SANF — February 2010
Change Language:

Prime Rib Shabu

DIY dining, Japanese-style.


The hot pot roils before you like the Jacuzzi at Hef ’s pad. Here as well as there, anything goes. Take your pick of broths (mellow chicken or fiery miso), then toss in what you will: quick-cooking cuts of rib eye, laid out on a platter like a red marble mosaic; mussels, clams, shrimp; an overgrown garden of peppery cress; a tangle of udon; tofu skins; and more. San Francisco has no shortage of shabu-shabu, but chef and coowner Luke Sung places a welcome emphasis on provenance and freshness at this spot. The ingredients shine, and as dinner unfolds, the broth becomes a crucible of vibrant flavors. Once it’s done its job, it makes delicious soup. The tavernlike interior— tons of wood touches, plus two Tvs—makes a refreshing change from the fluorescent torture of so many Richmond restaurants. It’s a festive place. And even if you go for the all-you-can-eat option, this shabu-shabu is so lightly crafted that you’ll leave satisfied, not overfed


Dominique Crenn’s dazzling food illuminates a bland setting.

Though its name comes from the Italian word for “light,” very little else about Luce recalls the Old World. Just off the lobby of the gleaming InterContinental San Francisco Hotel, the dining room shows no pressing need to be a restaurant. Remove the floor-toceiling curtains, rearrange the seating, and presto! You’d have yourself a bank. The service is so-so—glasses go unfilled, flatware gets forgotten. What makes Luce worth a detour is the deft hand of Dominique Crenn. On both her à la carte and tasting menus, Crenn strikes a nimble balance between hearty and highminded. Pliant pappardelle, tangled with robust short rib–and– wild mushroom ragù, is a little bit Batali, while rich sweetbreads and beef tongue, paired with a slowcooked egg and bathed in potato foam and pancetta jus, brings bistro traditions into the science lab. The presentations are precise and playful. When squash consommé is poured tableside, then drizzled with pumpkin-seed oil, the delicate broth becomes a lava lamp. The desserts are sweet and perky: A small cup of lush hot chocolate looks like a piece from a children’s playset, but the chocolate “egg” is rich and adult. The winning wine list wings happily from Sardinia to Sonoma, but the liveliest place to drink is at the bar, which deals in grappa. That’s Italian for “high profit margin.”


Sand Hill Road gets a new canteen.

PARk Located right across the road from the most renowned venture capital firms in Silicon Valley, this hotel restaurant is as posh and clubby as you’d expect from a place poised to be the offsite executive dining room of high-tech kings. The only surprise is the menu’s risky reliance on unusual greens, like stinging nettles and chickweed—plants that some Luddites still consider weeds. The greens star in firstrate dishes such as roasted sablefish with erbette chard, arti - chokes, cauliflower, and roastedgarlic nage with black-olive oil. For vegetarians, it doesn’t get any better than chestnut pappardelle with stinging nettles, delicata squash, wild mushrooms, and black truffles. But the kitchen hasn’t realized there’s no profit in adding delicate fruit flavors to these brassy greens: No matter how prime the components, kumquat confit plus duck breast and cavolo nero equals confusion. Though the service is uneven, the fat wine list makes fascinating reading.


bar tartine

in the four years since it opened, this Tartine Bakery offshoot has been a welcome presence, but its chefs don’t tend to linger. The latest, chris kronner (Slow club, Serpentine), though a wanderer in his own right, at least seems bent on making diners feel at home. Pared down in price to match the current climate, his menu deals in thoughtful comfort cooking.Chicken-liver pâté, its richness cut with pickles and candied crab apples, provides a creamy cover for the thick-cut bread served with it. Cast-ironskillet chicken, its skin tanning-bed bronze, nests on wilted romaine, its mild meat moistened with earthy giblet jus. Very little is unfamiliar (think burgers and steak frites, and littlegem salads with garlicky dressing), but there’s enough whimsy to hold your interest. Take a bone-marrow starter: Surrounded by licorice-hinted herb salad, it’s a country bumpkin with an urbane edge. Even when the food flops (beef tongue–andoxtail terrine is all fat, little flavor), the setting keeps its shine. With a small, salvaged interior of rustic walnut tables and worn wood flooring, offset by a gleaming marble bar, Bar Tartine feels snug and worldly all at once. So even though its desserts, such as roasted-banana parfait and crème fraîche panna cotta, tend toward the too sweet, you can’t help feeling an urge to stick around. (J.S.) 561 valencia st. (at 17th st.), s. F., 415-487-1600 $$$

