At this, the juicy peak of summer-produce season, with the sweet perfume of peaches filling your olfactories and the heirloom tomatoes hanging heavy on the vine, I ask you to give thanks for the earth's green bounty—and to try to clear your mind of that awful day last autumn when David Chang took issue with the way you eat.
You'd been minding your own business, thinking globally but shopping at the farmers' market around the corner, when the smack-talking chef from Momofuku went and spoiled everything, declaring during a panel discussion at the New York Wine & Food Festival that “every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate.”
Your outrage was intense, your backlash unbridled. You fired off angry blog posts, complained to your stone-fruit vendor, and applauded the Asia Society's decision to revoke Chang's invitation to a book-signing event. “Ha!” you cried indignantly. “Good for them.”
Friends, I felt your pain and understood your righteous fury. But it didn't take me long to realize that Chang was being playful (he went on to emphasize that those figs are really good). And besides, even if he'd really meant it, the criticism was off base.
Sure, we went a little crazy for comfort cooking. And clearly, we were big (too big) on burgers. But to dismiss ours as a region of stultifying sameness was to place us on the margins of a New Yorker cover: a hazy, cartoon image of the West. That Chang's jab stung at all says less about the state of the Bay Area's dining than it does about our delicate self-image and our lingering sensitivity to an old suggestion: namely, that too many of our chefs are Alice Waters clones.
But this is a new day, with a new generation coming of age. No need to be defensive. The cliché knock on the Bay Area is increasingly untrue. Our most creative young chefs, the ones at the forefront of our culinary future, are less the heirs of Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck than they are the disciples of Thomas Keller and David Kinch. They respect Chez Panisse but refuse to be confined by its popular aesthetic. They revere ingredients but aren't afraid to alchemize them through refined technique.
“My sense is that we're on the cusp of becoming one of the world's truly great food regions,” says David Kinch, chef of two-Michelin-starred Manresa. “What we need is that little push over the edge, and I think there's a good chance we're going to get it from the next generation. It makes me excited to see what the coming years will bring.”
Mostly, what defines these new chefs is the way in which they wriggle free of standard definitions. Instead of chasing trends, they follow their own interests, leaving us to wonder where they'll take us next.
On this broadening frontier, a young chef such as Richie Nakano can uproot and go mobile, abandoning his post at Nopa, where he cooked on the line for two and a half years, for a fold-up ramen stand. He's at the Ferry Building every Thursday and at the Coffee Bar every Saturday night, plunging handmade noodles into a broth made from pork and chicken parts, dashi, and splashes of soy, mirin, and sake. The guy spends days on end making noodles by hand, with recipes he mastered using tips he trolled for on the Internet. “It's amazing how much information is out there,” Nakano says. “Besides, I couldn't afford to spend four years doing a stage [apprenticeship] in Japan.” He has plans in the works to open a full-blown ramen restaurant soon.
The road to our next meals leads in all directions. Just a few weeks ago, Ravi Kapur's Prospect, a blockbuster venture in the Infinity Tower, made its debut with more budget-minded prices than nearby Boulevard, where Kapur cooked for eight years. The food isn't just less spendy; it's also younger, more current. Even robust-sounding dishes—pork cheeks with fennel confit, black cod with red curry and a shiso shrimp fritter—traipse lightly on the palate, free of Boulevard's imposing buttery ballast and its Francophile heft.
A few blocks away, on Howard Street, there's Spice Kit, where Fred Tang, who worked alongside Ron Siegel at the Ritz-Carlton, and French Laundry alum Wilfred Pacio have put their well-trained hands to Asian street food. They stuff their banh mi sandwiches with naturally raised, star anise-scented chicken, and they fill plump hoisin-slathered buns with pork belly, cooked sous vide, then grilled. Though the atmosphere at Spice Kit is nothing to speak of (think counter service and the institutional look of a TCBY), the food is not your usual grab-and-go lunch grub: It's a fresh, convenient trip into the exotic for those who've overdosed on soggy tuna salad.
