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Bites of the Spring: San Francisco Bay Area

It’s been a while since we took some time to sit back, relax, and reflect on some of the most noteworthy bites at restaurants and home. Back in the old days, we used to be on the ball each week showing the highlight dishes. Well, let’s say that travel, work, and projects interfered. Besides, everyone always prefers reading 2,000 word articles instead of just glancing at photos of food preparations. Or is that just me?

As we head into the middle of May, let’s look back at some very memorable bites of the first half of spring in three installments: here in the San Francisco Bay Area, travels, and desserts. I know my Mom enjoyed many of these tastes firsthand. I hope all the wonderful Moms out there can enjoy these creations via photos. Cheers to the chefs out there for their artistry behind these dishes. And to Moms everywhere, Happy Mother’s Day!

Saddle of Venison with Cippollini Onions, Chanterelle Mushrooms, Rainbow Chard, Scandinavian Cheese Potato Gratin, and Juniper Berry Jus

Plaj, San Francisco: Saddle of Venison with Cippollini Onions, Chanterelle Mushrooms, Rainbow Chard, Scandinavian Cheese Potato Gratin, and Juniper Berry Jus

I never had venison in my three weeks visiting Scandinavia last summer, though I did enjoy reindeer once in Helsinki. Robert Sundell’s saddle of venison is the brilliant high point of a meal at Plaj, the chef’s merging of his home Scandinavia’s cuisines with Californian ingredients and ideas. The venison is as tender as the finest filet mignon, lifted even higher from the just sweet enough juniper sauce and the stellar accompaniments. The gratin is creamy cholesterol overkill. Plaj the restaurant is strangely stiff (very different than the New Nordic restaurants across the pond), inside a hotel behind the Civic Center. Make sure to get a housemade aquavit to drink and you’ll be a believer in Swedish meatballs after Sundell’s rendition.

Fifth Floor, San Francisco: Burger with Comté Cheese, Bourbon Onions, Firebrand Bun, and Fries

Fifth Floor, San Francisco: Burger with Comté Cheese, Bourbon Onions, Firebrand Bun, and Fries

Now begins the burger portion of the program. Here’s my vote for the current runner up in San Francisco for best high end burger (Zuni Cafe still is tops). Chef David Barzigan’s innovative cuisine in the sleek dining room on the, yes, fifth floor of the Hotel Palomar deserves a full dinner experience. However, also spend a night at the front lounge’s bar tucking into this masterpiece. The ground beef is really three dimensions: short rib, chuck, and skirt steak. There’s some romaine lettuce, the melted earthy Comté (gruyère family), caramelized onions first marinated in Bourbon then smoked over oak before being cooked, both ketchup and a paprika aioli, and on the side, sensational pickles and fries that are thicker and crunchier than most. The half pound burger comes in a challah bun from Oakland’s Firebrand Bakery, toasted just right. Be sure to enjoy the burger with a cocktail from Brian Means (you want the Oaxacan Negroni with Mezcal and Aperol).

Belcampo Meat Co., Larkspur, CA: Cheeseburger with Onions

Belcampo Meat Co., Larkspur, CA: Cheeseburger with Onions

Inside the Marin Country Mart by the Larkspur Ferry Terminal, Belcampo is getting plenty of local and national press for owner Anya Fernald’s fully sustainable meat company as its own supplier from ranch to processing to transport to butcher. Belcampo is both a retail butchery in front and a meat- intensive fast casual restaurant for lunch and dinner. Almost every table has the tidy 5 1/2 oz. burger with Cheswick New York sharp cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and butter lettuce, with the bun first brushed with butter, then slathered by a dollop of housemade aioli. The beef achieves a vibrant character after being dry aged for three weeks. You’ll want the beef tallow fries alongside.

Umami Burger from Umami Burger, Palo Alto

Umami Burger from Umami Burger, Palo Alto

The final burger comes courtesy of the newest Bay Area branch of the emerging empire, Umami Burger. Does this burger pack plenty of umami? Yes, it sure does. In fact, it’s the finest of all the burgers at Umami and this version was even more robust than its sibling I had at the original on La Brea in Los Angeles. Where is the umami coming from? The parmesan tuile in place of nondescript cheese, shiitake mushrooms, and roasted tomatoes. Don’t skip the umami-filled ketchup. I’m no fan of the impersonal feel of the “scholarly” Palo Alto branch, but the Umami burger itself lives up to its umami-filled hype. O.k., enough umami.

Ramen Shop, Oakland: Assorted Pickles (Sierra Mackerel, King Oyster Mushrooms, Shiso Daikon, Black Spanish Radish, Sansho Cabbage); Kohashi Miso Ramen with Ground Pork Belly, Shoyu-Marinated Egg, Asparagus, Spring Onions, and Shrimp Tsukune

Ramen Shop, Oakland: Assorted Pickles (Sierra Mackerel, King Oyster Mushrooms, Shiso Daikon, Black Spanish Radish, Sansho Cabbage); Kohashi Miso Ramen with Ground Pork Belly, Shoyu-Marinated Egg, Asparagus, Spring Onions, and Shrimp Tsukune

Oakland;s Rockridge shopping district (and the whole Bay Area) is going nuts for this brilliant, truly authentic (I know it’s a prickly word, but I’ve been to Japanese ramen bars…) ramen bar from a trio of Chez Panisse alumni: Jerry Jaksich, Rayneil de Guzman, and Sam White. What’s the highlight? Don’t think too hard. The al dente (rather than mushy) housemade noodles with a meaty miso broth of profound depth. The spring onions and asparagus spears signal the time of year. Hey, they did work under Alice Waters for a while. The keys however are the ground pork belly (it’s even better than regular), the delicate egg, and the addition of funky shrimp meatballs that make you question the normal rigid lines of meat and seafood. The house cured pickles are flawless, especially the sweet meets fishy mackerel.