La Ciccia
Noe Valley
dimly lit and blind to fashion, this winning little restaurant provides a welcome respite from the edgy ambitions of the San Francisco dining scene. Here, you’ll find no splashy cocktails, no long communal table—only a corner bar and snugly arranged seating, presided over by a lovely couple with a passion for the cooking they know best: Massimiliano conti and lorella degan, whose seafood-driven menu does Sardinia proud. On a recent evening, cured tuna heart shaved into dark red flakes lent a briny blast of flavor to linguine, while sautéed sardines showed their sweet side when paired with parsley, breadcrumbs, and olive oil. The pizzas are superb, particularly the plucky Sarda, topped with capers and pecorino. And regional standards, like seared tuna with olives and saffron-scented pasta with clams and mussels, are the sort of simple dishes that don’t let you down. You can do without dessert (an uninspired assortment of liqueur-soaked cakes and ice cream), but not without the wine list, which also digs deep into Sardinian soil. San Francisco could use more restaurants like this: low-key but energetic, with a neighborhoody spirit that could never pass for trendy, because it never really goes out of style. (J.S.) 291 30th st. (at church st.), s.F., 415-550- 8114

Cheap eats

howie’s artisan Pizza


howard Bulka asks tough questions. For instance: “how come you can’t get real American pizza anymore? How come you can’t get a $5 glass of wine in a restaurant?” The chef’s new venture is his answer-in-progress. It’s also an homage to the thin-crust, east coast– style pizza of his childhood. Some toppings are old-school, like pepperoni, while others, such as fennel sausage and broccoli rabe, nod to contemporary tastes. Bulka’s attention to detail is unrelenting: his crisp yet chewy dough begins with a 24-hour fermentation, and the pancetta, fennel sausage, and ricotta are all made in house. The service is unpretentious “drop-and-go,” but wines are a lovingly described reality on the list created by Marché’s former general manager lisa Robins. (S.B.) 855 el camino real (at embarcadero rd.), 650- 327-4992 $$ w HH san francisco amber india SOMA in a delicious case of culinary imperialism, the owners of the Peninsula’s lauded upscale indian restaurant Amber india have built a local dining empire. With its fourth venture, the group has now conquered San Francisco. Its grand new space, awash in rust and gold, is split into three levels, and the vast menu covers territory both familiar and foreign. A mixed grill of shrimp, lamb kebabs, and chicken exemplifies the potential of tandoori cooking. Braised okra is vibrant with fennel seeds and tart green mango. Though nontraditional in execution, seared scallops with a dome of burnt-garlic pulao smack of authentic flavor. A caveat: dinner at Amber india is far from economical. For a comparative bargain, consider lunch, when the restaurant conquers once again by serving the unthinkable—a first-class buffet. (S.h.) 25 yerba buena ln. (bet. Market and mission sts.), 415-777- 0500(3/09)

bar Jules

hAyeS Valley
Goldilocks would give the nod to this hayes Valley restaurant, where the menu is small, but not too small; the service is casual, but not too slack; and everything else, except for the bombshell acoustics, is pretty much just right. Zuni café veteran Jessica Boncutter channels the spirit of her alma mater through seasonal dishes like halibut cheeks sweetened with english peas and butter, and earthy, unguarded turnip soup enhanced with chicken stock and onions and thickened with crème fraîche. The menu changes daily and is posted on chalk

boards, a fitting touch in this atmosphere of unpretentious café charm. There’s not much choice (three or four appetizers, two or three entrées), but also not much amiss. On a recent evening, a perfectly grilled skirt steak, served with chickpeas in chimichurri sauce, gave way to a delicate lemon tart—a meal reflective of a restaurant where the food is all the sharper for its restraint. (J.S.) 609 hayes st. (bet.Laguna and buchanan sts.), 415-621-5482(6/08)

bodega bistro

San Francisco’s little Saigon is so diminutive, it barely warrants the moniker. Yet in its four blocks are a handful of standout Vietnamese restaurants, and Bodega Bistro is one of the best. Its ambitious chef and owner, Jimmie kwok, has created a menu that balances French classics, like duck in orange sauce, with Vietnamese standards, like pho and imperial rolls. Vietnamesefood fans should focus on the latter. The green papaya salad is a welter of finely julienned fruit and beef jerky, blasted with a punchy dressing of chilies, fish sauce, and lime juice. Best of all, perhaps, is the bun cha ca hanoi. Turmericdusted pieces of sole, tangled in dill fronds, sizzle on an iron platter. Diners wrap the fish in lettuce leaves, along with pickled daikon and carrots and sprigs of herbs, like sharp rau ram and minty perilla. The flavors pop and sparkle, and suddenly, the neighborhoodmerits its name. (S.h.) 607 larkin st. (at eddy st.), 415-921-1218(9/09)

domo sushi

hAyeS Valley
Maybe it’s the air of urban demolition clinging to the decor of plywood and oneby- fours, but it feels like little domo is working hard to be as cool as its hayes Valley neighbors. (Proprietors luke and kitty Sung also own isa in the Marina.) With club tracks cranking in the background, sushi chef and co-owner kuohwa chuang—rocking a “Got Blunt?” tee—squeezes strands of spicy mayo over deep-fried monster maki. But wait: The seafood is pristine, a sure sign that even outsize rainbow rolls and backward trucker caps can’t conceal domo’s pure soul. Chuang steams ankimo (monkfish liver) with skill. Pale, juicy toro is nicely supple, and the Santa Barbara sea urchin is delicately nutty. Served in porcelain chinese spoons, seafood crudo make for refreshing one-bite starters. (J.B.) 511 laguna st. (bet. Linden and Fell sts.), 415-861- 8887 (8/08)