Later this summer, the neighborhood will welcome yet another nonconformist when Corey Lee arrives downtown. The onetime French Laundry head chef is set to open Benu, on Hawthorne Street, an urbanized, accessible kindred spirit to the highbrow restaurants where he honed his craft.
Like all ambitious chefs, Lee wants a restaurant that reflects who he is: Korean born, New York raised, and trained in the classic French culinary fashion, Lee landed at the French Laundry in 2001, then moved to Keller's Manhattan outpost Per Se before returning to Yountville to run the Laundry's kitchen. For all his admiration of lofty culinary traditions, he aims to do away with a lot of the frills. Benu will offer caviar and a cultivated wine list, but it won't have tablecloths, lavish flower arrangements, or service choreographed by way of Balanchine.
“What I'm trying to do here is fine dining,” Lee says, “but I'm not trying to replicate the French Laundry. I didn't leave one job just to do the same thing somewhere else.”
Benu's dishes will pay homage to Keller while bearing Lee's distinctive imprint. For instance, the chef will serve a canapé of braised eel wrapped in brik (a Tunisian pastry dough), much as he did at the French Laundry. But his adaptation will have Asian inflections, with the eel slow-cooked in a broth of soy, sake, and rice vinegar. On any given evening, there will be a prix fixe menu as well as a flexible à la carte option. “I'm not trying to make this a restaurant where you have to book a table exactly two months in advance,” Lee says. “I want this to be a place where you can just drop by on a Wednesday night.”
Over and over, you hear this from our bright, young breed of chefs—a call for relaxation, a loosening of neckties and apron strings. Partly it's an outgrowth of economics, but it also reflects a cultural shift. With this new generation comes a new attitude toward dining, the basic ethos being, “Let's leave the stifling settings to the blue-rinse crowd.”
One danger of this drift—the casualization of the culinary landscape—is that in the hands of less ambitious chefs, a lot of the region's restaurants start to look and taste alike.
As for places with loud music, blared above communal tables in dining rooms as airless as a Cryovac-sealed bag, I'm not entirely convinced we need another. Really, I'm not cranky. Even Kinch agrees. “The backless chairs, the inability to hold a conversation—I'll admit that the widespread appeal of this phenomenon largely escapes me,” the Manresa chef says. “I'm not sure I want to dine in a region given over exclusively to restaurants that don't take reservations and tell you, ‘No, we won't honor your dietary restriction, and here's your check. Oh, and by the way, we have an ambitious cocktail program.'”
Listen to Kinch and Patterson, and you'll hear a whispered warning of the grim fate that awaits us if haute cuisine should ever become a lost art, like weaving and letter writing. Grand traditions would vanish. Innovations would cease. These seasoned chefs point hopefully to a small band of young talents, the torch bearers of our dining future. The choice is ours: Follow them into a vibrant tomorrow or wander ever downward toward the frightening netherworld of Kinch's darkest nightmares—“the vortex of California cuisine.”
Me, I've stared into the abyss, having stuffed myself on one too many charcuterie platters while shouting at my companions in order to be heard. And yet today, I feel optimistic. Call me Pollyanna—or call me a man who's eaten at Commis. At James Syhabout's restaurant, there's no sign on the awning; there's also never any doubt as to where you are. Syhabout has cooked at Manresa, Coi, and El Bulli, and here, in the tiny body of what used to be a bistro, he has distilled all that he learned into his own distinctive style. A precise technician, the chef doesn't trot out technique for technique's sake. He steers clear of molds and stencils and liquid nitrogen, preferring to let ingredients express their essence.
Yet Syhabout's cooking is high-minded: A tender egg yolk adrift in a purée of onion soup is poured over a layer of smoked dates and garnished with steel-cut oats. It's the finest of fine dining, without the starchy rituals. Like artists in an avant-garde performance, Syhabout and his sous-chefs work in an open kitchen, not closed off in a precious inner sanctum that we, the average diners, are not allowed to see. They move in a quiet dance that I like to interpret as a farewell to the old divides of haute cuisine.
