As I await the opening of the likes of NINEBARK in Napa (a preview that yielded stellar tastes from chef Matthew Lightner formerly of 2 Michelin-starred Atera in NYC, Mugaritz in Spain and Noma in Copenhagen), I’ve also enjoyed healthy, high tech, cheap eats at the new eatsa. Here are my top 10 September dishes and new openings, some from newcomers, others from established spots.
1. Michael Mina’s Trio Lobster Course
With the return of Michael Mina’s legendary trio dishes last month ($105 for a 3-course prix fixe) at his flagship restaurant, is the return of what I loved most about MM during those early 2 Michelin-starred days around 2006. What is listed as three courses is really more like nine, thanks to the labor-intensive trios themed around different meats and seafood.
Back in the day, I would regularly recommend Michael Mina as one of SF’s top fine dining choices (then in its original Union Square location, now housing Bourbon Steak). Executive chef Ron Siegel brings the decadence of those days back, maybe most keenly felt in the lobster course. Recalling Mina’s signature lobster pot pie, this is lobster in three sumptuous interpretations: butter-poached Maine lobster topped with osetra caviar and lobster bearnaise sauce, miso lobster with king trumpet mushrooms and silky tofu, and lobster with sweet corn and black truffle risotto.
The lobster course evokes the “devil may care” attitude of the dot com boom when I moved to SF back in 2000-2001, not far removed from the more long-lasting boom of recent years. Similar decadence and alternately elegant restraint (in the case of the sashimi course) is displayed in courses showing off varying meats three ways, like Liberty Farms duck and foie gras or slow-cooked baby pig.
2. Roccos Cafe’s Chicken Marsala
Rocco’s Cafe is one of those longtime San Francisco treasures that is as special as any neighborhood Italian great in NYC or NJ, confirming that SF still houses countless “keeping it real” gems.
Akin to my longtime SF favorites like Ristorante Marcello (more on my love of old school, red sauce Italian-American goodness here), Rocco’s is a SoMa gem where regulars include the mayor and SF chief of police, where tech hipsters dine next to blue collar workers and shows like Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins & Dives have filmed episodes.
Named after Rocco Coscarelli, who emigrated from Northern Italy in 1920, Rocco’s popular restaurant was at the corner of Mission and Geneva in the Excelsior ‘hood for more than 30 years, while his grandson Don Dial opened Rocco’s Cafe over 25 years ago as a tribute to his grandfather. Don is the heart and soul of the place, operating as manager, chef and many roles in between (although tellingly, he has many staff who have been there for years). Don’s soulful cooking and generous portions shine in pasta dishes like plump sautéed prawns gamberoni over buttery linguine noodles ($22 dinner; $16.95 lunch).
But I must concur with Rocco’s regulars on my favorite dish: Don cooks the best chicken marsala in town ($23 dinner, $16.50 lunch), maybe the best I’ve ever had. The classic Italian-American dish showcases chicken cutlets, mushrooms and herbs, sautéed in Marsala wine. With the dish’s Sicilian roots, it certainly appeals to my Sicilian heritage… and Don’s version is damned delicious, the definition of heartwarming.
3. Nostra Spaghetti’s Raviolo Burger
Just opened on September 1st, Nostra Spaghetteria (formerly Plin) is chef Alexander Aliotos re-imagined, more playful Italian restaurant (more on Nostra’s Bar Mia and cocktails here), including a smart, fun custom pasta menu. Choose a pasta ($9), a sauce ($3) and add on vegetables ($3) and/or proteins ($4). Alioto’s house made pastas (including spaghetti, tarjin, pappardelle, meat tortellini, cheese agnolotti, gluten-free pasta) are perfectly al dente in sauces like creamy tomato, arrabbiata, veal ragu, or Straus butter and Parmesan.
But you haven’t seen the like of the Nostra cheese burger ($17), a ridiculously good burger topped with American cheese, fried onion rings, truffle oil and Aliotos famed egg raviolo, a ravioli oozing egg as you cut into it. This one should be on many a top creative burger list.
