Top Tastes, rather than a list of all-time favorites (another thing altogether), are among the best eats since my last newsletter, often from new openings. Many dont make the cut, being a revisit previously written about or simply not as stand-out as dishes mentioned.
ALEXANDER’S STEAKHOUSE, SoMa – No matter how long I’ve tried to get to Cupertino to this raved about Asian steakhouse, it wasn’t until its recent San Francisco opening (location two) that I finally made it to Alexander’s.
I must give the important caveat that this assessment is based on one visit, as steakhouses are a luxury I can’t afford too often (I’ve been to most in SF, from classic locals like Harris‘ and Alfred’s, to chains like Ruth’s Chris). I am contemplating when I might return to the bar to try more of Jessamine McLellan’s unique cocktails and another round of those Hamachi Shots ($4 each or $22 for six)! Silky hamachi in a glass with avocado, ginger, serrano and lime in a truffled ponzu sauce? The highlight of the menu for me.
In the former Bacar space, the multi-level layout and wine bottle wall were thankfully left intact, with new lighting adding warmth plus an ultra-cool beef bar/chef’s counter where raw slabs of various cuts are on display.
I was impressed not only by relaxed, yet attentive, informed service, but also by the fact that all management and waitstaff are working towards or have a sommelier certification. This shows in the adept skill with which our waiter (not the somm or master somm) selected our wine pairings. They work as a seamless team, each ensuring our comfort, yet never overbearing.
But back to Jessamine’s cocktails (she came from the original Cupertino Alexander’s). A seasonal (and yes, pricey) special, Harvest Moon ($15), is an on-the-rocks cocktail of Casa Noble Anejo, harissa spice syrup, lime, and candied pumpkin seeds. I adore Fall flavors and this mostly works; aged anejo perks up with lime and harissa (slightly more spice would have been fun). It was work scooping out pumpkin seeds, but worth it. The unique Bengal Tiger ($14) almost felt like drinking a healthy fruit and veg juice from Juicy Lucy’s – “healthy” not being what one associates with a cocktail. Charbay Blood Orange Vodka mixes with St. Germain, while a generous amount fresh carrot juice turns the drink a vivid orange, rounded out by earthy elements of grated fresh turmeric and Thai basil.
Green Dragon ($13): lush Square One cucumber vodka didn’t mask the fake candy flavor of Stirrings apple liqueur, though the drink was saved by fresh apple juice, drops of wasabi oil and a rim of black sea salt colliding into a puckery sweet-salty-volcanic earth mixture. Somehow it all works. Coffee and Cigarettes ($12) is dessert: sweet and savory, Knob Creek Bourbon, Cofia (a hazelnut/coffee vodka you’ve heard me rave about before), egg white, black pepper and a hickory smoked salt rim.
I appreciate Jessamine’s vision. While not all cocktails taste as exciting as they sound, all I sampled have thoughtful intention behind them, with a good sense of balance and possibility. I value her culinary approach to cocktails, accentuated by a wine background (she’s also a certified sommelier). There’s more here to try… she is a bartender to watch.
Alexander’s shines on Asian dishes and starters. Beef Sashimi ($16) is a playful maki roll with a “surf and turf” approach, combining crab, cream cheese, avocado, and salsa cruda draped with raw beef, dotted with kazami wasabi cocktail sauce. Oshitashi ($15) is a clean, pure disc of Dungeness crab topped with trout roe, soy ‘pearls’, matsutaki, dried smelt, doused in a consumme tableside. A swipe of creamy sesame paste adds a welcome flavor dimension. Fishy-fresh, it should please Japanese food lovers. Paired with a glass of 2007 Dr. Fischer Riesling, the of-the-sea tastes of the Oshitashi contrast nicely with the wine’s green apple tart, sweetness on the tongue with a mineral finish.
A side of Cauliflower Macaroni Gratin ($12) was not particularly noteworthy, yet comforting nonetheless with a bit of white truffle oil and aged white cheddar (could have used a little more of each). I’m told their Roasted Kabocha Squash ($14) is one of the best sides… next time.
