Top Tastes is not a list of all-time favorites, rather its about the best tastes of the last two weeks (since my last newsletter), often from new openings.
NOJO, Hayes Valley (231 Franklin Street at Linden, 415-896-4587, Sun-Mon/Wed-Thu 5-10pm, Fri-Sat 5-11pm) – Amazingly realized in its opening weeks, Nojo stands out in the glut of izakaya openings we’ve been experiencing (we had another a few years ago).
Atmosphere: Hip and buzzing, wood walls and giant, picture windows add to the glow. Artwork is playful and funky (e.g. anime character on the beach with Golden Gate Bridge behind her). It’s engaging but relaxed, particularly sitting at the bar where you have a front-row view of food preparation.
Service is well above average for any mid-range place, attentive and quick to please.
High points: Their silky Chawanmushi (Japanese savory pudding – $12) is laced with Dungeness crab and green garlic. Tsukune ($5.50), a traditional chicken meatball-like skewer is one hunk of tender, juicy meat with egg yolk and soy sauce to dip in (the prior two are among my izakaya favorites, done well here).
Chicken Skin & Prawn Salad ($7) arrives cold, the crackling of the skin contrasting with prawns, carrots, onion and daikon radish. A skewer of chicken breast ($3.75) benefits from herbal/sour notes of shiso and umeboshi (pickled Japanese plums).
The dessert rave from many diners already is their house-made Black Sesame Ice Cream in a Sundae ($7.50) with candied kumquats and peanut thunder crackers. I’ve had black sesame ice cream before and adore its savory notes. I also adore the sour tart of kumquats, but these were so candied in thick syrup that threatened excess sweetness. Peanut thunder crackers are like candied cereal adding crunch and texture.
Low points: Though Bauer raves, the one dish I wasn’t enthused about is their Tempura ($8). Tempura Meyer lemon slices are delightful dipped in a spicy ponzu mayo. But tempurad baby fava beans were hard and somewhat flavorless when I ordered the dish. The tempura batter was less delicate and melt-in-your-mouth than some I’ve had.
Price range: $3.25-$6.25 for mini-skewers, $5.75-$16 for small plates.
ALBONA, North Beach (545 Francisco Street between Mason and Taylor,
415-441-1040; ) – Tucked so far north it’s almost Fisherman’s Wharf is what has long been my Italian favorite in North Beach. It’s not heaping plates of spaghetti or cheesy lasagna that please tourists so. Nor is it rustic Italian, Neapolitan or Roman-style cuisine you can find all over the city.
In fact, Albona Ristorante is inspired by Albona, Istria, a peninsula jutting into the Adriatic Sea between Croatia and Italy. Much of the food feels Italian but there’s a decidedly Eastern European influence, much like at Bar Bambino. But Albona is not following a trend. Rather, since 1988 it has quietly been a superb SF meal.
Though I miss the effusive, dynamic presence of legendary owner (and Albona native), Bruno Viscovi, his executive chef, Samuel Hernandez, continues on with the same exemplary dishes.
Atmosphere: In an intimate dining room with dated, 1980’s feel, service is so smooth, one feels completely cared for. Wine is poured generously, while a team of waitstaff ensure each need is attended to. Old school graciousness reigns here.
High points: Their legendary Chifeleti de Mia Nona con Sugo de Carne al Cumin ($9) is the original owner’s grandmother’s recipe for pan-fried gnocchi. Instead of the pasta-like gnocchi many are familiar with, these, though also made of potato, are airy, fried balls of potato that dissolve in your mouth in a wash of cumin and brown sirloin sauce.
Sardines ($11) are served as I’ve had them in Venezia, Italy: chilled, flaky fish, topped with glazed onions, golden raisins and pine nuts. I adore sardines and welcome the chance to eat them authentically.
A real winner is Braised Sauerkraut/Onions/Apples ($12) wrapped in prosciutto and served with a smoked chicken apple sausage. Germanic tastes dominate this heartwarmer while prosciutto adds the Italian touch.
