If the restaurants I sampled on a six-day jaunt to San Francisco are any indication, the food scene there is on fire. Every meal I had was noteworthy. Either I was very lucky or there's a whole lot of good cooking going around there - and I got to sample only one of the newish places in the East Bay, an area that is coming into its own.
What are the chances of picking six really good restaurants in a row? In my experience, slim. But it happened on this trip. The even better news is that many are quite affordable, fun and blessed with an exuberant and bright spirit.
A stop in Oakland
I caught up with old friends in Oakland at Plum, the East Bay outpost from Coi's Daniel Patterson, a few blocks from the Art Deco Paramount Theatre. The walls are blackened steel. The ring of lights overhead suggests a carnival. Giant paintings of plums on a grid are weirdly wonderful. At the bar, couples swirling wine face a team of exuberant young cooks. Except for a single table in the front window, the seating is communal at massive wooden tables and benches.
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Plum's menu is small. So are the plates. The four of us ate practically the entire menu, starting off with panisse (chickpea fritters) deeply colored with wild greens, ready to dip in a pool of housemade yogurt. Long, snaky onion crisps the texture of chicharrones and dosed with sea salt and black pepper disappear in seconds.
Crinkly speckled lettuces scattered with squiggles of crunchy fried pig's ear, fresh mint and a little pecorino make a terrific salad. Delta asparagus comes with creme frache flavored with the ash of burnt scallions. And we gobbled up Plum's signature oyster and potato stew with the oysters blanketed under a potato cream laced with tiny, crispy croutons. For sheer comfort, go with the smoked farm egg with farro and halved Brussels sprouts in a delicious clear consomme.
I'm completely smitten until we reach dessert, cheesecake in a jar. Smothered in whipped cream, it resembles the puddings I used to whip up as a kid.
From rustic to sophisticated
I had to call a month ahead to get a table at Cotogna, the newish Italian restaurant in the Financial District from Quince chef-owner Michael Tusk. Worried about traffic, we arrived early for our reservation. No problem, Quince and its elegant bar is right next door. Order a seductive Quince martini made with chamomile-infused gin, Dolin vermouth and bergamot tincture while you wait.
Cotogna is casual and rustic where Quince is formal and sophisticated. They're a good pair: affordable versus splurge. We started with one of the trio of pizzas from the wood-burning oven at the back of the plain room. Pizza alla puttanesca is glorious, a smear of tomato sauce with olives, the occasional salt tang of good anchovy or capers, and on top, delicate squid rings just barely cooked through. We ordered up warm ricotta, bubbled and browned on top, with salt-roasted onions and tender artichoke. Grilled sardines on a bed of tondini beans with celery and lemon was delicious too. There's rabbit ciccia - say, what? Rabbit cooked in duck fat. Say no more.
How'd Tusk do with the pasta test? Brilliantly. I've always loved his pasta dishes at Quince, but these are more straightforward. Postage stamp-sized agnolotti al plin are as tender as any made by Piemonte's late queen of the genre, Lidia Alciati. A Heath Ceramics bowl holds al dente rigatoni and an earthy sauce of pork sausage, tomato and nettles.
We shared a few main courses too, including a soulful spit-roasted pork loin with fennel and red chile peppers. All in all, a wonderful meal. Believe me, I'd sign up for a permanent table if I could.
Into the Mission District
My next excursion took us to the Mission District for dinner at Commonwealth, where I fully expected to spend 20 minutes driving around and around the block in search of a parking space. But hey, this is one of the few places in that notoriously overcrowded area that has its own (tiny) lot. The restaurant itself is small and inviting, with plain wood tabletops and clear globe bulbs and air plants strung overhead. An L-shaped bar frames the workaday open kitchen. No frills here, a fact that's reflected in the prices but not in the ambitious modern cooking from former Bar Tartine chef Jason Fox. You've got your foams, your gels, your dehydrated this and that. But none of it comes off as silly, just delicious. He's serious, but not pretentious.
Panisse are served here too, custardy at the center, with a terrific, gritty romesco sauce. But first come the thinnest potato chips I've ever encountered, sprinkled with seaweed and ready to dip in a gossamer malt vinegar mousse. Slender asparagus spears come with more shaved asparagus, torn nasturtium flowers and crushed avocado. Underneath is dehydrated olive and chicory root "soil" that adds a slightly salty, earthy element. A black slate plate is covered with mache and radishes and looks like something made by woodland fairies.
The combination of sweet potato tempura with sea urchin dabbed with yuzu kosho is brilliant: I'm still tasting it in my memory. Another standout is charred octopus with smoked potato and a scrambled egg mousse. And sous vide duck breast, skin and fat crisped, is served with dots of blood-orange sauce and an ethereal pastry filled with cauliflower mousse. The revelation, though, is the marvelous lamb breast, a cut I've never seen served in a restaurant, with Swiss chard and potato puree.
There's a six-course tasting menu too, at $60, $10 of which goes to charity. I love the spirit of this restaurant, the service, the enthusiasm, the food.
