs and vanilla, plus egg white and orange zest. If you want to actually eat dessert, you won’t suffer with dark Mayan chocolate in brownie-reminiscent slices, accented by black cardamom ice cream.

In fact, you won’t suffer here at all.


598 Haight, SF.



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Ice Cream Bar



APPETITE I was born of another time. As much as I wouldn’t trade the rights and access of today, I hunger for the romance, artistry, and intellectual pace of eras gone by. As a child, I grew up on classic films and whitebread shows like Father Knows Best, where youth hung out at soda fountains listening to the jukebox. Naturally, I was delighted upon hearing a retro-inspired soda fountain was opening near my home.

Cole Valley’s new Ice Cream Bar and Soda Fountain is no 1950s milkshake time capsule. Blonde wood ceiling, restored 30s bar (which owner Juliet Pries found in Michigan), illuminated art deco signs, all evoke a glowing past. Soda fountains filled a communal void in the wake of Prohibition and thus were popular in the ’20s and ’30s. But they date back to the 1800s when, similar to pharmacies where signature bitters like Peychaud’s were created, effervescent mineral waters were considered to have healing properties.

Soda fountain revivals and techniques are popping up around the US: however, I have yet to see this level of detail and historicity anywhere. Bartender Darcy O’Neil’s book Fix the Pumps (Art of Drink, 2010) is responsible in part for the inspiration behind Ice Cream Bar. Bartender Russell Davis of Rickhouse, www.rickhousesf.com, developed the soda fountain program, sourcing data not only from O’Neil’s book, but from 1894’s Saxe’s New Guide or, Hints to Soda Water Dispensers by D.W. Saxe. (Read my revealing Q&A with Davis here.)

Classically inspired recipes line the menu: frappes, floats, crushes, phosphates (soda with phosphoric acid), malts, lactarts (natural lactic acid, commonly found in buttermilk, yogurt and Lambic beers). Davis created more than 75 house syrups, tinctures, and extracts, using forced cavitation, a culinary extraction technique that maintains the flavor intensity of the original source. In keeping with history, bar staff are referred to as soda jerks, deftly operating vintage soda fountains.

After trying most of the menu over multiple visits, I can’t help but gravitate to the wild cherry phosphate ($7) time and again. Rather than saccharin cherry flavor, it tastes of fresh, wild cherries, in a house syrup and cherry bark tincture, fizzy with acid phosphate and soda water. Another highlight is Ode to Mr. O’Neil ($8), a tribute to Darcy. Like an elevated Brooklyn egg cream, it’s a lactart made with lush Scharffen Berger chocolate syrup and double-charged soda imparting a piquant effervescence.

Oh, that many a day could start with the robust New Orleans Hangover ($8). It’s better than a coffee milkshake with chicory coffee syrup, housemade sweet cream ice cream, golden eagle tincture (sarsaparilla), and soda. Root beer floats are herbal and creamy, using Russell’s sassafras root beer (an 1890s recipe).

I wished to taste more pink peppercorn in the pineapple-based My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend ($7) and more tobacco in the chai-dominant Passion Project ($7.50), both lactarts. Yet all-in-all, each visit yields very few disappointments. Splurge on the decadent pistachio milkshake for two ($16), or go earthy-sweet with Touch of Grey ($10), a candy cap mushroom phosphate.

Though it’s about to launch a casual menu of soups, grilled cheese sandwiches, egg and chicken salads, and the like, plus baked goods, house brittles, toffee, and hard candies, there’s currently more than the soda fountain to draw you out. The ice cream is of unexpectedly high quality, overseen by Ray Lai, who worked at Bi-Rite (www.biritecreamery.com) and Fenton’s (www.fentonscreamery.com).

Cherry also shines in a tart sour cherry ice cream. Sicilian pistachio is rich and nutty. I’ve likewise been pleased with the ice cream sandwiches, particularly roasted pineapple ice cream layered in ginger cookies.

The jerks are a delightful team assembled from various bars, offering earnest, knowledgeable service. Tell them a flavor you’d like from the house tinctures and syrups (grapefruit to dill weed), and they’ll make you a custom drink.

Sipping a custom mint egg cream at the soda fountain while listening to big band tunes is a respite I relish whether midday escape or evening dessert. Crowds of Cole Valley strollers and families abruptly bring me back to today, but, then, it’s fair to say there is something appealing for everyone, child to adult, at this already widely embraced neighborhood hangout. *


815 Cole, SF.

(415) 742-4932


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State Bird Provisions



APPETITE I would venture to say Fillmore newcomer State Bird Provisions is the ideal companion to that district’s storied jazz tradition, even though there’s no direct musical connection. The spirit of jazz is present in playful, dim sum-style presentation — and in the improvisatory way that near-legendary husband-wife chef duo Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski (formerly of Rubicon) change the menu almost daily. They adhere to the now-typical seasonal approach, yet are guided by a stronger creative prerogative than most. What sounds good? Where else could a dish be taken? What ingredients are new? Plates materialize on carts or trays like flashing jazz riffs, of the moment but never rootless.

The actual soundtrack is more Johnny Cash than John Coltrane: this fits the casual, toned-down setting, with pegboard walls and a front kitchen where cooks greet your arrival. After multiple visits since the restaurant opened two months ago, the staff remembers me, and Brioza is up front with a warm welcome.

A short, thoughtful selection of bottled beers, teas, wines by the glass, and rotating house lassis (fennel salted yogurt, coconut milk persimmon) helps orient visitors. And for those who fear the unknown, the menu lists a handful of “main” dishes. I’d recommend you go elsewhere if you want predictability. God knows there’s more than enough comfort food and traditional menus out there.

The joy of State Bird is that it’s unlike anywhere else. I find larger plates satisfying, even habit-forming, particularly the must-order CA State Bird (a quail, in case you were wondering). This is the one carryover from Brioza’s Rubicon days, the bird crusted in pumpkin seeds and cumin. But small plates offer the wider range of thrills. I am reluctant to even use the played-out term “small plates,” so keep that free-flowing, dim sum spirit in mind. Most dishes fall within the $5–$9 range, and everything on the menu is roughly $2–$18. When one adds up the final check, the variety is amazing given the per person price (on my visits, $30–$40 without drink).

In any case, a full printed list wouldn’t do the dishes justice. Take, for example, the basic-sounding seven pepper flatbread with oxtail (peppers used include long pepper and madras). I’ve seen a lot of oxtail and even more flatbread. This one is different. Upon first visit, the flaky, twisted bread, which forms a bit of bowl in which to pour braised, tender oxtail, transported me to Eastern Europe. It recalled crispy, fried langos bread from my travels in Hungary. (Chef Nick Balla at Bar Tartine does a top notch langos, by the way.). It speaks to the depth of Brioza’s influences and talent that a dish could evoke tradition while being one-of-a-kind. By my next visit, the dish shifted in shape, now topped with lentils and cream. This time its spice profile conjured Morocco and Spain, another time India. Whatever the incarnation, this may be my favorite.

There are countless delights: spanking fresh raw tuna is dashi-poached, coated in toasted quinoa with smoky bonito rosemary aioli, tossed with chrysanthemum leaves. Duck liver mousse is silky and ridiculously good (almost dessert-like) with almond financier cakes. Beef is served in three cuts — brisket, short ribs, chuck — on a bed of fried nettles with pomegranate.

Vegetarian dishes are just as captivating. Mushrooms arrive coated in hazelnut streusel with vanilla cream. Beets are crusted in rye grain, perked up with horseradish-ale cream. Char-grilled chicories are tossed with lemon, olive oil, dates, and almonds over spicy yogurt.

Bites (less than $6) are equally interesting. Celery root curd shows up in different ways: in a raw chicken ‘salad,’ bright with Buddha’s hand citrus, or in a jar of creamy smoked sturgeon and sea urchin.

Krasinski extends the inspiration to unusual desserts, sometimes with welcome savory notes. Two-dollar shots of peanut milk gently sweetened with muscovado (an unrefined brown sugar) are imperative. They call it “world peace” peanut milk because of the happy feelings it invokes. Milk chocolate and sesame mix with candied clementines and cocoa jam, the clincher being a crispy little wafer of chocolate, sesame, and tahini. Pear brandy and long pepper make winning companions in sabayon form — a finish on a high note.


1529 Fillmore, SF.

(415) 795-1273


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APPETITE There are meals that live on in memory: dioramas of conversation, heartwarming food, and that misty glow from a fine bottle of wine. Then there are those that are game-changers, the food an elaborate tapestry, weaving complex threads of creativity into an unexpected whole as impacting on the taste buds as to the eye. It borders on art.

Baumé (pronounced “bo-meh”) in Palo Alto vies for the latter category at a level not seen enough in the Bay Area. Foams may be long over, but for an adventurous food lover, to sit down for three hours with merely a list of ingredients and almost 20 bites and courses, is an exciting event. I’d call Baumé one of our best fine dining restaurants. It is artful, employing molecular processes alongside classic French technique. A list of menu ingredients like vadouvan, Calvados, kabocha, caviar, and the like tease, but essentially give little intimation as to what lies ahead.

Naming Baumé one of 2010’s best new restaurant openings in both the Guardian and my Perfect Spot newsletter, I found chef Bruno Chemel’s vision inspiring, even as the restaurant was still discovering itself. Returning at the end of 2011, it is coming into its own. Prices reflect this “sense of self.” Formerly just over $100 per person, it’s now a whopping $168 without drink. Add on wine pairings and it’s $288 (or $368 if you desire the premium wine pairing). It’s one mighty expensive night out. But there are more courses than there were before, more intermezzos, bites, and delights at every turn. If you’re going to splurge, Baumé is one of the more experimentally satisfying options.

The setting is understated, modern, but still a little staid, even museum-like. Thankfully, intimacy and bright orange and brown tones keep it from being cold, with one small room of four or five tables and additional individual tables behind curtains. Service is seamless — although with this many courses, expect to see waitstaff often throughout the meal. I am always impressed when I can ask even a server filling my water about ingredients and all are well-versed on each dish. This level of care is crucial in a place like Baumé.

Even a menu of expensive aperitifs (four, ranging from $15-28) has been elevated since my last visit. A Baumétini ($18) is dramatically presented with sparkling sake poured over liquid nitrogen lilikoi and passion fruit “ice,” a frosty haze erupting from the glass. The taste is tart, intense, palate-cleansing.