Bar Tartine, San Francisco: Goat Cheese Melt, Chard, Green Walnut, Mushroom, Grilled Onions, on Country Toast

Bar Tartine, San Francisco: Goat Cheese Melt, Chard, Green Walnut, Mushroom, Grilled Onions, on Country Toast

There’s just no stopping tour de force Nick Balla. Dinner. Lunch. Sandwiches. Brunch. Bread. Sour beers. Regular beers. Wines. What doesn’t Bar Tartine toast the competition in? I could eat this behemoth sandwich every day, a vegetarian heavy hitter between sliced classic Tartine sourdough. The goat cheese keeps matters moist, but the real key is the green walnut functioning as a pesto sauce for the meaty trumpet mushrooms, sweet grilled onions, and wilted chard. It’s just as magnificent as the smørrebrød.

Bar Tartine, San Francisco: Smørrebrød: Rainbow Trout with Horseradish Cream and Arugula, Salami with Mushrooms and Pepper Relish, Farmer's Cheese with Peas and Chili Flakes

Bar Tartine, San Francisco: Smørrebrød: Rainbow Trout with Horseradish Cream and Arugula, Salami with Mushrooms and Pepper Relish, Farmer’s Cheese with Peas and Chili Flakes

It’s too bad Bar Tartine only serves its smørrebrød only on weekends now. Apparently diners were complaining about how these open face, miniature sandwiches were both too small for a single lunch (that’s why you get three or four…) and not good for take-out. One day they’ll learn…one day. These edible still-life works of art are truly masterpieces in sandwich execution. House baked sprouted rye serves as the platform for velvety trout, arugula, and horseradish cream, or pungent salami and cured mushrooms. The best? Mashed and whole peas atop Farmer’s cheese that is the type of epiphany sequence of bites that makes diners captivated to artistic food for life.

La Ciccia, San Francisco: Spaghetti with Bottarga and Spicy Oil

La Ciccia, San Francisco: Spaghetti with Bottarga and Spicy Oil

Every night is a party and a vintage slice of European social life at this Sardinian (yes, Sardinia) standby in residential Noe Valley. In theory, La Ciccia is a neighborhood restaurant, but it’s every bit a destination restaurant that Fleur de Lys is. Why? Massimiliano Conti’s perfectly al dente homemade pasta (you can taste the crunch) and bottarga (the salted cured fish roe that looks like paprika and tastes of the sea, it is in almost every Sardinian dish it seems). A peppery oil perks matters up further. A simple, transcendent pasta dish. La dolce vita.

Plow, San Francisco: "The Plow"

Plow, San Francisco: “The Plow”

The defacto Capital of Brunch in almost always sunny (!) Potrero Hill, mornings are always brighter and fuller at Plow. The signature dish is no run of the mill two eggs, meat, and toast. Nothing is healthy, but nothing feels greasy and unhealthy. You still feel virtuous even. Look at those precise poached eggs, executed with Jacques Pepin perfection. The bacon is the smokiest sort, from Nueske’s in Wisconsin. The potatoes have a cult following, given a killer instinct from caramelized onions. The runaway favorites are the lemon ricotta pancakes, fluffier than almost any pancake around town, with a gorgeous citrus edge. It makes you talk in wine tasting note- language about…pancakes.

AQ, San Francisco: Cool Spring Peas, Macadamia Nuts, Goat Cheese, Sweet Woodruff

AQ, San Francisco: Cool Spring Peas, Macadamia Nuts, Goat Cheese, Sweet Woodruff

Mark Liberman’s cuisine changes with the seasons literally at AQ. Does spring cuisine get better than this? Bright, bursting with life peas are both mashed and regular, along with pea tendrils. Sweet woodruff adds a funk element, while goat cheese lends richness, and macadamia nuts are wonderful as always. It’s slightly abstract to start then blends effortlessly. A very green dish. A very spring dish. A seasonal centerpiece from AQ.

AQ, San Francisco: Farm Egg, Beef Tongue, Caraway & Tarragon, Horseradish, and Yogurt Curd

AQ, San Francisco: Farm Egg, Beef Tongue, Caraway & Tarragon, Horseradish, and Yogurt Curd

A marvelous dish for early spring, being hearty, but not on a wintry way. The delicate farm egg bursts upon impact, exuding itself amidst white beans that make the dish a bit of a light stew. The tongue comes as crispy cubes, like less fatty, beefy pork belly. There’s none of the gelatinous texture involved beef tongue often boasts. The standout element is how Liberman creates “textures” of tarragon, something like tree bark moss meets bread stuffing. It’s a dish you’d find at Noma. Who doesn’t love the floral garnish? Even a devout non-tongue eater devoured this at the table.

IMG_0062This was back in January, not spring. But, yours truly (lovingly) stamped all 600 plus of these tasting plates as an organizer for the 2013 Good Food Awards at San Francisco’s Ferry Building. The food was great. Of course, the plates were everybody’s favorite part.

You Just Can't Resist...

You Just Can’t Resist…

I could show hundreds of food pictures from the 2013 Good Food Awards. Let’s just stick with the goods. Who can resist a charcuterie spread from the magnificent artisans at Olympic Provisions in Portland, Oregon? I’ll take another Loukaniko.

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