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My Year of Eating Ravenously

Josh Sens | July 24, 2014 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink

Over the past year or so, eating out has been the easy part. Digesting the experience is where it gets tricky. I’d call it yet another Year of Cocktails and Charcuterie, if barbecue hadn’t gone gangbusters. I’d say it was the Year Fine Dining Finally Died, if it didn’t live on stubbornly here and there.

Any single label comes up lacking. Forced to coin one, I’d settle on the Year of Small Surprises, such as the evening I dropped in to Trou Normand, the new bar and restaurant with an epic cognac list, and was blown away by the housemade mortadella. Or when I watched cooks at TBD, working like sophisticated cavemen over an open fire, prepare a surprisingly elegant dinner. Yes, trends emerged, but trends are fleeting.

What stuck with me were the exceptional anomalies: the astonishing sushi at Maruya; the revamped menu at Hawker Fare; the understated grace of Nicolas Delaroque’s cooking at his bistro, Nico. These and other singular sensations are extolled in full in this year’s roundup. I’d be thrilled to experience them all again.

Ever since carnivores embraced the artisanal movement, those old salumi plates just haven’t looked the same. Chris Cosentino boosted the trend early with his Boccalone line of “tasty salted pig parts.” Now, the chef and his business partner, Mark Pastore, have doubled down by closing Incanto, their offal-centric restaurant, and recasting it as killer counter-service spot Porcellino. The new kitchen trots out superb hot dishes, including a mountainous porchetta–and–salsa verde sandwich with an avalanche of roast pork spilling from its sides. But I’d be happy buried in Cosentino’s cured stuff, which spans from soppressata and coppa di testa to peppery nduja—a spreadable salami that, twinned with crusty bread, transforms a quick lunch on Church Street into a rustic picnic in the Tuscan countryside.

As it goes with salumi, so it goes with sausages: Pig casings packed on the premises, please! I’m partial to the housemade links at Hog’s Apothecary, the ebullient beer hall in Oakland’s Temescal district. The menu changes daily—I’m always on the lookout for the Coop and Pen, a sausage stuffed with pork belly and chicken.

But if asked to pick my favorite platter of the year’s artisan proteins, I’d choose the chef’s board at Trou Normand, the new SoMa hotspot from the team behind Bar Agricole and one of the few restaurants in the city legally allowed to cure their salumi in-house. Whether that’s what makes the difference, I can’t say. What I can do is heap praise on the butcher’s block they served me, piled with lush ciccioli, coriander-seasoned chicken pâté, and moist, pink ribbons of pancetta fringed with fennel salad, whole-grain mustard, and a quivering bowl of aspic.

When Jiro dreams of sushi, his subconscious doesn’t conjure red-topped Kikkoman bottles and krab-filled California rolls. Odds are that his vision looks more like Mission-based Maruya, the best sushi place I tried this year. Its blond-wood bar, in a minimalist space on a tumbledown stretch of 16th Street, serves as the tranquil stage for two seasoned chefs, Hide Sueyoshi and Masa Sasaki, each the author of omakase menus (you can also order à la carte) that balance pitch-perfect cooked dishes with sushi that inspires a reverent hush. Silver-flecked mackerel. Blushing bluefin. Shimmering, near-translucent sea bream. You don’t sully fish this pristine with a dunking in soy sauce. The chefs themselves barely meddle with it, treating it with little more than, say, a flash vinegar curing, a dab of grated daikon, or a dash of chili, depending on which profile fits. Uni, the ocean’s pot-de-crème, arrives on a bed of rice without any nori wrapping to mask its flavor. Place it on your tongue and your eyes roll back. It’s as if you’ve drifted off and awakened in Japan.

If Maruya is a serene scene of diners quietly delighting over tuna belly to the soft sounds of jazz, Ichi Sushi + Ni Bar in Bernal Heights is boisterous, puffed up by a rocking soundtrack that shifts to rap and hip-hop as the night wears on. Maruya is my spot for special-occasion sushi (the $85-and-up prix fixe pegs it as such), but this upbeat outpost gets my nod as best neighborhood hang. When a customer enters, the staff cries out, “Irasshaimase!” That’s Japanese for “Welcome,” but the way it makes you feel, it might as well be “Norm!” The hybrid space— a fusion of a 30-seat restaurant and a slightly larger lounge—is more than twice the size of the original Ichi, which used to operate just blocks away. The menus vary between the lounge and the restaurant, but you can’t go wrong in either. Of your seating choices, however, I strongly recommend the sushi bar, in part because it’s interactive but mostly because the wooden dining room chairs are as torturous as any I’ve ever encountered. One wall of Ichi is emblazoned with playful dining instructions. “Eat sushi in one bite.” “Clean off entire plate.” And given the quality of the dishes—which range from kampachi nigiri with an acid-splash of yuzu to sweet sake-marinated black cod—you will find that this is not a problem.