On a white, indented ceramic block sits a round roll of fig pistachio “focaccia” — the bread course. Looking more akin to mochi, the warm, green roll perks up in yuzu glaze with salt flecks. This was followed by juicy beets and onions in panko crumbs with a potent shot of celery beet juice. In 2010, Chef Chemel’s most memorable dish was a 62-degree egg. This is the only dish I recognize from the year before, silky as ever, though its presentation is different over lentils in a vermouth sabayon, topped with tiny sage leaves and toasted garlic bread crumbs.

Chemel shines at produce: a delicate autumn salad is one of the most beautiful and finest tasting dishes. It combines bits of apple, pear, squash, and vivid red leaves with acorn wafers. The dish blossoms with a gorgeous pairing of 2005 Domaine des Baumard Clos du Papillion Savennieres from the Loire, a 100 percent Chenin Blanc that surprises with orchard fruit contrasted by mineral earthiness.

Other stand-out moments included the add-on course (yes, for even more money) of Alba white truffles from Piemonte, Italy, in season and available for a matter of days. The staff generously shaved a luxurious truffle over cauliflower tapioca risotto, pairing it with 2006 Morey-Coffinet Morgeot Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru from Burgundy.

Fatty suckling pig in crispy skin is a winning main with braised endive and ginger foam. Apple plays prominently in both freeze-dried green apple slices and a sauce of balsamic Calvados (French apple brandy). A bright, acidic 1999 Heitz Cellars Trailside Vineyard Cabernet from Napa alternately displays a raisin richness reminiscent of port, making it an ideal apple-pork companion.

Dessert comes in four parts, but it’s a liquid shot that leaves an impression: fizzy young coconut water soda with a creamy lychee float. After dessert, I was served house eggnog with nutmeg foam in an egg shell. Perfect for December, it was a playfully refined statement to end a nearly three-hour feast. 


201 S. California Ave., Palo Alto

(650) 328-8899


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Fresh and fancy-free



APPETITE Despite all its high-end culinary buzz, San Francisco is loaded with amazing cheap eats (as my colleague L.E. Leone has been documenting for decades for the Guardian). Here are three new places I consider worth adding to your go-to list.



Chubby Noodle easily counts as a best cheap eats opening of 2011. In the back of comfortably retro Amante (www.amantesf.com) bar, order at a kitchen window, illuminated in neon by the word “Hungry?” Then slide into roomy booths to fill up on fresh, daily ceviche, Hawaiian tuna poke ($11), and heartwarming red miso ramen ($9 with pork and poached egg; $11 with shrimp). I expected good from owners of the excellent, neighboring Don Pisto’s — but it’s better than good.

Whatever you do, don’t miss organic, buttermilk-brined, Mary’s fried chicken ($9 for five-piece wings or strips, 2 piece drum and thigh meal $7). It’s traditional American fried chicken with a contemporary Asian attitude, dipped in habit-forming, creamy sambal dipping sauce. Tender chicken strips are an elevated, gourmet version of chicken tenders from childhood.

House kimchi is no slouch, working its gently heated wonders as a side ($4) or on a kimchi kobe beef hot dog ($6). Besides the fried chicken, my other favorite dish is spicy garlic noodles ($8). Chewy and homemade, they’re oozing with garlic, oyster sauce, and a little jalapeno kick. The Korean pork tacos ($9) aren’t carbon copies of the usual trendy dish. Instead of shredded pork, chunks of Niman Ranch rib chop give beefy heft, contrasted by Korean pickles, yogurt sauce, and arbol chile vinegar.

570 Green, SF. 415-361-8850, www.thechubbynoodle.com



Roostertail is, yes, another rotisserie joint. A few visits after the recent opening, I’m impressed with the friendly staff who exude a warm welcome, even when merely grabbing take-out (Note the just-launched curbside pickup with prepaid phone orders). The space boasts silver counter tops and bright red stools, festive with beer and wine on draft.

When it comes to rotisserie, I’ll take dark meat, thanks ($5.75–<\d>$18.50, quarter to whole birds). The organic, juicy meat is delightful with the garlicky green house sauce. Husband-wife team, Gerard Darian and Tracy Green, get their mainstay right.

A pulled pork sandwich ($10.75) is a solid sandwich pick, on an Acme bun topped with fresh coleslaw unencumbered by mayo. Tiny chicken wings didn’t excite (I prefer Hot Sauce & Panko’s creative, meatier wings), nor did the cheesesteak sandwich. But there’s brisket, five different sandwiches, or hefty salad options, along with soulful sides ($4–<\d>$5.50) like brisket baked beans or brussels sprouts with bacon.

1963 Sutter, SF. (415) 776-6738, www.roostertailsf.com



There’s a Ti Couz-shaped hole where my Brittany crepe hunger resides.

Through the years, crepes didn’t get better than at the now-defunct Ti Couz in the Mission. At the end of an alley off Kearny, the new Galette 88 isn’t exactly a replacement. There’s not quite the same depth of buckwheat earthiness. The French galettes (a.k.a. buckwheat crepes; savory: $6–<\d>$10, sweet: $5–<\d>$6) are even thinner, still crisp, a little less flavorful, but nonetheless worthwhile. Gluten-free and healthy, they’re made with only three ingredients — water, sea salt, buckwheat flour made from buckwheat which is a plant, not a grain — loaded with fiber, vegetable protein, calcium, iron.

Order Four Barrel coffee, Mighty Leaf tea, or hard cider and choose a crepe. Bruce’s Choice ($10) is my first pick, layered with smoked salmon, caramelized onions, and capers, topped with avocado slices, greens, and a tart/sweet lemon chive creme fraiche. Light yet filling, the zesty lemon sauce makes it.

Bleu Velvet ($9) is a savory-sweet choice with blue cheese, browned apples, arugula, honey, and toasted almonds. Dessert crepes (lemon sugar, roasted apples with salted caramel, chocolate with candied orange peel, or Nutella), made with eggs, milk, wheat flour and sugar, lacked the subtle chewiness and flavor of Ti Couz’s wheat dessert crepes. But in their absence, Galette 88’s crepes contend for the best in town.

It’s already one of the more pleasant FiDi lunch options (with just-added dinner, Wed.-Fri.): casual, order-at-the-counter ease, the owner flitting about, ensuring water cups are filled and everyone is content. The space is minimalist with live birch trees towering in one corner and a decidedly Mission air that’s rare in FiDi.

88 Hardie Pl., (415) 989-2222, www.galettesf.com *

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Shining season



APPETITE In its opening weeks, AQ in SoMa* reminds me of lauded Commonwealth and Sons and Daughters. At all three restaurants, precision marries inventiveness — at a reasonable cost. AQ’s starters are $9 or $13, while entrees are $24. After dining in cities the world and country over, I can vouch that it is rare to see this level of skill and creativity at this price.

Seasonal menus are a dime a dozen here, but how often do you see seasonal trees and plants with seasonal bar glassware, and a seasonally changing bar top? As AQ’s bar morphs from copper to Italian marble for the winter and fall leaves enliven, the space exudes celebratory beauty. There’s exposed brick, funky whisk lighting, open kitchen, and a ridiculously cool basement lounge with mid-century lamps and couches viewable from a mini-bridge walkway at the restaurant’s entrance.

Then there’s the food. Owner-executive chef Mark Liberman combines New York and San Francisco sensibilities with Mediterranean and French influences. But when it comes to style and ingredients, he’s decidedly Californian. (Liberman has cooked on both coasts, as well as in France and Napa, and with Daniel Boulud and Joël Robuchon in Vegas). Nuance prevails without getting mired in overwrought fussiness. Starters are small, but entrees are as filling as they are complex.

All this comes into focus when you taste Monterey squid and charred avocado ($9). Parsnips and grapefruit add brightness, while black sesame char over silky avocado ushers in a dish rich, earthy, unusual. A delicate starter, it is rife with flavor.

I adore boudin noir (blood sausage or black pudding, depending on if you’re from the US or UK-Ireland) and Liberman’s version is a thrill. A warm, spiced pile of tender meat (not in a sausage casing) is companion to chestnuts done three ways ($9): raw, confit, and as a cream sauce. With quince and sorrel, the dish pops. At this point, I’m catching my breath at the level of detail and sapidity, recalling countless basic salads or sandwiches I’ve had for the same price.

Not as revelatory as the charred avocado or boudin noir, a toasted barley and Dungeness crab dish ($13) tossed with mushrooms and Douglas fir, still pleased, as did the cauliflower ($9) in various iterations from charred to raw, doused in vadouvan spices with golden raisins. In the Autumn spirit, roasted pumpkin ($10) sits alongside carrots, ancho cress greens, with a heaping scoop of mascarpone cream. Even a little gem salad in buttermilk dressing ($10) fends off typicality with poppy seeds, watermelon radish, and cured sardines.

On the entree front, one witnesses Liberman’s range in a juicy, utterly satisfying slow-cooked veal breast (all entrees $24), subtly candied in orange, accompanied by unfried, plump sweetbreads and broccoli. He does not leave vegetarians in the shadows with Kohlrabi “Bourguignon.” Kohlrabi, a brawny German turnip, stands stoically in the center of the plate, a root sprouting from the dish with flair. Notes of horseradish and star anise peek out, but it’s the red wine sauce that must be lapped up.

Desserts ($8) are equally expert in detail but didn’t wholly captivate. I enjoyed ginger cake with Asian pear and salted toffee, cooked in Amaro Montenegro, and a devil’s chocolate cake dusted in coffee and smoked streusel, with shavings of roasted white chocolate — although I could have used more smoked streusel to bring out the earthiness of the cake.

A winning team of talented bartenders, helmed by Timothy Zohn, is worth a visit alone and should be a new go-to for cocktailians. (All menu cocktails are $10.) Winter’s chill diminishes when sipping a New Amsterdam # 1: raisin-infused Bols Genever, maple syrup, Old Fashion bitters, and a splash of apple cider. Head south with Mexican Piano: Espolon blanco tequila, huckleberry syrup, lime, and tarragon, topped with a torched bay leaf. The menu contains lovely aperitif and digestif cocktails, many amaro based, with a section of classics given seasonal treatment, like a sazerac of date-infused Russell’s Reserve Rye, sugar, and Peychaud’s winter bitters. (The vintage glassware is gorgeous)

Already, AQ feels like “the whole package.”


