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The 13 Best Restaurant Meals of 2013

It’s hard to follow-up the formidable dining year that was 2012, with its list of heavyweights including The French Laundry and Noma. Remember, there have been many, many tremendous films over the years since the 12th edition of the Oscars celebrating the films of 1939. That year’s Best Picture winner was “Gone With The Wind.” “The Wizard Of Oz” was also a nominee. Hollywood hasn’t had such a same year 1-2 punch since Gable and Garland. I don’t know if yours truly will have a year like 2012 with Keller and Redzepi. But we’re always trying.

Ramon Freixa, Madrid

Ramon Freixa, Madrid

2013 started strong and never let up even if no destination quite achieved the nearly impossible levels of excellence consistently reached by certain kitchens and dining rooms in Copenhagen and Yountville. This year ultimately was a debate between a dynamic Basque chef in Madrid and one of the emerging forces of the gastronomic world from his emerging on the grand scene flagship dining room in Mexico City. In between, we learned that Portugal knows how to cook far more than just salt cod. The best meals in New York aren’t always reliant on Michelin—or The New York Times—stars. Los Angeles is becoming a real force on the dining scene and not because of chefs who adore the media limelight (that’s for sure in one case). Hotel restaurants aren’t always “hotel restaurants.” (Well, they usually are, but this list has two entries from that category (!)). And the year’s funkiest, most thrilling meal took place in a near pitch black underground bunker—in our nation’s capital after an over four hour long wait.

Pujol's Green Squash Tamal

Pujol’s Green Squash Tamal

I guess in that spirit, I should write a four hour long article? I’ll give you a pass on that.

In a moment, we’ll unveil the year’s 13 best restaurant meals. (more…)


The 13 Bites That Defined 2013

What a year for eating. My first bites of the year were in a New Years Day early morning daze at Blue Star Doughnuts in Portland, Oregon (Valrhona Chocolate Crunch was the best amidst stiff competition. These were hands down the best doughnuts of a pretty doughnut-free year). If that’s how a year starts, then the eating surely will continue at a high caliber. Just with less cholesterol.

Belcanto's Skate "Jackson Pollack" and Its Inspiration

Belcanto’s Skate “Jackson Pollack” And Its Inspiration

We’ll break down the trends and analytical stuff in another category this week. This is about those thirteen bites that I still think about and remember almost every detail of. Sure, I could list thirteen bites alone from Pujol or Alma. That wouldn’t be very exiting, would it? Each one of these was an absolute masterpiece that reminded me why dining out can be so special.

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5 Lessons From SF Chefs Editorial Panel

Saturday morning as the fog rolled back towards the coast and the fog of the early morning dance-offs at the Rollin with the Red Carpet After Party at E&O Kitchen started to lift, a powerhouse quartet of food writers assembled to discuss the state of the American food journalism scene.

Sunset from SF Chefs Bar Bites

Sunset from SF Chefs Bar Bites

The answer is: because of the immense surge in popularity that the dining out culture has seen recently, it’s not as bleak as you’d might expect with the financial challenges facing print food sections.

That being said, if you want to be a food critic, then good luck. There aren’t many spots. You need to be creative and very skilled with social media.

As part of this weekend’s SF Chefs Festival, the “Editors Panel: Inside the American Restaurant Scene- Coast to Coast Opinions” brought together Miriam Morgan (The San Francisco Chronicle’s Food Editor), Kim Severson (Atlanta Bureau Chief for The New York Times and a former Times and Chronicle food writer), Tom Sietsema (The Washington Post Dining Critic and also a former Chronicle food writer), and Margo True (Food Editor of Sunset Magazine). (more…)


Cocktail of the Week: Tequila Punch, Novela, San Francisco

Forget about the old cliché that always tied together coffeehouses with the intellectual nature of literature. It used to be that at the coffeehouse, you would either write the next great novel or be reading one, not hacking away on the next great software program over your third espresso.