Fine dining is the food world’s Abe Vigoda. How many times has it been falsely rumored deceased? Yet this year its vital signs grew ever fainter. In a city that ages like Benjamin Button (its youth culture craving cocktails, not chef’s degustations), I had to poke around to find fine dining’s pulse at all. I encountered it at its most elegant at Nico, an inventive bistro in Pacific Heights. It’s not a formal restaurant—think uncovered wooden tables and a come-as-you-are dress code—but its daily-changing menu is plenty refined. The French-born chef, Nicolas Delaroque, spent time at Manresa under the master California modernist David Kinch, who makes high-concept cooking look so relaxed on the plate.

Delaroque’s debt to Kinch comes through in nuanced, naturalistic touches: in the compressed white peaches that he plants in a garden of green peas, fromage blanc, and quinoa; and in the fish foam that clouds the top of his chili pepper cod. In haute fashion, you can ask to have each course served with a suggested wine pairing.

What chocolate lava cake was to the late ’90s, soft-serve ice cream has become today: the dessert that’s everywhere. But a hand-crank machine is no replacement for a pastry chef, let alone a talent as large as that of Amy Pearce, who served as a consultant at Verbena when the restaurant opened in Russian Hill. Pearce has since left, but her influence endures in desserts that stand in refreshing contrast to all those childish chocolate and vanilla swirls. Verbena, a vegetable-focused offshoot of Gather in Berkeley, doesn’t rank among my favorite restaurants (I found its savory menu slightly overwrought). But I’d go back for such desserts as the molasses gingerbread with carrot sorbet and ale caramel, or a Meyer lemon cheesecake sprung from the cubist school, with chunks of crustless cake atop a brushstroke of turmeric marshmallow and smaller, crumbly blocks of black sesame meringue. Sophisticated without being showy, these are unpretentious, grown-up treats. The kids can get their soft-serve somewhere else.

We’ve had barbecue before, but never with such heaping sides of urban fashion: the feel-good meat, the styled-out patrons, the pitmasters with high-end restaurant pedigrees. No place turns up the heat on these trends with the intensity of Smokestack, a booming scene in the Magnolia Brewing Company in Dogpatch.

The outsize warehouse space is willfully worn-looking, with distressed wood floors and yellowed newspapers covering the windows, an aesthetic meant to channel a blue-collar watering hole from the 1930s. But given the furry-faced bunch crammed at the banquet-length tables, I thought I’d stumbled on a well-catered Civil War reenactment. Credit for the cooking goes to Namu Gaji chef and co-owner Dennis Lee, whose ever-shifting menu ranges from smoked duck to Carolina-style chopped pork, a blend of classic and contemporary barbecue tastes. It’s all offered over the counter, sold by weight and plated on butcher paper–lined metal trays, with sides like light-on-the-mayo macaroni salad and bright, vinegary red cabbage slaw. Terrific stuff, in short, and it makes Smokestack a must-stop if you can stomach the wild scene, which features large crowds and cacophonous acoustics. The long queues move slowly, and to order from the full beer menu, you have to wait in yet another line at the bar. Those downsides notwithstanding, I plan to go back soon for the Texas-style Wagyu beef brisket.

The barbecue craze is Bay Area–wide. Smoke signals are rising from Berkeley, specifically from Perdition smokehouse, a new Texas-style barbecue joint and beer garden. And back in San Francisco, at 4505 Burgers & BBQ—my favorite all-around barbecue joint of the year—the crowd resembles Smokestack’s, but the setting is less chaotic. Owners Ryan and Cesalee Farr aren’t out to reinvent a typical smokehouse. They’ve upgraded the offerings instead, turning their own house-butchered meat into juicy, layered-flavored versions of your favorite staples—ribs, sausage, chicken, and brisket, along with all the fixings. Ryan has a refined culinary background (he helped the Fifth Floor earn a Michelin star), and the care he takes comes through in everything from the clean, hot kiss of his vinegary sauces to the chimichurri that he spills over his spicy fries. The pulled pork sandwich, topped with slaw and pickles, is a cut above any other I’ve had in the city, and there’s an outdoor patio with picnic-style seating where it can be enjoyed in relative peace.

