In the midst of the latest, hottest, buzzed about new openings, the greats get forgotten. Whether it’s old school classics like seafood at Tadich Grill, or arguably the best souffles in the US at Cafe Jacqueline, where Jacqueline has dedicated decades to churning out perfect souffles every night, many of our greats keep their steady following yet stay under the radar. Recently, I’ve gone back for East German comfort at Walzwerk, ever impeccable Greek feasts at Kokkari, rounds of crab, garlic bread and chowder at Anchor Oyster Bar, and live – still wriggling on the plate – raw spot prawns at R&G Lounge… all restaurants I’ve been going to since I moved here 13 years ago.
In the meantime, I’ve been returning to more recent greats opened in the last few years, remaining impressed, particularly by these dishes:
STATE BIRD PROVISIONS, Lower Fillmore
Changing the game nationally with its level of dim sum-style, playful creativity
Wow factor abounds at playful-casual, if extremely difficult to get into, State Bird Provisions. There’s usually a few hits every meal but recently it was curry rabbit roti ($20) that made an impact. Warm, floppy Indian roti bread scooped up aromatic curry graced with tender rabbit, black trumpet mushrooms and lentils.
Dessert was equally memorable: piping hot buckwheat bao ($8), a bun with a sugary-cinnamon crust, partnered with a cup of coconut cream and carrot jam dotted with maple pecans. Savory, vegetal and sweet played together harmoniously, a burst of winter joy.
BAR TARTINE, Mission
Setting a national standard for modern Eastern European-influenced fare
Bar Tartine chef Nick Balla keeps expanding the boundaries of what modern Eastern European (strongly influenced by his Hungarian roots) food can be, doing things I’ve yet to see any US chef do with that category. Balla revived the fried bread that haunted my dreams since my travels in the Hungarian countryside in 1999 with his menu mainstay of langos ($12), fried potato flatbread radiant with garlic, sour cream and dill.
That ever remains a highlight but recent visits impressed particularly in the form of a warm square of rice flour-based celery root and scallion cake ($14). Moist and savory, the cake rests atop a spread of nettle puree, given umami complexity under shaved dried tuna flakes and celery leaves.
CONTIGO, Noe Valley
Idyllic modern Spanish, neighborhood dining
I sure miss the years of rolling out my front door on 24th Street and moseying half a block to Contigo for some of the best Spanish food in the city paired with gorgeous, crisp Spanish and Portuguese wines (like a 2012 Raventos i Blanc “La Rosa” pinot noir Rose from Penedes, Spain). Whether those perfect jamon croquetas/fritters ($3) oozing with bechamel sauce, or the ever-comforting, changing coco (flatbreads), like a recent pie laden with broccoli rabe, smoked bacon, spring onions, and manchego cheese ($15), Contigo does it right.
But when the ultimate level (5J) of Spain’s legendary cured ham, Cinco Jotas‘ Jamon Iberico de Bellota ($25), is on the menu, I cannot resist. It’s pricey but the paper thin, pink and white sheets of acorn-fed Spanish heritage “Pata Negra” ham from Jabugo, Spain, melt and dissolve on the tongue like the finest of silk… if silk were succulent and meaty.
Raising Argentinian steakhouse stakes (no pun intended)
Granted, there’s not a ton of competition in the Argentinian dining category, but of Argentinian restaurants I’ve been to anywhere, Lolinda nails it. Yes, crowds reach a deafening roar in the dramatic, chic dining room and I recently experienced a frustrating wait even with a reservation, but each dish that arrives is downright delicious, from traditional beef, egg and raisin empanadas ($7) where the pastry shell is no throwaway, to those juicy steaks, appropriately charred on the outside, rare on the inside, like the a 13 oz. New York steak ($29) with lively chimichurri sauce, a staple of Argentina steak culture.
But I’m all about their exceptional ceviche ($14), often in the options of octopus or silky, sashimi-like ono tossed in bright lime with aji amarillo peppers, sweet potato and fried corn in fritter-like form. The texture contrast and impeccable freshness only enhances the vibrant flavor of a standout in a city where it’s not difficult to find good ceviche.
ROKA AKOR, North Beach
Catering to a wide range of diners with impeccable sushi & robata
Chain aspect aside, Roka Akor has acclimated to San Francisco quite well. They’ve done so with professional service, impeccable sushi and sashimi and robata grill dishes in an area that reaches everyone from tourists to the FiDi (Financial District) business set.
Their sashimi selection ($34/$46) is impressive in presentation and freshness, while their rolls/maki are above average, appropriately delicate rather than fried or heavy with sauce. At lunch, ubiquitous miso black cod arrives in unique form – on skewers ($18 with salad), while cocktails utilize Japanese herbs, citrus and flavors to partner with dishes.
On my most recent visit (after a couple lunches here, I love it for lunch, though there’s also that appealingly dim, underground bar), I was surprised to be most taken with a new vegetarian maki ($11.50). What sounded absolutely typical, a light roll of ever-so-softly fried avocado and asparagus, weaves with Japanese herbs, sprinkled artfully with edible flowers – a statement veggie roll, if there ever was one.