I don't think it's a stretch. A conventional approach is not in Syhabout's nature. For his next act, he's contemplating opening a Thai place, an elevated version of the kind of restaurant his mom ran in Concord years ago. As Syhabout recalls, she served her most compelling dishes (for instance, sticky rice with charred chilies and homemade fish sauce) for staff meals and kept them off the menu, so as not to alienate Western tastes. That puzzled her son, who would never play down to his clientele. “I don't think you should be afraid to be proud of your roots and say, ‘Here, take it or leave it. It is what it is,” Syhabout says. “To me, the best restaurants are the ones that have a personality and a point of view.”
With that as a standard, it's hard not to have high hopes for a number of pending and newly opened projects. Take Kim Alter's Plate Shop. The elevator pitch rings familiar: a restaurant of handcrafted California food and drink. But Alter, a veteran of Manresa and Ubuntu—Napa's renowned vegetarian restaurant and yoga studio—is a passionate gardener who devotes her days off to organic farming. Plate Shop will embody her earthy interests. When Alter serves a cut of meat, odds are she'll have butchered it herself, and she'll employ its parts across multiple courses. When she wants produce, she'll forage in her garden, just outside the kitchen door. The results will stretch the boundaries of standard farmhouse cooking: She'll serve brown butter-basted sweetbreads, bathed in bourbon and vanilla and buttressed with warm spelt. Alter's take on surf-and-turf includes cucumber carpaccio with fluke and uni tongue.
Other character-rich restaurants are readying in Oakland. Early next year, Jack London Square will become home to Bracina, where Cane Rosso's Lauren Kiino will run the show. On the face of it, Bracina will be a neighborhood bistro, but Kiino plans to make things personal. Drawing on her background, she'll treat food of rustic bearing (she ran the kitchen at Delfina for several years) with the meticulous procedures she picked up while working with Patterson at Coi. She's partial to a version of potato salad that her two-Michelin-starred mentor would likely approve of: studded with fresh seaweed, grated cucumbers, and pickled sea beans and drizzled with squid-ink vinaigrette.
For a glimpse of where we've been and where we might be going, it pays to take a closer look at Saison, Joshua Skenes' superb restaurant, which emerged in a manner few could have foreseen. Skenes worked at Chez TJ, then took a post with Michael Mina, then got involved in street food with Cart 415, only to discover that he wanted to do more than meals-on-wheels. Saison began as a fledgling restaurant, operating once a week out of a converted stable. Diners booked online, paid in advance, and sat down all at once for a prix fixe evening in casual surroundings. As demand grew, Saison expanded to three nights a week, then went through a farther-reaching change.
The freshly refurbished restaurant now features a sleek Molteni stove (imagine a heat-furnishing Ferrari), a wine bar (called Dcantr), and a hearth on its terrace for ash-and-embers cooking. You can still order the original eight-course tasting menu, but Skenes has the capacity for customized experiences (before he prepares a menu, he interviews patrons, mining them for details about their likes and dislikes and for memories of their all-time favorite meals), priced as high as $500 a head. None of which is to say that the restaurant has become fussy. The setting is relaxed, and judging by appearances, you might guess that the food is simple; its rustic bearing belies the exactitude behind each dish.
Consider one example: roasted pigeon. The pasture-raised bird is smothered, not slaughtered, so the blood stays in its body (that's good for the diner, though I realize it's just a technicality for the bird). Skenes acquires the pigeon whole and hangs it in his meat cooler; then, as the bird's skin dries and its flavors mature, he pickles fresh-picked cherries in Japanese sugar and Meyer lemon. For good measure, he cures cherry blossoms in salt. Months of work are on the books by the time the bird is ready for its cherrywood roasting. When the pigeon is just so, Skenes carves the meat and serves it with foie gras wrapped in cherry leaves, flanks it with the pickled cherries and cured cherry blossoms, and enriches it with cherry consommé.