54 Mint

Rome wasn’t built in a day—and it’s no wonder, judging from the pace at this endearing ristorante, which is thoroughly italian in all things but its name. Co-owner Alberto Avalle, a native Umbrian, ran il Buco in new york before heading west, apparently on a mission to stress our arteries with culatello. Standout starters, like robust eggplant caponata and saffroninflected arancine, give way to gooey carbonara and an unenthusiastic osso buco, its meat too tough and its temperature lukewarm. The successes outweigh the failures, though— ravioli are a model of the genre, the soft pillows of ricotta fluffing satin sheets of pasta—and your feelings for the place are apt to turn as tender as the octopus carpaccio, spiked with lemon and pimentón. In a dining room densely merchandised with imported olive oil, conversation echoes late into the evening— at which point, there’s dessert, but that doesn’t hold much interest. Cold ricotta pie, listed for $10, is fairly priced only if you’re paid in euros. (J.S.) 16 mint plaza (bet.Mission and stevenson sts.), 415-543-5100(1/10)
heaven’s dog

The new restaurant from charles Phan of the Slanted door is a restaurant of mixed breeding. It operates both as a humble noodle house and as a high-end nighttime snack shop for the condo crowd. Unlike Vietnamese food, which enjoyed the whiff of novelty when Phan launched his first restaurant, chinese cooking of the kind at heaven’s dog hardly qualifies as unfamiliar. This dog’s only new trick (and it’s a good one) is to execute dishes like spicy green beans, shrimp wonton soup, and cashew chicken with high-pedigree products but without excessive cornstarch or an avalanche of grease. Those who seek adventure in their ethnic eating are apt to find heaven’s dog a shade too safe. Others may howl about the prices, but that’s unfair. Phan conceived of heaven’s dog as an afterwork hangout and watering hole. That explains the simple snacks; it also accounts for the easygoing service and the lively cocktails. (J.S.) 1148 mission st. (bet. 7th and 8th sts.), 415-863-6008 (5/09)


From its website, we learn that ironside aims to offer something “between fast food and fine dining”—a tough target to miss, given that it covers almost the entire world of cuisine. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the menu is suffering from an iden tity crisis, pendulum-swinging from pizza to paella, from a bison burger that’s pure Americana to stewed baby octopus with chickpeas and cured lemon that smacks of italian influence. The restaurant is best when it’s least ambitious:

Beer-friendly food like avocado tempura serves a boozy purpose, as does baked raclette, a salty cow’s-milk cheese that spreads nicely with fig jam on a toasted baguette. But opt for the high-minded, and you’ll run into trouble. The octopus? Rubbery. The paella? Marred by mealy mussels. Ironside, which sits in the chronicle Books building, sports a zinc bar, walnut tables, and a steel-and-timber staircase linking to what amounts to a bilevel loft. It’s a festive setting where it isn’t hard to picture popcorn on the floor. AT&T Park is just a few blocks away, and that’s an important detail. Though it operates all day, with pastriesplus at daybreak and soup and sandwiches at lunch, ironside feels mostly like a restaurant built for happy hour. (J.s.) 680a 2nd st (at townsend st.), 415-896- 1127 (1/10)

Lers ros

Gripes about San Francisco’s lack of decent Thai food have been silenced, thanks to the arrival of lers Ros. Its streamlined dining room runs counter to its rambling menu of 125 dishes, comprising both Thai restaurant standards (green curry, tom kha kai) and rarities (fried egg with acacia in tamarind-chili broth). We barely made a dent in its five pages, but every dish we tried bristled with life. There were salads, like yum koh moo yang, a blistering syncopation of pork-shoulder slices, red chili, lime juice, basil, and toasted rice powder, and appetizers, such as fiery deep-fried fish cakes. The scream of chili pepper didn’t rage through every preparation: For example, kuay tiew rua, an anisescented soup of rice noodles, beef, and grassy Asian celery, whispered its charms. If lers Ros is the future of local Thai food, bring it on. (S.h.) 730 larkin st. (bet. Ellis and o’Farrell sts.), 415-931- 6917 (9/09)

