August was quite a month for notable new openings from Oakland to SF, including restaurants like The Keystone in the Mosser Hotel (my Zagat feature on the opening here). I also visited months-old spots, like the solid-though-not-overwhelming Buttermilk Southern Kitchen, or savored old school torta comfort (a steal with massive tortas) at Tortas Boos Voni.
On the cheap eats front, I’m rather in love with the Cubano coffees, matcha green tea lattes and Asian-influenced sandwiches at delightful new Inner Richmond cafe, The Richfield (a sister cafe to one of my favorite coffee shops, Snowbird Coffee.)
One of my go-tos lately is the one-year-old Italian Homemade Company on a mellower stretch of Columbus Ave. in North Beach, opened by husband-wife Mattia Cosmi and Alice Romagnoli, who hail from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region (one of my favorites). The charming deli/cafe/storefront is essentially an Italian grocer with takeout pastas (plus sauces) to cook at home or ready to eat (there a few tables), including daily specials like squid ink pasta and authentic piadine, all made from scratch in-house. Though their hefty gnocchi roll is most unusual (and popular), I found I wearied of dense gnocchi at that size there is a reason it works so beautifully small. I was particularly into their lasagna, tasting like childhood: classic, hearty, cheesy, with dreamy bolognese or marinara sauces. Better yet, they just opened a second location in Cow Hollow.
It was tougher than usual to narrow down top dishes this month meaning all of these are excellent. There have been a number of quality new openings, alongside returns to restaurants that are better than ever. Here are my top 10 August dishes and new openings, some from newcomers, some from established spots.
1. Aaxte’s Salt Cod Buenelos
My initial visit to Aaxte opening week was strong. My return last week was better than ever. Over rounds of sherry, Basque cider and Spanish wines, I found myself transported back to the impeccable seafood, cider and wines of Spain’s underrated Galicia region, as I also dreamt of traveling to the parallel culinary heaven that is San Sebastian on Spain’s north coast.
While sipping a cider fascinatingly redolent of green olives, Trabanco Sidra ($7/30), and a complex yet approachable glass of 2013 Envinate Garnacha Tintorera ($12), I enjoyed rounds of pintxos ($2.50 per piece), including newer bites like chanterelle croquetas.
Small plates/tapas recall the best of Spain. House picante lomo (dry cured pork loin) has now been aging 3 months and with plenty of luxurious fat, it’s tasting beautiful. So is bright, green clam escabeche verde ($12) and smoky mussel escabeche ($12) both lovely scooped up with green olive flatbread ($6). Garlicky-authentic gambas al ajillo ($14) and a fantastic whipped Mahon cheese “fondue” partnered with trumpet mushrooms grilled a la plancha ($14.50), or on the plank, are likewise transporting. Even a cinnamon, chocolate-laced rice pudding for dessert delighted.
While it’s tough choosing a favorite new plate on the evolving menu, the biggest sigh of pleasure came with salt cod bunuelos accented by cucumber and almonds ($7). Essentially light, fried dough balls, the saltiness of the cod and yeasty-fritter perfection of the dough pleased our whole table.
2. Old Bus Tavern’s Pickled Quail Eggs
Take a chef who has cooked at world-class restaurants like Saison and Eleven Madison Park, now cooking at a brewery with great cocktails, then add a dash of Southwestern influence, and you have Old Bus Tavern, which opened in Outer Mission/Bernal Heights on July 23 (my initial Zagat feature here and more on my initial favorite cocktails here).
From business partners (and home brewers) Jimmy Simpson, John Zirinsky and Bennett Buchanan, this neighborhood tavern channels the flavors and spirit of the Southwest. Chef Max Snyder turns foraged ingredients into playful, seasonal fare that displays more than a little of the technique gained at the world class restaurants he’s cooked in. For the casual environs, it could come across a bit high brow at times, but I didn’t mind.
There are a number of standouts on the initial menu, from a refined, meat-heavy (no beans), slow-cooked chuck chili ($16) to a mustard seed-touched onion spaetzle ($16). Interestingly enough, it’s a “snack” of pickled quail eggs ($8) that wows. While I initially expected yet another pickled quail egg (Alembic has been doing those as bar snacks for years, for one), these little eggs are slow poached, then pickled, nestling liquid-like and delicate atop a bed of fried leeks. They go down silky, acidic, almost popping, then dissolving like a dream.
3. Petit Crenn’s Monterey Abalone
The US’s first 2 Michelin-starred female chef, Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn, just opened the more casual but still tasting-menu-only ($72 for 5 courses) Petit Crenn on August 11th in Hayes Valley.
The all-white space is elegant, intimate, charming with an equally chic, international crowd. The wine list from wine director Courtney Humiston is heavy on Champagne, sparkling and cider, paired with many standout courses and bites.