There’s barbecue—which involves a lot of smoking— and then there’s open-fire cooking, with wood or charcoal heat applied directly to the grill. That it’s an ancient technique doesn’t mean it can’t be cutting edge.

Charlie Hallowell, Oakland’s crown prince of rustic Cal-Med cooking (Pizzaiolo, Boot and Shoe Service), has fanned the flames with his latest restaurant, Penrose, where the chef’s characteristic high energy has been cranked up to near-manic levels. If you like Middle Eastern flatbreads and farm-fresh meats and veggies fired over wood-fueled flames and treated to smart, unfussy touches (Monterey squid with zesty kumquat kosho as the condiment), you’ll enjoy the cooking. Just brace yourself for noise, a chaotic ambience, and an interior that looks as if a designer’s head had exploded, scattering shabby-chic decor around the room.

TBD, AQ’s casual sibling located just a few doors down from it in SoMa, also has a wintry fire that burns in the summer, too. Working with those charcoal flames, the kitchen turns out inventive, earthy dishes such as grilled pork with fennel and macerated strawberries. The roasted lamb with tahini-like sunflower seed sauce was so sublime that I nearly spilled my syrah. A seat at the chef’s counter, overlooking the hearth, lends your meal the comfy warmth of campfire dining, all the more so when the amazing chocolate ganache s’mores arrive.

But of all the wood fire–driven restaurants, Molina is this year’s biggest hit. Located in Mill Valley, the little restaurant—which cooks with nothing but a wood-fired oven and a fryer—was designed by Doug Washington, the co-owner of Town Hall and Salt House.

It’s a stylish and pretty space: Think Scandinavian ski lodge (sheepskins thrown over chairs, a ceiling of rafters) crossed with a third-wave coffee bar (record albums displayed on the white, hexagon-tiled wall of the bar are switched out on the turntable by the cooks themselves). The food is California at its finest: ingredient-centric dishes like a bowl of clams with shucked peas and thin, slippery ribbons of lardo, or a stunning take on cioppino full of shrimp, chunks of salmon, fresh corn, and mussels in barely more than a smattering of broth. Easy-to-find street parking is a bonus—one for which San Franciscans might consider giving the restaurant an extra star.

Around these parts, Thai food suffers the same insult that people used to sling at bagels: They say that you just can’t get the good stuff here. While that might have been true once, now it runs aground on a number of fronts, including tiny, family-run Giin Thai Canteen, a Berkeley counter-service joint that deals in what’s described as “authentic” pad thai—a tangy, spicy reconsideration of that cloyingly sweet noodle dish you’ve come to know.

Traditional Thai flavors? You also find them in full flourish on the revamped dinner menu at Hawker Fare, the Uptown Oakland restaurant from Thai-born chef James Syhabout of Michelin-starred Commis. Yes, Hawker Fare has been around since 2011, but the restaurant has just begun to hit its stride. The newly expanded dinner lineup stars fiery renditions of dishes the chef enjoyed as a kid: dried squid jerky tossed in funky fi sh sauce; skewered chicken hearts, barbecued and specked with basil; and nam prik noom, a pork rind–enriched charred shallot and chili dip. It’s all best enjoyed with a mound of sticky rice that you break off with your hands and use to scoop up everything.

What some might call a search for authenticity, food blogger Pim Techamuanvivit casts as a political movement: a mission, she writes on the website for Kin Khao, her little restaurant in Union Square’s Parc 55 hotel, to “liberate” the cuisine of her native country “from the tyranny of peanut sauce.” If that doesn’t get you fired up, the cooking will. With Manresa vet Michael Gaines carrying out Techamuanvivit’s vision in the kitchen, Kin Khao compensates for its awkward location in the hotel lobby with crackling dishes such as a fried duck egg salad in chili jam dressing and a grilled pork sausage, perfumed with lemongrass and served with an unapologetic side of “darn spicy” pepper relish that’s hot enough to melt your fillings. Much of the menu puts a West Coast twist on Thai cuisine, so it’s not exactly what you’d find in Bangkok. But if a smoldering, complex curry of rabbit leg, rabbit saddle, and rabbit meatballs is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

In the restaurant world, what looks at first like death is often just a passage to a new incarnation. Tosca Cafe wins an award for saving a North Beach institution, even if dining there can come off as almost comically spendy ($42 for a roasted half chicken!). New York– based chef April Bloomfield and business partner Ken Friedman took care to leave the character-rich interior intact. The upright piano remains, along with the jukebox. What’s new is Bloomfield’s Cal-Med menu, the first food offered at Tosca in more than 50 years. Sure, you pay a premium for everything, from the braised meatballs to the bucatini with tomatoes and guanciale. But the cooking is crisp, the evening is transportive, and, as we know, time travel doesn’t come free.

