Virginia Miller

Fresh sips


APPETITE In my endless treks ’round the city for the best partnerships of drink and food, here are a few notable current menu offerings.


Easily one of our city’s best bars, Comstock Saloon maintains historical reverence to SF’s Barbary Coast days without being stuffy. Old World decor, live jazz, and bartenders who know how to make a proper cocktail make it one of the most blessedly grown-up watering holes, particularly in partying North Beach. If this weren’t enough, it’s a top notch restaurant. Chef Carlo Espinas churns out dishes better than your typical gastropub “upscale comfort food” fare.

Mostly classic cocktails ($8-12) are often best ordered as a “Barkeep’s Whimsy” option (let the bartender decide how to make it, $12), like a gorgeous Smith & Cross Sour, showing off the musky-elegant-spicy notes of Smith & Cross rum with lemon, sugar, and frothy egg white. Another “whimsy” from the talented Ethan Terry: a stunner of smoky mezcal weaving with Firelit Coffee liqueur, Oloroso sherry and orange bitters. Menu classics remain, like an ever-drinkable Cherry Bounce: bourbon, cherry brandy, lemon, Angostura, Champagne.

Eat: I can’t resist melting soft, mashed potato fritters ($9) dipped in “loaded baked potato dip” (essence of bacon and chives in sour cream — I had to ask for more). Salads are refined yet comforting, whether the austere green of raw kale ($9) tossed with little gems, Parmesan and watermelon radishes in bright lemon dressing, or chunks of fresh crabmeat and smoked trout in a lentil, baby chicories salad ($12). Good thing I can contrast that healthy eating with bacon-wrapped meatloaf ($16), bearing a caramelized “skin” of ridiculously fine house ketchup (of brown sugar, tomato, chili, and more) alongside dreamy coleslaw.

Comstock Saloon 155 Columbus Ave., (415) 617-0071,


Consider leisurely Brasserie S&P, inside the Mandarin Oriental hotel, your gin and tonic haven. But not just any G&T. Though cocktails fall on the pricey side ($12-16), beverage manager Priscilla Young oversees a robust gin collection, blends tonic waters in house, and presents mix-and-match G&T options via iPad. Her sommelier’s palate ensures tonics align with botanical profiles of gins like local Old World Spirits’ Blade Gin, its Asian botanicals dancing with Young’s citrus-tinged Sensei #1 tonic, orange, and Thai chilies. There’s an earthier G&T of St. George’s Dry Rye Gin with Sensei #1 tonic, orange, black pepper. In a “Dirty” G&T, Scottish Botanist Gin flows with celery brine and Q Tonic, decorated with salt-pepper rim. Outside of G&Ts, Fresno chilis and bacon make the Diablo’s Whisper a refreshingly savory cocktail of Don Julio reposado tequila, blackcurrant hibiscus, and lime.

Bonus: A new (and genius) offering is mini-martinis available all day at $5, like First Word, a twist on a classic Last Word cocktail, with Beefeater Gin, Green Chartreuse, lime and grapefruit. Imbibing guilt free, the diminutive size makes you want to order another.

Eat: Conveniently open 11am-11pm, the Bar at Brasserie S&P is an all day, downtown drink option, though it’s also a smart, non-trendy power lunch spot. Light, clean kanpachi crudo ($17) nods to Hawaii with Kona fish and macadamia nuts, drizzled in sesame oil and Fresno chilis. Also light yet laden with Dungeness crab is a Louie salad ($19) stacked with butter lettuce, sieved egg, avocado. I often glaze over chicken, but Mary’s chicken paillard ($18) is a highlight breaded in anchovy garlic crumbs over marcona almond pesto.

Brasserie S&P Mandarin Oriental, 222 Sansome, (415) 986-2020,


Rock-star cool and sexy describe Chambers’ record-lined dining room, one of the most striking in the city. Cocktails ($11) are improved from early days when it opened in 2011. Straightforward and unfussy, the drinks are well-made and thirst-quenching. Playing off one of the greats, a whiskey sour, the Whiskey Cider Sour combines house-made cider, whiskey, egg, and fresh-grated nutmeg. A garden-fresh cilantro daiquiri blends silver rum, Cointreau, and lime with plenty of muddled cilantro.

Eat: Appreciating executive chef Trevor Ogden’s unique presentation of smoked fish (salmon) in the past, now it’s tea-smoked tombo tuna ($15), slowly smoking over a grate tableside. Despite pork belly burnout years ago, I hadn’t tried smoking pork belly ($13) until recently, soft fat releasing its aromas as it burns before you, accompanied by Early Girl tomato kimchee. How could I resist? But salads unexpectedly steal the show. Winter is exemplified in an artistic display of fuyu persimmons ($10) happily partnered with burrata and toasted oat toffee, dotted with Angostura bitters (you heard right), olive oil, sea salt, and garam masala spices. Salade Lyonnaise ($12) is artfully deconstructed: grapefruit wedges, pork biscotti, lardons (thin strips of pork fat), and candied pomelo splay out spoke-like from a sous vide egg resting atop a mound of frisée in the center.

Chambers 601 Eddy St., (415) 829-2316,

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Latin highs


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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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Can Yan noodle?