A perfect, paper thin, French-style omelette, folded and draped with Santa Barbara sea urchin, as well as dreamy buckwheat blini touched with sturgeon caviar and sweet corn pudding, were both decadent, obvious choices as my favorites. But subtly fried, black Monterey abalone dotted with pickled red pearl onion and bay-smoked carrot tips in an abalone Bordelaise sauce also made me sigh with delight. I typically would choose sea urchin or especially caviar over abalone any day but all three bites were equally fantastic, the latter being one of the best abalone dishes I’ve ever had.
4. Salispuedes’s Drowned Fried Chicken Torta
Salsipuedes is one of the most notable and destination-worthy of recent East Bay newcomers, officially opening August 22. Here is my recent Zagat feature on 3 new openings in Berkeley and Oakland.
From the team of Jay Porter (of Oakland’s The Half Orange), Luis Abundis (owner of Nieves Cinco de Mayo in SF and Oakland) and Bradford Taylor (of Ordinaire Wine), their long-anticipated restaurant serves “California rustic” fare from executive chef Marcus Krauss (of none other than Restaurant at Meadowood), heavy on California seafood, Pacific Rim and New Baja flavors. Even in soft opening mode, there were a number of moments strong enough to draw me back, from silky black cod tiradito ($17) in yuzu ponzu and serrano peppers that recalled authentic tiradito in Peru, to roasted corn ($12) partnered with Nieves’ sweet hominy ice cream and the salty contrast of trout roe.
Despite the visual appeal of octopus melt bao ($15) packed with chicharrones, it’s Krauss’ drowned fried chicken torta ($13), drizzled in katsu sauce and layered with wakame kimchi, that is the most comforting dish, a winning mash-up of Japan and Korea on a sandwich. On Tuesdays, there is a “burger and fries” special for $20 with the chicken torta, tempura sea beans and draft beer. Pair dishes with Salsipuedes’ short but stunning list of natural, unfiltered wines.
5. Central Kitchen’s Grilled Peach Miso Sticky Bun
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Central Kitchen offers one of our great under-the-radar brunches with an ever-curated music playlist, listed on a mini-menu to take with you if a song or two should stand out, while Director of Operations Andrew Record’s understated, low proof brunch cocktail menu (an ideal way to usher in a morning/afternoon).
Executive chef Thomas McNaughton and chef de cuisine Mark Bolton turn out utterly gratifying brunch dishes, including perfectly crispy-fatty almondwood smoked bacon ($6), pretty-much-perfect burrata toast ($8) marked by sweet Mission figs with lamb bresaola shaved on top, or fried chicken benedict ($19) with the chicken, buttermilk biscuits and ham marked by a balanced dose of hollandaise sauce. But it’s a decadent grilled peach miso sticky bun ($8) dotted with walnuts, bacon and ricotta that tasted just as dreamy heated up the next day as it did the moment it arrived at our table. Despite all its fantastic components, it’s the perfected dough that stands out, confirming the kitchen’s skill: this sticky bun would taste amazing no matter the toppings.
6. Chino’s Warm Soymilk Custard
While Danny Louie’s Asian-influenced cocktails have been a draw from day one to Americanized Chinese restaurant Chino, opened last summer by Tacolicious husband/wife duo Joe Hargrave and Sara Deseran, I sometimes heard mixed thoughts from others about the food. I always enjoyed it, not minding a soft-pedal version of American-Chinese food amid our city’s deep volume and history of Chinese cuisine. But the whole menu and approach has just been redone.
Enter the arrival of executive chef/partner Ron Pei on August 10th, who was chef de cuisine at Hargrave’s first restaurant Laiola back in 2009. Growing up in a Bay Area restaurant family, he more recently cooked at landmark restaurants: Blue Hill Stone Barns in New York and José Andress minibar in DC. Thankfully, he’s back in SF bringing a greater refinement to Chino with a new menu, though dumplings are still a highlight, including their stepped up Xiao long bao/soup dumplings ($14) and the new (delicious) Mr. Peis fish & leek dumplings ($13).
Highlights are numerous, including salty, steamed bao de bacalao ($12), essentially salt cod and potato bao buns (think Spain/Portugal meets dim sum), or Taiwan Night Market-style “fried chicken yum yum snack” ($13), where tender chicken cubes are accompanied by 5-spice salt and aji Amarillo powder.
Pei’s Taiwan roots collide with his father’s years in Korea in his warm soymilk custard ($9). It is a silky custard, not unlike Japanese chawanmushi, but influenced by Taiwanese-style custard, covered in fried garlic, chile oil and scallions for a touch of Korean heat. It was so gratifying, we couldn’t help but order two.
7. Session’s Buttermilk Fried Quail
Sessions opened on August 24th in the beautiful Presidio and already on opening night there were a number of notable dishes coming out of the kitchen from chef/partner Michael Bilger, who opened the restaurant with GM Evin Gelleri. The massive space and patio is transformed from its former incarnation as Dixie (and Pres A Vi before that), lined in light woods with a massive, wrap-around bar that showcases their extensive beer selection (over 100 bottles and 24 beers on tap from a list created by master cicerone Nicole Erny, with bar manager Jordan Spaulding, a certified cicerone candidate, behind the bar to steer you in the right direction).
