My Top 7 February Dishes & 3 New Restaurants

Mourad’s duck liver

New Chefs, New Menus, New Openings

Shizen Vegan Sushi Bar
Shizen Vegan Sushi Bar

February has rushed right past in a blur. And with it, three openings of note. Mourad opened in the last couple days of January so I am including it among February’s top openings: my Zagat feature article on Mourad here. AL’s Place, from a chef whose cooking I’ve long missed, opened early in the month and is thus far my favorite opening of the year — my First Look Zagat feature here. Thirdly, James Syhabout’s new Hawker Fare — another tail end of Jan. opening — is (thankfully) far different from what I’ve long found the mediocre Oakland location (more on the most transporting dish below).

Shizen Vegan Sushi Bar & Izakaya opened early January, but it’s in Feb. that I stopped in a couple times, despite being initially nonplussed by the vegan “sushi” moniker. Though there is no fish and rolls are still expensive (many are $13 each), these are artfully done, creative vegetable rolls and dishes that add dimension and elegance to vegan offerings in town (think beet, faux crab, kale, avocado, yuba roll). Izakaya vegetable dishes are flavorful and gratifying and the space’s clean woods are simultaneously rustic and chic.

In terms of new chefs and new menus, here’s more on Boxing Room’s new food menu and first cocktail bar in my Zagat article,  as well as highlights from the new chef at Florio and the latest menu at Frances.

AL's Place black cod in sunchoke curry
AL’s Place black cod in sunchoke curry

Top 7 Dishes of the Month

1. AL’s Place’s Black Cod in Sunchoke Curry

I’ve missed Aaron London’s cooking since Ubuntu days in Napa. All the national acclaim he received during that time was confirmed again upon my first visit to his new SF restaurant, AL’s Place, in the Mission. While there are many highlights, a dish of torn bits of black cod ($17) roasted with black lime powder is a revelation. Bright wedges of grapefruit and slivers of kumquat surround the cod, while an earthy sunchoke curry, lively with kaffir lime, pops and sings, making an unforgettable impression. More on a range of standout dishes and drinks during opening week at AL’s Place in my Zagat First Look here.

Mourad's smoked brioche with caviar
Mourad’s smoked brioche with caviar

2. Mourad’s Caviar Brioche and Duck Liver

At Mourad Lahlou’s chic new Mourad, there are a few “wow” moments and I have narrowed them down to three. On the pricey ($150) but memorable tasting menu, Caspian caviar on a smoked brioche accented by maple and marcona almonds (and brilliantly paired with sake) is a briny, buttery, smoky, sweet thrill. Also on the tasting menu, applewood-smoked ?ra king salmon (the “kobe” of salmon) is stunning in a Meyer lemon glaze, accompanied by pickled cucumber, dill, potato, cranberry and mussels cream. On the regular menu, the duck liver ($20 – pictured top) is a showstopper and could easily be dessert. Duck liver artfully and delicately melds with layers of pistachio genoise, dark chocolate, turnip and bright satsumas. More on Mourad highlights from the tasting menu and regular menu in my Zagat feature here.

Hawker Fare pork
Hawker Fare pork shoulder chops

3. Hawker Fare Moo Yang (BBQ Pork Shoulder Chops)

While I like Michelin-starred Commis, James Syhabout’s Hawker Fare in Oakland had disappointed me from day one (as did his short-lived Box & Bells), although I hear Hawker Oakland has updated in line with the new SF locale. But the new Hawker Fare in SF, while certainly with uneven moments/dishes, is a different story. The festive air, brightly covered communal tables, strung white lights, pressed tin “roof” over the bar and kitschy albums and wall artwork (Elvis in Thai!) immediately charm.

Highlights center in the ahhaan ping/yang (grilled) section of the menu, transporting me straight back to my months in Thailand over a decade ago, eating grilled meats and sticky rice with my hands — as the locals do — streetside under pressed tin roofs in open air restaurants. Syhabout’s team encourages eating with your hands and he and chef de cuisine Supasit “O” Puttkaew have nailed the grilled meats, particularly Moo Yang (no dish is over $16). While the BBQ pork shoulder chops may not look like much, the tender texture and vibrant flavor are pure Thailand. Marinated in Thai whisky, white pepper, coriander root and garlic, the meat tastes fantastic, and is authentically served with nam jaew (a spicy chili dipping sauce) and sticky rice, appropriately served warm inside a plastic bag in a mini-bamboo basket. Pair with Thai beer or Thai mekhong whisky, or better yet, house cocktails — start or finish the night at hidden upstairs bar, Holy Mountain. More on Holy Mountain and Hawker cocktails here.

Florio's tagliolini & meatballs
Florio’s tagliolini & meatballs

4. Florio’s Tagliolini & Meatballs

Florio has long been a Fillmore neighborhood favorite for French bistro classics and Italian comfort dishes. Looking like a movie set bistro, its dark wood exterior and brightly-colored awning has always had a romance to it. Though the space called to me, the food hasn’t for a long while. Now, with new executive chef Colin Dewey, who just came on in the last few weeks, there is a fresh focus to the food, leaning decidedly Italian (more on his menu in my Zagat article). It’s his handmade pastas that steal the show, rustic and classic, gratifying and elegant. It’s hard to choose one and I cover a few here, but if I had to, it’s meatballs ($14/19) with house made tagliolini pasta in a perfect marinara sauce and grated Grana Padano cheese — with a glass of Chianti Classico — that truly comfort the Sicilian in me.

Frances' cauliflower fennel soup
Frances’ cauliflower fennel soup

5. Frances’s Roasted Cauliflower & Fennel Soup

It is rare that a soup is my favorite dish in a dinner and it’s a skilled hand that makes it so. Nod to Melissa Perello at Frances and the current offering of roasted cauliflower fennel soup ($10). Flawlessly pureed cauliflower and fennel gains earthy layers from black garlic, crisp leeks and pistachio dukkah (an Egyptian condiment of herbs, nuts, spices). Add on a side of Frances’ signature applewood smoked bacon beignets ($5) dipped in maple chive crème fraîche, which taste as fantastic as the day Frances opened.

Alembic's "Gnocchi"
Alembic’s “Gnocchi”

6. The Alembic’s Gulf Prawn “Gnocchi”

There are a number of new menu additions from talented chef Ted Fleury at The Alembic. I’m crazy about the sweetbreads ($16) accented by kumquat, tonnato and Thai basil or comforted by charred broccoli di ciccio ($14) over burrata, marked by Calabrian chili jam and uni bottarga (yes, sea urchin bottarga!) But creative points go to Gulf prawn “gnocchi” ($16), mimicking that pillow-y potato pasta in texture but made from scallops & prawns. These seafood “dumplings” partner happily with fennel, carrots and sunchoke in a spicy prawn emulsion.

Boxing Room's Taste of the Swamp
Boxing Room’s Taste of the Swamp

7. Boxing Room’s “Taste of the Swamp”

From the day it opened, I appreciated the authentic New Orleans leanings of chef Justin Simoneaux’s cooking at Boxing Room, as well as the craft beer and wine list. But the thing missing was classic Nola cocktails. No more. And with the addition of the new bar, there is also an updated food menu with highlights that include Oysters Simoneaux (more on that here). The most playful — and comprehensive — new menu addition is “Taste of the Swamp” ($18.50), a delightful journey to New Orleans via some of its classic greats: turtle soup and alligator sauce piquant centered by a mini pile of fried frogs’ legs. More on the food and brand new cocktail program in my First Look at Zagat here.

Hawker Fare SF
Hawker Fare SF