The one misstep, and granted, it’s a big one for a steakhouse, was the 28 oz. Porterhouse Steak. At a whopping $58 it really better be perfect. With sweet black garlic and a rosemary pistou, it held promise. We asked for medium rare but the massive steak came out about a third of it dry, virtually medium-well, the pink remainder more at a medium. We didn’t get juicy tenderness or rich flavor, a travesty when it comes to steak. We told our waiter who graciously offered to take it back and bring out another. Customer service was clearly strong, and they were willing to fix it, but as we’d already been enjoying a leisurely a couple hours (from bar to table), we decided not to wait for another steak. Knowing their reputation for steaks in Cupertino, I’m not sure what happened here, but I certainly have had better.
Moving away from steaks, we also ate a dramatic Liberty Farms Duck Shabu Shabu ($55). There’s duck three ways: lush foie gras chunks, sous vide breast, and crispy confit leg. Vegetables, tofu and dipping sauces make it interactive. While the high price tag may scare away some, it’s unique presentation is a fun, gourmet way to do shabu shabu.
Wine pairings: a 2009 Domaine du Grand Montmirail Reccolte Cote du Rhone was oddly but pleasingly redolent of agave plants, enhancing the steak. A 2006 Les Chaillots Prince Florent de Merode Ladoix had an earthy nose, while on the tongue was tart tannins, berries, even a hint of tropical fruit… lovely with duck.
For dessert, Dark Dimensions ($12), chocolate in various forms from white chocolate popcorn to chocolate malt ice cream, didn’t excite. I’ve certainly had bolder tastes in chocolate desserts even in recent weeks (I tend to pass on milk and white chocolates over earthy darks). My preferred dessert (our waiter’s fine recommendation) was Tropic Thunder ($12). Refreshing and tropical, it’s a melange of vanilla pineapple chutney, rice pudding, coconut rim sabayon, passionfruit pepper sauce, mango sorbet and arare rice cracker. Add in a well-made Equator Coffee espresso and I finished strong.
25 LUSK, SoMa – Opening tomorrow (10/16) off a little alley in SoMa, 25 Lusk is one chic space. Though I have visited twice, this can’t be a proper review as it’s not officially open as I write. I did have a “hard hat” tour and lunch (we ate salad, lamb sirloin, diver scallops, and habanero chocolate mousse cake), then attended a pre-opening party a couple days later.
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The dramatic, multi-level space is designed by none other than Cass Calder Smith. Three ‘fire orbs’ hang from the ceiling for dramatic fireside effect against exposed brick walls and clean, chrome lines, in a subterranean, half-underground lounge that gets a surprising amount of light from massive windows above ground.
It was a meatpacking house nearly a century ago, so there’s intrigue to the historic space, particularly in a hallway alcove behind the downstairs bar (with a window giving you a sneak peek behind the bar). Candlelit and romantic, the brick-walled alcove is cool and quiet, offering a welcome respite for conversation over cocktails or wine. At pre-opening, the bar was doing a fine job on classic Margaritas, Manhattans, (I hear on a) Dark & Stormy, and refreshers like prosecco with St. Germain.
The food was executed with skill at initial events, particularly in passed hors d’oeuvres at the opening party, like smoked salmon and lobster over cucumber or fresh mozzarella and anchovy. On the menu, I look forward to trying such dishes as Grilled Quail ($14) on ginger carrot puree in a black pepper quail demi-glace, or Pacific Halibut ($26) with crispy eggplant, leeks, cockles, and verbena in a ginger beurre blanc.
The CIA-educated owners (one is executive chef, Matthew Dolan, the other GM, Chad Bourbon) long had a vision for just such a place, hiring wine director Cezar Kusik (formerly of Rubicon) and bar consultant Michael Musil (who worked at Farallon and Boulevard). Musil says though they serve classic and modern cocktails, they will be “unfussy and approachable”.
The lounge area downstairs is going to be the latest hotspot, guaranteed, and most likely where I would spend my time, particularly in that alcove.
WAYFARE TAVERN, Financial District – I’ve been to Wayfare Tavern, first right after it opened and again last week, along with a drink visit (had The Leidesdorff – $11; a decent combo of Buffalo Trace bourbon, Benedictine, Royal Combier, orange muscat, lemon, egg white, cinnamon tincture). I have held off commenting, wanting to re-visit and try more dishes first.
