California pioneered the ethos of “come as you are”, though the trend has taken over the country in recent years. Especially in SF, LA and Napa, fine dining has leaned towards the casual for decades, even at its most refined. Whether movie stars or Silicon Valley moguls, the best restaurants would never assume anything just because you’re casually dressed. As a Californian who grew up on both coasts and a retro-vintage girl at heart, I appreciate the flexibility but crave “night on the town” spots, a fast-fading rarity. It seems the majority of the country is now following that more casual-upscale trend as fine dining evolves and changes, though I will continue to dress up regardless of what the general crowd is doing.
There is a long list of excellence in upscale dining in NorCal, from Wine Country to the city. These three restaurants are among our best, splurge-worthy meals: the kind of places where you won’t feel pressure to be formal but you wouldn’t be out of place dressing up either. Each beautifully preserves the hospitality and manners of the greatest fine dining restaurants in the world (many of which I’ve been privileged to visit at and consider these three among).
The Newcomer: MOSU
Open this February in the Fillmore District and hidden behind a nondescript doorway, Mosu is, for those of us who hunt down the best restaurants in the world, a thrilling addition to San Francisco, and, in fact, the country. Even in its initial months, chef/owner Sung Anh (formerly at The French Laundry and Benu) is already serving more exciting dishes than I had at Benu in its initial months, heavy on Asian influence but international in scope. You heard it here: this is one to watch, different from, but in a similar class as the great, 2 Michelin-starred Narisawa in Tokyo and Tim Raue in Berlin, two of my international favorites.
Space & Cost: With two tiny rooms (upstairs and down) and ever-changing, 12 course tasting menus at $195 per person (without drinks), it’s a splurge in quiet, sacred space but you’ll get full attention from staff and many a surprise course in combinations you haven’t seen before.
Food: After two visits, I’m immediately converted from the beginning with a series of “small bites”. You might start with dried burdock bark, fermented, dehydrated and eaten like a chip with cultured butter hiding under the curve of the bark. You then move on to an unforgettably juicy shrimp chiffon “cake”, savory in onion soubise and onion petals, which threatens to be one of the highlights of the whole meal.
The glories continue post-bites. Black sesame tofu stuffed with Santa Barbara sea urchin and apple relish, covered in oestra caviar, is sheer luxury, sitting in an umami-laden bonito broth. Sigh. There is hairy crab two ways, sea moss soup delicately poured over foie gras, short rib covered in crushed pear or tender quail with a scene-stealing pitted cherry filled with Castelveltrano olive puree.
Besides chef Anh’s clearly inspired creativity and palate for deliciousness, courses sometimes verge on art piece, as with cured tuna belly artfully rolled up with monkfish liver, pickled veggies and baby ginger root in a kombu wrap, given salty, floral whispers from yuzu soy sauce.
Drink: Wine director Mark Thompson (formerly of Saison, below, and Mourad) pours French-heavy wines (yes, there is grower Champagne, Chablis and Jura being poured), with the likes of California, Austria and Germany in the mix. But there are also some beautiful sakes on offer, like a robust, earthy Kokuryu Black Dragon Junmai Ginjo from Fukui, Japan ($16 a glass).
Weeknight Delight: QUINCE
Every visit I’ve made to Quince over the years has been a pleasure, with its remodel in 2014 enhancing the setting and making a meal here truly feel like a special occasion. But after my most recent visit, I’d venture to say Quince, which well deserves its 2 Michelin stars, is better than ever.
Chef Michael Tusk, in addition to being an all-around fantastic chef, is one of the great pasta masters in the country, pulling from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region as he also does from another country he loves and travels to often: Japan (which happen to be my top two countries).
Space & Cost: The regular tasting menu is $220 per person (without drinks) but the recent addition of a Monday through Thursday tasting menu at $165 allows for a similar, slightly abbreviated experience weeknights. The dining room and surrounding private alcoves are luxurious and elegant with dramatic chandeliers and soothing color tones.
