Top 5 Bay Area Dishes: March 2016

Per usual, I’ve been dining up a storm at many a newcomer, covered in my top openings and standout dishes of March. In addition, here are my five top tastes from three of SF’s best restaurants, one new bar menu and one pop-up dinner preview of an upcoming restaurant.

Rich Table's fried chicken

Rich Table’s fried chicken madeleines


Since opening in 2012, Evan and Sarah Rich’s Rich Table is consistently one of SF’s best, consummate restaurants where food, wine, cocktails and service weave together seamlessly. They’re also known for creating bites we can’t live without, like the porcini doughnuts that are now a staple at massive events like Outside Lands.

Enter Rich Table’s off-menu fried chicken madeleines with honey butter. Sweet, salty and fluffy, these pitch-perfect, classic French (on the surface) madeleines hide soulful, savory intrigue in their batter. As the dish I kept thinking about days later, it feels worthy of being another Rich Table cult classic.

Saison's raw lobster

Saison’s raw lobster


Saison's sea urchin liquid toast

Saison’s sea urchin liquid toast

Every experience at 3 Michelin-starred Saison makes me proud to call it a San Francisco restaurant, one that keeps up with the best in the world: in exceptional service (impeccable yet warm, personal), superb drink and ground-breaking dishes.

Josh Skenes’ dishes continue to inspire during a recent return. There was more than one unforgettable course, including the much-lauded sea urchin liquid toast where the urchin’s briny silkiness gives way to the crunch, then the juice inside a mini-toast. It’s a dream of a bite.

But I also was enchanted by raw and grilled lobster. Pristine and served on ice raw and with a wakame (seaweed salad) powder to dip it in, it’s accompanied by equally fantastic grilled lobster claws in a sauce made of the grilled lobster shells. The duo presentation makes you rethink lobster, lingering sweet and lush on the tongue. Saison’s fine dining with an understated SF vibe is, as always, perfection.

Liholiho's hopper shrimp

Liholiho’s hopper shrimp

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At the modern Hawaiian destination that is Liholiho Yacht Club (one of my top 10 restaurant openings of 2015), each meal is a delight. Recently, a standout new dish was plump hopper shrimp ($16.50) partnered with lush, miso-grilled avocado, the crunch of walnuts and the tart kick of kumquat slices. It is one of the more interesting and gratifying shrimp dishes on menus now, light and summery yet also gratifying and filling.

'Aina's spam musubi

‘Aina’s spam musubi


'Aina's cassoulet

‘Aina’s cassoulet

About to open in the next couple weeks, ‘Aina is an exciting Hawaiian concept, first a beloved pop-up, and now a Dogpatch brick-and-mortar, from Hawaiian-born chef  Jordan Keao, wife Cheryl Keao and business partner and bar manager Jason Alonzo (stay tuned for his creative low proof cocktails).

If a recent, multi-course preview dinner is any indication, this restaurant is going to be special. Inspired interpretations of Hawaiian classics like poke, loco moco and lomi lomi salmon take the rich cuisine of Hawaii into fresh territory: refined but maintaining that chill aloha spirit. A favorite course is hard to narrow down.

It might be the spam musubi, Keao’s own spam recipe wrapped in a red butter leaf with kimchi, rice, unagi sauce and egg yolk furikake, rather like a deconstructed musubi. But I also loved his Portuguese bean cassoulet: heartwarming yet gourmet, laden with house Portuguese sausage, beans, green garlic, crispy tripe, beet greens and pickled shallots.

Mister Jiu's pan fried buns

Mister Jiu’s pan fried buns


Next week I’ll be experiencing the elevated Chinese, banquet-style dinner at brand new Mister Jiu’s, the exciting, long-awaited Chinatown newcomer. Opening night I went in for Danny Louie’s lovely cocktails (more on that soon) and dishes from the bar bites menu ($8 each), like prawn toast milk bread. The perfect breading of pan fried buns ($8) stole the show, making me wish for them during morning dim sum, packed with bamboo, mushrooms, kale and tofu.