4. Black Sands’ Burger
Lower Haight newcomer Black Sands is a brewery and restaurant serving house-brewed beers and excellent cocktails created by Nicolas Torres (more here), but despite the somewhat scattered process of no table service and no dinner food allowed to even be ordered until the clock turns to 6pm (though the bar/space is open at 5pm), the short menu offers notable dishes.
Kudos especially goes to the Black Sands Burger ($12). With no sides included, the smashed double double burger recalls a glorified In ‘n Out burger, laden with tomato, grilled onions and “special sauce.” It nearly melts with cheesy goodness.
5. Burritt Room + Tavern’s BBQ Spice-Brined Chicken
Alongside always quality cocktails in Burritt Room bar, executive chef Lucas Knox turns out dishes that marry creativity with comfort. Recently, it’s his BBQ spice-brined chicken ($26) over sweet corn succotash in Carolina-style BBQ sauce and popcorn emulsion that left an impression. Savory, sweet and utterly delightful, it transported me straight to the South, in line with the “New Southern” cooking reinvigorating the category in recent years. As soon as I finished this dish, I wanted it again.
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6. Belga’s Carbonnade/Flemish Beer Stew
Belga’s hearty-yet-refined Belgian, French and German food has been on my top 10 list before. This time, however, it’s for their carbonnade ($23), or essentially Flemish beer stew, which is sheer comfort in a bowl. Fall-apart short rib and vegetables soak in Belgian beer, given sweet-sour glory from brown sugar and cider vinegar.
7. Bon Marche’s Caviar and Chips
Just opened in September from the AQ team, Bon Marche’s massive space allows for a full meal as easily as drinks and/or a bite. The classic-meets-modern French brasserie recalls Paris as breezily as it does popular NYC brasseries such as Balthazar.
Bar manager Eric Quilty’s cocktails are beauties (more on that in coming weeks) while French food classics shine, like a near-perfect French onion soup ($9) with oxtail broth.
The raw bar is another highlight (ever-changing market prices), whether herb and oil-doused razor clams from Monterey or succulent salmon roe scooped up with creme fraiche and chips. Order a glass of Chablis or Sancerre wines and it’s completely transporting.
8. Rye Project’s “Jewshi”
I’ve written about Rye Project a few times before (including about its unique Chicago-style dogs menu). Recently, the “newish” deli launched new sandwiches, including the delightful Suzy G. ($14 for ½ lb./$11 ¼ lb.) packed with smoked trout and cream cheese.
The Trevor ($15 for ½ lb./$12 ¼ lb.) is one fab tuna sandwich on an onion roll, layered with Swiss cheese, avocado, sprouts and tysyacha sauce (a blend of mustard, Thousand Island, horseradish, dill pickle).
Especially fun was owner Adam Mesnick’s off-menu Jewshi, essentially a sushi-style platter of mini-sandwiches and bites, showcasing pastrami to trout, eggs to hearts of palm, in nigiri-esque form. Mazel tov!
9. Bluestem Brasserie’s Devil’s Gulch Pork Chop
Though I was sorry to see the closure of Baker & Banker, talented chef Jeff Banker is now executive chef at Bluestem Brasserie downtown, just launching his first menu on September 17th.
Bluestem has been doing downtown right since day one with organic ingredients, grass-fed meats and responsible whole animal practices. On Banker’s initial menu, there is a changing Devils Gulch pork cut each day ($27), in keeping with those laudable practices. During my recent visit, it was a pork chop smothered in pluot salsa verde, stone fruit mostarda and brown butter pistachio crumble. The result was luxurious without being heavy, full of decadent sweet-nutty flavor, the chop tender and pleasantly fatty, tasting of the last days of summer.
10. Cafe Du Nord’s Parker House Rolls
The legendary, 100-year-old Cafe Du Nord re-opened June 17, completely remodeled with a new food from Ne Timeas Restaurant Group/chef Thomas McNaughton) and cocktails from The Bon Vivants.
Set to live jazz in the Viking Room (feeling not a little like New Orleans), dinner is gratifying and filling with dishes like McNaughton’s fresh take on classic cioppino ($27). What stays with you are their Parker house rolls ($5), fresh out of the oven. Sure, it seems everyone does them in recent years. But these are among the best I’ve ever tasted, so dreamy, they’re just as good heated up the next day.