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

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



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

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

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

1 Kearny, (415) 829-8148,



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

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

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

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

Westfield Center, 845 Market, 4th Floor, (415) 580-3001,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A shot of warmth


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



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

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

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

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

199 Gough, SF. (415) 355-9085,



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

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

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



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

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

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

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Appetite: New year sips


Ringing in the new year is all about celebratory imbibing, but the sometimes dreary days of January likewise call for a cheering pour. It’s a month of planning towards a new year, reaching out for fresh horizons… good reasons to have something quality in the glass, whatever the category. Here are a few worthy bottles, from sake, wine, whisky, even cocktail bitters.


Medicinal and mixable, the glut of bitters released the last few years has all but assured oversaturation. But Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters ($21 per bottle) stands out. Made in Brooklyn, the focus is on seasonal flavors like popular Meyer lemon, rhubarb or Sriracha. Heat radiates from their savory-sweet blackberry mole or spicy charred pineapple bitters, or a brisk, bitter chill from Icelandic bitters. These are some of the more inventive, elegant bitters on the market. 

A couple additional stand-out bitter flavors: The Bitter End’s vibrant curry bitters ($24) made in Sante Fe and put to perfect use by  Mike Ryan at Sable Kitchen and Bar in Chicago in his Short Circuit cocktail with cachaca, manzanilla sherry and Kalani coconut liqueur. From Canada, Bittered Sling’s plum root beer evokes a sweet sarsaparilla.


Nikka Whiskey is blessedly and finally distributed in the US through San Francisco’s Anchor Distilling, just releasing two new Nikka imports – hopefully many more to come. My favorite of the two, Yoichi Single Malt ($129), is a splurge-worthy, 15 year old whisky distilled on the island of Hokkaido from pot stills heated with finely powdered natural coal, a rare traditional method. Though more akin to a Highland-style Scotch, it nods to Islay with a hint of peat alongside a balanced brightness. On the more affordable side is Taketsuru Pure Malt ($69.99): a 12 year pure malt whisky blended in vats from Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. The mountain air and river water humidity of the northern Honshu region where Miyagikyo is produced adds silky, ripe pear dimensions.

This November’s Single Malt and Scotch Whisky Extravaganza in San Francisco (held in 13 major markets), offered tastings of expected Scotches. A few special drams were the fabulous Scotch Malt Whisky Society‘s 8 year Ardbeg Cask No. 33.113, a salty, smoky Scotch young with exotic fruit. The Single Malts’ Auchriosk 20 year Scotch exhibits tropical vividness, though a classic beauty. It was a joy to taste The Balvenie Tun 1401/Batch #6, the youngest whisky in its blend being over 20 yrs old. This rarity expresses layers of fruit, vanilla and spice, lively despite age.


Sake produced in a town outside Portland? SakeOne is a range of affordable sakes (those mentioned below $13-15)  made from rice grown nearby in Sacramento, CA. There’s Momokawa organic sakes, like a clean Junmai Ginjo or creamy Pearl Sake redolent of banana and coconut, or the smooth, balanced G Joy Sake.


Despite low quality bottled sangria you may have tried before, Eppa (found at Bay Area Whole Foods and numerous shops across the country, $12 a bottle) is a refreshing mix of pomegranate, acai, blueberry and blood orange juices with Mendocino Cabernet and Syrah. Trying it chilled over fresh cut fruit this holiday season with family, it tastes homemade,  lush and dark, not too sweet, but just right.


It was the best year yet at the San Francisco Indy Spirits Expo this November. A number of newcomers merely await West Coast distribution but are available online. With a slew of “craft” tonics released lately, each using real cinchona bark (quinine) without the natural color removed, Tomr’s Tonic is one of the better I’ve tasted. 100% organic and made in New Jersey, Tom Richter’s lively tonic combines citrus, herbs, cane sugar, with cinchona. The tonic mixes beautifully with a number of gins I sampled it with at home.

Fabrizia Limoncello is produced in New Hampshire with California and South American citrus by two Italian-American brothers. Balanced, fresh, tart (unlike their sweet Blood Orange liqueur), this limoncello is a step up from most. SW4 London Dry Gin, produced in the Clapham neighborhood of London and imported through Luxe Vintages in Florida, is a smooth, solid gin made from 12 botanicals, including lemon peel and cassia.


Craving the sparkling especially at this time of year? Two great value bottles ($15 each) are Nino Franco’s Rustico Prosecco, dry yet lively, clean and tight, and Coppo’s Moscato d’Asti  from Piedmont, Italy, its vivd effervescence cutting through intense sweetness, vibrant with brunch or spicy food. For after-dinner dessert wine, Donnafugata’s “Ben Rye” ($45 for half bottle) from Sicily, gives off a rich, raisin-like hue in the glass, made of Zibibbo grapes from the island of Pantelleria. To taste it’s lushly elegant, with a balanced sweetness and nuttiness.