The romantic rapport of coffeehouses and literature is close to extinct, if not already. Just walk into Four Barrel or any Starbucks. Besides, did Hemingway ever write his important works over a café au lait or a bottle of Vin de Pays? Even Shakespeare probably wrote Measure for Measure bolstered by pints of mead, not pints of lattés.

L to R: Rum Punch, Tequila Punch, Hemingway Punch, at Novela, San Francisco

L to R: Rum Punch, Tequila Punch, Hemingway Punch, at Novela, San Francisco

The real relationship between writers and the dining/drinking world is of course that most inspirational ingredient of all: alcohol. How many times, fellow writers, have you had your epiphany for that next book or article over a glass of wine or after that third Margarita?

Now that the whole Barbary Coast/ pre- Prohibition classic cocktail style bar has run its course nationwide, restaurateurs and bartenders are taking a page from those who write page after page after drink after drink: the literary themed bar.  (more…)


Restaurants: La Ciccia, San Francisco

To fall in love with Sardinia’s cuisine, all you need to experience is a few bites of Massimiliano Conti’s spaghetti with bottarga and spicy olive oil. It doesn’t sound complicated and it isn’t. It doesn’t seem at first to be much more than a lighter sun-splashed, seafaring version of spaghetti and meatballs. But, my goodness the intensity of every dimension put together on this plate by Conti. I’ve heard stories of diners booking tickets to Sardinia the next day because of eye-opening dinners at the incredibly humble La Ciccia. I’m guessing a few of those diners officially announced those vacation plans immediately after encountering the spaghetti.

Conti makes all of his pasta in house at La Ciccia, his and his wife Lorella Degan’s ode to their home island. The spaghetti in the signature dish achieves that golden al dente texture, relaxed, flexible, with some bite to it. Most cooks would say it needs another minute of boiling. To Conti and chefs back at home, that extra minute turns high caliber flour and water into mush. If you want porridge or polenta, that’s a different story.

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

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

For correct al dente pasta, there must be a slight crunchy note. That allows you to actually taste and feel the pasta. It’s a participatory experience.

Then the spaghetti gets twirled atop a pool of chile- fortified olive oil, as seductive as an extra hour on a Mediterranean beach. You think the spaghetti is coated in a generous dusting of cinnamon or paprika, but really that rust-colored topping is the key ingredient to Sardinian cooking: bottarga. (more…)


Cocktail of the Week: Cocktail a la Louisiane, Hard Water, San Francisco

Finally on this Mother’s Day, a cocktail Mom would certainly enjoy, where two of her spirit-driven favorites, the Manhattan and the Vieux Carré intersect along San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

That would be the “Cocktail a la Louisiane” from Erik Adkins epic Bourbon and American Whiskey stocked bar at Charles Phan’s (The Slanted Door) sparkling month old New Orleans- inspired boîte, Hard Water. In Pier 5 along the Bay waterfront, just off the Ferry Building, you can’t help but immediately get in a Bourbon- ready mood after staring for a moment at the hypnotizing massive Wall of Whiskey, the backdrop for the horseshoe-shaped bar. Table seating is really counter-seating along the perimeter, with some seats affording Bay views. Olle Lundberg’s masterpiece strikes you as an atelier, warm yet austere from a mixture of glass, dark wood, leather, and oak components.

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The “Cocktail a la Louisiane” originated in 1937 when the recipe was published by Stanley Clisby Arthur in his Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em. If only Mr. Arthur could concoct a worthwhile Hurricane recipe or fix the Vieux Carré version at the Carousel Bar, where it originated.

Elements of the Vieux Carré come into play with plenty of Benedictine stirred with Whiskey, in this case Rittenhouse 100 Rye. Carpano Antica sweet vermouth adds the Manhattan dimension, softening the often over-bearing Benedictine. Peychaud’s Bitters and Duplais Absinthe round out this spirit-forward offering that is remarkably smooth. It was actually shockingly smooth. Handsomely served up in a chilled coupe with a marinated Maraschino cherry resting at the bottom, this is a classic example of a simple, not complex drink, with no hint of seasonality, that is absolutely pitch-perfect. (more…)


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. (more…)