Top Tastes

Five decades of Highland Park with cheese, Mexican coconut buns, two new Middle Eastern restaurants, Hobbs bacon
“tato tots”, buttermilk Vidalia onion rings

Top Tastes, rather than a list of all-time favorites (another thing altogether), is highlights of the best things I’ve been eating since my last newsletter, often from new openings. Many don’t make the cut, being a revisit previously written about or simply not as stand-out as dishes mentioned.


Brilliant cheese pairings at Highland Park tasting in Bourbon & Branch's Russell's Room

At an unbelievable Highland Park 1968 Vintage Tasting on 2/17 (see Imbiber), Will Edwards of SF Cheese School, led us through a cheese pairing with five HP scotches. It didn’t always sound like it would work, but it did. All five cheeses were thrilling, from a gorgeous, balanced Abbaye de Belloc, produced by Benedictine monks, to the brilliant butterscotch of Saenkanter Gouda. Who could choose favorites among such uniquely different cheeses? I couldn’t believe the grainy, melt-in-your-mouth intensity of a goat’s milk Bleu du Bocage… surprisingly, it did not overpower HP’s 25-year scotch. Isle of Mull Cheddar (from Scotland, naturally), is a memorable ivory-colored cheddar made from happy cows who’ve been ingesting spent whiskey grain. If this is an example of the wide-reaching range of cheeses Wil can lead you through, I’d sign up for one of his classes at the Cheese School now.


There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in humble little Mexican panaderia, King’s Bakery, when 7×7 added their Coconut Buns to Big Eat SF 2010. Sprinkled with sesame seeds, the slightly sour/savory roll is stuffed with sticky, sweet coconut. Bliss for 50 cents.

Middle Eastern respite at Tuba

A Middle Eastern dinner at brand new Tuba on the corner of Guerrero and 22nd is a soothing experience. They may not have a liquor license yet and there are a few service kinks (well-intentioned, as it is), but the space is warm, red, with bejeweled pillows, mellow music, and enchanting window-side seating. Food is fresh and appealing, stronger than many a similar Middle Eastern/Mediterranean spot. Love Esma ($6), a spread shaped in two round dollops, loaded with tomato and red pepper paste, walnuts, ideal with the warm, sesame-dusted bread you’re given at the outset. Icli Kofte ($7) is among the better versions of  ground beef in bulgur wheat (puff pastry-like) I’ve had, improved by a light sour cream-like sauce underneath.
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The Middle Eastern neighborhood restaurant trend continues with brand new Yemeni’s in Polk Gulch/Tendernob area. Half the menu isn’t yet available, it seems, but the owner and staff are sweethearts, and the food (baba ghannouj, warm from the oven Yemen bread, and a strip steak/hummus dish) were all fresh, flavorful and cheap. You can fill up for under $10.


Urban Tavern's Petrale Sole

Under the same striking horse sculpture made of car, tractor and motorcycle parts, there’s a new chef at Urban Tavern, a conveniently located restaurant that could be a ‘go to’ when in Union Square. I enjoyed dinner there back when it first opened but a subsequent visit to the bar hinted at a decline in food and cocktail quality. Enter new exec chef, Colin Duggan, and my latest visit. While good times can be had at the bar with Hobbs Bacon “Tato Tots” ($5) or Warm Gruyere Cheese Puffs ($5) and their fine Maple Bourbon Sour ($11), I was pleasantly surprised to find that my decent starters were clearly outshone by the entrees.

PB Cup at Urban Tavern

I’m still reflecting on the fall-apart, meaty tenderness of Braised Beef Short Ribs ($22), a generous dish cooked in red wine, fresh horseradish grated on top with sides of potato puree, green beans, carrots. Paired with a glass of ’06 Obsidian Ridge Cab ($13), it was a velvety mix of richness and a perfect Winter meal. Nearly as exciting was the Fish Du Jour ($22), an artistic presentation of Petrale Sole over a leek/garlic/white wine puree, jauntily accented by bits of chorizo sausage, artichokes and potatoes. I have zero complaints about the ‘PB Cup’ ($9) for dessert, with a crispy sea salt brittle and caramel gelato. Five hours of free parking (call them for instructions) only seals the deal… I’m eager to try the new lunch menu next: maybe a dip sandwich (prime rib, lamb or turkey) or a Spicy Caggiano Beer Sausage?

Buttermilk Vidalia Onion Rings & Deviled Eggs at Trademark

A weekday getaway lunch on Belden Lane brings the usual, welcome European feel. Trademark is the newer kid on the alley, taking a more old-school American approach with a steak and oyster menu – and another place to ingest Joanna’s amazing Meetinghouse Biscuits. I’ve never been blown away by a Belden Alley restaurant, but there’s a certain comfort when I sit amongst business lunch-ers, European expats, and sweet older gentleman with Fedoras eating beef brisket solo. I couldn’t help but befriend a side of Buttermilk Vidalia Onion Rings ($5). A mix of of endive, grapes, walnuts, gorgonzola, and spicy maple vinaigrette in Celery Root & Fuji Apple Salad ($10), bordered on too sweet but for the occasional balance brought by the gorgonzola (more of that would have helped nicely). Dungeness Crab Three Cheese Melt ($16) is a pricey sandwich, but it’s a  filling one, loaded with warm crab meat, melted Colby cheddar, Pt. Reyes Blue and pepper jack, served with coleslaw and fries. Finish off with espresso and listen to the old guys next to you rant about the weather and politics.