At an industry tasting this fall with Sommelier David Lynch at his restaurant St. Vincent, we explored wines of the fascinating, warm-weather Consorzio Tutela Morellino Di Scansano region of southernmost Tuscany (established as a D.O.C.G. in 2007). I learned the region requires its wines be made with a minimum of 85% Sangiovese grapes. A 2010 Tenuta Pietramora di Collefagiano stood out, unusual at 100% Sangiovese. Its pleasantly funky nose gave way to cherry, even chocolate/earthy notes, balanced by soft acidity.
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Banchan, ramen, and squid innards


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



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

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

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

401 Balboa, (415) 668-6007



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

1819 Market, SF. (415) 861-6500,

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Appetite: Jumping at Trick Dog


The Bon Vivants (Josh Harris, Scott Baird, Jason Henton) need little introduction in the drink world, from humanitarian work with their Pig & Punch events — they’re featured in the latest issue of Imbibe magazine — to unforgettable Bon Vivants’ parties. Last Sunday, I walked through the unfinished space of their long-awaited bar Trick Dog. Though it appeared there was much left to be done, in 24 short hours the bar was looking all grown up and open for business, welcoming a slew of early birds and industry folk at 3pm on January 7th.

Trick Dog buzz is already at fever pitch. The two-level space, designed by the Bon Vivants (they recently launched The Bon Vivants Design–Build) along with Wylie Price Design, boasts thoughtful details like iron banisters from the original Warfield and a seating area upstairs overlooking the action for those who want to sit and dine. The space is both industrial and warm, named after the vintage trick dog piggy banks spotted around the bar.

While cocktails are the Vivants’ expertise, listed on a brilliant menu resembling a Pantone paint color guide-swatch (designed by Camille Robles Ramble & Ride), there’s food from Chef Chester Watson, like a salt cod-wrapped Scotch egg and dreamy, minty Fernet ice cream laden with toasted cacao nibs. Soon I will have worked my way through the menus but for opening day, I tasted half of the 13 Pantone color-named cocktails ($10-$12), each a winner. There are also $8 highballs (like amaro & Moxie soda), $7 alcohol-free drinks, $35 punches to share, and $8 “Neat with a Side” options, like George Dickel #12 Tennessee whiskey with dill pickle gelée.

Behind the bar, lined with Vivants’-designed sliding bottle shelves, a tight team of bartenders is already busy attending to opening week crowds. Here are my opening day highlights and cocktails in photos.

TRICK DOG, 3010 20th Street at Florida, 415-471-2999, open 3pm-2am daily (brunch coming soon) 

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Appetite: 12 reasons to love Nevada City and Grass Valley


Imagine if the Wild West collided with a European village. There might be winding, narrow streets through neighboring towns, plotting through pine trees. Old West saloons, wood sidewalks and columns, classic homes in walkable small towns. Not far from Lake Tahoe, at the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, there are two such tiny towns. The Gold Country towns of Grass Valley, a charming, relaxed Old West town, and its sister merely four miles away, Nevada City, the smaller, more funky-artsy and visually striking of the two. Historically, I’d trek 30 minutes off the 80 on the way back from Lake Tahoe to spend an afternoon in these towns, particularly when fall leaves are at their peak. This fall, I decided to spend the weekend here instead of Tahoe – and a restorative weekend it was.

While you’re in Grass Valley, foodies and cooks don’t miss Tess’ Kitchen Store, three floors of every cooking accoutrement you can think of, and Back Porch Market, a small but well-curated gourmet deli of cheese, salumi, wine and gourmet foods (P.S. inhaling the house pasta sauce cooking as you enter is intoxicating).

In Grass Valley, Big A Drive In may look a little forlorn, a historic drive-in serving freezes, malts, burgers and hot dogs, but their cheeseburger is unexpectedly classic and satisfying – some even say the best in the area. If there in the fall, take the slower but lovely drive along Colfax Highway at least one way to and from the 80 freeway so you can stop off at Bierwagen’s Donner Trail Fruit & Farm Market, an idyllic apple farm selling jams, pies, an array of seasonal produce, and, yes, apples.

Between nature, architecture, food, and even unexpected nightlife, here are just a few reasons to love these Gold Country towns.

1. NEW ENGLAND VIBRANT FALL COLORS AND CHRISTMAS CELEBRATIONS – When friends from New England told me this was THE spot they’d go for equally radiant fall colors, I was skeptical. But from my first visit in November years past, I walked through neighborhoods of old Victorians and 1800s homes, awash in the brilliant reds, yellows and oranges of my favorite season, dramatically cast against the green of mountain pines.

Besides warm fall days, crisp mountain nights and stunning fall colors, winter is a festive time in these two towns that pull out all the stops for Christmas. There’s a Victorian Christmas street festival complete with horse-drawn carriages and wandering carolers, and the Sierra Foothills Christmas Festival, known locally as Cornish Christmas, as the early, late 1800s population of Grass Valley was predominantly Cornish. Now just wish for snow for added magic.

2. ROADHOUSE EXTRAORDINAIRE: THE WILLO The Willo has been around for decades, a roadhouse on Highway 49, about 15 minutes drive from Grass Valley. Part redneck party in the rowdy bar, part retro dream with neon sign shining like a beacon from a dark, two-lane road in the middle of the pines, it is easily my favorite restaurant in the region.

Locavores and dainty eaters beware. This place is about thick cuts of NY steak (you cook or they cook on the big grill between the restaurant and bar) and local character. For less than $20, one can pig out on hearty, old school fare. Although requested “cheese” with a $1.85 baked potato is a deli slice, taste does not suffer here. When you ask for medium rare steak, you get it: juicy, delicious.