Limon rotisserie

For anyone who still hasn’t received a government bailout, Martin castillo has your budget in mind. His offshoot of limon, opened after the building that housed the original was scorched by fire, specializes in Peruvian small plates at bargain prices. Only one item goes for more than $10: a whole roast chicken, cooked on a spit in the open kitchen. It’s seasoned with salt, hot pepper, and lime—the same zesty trio that enlivens an assortment of fresh-tasting ceviches and hot dishes like aguadito de pollo, comforting chicken soup with a friendly kick. When those flavors get repetitive (which they do), milder, meaty options offer an escape, such as rich grilled beef hearts or hangar steak with a satisfying rice-and-bean cake on the side. The bare-bones dining room makes a good match for the menu: it’s awash in citrus greens and yellows, and buzzing with a crowd that has quickly realized you don’t always get what you pay for. Sometimes, you get a little bit more. (J.S.) 1001 s. van ness ave. (at 21st st.), 415- 821-2134(1/09)

nopalito W

eSTeRn AddiTiOn
in their new venture, nopa’s co-owners, Jeff hanak and Allyson and laurence Jossel, have taken an even more casual tack, and nopalito’s Mexican cuisine scores on two fronts: it combines our First lady’s insistence on finicky sourcing with the depth of flavor that cheapeats fiends attribute to their favorite taco trucks. Credit for the cooking goes to José Ramos and Gonzalo Guzman. The chefs and their staff perform the sort of tasks your abuela might have tackled: grinding their own masa; seasoning their housemade green and red chorizo with chilies and chard; and producing a mole that’s a rich, symphonic composition. All of this comes wrapped in a package that’s slightly more expensive than a bellybomb burrito but remarkably well priced. Nopalito’s great appeal is the way that it makes you feel like you’re on a special outing when nothing on the menu fetches more than 14 bucks. (J.S.) 306 broderick st. (bet. Oak and Fell sts.), s.F., 415-437-0303 (6/09)

Pizzeria delfina

PaciFic heiGhTS
Rolling out the dough into a neighborhood rolling in it, craig Stoll has brought his beloved blistered pies from the transitional Mission district to beyond-transitioned Pacific heights. The space is larger than the minuscule original, with benchlike booths and low-backed barstools to beef up the seating, but the spirit of the cooking is the same. Rustic starters come in familiar flavors, such as fiery pan-fried cauliflower with garlic, capers, and calabrian peppers, and the fresh-stretched mozzarella is delicious and diverting, like edible Play-doh for adults. Stoll and chef de cuisine Anthony Strong, who runs the kitchen here, are more than just pizzaiolos, as evidenced by main dishes like lemony roast chicken and meatballs in bright tomato sauce. Still, pizzas are the center of this small world: puffy around the edges, mottled from their fleeting passage through high heat, and carrying well-considered cargo, from clams, pecor ino, and hot pepper to potato, oregano, and salt cod. “it’s yuppie pizza,” a passerby declared one recent evening. But a pizzeria can be homey and authentic, even as it caters to the upper crust. (J.S.) 2406 caliFornia st. (at Fillmore st.), 415-440-1189(2/09)


located on the top floor of an edwardian townhouse, Poesia wears its italian heritage on its sleeve. The food, much of it from the southern italian province of calabria, vacillates between bold and delicate. Tangy caponata—a chunky spread made from eggplant, capers, olives, and tuna—bellows, while a salad of fennel, blood oranges, and fresh pecorino hums gently. The pastas, like salt-cod ravioli with cherry tomatoes, are solid. So are the entrées, including rack of lamb with a light white-wine sauce, and whole branzino with garlicky salmoriglio. As for the service, the slick team of Romeos who rule the front of the house are heavy on the charm, if not always around when you need them most. The only real gripe to be had is over the prices. With some main courses hovering in the mid-$30s, they’re shocking— and would be even if we were still in boom times. (S.h.) 4072 18th st. (bet. Castro and hart- Ford sts.), s.F., 415-252-9325 (5/09)
show dogs

Arugula is far from a typical sausage-stand condiment. Yet the peppery green has infiltrated most corners of Bay Area dining, so it was only a matter of time before it began straddling a boudin blanc. The vision of Foreign cinema’s Gayle Pirie and John clark, Show dogs is a showplace for some of the region’s best frankfurters and hot links, made by such esteemed masters of the craft as Ryan Farr, of 4505 Meats, and Taylor Boetticher, of the Fatted calf. In a thoughtful move, 10 of the shop’s 11 dogs are each paired with a different, well-chosen beer. Gripes have been heard about the pricing, but such animosity is unwarranted as far as we’re concerned, since the quality of the food here and the fresh, housemade condiments justify the cost. After all, it’s not every day that a corn dog is hand dipped to order in a batter that smacks of fresh corn flour, then served with mustard made on the premises. (S.h.) 1020 market st. (at golden gate ave.), s.F., 415-558-9560 (12/09)