Strudel con Pasta Fatta ($19) is baked pasta rolls stuffed with prosciutto and lappi cheese in a bechamel/tomato sauce. This one reads the most hearty Italian dish in red sauce and couldn’t be more satisfying. Likewise comforting, a hefty, bone-in Veal Shank ($29) is braised in burgundy wine and rosemary over polenta.
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In prior visits, I was delighted with Pork Loin ($26) stuffed with sauerkraut, prosciutto, apple and plums, and Braised Rabbit ($29) in onions, juniper berries, and a honey/brown sugar/balsamic vinegar glaze. Both highlight the Italian and Eastern European fusion of flavors, which I find ever exciting.
Low points: I’ve not yet had a bad dish here.
Drinks: Wines are generously poured, predominantly Italian, with a nice smattering of Croatian in the mix. I particularly appreciated a starter of Alfred Bertolani Grana Rossa Reggiano Lambrusco ($7.50 a glass), a delightfully dry sparkling red from the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, and a full-bodied yet uniquely complex Croatian 2008 Bibich Riserva 6 ($10 a glass).
Price range: $6-$12 for soups, salads and appetizers; $17-$29 for pastas, risottos and entrees.
MISSION CHEESE, 736 Valencia Street between 18th & 19th, 415-553-8667; Tue-Sun 11am-8pm)
Mission Cheese is my new go-to cheese bar. Wine and cheese is fine at any of a dozen wine bars, but this bar puts cheese, rather than wine, first. Mix-and-match cheese platters in various themes and styles keeps it fun, while hard-to-find Swiss favorites like raclette make an appearance.
But call off the search for one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches in the city with last week’s special of two fabulous cheddars: Dunbarton Blue and Cabot Clothbound smeared with McQuade’s delightful apple and ale chutney (a whole range of the elegant but playful chutneys here).
With soothing dark wood walls, mellow vibe, and moder, Euro feel, a glass of wine and cheese here mid-day feels like vacation.
PAPITO, Potrero Hill (317 Connecticut Street at 18th, 415-695-0147; Mon-Fri 11:30am-10pm, Sat-Sun 10:30am-10pm)
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: some of the best fish tacos are tucked up on quiet Potrero Hill at Papito. Fresh, Negro Modelo beer-battered cod is topped with chipotle remoulade and purple cabbage slaw on homemade tortillas. Among the best fish tacos in the Bay Area.
Equally wonderful? Carnitas de Pato: duck confit carnitas taco with pickles, mint and chipotle tamarind sauce. It’s gourmet yet not fussy.
I’ve tried over half their tacos ($9 for two – mix and match) and all are strong, but these two remain my tops.
Papito is also an under-the-radar, weekend brunch spot, ideal for sipping agave mango margaritas that manage to convey the agave plant essence similar to a blanco tequila.
The space is intimate and the vibe chilled out as you chow down on Huevos Rancheros ($10) topped with two eggs any style or Hamburguesa ($11): beef chorizo laden with caramelized onions, avocado, queso fresco, and chipotle aioli.
OFF THE GRID UPPER HAIGHT; BRASS KNUCKLE & CURBSIDE – I love Off the Grid around the corner from my house on Thursday nights. Lately it’s afforded two kick-ass sandwiches.
The first is Curbside’s Brie Grilled Cheese ($7) in thick, fluffy bread with red onion marmalade. Those accompanying thick cut fries are also rockin’, even as I am a pommes frites girl who usually hates hunks of potato masquerading as fries – these are crispy enough to make it seem as if they’ve been fried more than once. Extra points for an airstream trailer as their home.
The other is Brass Knuckle’s Notorious P.I.G. ($8), basically a Cubano in a folded rosemary waffle. Ham, Swiss, pork, pickles… it’s all here. Brilliant and addictive.