In fact, after numerous meals at more modern restaurants in the area, even those with local ingredients and attention to produce and meat sources, most were highly inconsistent and well behind  even average big city standards. With The Willo, I felt like I got exactly what I came for: local flair, delicious food appropriate for bracing mountain air. We brought our own bottle of wine ($10 corkage), well worth it considering what was on offer, although the festive bar was doing just fine with big name liquor brands and country on the jukebox.

The dated, wood-paneled dining room is lined with Elvis, The Duke (John Wayne), and scripture verse clocks, while a Friday night only special of BBQ pulled pork sandwich ($12) is surprisingly good ‘que, and hard-working waitresses ensure you’re right at home with a “hon” and a smile. Dining at this packed roadhouse felt like the kind of meal my grandparents would have enjoyed, of the celebratory, unfussy kind in my childhood.

3. UNEXPECTED NIGHTLIFE AND MUSIC SCENE – Though I struggled to find strong restaurants outside of The Willo or Sushi in the Raw, Nevada City nightlife, though not in the same breath as a big city, can get surprisingly rowdy. Being here days before Halloween meant Day of the Dead parties, concerts at historic Miners Foundry with everyone in costume, revelers wandering the streets, reminiscent of raucous nights in party towns like Savannah and New Orleans.

There wasn’t an evening I didn’t catch street musicians singing along the streets, a few of them exceptional, like a girl with a soulful, R&B voice belting along to one guy beatboxing, the other with a guitar. On sleepier nights, the historic Mine Shaft Saloon is the dive bar in town. Crusty bartenders, chatty locals, plenty of personality, and bowls of hot and sour soup arrive through the swinging door at next door’s Fred’s Szechuan Chinese Restaurant.

4. WINE COUNTRY – As with many parts of California, the Sierra Foothills is home to a strong community of wineries. The best afternoon of my recent weekend was spent driving around local vineyards, off scenic country roads, tucked in between valleys and mountain views. My other afternoon highlight was an hour tasting wine with Alex Szabo of Szabo Vineyards in his downtown Nevada City tasting room. With big personality and opinionated passion for wine, he’s lived in Europe and San Francisco, now winemaking here. He knew every local who came through the door, his friendly repartee and stories of his Hungarian family with winemaking roots back to 1780 particularly engaging – he grew up taking “a few pulls of wine from the jug” in his Grandpa’s basement.

His tasting room is full of hand-crafted pieces like a striking bar made from red gum eucalyptus trees salvaged in Berkeley’s Tilden Park after a fire. Launching Szabo in 2003 with 40 acres (15 of them vines, the rest sustainable forest), Szabo’s winemaking style is “balanced wines that you can still grab onto.” He mentioned being the only winemaker in area growing all his own grapes on premises, and his wines do represent balance rather than merely bold fruit. Tasting through a flight ($6), I noted the pleasant funkiness of a 2010 Grenache ($23 a bottle) which he describes as a “dusty Spanish road”, but was surprised to find I preferred the Zinfandel, a varietal I rarely gravitate towards ($18 a bottle). Though there are intense blackberry notes, there’s no residual sugar and the berry is balanced by tannins and an earthiness. Balance is also found in a sweet dessert wine, an off-dry 2011 Muscat redolent of orange blossom with a creamy mouthfeel. Best of all, his Voila, at $28 a bottle, is the highest priced of any of Szabo wine.

5. GOURMET ICE CREAM – Every time I’m in Nevada City, I don’t miss ice cream at Treats. Gourmet flavors hit the mark, like plum shiso or saffron rose pistachio. Childhood favorites like Swiss orange chip, and a handful of daily gelatos (such as chocolate cherry), are made with big city-quality and standards.

– With over 60% of Grass Valley’s population being Cornish in the late 1800’s, the influence of Cornwall, England, can be felt in the fact that this small town has more than one pasty shop. But there is only one you need to visit: Marshall’s. These flaky, filled pastries are certainly old school – even the tiny shop evokes 1970’s. Marshall’s has been churning them out for decades, with your choice of vinegar or ketchup alongside a classic beef and potato or sweet, spiced apple in sugary vanilla sauce.

– Hipsterization has even reached this small foothills town, but it’s a pleasure at Curly Wolf, an espresso house with Victorian wallpaper and couches on Nevada City’s main street. This form of retro/Old World hipster feels right home off wood sidewalks, serving properly prepared cappuccinos, coffees, cold brew iced coffee, even a chocolate orange espresso reminiscent of a Caffe Nico at LA’s Caffe Luxxe.

In Grass Valley, Caroline’s Coffee Roasters is a roaster and shop of the old school kind, not necessarily a coffee geek’s dream. But when in Grass Valley, it’s where locals congregate on a Saturday morning talking arts and sports (the SF Giants, naturally) over bracing cups of coffee.

8. SUSHI HOTSPOT – One doesn’t expect to find a sushi haven in towns this small. In fact, I’ve been to bigger towns around the country that lack a sushi restaurant as good as Sushi in the Raw. The fish is fresh and pristine and the environment in a converted Victorian boasts quirky charm, feeling like a hidden big city gem.