Mon.-Sun. 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m., Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m.,

1085 Mission, SF.

(415) 341-9000



Full bar

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*Due to an editing error, AQ’s location was misstated in the paper as being in the Mission. Since the time of this review, AQ has since discontinued the lunch service referred to in the paper edition. 


Dishes for a winter’s night


APPETITE As we arrive at the end of 2011, here are a few dishes of soothing comfort for a winter’s night from four under-the-radar places.


Bushi-Tei (1638 Post, SF. 415-440-4959, www.bushi-tei.com) has long been one of my underrated restaurant picks. There’s much to love in the two-tiered space lined in rugged Japanese woods, with 18-foot communal table, and ever-sure conversation starter: Japanese toilets in the bathrooms (air dryers and seat warmers!)

When I heard new chef Michael Hung Jardiniere and pastry chef Yuko Fujii of Fifth Floor were coming aboard, I hoped the refined French Japanese cuisine would remain intact. I was delighted after a couple visits to see Hung has married comfort and intricacy, inventiveness and tradition. Tasting menus are $55, or $8-18 starters, $17-27 main courses.

Tak and Keiko Matsuba thankfully still run the restaurant: they’re among the most adorable husband-wife teams I’ve met. They bring a gentle passion to each aspect of the place, including Tak’s thoughtful wine pairings, like an Alsace Riesling with fish or sake with noodles.

There’s a Sunday brunch offering elegant bowls of egg noodles in Sonoma duck ragout or Haiga rice porridge laced with salt-roasted albacore tuna and a poached farm egg. A small serving of grilled Monterey calamari ($8) in a ginger bourride (a stew made with egg yolk and garlic) impresses with nuanced sauce and juicy squid.

Memorable dinner dishes include tataki of Hawaiian albacore ($12), a delicate, sashimi-style starter over black sesame aioli. Handmade egg noodles ($17) steal the show from worthy entrees like roasted Kurobuta pork Nabemono (Japanese stew). Hung makes his egg noodles with egg and soda, and at a recent dinner tossed them in brown butter cauliflower and hatcho miso, a miso from South Central Japan.

Fujii shows her skills in a unique dessert of Kabocha squash and matcha mochi dotting a coconut tapioca broth. Dense and warm, it is thankfully unsweet and richly satisfying, its three lush bean pastes — red bean, green tea, squash — the shining finish.

Post-dinner, Tak offers a pour of Denshin “Yuki” Junmai Ginjo sake brewed by Ippongi Kubohonten Co. He spoke of its cowboy boot, kimono-wearing sake maker whose area of Japan, Fukui, was hit hard by the recent earthquake. Matsuba loves to support such producers, welcoming them when they are in the States. We’re lucky to have this haven of pristine East-West cuisine in our city.


Seven Hills (1550 Hyde, SF. 415-775-1550, www.sevenhillssf.com) is one of those neighborhood favorites many outside the ‘hood aren’t aware of. An Italian spot run by French natives(?), it’s a mellow respite for conversation with caring service. I enjoy the pasta most, especially in the form of a signature ravioli uovo ($9.50) filled with ricotta, spinach, and oozing Full Belly Farm egg yolk. In a light pool of brown butter and white truffle oil, it flirts with decadence. Spaghetti ($9.50/$19) is a heartwarming bowl (conveniently in two sizes) dotted with French Grandpa George’s recipe of plump fennel sausage, caramelized onions, and bell peppers in tomato sauce.


Bouche (603 Bush, SF. 415-956-0396 www.bouchesf.com) has only been open a couple weeks and thus is too new to comment in-depth upon. On a recent visit, I suffered tiny pangs of nostalgia, wishing Bar Crudo, since moved to the Panhandle, was still in this tiny, charming space. But the one dish out of a number of Bouche’s small plates ($6-18) that began to assuage those pangs was a creamy chestnut soup ($6). Its aroma evokes a winter panorama, the soup dotted with sage leaves fried in butter (which I could smell downstairs before the dish arrived to my table upstairs), with a side of crispy root vegetable chips to place on top.


Call it healthy “fast food” for the Peninsula set: LYFE Kitchen (167 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto. 650-325-5933, www.lyfekitchen.com) is a bustling, new eatery in downtown Palo Alto. Draft beers, wines, smoothies, and juices flow, while vegan, vegetarian, and organic foods encourage guilt-free eating. This sort of place would take off in downtown SF: its healthful approach doesn’t leave taste behind, while its connection to celebrity chef Art Smith is a point of interest for foodies.

Alhough not everything worked (I’m afraid fries are ultimately better — and less soggy — when actually fried), two stand-outs are Art’s unfried chicken ($11.99) and a roasted beets and farro salad ($7.79). Chicken is a dish I often brush past for more enticing options, but this tender, “unfried” chicken is pounded flat, textural with breaded crust, on a heartwarming bed of roasted squash, brussels sprouts, dried cranberries, tied together by a drizzle of cashew cream and Dijon vinaigrette. The salad is loaded with roasted red beets over whole-grain farro and field greens, with a melange of fennel, walnuts, dried cranberries, oranges, red onion, and basil in maple-sherry vinaigrette. Every bite packs a flavor punch. Here one can fill up with a clear conscience. *

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Contemplating Appetite



APPETITE My adventures in food and drink have been the subject of my SFBG Appetite column for nearly three years online at SFBG.com. As of last month, you now also find me in print every week. Many have asked where I am going with this column — some expecting a formal weekly review, others a mix of subjects and directions. The latter is true. I cannot replace former Guardian food critic Paul Reidinger’s eloquence and decades-long experience as a food writer (and I’m glad to say we will continue to hear from him in various articles). I take this opportunity to explain where I’ve come from and my philosophy in covering the edible world.

First and foremost, I bring to the table passion. From mostly Italian and German stock, I’ve eaten heartily since early childhood in Oklahoma and Missouri, 16 total years of my youth in Southern California and New Jersey (just outside LA and NYC respectively), and travel over five continents. As an incessant reader and writer since girlhood, books first opened me up to the world, though I dreamed of having my own adventures to write about. Moving to San Francisco a decade ago, I was wowed not only by its unique, radiant beauty, but by the consistent quality of food, spending spare dollars eating out constantly. Though SF wasn’t the immediate love affair for me New York was, it is a love that has only increased each year, the home I would happily end up in. This city still takes my breath away.

Patricia Unterman’s original San Francisco Food Lover’s Guide was my food bible in those early days. I connected with her quest for the authentic, no matter the cuisine. I ate my way through neighborhoods, marking up her book (and all my dining guides) until I had been to every single restaurant, market, and bar in its pages. Eventually, requests asking me where to go and what to eat reached a fever pitch, so my husband (and partner in taste and travel) helped create my own humble website, The Perfect Spot, to share my reviews and finds. I’ve been sending out a bi-weekly newsletter for nearly four years based on my writings for the site. I also write for an ever-increasing number of magazines and websites.

“Diet,” “lowfat,” and “hold the cream” are words you’ll never hear me say. My hunger for food as adventure means I make it a goal to have no food prejudices. Many say, “I’ll try anything once,” but my philosophy is to keep trying anything I don’t like until I do. The food may not have been prepared properly; it was perhaps of poor quality; maybe the palate wasn’t quite ready for it — dishes still deserve to be known at their best. I spent years trying to overcome my aversion to uni (sea urchin), for example. Eating chef David Bazigran’s brilliant uni flan at Fifth Floor early this year was a revelation. I realized it was uni’s texture, not its of-the-sea flavor, turning me off. I’ve enjoyed uni ever since, though only when ultra-fresh. From personal experience, I know one can change one’s abhorrence of a food, and in so doing expand one’s horizons another inch, uncovering another of life’s simple delights.

Sometimes fear arises around unfamiliar foods — and the unfamiliar in general. Without variety and a vast range of expression, the world loses it color — and its joy. While sameness can be comforting (and there’s a time for that), it is entirely boring. To go through any part of life bored or complacent is simply lazy. As with music or books, one can discover unknown lands with a few new ingredients, enlivened by the hands of a gifted, caring chef. Whether food cart or fine dining, there’s no reason to settle for mediocrity, not with the unreal produce, vision, and talent surrounding us.

Internationally, I’ve fallen in love with black pudding in Ireland, extreme spice in Thailand, Tyrolean food in the Italian Alps. I’ve explored wine chateaus in Bordeaux, agave fields in Mexico, gin distilleries and cocktail labs in London, whisk(e)y houses in Scotland and Ireland. I’ve frequented restaurants, coffee havens, bars, chocolate shops, farmers markets everywhere. I sample obsessively and comparatively. Rather than one single review, I prefer to cover a mixture of highlights in any given week. I’m opinionated, yes, but don’t care much for snark, flippancy, or jadedness. Though honest assessment is crucial, rather than rip apart the few not doing it well, I’d rather focus on the many having fun with or perfecting their craft.

My “holy trinity” of US cities for food and culture, though, consists of New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Travel is one of life’s greatest gifts, yet when I cannot afford to go, I am able to travel in my own city. Authentic foods transport me back to the place in which that food was illuminated — anchovies on the coast of Italy, bastilla in Morocco, Creole cream cheese in New Orleans, or bahn mi in Vietnam. It helps to live in a place as international and cosmopolitan as SF. But even in nondescript towns, I uncover gems. The hunt is a key part of the thrill.

Besides travel, you’ll notice I also write about drink… a lot. Whether coffee, spirits, and cocktails (my first love), wine and beer (the ultimate food accompaniments), my knowledge of drink grows along with the culinary. Even at 21, I wanted a grown-up atmosphere in which to imbibe, detesting noisy, crowded “scenes.” Drink, for me, is similar to food: it’s about quality, artistry, and adventure, not buzz or quick consumption. A memorable meal isn’t complete without the right sip to begin, pair, or end with.

As with food, Northern California was instrumental in furthering my taste for fine drink, though global explorations have shaped my standards of comparison. It started with cocktails years ago as SF (and, of course, NYC) lead the way in reviving classics, and creating experimental, culinary drinks. The artistry and history behind these drinks intrigued me, connecting to my Old World, retro, jazz-loving self.