PaciFic heiGhTS
When this A16 offshoot opened under chef nate Appleman, its rustic menu read like a primer in restaurant italian. Now Appleman is gone, and with him went many of the classics— the carbonara has been replaced with prune-andsquash- stuffed tortellini, the stracciatella swapped for yellowtail crudo with quince saba, fried prosciutto, and finger lime. The change took place this past fall: Matthew Accarrino winged westward from Manhattan, following a stint with Thomas keller at Per Se. Under Accarrino, SPQR retains ties to italian tradition, but the grazingfriendly menu takes more playful spins. Crisp pig ears punched up with pickled jalapeños make a winning combination unknown to nero, while eggs “al diavolo” (deviled eggs’ more fashionable cousin, with dill and white anchovies) push the familiar toward the avant-garde. Though minor renovations have brought in new banquettes, the seating is no roomier than Muni’s, even if the atmosphere is much more fun. Credit the killer wine list for keeping diners’ spirits lively, and give kudos to the chef’s sharp cooking. Meals at SPQR are now more exciting, a welcome transition from the ancient to the new. (J.S.) 1911 Fillmore st. (bet. Bush and pine sts.), s.F., 415-771-7779


After four years in the Tenderloin, the hansia family moved their superb indian restaurant to swanker digs near Union Square. The room is now more than twice as big, with sleek, dark-wood tables and chairs, and the prices have been inflated slightly. Otherwise, dining in the new space is much like dining in the old one: Brother and sister Suleman and Mariam still run the front of the house, and the food, swerving from northern to southern to western india, is still painstakingly prepared. Stuffed with cinnamon-spiced beef, the triangular samosas shatter with each bite; keralan curry, built on tomatoes and scented with coconut and curry leaves, features moist, flaky fish. Even a tired standby like spinach paneer is a marvel here: The fresh cheese is pan seared before being tossed with melting ribbons of cardamom and onion-laced greens. The lunch buffet, too, is far removed from the stand ard steam-table nightmare. The naan ’n’ curry next door may be busier, but the smart money is on Sultan. (S.h.) 340 o’Farrell st. (bet. Mason and taylor sts.), 415-775-1709 (9/08)

town hall

local chefs of a certain pedigree stick to the lingua franca of France and Tuscany, meaning a de facto dis of everything else. This makes the success of Town hall—a place steeped in American vernacular with a Southern lilt—all the more surprising. Since launching the restaurant in 2003, chefs (and siblings) Mitchell and Steven Rosenthal have managed to steer clear of caricature, mining the whole backcountry angle with the seriousness of scholars. As a result, a dish as hackneyed as buttermilk fried chicken becomes archetypal, while a softly poached egg on a raft of chunky ham toast turns transcendent, thanks to a silky cream sauce charged with the greenstem twang of jalapeño. even a dish with the cartoonlike name of “gingersnap” gravy (sauce for slow-roasted duck) has a fine haute edge. (J.B.) 342 howard st. (at Fremont st.), 415-908-3900(5/08)

universal Cafe

Fifteen years old and still full on a Tuesday night— not to mention the twohour wait for weekend brunch with pomegranate Bellinis. Yet somehow, one of the city’s best-loved restaurants still feels like a secret. Its industrial, outof- the-way location; its long, last Supper–like setup; and chef leslie carr- Avalos’s local, sustainable, always changing menu draw both longtime regulars and first dates looking to impress. Fresh salt-cod fritters topped with pimentón-spiked aioli come freshly fried from the open kitchen, with Universal’s signature herb-flecked frites not far behind. “Brisket! Brisket!” cheers the server when asked to aid indecision. Indeed, fatty yet tender, the niman Ranch beef is braised with red wine for what tastes like days, then accompanied by sweet spaghetti squash when it comes to the table. The only downsides are that the heavenly heirloom pear–and-apple crisp could be served hotter, and you’ll need to watch your back on the way to the bathroom— those 14 candlelit tables are tightly packed.(R.l.) 2814 19th st. (bet. Bryant and Flor ida sts.), 415-821-4608 (4/08)

Zuni Café

hAyeS Valley
There is an undeniable allure to the signature dishes here: the housecured anchovies, the caesar salad, and that legendary roast chicken with bread salad. But the rest of the menu deserves equal attention—Judy Rodgers and her cooks rarely misstep. Consider a recent meal that began with fideus with kale and aioli, an earthy spin on the Spanish toasted-vermicelli dish. Later came a grouper from the wood-fired grill, with artichokes and red wine– braised black lentils, and a well-charred steak with carrots and a zippy breadcrumb salsa. The service was adept, and the dessert, a tangerine granità, was bright and refreshing. Zuni has been around for more than a quarter century and shows no signs of disappearing. You have plenty of time to order the chicken. (S.h.) 1658 market st. (at gough st.), 415-552-2522 (5/09)