The next night I went to Mission Chinese Food, which is practically next door, a pop-up of sorts inside another Chinese restaurant called Lung Shan, which in turn grew out of a food truck (now gone) started by Commonwealth's Anthony Myint and Mission's chef Danny Bowien.
Eight people were in line in the rain when we got there, and Bowien was there too, passing out tastes of this and that, almost apologetically keeping folks company. As soon as there was space we crowded inside, adding our name to the list. It wasn't long before we got a table and tiger salad arrived, a rice paper wrapper stuffed with herbs, lettuces, roasted seaweed and a drizzle of chile oil. Explosive chicken wings came buried in a mound of dried Sichuan chile peppers. They're essentially double-fried, adding the salt and spices between so they're soaked right up by the wings.
This place is fun. A giant paper dragon sidles across the ceiling above the everyday Formica-topped tables. The crowd is young and alternative: budget-conscious and hungry. Mmm, char siu pork belly, tea-smoked eel with pulled ham hock, ma po tofu made with Kurobuta ground pork and plenty of chiles, all Bowien's take on the American-Chinese food he grew up on. The chef, who is Korean American, isn't pulling any punches. This was the perfect food on a rainy night. The boys in our party were stuffed but not willing to give it up. We ordered a couple more things and in the end took some of it home. But so did all the other tables.
As we were leaving, Bowien mentioned that they're closing the entire restaurant in July to go with Lung Shan's owners back to China, and taking the entire staff. To me, it seems clear this guy is going to go a lot further than to China. He has the temperament and the passion.
South of Market
Over in South of Market, Bar Agricole takes cocktails very seriously. Two of the partners, Thad Vogler and Eric Johnson, are well-known mixologists. They make their own bitters and, out front, grow herbs for the bar and the kitchen in raised planter beds. Behind the impressively long bar of repurposed timber, bartenders in striped denim aprons make cocktails with clear, focused flavors and hair-trigger balance. Sipping an El Presidente (Haitian rum, farmhouse curacao, grenadine, orange bitters) or a tequila cocktail (tequila, sweet vermouth, stone fruit bitters and orange) gives time to take in the restaurant's dramatic design, all concrete, wood and glass and soaring ceilings.
Rustic small plates from chef Brandon Jew are well-matched with the cocktails - and a fine little wine list from former Slanted Door wine director Mark Ellenbogen, who is also a partner. Chopped liver on long, thin toasts is great with a Sangiovese. Pork pte, like all the charcuterie here made in-house, is coarsely textured and heaped with aspic that melts on the tongue. Lamb and sweetbread pte with mostarda (preserved fruit) is pink and tender.
Jew makes a terrific warm potato and soft-boiled egg salad sitting in a pool of subtle tonnato, or tuna, sauce with puntarella, a relative of chicory. Manila clam chowder is fabulous, loaded with clams, leeks and green garlic plus a raft of toast covered with flaky salt cod that gradually sinks into the soup. The menu changes daily, and that night the pasta was squid ink spaghetti with red-wine-braised squid and shredded beef short ribs and fresh mint. Halibut is pristine and tender, wonderful with sunchokes and black trumpet mushrooms. To finish? A perfect Meyer lemon tart.
Benu, in the Mission District, may have been the most anticipated S.F. restaurant opening in recent memory. That's because chef-owner Corey Lee worked closely with Thomas Keller as chef de cuisine at the French Laundry for close to a decade. Benu, though, is not the French Laundry redux. Lee is Korean American, and Benu's menu is mostly Asian in influence. The food is spare, elegant and sometimes stunning.
Almost everything on the table is custom-made - the ceramics from South Korea, the silverware rests, the chocolate box. Scaled-down forks and knives make you feel like Alice who swallowed the pill that made her larger. The color scheme is neutral, the better to show off the food. But the restaurant isn't solemn; Motown plays softly in the background.
I went with the 12-or-so-course tasting menu at $160 per person. Only the main ingredients are listed, so the form the dish takes is a complete surprise. With so many courses I can hit only a few of the highlights. I loved the cloud-like housemade tofu served in a small lidded bowl in a light savory broth just ever so slightly thickened and with wisps, like charcoal lines, of moss suspended in the broth. Lee is brilliant with textures. A dish described as "caviar, bone marrow, lobster" turns out to be a lobster cracker topped with caviar, finely diced bone marrow and flakes of edible gold leaf, a wonderful evocation of flavors with texture and crunch that's sheer magic.
Sea urchin in a hot and cold vichyssoise is another spectacular dish, with the faintest dusting of black truffle on top. One of my favorites was a long, slender cigarette of absolutely crispy brik (thin pastry) with a strip of eel inside, to dip in creme frache brightened with lime. Two finely pleated soup dumplings in the most fragile wrapper explode in the mouth with the flavors of foie gras and pork. And then there's a soup with Dungeness crab and black truffle custard garnished with faux shark's fin - which are actually gelatinous threads made from the broth - that look exactly like the real thing.
Lee goes against the trend for more casual dining with this high-end restaurant. The food may not be to everyone's tastes. It's more intellectual than lustful, exquisitely balanced and perfectly executed. A fine wine list from sommelier Michael Ireland and a quietly elegant room add up to one of San Francisco's most exciting new fine dining restaurants.