Delving into cocktails inevitably led to my great love of craft spirits, many of our country’s trailblazers and innovators being based right here. (Thank you, St. George, Charbay, Germain-Robin, Anchor Distilling, et. al.) Our local Wine Country and craft beer pioneers like Fritz Maytag likewise have shaped the world, while local personalities such as Kermit Lynch and Rajat Parr in the wine realm are experts on global glories in drink.

What makes a great meal? Service, setting, and, of course, food are crucial. Ultimately, I see eating as a communal ritual. A thoughtfully-prepared meal surprises and nourishes the body and spirit. We engage (or should — put those cell phones away!) over a meal, reflect on our day, truly taste, actually look at and listen to each other. Expect me to share with you the best tastes and backdrops from these moments.

While I don’t expect our tastes to be the same, I do look forward to embarking on delicious adventures together throughout the food realm. *


In the spirit of ushering in my print column, I recap the year with my list of 2011’s best new openings, realizing we still have a few weeks worth of openings left:


Wise Sons Deli www.wisesonsdeli.com. Although not getting a brick and mortar location until 2012, this pop-up deli (every Tuesday at the Ferry Plaza) was one of the year’s great new delights, filling a gaping vacancy of quality Jewish food with excellent babka, bialy, and corned beef.

Hot Sauce and Panko 1545 Clement, SF. (415) 387-1908, www.hotsauceandpanko.com. With an impressive array of hot sauces from around the world, addictive chicken wings in a crazy range of sauces (tequila-chipotle-raspberry jam!), this quirky take-out also has a hilarious blog.

Mission Cheese 736 Valencia, SF. www.missioncheese.net. Mission Cheese serves not only lush cheeses and wines, but some of the best grilled cheese sandwiches around in a chic cafe setting.


Bar Tartine 561 Valencia, SF. (415) 487-1600, www.bartartine.com. Though not a new opening, I refer to the complete revamp and Eastern European-influenced menu under chef Nick Balla that happened this year. Unusual dishes, Hungarian and beyond, and Balla’s impeccable technique make this menu unlike any other.

Boxing Room 399 Grove, SF. (415) 430-6590, www.boxingroomsf.com. It’s refreshing to get some New Orleans breezes in SF from a Louisiana chef making his own Creole cream cheese and frying up fresh alligator.

Nojo 231 Franklin, SF. (415) 896-4587, www.nojosf.com. We’ve had a glut of izakayas open over the past few years, but this one stands above in warm, hip atmosphere and consistently delightful food.

Park Tavern 1652 Stockton, SF. (415) 989-7300, www.parktavernsf.com. From the owners of Marlowe, this immediately feels like the buzzing destination restaurant of Washington Square Park for satisfying American food with gourmet edge.

Jasper’s Corner Tap 401 Taylor, SF. (415) 775-7979, www.jasperscornertap.com. All things to all people: comfortable meet-up spot with perfect cocktails, craft beers and wines aplenty, and the food is consistently heartwarming.


Confit basteeya, garlicky marrow



APPETITE Here are four recent standout dishes or meals, offering affordable hole-in-the-wall charm or upscale creativity.



Anticipating the opening of Daniel Patterson’s restaurant (currently slated to happen by year’s end), Haven in Jack London Square, there have been a series of preview dinners on Tuesdays at his Oakland restaurant, Plum — the last one is Tue/15. Haven chef Kim Alter has been on hand to cook a five-course Haven dinner, applying the indelible signature style she established at Sausalito’s Plate Shop.

While I saw Alter’s promise there, I find myself more excited by the Haven preview. It seems her meticulous artistry is making space for comfort in a way that satisfies, yet is neither routine nor predictable.

Three cheers for her bone marrow dish, possibly my favorite bone marrow interpretation ever. A trail of garlic scents the air as two hefty bones come out. Vivid, pickled watermelon radishes brighten up the marrow visually, while leeks and yuzu juice add unexpected layers. Smeared over crusty bread, it was so perfectly indulgent we wanted to applaud. A main course of duck breast and tender duck confit delighted with the accompaniment of beets multiple ways, including dehydrated beets ground up with rye grain, or in German sauerkraut style.

Cocktail king Scott Beattie put three classics on the preview dinner menu, getting creative with ingredients in keeping with a gin theme. Old World Spirits’ Rusty Blade gin made a lush base with maraschino liqueur and Carpano Antica sweet vermouth for his take on a classic Martinez ($10). Smooth and sexy with the duck dish in particular.

Patterson’s flagship is the much-lauded Coi, and Coi’s pastry chef Matt Tinder took care of dessert, winning me over by filling buttery brioche with warm Brillat-Savarin cheese, topped with crispy honeycomb. Savory, creamy, with gently floral honey, it’s a dessert exemplifying the spirit of the entire dinner: inventive yet ultimately gratifying. I’m left expectant for what Alter and crew will cook at Haven.

Plum is located at 2214 Broadway, Oakl. (510) 444-7586, www.plumoakland.com. For the final Haven preview dinner, Tue/15, simply reserve for dinner for that date.



After moving around to various Tenderloin and North Bay storefronts, gifted Turkish chef Vahit Besir’s started at the new Grill House Mediterranean, only to leave a few weeks later. I caught him on one visit to this humble hole-in-the-wall, no longer there on my most recent stop. Though other food writers have deemed their visits inconsistent, my tastes here have been steady and as such, I find it a worthy place to pick up Middle Eastern bites when in the ‘Loin, though missing Besir.

Shredded chicken, lamb, or beef shawarma ($9.99 plate, or combo of all three: $11.99) fills out a toasted lavash wrap ($6.99-7.99) quite nicely, companion to lettuce, tomato, cucumber, hummus, and tahini sauce (as spicy as you wish).

The menu runs $10 or less with ubiquitous starters ($3.99 each) of baba ganoush, tabouli, dolmas, piyaz (white bean salad), and lahmajun, essentially Middle Eastern flatbread topped with ground beef. The most addictive bite is feta cheese pie ($3.99) straight out of the oven (or stuffed with beef, chicken or spinach). Tomatoes and warm feta ooze from a roll sprinkled in sesame seeds. A supreme Middle Eastern treat.

533 Jones, SF. (415) 440-7786, www.grillhousesf.com



Blue collar workers and Civic Center government staff line-up at Prime Dip, a new sandwich shop on Larkin. No frills, just hefty dip sandwiches ($6.99-7.99) on French bread, including a popular prime rib dip. Under $8 is a deal for such hefty rolls, including a choice of sides like mac n’ cheese or mixed veggies. There’s a loaded lobster dip ($12.99) with hot dill butter, though I find my New Jersey (NY) roots push me straight for the hot pastrami dip. Crusty French bread softens when dipped in meaty jus, while spicy mustard and melted Swiss cushion thinly sliced pastrami.

518 Larkin, SF. (415) 800-8244



A meal at Aziza is never boring. Celebrated Chef Mourad Lahlou (whose new cookbook Mourad: New Moroccan was just released) puts such an artistic spin on Moroccan food. Some dishes achieve greater heights than others — but all fascinate, reinterpreting traditional elements. Although Aziza’s anticipated downtown location just fell through, the hunt for a new building continues.

Savory, garden-fresh cocktails were the highlight of a recent visit, but on the food front, juicy, little meatballs ($14) on skewers with grapes play the sweet-savory card to winning effect, accented by herb-tossed jicama. I adore Lahlou’s basteeya (or bastilla), to me the ultimate Moroccan dish. This visit it was tweaked from the usual chicken or traditional squab, filled instead with duck confit. Tender, shredded duck is encased in phyllo dough ($22), sweetly contrasted by raisins, cinnamon, and powdered sugar, plus slivers of almonds. Savory-plus-sweet gets me every time.

5800 Geary, SF. (415) 752-2222, www.aziza-sf.com

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Wine tales



APPETITE The wine scene never rests, particularly during harvest time. Besides traveling to Bordeaux for harvest a couple weeks ago (where I picked grapes with the harvesters one day in Sauternes), and continued weekends in Napa and Sonoma, I’ve been savoring the city’s latest wine bars, wine books, and a rare panel for Robert Mondavi staff of key Napa winemakers discussing Napa’s premier soil.



Alongside the best wine bar openings of 2010 — like Barrique (www.barriquesf.com) and Fat Angel (www.fatangelsf.com) — there are the new Barrel Room (www.barrelroomsf.com) in the old Hidden Vine space, and the new Hidden Vine (www.thehiddenvine.com), near the Transamerica Building.

But for city-produced vino, I’d head to brand new Bluxome Street Winery (www.bluxomewinery.com). Reclaiming a SoMa winemaking heritage they say was thriving pre-1906 Great Quake, the Bluxome crew grows their own grapes within 100 miles of SF, producing a handful of whites and reds, from Sauvignon Blanc to Pinot. Tasting through flights of each, I found all balanced and interesting, particularly a Chardonnay, which reigns in typically over-oaked California qualities for a pleasantly acidic, well-rounded white. In the tasting room, sit in front of giant windows overlooking production of the wine you’re tasting.



This summer I spent an unforgettable weekend with Robert Mondavi staff at Mondavi’s To Kalon vineyards, where vines were first planted in 1868. Mondavi’s master of wine, Mark de Vere, deems this land, “the preeminent Grand Cru [exceptional growth] site of Napa since the 19th century.” At the cost of more than $40,000 per acre, it’s outrageously expensive land. But to the winemakers who each claim a plot of it, they say it produces some of California’s (and the world’s) finest wine, reflective of the unique terroir of Napa.

A panel of six To Kalon winemakers (including Mondavi’s Genevieve Janssens, a Frenchwoman named 2010 winemaker of the year by Wine Enthusiast) mesmerized me, discussing how Napa is reaching maturing in the quality of vines, land, and winemaker technique. Tor Kenward, of TOR wines, said working with To Kalon vines is “intellectually challenging…. Despite price, it’s fascinating to work with.”

Sampling five To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignons side-by-side, each reflects similar characteristics pointing to the properties inherent in the land. Each also reflects winemaker style (these winemakers likewise produce wines from other Napa regions).