On the food front, everything from slow-cooked wild king salmon ($30) to panella cheese dumplings ($10 small/$18 large) in chili pesto with corn and pumpkin seeds, made a Monday night sing. But a creamy, comforting side of stoneground polenta integrale ($7) essentially whole milled corn laced with Parmigiano Reggiano and brightened by lemon zest, was something I’d crave for breakfast or dinner. Ditto the spicy-sweet, buttermilk fried quail ($15) dipped in house Fresno chili hot sauce and coated in lemon dill honey.
8. Fine & Rare’s Smoked Wild Salmon Pastrami
First seen as a vendor in The Hall on Market St., Fine & Rare owners Scott Peterson and Ted Wilson (who first opened The Hall) just opened their own brick-and-mortar near Civic Center, a modern-casual cafe where you can order ultra-fresh sandwiches and salads at the counter to eat in or take out.
I love the concept: there are 5 sandwiches, ranging from meat to vegetarian, also available as massive, striking salads (as you can see above), often featuring Fine & Rare’s sustainable, carefully sourced seafood. I tried each menu item, from house smoked (they have a smoker out back) albacore tuna ($12.88 sandwich/$11.96 salad) making a near perfect tuna sandwich, to fried eggplant with gypsy peppers ($10.12 sandwich/$9.20 salad).
But my top choice initially is cold smoked (also using the house smoker) wild salmon pastrami ($14.72 sandwich/$13.80 salad). Lush wild king salmon mingles with goat cream cheese, avocado, sauerkraut, tomayo (mayo-ketchup hybrid), red onion and arugula on fluffy-crisp pretzel croissants from a local German baker. Thoughtful local, Old World-style wines pair well with the high quality sandwiches and salads.
9. Gardenias’ Sauteed Steelhead
While I was sad to see 22-year-old, modern-day classic, Woodward’s Garden, close in June (which was a raved neighborhood destination restaurant when I moved to the city nearly 15 years ago), chef-owners Margie Conard and Dana Tommasino brand new Gardenias, which opened in Lower Pacific Heights on August 5th, was a pleasant surprise. The former Roostertail space is warmer and more inviting than it has been since it was the charming Cafe Kati years ago. There is a gardenia-lined back patio/deck and pink peppercorn gougeres ($5) get things started on the right foot.
Service and knowledge of the wine list (ask for a taste to decide what you prefer) was pretty spotty, making me question ever returning (as I always must given the 600+ places I dine a year). But each dish was more interesting than it sounded on the menu or looked, given sometimes humble plating. Gardenias may not be breaking boundaries but the dishes are fresh, wholesome, balanced and comforting. Just what you want from a neighborhood restaurant.
I enjoyed the taste of summer in a starter of Kadota figs, shallots and sweet corn over a socca cake ($12) an unleavened chickpea flour pancake originating in Genoa, Italy, but typical along the coast of the Ligurian Sea. An entree of sauteed steelhead ($25) was better than many a commonplace fish entree. Fava beans, chioggia beets and (again) sweet corn brought a summery brightness, while the flaky fish with perfectly crispy skin rested over quinoa, with a tahini paste adding texture and richness.
10. Calavera’s Queso Flameado with Huitlacoche
Just opened in Oakland on August 7th (more on the opening in my Zagat feature and on standout cocktails here) Calavera exudes big city-cool in its lofty dining room, bar and open air porch, serving sophisticated Mexican food from restaurant partners Jessica Sackler, Chris Pastena, Michael Iglesias (former bar manager at Coqueta) and executive chef Christian Irabien (formerly of José Andrés Oyamel in DC).
Irabien hails from Chihuahua, Mexico, sourcing Oaxacan ingredients (think chapulines chile-roasted grasshoppers, chocolate, sal de gusano) and employs the ancient process of nixtamalization, where corn/grain is soaked and cooked in limewater for intensified flavor and nutritional value. Look for housemade masa and tortillas and a custom wood-fired grill and plancha.
I savored everything from birria de chivo ($24) chile-chocolate braised goat, to truly “ethereal churros” what they call churrodonas made with éclair dough ($8), dipped in Oaxacan dipping chocolate or passionfruit vanilla de Veracruz sauce. But oozing comfort came in the form of queso flameado con Sotol ($9). Here, traditional Chihuahua cheese is flamed in Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol, recalling queso/melted cheese dishes from my Mexico travels or at numerous California restaurants. But it’s the earthy addition of Roy Burns huitlacoche (corn smut/fungus) that takes it up a level.
Cut all that cheese with bright, clean ceviche de atun Estilo Jose ($13) Maggi-lime marinated, line caught yellow fin tuna, dusted in crispy amaranth. Or for an unusual taco, order masa-crusted veal sweetbread tacos ($5) dotted with grilled avocado, red onion escabeche and dragon fruit.