That being said, sushi aficionados and purists, while delighting at house pickled ginger and only sustainable fish will also notice an excess of sauce on or with most sushi, a “no-no” many a hardcore sushi master from Japan has warned us against. Though wishing I could taste the cleanness of fish apart from muddles of sauce (and this is coming from a sauce fanatic), Sushi in the Raw is still one of the better meals to be found in the area, though good luck getting a reservation. You MUST call ahead no matter the night of the week – they book weeks in advance. Husband/wife owners, Susan Frizzle and Executive Chef Kaoru “Ru” Suzuki, have created that small town rarity: a coveted hot spot everyone seems dying to get into.

Octopus/tako salad ($11.50), though thoughtfully presented, was surprisingly bland  drowning in spicy sauce with kelp, carrots and shredded nori, and the popular black truffled sashimi ($10/17), made with “best fish of the day” (each piece was different: salmon, yellowtail, kanpachi, albacore, trout) was overwhelmed by Italian black truffle, truffle salt, soy vinaigrette and French black truffle oil (tasting a number of truffle sashimi dishes over the years, a light hand is needed). While a sashimi platter arrives with five different bright cuts of fish, again, one is served a generous side of three sauces… with sashimi! So the drowning continues.

Rolls/maki are solid, like the Susan Roll ($14.50) of avocado, mango, smelt roe, crab mix, green onion, ginger, while scallop shooters ($3 each or $4 “drunken”) are vividly fresh with green mussel, mango and quail egg, particularly fun ordered drunken with a shot of shochu. On the drink side, a plum refresher ($4) is a lovely way to go with organic plum wine, lightened but not diluted by lemon, ice and sparkling water. “Ru’s pick” for sake, Kikusui KaraKuchi Dry ($5.50 glass/$33 bottle) is a crisp, pleasant accompaniment.

9. JUICE CENTRAL – As with a number of small California towns, you’ll find a healthy dose of hippies and back-to-the-earth folk. In Nevada City, Fudenjuce is a blissed out roadside hut with outdoor picnic tables, serving wraps, salads and rice bowls – but go for the juice. Though you may reek afterwards, a garlic heavy Immune Enhancer is an eye-opener with carrot, apple, parsley, spinach, ginger, while Planet Favorite is tart with lots of lemon, carrot, apple. Unlike most juice shops, everything, even 24 oz. pours, are affordably under $7. Only downside is that wheatgrass shots tasted sickly sweet – I like wheatgrass for that fresh-cut grass taste and wished it had been noted that it was sweetened so I could opt out.

Flour Garden Bakery
is mainly a bakery but also whips up a few fresh (and a couple thankfully green) juices in the Neal Street shopping center location of downtown Grass Valley.

10. GRAB A PINT – Though far from my top California brewery, Ol’ Republic Brewery is the first local brewery in town. The sterile, low ceiling space does have a front patio and Saturday nights draw live bands and crowds. The IPA English Ale strikes a fine balance of hoppy notes, and their range includes Bavarian Black Lager, Dead Canary (German lager), Celtic Red, Schwarzbier and Export Stout. Pretty much across the street from Ol’ Republic, Jernigan’s Tap House & Grill has a rotating draft selection of beers from around California.

11. AND ONE MORE ROADHOUSE: THE OLD 5 MILE HOUSE – Just follow the bikers (motorcycles parked out front) who congregate at The Old 5 Mile House, an 1890 roadhouse and former stagecoach stop off forested Highway 20 just 5 miles out of Nevada City. You’ll find a cozy, dark wood respite with fireplace, bocce area and back patio under massive trees. It’s a bar with decent beer selection and surprisingly tart, tasty margaritas, and a restaurant with far better-than-expected food. Recommended dishes: Piadine (aka pizza crust topped with salad) – the arugula version with tender skirt steak, chimichurri sauce, red onions and blue cheese ($14.99), the pizzas (some are better than others), and hearty 5 Mile Corned Beef Hash ‘n Eggs ($10.99).

– Though my room felt a bit cavelike on the bottom floor with only one small window and minimal light at Grass Valley Courtyard Suites (ask for an upstairs room with more windows), the room was otherwise comfortable, the owners and service exceptionally friendly, with an unexpectedly pleasant hotel breakfast in a cozy dining room, a day spa and comfortable gym,  easily walkable in old town Grass Valley, and best of all, the hot tub next to the pool was the ideal way to unwind every night. The stars appeared in all their glory and crisp foothill air invigorated as I relaxed in soothing, hot waters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

641 Vallejo, SF. (415) 986-8998,

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We go together


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



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

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

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



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

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

2124 Market, SF. (415) 503-0630,



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

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

5 Romolo Place, SF. (415) 398-1359,



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

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

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

401 Taylor, SF. (415) 775-7979,

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Dishing 2012


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


1. AQ

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

1085 Mission, SF. (415) 341-9000,



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

1529 Fillmore, SF. (415) 795-1272,



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

199 Gough, SF. (415) 355-9085,



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

815 Cole, SF. (415) 742-4932,



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

333 Fulton, SF. (415) 294-8925,



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

746 Valencia, SF. (415) 913-7713,



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

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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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Appetite: 10 best spirits launched in 2012


Each year holds a range of interesting spirits released from around the globe. As the craft spirit industry continues to explode, there were many exciting newcomers this year. Here are some of the best of what’s crossed my desk in 2012.