Standouts were Carter Cellars 2008 Cab ($125 a bottle), with dusty earth and spice giving it profound character, balanced by bright floral notes. At a mere 185-300 cases a year, it’s truly a limited wine. The other was TOR’s 2008 Cab ($150, with 400-500 cases a year). A clean, mineral nose exudes light perfume, while it tastes of dark berries with gentle spice, vanilla, and a creamy finish.

As one would expect, these are pricey bottles, hovering between $125-150 due to immense land costs. Provenance Vineyards was the exception at $75 a bottle for its 2007 Cab, exhibiting notes of white pepper, vanilla, and berries. Provenance winemaker Tom Rinaldi may get flak for not increasing the price of his To Kalon wine to more closely match fellow winemakers, but he keeps costs low for reasons akin to benefiting from rent control: he secured an early contract and plot with an essentially fixed price. I admire that although he could be making double, he has chosen not to put this on his customers… yet. (His current rates will be re-examined soon.)

Tor Kenward commented on Napa’s maturing winemaking, playfully expressing California’s place in the wine world: “I’ve gone mano y mano with Bordeaux through the decades. It’s amazing how California goes head to head.”



My recent flights overseas required some serious reading, and finishing Natalie Maclean’s new Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines (www.nataliemaclean.com) helped a 10-hour flight pass quickly.

Each section hits a different part of the world in search of high quality, value wines. From South Africa to Sicily, wine terms and history are subtly slipped into stories about individual winemakers and pairing recipes. A cheery book cover belies Ms. Maclean’s skill with imagery (she’s won the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award and four James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards). For example, in her particularly engaging chapter on German riesling, she compares riesling as the “quivering … opera diva Sarah Brightman singing pop tunes… [with a] range [that] stretches far beyond what I hear,” to popular chardonnays as: “breathy pop stars who have to whisper the high notes.”

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Lime Rickeys and sourdough sundaes


APPETITE Though my sweet tooth has diminished over the years, it only means I can’t stomach sickly sweet. I still take immense pleasure in a fine dessert. Here are some desserts so good they threaten to surpass the meal that came before.



Citizen Cake has been on a meandering journey from its original Grove Street location, to its new Fillmore home, with a recent revamp from restaurant to ice cream parlor. My last visit nearly went south when at 4 p.m. we arrived hungry for a meal as well as chef Elizabeth Falkner’s ever dreamy desserts.

Our server informed us the restaurant wasn’t serving the regular menu — although the website, menu and storefront all say they serve lunch from 11 a.m. on daily. I’m glad they decided to make a meal for us (they said it was because we were close to 5 p.m. dinner time), but I hope this gets worked out quickly, so that what is stated as being served is served.

Thankfully, the savory dishes we ordered pleased, particularly a fried chicken Cobb sandwich ($13). Although pricey, the chicken is of high quality and expertly fried, laid over a layer of egg salad (nice touch), topped with avocado, blue cheese, and bacon tomato vinaigrette in a brioche bun. The savory menu is predominantly sandwiches, salads, appetizers, and comfort food dinner dishes like meatloaf or spaghetti and meatballs.

Where I get excited is with soda fountain offerings. In classic style, there are egg creams (favorites from my East Coast days), milkshakes made with any choice of Falkner’s cakes, phosphates, spritzers, floats, and my all-time favorite root beer, Devil’s Canyon, on draft. Now I don’t have to wait for the annual SF Beer Week to have this gorgeous root beer! Though cherry or Concord grape phosphates ($4) are listed on the menu, ask about off-menu options: I recently ordered a passion fruit phosphate, subtly floral and bright. I likewise reveled in the effervescent tart of a fresh Lime Ricky ($4) balanced by bitters.

If you’ve been paying attention, you know soda fountains are making a comeback, although I’ve been waiting for more to open in San Francisco (watch for a classic parlor to open up soon in Cole Valley).

Soda fountain sips are just the beginning. Falkner’s lush cakes, macaroons, cookies, tarts and cupcakes still abound. But there’s now a liquid nitrogen ice cream machine (which she was operating herself on last visit), the liquid nitrogen ice creams a base for an extensive new list of sundaes and shakes.

I went straight for sourdough ice cream, delicately bready, not too sweet and altogether right in an SF sourdough sundae ($9) drizzled with grape syrup, brazil nuts, and salted Spanish peanuts. The bowl is dotted with diced strawberries and an exceptional chocolate-peanut butter halvah, sticky and satisfying. I was ready for a second bowl as soon as I finished the first.

2125 Fillmore, SF. (415) 861-2222, www.citizencake.com



The duo of Pisco Latin Lounge and Destino share adjoining storefronts and menus, including the biggest selection of pisco (over 50 bottles) around. The pisco is certainly a draw. But, unexpectedly, dessert stands out here, too.

Recent returns to this duo (which I’ve been dining at on occasion for years), included a relaxed Sunday brunch and dessert. Blessedly, both brunch and dinner menus offer triple chocolate chile buñeulos ($7). These dense chocolate dough balls are dark and oozy, with merely a hint of chile. Resting in a pool of salted caramel with a vanilla crème anglaise dipping sauce, they are dangerously decadent.

1815 Market, SF. (415) 552-4451, www.destinosf.com



Dessert at Jasper’s Corner Tap is as much a highlight as the heartwarming, gourmet pub fare and impeccable cocktails. A cinnamon pretzel donut and a shot of Maker’s Mark and espresso with cream ($8) is filling after burgers and Shepherd’s Pie, but you’ll find room. The donut is made from house pretzel dough, but it is still somehow light and soft. A shot of bourbon, espresso, and cream is served affogato-style, an ideal finish. Ultimate kudos go to two house ice creams: fresh mint and Maker’s Mark bourbon ($4 a scoop). The bourbon is creamy and boozy, while fresh mint is bright. Together, it’s a Mint Julep in ice cream form. Genius.

401 Taylor Street at O’Farrell, (415) 775-7979, www.jasperscornertap.com

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Fall fresh


APPETITE These three new places just opened; these early dishes jump out.



Staring out at Washington Square Park and city views from Park Tavern’s front dining room, one could be in Europe or New York. Yet the glow is distinctly San Francisco (specifically, North Beach). The menu exemplifies the typical cooking of our peninsula: high quality ingredients prepared carefully in heartwarming dishes. There are raw, fried, or smoked menu categories, and entrees like a plump poulet rouge (red chicken) standing at attention over a platter of potatoes and wilted spinach, doused in herbs and jus. From the owners of Marlowe (marlowesf.com), this new space is already a source of comfortable sophistication in North Beach.

Early stand-out: Though bites like NY steak crudo ($10) sprinkled with Parmesan and crispy horseradish delight, a delicate (read: slight) appetizer of compressed Yellow Doll watermelon and Mangalitsa prosciutto over mustard greens ($11) is the one that leaves an impression. True, compressed watermelon with meat has been a trendy starter in recent years, but it’s a delicate whisper of truffle that sends it over the top. Truffle flavor can easily come off as heavy-handed, but here it’s a welcome tease, hinting at umami worlds behind its initial sweet and savory contrasts.

Bonus: Dessert should not be forgotten at Park Tavern, and, no, I’m not talking about daily “birthday cake” specials — like coconut cream or chocolate caramel, both sold out on my last visit. I headed straight for grownup ice cream shakes ($9 each): Fernet ice cream with a shot of Fernet and Fever Tree ginger beer, or an Arnold Palmer with black tea ice cream, lemon gelato and St. Germain elderflower liqueur.

1652 Stockton Street, (415) 989-7300, www.parktavernsf.com



Raved about ad nauseum in LA for years, Umami Burger already has a staunch following ensured. The chain’s first SF opening in Cow Hollow paves the way for the next two Bay Area locations already in the works. From tempting sauces (Umami ketchup, Dijon mustard, roasted garlic aioli, jalapeno ranch) to veggie burger offerings like the Earth Burger ($12 — mushroom edamame patty in white soy aioli with truffle ricotta), Umami Burger is a guaranteed hit. Overhyped, though? Definitely. These are good burgers, to be sure, but there are many equally gourmet and crave-worthy burgers in town. Still, Umami’s having fun and it shows.

Early stand-out: I’m all about the Manly Burger ($11): beer cheddar cheese, smoked salt onion strings, bacon lardons. There’s only a bit of each ingredient, but somehow the thin layer of bacon cheesiness makes you appreciate it all the more. Add in a side of giant tempura onion rings ($4.50) and the day’s stresses seem minimal.

2184 Union Street, (415) (415) 440-8626, www.umamiburger.com



Canela is an airy new Spanish tapas restaurant in the Castro. With the front window ushering in bright sun and Market Street’s bustle, it’s a lovely mid-day respite with a glass of sangria ($5). The restaurant is still finding its legs with the menu (mostly tapas; will evolve to include dinner entrees), and as is expected, some dishes work better than others. Kudos for house-made chorizo on their coca flatbread ($14-15).

Early stand-out: There’s two! A bright amuse of gazpacho (also on the menu at $5 cup/$7 bowl). The cool puree of tomato, cucumber, red bell pepper, garlic, and olive oil kickstarts the taste buds. Salt cod salad ($9 small/$15 large) is punctuated by olives, red onion, and orange slices, cutting the saltiness of the fish, while orange vinaigrette ties it together. For me, salt cod evokes the Mediterranean every time, particularly when it’s this fresh-tasting and, well, salty. This simple salad sent me right back to Spain gazing out at the sea.

2272 Market Street, (415) 552-3000, www.canelasf.com

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Under my umbrella



GO THERE Nothing fouls an SF afternoon like a sudden shower. We are not given much to bike fenders, Gore-Tex, or waterproof shoes (current Doc Marten resurgence notwithstanding), so when the skies open you are as like as not to find that your dayplanner has closed. But worry not. Should your loved or soon-to-be-loved-whether-they-know-it-or-not one get cold feet on the rainy day of your date, offer them this fuzzy bunny slipper of a list: our collection of bars and restaurants around the Bay that are perfect for when skies are moist. 