east bay

bocanova OaklAnd
With its condos completed, Jack london Square now requires more than tired surf-and-turf joints and barbecue shacks. Among the new offerings is Bocanova. “Pan-American” cuisine is its sweeping promise, and while that sounds unfocused, sharp flavors come through clearly in a halibut ceviche with picante yellow chilies, a crunchy shrimpand- beet-studded quinoa salad, and a melting loin of beef smothered in chipotlemushroom sauce. You can sit outside, sipping sunny pisco punch with your empanadas, or find a spot in the sprawling dining room, which calls to mind a lavish hotel lobby. In the open kitchen, the line cooks look so stressed that they send your own pulse racing. But aside from producing drab desserts, like gimmicky, gloopy flan delivered in a wax paper bag, they exceed your expectations—especially given the volume they produce. The cocktails are bright and balanced, but you’ll need a few to endure the maddeningly slow service, which reminds you that a thrumming happy hour alone is not enough to make a restaurant seem heartfelt. (J.S.) 55 webster st. (at water st.), 510-444- 1233(12/09)

burma superstar

“i don’t get the fuss,” a young heretic declared, picking at a starchy, curryseasoned samusa. A hush fell over the adjacent tables, giving the impression that the man had crossed a Cult. Fierce loyalties (and crowds) have followed this Richmond district favorite to its new location in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood— an intensity of feeling that becomes increasingly perplexing the more you pay attention to what’s on the plate. While there’s something to be said for the punch and crunch of the ballyhooed tea-leaf salad— tossed tableside with dried shrimp, fried garlic, peanuts, and yellow split peas—its pleasures are offset by other greasy and underseasoned dishes, dumbed down for a locale that’s gentrifying, yes, but still might enjoy bolder use of spices. On a recent evening, a walnut-and-shrimp stir-fry was undone by a cloying sauce and mushy shellfish, and a mango salad featured mostly damp and shredded lettuce. Only pumpkin curry with slowcooked pork seemed to have survived the expansion east. The atmosphere is sweet, and the service is sharp and caring—but that still doesn’t explain such a clamorous reception for very ordinary food. (J.S.) 4721 telegraph ave. (at 48th st.), 510-652-2900 (7/09)

La Calle

The Bay Area has plenty of taquerias. But la calle, the casual spinoff of downtown Oakland’s arindo, may be the region’s first asadero. It’s a fine distinction, but a telling one: An asadero is a place where grilling reigns, and la calle honors the asaderos of the state of Sonora, Mexico, with a range of distinctly authentic dishes.There are karamelos (handheld bundles of corn tortillas with, for example, carnitas, Monterey Jack, and guacamole) and gorditas (handmade flour-tortilla pockets with a variety of fillings, like carne asada and potatoes with chorizo).This restaurant is not shy about its point of view. Our favorite example: in a linguistic nod to the stranglehold the egregiously inauthentic Mission burrito has on the Bay Area psyche, la calle has named its version “burrito gringo.” (S.h.) lunch only, mon.–Fri., 1000 broadway, ste. 160, 510-251-1290(12/09)

Chop bar

First come the condos, then the restaurants. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Regardless of the chronology, West Oakland’s burgeoning warehouse district has found an unofficial clubhouse in the new chop Bar. This welcoming space opens early with a menu of coffee, pastries, and toasted rolls filled with a tender cushion of scrambled eggs and crisp strips of niman Ranch bacon. Folks from the lofts and office spaces nearby filter in and out all day—some set up laptops and alternate between tapping away on their keyboards and taking bites of sandwiches like yuca tan grilled chicken or pork banh mi. When the clock strikes beer-thirty, there are four local brews on tap, plus a cutting-edge tap system for wines. Then, at dinner, the menu turns again: There’s a long list of snacks, including salty, supple slices of country ham from kentucky and popcorn seasoned with parmesan, bacon, and garlic. Some dishes lack refinement, such as a braised pork shank served in a toosmall bowl of polenta with figs that don’t add much to the dish. But such quibbles seem beside the point when a restaurant steps up to serve a community, as chop Bar so clearly has. 247 4th st. (bet. Jackson and alice sts.), 510-834-2467 (1/10)


Though the name of his restaurant means “chef’s apprentice” in French, James Syhabout has clearly surpassed that status. The chef’s imagination runs so freely that you realize he’s not riffing on tradition—he’s ranging into territory of his own. Entrées, like the slowcooked egg perched on pork jowls, and slow-roasted lamb with huckleberries, mortared mint, eggplant stew, and sorrel, draw on a dramatic crescendo of flavors that prompts you to mull over the inventive combinations. The same holds for dessert, where coi veteran carlos Salgado’s chocolate cake with avocado ganache and creamy melon soup with sweet chamomile “snow” provide an artful coda to Syhabout’s cuisine. Commis’ menu is a threecourse, $59 prix fixe, plus an optional $29 wine pairing that few diners will want to do without. (J.S.) 3859 piedmont ave. (bet. Montell st. and rio vista ave.), 510-653-3902(11/09)