FORD’s GIN ($27) –  The 86 Company is a new venture from spirits and cocktail world stars Simon Ford (former International Brand Ambassador for Plymouth Gin), Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric (owners of New York’s Employees Only bar, authors of Speakeasy). Just last month, they released Caña Brava Rum (a Panama rum, aged 3 years), Aylesbury Duck Vodka, and Ford’s Gin. It’s the gin I’ve been mixing with at home in every kind of cocktail from a basic gin and tonic to complex Ramos Gin Fizz.

The gin’s bright citrus-juniper properties shine in each – and the price is right. Master Distiller Charles Maxwell, of Thames Distillers, worked with Ford to develop Ford’s Gin, made with nine botanicals, including juniper, coriander, cassia, jasmine, bitter orange, grapefruit peel. A nice, local connection (and environmental plus): distilled gin is shipped in bulk to and bottled by our own Charbay in Napa, cut with fresh Mendocino County water.

HIGH WEST CAMPIRE WHISKEY ($54) – Though I’ve been partial to Balcones Brimstone when it comes to a wild and wooly American smoked whiskey (in Balcones’ case, a corn whiskey smoked with Texas scrub oak), High West’s new Campfire continues in that rugged vein,  smoky with Old West charm. Bourbon, rye and smoky single malt are blended together in a spicy, woody, sweet, floral whole that makes me crave BBQ.

IMBUE PETAL & THORN Vermouth ($27) – From Portland and the creators of bittersweet vermouth Imbue (Derek Einberger, Neil Kopplin, and Jennifer Kilfoil), Imbue’s Petal & Thorn is a gorgeously bitter gentian liqueur using homegrown beets for color, alongside cinnamon and menthol – a truly unique elixir that’s lovely with soda on the rocks, in twists on classic cocktails like the Negroni, and on its own.

TEMPUS FUGIT KINA L’AVION D’OR ($35) – Fresh off the heels of its unparalleled Crème de Menthe and Crème de Cacao last year, Tempus Fugit does it again with Kina L’Avion D’or. Reminiscent of Lillet and Cocchi Americano but with a more intense flavor punch and elegant bitter quotient, it’s made from a hundred year old recipe from a Swiss distillery… a shining beauty in the quinquina family of aperitifs, distinct with quinine bite.

1512 SPIRITS Poitín ($39)Poitín is a rare Irish spirit made in this case from potatoes and barley (the word poteen refers to small pot stills in which the liquor is historically made). Clear, bold and light, it evokes cucumber and summer, with the spirit of an eau de vie and robustness of a white whiskey. There’s nothing quite like it.

WAHAKA MADRE CUISHE MEZCAL ($80) – New to the US this year, Wahaka Mezcals are solid across the line, from an affordable Espadin Joven ($30) to an award winning Tobala ($80). I especially appreciate the earthier Madre Cuishe ($80), made from the wild agave plant of the same name, evoking fresh earth, cigar ash, citrus even fresh, green vegetables. If you get a taste of their Real Matlatl Tobala Mezcal ($125), it’s blissfully like sucking on a stone, intensely earthy, fascinating – for the mezcal aficionado.

CHATEAU de LAUBADE BLANCE ARMAGNAC ($55) – From a Gascon, family-run Armagnac house established in 1870, this clear, refined Armagnac has more in common with an elegant grappa or pisco than beautifully rough and ready Armagnacs. Airy yet substantial with pear and floral notes, the lack of color is due to it being an unaged Armagnac. The purity of the base, made from 100% Folle Blanche grapes, shines. Consider it the cleaner, lighter side of brandy.

LEOPOLD BROTHERS FERNET ($35) – First tasting Leopold Brothers’ Fernet straight from the vat as it was fermenting when I visited their family-run Denver distillery in Sept. 2011, its release this year yielded a lighter, layered fernet-style amaro, where ginger, mint, cacao and floral notes peek out alongside the menthol bitterness Fernet is known for – the brothers (Todd and Scott) added sarsparilla root and molasses for a distinctly American touch.

GLENFIDDICH MASTER MALT Edition ($90) – This limited-edition whisky was released in September from the classic distillery, one of only four in Scotland still owned and run by the same family since the 1800′s. At 18,000 bottles, it’s small production for Glenfiddich, celebrating their 125th anniversary. Malt Master Brian Kinsman crafted this double-matured whisky, which spent roughly 6 to 8 years in used Bourbon barrels, then 4 to 6 years in sherry casks. Sherry characteristics hit first but don’t overpower, with accompanying brine and spice.

FOUR ROSES 2012 Limited Edition SINGLE BARREL BOURBON ($90)  – A bracing bourbon at 100-114 proof, depending on the barrel, with only 3600 bottles released, Master Distiller Jim Rutledge has personally selected these uncut, unfiltered 12 year bourbon barrels for special release this year, among the more noteworthy whiskey tastes of 2012.
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Comfort, au courant


APPETITE San Francisco doesn’t lack for comfort food. The last decade’s wave of twists on hearty, familiar fare has insured most neighborhoods aren’t without elevated burgers and grown-up childhood favorites. Two new restaurants, opened in September, continue and update the trend.



