Coming from one who hits virtually every new opening in San Francisco, and is constantly exploring new and established places globally, I weary of the “same old concept”, even as I am engaged by genuine passion no matter the concept.
These two recent previews of restaurants slated to open this summer have me particularly expectant. Both step with a firm foot out the door by filling a niche that has not already been filled and calling on experts in those fields. Rather than open the umpteenth “creative Californian”, upscale comfort food or Neapolitan pizza place, they venture to explore a category in realms yet unsaturated. Earning greater marks, they do this in both food and drink categories.
LA URBANA, Western Addition/Nopa (661 Divisadero Street at Grove)
What once humbly housed Plant It Earth is set to become San Francisco’s sophisticated new temple to Mexican cuisine and mezcal, La Urbana. Founded by entrepreneur Eduardo Rallo and Mexican architect Juan Garduño, their goal is to represent what is happening in the Mexico City dining scene.
Having just returned from Mexico City and Oaxaca myself this spring, I can vouch that we see little of what is reflected in that city’s restaurants in the States. Certainly we boast countless restaurants as chic as in Mexico City, and California has explored “upscale, creative” Mexican cuisine for decades alongside traditional categories. But there’s a current wave happening in Mexico City pushing Mexican food into new territories. There I witnessed seafood-focused restaurants with a Mexico-meets-Japan ethos (taking cues from Peru?), and farm-fresh ingredients given creative sway at restaurants like Quintonil.
Chef Benjamin Klein and chef de cuisine Julio Aguilera have created a menu that strikes into freshly imagined territory. Think a delicate egg, the top cracked off, filled with fluffy egg, potato puree, pickled jalapeno, lime crema, chorizo and topped with chapulines (a fried grasshopper), the latter transporting me straight back to Oaxaca where fried grasshoppers dominate.
There were clean, meaty “La Playa” oysters doused in cucumber serrano froth, and a fried masa huarache topped with tender lengua (beef tongue), mayocoba bean spread, queso fresco, habanero escabeche and spring onion flowers… meaty, flavor-packed, artful. Dessert was no afterthought. All three stood out, particularly a Oaxacan chocolate cremeux in a gourd used for drinking mezcal in remote areas of Oaxaca (as I recently learned up in the Oaxacan mountains). In the gourd, frozen, tart crema is dotted with canela (cinnamon) tuille and puffed rice.
Lucas Ranzuglia oversees the cocktail menu, bringing cocktail experience from his native Buenos Aires, cocktail mecca London, and Mexico.
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His take on a dry martini is Acapulco-Manila, a clean, bracing presentation of mezcal with a simple radish highlighting the mineral mezcal with a vivid pinky-red. The most unusual drink was Mezcal & Cacao, a water-based mix of earthy Oaxacan cacao and mezcal served tall on the rocks, decked out with bright, edible flowers. Refreshing and dry, it’s boozy dessert for those of us who like a savory touch to finish. On the non-alcoholic side, tortilla lemonade or grapefruit-lade are traditional juices that taste intensely of, yes, tortilla. The juices made my mouth immediately water for fresh-fried tortilla chips.
Garduño’s Garduño Arquitectos designed a polished dining room. The 3600-square-foot space will also house La Mezcaleria Urbana, a hardcore mezcal bar with a selection of 40-50 rare mezcals, and Mercado Urbano, a more casual, street food hangout by day and a lounge at night. The dining room and mezcaleria are shooting for a July opening, while the mercado is on track for the fall.
THE COMPANY BAR & KITCHEN, SoMa (133 Steuart St. between Mission & Howard, 415-394-6500)
Despite a rather bland moniker, The Company Bar & Kitchen will be the latest from the Michael Mina Group when it opens (slated for this summer). Two of its great assets are sommelier superstar Rajat Parr and Michael Mina cocktail master Carlo Splendorini. Amy Kim of LA-based AK Design Network (who worked with Philippe Starck on Beverly Hills SLS Hotel) is designing what was formerly Shanghai 1930, an underground, subterranean restaurant that remained an intriguing space over a decade. The space will now include an open kitchen with tandoori ovens, chef’s counter, dining area with communal tables, and bar area with a live botanical bar where customers can infuse their gin.
They take on Raj’s Calcutta roots (what Parr calls “a very personal project”) serving modern-yet-comfortable East India cuisine described as “mid-range” and “fun”. Parr’s mother, who grew up in Delhi, is even consulting on the food. We sampled a Dungeness crab salad lightly spiced with anardana (a subtly sweet/sour spice made of dried pomegranate seeds) on pappadum (a classic, paper thin, Indian “cracker”). The crab was perked up with bits of gold corn, blood orange, pomegranate and a dollop of curry spiced aioli. Glouti kebab stood out: a patty of minced leg of lamb, split pea, yellow lentil, papaya spiced with cardamom.
Parr’s wine expertise will be focused on the mighty Riesling (an endlessly nuanced category and one of my favorite varietals) and Syrah from around the globe, and he plans to serve a House Kolsch alongside other approachable beers.
Splendorini’s cocktails are among the most elegantly nuanced around so I’m eager to see what he will serve at The Company. In the preview, he talked of clean house cocktails heavy on Indian flavors like ras el hanout (spice blend) and kaffir lime. He sampled us on drinks like Fizzy Lifting Drink, a straightforward, sweet mix of Tanqueray 10 gin, Aperol and sencha green tea syrup, or Fix-It Up Chappie, a frothy-soft (with egg white) blend of kaffir lime-infused Bombay Sapphire gin, honey, Meyer lemon and garam masala spices. I appreciated his twist on a classic Blood and Sand cocktail: Blood & Sanskrit. Blood orange juice and Americano Rosso vermouth is given an Indian twist mixed with Amrut Single Malt whisky and Rangpur lime-Fresno chili syrup.