digs bistro

in 2005, after they got busted for running an underground restaurant in Oakland, Jesse kupers, Justin Sconce, and heidi diPippo set aside their dreams of prix fixe glory. Last fall, the three moved to the right side of the law when they scored a teensy Berkeley eatery (formerly Olivia) with a history of incubating maverick talent. True to their bungalowkitchen roots, chef diPippo demonstrates little patience for the spare or lacquered. A starter of grilled white shrimp and grits with honest-to-goodness corn sweetness reveals the cooks’ earnest streak, while gorgeously silky artichoke ravioli radiate accomplishment. Spongy, sugar-dusted crab beignets, though, drop like the dud at a potluck. But even if the house-smoked pork chop tastes a tad acrid, you can’t help catching a heady whiff of homegrown zeal. (J.B.) 1453 dwight way (at sacramento st.), 510-548-2322


OaklAnd With items like Sicilianstyle salted swordfish belly and Vicentina salame, the menu at Oliveto reads like a dream tour around the huskier parts of bucolic italy. And for more than a decade, this Oakland institution has had a reputation as one of the country’s best italian restaurants. But with less-than-perfect execution and pacing as erratic as italian phone service, lately dinner here feels like armchair travel— more aspiration than delivery. Oily, acrid fritto and leaden porchetta seem more amateur than rustic, while a salty hunk of porcini-stuffed lamb shoulder doesn’t hold a candle to Mom’s pot roast. When a beautifully made dish does appear—potato gnocchi or chonchiglie with a lamb ragù, for instance— it only heightens the overall sense of squandered resources. And while the kitchen earns points for mounting ambitious seasonal festivals, like its annual Whole hog dinners, Oliveto’s nightly grind can be as uninspiring as a sightseeing charter through Fresno. (J.B.) 5655 college ave. (at shaFter ave.), 510-547- 5356 (3/08)


south bay esther’s
German bakery and Café lOS AlTOS For years now, esther’s German Bakery has sold farmers’ market shoppers on old-world loaves so dense with whole grains that American bread slicers can’t even cut through them. Now esther’s new (but still stubbornly authentic) bakery-café offers those the oaxacan kitchen PalO AlTO hechos a mano (“made by hand”) only begins to describe the labor-intensive cooking honored here by Ron kent and his Oaxacan-born wife, Zaida. Their mole negro calls for 23 ingredients—each sautéed, toasted, or roasted before being ground into a sauce that’s finished with cocoa beans imported from Tabasco. Masa is treated with equal care: it’s ground coarse for plump tamales wrapped in banana leaves, with a finer grind reserved for thin tortillas pressed into small memelas or giant tlayudas topped with black-bean purée, mild salsa, guacamole, queso fresco, and salted beef or chicken. The only fusion you’ll find is on the dessert menu, which sneaks in flourless bittersweet-chocolate cake alongside Oaxacan hot choc olate thick with ground almonds. Make reservations— the restaurant is crowded with fans from the six farmers’ markets where the kents still do business. (S.B.) 2323 birch st. (at cambridge ave.), 650-321- 8003 (1/09)


There’s no way to pigeonhole the delicious razzledazzle of the food at Sakoon, where the inventive tasting menus may lead you to think that this place serves the best indian fusion in the region. Then the à la carte options reward you with murgh madurai (boneless chicken in a creamy onion sauce) that tastes like it was flown in from Madras, and murgh sakoonwala (chicken curry) so intensely flavored, you’d swear the chef’s specialty is Moghul cuisine, from northern india. The secret to Sakoon’s across-themenu success is that no ingredient is taken for granted. Tiny lamb chops scented with lavender and thyme come with mashed potatoes flavored with fresh curry leaf and black mustard seeds. Whisperthin edible silver foil shimmers on Bengali-style evaporated-milk sweets. When you add generous portions, an inviting wine List, and sassy cocktails, Sakoon is hard to beat—no matter how you define it. (S.B.) 357 castro st. (bet. CaliFornia and west dana sts.), 650-965-2000 (12/09)