Though I would love to move in for the hunting-lodge-meets- Victorian-dining-room decor, service has been agonizingly slow each visit (30 minutes wait with reservations one meal, additional 30 minutes just for dessert another). There’s a lot of dead time here, paired with a high price tag – same menu for lunch.
On top of this, food has been spotty each visit. Some dishes shine, like a starter of plump Grilled Monterey Bay Calamari ($9) in squid ink vinaigrette with breadcrumbs, celery and chili oil. Some are solid, if not memorable, like a classic Steak Tartare ($16 half/$23 whole size). Others plain don’t work, such as Wood Grilled Bratwurst ($23), an uber-salty (and costly) sausage, without the nuance I’m used to even at cheap standard-setters like Rosamunde. One braised mini-apple is not enough contrast for all that salt – with yet more salt from sage gravy (couldn’t taste the sage), potato puree and braised cabbage.
The worst offender is one other critics around town seem to rave about: the Hangtown Fry ($23). I am crazy about oysters and appreciate a good Hangtown Fry, so this was a first choice on my initial visit. Last week I noticed they added a couple more oysters than in early opening weeks, but I’d never think of ordering that dish again: an impossibly massive disc of eggs with barely a trace of the listed Jack cheese, a couple strips of bacon and literally three fried oysters. For $23… at lunch. The oysters were juicy and crispy but I quickly grew weary of endless bites of bland egg, marveling at the cost for so little pay-off. I don’t understand what some critics are tasting to call it Wayfare’s best dish.
Dessert was not worth the additional 30 minutes wait (and, no, we were not told it would take that long, nor does the menu state it), but at least the Baked Alaska ($8), covered in thick, goopy meringue, was the kind I remember from childhood: an ice cream “bombe” layered with three flavors (creamsicle, salted caramel, raspberry), on top of cake, baked in meringue. A number of restaurants have attempted this old school dessert in recent years, yet often it’s merely a bite-sized version or doesn’t have ice cream (it’s not Baked Alaska, in that case). At least their efforts produced what I remember as an actual Baked Alaska.
Tyler Florence seems like a great guy and I was glad to see his gorgeous, chic FiDi restaurant come on the scene. I just wish the food and service matched the setting. Maybe one day it will.
COWGIRL CREAMERY’S SIDEKICK, Embarcadero – One of our country’s greatest cheese sources, Cowgirl Creamery, has done right opening a “cheese bar”, Sidekick, next door to their Ferry Building shop. There are items a cheese lover can get behind, from savory and sweet Gougeres (baked cheese puffs, $3.50) to Indian “Naan” ($4.75), a flatbread stuffed with cave-aged Gruyere.
I’m impressed they serve uncommon Raclette ($6.75-$7.50), a favorite Swiss treat of melted cheese and pickles over either potatoes or toast and tomatoes. Another fun aspect is the Fresh Mozzarella Bar ($8.75-$12.75) where you choose your mozzarella (Ricotta, Fior di Latte, Mozzarella de Bufala, Burrata) on an olive-oil tossed mâche salad mixed with your choice of Heirloom tomatoes & basil, toasted hazelnuts & grilled rosemary, or prosciutto & pickled onions. Add in cheese and egg sandwiches for breakfast and four types of house cream sodas (including an Egg Cream), and you have a welcome addition to the Ferry Building.
TAKOREA (Korean Taco Truck), SoMa – Usually parked outside Bar Basic at nights in SoMa (check their Twitter feed for updates), TaKorea is yet another Korean taco purveyor. I’ve tried most in town, from ones I find just alright (like Kung Fu Tacos), to favorites like John’s Deli and Seoul on Wheels. Consider TaKorea added to the favorites list.
I tried ’em all… at $2 a pop, it’s worth it. Veggie, Chicken and Spicy Pork, all great. The one I’d go back for is sweet/savory Bulgogi Beef. Red with kimchi, and fiery when drizzled with their creamy hot sauce, pickles and veggies round out these delightful little bursts of flavor in a tortilla.