Guerrero and 22nd Street has long been one of my favorite corners. Whether enjoying a pint at the Liberties, a cocktail at retro fabulous bar Lone Palm, or house charcuterie at Beast and the Hare, at this intersection I feel transported, encouraged to linger and take in my surroundings, as if in Europe. In Company’s big picture windows, vintage red chairs and retro lamps make the space even more welcoming than it was before, as Tao Cafe. Lunch is idyllic: a book, a sandwich, and a bowl of soup becomes a way of spoiling myself.

Dinner is likewise mellow, families and couples confirming a local vibe. It’s clear in early months that while Company may not be revolutionary destination dining, chef-owners Karen Hoffman (from Four Seasons Newport Beach and Jardiniere) and Jason Poindexter (Four Seasons Chicago and San Francisco) offer tranquil surroundings and well-executed food. The ubiquitous upscale burger is there: “Breadand Butter” burger ($14), a patty of ground chuck and oxtail, topped with Madeira-glazed pioppini mushrooms and decadent triple creme brie. At lunch, vegetarian stands up to burger and pork offerings: grilled eggplant and house ricotta panini ($11) is layered with rapini/broccoli rabé and romesco sauce. Smoky eggplant and ricotta are in harmony: warm, luxurious, almost healthy. A bowl of squash soup, savory with duck confit, brightened by citrus reduction, is $8 but as an add-on cup to a lunch entree is merely $3.

At dinner, salads are vivid, unlisted vegetables one night in a “crisp vegetable salad” ($9) being beets, cucumber, and avocado over sweet gem lettuce, tossed with feta and toasted pine nuts in a basil mint vinaigrette. House-cured salmon salad ($11) is likewise fresh and silky, with cucumber and beets in yogurt dill dressing. Crispy confit chicken wings ($9) are especially tender, accented with heat (and color) from red jalapenos and fried mint leaves. Syrah-braised short ribs ($23) are cooked in harissa, evoking Middle Eastern intrigue over whipped garnet yams and charred rapini.

With four beers on draft, like intense peach notes of Widmer Bros. BRRR Seasonal Red Ale from Portland ($6), and a shorter wine list (heavy on France, Italy, California), there are cocktails sans hard liquor from Assistant General Manager Russell Morton. While I don’t get excited about soju and wine cocktails, preferring robust spirits to mild soju, Morton elevates an amaretto sour into an almond cherry sour ($6), keeping house amaretto tart rather than too sweet, with lemon, cherry bitters, and brandied cherries.

1000 Guerrero, SF. (415) 374-7479,



Midwestern brother-sister duo Jess and Matt Voss opened Jamber, serving gourmet pub food from Chef Peter Baker with California-only wines and beers, all on tap. The siblings’ care shows in hand-assembled tables, chairs made from wine barrels, wines selected from wineries they personally visited, a hip, industrial vibe warmed by woods and graffiti art in the loft-like space with a walled front patio.

Wines (happily, there are options: 2.5 oz. and 5 oz. glasses, 1/2 or full jugs), like Darcie Kent Gruner Veltliner from Monterey or a Margerum Grenache Blanc from Santa Barbara, flow easily from taps, with beers such as Almanac’s Farmhouse Ale or a hibiscus saison, Pacific Brewing Lab’s Nautulis. In my visits, there’s a relaxed welcome from staff best experienced sitting at the rustic wood bar. Jess’ bacon jam recipe is a highlight: a savory, textured pleasure of a spread, no matter what it’s served with. Mr. Meatloaf ($15) is the star, a hefty, tender slab of buffalo meatloaf wrapped in bacon, accompanied by mashed potatoes and roasted carrots. I often find myself bored by big hunks of ground meat. Not so here. Jamber’s meatloaf is about as good as meatloaf gets.

Two more standouts: PB & Jam ($11) is a hunk of pork belly layered in a sandwich with peanut butter and that Jamber bacon jam. Most starters, like pretzels and fried mozzarella, are on the heavy side; the top one is easily Parmesan rosemary mashed potater tots ($8) — warm mashed potatoes oozing out of lightly fried breading — with, yes, Jamber bacon jam. After a decent mac ‘n cheese ($10) or freshly generous salads ($7–$9), a pot pie ($12–$14), namely ratatouille, sounded brilliant but was a soggy, funky mash of vegetables in flavorless crust. Likewise, the beet Jamburger ($10, there is a veal-beef burger for $12) made me sorry I took the vegetarian path. Despite fresh bread, it tasted like slices of beet on a bun rather than the creative beet-veggie patties I’ve had that never replace a “real” burger but can be a worthy sandwich on their own.

Despite a couple difficult dishes, there’s enough here to love at this all-day SoMa spot for a drink and a filling bite.

858 Folsom, SF. (415) 273-9192,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

243 W. Portal Ave.




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Appetite: Learning from the best, eating like royalty at Flavor! Napa


All photos by Virginia Miller

Flavor! Napa is a five-day food and wine festival that took place last weekend in its second annual incarnation, potentially the definitive event representing the wines of the region, and the chefs and cooking that make this grouping of small towns and countryside one of the great culinary and wine destinations in the world.