I haven't tried this dish yet. But if Skenes' record is any indication, I have a pretty good sense of what it's like. When it's delivered, what you'll see will look a lot like meat and cherries. But what you'll taste will be beautiful and layered, unpretentious in its profile but complex in its execution, and shining sign for our dining future—even if you think, as David Chang might, that it's nothing more than fowl and stone fruit on a plate. Skenes doesn't serve the pigeon year round. But I have no doubt that when the season is right, he'll find something just as interesting to do with figs.
Josh Sens is San Francisco's restaurant critic.
Have it their way
They're young, they're hungry, and they're making their own rules. Nine chefs who matter now.
By Jan Newberry
Commis, opened June 2009
3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 510-653-3902
Mentor: David Kinch, Manresa
The most important thing I learned: To keep food natural and pure, but to prepare it with precision.
What I'm doing now: Searching for ingredients that express Oakland's terroir.
Plate Shop, opening late Aug. 2010
39 Caledonia St., Sausalito
Mentors: David Kinch, Manresa; Ron Boyd, Aqua
The most important thing I learned: An understanding of where my food comes from.
What I'm doing now: Food that's approachable but still shows my fine-dining chops.
Benu, opening early Aug. 2010
22 Hawthorne St., S.F.
Mentor: Thomas Keller, the French Laundry
The most important thing I learned: To lead by example.
What I'm doing now: Working with my personal references to Asian ingredients and techniques.
Saison, opened July 2009
2124 Folsom St., S.F., 415-828-7990
Mentor: I never worked for anyone long enough to call them a mentor. I've learned mostly through trial and error.
The most important thing I learned: To pay attention to nature.
What I'm doing now: Instead of adding more ingredients, I try to intensify the flavor of the ingredients I already have.
Hapa Ramen, opened June 2010
Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, S.F., Thu.; Coffee Bar, 1890 Bryant St., S.F., Sat.
Mentors: Kelly Degala, Va de Vi; Laurence Jossel, Nopa; Ryan Farr, 4505 Meats; Michael Black, Sebo (“I've never worked with those last two, but their advice and friendship have been invaluable”)
The most important thing I learned: To cook with good intentions. When I do that, everything else falls into place.
What I'm doing now: I'm a good communicator. That's turned out to be an enormous help to me.
Prospect, opened June 2010
300 Spear St., S.F., 415-247-7770
Mentors: Nancy Oakes, Pam Mazzola, Kathy King, Boulevard
The most important thing I learned: Hospitality. That's what drives me.
What I'm doing now: Making serious food that doesn't take itself too seriously.
Bracina, opening early 2011
55 Harrison St., Oakland
Mentors: Craig Stoll, Delfina; Daniel Patterson, Coi
The most important thing I learned: To be analytical and think critically. When I do that, I often find a better way to do my job.
What I'm doing now: I draw from a wider range of ingredients and no longer feel bound to any particular tradition.
Wilfred Pacio and Fred Tang
Spice Kit, opened June 2010
405 Howard St., S.F., 415-882-7105
Age: Pacio: 30; Tang: 26
Mentors: Pacio: Thomas Keller, The French Laundry; Tang: Ron Siegel, the Ritz-Carlton
The most important thing I learned: Pacio: Patience, even when the unexpected happens. Tang: To work with a wide range of ingredients and techniques.
What I'm doing now: Pacio: Learning to be a teacher to my cooks. Tang: Passing what I've learned on to our staff.
The old guard
Just because young culinary stars are appearing on the horizon doesn't mean the old ones have burned out. Many appear ready to shine light on new projects of their own. Here's where we're training our gaze in the months ahead.
Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski
This husband-and-wife team from much missed Rubicon is tinkering with plans for a restaurant that features “good old-fashioned creative cooking,” with a section of the menu devoted to broths and stews and another given over to mixed grills. The timing and location are TBD, as the couple has yet to sign a lease.
The chef who built his name on caviar and foie gras will turn his hand to burgers, pasta, and pizza when his as yet unnamed American brasserie opens in early 2011 at Ghirardelli Square. 900 North Point st., S.F.
If Dennis Leary ever takes a day off, it won't be late this summer, when he opens Golden West, a bakery and takeout place in the financial district. Watching him hustle from there to his other outposts—Canteen and the Sentinel, as well as House of Shields, for which he recently secured the lease—calls to mind a scene from The Amazing Race. 8 Trinity Pl., S.F.
The chef with a copyright symbol next to his name is getting ready to rebrand his flagship, moving Michael Mina from the Westin St. Francis to the old Aqua space where he launched his career. Expect a more casual, tablecloth-free setting, as well as bar-only lunch seating for the power-tie crowd. Talks are also in the works about having Mina transform the abandoned Westin space into a steakhouse. 252 California St., S.F.
Daniel Patterson and Jeremy Fox
A convergence of star power will take place in Oakland's Uptown neighborhood when Plum opens this fall. Daniel Patterson, of Coi and Cane Rosso, has tagged former Ubuntu chef Jeremy Fox to run the kitchen. The menu will be vegetable based, but Fox also plans to serve housemade charcuterie and will use meat to flavor many dishes, even when it's not at the center of the plate. 2214 Broadway, Oakland
In a culinary homecoming, the Slanted Door chef plans to return to the Valencia Street location where it all started. No word yet on the concept, but chances are it won't be yet another burger joint. 584 Valencia St., S.F.
Craig and Anne Stoll
Locanda, which means “gathering place” in Italian, is the working name of the Delfina team's next project: In the space that once housed Ramblas, the Stolls will turn their taste toward Roman cuisine. 557 Valencia St., S.F.
Don't get too comfortable
Enough with the comfort food—or maybe not. There's a reason so many new restaurants rely on these standbys: Burgers, fried chicken, and pizza taste pretty good. Here's a short list of my favorites from the past year.
By Josh Sens
Marlowe Chef Jennifer Puccio adds a little lamb (little lamb, little lamb) to her Niman beef patties. The resulting burger, topped with caramelized onions, cheddar cheese, bacon, and horseradish aioli, is as well composed as a nursery rhyme. 330 Townsend St., S.F., 415-974-5599
Gather It's incongruous that a restaurant with so many vegetarian options also offers a burger of such bloody goodness. The kale salad may placate my conscience, but nothing sates my palate like this thick Prather Ranch patty, with a tangy kick from caramelized shallot-and-tomato sauce. 2200 Oxford St., Berkeley, 510-809-0400
Hibiscus The meat is buttermilk moistened, its crisp skin stuffed with parsley, cilantro, and thyme. Chef Sarah Kirnon serves it with a side of macaroni and cheese. 1745 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, 510-444-2626
Nombe Chef Nick Balla dusts his wings with rice flour, dunks them in a fryer, then tosses them in a sweet-and-sour mixture of honey, lime juice, fish sauce, scallions, chilies, and salt. True to izakaya tradition, this dish is perfectly built for booze. 2491 Mission St., S.F., 415-681-7150
Emilia's Pizzeria Keith Freilich suffers for his art—and so do his customers, who are strongly advised to call in their orders several hours in advance. It's worth the trouble. The beautiful simplicity of Freilich's pies make them my favorite in the region, hands down. 2995 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-704-1794
Tony's Pizza Napoletana Tony Gemignani may be a nine-time pizza-tossing champion, but his Neapolitan-style pies, topped with San Marzano tomatoes and blistered in a 900-degree oven, prove that he isn't all show. 1570 Stockton St., S.F., 415-835-9888