In addition to plates from the Mugaritz chef from Spain cooking at Coi for one night only, here are my top 10 July dishes and new openings, some newcomers, some established spots.
1. Omakase’s Omakase
Just open in June, Omakase is another in that blessedly growing category of Japan-esque sushi experiences in SF: tasting menus prepared with reverent precision, heavy on nigiri courses. But chef Jackson Yu boasts more than proper technique and impeccable fish sourced from the one and only Tsukiji Fish Market (my recent visit to the famed Tokyo market with sushi chef Ken Tominaga here). Yu engages diners, who all sit at the 14-seat sushi bar (no tables), where he explains each course or fish, hand-grating fresh (real) wasabi, educating those interested in knowing more about the art of sushi.
Three pricing options ($100/$150/$200) are reasonable for excellent omakase dinners and sushi done Edomae-style. The highlights are many, whether a subtle squid ink fish cake with eel near the beginning of the meal or pristine Hokkaido uni (sea urchin) with minced daikon radish and roe (pictured above) towards the end. I was transported straight back to Japan with the nigiri courses, including anago (salt water eel) from Tsukiji Fish Market, barracuda, pencil/trumpet fish and belt fish.
2. Foreign Cinema’s Sesame Fried Chicken
It warms my heart when a place that historically meant so much to me like Foreign Cinema — where the Renaissance Man and I dined after he proposed to me a little over 12 years ago — is still going strong. The magic of movies showing on a wall in the courtyard and that candelit hall entrance remain, but in some ways, the food is better than ever.
There were many highlights during my recent meal, from dessert (that earthy, creamy Valrhona chocolate pot de crème is still a signature) to starters (avocado toasts layered in house-cured anchovies and sardines). But unlike so many restaurants where starters exhibit greater inspiration, it’s entrees that steal the show. Aquerello risotto ($21) is downright heavenly touched with grappa, summer-sweet with Early Girl tomatoes cooked seamlessly into the rice, plus fava beans, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, fresh ricotta and basil.
I am crazy about sesame fried chicken ($24), which truly tasted of sesame, as I’d hoped. Surrounded by Moroccan carrots, kishmish (Indian term for golden raisins) and kale in yogurt dressing, all over hummus, it’s like American soul food journeyed to the Middle East.
3. Dirty Water’s Fluke
Since opening in the Twitter building Mid-Market at the end of June, Dirty Water is that kind of increasingly common drink-centric restaurant where the beer, wine and cocktails are destination-worthy, partnered with food. But chef Jared Gallagher’s (of Mountain View’s Chez TJ) dishes are far more exciting than gastropub fare or food to drink by. Whether an artful venison/deer tartare ($22) dotted with beets, horseradish, smoked egg, or a downright fantastic bar snack of pig ear fritto misto ($15), dipped in Dijonnaise (Dijon mustard mayo), highlights thankfully don’t feel like a copycat of anything else.
Over a couple visits during opening month, there were a few highlights, but the most wow-inducing moment was a plate of silky, raw fluke ($26). The fish’s clean lines are contrasted by smoked grapes, hearts of palm, textured amaranth grain and a dusting of ground Fresno chilies, subtly brightening up the dish [Note: as of mid-August, Chris Fissel has become executive chef so be aware of a possible change in quality/menus.]
4. Oro’s Luganica Sausage
With their unique communal dinners, Feastly recently ran a fantastic few nights of preview dinners for Timothy Felkner and partner-chef Jason Fox’s upcoming Oro restaurant, which will open soon in Mint Plaza. Family-style platters exhibited the kind of balance and deliciousness I loved from day one at Fox’s Commonwealth, one of my top SF restaurants since it opened.
Highlights were many at the preview dinner, including a comforting burnt honey ice cream and flaxseed granola dotted with summer berries, or fried smelt and cucumbers over whipped buttermilk. But it just may be grilled Luganica sausage that everyone kept talking about: plump, juicy perfection over shelling beans, beautiful paired with Gavroche French Red Ale.