Food: Joys are many and peak as much with seafood as they do with pasta (I’m still dreaming of a chef classic of sea urchin risotto served in the shell — heaven). The caviar course, featuring Bulgarian or Tsar Nicoulai Reserve caviar in classic form with brioche or in osetra caviar panna cotta, remains a standout, while the season is expressed in the short window that white asparagus is available, highlighted by English peas, morel mushrooms and almonds.
Pastas continue to elicit sighs of delight, as in the case of ricotta gnudi that melts in your mouth covered in whey froth. If you ever get a chance to try Tusk’s tortellini, hand-rolled and served inside a rolling pin with a hidden compartment inside, you won’t forget it. Tasting the tortellini, I was transported straight back to Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, specifically an unforgettable countryside restaurant in a 1600’s Parmesan dairy, Ristorante Badessa, between the towns of Reggio and Modena, where I hand-rolled tortellini with grandma (nonna), mother, sisters and cousins in the back room.
From a striking course of lamb in multiple forms (pressed belly to binchotan charcoal grilled) to that ever glorious mignardises cart post-dessert (don’t worry: you can take some home if you are too full) — and ultimately with impeccable, engaging service — Quince remains one of our city’s fine dining greats and a worthwhile splurge.
Drink: In a restaurant long known for its wine list, wine is a highlight at Quince where savvy pairings might include a fascinating, nutty Jura (France) wine from François Rousset-Martin to a silky, balanced 2003 Giacomo Conterno “Cascina Francia” Barolo (Italy).
The cocktails play understated and elegant, whether a tart, light Rhuby Fizz (Citadelle Gin, rhubarb, Aperol, vanilla) or the frothy-subtly bitter Wanderlust, combining Amaro Averna, Aggazzotti Nocino (an Italian green walnut liqueur), creme de mure blackberry liqueur and a beer foam of Deschutes Black Butte Porter.
Another restaurant that is better than ever? Saison. With the ultimate 3 Michelin stars, it is among the greats in the world, in the class of the likes of Eleven Madison Park in NYC or Belcanto in Lisbon. The world-class cocktails and bar are among the more underrated bars around, though I’ve been writing about Anthony Keels’ cocktails for some time and recently included the bar in the 23 Essential SF Bars at Liquor.com.
Space & Cost: The ever-changing, multi-course tasting menu is $398 per person (without drinks), making this the priciest of the three restaurants. Though decidedly modern with a touch of the industrial, lush fabrics and a wall of chopped wood at the entrance impart warmth to the lofty space, centered around the kitchen where diners have full view of the action.
Food: Executive Chef Joshua Skenes continues to push boundaries with his dishes, long incorporating fish bones and shells or coal/ember-touched elements before they were trendy. His seafood courses can be a revelation, as with sea urchin liquid toast, fresh urchin perched on a brioche that almost explodes in the mouth, running over the tongue with warm, umami glory.
Raw and grilled lobster is also a “wow” moment. The raw lobster is pristine over ice with a wakame (seaweed salad) powder to dip it in, alongside succulent grilled lobster claws in a sauce made of grilled lobster shells. The duo makes you rethink lobster, lingering sweet and lush on the tongue after you’ve moved on to other courses. Bone marrow accompanies beets, radishes are showcased with all parts of the plant and abalone is grilled over the embers accented by a sauce of its liver with capers. From technique to flavor profile, these dishes remain some of the most imaginative dishes on menus now.
Drink: As I’ve written about many times before, Anthony Keels’ exquisite cocktails are up there with the most inventive drinks I’ve had in London, Berlin or Tokyo. Technique may involve hot and cold contrasts, as with Strawberry & Arms, or elements from their farm, as with the off-menu Ultraviolet Gin & Tonic where violets from the farm are infused in Nolet Gin for 24 hours. When Fever Tree Indian tonic is poured into the gin, it luges almost like an absinthe, changing shades of purple as it releases flower pigmentation, tasting subtly of gardens and summer.
Wine director Mark Bright has curated an impressive 5,000-plus-bottle wine cellar containing some of the best wines in the world, poured with informed knowledge, graciousness and humor from head sommelier Max Coane and the Saison team.