Why is it that there’s a sushi bar on almost every corner in San Francisco, while other types of Japanese food, like kushiyaki, are so hard to find? These “tasty tidbits on skewers” are so appealing—and much easier to convince your kid to eat than, say, uni is—that it’s hard to understand why tsukune (chicken meatballs flavored with shiso) aren’t as ubiquitous as california rolls. One place you can find kushiyaki is three-year-old Sumika, in downtown los Altos, where chef yoshi yuki Maruyama maintains the fire with the aid of a paper fan. Occasionally, he’ll dash out to a table, bearing skewers of chicken hearts, liver, and crisp bits of skin (breasts and thighs, too), as well as succulent bites of tontoro: pork cheeks with a crust of salty fat. Okra (minus the vegetable’s trademark sliminess), scallops, sweet-hot shisito peppers, and kobe beef all take a turn over the coals, with equally delicious results. The kitchen’s talent also extends to include perfect fried chicken and odd but wonderful cubes of frozen crème brûlée. (J.n.) 236 central plaza (bet. 2nd and 3rd sts.), 650-917-1822(8/09)

north bay

barbersQ nAPA
They don’t bring a bib when you order the ribs at this unmessy barbecue restaurant in a napa shopping mall. Gene Tartaglia and Stephen Barber (get it?), both veterans of San Francisco’s Mecca, have adapted a sticky-fingered Southern genre, but they’ve cleaned it up for wine-country crowds. What the atmosphere lacks in sauce-stained authenticity, the kitchen makes up for with a soulfulness that enriches everything from baby back ribs to longsimmered, pork-fattened collard greens. The familiar supporting cast is here— cornbread with honey butter, tangy baked beans, mac ’n’ cheese—but so is homegrown talent like Fulton Farms vinegar–roasted chicken and grass-fed beef hot dogs with, you guessed it, local sauerkraut. Although the gumbo goes awry (the seafood is fresh, but the flavors fail to reach delicious layered depth), lime pie with a graham cracker crust lives up to the finest sweet-and-sour tradition. (J.S.) 3900d bel aire plaza (at baxter ave.), 707-224-6600(3/08)


Rumors of the death of small-plate dining have been greatly exaggerated. On the main drag in snailpaced larkspur, Picco has been serving communal dishes for a few years under the euphemism “designed to share.” There were accusations of inconsistency when the restaurant debuted, but a recent visit proved that Picco has achieved equilibrium—and that’s no mean feat when you’re serving a wideranging menu of 30 dishes. The tropes were familiar: unaffected (avocado bruschetta with chorizo), homey (cauliflower gratin with caramelized onion), ingredient driven (roasted petrale sole with Meyer lemon gnocchi; brussels sprouts with farm-egg vinaigrette), and italian inspired (Tuscan-style steak with arugula and grana pad - ano). The kitchen nailed every dish—even though the floor staff, if gracious, lack polish. No matter, so long as those small plates stay lively. (S.h.) 320 magnolia ave. (at king st.), 415- 924-0300 (2/09)


in a town that’s turning into a fine-dining theme park, it’s thrilling to know that style and substance can coexist. Redd’s minimalist room and its staff’s uniforms are deceptively simple: Witness the floorto- ceiling windows throwing natural light on the contemporary furniture and the bussers’ aprons, which subtly invert the colors of those worn by the servers. Richard Reddington’s food, too, is quietly sophisticated. Rice appears in multiple guises. Fried, it adds texture to a dish of yellowfin tartare with avocado and chili oil. As the base for hamachi sashimi with edamame, it lends sticky body. Whether pansearing sole and dressing it with mussels, chorizo, and a frothy saffron-curry sauce or saving pork belly from overexposure by slicking it with soy caramel, Reddington is incapable of leading diners astray. (S.h.) 6480 washington st. (at oak cir.), 707-944-2222(5/08)

the restaurant at Meadowood

ST. helenA
Some chefs arrange jewelsize edibles on plates with the geometric snarl of a kandinsky, but christopher kostow weaves coherent taste narratives through tour de force creations. The chef migrated here from Mountain View’s chez TJ, a luxe resort with the dappled aura of estates that only movie gangsters can afford. The dishes are smallish but fully realized. In one, kostow immerses fragrant strawberries in various manifestations of foie gras, trailing delicious perfume across the pure richness. Another fuses young rabbit with fava leaves and beans on a gloss of pancetta foam, resulting in a mini-essay on earthy sweetness. The optional wine-pairing menus uncork small-production california vintages. Just make sure your credit card has ample room to spare before you leap. (J.B.) 900 meadowood ln. (in meadowood napa valley), 707-967-1205(8/08)


nAPA Lately,
much has been made of the new breed of restaurants in downtown napa, including Oxbow Public Market and the superlative Ubuntu. ZuZu is seven years old, but its Spanish-flavored menu feels as fresh as the neighborhood revitalization going on just outside the diningroom door. Chef Angela Tamura’s confident hand moves across a menu of approximately 25 dishes.
one day, she marinates halibut in lime to make the rotating ceviche del día and sautés corn and fava beans for a seasonal special. More regularly, she gingerly drips truffle oil on a blistering purée of salt cod and potato, or bakes the egg-and-potato workhorse of the tapas genre— tortilla española—to order, serving it with a ramekin of pungent allioli. Change swirls outside, but inside, ZuZu carries on in the knowledge that its city is finally playing catch-up.(S.h.) 829 main st. (bet.2nd and 3rd sts.), 707- 224-8555