Despite some nasty rainstorms hitting the area for part of the week, festivities were many and varied, classes and demos, dinners and galas. Here are a few highlights in photos, including sessions with two of the biggest chefs in the world: Thomas Keller and Masaharu Morimoto. 

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Sea change


APPETITE Two unrelated seafood restaurants have quietly undergone chef and menu changes in the last year. I was less than impressed with both when they debuted; now they’ve taken a turn for the better. There’s a low-key Mission seafood outpost with vegan accents, Weird Fish (renamed Dante’s Weird Fish), and a Financial District restaurant catering to the FiDi set, Georges, with upscale-casual seafood.

Tiny Weird Fish (2193 Mission, SF. has been around a few years, pleasing vegans and hipsters alike with grilled fish and seitan tacos. Owner Tim Holt left in 2011 to focus on Roshambo Farms ( in Healdsburg, which still supplies the restaurant with much of its produce. Holt opened Weird Fish with Peter Hood, who is back as owner alongside Ryan Simas, returning to roots of fish and vegan options, infused with new life. Simas knows seafood as chef de cuisine at Farallon, where he’s worked for nine years, now simultaneously co-owner at Dante’s and its neighbor, The Perch, eventually supposed to open next door.

Dante’s all day hours and a playful, affordable menu (discounted during lunch hours) are its selling points. Portions are small, but it’s rare to see enticing fish entrees under $10 — think of it as piecing together a meal. I can’t say the hit-and-miss aspects of the former Weird Fish has entirely changed, but I notice greater consistency and higher “high points” than before. “Pete’s famous clam chowder” ($4.75 cup, $6.75 bowl) is one surprise. Unlike the bland tortilla soup, the creamy chowder is flavor-rich with spanking-fresh clams. Fish and chips ($11 for two pieces, $14 for three), filling all on its own, features fresh fish of the day, flaky and light in Speakeasy’s Big Daddy IPA beer batter. A mix of sweet potato and regular potato fries falls flat, but fried fish dissolves comfortingly.

The vegetarian Waco Taco ($5) is one of their best bites. Though I’m a fish taco fanatic, a tilapia fish taco tasted over-salted and lifeless under mango salsa compared to this lively Waco Taco, packed with mashed yams, spinach, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), and guacamole. Fried calamari ($9.50) is perked up by fried lemon and sage leaves, dipped in lemon aioli and oh! chipotle sauce. Among fish entrees, I’ve fared best with Dijon-almond encrusted rainbow trout ($9.50) alongside buttery mashed yams ($4.75) laced with coconut milk and curry.

Dante’s casual, rock-and-roll (sometimes blaring a bit loud in the small space) attitude is a bright spot on Mission Street, uncommon if not “weird,” amid a sea of taquerias and 99 cent stores. In its Dante’s incarnation since March, Weird Fish captures the quirk of former days with greater focus on the food.

Georges (415 Sansome, SF. took over the Financial District’s classic London Wine Bar in 2010 (which lacked an impressive wine list but boasted dated charm), completely revamping the space from dim, old school to white and airy. I dined during opening weeks — but was immediately turned off by overcooked fish at high prices. I didn’t return until a couple months ago, having heard good things about Chef Michael Bilger who came on in early 2011 from Wayfare Tavern, and now defunct Moose’s and Vivande Porta Via. Bilger’s cooking is a marked improvement since my 2010 visit.

Serving sustainably-sourced seafood per Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch ( standards, Georges’ focuses on being environmentally responsible in numerous aspects, like crushing raw bar shells into fertilizer for the local farmers who provide its produce.

Lunch is a bustling, convivial time to dine. As with lobster rolls, a Dungeness crab roll is expensive ($21), but a real beauty. Lush white crab is packed between bread with basil, piquillo pepper, and pleasing Southern touches of fried green tomatoes and remoulade, and the whole thing is accompanied by housemade BBQ potato chips. A silky crudo ($15) of albacore tuna cleanses the palate alongside a crisp white wine. Six cuts of tuna rest on hearts of palm, reasonably doused in garum (a fermented fish sauce I’m seeing on many menus lately), McEvoy Ranch olive oil, and vivid Meyer lemon.

Mussels and frites ($16 for mussels, $20 with fries) comfort on a chilly day, particularly with beer. Bilger steams plump mussels in Ommegang Witte beer, the broth exhibiting notes of fall from Rubinstar apples, savory with smoked bacon and leeks. One seafood misstep on a follow-up visit, however, was an overcooked, dry albacore tuna confit in bucatini pasta, tossed with zucchini, Calabrian chilis, Castelvetrano olives, and dose of bread crumbs ($16 lunch, $19 dinner). An affogato, a robust shot of espresso drowning lush vanilla gelato, the glass covered with a waffle cone crisp, is an ideal finish and caffeine boost before returning to work.

Georges is pricey but not out of line with the FiDi or the quality of ingredients. It’s not the same restaurant I dined at when it opened… and for this the entire staff deserves kudos.

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If on a winter’s night …


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

All photos by Virgina Miller,