Here are my top 10 June dishes and new openings, some newcomers, some established spots.
1. Saison’s Special Nigiri Menu
Joshua Skenes’ Saison is known the world over for endless accolades and some of the priciest meals in the nation. Now, there is a restaurant-within-a-restaurant, a hidden dining room that is a collaboration between Skenes and Chef Jiro Lin. Lin was a guest chef at Saison’s Chef’s Table back in April and the dinner was such a hit, they launched a changing tasting menu in this separate room at the end of May, one that recalls the best of Tokyo and Kyoto.
Hidden in an intimate, modern room with merely 8 seats, the meal starts off with Kyoto-esque, seasonal kaiseki artfulness, then moves on to 17 courses of nigiri perfection, recalling my unreal sushi experiences in Tokyo. Details about the meal in my Zagat feature this week (stay tuned for a restaurant launch once Skenes and Lin find a location).
There is one stellar course after another, whether Saison’s reserve caviar smeared over warm, salty Parker House rolls or kaiseki-style (transporting straight to Kyoto) cooked courses, like stunning Monterey red abalone wrapped in artichoke leaves. But it’s the 17 courses of nigiri that Lin turns out, one after the other, that make me feel as if I’ve been whisked away to Tokyo for a couple hours… best eaten by hand in one bite (and, of course, no soy sauce). Impeccable and pristine, the quality of the rice and the fish is equal to some of best sushi in Japan, moving from needlefish to Alaskan king crab, bafun uni to baby mackerel. It’s easy here — as it is in Japan — to notice the difference from typical sushi restaurants in the perfection of rice, fish and execution.
2. Tony’s Slice House‘s St. George Pizza
Open in late April (launching pizza brunch early June), Tony Gemignani’s Slice House opened near the ballpark in a lofty, brick-walled space I’ve long loved. I cover a number of standout red sauce dishes and pizzas here in my Zagat feature but my favorite new pie specific to this location is the St. George pizza. The menu here focuses on 13-inch oval, ancient-grain pizzas ($22 each). This one is loaded with whole roasted garlic cloves, linguisa sausage, caramelized onions, agave nectar, green onion and crushed red pepper over mozzarella and Manchego cheese with a heavy dose of savory-sweet, NY/NJ-reminiscent tomato sauce splashed across the pie like artwork. It’s a slice of red sauce heaven.
3. 1601’s Lobster Fricassee
I loved 1601 Bar & Kitchen from the beginning for its intriguing Sri Lankan-influenced dishes — a blessedly unique menu. As the restaurant turns two years old, chef-owner Brian Fernando launched a revamped menu on June 5th, still featuring their ever-popular egg “hopper” but with what Fernando feels is a more realized menu than ever before. Via small, delicate plates, his unique viewpoint comes through with cohesion and focus. On the new menu, I love Chesapeake Bay soft-shell crab kottu roti (roti being a traditional Sri Lankan melange of vegetables, meat and egg). But my initial favorite was a bright and breezy lobster fricassee with barley, English peas and spring onion achcharu (Sri Lankan pickles) in a lemongrass, ginger, coconut oil broth.
4. Lord Stanley’s Beef Tartare
Here is my in-depth Zagat look at brand new Lord Stanley, from husband/wife duo, Rupert and Carrie Blease, on Nob Hill. In the small, clean white space, I could almost call tiny pickled onion “petals” cupping sherry vinegar foam my favorite initial bite (pictured below). But for the sake of listing something more substantial, the overdone category of beef tartare ($17) is anything but tired here where tender, raw beef is perked up with seaweed, cucumber and a crispy, long nori (seaweed) cracker to scoop it up.
5. Jersey’s Bianca Pizza
While Jersey’s Trenton Tomato Pie placed #1 on my March list of top dishes and openings, I couldn’t resist adding their Bianca or white pizza ($20) after my recent revisit. While I prefer the tomato pie (hearkening to my youthful Jersey days), the Bianca nails it when it comes to what can sometimes be the dry or even boring category of white pizza. Fluffy, savory onion crema and lemon ricotta melt like butter over mozzarella and cresenza cheeses with a drizzle of truffle oil adding savory layers.
