Top 7 Dishes (+ Top 2 Openings) of January

Californios' vegetable course
Californios’ vegetable course
Fried oysters topped with beef carpaccio at Liholiho Yacht Club
Fried oysters topped with beef carpaccio at Liholiho Yacht Club

New Chefs, New Menus

My Zagat take on new menus from brand new chefs at Gather in Berkeley and Marla Bakery in SF.

New Openings of the Month

Marla Bakery
Marla Bakery

Starting the new year off with a bang, there is a lot of promise at Californios (initial Zagat First Look here), a creative, high end-but-reasonably-priced tasting menu with Mexican influences in an intimate, elegant space.

Highly-anticipated Liholiho Yacht Club opened just a few days ago (my early look at Zagat here) and is a hip, refined mid-range space with food influenced by Hawaii and Asia.

Top 7 Dishes of the Month

Liholiho squid salad
Liholiho squid salad

1. Liholiho Squid Salad

During opening week at Ravi Kapur and the Nopa team’s brand new restaurant, Liholiho Yacht Club, I was most wowed by the marinated squid ($16.25). This is no typical squid dish. Here, squid is buried beneath crispy strips of tripe, slivers of cabbage, peanuts, fried shallots and mint in a light, bright dish that recalls Vietnam with forward-thinking vision. It’s lush with paper-thin fried tripe and intense flavor but ultimately feels healthy and refreshing.

SPQR chestnut tortelli
SPQR chestnut tortelli

2. SPQR Chestnut Yam Tortelli

Matthew Accarrino is one of our country’s greats when it comes to pasta. His menu at SPQR remains among the most creative pasta menus in the US (his cookbook here). One of his stellar standbys is a unique mustard cappellini in guinea hen ragout ($26) that evokes Austria — even Alsace — with savory cabbage and French Mimolette cheese. On a different side of the palate, during my recent visit I loved the earthy-sweet notes of chestnut and garnet yam tortelli ($26) in a tart cherry verjus with dried cherries, sage and luxurious brown butter.

Hapa Ramen
Hapa Ramen shaking beef tenderloin

3. Hapa Ramen Shaking Beef Tenderloin & Seafood Garlic Fried Rice

Back again at Hapa Ramen a few weeks in — since it opened in November — I tasted the remaining cocktails I hadn’t yet tried and new dishes from Richie Nakano’s ever-changing menu. I loved the hearty-yet-healthy take on shaved Brussels sprouts ($9). A mountain of fresh Brussels leaves, pomegranate, smoked enoki mushrooms and egg yolk in sherry vinaigrette was formed into a rectangle mound and given a decadent touch with a smattering of fried Brussels sprout leaves on top. But my favorite on the recent menu was tender shaking beef tenderloin packed in a bowl with scallops, calamari and shrimp over garlic fried rice with a soft egg ($13). A squeeze of lime brought it together, a comforting dish packed with flavor.

Manos Nouveau ceviche
Manos Nouveau ceviche

4. Manos Nouveau Tartare Ceviche

I loved Manos Mouveau’s unique tartare ceviche in the restaurant’s early days last year in a humble Mission space that was recently transformed to Californios. Manos has moved to a chic, new Castro location, spread over two stories with views of passing streetcars and vibrant local art on the walls (a photo of the downstairs dining room below). Visiting their new, more realized space, the ahi tartare ceviche ($13) is still the menu standout. Part Peruvian and Mexican ceviche, part French tartare, the ahi does not sit in a citrus broth (leche de tigre) but is more like a French tartare, creamy with chef Gualberto Nic Camara’s non-mayo aioli. The ceviche is bright with aji amarillo peppers, red onion, sea salt and lime, atop sliced avocado and scooped up with house plantain chips.

Gather's Brussels sprouts
Gather’s Brussels sprouts

5. Gather Brussels Sprouts

Berkeley’s organic-chic destination, Gather, recently gained new executive chef Charis Wahl, formerly the chef de cuisine, cooking there since 2009 with founding chef Sean Baker, who just left (the story here at Eater). Brussels sprouts are so 10 years ago, but not chef Wahl’s version. She grills the Brussels sprouts, tossing them with fermented jalapeño, pickled radishes and cilantro, partnered with a smear of cashew butter as good as any peanut butter.

Burmese Kitchen
Burmese Kitchen tamarind leaf salad

6. Burmese Kitchen Tamarind Leaf Salad

I’ve long visited divey Burmese Kitchen when it was in its humble Civic Center space. Now that it has just moved to Outer Richmond (in the space that housed one of my Korean faves, To Hyang), the menu is even longer and is a comfortable, affordable meal. All the usual Burmese classics are here, like tea leaf salad. Better yet are hard-to-find Burmese offerings, like makyee ywat thok (tamarind leaf salad – $9.50), a unique, piquant salad of young tamarind leaves, onion, crushed peanuts and sesame seeds. One of my favorites at the original location thankfully makes it to this menu: ong noh kau swel (coconut chicken soup – $9.50), a soothing bowl of egg noodles and diced chicken in coconut broth, contrasted by fried split peas and slices of hard boiled egg.

Rintaro's Yaki Onigiri
Rintaro’s Yaki Onigiri

7. Rintaro’s Yaki Onigiri

Though Rintaro‘s dreamy space (formerly the also enchanting Chez Spencer) transported me straight back to Kyoto — and is maybe the most beautiful izakaya in the Bay Area with its rustic woods and magical front stone garden, the food is unfortunately uneven, at least in early months. While miniscule yakitori (chicken skewers of varying parts) were sad and tiny and fish dishes are pleasant but not memorable, surprisingly, vegetarian bites stand out. Kabocha korokke (2 for $9.75), or curry kabocha croquettes, are warm and lush, while a simple yaki onigiri (grilled rice ball – $5.25 for 1) is just like the great onigiri snacks I enjoyed in Japan: the rice a perfect texture, toasty from being grilled and partnered with house umeboshi (Japanese salt plums) and shibazuke pickles.

Manos Nouveau's inviting new location in the Castro
Manos Nouveau’s inviting new location in the Castro