TBD, SoMa (1077 Mission Street between 6th & 7th, 415-431-1826)
Yes, TBD is my top new San Francisco restaurant opening of 2013. AQ Chef Mark Liberman – here with Sous Chef Alex Phaneuf – has don it again with imaginative dishes that comfort without copying anyone. They forge flavor trails, inciting anticipation for what might arrive next.
In a setting casually aflame with hearthfire, TBD’s menu is marked by open flame. Hearth-cooked, ember-inflected dishes are certainly a trend right now, whether Hi Lo‘s fire-infused dishes well beyond merely BBQ, to Saison’s surreal flame-touched menu.
After a few visits since TBD opened in November 2013, there have been numerous standout, even stellar, dishes. The menu is grouped by raw, smoked, hearth+embers, grill, plancha, sweet, with four pricing categories: $6, 12, 18, 24. A custom-built hearth roars, keeping the room (and diners sitting in front of it) more than toasty-warm. Besides the open flame, a Grillworks® grill is the only means of cooking. Every dish reflects a little something of the embers, even in smoke-tinged raw dishes.
Though dining at various tables or along the bar, in all my visits I’ve yet to sit upstairs on the mezzanine looking down. Clean lines and pinewood tables with Swiss flag emblems evoke a modern alpine, hipster restaurant, while stacks of logs, camping gear (like Dietz Lanterns, plaid thermoses, vintage ice chests, hunting paraphernalia), tastefully-placed antlers and taxidermy contribute to theme but aren’t overdone.
Drinks stand subtly behind the food, not outshining, offering a little something for all. Bar Manager Tim Zohn created what he cheekily dubs “loopholes” ($11; oft-called low alcohol cocktails, made with sherry, amaro, beer, vermouth and other fortified wines), while managing an extensive sherry list, and strong beer selection with over 20 on draft. The wine list, curated by Beverage Director Kristen Capella, focuses on Rhône varietals and small, progressive producers.
Zohn brings about flavor profiles found in hard alcohol in the case of drinks like a Vive Vive Vive, where gin botanicals, star anise and juniper, are infused in sherry mixed with Lillet Blanc and lemon. The bitter-sweet perfection of a classic Negroni is achieved in a Nogroni, stirring sweet vermouth and Peychaud’s bitters with juniper-infused fino sherry. I am drawn toward the vegetal notes and bitter complexity of Cut Stalk (Kina L’Avion d’Or, dry vermouth, amontillado sherry and celery bitters), or as an egg cream fanatic, to the SF Egg Cream combining chocolate milk and soda water with a sweet sherry base. I happily make a Pumpkin Float dessert where meaty Shipyard Pumpkinhead ale is poured over creamy pumpkin soft-serve (house soft-serve flavors change regularly).
1. UNI, POTATO, JALAPENO
Oh, that uni. This is the kind of dish ($18) that haunts my dreams. Silky, of-the-sea sea urchin is draped over dry-farmed purple and brown potatoes. Think of it as earthy comfort meets briny luxury. If that wasn’t a brilliant enough as a duo, it’s brightly hot in a jalapeno and scallion sauce that sends the dish into the stratosphere.
2. PLANCHA-ROASTED CARROTS
Grilled heirloom carrots ($12) can shine when cooked properly… and when carrots are of the freshest quality. These are. But lay these charred carrots over a bed of lentils tossed in brown butter and caramelized passion fruit sauce, dotted with sesame seeds, and it’s a bit of heaven. If I’d had any idea as a kid that carrots could be this surreal, I might have converted sooner.
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S’mores are trending again at the moment on menus like Hi Lo and beyond (for years, I’ve been partial to the s’mores nachos Velvet Cantina). But there’s no question the best version I’ve had is at TBD ($12). That hearthfire char on mounds of marshmallow, feathery, salty graham cracker crumbs, and an intense chocolate spread laced with chicory, makes for an ultra-smoky, textured dessert I’m entirely in love with.
4. GULF SHRIMP with Black Garlic & Avocado
Giant Gulf shrimp ($24) are juicy and plump in their shells, graced with smokefire crisp. This is my favorite entree or large plate in my initial few visits. The shrimp perch over long, grilled sweet potatoes, but it’s the unexpected notes of avocado in guacamole-esque dollops and an earthy smear of black garlic that surprise and bring it together.
5. BROCCOLI HUMMUS & SARDINES
It’s amazing the creativity in a $6 plate.
Broccoli hummus ($6) is one of TBD’s small plates, where a fresh pool of hummus cradles roasted chestnuts, silky-salty sardines, and, thank God, a dose of bacon. It’s both green and healthy as well as salty, briny and textured.
Not every dish over multiple visits won my ardent loyalty. But even the few that didn’t excite were thankfully never typical, like a traditional mix of beef, Asian pear tartare, quail egg yolk ($12) made intriguing with a sauce of beer, mustard and cheddar, but tasting muddled and unfocused. Yet generally even an amuse bouche has me longing for it to be a dish, as with a cube of sweet potato topped with sour cream, black caviar and nutmeg.
Choosing five best dishes in merely two months was difficult, especially with many visionary and impressive early dishes – confirming why TBD is among SF’s best new restaurants. A few other greats? Grilled Venezuelan and Columbian arepas ($6) – maize patties – get a twist filled with aged jack cheese and topped with maitake mushrooms.
Here, grilled leeks ($12) – a favorite vegetable of mine – are doused in an oyster “verde” salsa and buttermilk drizzle to dreamy results. Likewise, subtly-smoked, cured wild salmon – or on my third visit, cured rainbow trout ($12) – piled over a rye waffle accented by dill and juicy salmon roe is an almost intellectual delight, a melding of Jewish-style lox and rye, and Eastern European and Russian notes of dill, sour cream, and caviar/roe.