This Clement Street Vietnamese spot does not play. A billboard out front advertises its particular draw: a pho eating challenge employing the use of a bowl large enough to hold a baby, as said billboard helpfully illustrates. A $22 bowl of serviceable beef pho containing two pounds of noodles and two pounds of — at times frighteningly stringy and translucent — meat awaits competitors, who have one hour to scarf it down. You may never want to eat pho again after plunging into its depths but hey, it’s rainy out and you just found a bowl of soup on which you can rest your elbows (and chin when the hour inevitably takes its toll). Winners get the pho for free and take home the mega-bowl. Losers get a “Got Pho Challenge?” T-shirt, so everyone waddles home happy. (Caitlin Donohue)

2109 Clement, SF. (415) 379-8677, www.phogardensf.com



A 118-year-old bar surely has a few ghosts (or at least three sheets to the wind). But nothing could send a chill up your spine while you’re seated in front of the fireplace at this Irish Inner Sunset favorite, enjoying a sprightly game of backgammon and nursing a fortifying draft. The uber-Victorian décor and Great Quake-oriented memorabilia lining the walls might just whisk(ey) you back to 1929, when then-owner Tony Herzo Jr. “always had a big kettle of Spanish beans at the window by the front door,” according to the bar’s lore. We’ll gladly settle for the Shamrock’s belly-warming Bloody Mary meal plan. (Marke B.)

807 Lincoln, SF. (415) 661-0060



When it’s chilly outside, nothing warms your insides like hot chocolate with sweet brandy in a fancy glass. Tosca, with red vinyl booths and exquisite-imposing carved wood bar, will be your beacon in a dreary North Beach storm. The bar keeps the sizzling hot chocolate lined up, awaiting request. And if you need to steady the alcohol running through your delicate system, they bring out these lovely homemade cheesy nibbles and other assorted snacks. The atmosphere is doubly cozy thanks to nostalgic cuts off actual records in the vintage jukebox; the Rat Pack dominates the mix. (Emily Savage)

242 Columbus, SF. (415) 986-9651, www.toscasf.com



Everybody in the Sunset knows that this bar specializes in providing cozy climes for those who have been carving gnarly waves (or just stuck on a packed L-Taraval car). The local paraphernalia-bedecked brick fireplace makes for a great place to curl up and wait out the rainstorms — and you’re unlikely to be alone when you do so. The Riptide houses a mini-scene in the outer neighborhoods: open mics, live bands, karaoke, all set to a food menu that rotates daily. Shepard’s pie Mondays? DIY grilled cheese Thursdays? It’s just enough to reconcile a person to the caprices of Mother Nature for the day. (Donohue)

3639 Taraval, SF. (415) 681-8433, www.riptidesf.com



From handcrafted beers to delicious specialty pizzas named after planets, moons, and astronomers (try the Odysseus, which tops out with wild mushrooms and Danish fontina cheese), Berkeley’s Jupiter is a great place for a casual date when it’s pouring out. An outdoor seating area with a fireplace and heaters can keep the two of you pleasantly warm. Gothic accents decorate the two-story venue, which is housed in an old livery stable from the 1980s — a European atmosphere in the heart of downtown Berkeley. Every pizza is cooked in a traditional wood-fired brick oven and can be complimented with a cold beer — now that’ll make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. (Paige A. Ricks)

2181 Shattuck, Berk. (510) THE-TAPS, www.jupiterbeer.com



Melt-prone San Franciscans deal with the rain in a variety of ways: drinking and eating heavy foods are prime among these. Indulge in both at a bar-restaurant inside which you’ll never even notice if the sun comes out. The Rite Spot’s windows are few and far between, but never you mind; live music from the jangling piano, white tablecloths, walls painted a vivacious red, and a menu that harkens back to your (non-Italian) grandparents’ fave Italian joint will keep you begging drinks off the affable, struggling artist staff until long after the rainbow’s gone. (Donohue)

2099 Folsom, SF. (415) 552-6066, www.ritespotcafe.net



There’s nothing like a rainy night to inspire the sudden need for cozy interpersonal contact — preferably over a steaming dish of cheese and sauce. Pizzetta 211, a four-table restaurant in the Outer Richmond, offers just that. It’s likely you will share your window ledge-turned-seat with a stranger. It is equally likely that whichever one of you gets your pizza first will forget about the utter lack of elbow space, and possibly about the swampy fog outside. Pizzetta’s standbys alone make it worth a trip — a rosemary and pine nut pie, particularly — and if you manage to hit the tiny, fragrant spot when there’s a farm egg pizza on the menu, endure the wait. (Lucy Schiller)

211 23rd Ave., SF. (415)379-9880, www.pizzetta211.com


Korean wave



APPETITE Growing up partly on the East Coast (New Jersey) with close Korean friends exposed me to the pleasures of kimchi and burning hot ssamjang (a Korean hot sauce) early in life. In Flushing, Queens, I savored endless incredible Korean restaurants, often filled only with Korean customers. I was first hooked on those crispy, comforting Korean pancakes, pajeon, and my fondness for the cuisine grew from there.

Although more than 30 percent of our city’s population is of Asian descent, our Korean community is not as large as that of LA or NYC, which could be why we’re less the Korean food Mecca those two cities are (despite our abundance of Korean BBQ joints, that is). But there’s been a recent wave of Korean openings I can only hope will signal a robust Korean dining catalog in our future. The more bulgogi and bibimbap in this town, the better. While I usually find less to love at places mixing cuisines, like the Tenderloin’s new Ahn Sushi & Soju serving both Japanese and Korean food, here are three recent openings that show promise… and none are Korean BBQ.



Aato, a new “Korean fusion” restaurant in the Marina, is an unexpected oasis on busy Lombard Street. Owner Jennie Kim grows herbs in potted plants by a little front patio strewn with white lights. Despite a pricier menu than one typically sees in Korean eateries ($12–$15 for starters, $13.50–$25 for entrees), Aato does things differently, apparent from chandeliers in the surprisingly elegant dining room to the use of locally grown, organic ingredients (though common-as-day in SF, unusual for local Korean spots). Initial highlights include ssam, which literally means “wrapped” in Korean. There are three versions served with rice, kimchi, veggies and rice paper wraps. My gut pushed me straight to eel ssam, but Kim talked me into hangbang (Herbal) bo ssam. I wasn’t sorry. The tender, steamed pork is aromatic and nuanced with herbs. Man-du Korean dumplings are delicately pan-fried, plump with kimchi and shrimp, an exemplary appetizer. Jab-chae is traditional sweet potato noodles stir-fried with beef and seasonal veggies. Weekend brunch intrigues with the likes of eggs with “Korean-style” hash browns,, man-du dumpling soup, and a fritatta with tobiko, salmon, avocado, and cheese.

1449 Lombard, SF. (415) 292-2368



Japantown’s Nan works for two reasons: it’s a minimalist, airy space, with an extensive menu that tends slightly toward creativity. Skewers of pork belly and BBQ beef abound, alongside rice bowls, bibimbap and rice cakes. Seafood pajeon is not the perfection it is at Manna (see below), but bulgogi beef mixed with wheat noodles utterly satisfies, particularly with Asian beers on tap.

1560 Fillmore, SF. (415) 441-9294



Manna offers a clean, friendly dining room in the heart of the Inner Sunset. It serves a number of Korean classics with varying iterations among their 44 dinner menu items. There are diverse versions of bibimbap, short ribs, and stews. Manna also fries up a buttery seafood pajeon (Korean pancake), loaded with leeks, scallions, mini-shrimp, and squid — one of the best I’ve ever had.

845 Irving Street at 10th Ave., SF. (415) 665-5969



I adore Toyose (3814 Noriega, SF. (415) 731-0232), a humble hangout in a garage with Korean bar style food like spicy chicken wings, washed down with sojus and Korean beers. First Korean Market (4625 Geary, SF. (415) 221-2565) is a tiny Korean market with kimbap, sushi/maki-style rolls. Head to To Hyang (3815 Geary, SF. (415) 668-8186) for raw beef salad — a hefty beef tartare-style beef dish topped with an egg — and other homestyle treats from Mom, whose daughters run the front of the house. Korean tacos are playful and cheap at John’s Snack and Deli (40 Battery, SF. (415) 434-4634) in the Financial District, and the Seoul on Wheels truck (www.seoulonwheels.com) which can be found at Off the Grid (www.offthegridsf.com).

Wonderfully worn HRD Coffee Shop (521 3rd Street, SF. (415) 543-2355) a humble Korean-run sandwich shop in SoMa, serves a hefty spicy pork kimchi burrito. Arang (1506 Fillmore, SF. (415) 775-9095) on Lower Fillmore serves a heartwarming seafood bibimbap with octopus and shrimp. A “fusion” place that really does work, and that is one of the Richmond’s best restaurants overall, is Namu (439 Balboa, SF. (415) 386-8332), offers Korean fried chicken and ever-popular Korean beef short rib “tacos” on nori (seaweed), which is also sold at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Thursdays and Saturdays.

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Gin, with wings



APPETITE For those who have been following my Guardian Appetite column, you know I’ve been there since the beginning of 2009, reviewing food and drink, cocktails and wine, restaurants and hole-in-the-walls, both in the Bay Area and on my travels. I am delighted to share a myriad discoveries with you each week here, from my daily meals, tastings and adventures, ranging from whisk(e)y releases to stand-out dishes at new restaurants. Here are four intriguing tastes this week:



One of my favorite openings in recent weeks, and my top wings spot in San Francisco, is Hot Sauce and Panko (1545 Clement St., (415) 387-1908, hotsauceandpanko.wordpress.com). Not only is the hot sauce collection — reaching from the deep South to Japan — about the best around, but its blog reveals the owner’s quirky hilarity. As a chicken wing take-out shop selling a wide range of hot sauces, a good 20-plus are available to sample at any given time, so prepare for some serious heat (and note that they sometimes sell out of wings early in the day).

I walk away with a tub of cooked-to-order wings for $19.99, or plenty for two at $14.99. What makes me giddy is they let me choose as many of their appealing preparations as I want in one order. There’s a regular menu offering classic buffalo, honey mustard, or kuzu salt and pepper wings. Wings and waffles come together as a combo ($5.99) or just add a waffle onto your order for $1.99. The specials menu gets crazy with tequila-chipotle-raspberry jam wings or one-week-aged cognac-habanero-lime-bitters wings(!) These aren’t typical menu offerings. Favorites are creamy Thai peanut sauce wings, KFC (Korean fried chicken wings), and a “Pucker Your Mouth” special of wings in lime, fish sauce, garlic, blue agave, and red pepper flakes. A side of spicy slaw ($1.99) further pushes your heat tolerance.