6. All Spice’s Aab-e-gosht
With a second location of their Michelin-starred San Mateo restaurant opening in SF in March, husband-wife owners Sachin Chopra and Shoshana Wolff transformed the short-lived Game into All Spice in the former Masa’s space (thankfully keeping Game’s awesome antler head and painting over the bar). I cover the opening in greater detail in my Zagat feature. My top initial dish is a classic from Chef Chopra at their original South Bay location. Aab-e-gosht ($28) boasts Persian roots with tender wild boar in Persian curry laden with almonds and cardamom. It’s comforting and ridiculously good when dipping fried rosemary olive potato bread into the curry.
7. Tigerlily’s Tikka Masala Fried Chicken and Red Beet Naan
Tigerlily opened in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto (near Chez Panisse) in January 2015, a hip, relaxed spot serving modern Indian fare from executive chef Joel Lamica (formerly of Bix, Nojo, Oakland’s Ramen Shop) paired with refreshing cocktails. While not every dish worked for me (like the oddly flat tandoori octopus and yellow watermelon), I found the Tikka Masala fried chicken ($24) an all-around crowd-pleaser. Tender, crispy chicken is marinated in turmeric, chili and buttermilk, served with green beans, crème fraiche mash and sungold tomatoes, but it’s a ceramic carafe of lush tikka masala sauce to pour over the chicken that kills it. If only every chicken tikka masala tasted this good.
While you’re at it, don’t miss their hummus two ways ($8), namely for warm red beet naan, dipped in intriguing squid ink hummus and spicy hummus with cilantro oil.
8. Farmhouse Kitchen’s Kai Yang
Farmhouse Kitchen‘s sleek, modern space is a welcome new Thai addition to the city, soft opening at the end of May. While I find the same owners’ other modern Thai restaurants (Kitchen Story, Blackwood) somewhat mediocre, Farmhouse feels a bit more promising right off the bat. The sunny, roomy space certainly is a nice change of pace from countless Thai hole-in-the-walls. The dish presentation is more in line with Hawker Fare a number of blocks away, all bright colors and dramatic, recalling Thai street food, heavy on grilled meats.
Of the initial dishes I tried, kai yang stood out. Grilled half BBQ Chicken ($16), marinated in turmeric and coconut milk, is served with black sweet sticky rice properly served in a basket as in Thailand, with a side of som tum (papaya salad) and sweet plum sauce. As with true Thai street food, the meat and rice is best eaten by hand — and quite messy.
9. Aveline’s Asparagus Hummus
Upheaval has been the first year standard at Aveline with creative, Napa-based chef Casey Thompson (formerly of Top Chef and Dallas’ Shinsei) leaving just a few months post-opening. Thompson’s divine crab macarons remain but now under new executive chef Kaley Laird, who was the former pastry chef. She took on the exec chef role in June, the macarons are the one thing remaining from the former menu. Laird has taken a page from Thompson’s book, combining a similar style of imaginative, savory-sweet dishes, if not yet to perfected results (as with blackened avocado with strawberry sofrito, pistachio pesto, which sounded better than it tasted). A shining initial starter is asparagus hummus ($15), marked by stalks of grilled asparagus, pickled blackberries and barrel aged feta in lightly-fried cubes, tasting of summer with the a welcome range of flavor contrasts and textures.
10. Naschmarkt’s Salzburger Knockerl
While I found the savory dishes hit-and-miss at Naschmarkt down in the charming town of Campbell just south of San Jose, I am more than happy there is a mid-range Austrian-centric restaurant like this around. Austrian-born chef Matthias Froeschl has cooked at venerable places like NYC’s upscale Austrian destination, Wallse. Austrian classics like wiener schnitzel are strongest but I was most happy to see Salzburg dessert great, Salzburger Knockerl, on the menu, which I discovered during my second visit to that fairytale of a city (more on my Austria travels here). The souffle-like dessert arrives warm & fluffy, doused in warm berry sauce. Froeschl’s version ($10 – the only I’ve seen on the West Coast) is tart with blueberry sauce and a scoop of Greek yogurt ice cream, cool-ly contrasting with the warm folds of meringue.