Meanwhile, in Berkeley, Great China—a very different kind of classic— has reemerged after a fire destroyed it. Today, the ants climb the tree just blocks away from the original downtown location. That iconic dish of glass noodles and shrimp is back, along with a host of mainland classics, including the East Bay’s best Peking duck. Another cause for celebration is the space itself. Larger and brighter, with ample bar seating, it’s staffed by friendly servers, not the grumpy waiters that Great China regulars used to grouse about.

In the spring, Daniel Patterson uprooted Plum and planted Ume in its place—nearly overnight. The menu might be Japanese-inflected, but otherwise the Uptown Oakland space looks very much the same. Outerlands vet Brett Cooper* has relieved Kim Alter in the kitchen, and the menu now tilts on a different axis, with dishes like yuzu kosho–rubbed barbecue chicken, or cold soba noodles and alliums tossed in lime and black sesame paste. With the revamp come lower price points and swifter pacing, too, concessions to a neighborhood brimming with young patrons out for a quick bite before a show. It all adds up to a more energetic restaurant: Plum refreshed after a semester abroad.

Over the past year, a spate of A-list operators have opened places that lower the barriers to entry without cutting corners on the cuisine.

Bouli Bar is the next-door neighbor and sister to the impeccable—OK, some call it precious—Boulettes Larder in the touristy Ferry Building. Bouli appeals more directly to the masses, a term that I apply loosely to people with a taste for lovely mezze platters, Wagyu beef tartare with sumac-marinated onions, and clay pot–braised chicken legs with mâche and zhug, a Middle Eastern chili paste. The restaurant opens up to the main floor of the market so you can people-watch, savoring your meal’s high culinary moments without losing touch with the common man.

Daniel Patterson of Coi was savvy enough to open a restaurant in the emergent gourmet ghetto for the high-tech set (also known as across the street from the Twitter building). Alta CA is a place wired for wonks, with charging stations at the bar, which slings Ashley Miller’s thoughtful cocktails. But it’s also fit for food nerds, with a casual-chic menu crafted by chef Yoni Levy.

I loved the deviled eggs in a crown of crispy sunchokes, and the duck confit glistening in a sweet-tart apricot glaze. And I’m still thinking about a root vegetable salad I had there in the winter. It sounded rustic enough, but it involved serious preparation (carrot, parsnip, fennel, kohlrabi, and their cousins splashed in fish sauce and served raw, cubed, chopped, fried, shaved, and puréed)— a reminder that the whole place was dreamed up by the cerebral Patterson.

In the spring, The Square took over a North Beach address that’s become a Bermuda Triangle for restaurants, but I’m hoping that Matt McNamara and Teague Moriarty (Sons & Daughters, Sweet Woodruff ) can make their neighborhoody concept fly. This much I’m sure of: The menu soars, with contemporary turns on tavern cooking like a succulent pork chop with griddled peaches and a convention-busting beet and avocado salad with mini-popcorn-like kernels of toasted sorghum adding crunch here and there. There’s a big, welcoming bar with fashionable cocktails. Try the fried fennel in a golden cornmeal coating with a side of green goddess dressing. It’s a happy hour snack taken to new heights.

Though it was only 12 months ago that it opened, the Cavalier—proprietor Anna Weinberg and chef Jennifer Puccio’s third restaurant—has settled right in. The Anglophile design is very Ken Fulk: an homage to high-end England complete with wallpaper of fox chases and taxidermy animal heads on the wall. The space is divided into a stately bar, a clubby dining room, wine stables, and a room reminiscent of a rail car, with brass luggage racks to underscore the point. There’s even an exclusive private room decked out with rock ’n’ roll memorabilia—called Marianne’s after Ms. Faithfull.

Stylistically, the Cavalier is a world beyond the Coachman, Charles Phan’s British-inspired newbie down the street. But thanks to Puccio, the difference is substantive, too. I have fond memories of a wild mushroom pie I had there last autumn, not to mention a Scotch-style duck egg with a confit coating, served with fruit chutney—English pub grub, reenvisioned through a West Coast lens.

*Correction: Due to a fact-checking error, we wrote that Brett Cooper is the chef at Ume. While Cooper was the restaurant's opening chef, Dong Choi has since taken over as Chef de Cuisine.

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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