St. George Spirits (also Hangar One) consistently wears the crown for renegade inventiveness. Master distiller Lance Winters and distillers Dave Smith and Chris Jordan lead the way in out-of-the-box creativity. Never have I seen the like of their test tube apothecary of experimentation where they’ll try anything, from foie gras and beef jerky, to carrots and Dungeness crab, to see what works as a spirit.

I love all three of their brand new gins, including Botanivore to Dry Rye Gin. If I had to choose a favorite, however, it’s the Terroir. A true Golden State tribute, this gin reflects the glories of Northern California, with hand-harvested juniper berries, Douglas fir (from Mt. Tam), coastal sage, fennel, California bay laurel, cinnamon, cardamom, lemon — to name but a few of the ingredients. Plus, a portion of sales go to support California wilderness, preserving our mighty state’s nature as the gin reflects its diversity. To me, this is the most striking of the three, with a fresh, pine-y essence… a unique expression, unlike any other spirit out there. You can purchase online at www.stgeorgespirits.com. By the way, Bar Agricole (www.baragricole.com) is making beautiful cocktails with St. George Gins, including a Dry Rye Old Fashioned and Botanivore with Riesling and stonefruit bitters.



It was a privilege recently to have lunch with Franco Luxardo, a sixth-generation member of the Luxardo family of the famed liqueur company. In Northern Italy, Luxardo facilities are surrounded by 20,000 cherry trees from which the company makes its legendary Original Maraschino Liqueur. What particularly stood out over lunch was sweet-yet-dry Cherry Liqueur Sangue Morlacco, made from their Marasca cherries. Full and round, it expresses sour cherry tart while remaining smooth. Michael Mina’s lead bartender Carlo Splendorini crafted exquisite drinks for each of our courses, utilizing Sangue Morlacco. He serves it in a wine glass with VSOP cognac, Old Potrero Rye and his own pinot noir gum syrup, flaming off the alcohol for a whisper of Islay Scotch peat. With the look of deep red wine, it is tart, smoky, lush. Splendorini just added this cocktail to the menu and I helped him name it. Ask for the Potero Pinot. You won’t be sorry.



On Sunday, October 2 at 6 p.m., CUESA’s Sunday Supper Fundraiser (proceeds go to CUESA’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market) starts with a pre-Supper reception and guests as noteworthy as Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Cowgirl Creamery’s Peggy Smith and Sue Conley. Following is a four-course dinner at communal tables upstairs in the Ferry Building under white lights. The chef line-up is stellar, including Michael Tusk of Quince and Cotogna. Chefs like Frances’ Melissa Perello and 4505 Meats’ Ryan Farr carve sustainably raised whole beasts (beef, boar, lamb, etc.) tableside. $200, tickets and full chef line-up: www.cuesa.org/events/2011/sunday-supper *

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The last supper


› paulr@sfbg.com

DINE “I’ve had a good run,” Harry Morant tells a young friend near the end of one of my favorite movies, Breaker Morant. Soon after, he is set before a military firing squad and shot dead. My own circumstances are, I hope, less dire — certainly they’re less cinematic — though I too have had a good run. But all journeys come to an end sooner or later, and so now does this one.

If you’ve read these columns through the years, then you’ve read quite a few columns, and you’ve counted quite a few years passing by. In a better world, you would get a rebate check for all your trouble. Reading is, if not trouble, at least effort; it is a form of work that requires exertion, and it also — unfortunately — reminds too many people of school, with syllabi, assigned texts, pop quizzes, and other such outrages. “Required reading” has always seemed to me to be one of life’s great oxymorons, along with “military intelligence.”

Nonetheless I have always posited the existence of readers, people who would take the time to sit down and concentrate for a few minutes on a piece about a restaurant in a free alt-weekly so that they might discern, and maybe even pleased by, the texture of the piece, the flavors of the language, the sense of a place conveyed, the images and jokes. And I have tried to write for those people, even if (to judge by the occasional appreciative notes I received) they seemed largely to be members of the UC Berkeley faculty.

Readers, as I imagined them, would take pleasure in what they had just read, and they would also have been expanded by it, however slightly. Their effort would have been repaid. As I writer, I have always tried to keep this transaction, the basic transaction of all literary life, in mind.

Never was I an awarder of stars, nor, as I understood things, a recommender. Those tasks fell to others, and in a city stuffed like a fat sausage with people keen to write about food and restaurants, leaving tasks for others struck me as an essential survival skill. The greater good is not served by everyone descending on the same place to write more or less the same thing, as quickly as possible. That is simply hype, and we are dying of hype. I meant to write about places others weren’t writing about. Sometimes I managed this and sometimes I didn’t, but the idea was always in my mind, and when I found myself in the midst of a 10-car pile-up anyway, as happened from time to time, I deducted five points from my account.

For me the model, or ideal, of this gig resembled a travelogue, a running account of places visited, impressions received and relayed. Of course journalism tilts strongly and inevitably to what is new. But I thought it was important to tack against those powerful winds when possible, to go occasionally to places that were not new or were even old, or to places that could be found on roads less travelled. I tried to keep the varieties of cuisines in mind, and of price points. You can spend tons of money and be disappointed, or spend very little and be elated — and it can also be exactly the other way around.

My basic philosophical orientation was that of a cook, setting forth to look for ideas and even a sort of instruction. I’ve been the cook of my little household for more than a quarter-century, and someone in that position naturally is going to be looking for ideas, twists and wrinkles that can politely, or at least discreetly, be taken home and used. Often, when looking at menus, I would find myself wondering: have I made that, or could I, should I try to? And when this or that dish reached the table, I would wonder how it compared to my own version.

One of the big issues with restaurant kitchens is that you never know for sure what they’re putting in your food, but a lot of butter is probably a safe bet. If you believe, as I do, that health is a personal responsibility and that the connection between diet and well-being is as basic as it gets, then there is no substitute for buying and cooking your own food rather than paying somebody else to do it. Restaurant meals should be treats, not staples.

Restaurants are about more than food, of course. They are social fora, gathering places full of talk and clothes and interior design; they are cultural statements, business endeavors, entertainment venues, and labors of love. They are, above all, sensual experiences — great outings for the senses — and describing sensual experience is one of the trickiest and most absorbing operations any writer will ever undertake. The difference between doing it well and doing it badly is often fine and very often involves the presence or absence of cliché. Rote expressions and tired imagery are lethal to sensual description — it seems particularly and bitterly ironic to find the freshness of food being written about in language as stale as month-old bread — and in my small way I have been a committed warrior against these toxins of banality. Down the weeks, months, and years, I have tried to summon language as lively, exact, and unexpected as I could think to make it, so that it might delight the reader and, not coincidentally, stick in the mind.

There is nothing more powerful in language than a phrase, sometimes a single word, that helps you see something you hadn’t seen before, or helps you see something you had seen before, even if it’s just a burrito, in a surprising new way. These glints of words kindle the imagination, and imagination, I would say, is basic to our prospects as a species. This is why good writing, whatever its subject, will always be not just important but central, even when, as now, its value is eclipsed by a rising culture of gadgets and gizmos, of YouTube clips played on smartphones. The heart of human intelligence, of human knowing, is and will remain language, and writing is language’s most potent distillate. What we feed our minds is as important as what we feed our bodies — or at least that is what I believe, since I am a writer and couldn’t possibly believe otherwise.

But enough! I must run.




DINE On a recent midsummer’s eve, I found myself gazing down the Valencia Street corridor and (with a slight squint of the eye) though: this is just like the Strip! This is like Vegas for hipst — but no. No more H-bombs from me. The question does remain, however, whether a neighborhood can be as utterly transformed as this part of the Mission has been and still remain a neighborhood. One sunny bit of proof that the answer might be yes is the recent opening of Radish, one of those small, slightly-off-the-beaten path, homemade-with-style places that have long made this city such an appealing place to eat.

Just as some of the better restaurants in Las Vegas are off the Strip, so Radish is a few but important steps off the parade route. It occupies a classic corner spot, an L of windows (including transom windows that have been carefully cleaned — not something you see every day), at 19th Street and Lexington. It feels rather far from the madding crowd — Lexington is a lovely, leafy lane — but it is central. There are some impressive oil paintings on the walls, something else you don’t see every day.

The radish as a foodstuff has won mixed reviews down the ages. It is a crucifer and is therefore believed by some to have anti-cancer properties. But Pliny the Elder (the Roman writer and admiral who perished at Pompeii 1932 years ago last month) found the little root to be “vulgar” and a cause of “flatulence and eructation.” Oh dear. Luckily, the menu at Radish doesn’t emphasize radishes. In fact I spotted just one, a lone coin lurking in a side salad amid a swarm of halved pear tomatoes. Maybe it was a stray. Otherwise, the food is a cheerful mélange that moves winningly between all-American and new American — new-all American, if one is permitted to put it that way, with a slight Southern twist — n’all? — since the chef, Adam Hornbeck, grew up in Tennesee.

But someone in the kitchen has been to the north, all the way to Canada, judging by the poutine ($8) we found chalked onto the specials board one evening. Poutine is the dubious but wildly exciting friend your mother always wanted you to stay away from. Radish’s version was a huge plate of French fries doused with gravy (almost a béchamel sauce, it seemed to me) and topped with shreds of crisp bacon and plenty of ripe avocado slices.

“There are 10,000 calories on this plate,” came the complaint from across the table. Yes. And that was not too high a price to pay. If I were a budget-cutter, I might have dealt away the avocado, which brought some pretty color but otherwise was too subtle for such a muscle-y mess of a dish.

Mac ‘n’ cheese ($4.50) seemed to be nearly as calorie-dense as the poutine, but because it was served in a much more modest portion, in a small crock, it didn’t send the needle on our calorimeter spinning. A nice alternate home for the poutine’s avocado slices, incidentally, would have been the boldly tangy old world salad ($9), a neatly arranged English garden of sliced heirloom and cherry tomatoes, rounds of summer squash, smears of goat cheese, arugula leaves, and a full-throated balsamic vinaigrette that, like a compelling speaker, brought the constituents together and held them rapt.