5. Plaj’s Aged Matjes Herring
If you’ve known me long, you know I was bemoaning the lack of Scandinavian food in the US before Noma started rocking the dining world, after early visits to Aquavit in NYC when I longed for more of that. And I’ve been a fan of — and writing about — Plaj since it opened in 2012.
A few of their great dishes, like Swedish meatballs and that ridiculously good potato dumpling kumla, remain, if evolving over time. Over the last three years, I’ve tried different versions of their aged matjes herring, matjes meaning essentially “soused”, or brined, a style of herring resulting in a milder, even sweeter version than more common pickled herring. Recently, the dish was better than ever with sour cream, red onion, chives, salmon roe and Swedish kavring, a sweet, dark rye bread, here in crouton-like form, adding a wintery note to a light dish.
6. Maruya’s Omakase
With a choice of omakase menus that run from $82 up, Maruya is a place that garnered critic raves in its early days, but puzzled me immediately with lackluster nigiri, commonplace fish choices and even browned or rubbery edges on some of the cuts of fish. I liked the reverent service that took me straight back to Japan but otherwise did not feel it placed among SF sushi go-tos.
Fast-forward to the past year where both its sushi chefs left — and though the chefs since may not be names people know in town, chef Shinichi Kawaguchi and the chefs working with him, hail from Japan and are providing a decidedly more interesting tasting menu experience now than at the beginning when I couldn’t have been bothered to return.
Now, silky cuts of fish flow from Japan, California, even Mexico, and while all isn’t perfect, the entire experience, especially at the sushi bar, is relaxed and varied with Japanese technique in full effect. Interesting courses, like warm fish marrow served in bones (pictured) are leaps and bounds above the typical offerings I was served when Maruya first opened. Even if there are more seamless omakase meals in town, Maruya’s omakase options offer up to eight immaculate nigiri courses, with a few additional courses before and after.
7. Firefly’s Fava & Sweet Pea Pancakes
While a dreamy olallieberry sherbert ($5) tasted like summer and a tart lime cheesecake ($8) in coconut graham crumble threatened to outshine dinner at longtime neighborhood favorite Firefly (in my former 6 year home of Noe Valley), it was an appetizer of fava and sweet pea pancakes ($13) partnered with house ricotta and greens that seemed to capture the essence of summer with each fluffy, vegetal bite. Firefly has been special the nearly 15 years I’ve lived in SF — and well before — as I suspect it will continue to be.
8. Limon’s Pollo a la Brasa
Though I used to be a regular at the original Limon (there are 3 locations) when I moved to SF 14 years ago, I hadn’t been back in ages. A recent return to the Valencia Street location — despite a loud, packed, hectic setting — took me straight back to Peru with their pollo a la Brasa (half chicken $10.95, whole chicken $19.95): tender, marinated, free-range rotisserie chicken with two different aji amarillo pepper dipping sauces. Add on sweet potato fries and a tart Maracuya Sour (a common version of a Pisco Sour in Peru mixing passion fruit and lime with pisco, egg white and Peychaud’s bitters) and I was transported back to the casual, heartwarming rotisserie meals I’d eat after a day of working in pisco distillation in Ica, Peru.
9. Parlour’s Brentwood Corn Agnolotti, Oakland
Charming service in an airy, welcoming space didn’t quite make up for some hit-and-miss dishes at the new (open in March) Parlour in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood. But each pasta I tried made me want to return, especially Brentwood corn agnolotti ($22). It’s summer in a dish, from the sweet corn to summer truffles, decadent in corn brodo (broth) and house cultured butter.
10. Pampalasa’s Tortang Talong
I’m grateful to have a new Filipino food option around the corner from work, Pampalasa. It is now one of my semi-regular takeout spots for lunch in a humble-but-welcoming space off of Folsom. While garlic rice bowls and soups offer savory value, it is a small plate, Tortang Talong ($9), that surprises. It’s essentially a charred eggplant green garlic omelet drizzled in calamansi lime and soy pandan glaze, garnished with basil leaves and fried onion.