Hornbeck’s baby back ribs ($14) are really first in show. We found them to be spicy, smoky, and — most important — juicy. It was as if the meat were oozing liquid smoke. It doesn’t matter how tasty your sauce or marinade is if you dry the ribs out when roasting them, and it is awfully easy to dry them out. To find them beautifully cooked and smartly seasoned, as here, was a real treat. The accompanying potato salad was, like its partner (a lone cob of grilled corn), very much a sidekick, but it had been carefully made with big, irregular chunks of new potato and plenty of paprika for color and kick.

A steak sandwich ($13) was served on focaccia, and the flaps of meat were tucked in with strips of orange bell pepper and melted cheddar cheese. The side salad of arugula and spinach turned out to be the home of the fugitive radish coin; finding it was like the culmination of an Easter egg hunt.

One of the desserts deserves a special mention, the shortbread ($6), festooned with strawberry meringue and whipped cream. The shortbread had some of the sublime crispy-spongy quality of a cinnamon bun, and I wondered if it might be some version of brioche. No, we were told, it was a biscuit, the same kind the kitchen uses for its breakfast dishes. This is frugal and prudent — also brilliant, or, as the h-folk sometimes put it, rad. 


Dinner: Tues.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m.

Breakfast: Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 9 a.m.-2 p.m.

Lunch: Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

3465 19th St., SF

(415) 834-5441


Beer and wine



Wheelchair accessible

Boxing Room



DINE It does make a difference, I must say, when you step into a restaurant and find the people at the host’s station smiling and nodding at you, riffling their stack of menus before showing you to your table — instead of not. The last time I made an attempt on Citizen Cake, a few years ago, at lunchtime, I found myself confronted by a rather steely-eyed maitre d’ who advised me, in a spirit of what I took to be barely suppressed glee, that there was no possibility of seating my party of two even though the restaurant was all but empty. I left and did not look back.

If only for a marked change in tone, the Boxing Room, which opened recently in Citizen Cake’s old haunt at the corner of Gough and Grove, is a welcome turning of the page. Just as welcome is the remodel of what was once a shirt factory into a wonder of woodiness, from the ceiling of exposed joists to the impressive swaths of sauna-like blond paneling along the rear wall. Best of all is the long, sinuous bar in place of Citizen Cake’s boxy, glass-and-steel dessert cases; the bar’s reassuring jiggle, like a well-banked S-curve on a freeway, softens the hard, high angles of the space. And while the floor (of poured concrete) is of a cold hardness that usually means reverberant noise, that isn’t the case here. Even when the restaurant is nearly full, it’s possible to have a pleasant conversation without having to raise your voice.

Are there bitter cold nights in New Orleans? The Boxing Room is one of the latest entrants in what seems to be spate of bayou-themed spots in our chilly city. As at Roy’s, I felt a slight dissonance in eating the food of some faraway warm place while awaiting the little tongues of clamminess that would slither into the dining room every time somebody came in the front door. (The front door is gorgeous, incidentally, a masterwork of glass and iron, but very heavy and unwieldy.) The restaurant belongs to the Absinthe group, and the chef is Justin Simoneaux, whose name speaks for itself, at least if you speak French.

The obvious question is how Boxing Room’s food stacks up against that of Criolla Kitchen, the new, Louisiana-accented successor to Baghdad Cafe in the Castro. As we might expect, there is considerable overlap, including red beans, handlings of mirliton (the cucumber relative), various versions of the po’boy, and fried chicken. The cooking of the Mississippi Delta is well-defined and has, for North America, deep historical roots. If there’s a meaningful difference between the two menus, it’s probably Boxing Room’s upmarketiness; a couple of the main dishes pop the $20 boundary.

But most of them don’t, and the tapas-like nibbles called lagniappe are just $5 each. (This might be a small joke, since the word supposedly means, more or less, “gift.” Maybe the modest charge is the equivalent of shipping and handling.) Of these, the one that particularly caught our eye was the small cast-iron pot of Cajun boiled peanuts. We were expecting something flamingly spicy — Cajun is one of those words — and were surprised to find the legumes mildly seasoned and rather soggy, like the bits of wood that splinter from old decks in rainy weather. At first this was disappointing, but in true bar-food fashion, the peanuts built up a subtle momentum and, by the end, were nearly addictive.

You may have had grilled Monterey Bay squid ($9) before, but you probably haven’t had it like this — with tasso (a form of spicy cured pork), fried okra, and aioli made with roasted garlic, all of it brought together into a voluptuous faux-stew. Just as good, if more conventional, was a little cast-iron pot of red beans and sausage ($6) — all the cast-iron pots, incidentally, amount to a small detail that makes a big impression — while a green-tomato ratatouille ($5) seemed underpowered, though beautifully diced.

Apart from the occasional small smear of foie gras, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a savory item as rich as the fried-oyster po’boy ($18). The quite-large oysters had been battered with corn meal and slathered with mayonnaise before being snuggled between slices of fabulously fresh baguette — a kingly sandwich. The throw weight was increased slightly by a small litter of hushpuppies on the side.

“Gumbo” is derived from the West African word for “okra,” and there was okra aplenty in the gumbo ($9), along with andouille coins and shreds of chicken in a thick, smoky broth. Okra is like cilantro: You either love or hate its unmistakable flavor. As I happen to love it, I loved this gumbo. But it isn’t for doubters.

The dessert menu includes beignets ($7), and they’re fine — shaped like hamantaschen here. A livelier choice would be the pralines and cream ($7), a sundae of vanilla ice cream embellished with chunks of praline, candied almonds, and little squares of blondie bar — a ghost of pastries past? 


Continuous service: Mon.-Wed., 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Thurs.-Fri., 11:30-1 a.m.; Sat., 5 p.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.-midnight

399 Grove, SF

(415) 430-6590


Beer and wine



Wheelchair accessible




› paulr@sfbg.com

DINE Among the reasons to regret the passing of Enrico’s and its replacement by Txoko is that “Enrico’s” was pretty straightforward to pronounce, whereas the new endeavor, with its impossible juxtaposition of t and x — the spelling equivalent of dividing by zero — does not seem to be. Txoko, despite its modest five letters, has the look of what Sam (having heard Dwarvish spoken for the first time) called “a fair jaw-cracker” in The Lord of the Rings. The good news is that “tx” is pronounced “ch,” so the restaurant’s name is “choke-o,” which sounds like the stage name of a particularly menacing rapper.

As a cultural signifier, “tx” tells us that we’re in or near the Basque country, and I know this mainly because I love the wonderful white wines produced in Spain’s Basque provinces from the Txakoli grape. (The same grape is now grown in Chile and spelled, mercifully, chacoli. ) The wine — Txoko offers a lovely example from Uriondo for $9 a glass — is sharp, bright, minerally, and sour, about as close as a white wine could be to lemon juice passed through a gravel filter. This could be an acquired taste, and if so, I’ve acquired it. The Basques, incidentally, are a singular people; their language is not known to be related to any other in the world, and their Iberian origins are believed to run back 40,000 years or more, to a time when early homo sapiens sapiens and the people we know as Neanderthal might have coexisted and perhaps, as judge advocate general types like to put it, fraternized.

Enrico’s always had a slightly fraternal air for me, and the new regime doesn’t seem to have changed much about the space’s appearance. It’s still a dark, stage-like vault, with a concave face of window glass that looks south, soaking up all the available sunlight like a snowbird in Florida on a weeklong January holiday. All the daylight streaming in makes the interior seem that much darker and lounge-like; it’s as though you’re looking right at a flashbulb as it goes off.

Chef Ian Begg’s menu deals mainly in small plates, among them pintxos, the Basque edition of tapas. There’s only one main dish offered: a $65 ribeye steak for two, which might be a sort of oblique answer to Zuni Cafe’s roast chicken for two. A giant steak sounds pretty all-American, and indeed the tone of much of the rest of the food is mainly Cal-Med: grilled Delta asparagus ($9), for instance, topped with a fried egg and a marvelously cheesy green garlic hollandaise sauce. There are various ways of dealing with asparagus’s grassiness if, like me, you’re not wild about it; Begg’s pincer movement — grilling plus a heavy wash of fat — was most effective.

A wild mushroom empanada ($5), rather pastry-ish, did have an Iberian flair, along with intense fungal flavor. Equally fungal was the wild mushroom arroz ($10), similar to a risotto but with a powerfully concentrated reduction (from chanterelles, baby shiitake, and hen-of-the-wood) that hinted at soup. A batter-fried squash blossom ($3) seemed rather Italian; this version was stuffed with herbed ricotta and presented on a toasted levain spear, with a smear of goat cheese nearby.

One of the more striking items turned out by the kitchen wasn’t even a headliner on the menu card. It was the summer squash and tomato tartlet that accompanied a tiny fist of grilled lamb loin chop ($11). The lamb itself was flavorful and juicy, though slightly complex to eat, despite its size, because a bit of bone that had to be carved around. But the tartlet was a small masterpiece, a kind of ratatouille napoleon reminiscent of the pièce de resistance in the Pixar movie Ratatouille. It looked like a tomato-slathered disk, but under the tomato cap was the summer squash, thin coins carefully arranged into coiling strands, like DNA. The bean salad accompanying a small filet of butter-braised halibut ($12), by contrast, was much more free-form, in fact totally free-form, though several of the players were notable, among them fava beans, fresh chickpeas, and sea beans, an unusual edible that could pass as a cross between kelp and asparagus.

In keeping with a strong recent trend, desserts are excellent. We warmed to a date bread pudding ($8), which had the velvet-sponge consistency of angelfood cake and was finished with a pair of mock-savory witticisms: a sail (stuck into the top) of latticed chorizo crisped like a tuile, and a smear of black-olive caramel sauce, a clever recasting of that current vogue item, sea-salt caramel. The gâteau Basque ($8) also made imaginative use of an herb, thyme, we usually associate with the savory; here it was combined with peaches into what amounted to a fabulously moist clafoutis, capped with crottin of Straus frozen yogurt. Easy on the jaws.


Dinner: Tues.-Sat. from 5 p.m.

504 Broadway, SF

(415) 500-2744


Full bar



Wheelchair accessible